I have to admit that when I think of Walter Lantz, I also mentally hear,”ha-ha-ha-HA-ha!”” Anyone who has seen more than a few Woody Woodpecker cartoons knows that infectious laugh. The mischievous red-headed bird was the most famous creation out of several characters that Lantz had created throughout his lifelong animation career.
Walter Benjamin Lantz was born on April 27, 1899 in New Rochelle, New York to Italian immigrants, Francesco and Maria Lantz. Their surname was originally Lanza, the new name was given to them by an immigration officer. The young Walter developed an early interest in art; he completed a mail-order sketching course by age twelve.
When he was 15, Walter lived in New York City. He worked for $7 per week at a large newspaper. His earnings paid for classes at a city art school. The “Art Students’ League” had no strict techniques for cartoon animation so the students were free to develop whatever worked for them. Lantz used his artistic ability to draw figures in various positions to good effect. One of his practice drills was to project Charlie Chaplin silent movies and trace them, frame by frame. Lantz then “thumb-flipped” the drawings in order to study Chaplin’s motions.
In 1916, the 17-year-old Lantz was offered a job in the animation department of the Hearst International Film Service. The teen worked under the supervision of director Gregory LaCava. Within a couple of years, Lantz was an animator for the newspaper strip-inspired cartoons “The Katzenjammer Kids”, Jerry on the Job”, and “Bringing Up Father”.
Because the art of film animation was in its infancy, there were no animation cameras at all. Animators had to use the large wooden, crank powered newsreel film cameras. The work was primitive and time consuming. Animators had to carefully place each animation “cel” and secure it with a sheet of glass. The camera was given a partial turn of the crank to expose a frame of film. Then the process was repeated for each “cel”.
By 1922, Lantz had moved on to the John Randolph Bray studios as a producer for such characters in cartoon shorts as Dinky Doodle, Col. Heeza Liar, and Pete the Pup. Six years later, Lantz was hired to oversee the animation department at Universal Film Company.
Walter Lantz arrived at the same time that the young cartoonist, Walt Disney, was leaving the studio. Universal had just rejected Disney’s idea to create a cartoon series for an animated mouse. Disney left a character behind at Universal, Oswald the Rabbit. Lantz reconfigured and copyrighted the character. In 1928, the first of around 300 Oswald short cartoons appeared on the screen. Lantz’s other major cartoon contribution to the studio was Andy Panda.
In 1930, Lantz produced the world’s first Technicolor cartoon, the opening scene of Universal’s “The King of Jazz”. The movie was Universal’s first all-Technicolor, feature-length musical film.
Lantz’s iconic character, Woody Woodpecker, was created in 1940. Lantz had just married actress Grace Stafford. During their honeymoon, the two were annoyed by an errant woodpecker knocking on their roof. Lantz observed the intelligence of the little bird. It would drill a hole in an asbestos shingle, wedge an acorn in the hole, then return a week later to eat the worm larvae that had grown in the acorn. Gracie suggested that Walter should develop the woodpecker as a cartoon character.
Woody made his debut as a supporting character in an Andy Panda cartoon short called “Knock Knock”. When only three Woody Woodpecker cartoons had been filmed, the character’s voicer, Mel Blanc, left Universal to work his new exclusive contract with Warner Brothers.
Woody continued to escalate in popularity. Lantz had become a multi-millionaire and the 1948 novelty record, “The Woody Woodpecker Song” had made the “hit parade”. That was also the year that Mel Blanc sued Walter Lantz for over half-a-million-dollars. His claim was that Lantz had used Blanc’s laugh in cartoons without Blanc’s permission. The judge ruled in Lantz’s favor because Blanc had failed to copyright his voice track. Afterwards, Lantz paid Blanc a sizeable sum in an out-of-court settlement.
Lantz needed a new voice for another series of Woody cartoons, this time for United Artists. During a blind audition, Gracie Lantz secretly tape recorded her own audition and placed the reel in the stack of tapes. After listening to the audition tapes, Walter liked the one by Gracie best. She first declined the screen credits for her voice, but eventually agreed to have her name included on later cartoons. Gracie was Woody’s voice until her death in 1992.
Lantz finally stopped new cartoon production in 1975. Four years later, Lantz was presented with a special Academy Award “for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world.” In 1990, Woody Woodpecker had a star on the Hollywood “Walk Of Fame”.
Walter Lantz died at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California from heart failure at the age of 94, on March 22, 1994.