Thurl Ravenscroft: He's Grrrrr-eat!
Author's note, May 24, 2005: It's been less than 30 minutes since I heard the heart-rending news that Thurl Ravenscroft had just passed away at the age of 91. Many people are unfamiliar with Mr. Ravenscroft and his work. Those who have a passing acquaintance may know of some of his more famous voice acting roles.
I was privileged and honored to speak with the man a few years back and learned there was so much more to Thurl than a career behind a microphone. Actor. Singer. Veteran. Mister Ravenscroft, you will be missed. You were, indeed, great.
You might not recognize the name, but the odds are nearly even that you would recognize the voice. For years, Thurl Ravenscroft has lent his mellifluous basso profundo to such characters as Paul Bunyan and Kirby the vacuum cleaner, among several others. But he’ll probably forever be remembered for giving the gift of speech to the icon of the Kellogg’s cereal company, Tony the Tiger. Since he’s also the man who sang those wonderful Seussian lyrics, “You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch,” and since it’s so close to Christmas and Grinch-time, I felt that this was the perfect time to dust off this interview from a couple of years ago with Mr. Ravenscroft. I got a lot more than I bargained for, and learned about the fascinating events of his life.
I have to admit that you, the readers, are cheated of an integral part of this interview. It’s impossible to transcribe a sentence from Thurl Ravenscroft and have it read on paper the same way it sounds when Mr. Ravenscroft says it. Nevertheless... onward!
Before you even hear the voice, there’s the name: Thurl Ravenscroft. You can almost hear the rolling thunder behind it. What’s the derivation of that?
Well, Ravenscroft, of course, is English. We’ve traced our family history clear back beyond William The Conqueror, and there have been many important Ravenscrofts in the history of England--artists, song writers, hymn writers, crystal glass makers, and etc.
But “Thurl” throws everybody into Scandinavia, for some reason or other. But my father had a friend whose name was Thurl, and he thought that “Thurl” and “Ravenscroft” were a happy combination, so when I came along, he decided to call me Thurl.
When did you begin your career in singing--before, after or during your tour as a navigator with the Air Transport Command?
Oh, long before. I came to California in ’33, from Nebraska, to study interior design and set design. In high school and college, I had been a ham and I had been acting in all the musicals, all the dramas, etc. While I was going to school, I sang in the choir in a church here in California, and the choir director was one of the studio singers. That’s at the time when all of the studios were making nothing but musicals. He said, “Paramount’s having an audition for singers. Why don’t you go audition?” And I said, “Well, why not?”
An interesting thing, you talked about my name--when I sang, they said, “What is your name,” and I said, “Thurl Ravenscroft.” They said, “Well, that is a beautiful stage name. What is your real name?”
Anyway, I began to get a call as a studio singer, and one thing led to another and I never went back to art school. I became very active as a studio singer. And met, of course, many people who were also studio singers.
Then one thing led to another, and I was asked to be a member of a quartet. That was my first steady job, so I took it. It was $40 a week. I thought that was for the quartet, but I found out that was for me--$40!
From there, it went on. I helped form The Sportsmen Quartet, and we were featured with Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallee, and all the radio shows. I was with The Sportsmen until the World War II. I was the youngest member of the quartet, and not married.
Having my pilot’s license, I wanted to fly. But I was too tall for the fighter pilots, so I found out my best bet to fly was to become a navigator. I got my navigator’s license while I was still singing. Then I heard that the Air Transport Command was hiring navigators to fly the Atlantic. I applied and was cleared by G2 Intelligence. During the War for five years, I spent flying the North and South Atlantic.
During that time, I got married, and after the War, they wanted me to go to Cairo as Chief of the North African Division. My wife and I had both been in Cairo, and didn’t want any part of it. So, I said “All I know is show business,” and we came back to California.
So you would have been flying during the formation of the United States Air Force? It was still a division of the Army at that time.
Oh yeah, that was when it was the Army Air Corps. The Air Transport Command was part of the Army Air Corps. That was before our own Air Force.
You mentioned this list of people you’ve sung with. I understand you’ve also sung with Elvis Presley. What was that like?
Well, it was very odd--very peculiar. This was before he became involved with all the odd stuff. But we’d made a couple of records with Elvis. He always had his own quartet back in Nashville, but when he came out to make a picture, they were not available. So MGM said, “Well, we have a quartet we think can do the job.” So he agreed to let us work with him on the picture--off camera, of course. Just recording. We did that, and he liked us very much, so he used us on a couple of records after that. But it was a very odd experience. He was a peculiar man.
When did the transition occur from singing to doing voice-overs?
