In this beautifully written article for Tablet, Portland author Katie Schneider reports on her visit to Oregon Jewish Museum’s current exhibit That’s All Folks! The Mel Blanc Story. As she walks the reader through Mel Blanc’s early life, Schneider uses her novelist’s eye for detail to pick out the milestones which also served as touchstones of Jewish identity.
His first foray into voice artistry:
Among the first people (six year old Mel Blank) befriended were the elderly Jewish couple who ran the local grocery; they spoke Yiddish, and the boy became fascinated with the strange dialect and its intonations. He learned to imitate it. It was, by his own admission, the first voice he ever performed.
His first time on stage:
Some of his earliest gigs were with the South Parkway Minstrels, an amateur vaudeville club in Portland. The Minstrels were part of Neighborhood House, founded by the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women to help South Portland’s immigrants.
He married Estelle Rosenbaum in a secret civil ceremony before finally having a Jewish wedding on Lag B’Omer.
His Warner Brothers breakthrough:
Leon Schlesinger, Warner’s head of animation, asked him to voice one of the studio’s newest animated stars, a bow-tie wearing pig named Porky. “You want me to be the voice of a pig?” Blanc replied. “That’s some job for a nice Jewish boy.”
His most famous creative achievement, Bugs Bunny:
When Blanc came on board, the famous hare was named “Happy Rabbit.” That, Blanc believed, was too bland. The bunny needed personality, and that personality, in Blanc’s mind, took the shape of a fast-talking tough Jew from Flatbush Avenue.
A fast talking tough Jew from Flatbush Avenue who had never actually set foot in New York, that is. Mel Blanc writes in his book that as a young man he longed to travel to New York, but that he never had the bus fare.
He did make it to LA. Schneider quotes Judy Margles’ observation that Mel Blanc’s journey, from South Portland to Southern California, “mirrored the life of the Jewish community Portland at the time, spanning tradition and assimilation. He was like his friends. They wanted to get out. They wanted to be part of the larger world.”
This tension, between tradition and assimilation, is one of the engines which drove Mel Blanc’s creativity. What does it mean to be a Jew in the West? How do we construct our identities? How much of the past comes with us into the future? What is essential? Who decides?
I believe Mel Blanc’s engagement with these deeper questions is the source of his strength as an artist. His early life in a multilingual immigrant community provided the seedbed for this lifelong fascination. But questions which deal with identity are not limited to the Jewish community. These are questions all Americans explore. We are a nation of immigrants.
The essence of our national character is that it doesn’t know itself, that it has no core — that it consists of one long negotiation between heterogeneous elements that resist synthesis. That is, of course, what makes American culture so alive and dynamic and fertile — its improvisatory nature, its fundamental instability, which is also a fundamental openness to anything. Lloyd Fonvielle
Is there a better description of Mel Blanc’s stable of voice characterizations, from wide eyed Tweety Bird to bombastic Foghorn Leghorn, from perpetually enraged Daffy Duck to perpetually bewildered Barney Rubble, from hungry Wile Coyote to amorous Pepe LePew to good natured Porky to “ain’t I a stinker” Bugs, than “one long negotiation between heterogeneous elements that resist synthesis” ?
Fonvielle, himself a Hollywood screenwriter, goes on to defend pop culture as a crucible of American identity, particularly when it comes to the pleasures and the responsibilities of freedom.
Liberty, in a political sense, would have no “legs”, would close on Saturday night, if it weren’t reflected in this liberty of the everyday imagination — and this liberty of the imagination could probably not have survived if we were required to take it too seriously, to think it through . . . if it weren’t dressed up in shameless, unadulterated hokum.
Do Americans use pop culture to wrestle with/explore/come to our own understanding of “e pluribus unum” ?
Plurality is at the heart of the American promise of freedom. We don’t all have to be the same. A natural consequence – we have to live with the conflicts and tensions which come with difference. Freedom is no free lunch.
Freedom, it turns out, is a long slog.
That’s where comedy comes in. Katie Schneider identifies herself as having been “raised on Warner Brothers cartoons.” Lloyd Fonvielle’s argument takes that claim seriously.
Thank you, Katie Schneider, for your guided tour of the Oregon Jewish Museum’s wonderful exhibit. This exhibit is the first ever, in all time, to examine Mel Blanc as an Oregonian and as an artist.
Here are the amateur radio performers who first coached an extremely talented Portland teenager to professional success. These are the men, who, in their explorations of the lively, dynamic, and fertile new artform called radio, gave Mel Blanc the key to his future.
Go see for yourself the life journey of this American artist.
The Oregon Jewish Museum exhibit, which has multimedia interactive elements, draws on family photos and heirlooms loaned by the Blanc family. It will be up until September 11, 2011.
Oregon Jewish Museum
1953 NW Kearney, Portland, Oregon
(503) 226 -3600
“Despite what some might term the “frivolous” nature of my job, I consider myself an artist, and cartoons, art.” Mel Blanc
For more information about Mel Blanc, see the Archives of this website.
Join the Portlanders who plan to deepen their Mel Blanc knowledge by attending a walking tour of Mel Blanc’s Portland, held on Saturday July 23 and on Saturday July 30. Led by Bill Crawford and Dennis Nyback, the tours leave from the Hollywood Theatre at 1:00 PM.