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).
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.