It was during that time, after the war. The quartet began to do a lot of jingles and things, and got into the commercial field. The quartet had been doing some Sugared Corn Pops commercials for Kellogg’s, so they knew me back in the advertising agency, and when the new cereal and a new character came out, they decided to see what Thurl will do with it.
So they sent a drawing of Tony and a character description and a sample script out to see what I might do with it. And, of course, the payoff in the early Tony was “Tony, are Frosted Flakes any good?” And Tony would always say, “Good? Why, they’re great!” So I decided I had to do something with the word ‘great’ to make it really explode, and I experimented and came up with the ‘great’ that I do. They took it back to Chicago, to Kellogg’s and the advertising agency, and I’ve been doing him ever since.
Well, it’s certainly made an impact on the pop culture of America. Few characters are more widely recognized than Tony the Tiger.
(Laughs) That’s right. Tony is the icon of the cereal business.
Do you ever run into children or parents in the cereal aisle who recognize your voice?
Oh yes, all the time. Now, of course, I’ve been doing him so long that everybody knows me. I get fan mail now from all over the world. [Editor’s note: You can send fan mail to Thurl through the Walt Disney Company. Send it to: Thurl Ravenscroft, c/o The Walt Disney Company, 500 South Buena Vista Street, Burbank, California 91521]
In looking at your extensive credits, I find that many of your appearances are listed as “uncredited.” “Donald and the Wheel,” “The Music Man, “The Jungle Book.” Was this unintentional? What happened?
No. You see, I was freelance, and I didn’t have an agent, and I was doing five or six jobs a day. It was ‘another job.’ When I did the singing on “How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” I didn’t get any credit either, because we thought it was just... I was there in the studio about an hour, and Ted Geisel was there, and Chuck Jones the animator, and it was just another job. When I finished it in about an hour, I went on to the next job.
If I had, of course, had an agent, and they had realized that it was going to be a big hit, I would probably have gotten credit.
I just bought the tape tonight, and checked out the audio CD version as well, and they still don’t list your credit on there.
I know. I never have gotten credit.
There’s a similar case with the Superman creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who didn’t get their dues from DC Comics for a long time. Is there any possibility that maybe the studios will say, “Hey, let’s do you right?”
Oh, I have no idea. (Chuckling) I wish I had credit, of course, bud I didn’t have because I went on to the next job, and I remember Dr. Seuss--Ted Geisel--was there, and Chuck the animator, and when we finished in about an hour, they said, “Well, that takes care of this Christmas. What’ll we do next Christmas?”
Not dreaming, of course, that it would become an international favorite.
When the new version of “The Grinch” was being produced, were there any expectations that they might approach you to sing it again, or replay the original song somewhere in the movie?
I never heard a word from anybody.
Oh, that’s disappointing.
Yeah, and I’m... I don’t know whether I want to see it or not, because I’m afraid that they have ruined the original “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” It was such a beautiful story.
I understand you also used to do the announcing for the Laguna Beach “Festival Of Arts Pageant Of The Masters.”
Oh, for twenty years, I was the narrator, yes.
What was that all about? What I read about it seemed very interesting.
Well, it was internationally famous. People came from all over the world to see it--and it’s still going on. But I had to stop it six years ago after twenty years of doing it, because I couldn’t climb up to the top of the pole every night. My legs began to play tricks on me, so I had to give it up.
But it’s fantastic--you can’t describe it. We reproduced--on stage--in any media, artwork: oil paintings; sculpture; stained glass. You name it. We reproduced artwork with real people! And you would swear you were looking at the original. People came from all over the world to see it. They still do--it’s still going on.
And your voice is still being used in many of the attractions at Disneyland.
Oh yeah, I’m on practically every ride in the park.
Are you still doing the occasional voice-over for Disney or anybody else?
Well, I’m not jobbing anymore. I still do Tony. I’ve been doing Tony for... this will be my 49th year. They call me back now and then to re-do something that I have done at the park, but I don’t make Disney pictures anymore. But I’ve done so many. I knew Walt personally through my work there, and it was a real treat.
Have you ever thought about publishing your memoirs? You have such a varied career, I’m sure people would love to read about it.
Oh, there’s a lot of people that want to write my story, but... I don’t know. Who would want it? Who would want to buy it?
Oh, I think there’d be a great many people out there who would want it.
Well, it could be. Several people are after me to do it. I had quite an experience during the War. I flew special missions for the Air Transport Command over both the North and South Atlantic. We flew special missions; we flew high priority cargo or high priority personnel.
We flew Winston Churchill to the conference in Algiers where they decided whether to invade through Italy or through France.
Even though I knew Bob Hope before the War, I flew him and his troop on a trip from Scotland to Casablanca during the War. That was a lot of fun.