Woody first appeared in 1940

Published 1:37 am Saturday, August 11, 2012

I might be about to reveal my age. Remember Woody Woodpecker?

If you’re an early cartoon fan, you haven’t forgotten the annoying woodpecker with that raucous laugh. Woody first showed up way back in November 1940 in a film called “Knock, Knock.”

There is a delightful, but questionable story about Woody’s origin. Walter Lantz, cartoonist, animator, film producer and director, and a storyboard artist, Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, created Woody Woodpecker. A press agent released a story stating that the inspiration for “Knock, Knock” was suggested by Lantz’s bride, Gracie, during their honeymoon at Sherwood Lake, Calif. A woodpecker had bounced its bill off their cabin all night, keeping them awake. As if that wasn’t enough annoyance, it began to rain, revealing that the woodpecker’s insistent pounding had drilled holes in the cabin roof. Lantz got so mad that he was about ready to shoot the woodpecker. Gracie, however, proposed that they make a cartoon about the bird. Cute story, right? However, when Lantz married, Woody was already a year-old star.

In 1947, musicians George Tibbles and Ramey Idriss wrote “The Woody Woodpecker Song,” in which they incorporated that famous laugh. Kay Kaiser, a bandleader and radio personality, recorded the song the following year, and it emerged as one of the biggest hit singles of 1948. It became the first song from an animated short subject nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song. As the catchy song’s popularity soared, Woody Woodpecker fan clubs began popping up all over. Theaters held special “Woody” matinees.

A newspaper from that era described a new craze in coiffures for youth—the Woody Woodpecker haircut. It instructed boys to have their barber trim their hair so it brushed up from the ears. For girls, the directions were similar, except that the topknot should form soft curls with the hair brushed smooth in back.

Mel Blanc, known as the man of a thousand voices, was Woody Woodpecker’s first voice. Blanc recorded Woody’s laugh as a stock sound effect. Grace Stafford Lantz took over Woody’s voice in 1950. The story was that she slipped her recording of Woody into some audition tapes and Lantz chose it, unaware that it was hers. She chose not to take credit until eight years afterwards, believing that audiences might not look upon favor at a female’s voice of the wild Woody’s. Later when a couple of others voiced Woody, she provided the voice for Woody’s girlfriend, Winnie Woodpecker, and that mean Ms. Meany.

After Woody’s television debut in 1957, the Woody Woodpecker show enjoyed popularity through 1966, then revived in 1970, and appeared on television off and on until 1987. Woody showed up in a Pepsi commercial in 1995 with Shaquille O’Neal. The New Woody Woodpecker Show ran on the Fox Network from 1999 through 2002.

Through the years, Woody underwent several appearance changes, but never lost that raucous laugh. And who, if you ever heard it, could forget that crazy Woody Woodpecker song?