Woody Woodpecker: Cartoon Icons of American TV
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Woody Woodpecker: Cartoon Icons of American TV

Woody Woodpecker is an American animated cartoon character who first appeared in theatrical short films produced by the Walter Lantz animation studio and distributed by Universal Pictures.

Woody Woodpecker is an animated cartoon character who first appeared in theatrical short films produced by the Walter Lantz animation studio and distributed by Universal Pictures.

Created in 1940 by storyboard artist Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, who had previously laid the groundwork for two other wacky-but-lovable characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in the late 1930s, Woody's character and design would evolve over the years, from an "insane" bird with an unusually brash design, to one more refined.  Woody was originally voiced by the iconic Mel Blanc, and later by Ben Hardaway and Grace Stafford (wife of Walter Lantz).

First broadcast on television in 1957 under the title The Woody Woodpecker Show (which featured Lantz cartoons book-ended by new footage of Woody and live-action footage of Lantz) Woody Woodpecker became a phenomenal success in the late 50s, and remains one of the most recognizable and beloved cartoon characters of all time. Woody remained a staple of Universal's line-up until 1972 when Lantz finally closed down his studio.

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According to Walter Lantz's press agent, the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker actually came while Lantz was on his honeymoon with wife, Gracie, in Sherwood Lake, California.  Apparently, an especially noisy woodpecker outside their cabin kept the couple awake at night, and when a heavy rain started, they quickly learned that the bird had actually pecked holes in their cabin's roof. According to this cartoon industry legend, Walter wanted to shoot the annoying bird but Gracie suggested that he create a cartoon character instead--thus Woody was born. (This tale is, however, questionable since the Lantzes were not married until after Woody made his screen debut.)

Woody Woodpecker--renown for his trademark, "Ha-ha-ha-HAA-ha!"--first appeared in the film Knock Knock on November 25, 1940. Though the storyline evolves around “Andy Panda” and his father, “Papa Panda,” once Woody appears, he instantly becomes the star attraction.  In the plot, Woody constantly pesters the two pandas, so Andy tries to sprinkle salt on Woody's tail, following the old belief that this will prevent him from flying and allow him to be captured. To Woody's surprise, Andy's attempts actually succeed and Woody is taken away to the funny farm— but not before his captors prove to be even crazier than he is.  Woody was an over-night sensation.

Realizing that Woody Woodpecker had the potential to replace the most popular cartoon character of the time, "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" (whose popularity was in decline), Lantz wrote a number of storylines for the brash woodpecker, with Woody going on to star in a several  films.  And due to his impudent and self-confident nature, was a natural hit during World War II, his image appearing on US aircraft (as nose art); meanwhile, American audiences watched Woody cope with topical issues like food shortages. The 1943, Woody’s cartoon The Dizzy Acrobat was nominated for the 1944 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (but lost to the MGM “Tom and Jerry” similar-themed cartoon, The Yankee Doodle Mouse.)

In 1946, Lantz hired Dick Lundy, former Disney director, to take over Woody Woodpecker cartoons.  Deciding to tweak Woody’s general character, he would no longer act eratically without a legitimate reason--as audiences had come to expect. (Woody, apparently, had matured.) Lundy also tweaked the animation, making Woody's new films more Disney-esque in style. The following year, former Disney animators Fred Moore and Ed Love began assisting Lundy in adding touches of the Disney style to Woody's cartoons.

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Also in 1947, Woody got his own theme song, "The Woody Woodpecker Song,” written by George Tibbles and Ramey Idriss, who strategically utilized Woody’s now famous laugh.  Kay Kyser's 1948 recording of the song (with trademark laugh provided by Gloria Wood) not only became one of the biggest hit singles of 1948, it became the first and only song from an animated short subject to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song.  Lantz soon adopted the song as Woody's theme music, and due to the song's phenomenal popularity, Woody Woodpecker fan clubs sprang up all over the country, movie theaters held "Woody" matinées, and boys actually got the "Woody Woodpecker" haircut.

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In 1948, financial problems hit United Artists, forcing Lantz to shut down his studio. The Lantz studio did not re-open again until 1950, by which time the staff had severely downsize with many production artists moving to other studios. Signing with Universal (now Universal-International) production started up on two Woody Woodpecker cartoons; Puny Express in 1951, followed by Sleep Happy.  Nine more Lantz-directed Woody cartoons followed before Don Patterson became Woody's new director in 1953.

