He’s Grrrrreat! The Thurl Ravenscroft Interview

Mark Arnold interviews Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice actor behind Tony the Tiger and many other characters.

Note: This interview originally appeared in Hogan’s Alley #14.

While Thurl Ravenscroft is hardly a household name, you’ve heard his voice. If you’ve heard Tony the Tiger enthusing about Frosted Flakes, one of the singing busts in Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” theme park attraction or even the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” you’ve heard Thurl.

This Disney Legend (and overall living legend) was born on Feb. 6, 1914, in Norfolk, Neb. After a conventional childhood, he moved to California in 1933 to study interior design but was encouraged to enter show business, mainly due to his deep singing voice and his flair for comedy.

Ravenscroft appeared on many radio shows during the 1930s and onward, including The Kraft Music Hall starring Bing Crosby and Goose Creek Parson. Typically at this time, Ravenscroft was part of a singing group, first as part of the Paul Taylor Choristers and then the Metropolitans (a.k.a. The Sportsmen). Still later, he was part of the Mellomen, a group he formed in 1948.

In these various groups, Ravenscroft sang or acted alongside the likes of Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Judy Canova, Eddie Cantor, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. The Mellomen appeared regularly on the radio and eventually broke into films, appearing in many pictures as themselves.

By the 1950s, the Mellomen and Ravenscroft established a lengthy relationship with Walt Disney and made vocal appearances in Alice in Wonderland (1951), Trick or Treat (a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon), Peter Pan (1953) Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (a 1953 Academy Award-winning short), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963) The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocats (1970), among others.

Ravenscroft also appeared as narrator or singer on various Disney records, television shows and theme park rides but is perhaps best known for his Disney work either as one of the singing busts for the song “Grim Grinning Ghosts” in Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, which debuted at Disneyland in 1969, or as Paul Bunyan in the 1958 short of the same name.

Ravenscroft’s other Disney theme park appearances include the Pirates of the Caribbean, the Disneyland Railroad, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Mark Twain Steamboat, the Country Bear Jamboree and Adventure Through Inner Space.

Not restricted to recording exclusively for Disney, Ravenscroft appeared onscreen or off in movies including High Noon (1952), The Glen Miller Story (1953), White Christmas (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), South Pacific (1958), The Music Man (1962), Gay Purr-ee (1962), It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963), The Phantom Tollbooth (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and Snoopy Come Home (1972, singing “No Dogs Allowed” in an impossibly bass voice). He was also the voice of Kirby the vacuum cleaner in the The Brave Little Toaster series of animated films (1987, 1998 and 1999).

Television also eagerly welcomed Ravenscroft as he worked alongside Dr. Seuss to do voice work for The Cat in the Hat (1971), Horton Hears a Who (1971) and The Lorax (1973). Most memorably, he sang “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966).

A devout Christian, Ravenscroft has performed numerous times on The Hour of Power and released his only solo singing album, Great Hymns in Story and Song (1970).

He also made appearances on songs and albums by Jim Nabors, Arlo Guthrie, the Andrews Sisters, Doris Day, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Phil Harris, Eartha Kitt, Frankie Laine, Lawrence Welk, Les Brown and the immortal Spike Jones.

And of course, no summary of Ravenscroft’s career would be complete without mention of his more than 50 years as the one and only voice of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes spokescharacter Tony the Tiger, a character that debuted in commercials in 1952. His other commercial work includes Gillette Blue Blades and 28 different brands of beer!

Now 91 years old and living in semi-retirement in Fullerton, Calif., Ravenscroft’s output has slowed, but he still finds the time to voice Tony. He made time to speak with me in May 2004 and spoke about topics as diverse as Tony the Tiger and Elvis Presley! Lastly, I would like to acknowledge and thank Brian Jacob and his “All Things Thurl” website, which helped me learn a great deal about Ravenscroft and his career.

Mark Arnold: How did you initially get involved in the world of voice acting and singing?

Thurl Ravenscroft: Well, in high school and college, I was always a ham. I loved to perform and I was in musicals and dramas, etc. After I got out of school, my father decided that Hollywood was where I belonged. So he sent me out to Hollywood, and I lived with my mother’s sister and brother and got involved with the church choir. One thing led to another, and the choir director one day said, “Hey Thurl, they’re auditioning studio singers at Paramount. Why don’t you go and audition?” So I went, “Why not?” So I went to Paramount at that time and auditioned. They said to sing about eight bars, and then they said, “Thank you very much. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” And one thing led to another, and pretty quick I was so busy with studio calls because my voice was different. I was the one that they called to sing low notes, so I became very busy.

Arnold: Did you work for Paramount first?

