Sunday, July 30, 2017

June Foray: 1917-2017

A couple of days ago the news broke that June Foray had died at the age of 99. Since the news broke there have been hundreds of on-line tributes to her career in the voice-over field. I gave her a nickname that probably others have given to her as well, Voice Acting Goddess, and she's totally and completely deserving of the title. Is she the first lady of voice acting? Some may argue that she is...certainly she's the most famous and had the longest lasting career of her contemporaries Mae Questel and Janet Waldo...but some may bestow such a lofty title on Mae given that her career as the voice of Betty Boop dates back to the early '30s and it wasn't until the early '50s that June began to make a powerful mark in animation voice overs....hitting her stride in the mid '50s and beyond with a host of vocal performances in theatrically released cartoons. A lot of her earlier voice work happened to be for Disney and MGM. She had a lengthy career on radio that shouldn't be over-looked. A series she wrote, created, and hosted titled Lady Make Believe aired for a couple of years (1937-1939). The big break in radio came later in 1944 when she was chosen to be among the ensemble cast of a comedy program hosted by Ed McConnell. Smilin' Ed's Gang happened to be the show's title but many on-line sources cite the program under the title of The Buster Brown Program (the sponsor happened to be a shoe company named Buster Brown). Concurrently, 1947-1949, June appeared in a lot of comedy routines on a series titled Smile Time, hosted by future television comedy pioneer Steve Allen. June continued to pop up on various radio programs (comedy and drama) throughout the '50s...and this included the famed 1957 series, The Stan Freberg Show. By this point in time June had established herself as a top voice artist in animated cartoons. She had racked up a number of credits for Disney and MGM.

Some of her famed roles for those studios included Lucifer the Cat in 1950's Cinderella and several characters in Goofy and Donald Duck cartoons...and in one of those Donald Duck cartoons, 1952's "Trick or Treat", she portrayed a character named Witch Hazel (not to be confused with another character by that name...more on that, later...); she gave voice to a couple of characters named Mary in the MGM cartoons "One Cab's Family" (1952) and "Little Johnny Jet" (1953), both directed by Tex Avery. In 1955 she gave voice to the Warner Brothers character, Granny, for the first time. She replaced original voice artist, Bea Benaderet. The cartoon in which June makes her Granny debut is 1955's "Red Riding Hoodwinked" (directed by Friz Freleng; starring Sylvester and Tweety). Her next vocal appearance as Granny arrived later that same year in Friz Freleng's "This Is a Life?". In this cartoon Granny played the part of an audience member becoming increasingly disgusted/irritated with Daffy's obnoxious comments and opinions about Bugs Bunny and in a recurring visual gag she hits Daffy on the head with her umbrella several times to get him to be quiet. In the cartoon Bugs is being given the star treatment in a spoof of This Is Your Life. The following year, 1956, Warner Brothers released the Chuck Jones directed cartoon, "Broom-Stick Bunny". In this cartoon June takes over the role of Witch Hazel. The character had previously appeared in Chuck's "Bewitched Bunny" (1954) voiced by Bea Benaderet. June originally turned down the role of the Chuck Jones character of Witch Hazel because she felt he stole it from Disney. She'd voice the Chuck Jones character in three cartoons: "Broom-Stick Bunny" (1956), "A Witch's Tangled Hare" (1959); and "A-Haunting We Will Go" (1966) although the final appearance happened to be in a cartoon directed by Robert McKimson. June would next voice Witch Hazel in an episode of the Duck Dodgers series in 2003.

The same year that she took over the role of Witch Hazel (1956) she originated the roles of Knothead and Splinter in the Woody Woodpecker series. This series was released through Universal Studios, directed by Paul J. Smith, and produced by Walter Lantz. Knothead and Splinter are the niece and nephew of star character, Woody, and they're usually creating mischief...often appearing to be too smart for the villain of the episode. She voiced the siblings during all of their theatrical appearances...their first being "Get Lost" in 1956. 

1959 is a pivotal year in June's career as it marked the first time she voiced a starring character in an animated series. By this point in her career she had provided voices for dozens of cartoons from a group of iconic studios: Warner Brothers, Disney, MGM, and Universal; and she displayed her vocalizations in a string of comedy recordings by Stan Freberg (and she became one of the cast members of his 1957 radio show). In 1958, with made for TV cartoons being a product of the not too distant future, she was selected to voice the role of a male squirrel named Rocky for the Jay Ward studio. The series never made it to air until a year later, 1959, on ABC. The program broke ground in the area of cartoon humor. So many puns, one-liners, satire, and self-awareness by the characters flew over many of the children's heads no doubt but older children and young adults (and even older adults) watched the show. The program, "Rocky and His Friends", debuted on November 19, 1959. The show was ahead of it's time. It happened to be the shared creation of Jay Ward, key writer and voice actor, Bill Scott, and Alex Anderson. June was assigned the roles of Rocky and the Russian spy, Natasha; she also provided vocals for Nell Fenwick in a supporting segment, Dudley Dorite of the Mounties. Her co-stars in the Dudley Dorite segments were Bill Scott as Dorite, Paul Frees as Inspector Fenwick, and Hans Conried as the villain, Snidley Whiplash. She lent her voice to the other supporting segments, too: Peabody's Improbable History, Aesop and Son, and Fractured Fairy Tales. In the latter segment June and Daws Butler starred in the majority of installments. June often portrayed the fairy Godmothers or Princess characters...and many times the good or evil witches depending on the story...and Daws portrayed all of the male characters...sometimes Paul Frees would also contribute in this segment.

