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.
- "Peanuts" is 60. Charles Schulz died in 2000, but Charlie Brown and the gang are still syndicated to more than 2,200 papers in 75 countries. They also make regular television appearances between Halloween and Christmas. Plans are in the works for the comic to begin moving to different media platforms, such as the iPod and iPad.
- Bugs Bunny is 72 but he first spoke 70 years ago in A Wild Hare, with Mel Blanc supplying the Brooklyn accent for the wisecracking rabbit and his iconic, "What's up, doc?" Although he was required to chew carrots for the sake of authenticity, Blanc was allergic to them. Bugs first appeared in Porky's Hare Hunt in 1938, and the newspaper strip started in 1942. Bugs can still be seen at Six Flags theme parks and in The Essential Bugs Bunny Collection released by Warner Home Video last month.
- Betty Boop is 80. Her first appearance was in Dizzy Dishes in 1930. Created by Max Fleischer during the Depression, she was the first animated femme fatale. The star of 100 cartoons, two syndicated comic strips and two CBS specials, today she's a hot, multimillion-dollar brand throughout the world, appearing on clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, home decor and at Universal Studios theme parks. "One of the things very unique about Betty Boop is that she's certainly one of the first and most popular female characters that isn't somebody's girlfriend or wife," said Brian Walker. "She's kind of her own woman."
- Blondie is 80. No one paid much attention to the cartoon until Dagwood Bumstead, the son of a railroad tycoon, told his parents he wanted to marry the blonde flapper Blondie Boopadoop. His parents disapproved, Dagwood went on a hunger strike, and by 1933, when the couple married and Dagwood was disinherited, the cartoon was on its way to becoming the most widely read strip in the history of comics. Today, it still has 250 million readers. Creator Chic Young died in 1973. His son, Dean Young, has produced the strip ever since. In the forward to his 2007 Blondie: The Complete Bumstead Family History, Dean Young wrote, "I have often wondered what my father, Chic Young, would have to say about the amazing durability of the characters that he created almost eight decades ago. I'm sure he would be thrilled to know that the world is still enjoying a daily dose of his wacky creation."
Walker, who has written several books on comics, including the just published Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau, said the long-lasting comics celebrating anniversaries this year are among the greatest comic strips of all time. "They have endured mainly because of the nature of comic strips — they provide a daily visit from your friends and tend to grow on people," he said. "The best of them stay around for a long time."
Kitty Bennett is a news researcher and writer living in St. Petersburg, Fla.