Ravenscroft: Yes, Paramount was the first studio that I ever talked to. That was the studio system. You see, in those days a singer did all the music, but dancers were on camera, dancing to our playback. They would record us for all of the sets with all of the musicians, and then the dancers would dance to our playback. One thing led to another, and we formed the Sportsmen quartet. We were doing Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor and all of the big radio shows out of Hollywood. And then we started doing commercials. We were doing all the Gillette commercials. In those days, Gillette sponsored every game of the World Series and also the Rose Bowl, and we were featured with Jack Benny at first. Then the war came along. By then I had learned to fly, and I wanted to be in the war in the air, but I found out I was too tall for fighter planes.

Arnold: How tall are you?

Ravenscroft: I’m six-five. My next step was to learn navigation, so I went to private school and learned electrical navigation. Then I heard that TWA was hiring navigators. They had an Army contract flying special high-priority cargo or high-priority personnel in place at the time, so I auditioned for Trans World and got hired. I spent five years flying north and south Atlantic flying special people. I flew Winston Churchill to a conference in Algiers and flew Bob Hope to the troops a couple of times. So it was fun. I spent five years and had 150 round trips crossing the north and south Atlantic. And then after the war, I came back to Hollywood, because that’s what I knew and loved, and I formed another quartet called the Mellomen. We became very active, and that’s what I did up until the time I almost retired. So, it’s been a very great life. I’ve been Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, as you probably know, for 53 years so far, and I’m still doing him.

Arnold: I saw a television commercial, coincidentally, about an hour ago on television for Cinnamon Crunchers.

Ravenscroft: Yeah, Cinnamon Crunchers, right! I do Frosted Flakes and Cinnamon Crunchers.

Arnold: And I was just checking if that was Thurl’s voice, and sure enough! We’ll get back to that later. At one point you were studying to be an interior designer.

Ravenscroft: Yeah.

Arnold: How did you make the transition from that field into show business?

Ravenscroft: Well, I was studying to be an interior designer when the war came along, and that’s when I went with the Trans World Airlines and never went back.

Arnold: Do you have any regrets about not going back into interior design?

Ravenscroft: Oh, no. Once I got into show business that was it.

Arnold: What type of prior experience did you have before all this? It sounds as if somebody said, “You sound pretty good, go in there and audition.” But did you have any previous training?

Ravenscroft: Oh, yes. I studied voice work. One time I studied for opera and memorized several roles, but I found that most of the bass roles were too high for me. They really called for a bass baritone, but I was a mezzo vibrato. So I found out that I could make more money and have more fun doing voices, and that’s where I went.

Arnold: Now I have question that was prompted by the guy who maintains the “All Things Thurl” Web site, Brian Jacob. He said that your mother taught piano in Nebraska when you were young. Is that correct?

Ravenscroft: No.

Arnold: Oh, OK. I’m glad we set the record straight. What type of music did you like growing up? What were some of your influences?

Ravenscroft: Oh, that’s hard to say. I went where the money was. And where I could fit in and make a good living.

Arnold: But for your own personal enjoyment, did you like gospel music more or opera?

Ravenscroft: I loved opera!

Arnold: You’ve been in many different vocal groups: The Goose Creek Quartet, The Paul Taylor Choirsters . . .

Ravenscroft: That was my first paying job, The Goose Creek Quartet, when I first came out to Hollywood. I sang bass for the quartet, played the characters Elijah Gupton and Grandpa Hortle and announced the show. It was quite an experience. I was there for about three or four years and that led to show business, fortunately.

Arnold: Which one group did you find the most rewarding or the most challenging?

Ravenscroft: Well, everything was a challenge, and everything was good and successful, and I thoroughly enjoyed my church work. But there was no money in that that I could make in show business. One thing led to another. I’ve still kept my faith.

Arnold: You sang the “Grim Grinning Ghosts” song in the Haunted Mansion. Now, I actually didn’t see the feature film–were you in that film as well?

Ravenscroft: No, not to my knowledge.

Arnold: When did your association with Disney begin?

Ravenscroft: Well, I started with Walt. Believe it or not, I was one of the singing mice in Cinderella. In falsetto, of course [singing in character]: “We’re going to the ball.” And Walt liked it and liked my quartet, so he called us many times to do special things and one time he called us, the quartet. He said, “Thurl, I’m going to make a picture called Lady and the Tramp,” and he said that it was all dogs. He said, “In every one of these movies that I have ever seen, they have a prison sequence with four prisoners in the background singing in barbershop harmony. I want one of these sequences in Lady and the Tramp.” And of course it was all dogs. “So the four prisoners are dogs and they have to howl ‘Home Sweet Home’ in four-part barbershop harmony. What do you think?” And we said, “We’ll try, Walt.” We started messing around the arrangement and messing with howling it in four-part harmony for about an hour, and finally Walt says, “Guys, it’s wonderful, it sounds great, but it sounds like guys howling like dogs. It doesn’t sound real. It doesn’t sound like dogs howling.” So we said, “Walt, why don’t you go back to your office, we’ll have lunch and then we’ll mess around with it, and then we’ll get something on tape that is right, and then we’ll call you when it’s time.” So, we messed around and we came up with the tape that we thought had potential of dogs howling, and we called him and had him listen to the song with the lights out. We called him down. We had four voices. We turned the lights out, played it back and Walt started to cry. And afterward he said that was exactly what he wanted. He heard it and it was wonderful.

