About Walter Lantz
"I never tried to make a cartoon for a certain age bracket. I just tried to make entertaining pictures." - Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz was born Walter Benjamin Lantz on April 27, 1899 in New Rochelle, New York into a family of Italian immigrants, his parents being Francesco Paolo Lantz (formerly Lanza) and Maria Gervasi (later Jarvis), the latter coming from Calitri, Italy. Lantz was interested in art at an early age, completing a mail order drawing class at age twelve. He got his first taste of animation when he watched Winsor McCay’s cartoon short, Gertie the Dinosaur. This, perhaps, inspired him to become a cartoonist himself.
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While working as an auto mechanic, Walter Lantz got his first break in the art world. A well-to-do customer, Fred Kafka, liked his drawings on the garage's bulletin board. He bankrolled his studies at New York City's Art Students League. Kafka also helped him get a job in town, as a copy boy at the New York American, owned by William Randolph Hearst. When he had completed his day's work at the newspaper office, he attended art school.
By the time he was sixteen, Lantz was working behind the camera in the animation department under the supervision of director Gregory La Cava. Lantz then began work at the John R. Bray Studios in New York on the Jerry On The Job series. In 1924, Lantz began to rise to prominence at the studio and directed, animated, and even starred in his first cartoon series, Dinky Doodle. By 1927 he moved to Hollywood, California where he worked briefly for director Frank Capra and then was a gag writer for Mack Sennett comedies.
In 1928, Lantz was hired by Charles B. Mintz as a director on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon series for Universal. Earlier that year, Mintz and his brother-in-law George Winkler had succeeded in snatching Oswald from the character's original creator, Walt Disney. Universal president Carl Laemmle became dissatisfied with the Mintz-Winkler product and fired them, deciding instead to produce the Oswalds directly on the Universal lot. While schmoozing with Laemmle, Lantz wagered a bet that if he could beat the producer in a game of poker that the character would be his. As fate would have it, Lantz successfully won the bet and Oswald was now his character.
As Walter Lantz began assembling a new studio, he decided to select a fellow New York animator, Bill Nolan, to help develop the series. Nolan's previous credentials included inventing the panorama background and developing a new, streamlined Felix the Cat. Nolan was (and still is) probably best known for perfecting the "rubber hose" style of animation. In September 1929, Lantz finally put out his first cartoon, Race Riot.
By 1935, Walter Lantz had managed to become an independent producer, supplying cartoons to Universal instead of merely overseeing the animation department. By 1940, he was negotiating ownership for the characters he had been working with. When Oswald had worn out his welcome, Lantz decided that he needed a new character. Meany, Miny, and Moe, Baby-Face Mouse, and Snuffy Skunk were only a few of the personalities Lantz 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 Lantz had married actress Grace Stafford. During their honeymoon, the couple kept hearing a woodpecker incessantly pecking on their roof. Gracie 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, Lantz debuted Woody Woodpecker as a side star in an animation short called Knock Knock featuring Andy Panda.
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, however, Blanc's distinctive laugh was still used throughout the cartoons.
During 1948, the Lantz studio had a hit Academy Award-nominated tune in “The Woody Woodpecker Song”, featuring Blanc’s laugh. 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. Gracie, 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, Gracie 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 Gracie’s voice to do Woody Woodpecker. Gracie supplied Woody’s voice until Lantz finally stopped making new cartoons for Woody Woodpecker. At first Gracie had chosen to voice Woody with no 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 put on the credit screen.
The baby boomer generation came to know and love Lantz as the creator of the Woody Woodpecker cartoons. He used his TV appearances to show how the animation was actually done. For many of those young viewers, it was the first time they had seen an explanation of the process. That same generation later knew him for entertaining the troops during the Vietnam War and visiting hospitalized veterans.
Walter Lantz's studio closed in 1972. It had been the last remaining classical cartoon studio. In his retirement, Lantz continued to manage his studio’s properties by offering re-releases of cartoons and sales to new venues. 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 seventeen 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.
In 1993, Lantz 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 of heart failure on March 22, 1994, aged 94.
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