In time the series changed networks and title. Jumping from ABC to NBC in 1961 the series became "The Bullwinkle Show" with only slight differences. June later added the roles of Ursula and Marigold to her growing list of characters. Ursula was the mate of George, a Tarzan-like character, in Jay Ward's "George of the Jungle". In a supporting segment, Tom Slick, June voiced Tom's girlfriend, Marigold. The oddity in these characters is that, vocally, they're the same as Dudley Dorite and Nell Fenwick and yet it's not something that you actually think of when you watch the cartoons. The show is still funny but at the same time you love hearing those voices...and Jay Ward knew that.

In an interview June gave in 1987 for a Daws Butler documentary she commented that both she and Daws had performed the same voices several times for multiple characters in one session. She remarked that they recorded 5 episodes of Fractured Fairy Tales a night and they brought it to Jay's attention that she did a voice similar to Marjorie Main in 2 episodes and that Daws did his Charles Butterworth impression on several episodes in the session. After inquiring if Jay would like them to re-record the lines with different voices so there wouldn't be a feeling of sameness Jay replied that he wanted those voices. You can't fault him for that. As I watch the DVD of Season 2 of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" it never enters my mind that there's a voice similar to another character...I'm too busy grinning, giggling, or laughing to even care to notice. The same is true for Jay's other main series, "George of the Jungle".

There is another series, "Fractured Flickers", which a lot of the Jay Ward fans rate pretty high but I'm not as familiar with it because it didn't play on TV much, if at all, during my childhood (the '80s and early '90s). It's a live-action series hosted by Hans Conried in which footage of old movies (mostly silent films) are played with re-dubbed, comically-infused dialogue from June, Paul Frees, and Bill Scott. Here's an episode...June can be heard in the first re-dubbed presentation. Paul is the narrator.

June's autobiography, Did You Grow Up With Me, Too?, which you see in the photo above arrived nearly 50 years after the debut of "Rocky and His Friends". The book hit in 2009. I wrote a review of it back then and posted it on Amazon's website in addition to posting the review here on my blog. She never received any industry awards (speaking of Oscar or Emmy recognition) at the time of the book's release but several years later, in 2012, she received her first Emmy trophy at the Daytime Emmy Awards. She won for her role as Mrs. Cauldron in the CGI "The Garfield Show". At the time of her win she was 94. Speaking of industry accolades...she was instrumental in getting animation included in several awards organizations. In 1988 she received the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award (given out during The Eisner Awards). In 1995 the organization she created in 1972, The Annie Awards, began awarding The June Foray Award. The Oscars began recognizing animated feature films on a more consistent basis starting in 2001...and a lot of that had to do with June's behind the scenes efforts at getting the Academy Awards to consider animated films in the same light as live-action films. There's drama and comedy in live-action films and there's animated films that are either dramatic or what's the difference? In both cases you have actors (on-screen or voice-over) and you have characters (live-action or animated). In 2013 she received the Governor's Award at the Creative Arts Emmy gala. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards spotlight mostly non-traditional categories which rarely get spotlighted on the televised Prime Time Emmy Awards.

In the collage to the left are just a few of the hundreds of animated characters that June gave voice to. I attempted to single out the various animation studios that she provided voices for. This of course is meant as a tribute collage but by no means is it definitive. I hadn't even mentioned, until now, her work for Rankin/Bass or her iconic role as Cindy Lou Who in the Chuck Jones classic, How The Grinch Stole Christmas. In the 1980s she gave voice to Jokey Smurf and Mother Nature in "The Smurfs" and Aunt May in "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" cartoon. So don't let this memorial blog completely satisfy you...I encourage all of you to seek out her career and delve into it and find out so many other aspects of her contributions to animation that I hadn't even touched upon. The best way to do that is to purchase her autobiography (obviously!) but also visit YouTube or Amazon and see all of the available on-line cartoons that she lent her voice to. Her two enduring characters are Granny and Rocky. She voiced Granny the longest...from the theatrical cartoons of the '50s and '60s to the various made for TV cartoon specials and later television productions from Warner Brothers: "The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries" (1995-2000), "Baby Looney Tunes" (2001-2003; 2004-2006), and "The Looney Tunes Show" (2011-2014; recurring character). Ma Beagle is a character that appeared on the Disney series, "DuckTales", as did Magica De Spell (she's the duck character in the first panel of the collage). Ma Beagle, located in panel seven, and the short tempered Grammi Gummi, located in panel nine, were both given June's Marjorie Main voice. Marjorie, for those that don't know, portrayed Ma Kettle in a string of comedy movies. Knothead and Splinter are in panel 6. The Chuck Jones version of Witch Hazel is in panel 2. Granny can be found in panels 3 and 8. When June took over as Granny in 1955 the character appeared in that kind of physical design. Later, the animators returned the character to her more familiar design seen in panel 8. In panel 4 it's Rocky the flying squirrel. In the center of the collage is a publicity photo of June at a recording studio which I opened the memorial blog post with.

June was involved in a car accident sometime in 2015...and although she survived you could say it ended her prolific, legendary career. She never lent her voice to any animated program or video game after 2014. Her voice lives on, though, in numerous animated programs and video games. How many people, I wonder, learned through her obituary that she was the voice of Talky Tina in one of the famed episodes of "The Twilight Zone"? I knew of that fact for years but many others are probably finding it out and probably rushed to YouTube to see if they could find the episode. It's an episode titled Living Doll and it stars Telly Savalas. It originally aired November 1, 1963.

June Foray was born June Forer on September 18, 1917 and died of cardiac arrest at the age of 99 on July 26, 2017.

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