Arnold: In that film, you sang backup for Peggy Lee on her songs.

Ravenscroft: Yeah, sure! We did all that, too.

Arnold: Tell me about Walt. I’m a big Disney fan, and that’s probably where I first became aware of your work.

Ravenscroft: He was a wonderful man. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how it should be done. He was a charming, wonderful, warm man. I loved him.

Arnold: You recorded material for the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, and then later you rerecorded it. Why was that?

Ravenscroft: They changed something, and they wanted to use the same cast. I was Fritz, the German parrot. And they called the four of us back about 10 years later, I guess, but one of us had passed away. It was the French parrot. We got somebody else, but it was fun. Everybody in the studio came to see us perform. It was so wonderful.

Arnold: You became a Disney Legend in 1995. Tell me about that ceremony.

Ravenscroft: They invited us all for lunch, and then Roy Disney spoke quite a bit about each one of us and what we had done for Disney, how successful it was, etc. I think Angela Lansbury was honored that same day. There were several people and we were initiated into the Disney Legends. And every year now, they do another ceremony, and we’re always invited.

Arnold: Shifting gears a little bit, how was working with Chuck Jones? You worked on a lot of his specials.

Ravenscroft: Chuck Jones was wonderful. I got a call one day from Chuck wondering if I was available Thursday at 10 o’clock at MGM to do some vocal work. So I went out not knowing what I was going to do, and we were the voices of the “Who” people. There were about eight of us, girls and boys. And after we did that for about an hour with those weird lyrics, Chuck said, “Thurl, here’s a solo that we want you to try. Give it a look.” And he handed me the song sheet and we made it in about three takes of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” with different lyrics. Then we all went in to listen to a playback, and then, Dr. Seuss said, “I liked what I heard.” Then Chuck said, “Thurl, what do you think?” And I said, “If you’re happy, I’m happy. I’m due for the next job” [laughter]. And they said, “Well, we think it’s perfect.” So they turned to each other and said that it was wonderful, never dreaming that it would become a standard. In fact, I didn’t even get screen credit.

Arnold: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. Did that bother you? Now, of course, everyone knows it’s you.

Ravenscroft: No. It’s all over the place.

Boris Karloff, the “Grinch” narrator

Arnold: Did you meet Boris Karloff at that time?Ravenscroft: No, I never saw Boris. His work was already done. That’s the way it is sometimes.

Arnold: How was Chuck Jones to work with?

Ravenscroft: Very warm, very sweet.

Arnold: Another voice actor you seemed to work with a lot was Paul Frees. Were you friends with him, or did you just happen to collaborate on a lot of projects?

Ravenscroft: Well, we were both called to do different projects or voice-overs. Paul is a funny guy. Very talented.

Arnold: Did you work with him at Kellogg’s? I think the agency was Leo Burnett, although I don’t know if they’re currently the agency. Did you work with him on any of those projects?

Ravenscroft: Oh, no, Paul and I worked separate. We were always called separately. They might have put us together, but we never really worked together.

Arnold: And as far as working on Tony the Tiger all of these years, have you seen a change in the character? Do you enjoy the character?

Ravenscroft: No, I love Tony. In fact, I made Tony a person. For me, Tony was real. I made him become a human being and that affected the animation and everything. So Tony and I just did another one last week.

Arnold: Do you happen to know how many commercials you’ve done throughout the years?

Ravenscroft: [Laughter] Oh, no. Thousands! I am the original Tony. I started him in 1951 and have done commercial after commercial after commercial.

Arnold: Was there much forethought? Did they want you from the beginning?

Ravenscroft: Don Simmons was the vice president of advertising, and he went out to Hollywood. I had done a Sugar Corn Pops commercial. So, he knew me and my voice, and Leo called a bunch of us, including Don Simmons, into his office and said, “I am going to come out with a cereal that’s going to be Sugar Frosted Flakes. I want an animal spokesperson named either Tony the Tiger or Elmer the Elephant or Katy the Kangaroo.” And Don Simmons spoke up and said, “I have worked with a guy in Hollywood, that I think would make a wonderful Tony the Tiger.” So he said, “OK, send him the drawing of the character, the character’s description and a sample script.” So Don called, and I went into the booth. And the payoff line in the early days was always, “Tony, are Frosted Flakes any good?” And Tony said, “Good? Why, they’re great.” And I said, “We’ve got to do something with the word ‘great.’ We’ve got to explode to make the cereal come off the shelf.” So, I messed around and finally came up with “They’re Grrr-eat!” And I’m still doing it.

