For people who love thinking about pop culture, and for the smaller subset of people who love thinking about pop culture in Portland, this past summer contained an embarrassment of riches. Oregon Jewish Museum’s That’s All, Folks: The Mel Blanc Story exhibit plus Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Rocks exhibit equalled an unparalleled opportunity to examine Rose City’s cultural past.
There was considerable overlap in the subject matter of the two exhibits.
Mel Blanc was a musician. He grew up surrounded by live music. By 1915, the year Mel Blanc (then Mel Blank) arrived, Portland had 70 movie theaters. Gary Lacher’s and Steve Stone’s research uncovered the interesting factoid that when the Blank family got here from San Francisco, they moved right next door to a nicklodeon. That’s how many theaters there were! Everywhere you turned around! Mel wrote in his autobiography about how he loved them.
He loathed school, but he loved theaters. “Silent” movies were not silent, but were accompanied, either by a solo pianist or by a small (or large) orchestra. Recorded music had yet to be invented, so vaudeville theaters disseminated pop music via live music acts of every description – singers, instrumental soloists, and bands of every type.
Mel Blanc was studying violin himself when he became enamored of the deadpan comic timing of violinist “Ben K. Benny”, the vaudevillian who later sawed his way to the top as Jack Benny. Blanc cites Benny as his favorite vaudeville act – he saw him perform every chance he got, paying his way in with cash he made selling Portland newspapers. Once in Hollywood he worked with Jack Benny for years, both on radio and on television.
However it was Portland’s music scene which first attracted the attention of the young, gifted performer.
He must have heard an awful lot about Louis Kaufman, the musical prodigy who outgrew the opportunities for training here in Portland and went to Julliard in 1915 (the year Mel Blanc arrived). Kaufman, like Blanc, played the violin. Like Blanc, he started in Portland and wound up in Hollywood.
He saw Portland bandleader George Olsen ascend to Broadway, and later Hollywood.
He saw Portland musician Del Porter, a personal friend, duplicate that feat.
When George Olsen was recruited by Fannie Brice for Broadway, his replacement at the Multnomah Hotel was Herman Kenin, another Portlander. Kenin gave Mel Blanc some of his first professional gigs.
Portland presented Mel Blanc with enough union scale work as a sousaphone player in dance bands that he was able to take full advantage of the low paying, but tremendously foundational, voice artist gig he was offered at KGW Hoot Owls in 1927. The Hoot Owls show included live music, comic sketches, and a great deal of topical reference and improvisation. The atmosphere of barely contained creative anarchy was similar to what he would later encounter in Los Angeles, at Termite Terrace.
Portland radio historian Craig Adams documented Mel Blanc’s shift from musician to voice artist in this timeline, constructed from newspaper accounts.
If you would like a window into the Jazz Age Portland which produced Mel Blanc, go see That’s All, Folks!: The Mel Blanc Story exhibit at Oregon Jewish Museum.
But go right away! The exhibit comes down on Sept. 12.
If you would like a delightful overview of Portland music, concentrating on Portland rock, head over to Oregon Rocks at Oregon Historical Society.
The Mel Blanc Project was a series of public history/art education events made possible in part by a grant from the Kinsman Foundation and by a grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation.
For more information about Mel Blanc, see the Archives of this website.
“Despite what some might term the “frivolous” nature of my job, I consider myself an artist, and cartoons, art.” Mel Blanc