“What’s up, Doc?”
The man behind that question may be Oregon’s best-known Jewish export to Hollywood.
Mel Blanc, “The Man of 1,000 Voices,” spoke for Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird and hundreds of other animated characters for Warner Brothers studios and other producers over a career spanning six decades.
“His genius made cartoons cultural touchstones for generations of moviegoers,” notes Bill Foster, director of the Northwest Film Center. “It’s remarkable to realize that probably more people can quote Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig than icons like Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.”
Born in San Francisco in 1908, Blanc (then Melvin Blank) moved to Portland in 1915 and grew up in Old South Portland. He sold newspapers in downtown Portland and – so the story goes – invented what became the Woody Woodpecker laugh in the echoing halls of the old Lincoln High School.
He changed the spelling of his name, he said, because a teacher once chided that he wouldn’t amount to much – he’d be a blank, like his name.
Peryl Gottesman, whose older sister was a friend of Blanc’s, remembers him fondly.
“I was his best fan,” she says, recalling how the older boy would crack jokes with her. Her sister, Betty, wasn’t so impressed.
“Enough with the jokes already,” Gottesman recalls her sister telling Blanc. “You aren’t even funny.”
Blanc was not an academic. Instead, he was a student of the myriad voices and accents in the South Portland immigrant community, and he would often skip school to spend weekday afternoons at the movies.
He took violin lessons at Neighborhood House, the settlement house operated by the National Council of Jewish Women, and soon began performing there, and anywhere else he could.
He toured the vaudeville circuits in Oregon and Washington before joining The Hoot Owls, a fast-paced KGW radio variety show, in 1927. In 1932 he moved to Los Angeles, where he met and married Estelle Rosenbaum, but couldn’t find work. He moved back to Portland, working on a KEX daily radio show, Cobwebs and Nuts, before another try at breaking into Hollywood.
By 1937, he was on his way.
Leon Schlesinger, whose company made cartoons distributed by Warner Bros., asked Blanc to come up with a voice for Porky Pig.
“You want me to be the voice of a pig?” Blanc asked. “That’s some job for a nice Jewish boy.” Soon he was speaking for a variety of cartoon characters for Looney Tunes, including his most famous alter ego, Bugs Bunny.
By 1944, his contract specified that he would receive a screen credit: “Voice characterizations by Mel Blanc” – a breakthrough for voice actors.
He had a long association and friendship with comedian Jack Benny, appearing on both Benny’s CBS radio program and his later TV show, and had supporting roles on more than a dozen other programs.
He did countless other voices – Barney Rubble on The Flintstones, Mr. Spacely on The Jetsons, and even the original Toucan Sam in the Froot Loops commercials.
Benny once quipped: “There are only five real people in Hollywood. Everybody else is Mel Blanc.”
Blanc returned to Portland to visit friends and family, and had a special fondness for Neighborhood House, appearing at its 50th anniversary in 1949. He was named an honorary board member in 1966.
He nearly died after a 1961 car accident in Los Angeles, and was in a coma for weeks. After his family called his name countless times in efforts to rouse him, his doctor thought to ask: “How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?” Blanc finally spoke, in Bugs’ voice: “Eh, just fine, Doc. How’re you?’
“I may have been on the verge of death,” he later recalled, noting that Bugs and Porky Pig, whom the doctor also asked after, “were very much alive inside me.”
During his months-long recovery, Blanc recorded more than 40 episodes of The Flintstones from his bedroom – the definition of a “trouper.” And he continued to work until his death in 1989, filming an Oldsmobile commercial days before he passed away.
“He set the standard – because of the intensity of his imagination and the passion with which he invested his characters,” says Anne Richardson, director of Portland’s Mel Blanc Project.
She added that he was the first person to become a full-time voice artist. “He didn’t enter a career track,” she said. “He created it.”
The Mel Blanc Project, which last summer held a series of lectures and walking tours in conjunction with the Oregon Jewish Museum’s popular exhibit on Blanc, grew out of the Oregon Cartoon Institute, founded by Richardson and her husband, Dennis Nyback, to promote awareness of Oregon’s cartooning and animation history.
In addition to a wealth of information on the project’s website, melblancproject.wordpress.com, Richardson said they’re looking into publishing a book, tentatively titled Mel Blanc’s Portland: 1915-1935, that would include information collected during the lecture and tour series.
Both Richardson and OJM Director Judy Margles emphasize that Blanc was a consummate professional before he left Portland.
“He honed his skills as a voice actor here in Portland,” Margles said, noting the range of Blanc’s music, vaudeville and radio work. “His upbringing – as the son of Russian Jewish immigrants in South Portland – provided a fertile training ground for his loony characters and hilarious antics.”
Sura Rubenstein is a freelance writer in Portland.