Arnold: The question on everyone’s mind is, do you like Frosted Flakes?

Ravenscroft: Yes, I eat them all the time! I love them! And not because I’m advertising them. I think it’s a great cereal.

Arnold: I have a box on my shelf, too. I think the commercials work. Over the years, you’ve worked with singers including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. What moments do you recall about them?

Ravenscroft: Doris always loved to have one mike in front of her. Then they went through a change to a more experienced form of equipment and finally went to a little “eight-ball” mike that was so tiny. Doris had not used this. This threw her, so they finally found that by putting one of the bigger mikes in front of her that wasn’t working, she could sing. Bing was a charming man. So was Johnny Mann. Sinatra was weird. Sinatra was Jekyll and Hyde. You never knew. And Elvis was also very weird.

Arnold: Tell me about the album you recorded.

Ravenscroft: It was a gospel album where I narrate and tell the story about how some of the most famous hymns came to be written, and then I sing them. And some are with this big choir, some are with an orchestra. That’s the only solo album that I ever did.

Arnold: Are there any plans to bring it out on CD?

Ravenscroft: No, it’s long out of print.

Arnold: Do you have any plans to go back in the studio to do another album or anything like that?

Ravenscroft: No. I’m 90 years old. The fact that I am still doing Tony is a miracle.

Arnold: How do you do Tony nowadays? Do they come to you or do you go to them?

Ravenscroft: They come right to me and record me in my apartment.

Arnold: Do they do a number of commercials at one time, or do they do one at a time?

Ravenscroft: You never know. Sometimes one, sometimes two or three. All they do is put the script in front of me and say, “Do Tony.”

Arnold: Out of all the projects that you’ve worked on, which one would you be most proud of after all these years?

Ravenscroft: Oh, it has to be Tony. Because of the length of time I’ve put into it and because of its popularity. I get fan mail from all over the world. One day about 10 years after I took the role, they took me back to Chicago for a dinner and I was seated at a table with the head of Kellogg’s and Leo Burnett. And after dinner, we were talking, and the president of Kellogg’s said, “Thurl, I don’t know if you know it or not, but Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes is the largest-selling cereal in the entire world, and it’s all your damn fault!” [laughter]

Arnold: Have any projects been frustrating for you?

Ravenscroft: Well, I was the Marlboro man for a number of years, and later, when Chesterfield came out, I auditioned and got that job. I went down and started reading the commercial. And finally the man in the control room said, “Thurl, wait a minute. Which do you prefer, Marlboro or Chesterfield? Well, it says here that you sold Marlboro. I’m sorry, but you can’t sell Chesterfield.” The fact that I had done Marlboro before I had done Chesterfield did not sit well.

Arnold: There are three or four recordings of yours that I particularly enjoy. One is the “Mr. Grinch” song, one was “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” one that I haven’t mentioned yet is “No Dogs Allowed” from Snoopy, Come Home. As a child, I always thought that one was really cool.

Ravenscroft: [singing] No dogs allowed . . .

Arnold: As I grew older, I realized the same guy was doing all these things.

Arnold: What was recording “No Dogs Allowed”like?

Ravenscroft: It was just another job. I did that, now I’m going off to another job. We were freelancing.

Arnold: Were you so busy that you would just jump from job to job to job in a single day?

Ravenscroft: Yeah. I’d do many jobs in one day. One day you would do a commercial and some record dates or whatever. That’s the way it works.

Arnold: One song of yours that I enjoy–which probably doesn’t get much notoriety–is on a really cool album titled “Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry.” It has your version of “Wyatt Earp” with Spike Jones.

Ravenscroft: Oh my gosh! Wow! That’s going way back!

Arnold: How did that project come about? What was Spike like?

Ravenscroft: Spike was a drummer for the NBC staff orchestra, and we were all on the NBC staff at the time doing a show on Saturdays called Hello Hollywood. As the Sportsmen, we would take old songs and doctor them up, and Spike was always the drummer. He asked me to sing, and he got an orchestra and did all the weird things that he did. I also did “I Was a Teen-Age Brain Surgeon” for Spike.

Arnold: You were on “Spike Jones in Hi-Fi,” which recently came out on CD. And here’s another case where you were working with Paul Frees. It seemed like you guys coincided on a lot with different projects, even if you didn’t work side by side. One final question: Any final thoughts or advice for anyone aspiring to being a singer or a voiceover artist or doing anything similar to what you’ve done?

Ravenscroft: No. I didn’t plan anything; I just did what came along. Some turned out fine, and some didn’t. You never know.

 Mark Arnold is an animation and comic-book historian. He is also the author of our feature on John Sutherland.

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