Mel Blanc: A Portrait in Manuscripts
2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the debut of Bugs Bunny which led me to reminisce about the voice behind the rabbit – Mel Blanc. Cartoons have always been a passion of mine so it was only natural for my grandparents to arrange an autographed photo (see Figure 1) of Mel. They knew him and his wife Estelle through the Los Angeles chapter of the Jewish service organization B’nai B’rith. That was 1985, I was 11 years old, and that photo hung for years above my desk. A few years later he released his autobiography, That’s Not All Folks, and I met Mel and his son Noel at a promotional event where he inscribed my copy (see Figure 2). Mel passed away the following year.
The “Man of 1000 Voices” has remained a hero of mine and I was able to acquire items from his estate at various auctions over the years. The earliest is a photo likely from the 1940s inscribed to Mel by his fellow radio star (and vocal wizard) Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy (see Figure 3). The next is a 1949 signed letter on Warner Bros. Pictures letterhead from head of the studio Jack Warner thanking Mel for his appearance at the premiere of “My Dream Is Yours” (see Figure 4). Mel had voiced Bugs Bunny and Tweety in the film alongside stars Doris Day and Jack Carson. From Warner Bros. Cartoons is a 1951 letter (see Figure 5) regarding payroll showing that Mel was making $200 a week at the time – approximately $2000 adjusted for inflation
It’s colorfully illustrated on both sides with a dozen characters, all voiced by Mel Blanc. Compare that to a drab signed 1955 CBS Television contract (see Figure 6) providing $500 for one episode in season 5 of the Jack Benny Show.
In it, Mel plays a cab driver taking Rochester and Jack to the airport. He’s crying all the way because they’re leaving for New York. In the epilogue of the episode, Mel appears as himself as Jack hands him his check, and Mel begins crying. Jack is famously “cheap” and we’re to assume the check is underwhelming, but $500 is approximately $4800 in 2020 dollars – not too insignificant a sum.
Then we have a signed letter from Tennessee Ernie Ford (see Figure 7), thanking Mel for appearing on his show in 1957 and brightening up his “tedious” week.
The next phase in my Mel Blanc collection concerns his near-fatal head-on auto collision that took place at Dead Man’s Curve on Sunset Boulevard in 1961. He was in a coma for two weeks and finally awoke only when the neurologist thought to address him as Bugs Bunny instead of as Mel. Mel answered in the voice of Bugs and then in the voice of Tweety. At the time, Mel was the honorary Mayor of Pacific Palisades, and he later received this signed letter (see Figure 8) with a seal from the Mayor of Los Angeles who said, “Your going home today proves that it’s hard to keep a good Mayor down.” I also have a signed contract extension from Warner Bros. (see Figure 9) because Mel was able to continue working from bed throughout the year of his accident.
The following year, the Friars Club hosted a “get well dinner” for Mel, and head of Capitol Records Alan Livingston sends his regrets with a signed letter (see Figure 10). The creator of Bozo the Clown, Alan also wrote the 1951 pop novelty hit “I Tawt I Taw a Putty Tat” sung by Mel Blanc as Tweety Pie. The “Great Gildersleeve” himself, actor Hal Peary sends a 1962 letter (see Figure 11) saying, “They tell me you broke the record for GET WELL CARDS and that you even got one from the Internal Revenue Dept.”
Gildersleeve began as a supporting character on “Fibber McGee and Molly” in 1938 and proved so popular he started the first spin-off show in American broadcasting history in 1941. Kirk Douglas sends a handwritten note (see Figure 12) on his wife’s stationary (with her first name “Anne” crossed out and “Kirk” written in) asking to visit when Mel feels “up to it.” Kirk doesn’t want Mel’s “sides to ache from laughing.” Mel spent much time volunteering with kidsas a “Shriner” and was a 32nd degree Freemason. I have his signed 1964 card (see figure 13) attesting to his life membership in the “Los Angeles Lodge of Perfection”. A signed letter from Bill Hanna of Hanna-Barbera cartoons (see Figure 14) thanks Mel for his appearance at an Eagle Scout banquet in 1978. In addition to almost all of the Warner Bros. cartoon characters, Mel voiced many for Hanna-Barbera including Barney Rubble and Dino the Dinosaur on “The Flintstones”, Mr. Spacely on “The Jetsons”, Speed Buggy, and Captain Caveman. A 1981 signed letter (see Figure 15) from actor Georgie Jessel as chairman of the Hollywood Hall of Fame Museum asks Mel to lend his name as an honorary founding member (and become as active as he wishes). I don’t know whether Mel became involved, but the Museum finally opened in 1984 only to file for bankruptcy in 1985.
Finally, I have four bits of correspondence between Mel and his former employer Jack Benny which demonstrate their close relationship. Mel had appeared on the “Jack Benny Program” as himself and as a variety of characters on radio from 1939-1955, and on television from 1950-1965. A handwritten note (see Figure 16) on Jack’s letterhead reads, in part: “I guess I must have scared the s**t out of you with my letter two years ago. You are a f**king coward and love to Estelle – Jack”. Another on Harrah’s letterhead (see Figure 17) teases Mel about using Jack’s name in a Variety advertisement even though Mel hadn’t been on the show in a while (with similar profanity as the previous letter). Jack closes with “Jack Benny, Star of Stage – Screen – Radio -Television – Concerts – And Bedroom”. The
next letter (see figure 18) written on Valentine’s Day reads, “Dear Estelle and Mel – I am absolutely amazed at the filthy wire you sent me. I can understand Estelle sending it but not a prude like Mel. For your information I have tried ’69’ – and I don’t ever remember being hungry afterwards. The real definition of ’69’ is – ‘Two people working like hell, and neither one enjoying it.’ Much love to you both and Noel – Jack”. The last letter (see figure 19) from 1971 is on Mel’s stationary with a large Bugs Bunny image and includes both Mel’s and Jack’s handwritten part of the conversation. “Dear Jack: If I ever say ‘license plate’ to you, you’ll know what I mean. Love, Mel” – “Mel – I know – – it means Kush mir in Touchas (sic) or [Hebrew letters] Love Jack”. “Kish mir in tuchas” means “kiss my butt” in Yiddish, and I adore this peak into their inside joke.
That’s what’s so special about personal manuscripts – it’s a glimpse into another person’s life that one doesn’t normally see. Even just one of these documents alone would do that, but taken together I get a real sense of what Mel was like as someone to work with, as a friend, and of a member of his community. “That’s all folks!”
(Note: all images from the author’s collection)
About the Author
Kevin Segall is a board member of The Manuscript Society. He is also a member of the National Cartoonists Society, Hollywood Heritage, and ASIFA (International Animated Film Society). He can be reached at www.kevinsegall.com