(Ben Ohmart; 706 pages; BEARMANOR MEDIA; 2012) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT
Even if you don’t recognize the name or the face, if you’ve been on this planet for any time in the past 80 years or so, you most certainly recognize the voice… or, to be more accurate, the voices: Bugs Bunny, Barney Rubble, Foghorn Leghorn… the list of animated A-listers voiced by the legendary Mel Blanc is improbably long. Though Blanc’s is a familiar name to aficionados of early radio and classic animation, few among us know much about the man himself. In a concise 220 pages (more on that HUGE page discrepancy a little later), we are given insight to, and learn the life story of, the most famous voice actor of all time. Author and classic radio, television and movie historian Ben Ohmart heavily relies on Noel Blanc’s unpublished biography about his Dad, as well as Walt Mitchell’s extensive interviews, conducted over a decades-long friendship. Under Ohmart’s deft hand, MEL BLANC: THE MAN OF A THOUSAND VOICES is the most comprehensive exploration of the life of the man who would be Daffy (and Porky and Woody and Secret Squirrel and… well, you get the point).
Ohmart covers the extraordinary story, from the birth of Melvin Jerome Blank on May 30, 1908 through his childhood in Portland, Oregon, his first, tentative steps into the world of radio at age 22 and through one of the most storied careers in the entertainment industry. During a lengthy radio career, Mel performed alongside such luminaries as Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen and Judy Canova and on weekly programs like THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW, THE JOHNSONS WAX PROGRAM (in the “Fibber McGee and Molly” series), THE LIFE OF RILEY (starring William Bendix) and many others. As his radio work continued to (barely) pay the bills, Mel began making appearances on the movie screen, as well as doing voice work for Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Starting his cartoon career as one of several actors voicing the different characters (much like his radio work), Mel was so accomplished (his nickname was “First-take Blanc”) that he was soon doing most – if not all – of the voices for the Warner cartoons, demanding and receiving one of the most lucrative contracts in the business. He would also work (surreptitiously) for competing studios (including Walter Lantz Productions for Universal Studios).
Mel’s family life is expertly documented, an amazing story of love, devotion and sacrifice; his wife, Estelle, was always supportive of Blanc’s aspirations and her love and caring hands were instrumental in the long healing process after a devastating car wreck almost took his life in January, 1961. Their son, Noel, remained at Mel’s side throughout the ordeal, as well, helping to set up a home recording studio so his father could continue the work he loved from his bed; Noel eventually became Mel’s business partner and made it possible for the actor to explore other avenues for his talents, including the Mel Blanc School of Voice and Commercials. Noel Blanc (it was an unfortunate coincidence that the Jewish parents had given their son a name, that in French, translates to “White Christmas”) also became the voice of many of his father’s characters after Mel’s death. Jack Benny remained a close and trusted friend, one of the few “show biz” people Blanc elevated to that status. Mel always had a kind word (usually in character, as Bugs Bunny) for any and all children, making numerous appearances at hospitals; he never refused an autograph, though he usually signed them “Bugs.”
Ohmart’s style is warm and friendly, like his subject and, early on, it’s quite obvious that he’s also a fan; with the addition of excerpts from Noel’s biography and Mitchell’s interviews, by the end of the narrative, Mel Blanc is as familiar as any of his legendary characters. That, my friends, is the hallmark of a good biographer. The great – sometimes rare – photos are an added bonus to the story, even if they’re all black and white.
Now… about the nearly 500 unaccounted-for pages. There are tributes (from the modern voices of Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny, Bob Bergen and Joe Alaskey; Walt Mitchell and others), a transcript of the speech given by Mel at the 1964 convention of the American Association of Advertising and – most importantly – a comprehensive listing of all of Mel’s work in radio (compiled by Martin Grams, Junior), feature films (contributed by Randy Bonneville), television (including cartoon work on THE FLINTSTONES, THE JETSONS and various Saturday morning shows from the Hanna-Barbera production machine), recordings (compiled by Mitchell) and an exhaustive, 300 page list of cartoons and short subjects, compiled by Bonneville and Keith Scott; that final category is virtually indispensable for any fan of Mel Blanc or his Warner Brothers cartoons output. The price is a hefty 44 dollars, American, but the memories alone make it money well spent.