A yellow-beaked, red-headed and extremely brash woodpecker with a machine-gun laugh made his debut 70 years ago Thursday in the Andy Panda cartoon Knock Knock. In the seven-minute animated short, Woody Woodpecker enraged Andy's phlegmatic father by pecking holes in his roof and pinching his nose, laughing ha-ha-ha-ha-ha in his high-pitched voice every time he got the better of him. The staccato laugh would soon be mimicked by kids everywhere.
Producer Walter Lantz's first superstar, Woody appeared in 198 theatrical shorts, the cartoons that preceded feature films. He was voiced by Mel Blanc for a few years, followed by Ben Hardaway, who also animated the character. But in most of the shorts, Grace Stafford, Lantz's wife, supplied his voice.
The "Woody Woodpecker Song," which became the regular theme in 1948 and was nominated for an Academy Award, began "Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.
Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. That's the Woody Woodpecker song." Lantz told the New York Times in 1944 that it took 30 cartoonists, 30,000 drawings and a staff of 65 people to create one cartoon every four weeks. While technology has changed the way the drawings get to the screen, it still takes a large number of artists to create the drawings, Jerry Beck, an animation historian and author of The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons, told the AARP Bulletin.
"What we don't have today is a whole league of people who trace the drawings onto celluloid and then paint each frame and photograph them," Beck said. "As late as the Little Mermaid and possibly some features beyond that, animation was still made in that old-fashioned way, the same way Walter Lantz did."
Lantz retired the character in 1972 and stopped making cartoons altogether in 1976. He died in 1994 at age 94. "He was quite old by 1972, and decided he could live on the merchandising for Woody," Beck said. "He became an elder statesman of animation."
The character lives on in DVD sets, including Woody Woodpecker Favorites, released last year, and The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, issued in 2007. He also appears at Universal Studios Florida in the Woody Woodpecker's KidZone and the Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster.
Woody Woodpecker isn't the only animated character having a milestone birthday this year. Here are a few others:
- "Doonesbury" is 40. Garry Trudeau began writing the strip as a Yale undergrad, and it launched in a few dozen newspapers nationwide in 1970. In 1975, Trudeau became the first comic strip artist to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, and in 1983 he became the first cartoonist in modern times to take a sabbatical — staying away for 20 months. Today, the strip appears in nearly 1,500 newspapers in the United States and other countries, and has been featured in nearly 60 books selling more than 7 million copies.
- The Flintstones, set in the prehistoric town of Bedrock, is 50. When it aired on ABC it was the first animated series ever in prime time, and one of the first series to show husbands and wives sleeping in the same bed. Its similarity to The Honeymooners, and Fred Flintstone's similarity to Jackie Gleason, nearly provoked Gleason to sue ABC to keep it off the air. The characters were expected to plug sponsors' products, so Fred and his friend, Barney Rubble, smoked Winston cigarettes in commercials.
- "Beetle Bailey" is 60. Mort Walker, 87, who also created "Hi and Lois" in 1954, still draws "Beetle Bailey," a record for longest run by an original creator, according to his son, cartoon historian Brian Walker. The younger Walker started writing for both strips in the mid 1980s, as did his brother Greg. "I was born in 1952. Beetle is like an older brother who went off to the Army. I just get these letters from him every day in the newspaper." The strip still appears in 1,800 newspapers around the world, including those in China, South America and Scandinavia.