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50-Year Career : Clarence Nash, Donald Duck's Voice, Dies

February 21, 1985|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Clarence Nash, who as a child learned to imitate the bleatings of his pet goat, thereby gaining later entree to the hearts of children around the world as the voice of Walt Disney's Donald Duck, died Wednesday at age 80.

Disney studio officials said Nash succumbed to leukemia at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.

For 50 years, Nash was the voice of the pantsless prankster Disney created in 1934. He squawked at his hellacious nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie; made occasional cooing sounds at his girl, Daisy, or just vented his frustrations in general at an imperfect world.

No matter what the mood or the occasion, all of Nash's duckish diatribes had one thing in common--they could barely be understood.

Visited Hospitals

And although Nash retired in 1971, a time that also signaled the end of the Disney cartoon empire, he and Donald continued to make personal visits--to convalescent homes, to wards of critically ill children or, in 1984 on the golden anniversary of Donald's birth, to the White House.

Called "Ducky" by everyone but his wife ("I call him honey 'cause I knew him before he was a duck"), Nash's first professional brush with the animal kingdom came as drayman for a team of milk company horses.

He had moved to California from Chicago, where he had tried unsuccessfully to peddle his skills as a vocalist, animal imitator and mandolin player. He said in an interview last year with The Times that his interest in becoming an entertainer started in his native Oklahoma, where he had learned to imitate a pet billy goat, part of a menagerie of pets his parents tolerated.

When he would leave the goat to take his piglet, raccoon or coyote for a walk, the goat would bleat in dismay. It was this sound that Nash mastered, converting it to a monologue. When he had mastered "Mary Had a Little Lamb," he took the act on the road, where it proved less than an overnight success.

Joined Troupe

His brief appearances in Chicago did result in an invitation to join the old Chautauqua circuit, a vaudeville troupe that performed in tents. To his goat reverberations, he added cats, crickets (he was the voice of Disney's Jiminy Cricket after the death of Cliff Edwards) and horse whinnies.

Despite the diversity, Nash, by then married, found work scarce, and he and his bride moved to California in 1930.

A line Nash used often on his interviewers was that he had married for money. "I had a dime, Margaret had 50 cents."

They settled in San Francisco, where Nash was introduced to the president of Adohr Farms, who hired him as a promotional representative and put him at the head of a team of miniature horses, visiting schools and speaking to service clubs.

Friends urged him to seek out Disney, and Nash dropped in at the original studio in Silver Lake and handed the receptionist his "Clarence the Adohr Birdman Card."

Whether Disney heard Nash that day as he auditioned his many voices or whether the veteran cartoonist heard Nash on the radio performing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" for a pets program is unclear.

What is known is that Disney did hear him, told an associate, "That's our duck" and hired Nash as the voice of his new cartoon character.

Donald's first appearance was in "The Wise Little Hen," released in June, 1934. Donald's true character did not surface, however, until "The Orphans Benefit," later that year. After a band of rowdy mice hooted at his recitation of "Little Boy Blue," the duck threw the first of his many tantrums.

Gainfully Employed

Nash, gainfully employed, bought a home in Glendale in 1937 and continued to live there until his death.

Over the years, he was the voice of Donald's Uncle Scrooge, all three incorrigible nephews and Daisy, whose involvement with Donald was possibly the most asexual relationship in the history of films.

He was a series of frogs, crickets and bats in Disney's "Silly Symphonies" series and the bird calls in "Cinderella," "Song of the South" and "Snow White." He even was heard on occasion as his arch rival, Mickey Mouse.

With a two-foot rubber duck on his arm, he helped imprint Donald's web-feet in cement; appeared with other senior citizens at the White House, where President Reagan called him "a wonderful man" and, until shortly before his death, continued to make promotional tours for Disney.

His favorite appearance, he liked to say, was in a hospital room, where one little boy could not stop crying. Bringing the duck very close to the boy's face, Nash, in his brashest Donaldese, told the boy, "Shut up."

It worked, and Nash and Donald talked to the grieving child for several more minutes.

Later, a grateful doctor told the short, silver-haired monologuist: "This is one time a quack really helped a doctor."

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