Again redesigned, (this time by animator LaVerne Harding), Woody was made smaller, cuter, and his crest was moved forward from its original backwards position.  For 1955's The Tree Medic, one last makeover was given to the woodpecker, making Woody's eye a simple black dot and taking away the green/hazel iris he'd had since his inception. During this time, the intro was changed as well; instead of having Woody's name on screen and Woody pecking a hole in the screen to introduce himself, Woody would peck his way onto the screen and say "Guess who?” then flop around the screen laughing.

In 1957, Woody made the jump to television in The Woody Woodpecker Show on ABC. The half-hour program consisted of three Woody shorts followed by a brief look at cartoon creation hosted by Lantz.  (Running from 1957 to 1958, it then went into syndication until 1966).

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In 1961, Woody experienced a new wave of popularity sparked by the theater short, The Bird Who Came to Dinner, which returned the cartoon to a more dialogue-driven format. This era would also introduce several of Woody's recurring costars, most notably "Gabby Gator" (voiced by Daws Butler).  Other films paired Woody with a girlfriend named “Winnie” Woodpecker (voiced by June Foray), and a niece and nephew, “Splinter” and “Knothead” (both voiced by June Foray).  Rounding out the supporting cast were “Ms. Meaney” (voiced by Grace Stafford) and “Dapper Denver Dooley” (voiced by Dallas McKennon).

In 1970 (and again in 1976), Woody Woodpecker was given new life when NBC revived the brassy bird and began producing new TV shorts. Woody continued to appear in new shorts until 1972 when Lantz closed his studio's doors due to rising production costs.  In 1985, Lantz sold his library of Woody shorts to MCA/Universal who repackaged the cartoons for another syndicated Woody Woodpecker Show in 1987. A year later, Woody made a brief cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and in 1995, Woody appeared in a Pepsi commercial with NBA star Shaquille O'Neal.

From 1999 to 2002, Woody Woodpecker reappeared in the Fox Kids series The New Woody Woodpecker Show, which ran on Saturday mornings.  For this series Woody's appearance was redesigned to look more like his mid-1940s look--his crest pushed back and his eyes were once again made green.

POP CULTURE:

> Woody has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

> Walter Lantz and movie pioneer George Pal were good friends. Woody Woodpecker makes a cameo in nearly every film that Pal either produced or directed; in the 1960 The Time Machine, there is a brief shot of a little girl dropping her Woody Woodpecker doll as she goes into the air raid shelter.

> Woody is number 46 on TV Guide's list of the "50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All-Time."

> Woody Woodpecker came in at number 25 on Animal Planet's list of "The 50 Greatest Movie Animals" in 2004.

> Woody Woodpecker and his friends are icons at the PortAventura Park in Salou, Spain.

> Woody has been referenced and spoofed on many contemporary television programs including The Simpsons, American Dad!, South Park, The Fairly Odd Parents, Family Guy, and Seinfeld.

> The Beach Boys' 1967 album Smiley Smile featured a song entitled "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (Woody Woodpecker Symphony).”

> Woody Woodpecker is the mascot for the Universal Studios Theme Parks.

> In 2000, Woody became the official team mascot of the Honda Motorcycle Racing Team.

> A balloon featuring Woody has long been a mainstay of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

> Woody Woodpecker is called the “patron saint of the computer science program” at Chalmers University of Technology.

References:

http://www.toonopedia.com/woody.htm

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/11/arts/design/woody-woodpecker-and-shamus-culhanes-animation.html

http://lantz.goldenagecartoons.com/profiles/woody/

Related Articles:

>  Felix the Cat

>  Snoopy

>  Snagglepuss

>  Beany and Cecil

>  Rocky and Bullwinkle

>  Underdog

>  Heckle and Jeckle

>  The Truth Behind Disney Fairy Tales

>  Tom and Jerry

>  Mighty Mouse

Visit JAMES R. COFFEY WRITING SERVICES & RESOURCE CENTER for more information.

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Comments (5)

Well written account of this cartoon character.

Woody Woodpecker is my all time favorite cartoon character. After watching him every day, many years later I actually was privileged enought to see a pileated woodpecker near our home. I was thrilled.

you bring back memories of my childhood

One of my favorites in cartoonland.Thank you for all the detail you provided me with for a most interesting read.

Thanks for the information about this Woody Woodpecker. I like to watch cartoon characters and love to search about them the most. Your info helped in that.

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