Space Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, Homer Pigeon, Chilly Willy, Charlie Chicken, Wally Walrus and many more characters were created by one legendary artist: Walter Benjamin Lantz.
He made more than 800 short films, about 200 of them featuring the brash red-headed woodpecker with the noisy "ha-ha-ha-HA-ha" laugh. Walter's cartoons have been translated into more than 60 languages and seen in more than 70 countries.
Born on April 27, 1899 in New Rochelle, New York, to Italian immigrant parents, Francesco Paolo Lanza and Maria Gervasi from Calitri, a town in the province of Avellino, Campania region, Walter was always interested in art, completing a mail order drawing class at age twelve.
He saw his first animation when he watched Winsor McCay's cartoon short, Gertie the Dinosaur. While working as an auto mechanic he got his first break. A wealthy customer named Fred Kafka liked his drawings on the garage's bulletin board and financed Lantz's studies at the Art Students League of New York. Kafka also helped him get a job as a copy boy at the New York American, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Walter worked at the newspaper during the day and attended art school at night.
By the age of 16, he was working in the animation department under director Gregory La Cava, then at the John R. Bray Studios on the Jerry On The Job series.
In 1924, Walter directed, animated, and even starred in his first cartoon series, Dinky Doodle, and shortly after he replaced George "Vernon" Stallings as head of production
He moved to Hollywood, California, in 1927, where he worked briefly for director Frank Capra and was a gag writer for Mack Sennett comedies.
In 1928, he was hired by Charles B. Mintz as a director on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon series for Universal Studios and he worked there until 1935 when he decided to become an independent producer, supplying cartoons to Universal instead of overseeing the animation department. By 1940, he was negotiating ownership for the characters he had been working with.
Meany, Miny and Moe (three ne'er-do-well chimps), Baby-Face Mouse, Snuffy Skunk, Doxie (a comic dachshund) and Jock and Jill (monkeys that resembled Warner Brothers' Bosko) were some of the personalities Walter and his staff had come up with. However, one character, Andy Panda, stood out from the rest and soon became Lantz's headline star for the 1939-1940 production season.
In 1940, Walter married actress Grace Stafford. During their honeymoon, the couple kept hearing a woodpecker incessantly pecking on their roof. Grace suggested that Walter use the bird for inspiration and make him into a cartoon character. Taking her advice, though a bit skeptical about its success, Walter debuted Woody Woodpecker in an Andy Panda short, Knock Knock. The brash woodpecker character was similar to the early Daffy Duck, and Walter liked the results enough to build a series around it.
Mel Blanc supplied Woody's voice for his first three cartoons. When Blanc accepted a full-time contract with Leon Schlesinger Productions/Warner Bros. and left the Lantz studio, gagman Ben Hardaway, who was the main force responsible for Knock Knock, became the bird's voice. Despite this, Blanc's distinctive laugh was still used throughout the cartoons. Mel Blanc sued Lantz for half a million dollars, claiming that Lantz had used his voice in various later cartoons without his permission. The judge, however, ruled against Blanc, saying that he had failed to copyright his voice or contributions. Even though Lantz had won the case, he paid Blanc the money in an out-of-court settlement when Blanc filed an appeal, and went off to search for a new voice for Woody Woodpecker.
In 1950, Lantz held anonymous auditions. Grace, Lantz's wife, had offered to do Woody's voice; however, Lantz turned her down because Woody was a male character. Not discouraged in the least, Grace went about secretly making her own anonymous audition tape, and submitted it with the others for the studio to listen to. Not knowing whose voice was being heard, Lantz picked Grace's voice to do Woody Woodpecker. Grace supplied Woody's voice until the end of production in 1972, and appeared in other non-Woody cartoons. At first, Grace voiced Woody without screen credit, because she thought that it would disappoint the children to know Woody Woodpecker was voiced by a woman. However, she soon came to enjoy being known as the voice of Woody Woodpecker, and allowed her name to be credited on the screen. Her version of Woody was cuter and friendlier than the manic Woody of the 1940s, and Lantz's artists redesigned the character to suit the new voice personality.
Lantz's harmonious relationship with Universal, the studio releasing his cartoons, was interrupted when new ownership transformed the company into Universal-International and did away with most of Universal's company policies. The new management insisted on getting licensing and merchandising rights to Lantz's characters. Lantz refused and withdrew from the parent company by the end of 1947, releasing 12 cartoons independently through United Artists during 1948, into the beginning of 1949.
Financial difficulties forced Lantz to shut down his studio in 1949. Universal-International re-released Lantz's UA (and several of his earlier) cartoons during the shutdown and finally came to terms with Lantz, who resumed production in 1951.
From this point forward Lantz worked quicker and cheaper, no longer using the lush, artistic backgrounds and stylings that distinguished his 1940s work.
By the 1960s other movie studios had discontinued their animation departments, leaving Walter Lantz as one of the only two producers still making cartoons for theaters (the other studio was DePatie-Freleng Enterprises).
Walter finally closed up shop in 1972 (by then, he later explained, it was economically impossible to continue producing them and stay in business as rising inflation had strained his profits), and Universal serviced the remaining demand with reissues of his older cartoons.
In his retirement, Lantz continued to manage his studio’s properties by licensing them to other media. He also continued to draw and paint, selling his paintings of Woody Woodpecker rapidly. On top of that, he worked with Little League and other youth groups around his area. In 1982, Lantz donated 17 artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, among them a wooden model of Woody Woodpecker from the cartoon character’s debut in 1941. The Lantzes also made time to visit hospitals and other institutions where Walter would draw Woody and Grace would do the Woody laugh for patients.
In 1990, "Woody Woodpecker" was honored with a star on the Hollywood "Walk Of Fame". In 1993, Walter established a ten thousand dollar scholarship and prize for animators in his name at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.
Walter Lantz died at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California from heart failure on March 22, 1994, aged 94.
|Date||March - 1990|