The unmistakable, grainy voice of Sterling Holloway lopes along at a slow gait, still carrying just a trace of the veteran character actor's Georgia roots. The face, even now, is dominated by those bulging eyes, too-large lips and a crazy tangle of red-orange hair.
At 81, Holloway is living in quiet semi-retirement in Hollywood. The years seem to have dimmed his memory of a multifaceted career in show business that extended from portrayals on both large and small screen of the perpetually dreamy country bumpkin/soda jerk/errand boy, to a host of memorable voice characterizations for such Walt Disney animated classics as "Winnie the Pooh," "The Jungle Book," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Dumbo."
Most of the conversation on this occasion centered on his narration for the Disney animated short (and accompanying sound-track recording) of "Peter and the Wolf."
"I suppose I've since done 'Peter' live in the hundreds of times," he mused. "I don't remember too many of them, though. There was one on an overnight cruise of the Queen Mary. . . . "
This is not to suggest Holloway's indifference to concert performances. Forty years after that first encounter with Prokofiev's timeless tale of childhood bravery, he still relishes the chance to stand between orchestra and audience and narrate the story once again--as he will at a pops concert on Saturday at 8 p.m. in Don Wash Auditorium with the Garden Grove Symphony.
"I love to work. Always have," he said. "I like people, the feel of an audience."
He remembers little of the 1946 recording session for the Disney film, yet suggests that his involvement in the project had "nothing to do with Disney--it was between me and the Russians. Prokofiev had heard my voice and told a friend, 'If ("Peter") is ever done in America, I'd like that guy to do it.' "
His recollections don't quite jibe with the official records at Disney. "That's the first I've heard that one," Disney archivist Dave Smith said. Holloway, he said, had found favor at the studio through his earlier work as the Stork in "Dumbo" and was simply hired to do "Peter." The project, he said, "came directly from Prokofiev, who approached Walt (Disney) about making an animated version of it. It was included in the feature 'Make Mine Music.' "
No matter. There is no disputing Holloway's unique way with the story. Since his reading, perhaps hundreds of big- and small-name artists have had their go, but few voices could match--and fewer listeners could forget--the delicate whimsy of the Holloway performance.
His special gifts have certainly not gone unrecognized at Disney. "Recently, they had a whole evening for me," Holloway noted. "It was to celebrate the 'Jungle Book' recording going gold (he was the voice of the Snake). Well, they carried on and on about me. I finally had to leave."
About a decade after Disney's death (in 1966), Holloway "just stopped doing things for the company." He declined to elaborate.
Thinking back on a lifetime of performing, Holloway commented, matter-of-factly: "Everything I've done I've disliked. I'm not trying to be a smarty-pants. I've just always been a stubborn, rebellious person. I would have done everything differently, given another chance. I don't like doing the same thing over and over."
Yet, if ever a character was endlessly typecast, it would seem to be Holloway. He disagreed: "The studios knew what I wanted. If anything new or different came long, they would call me. I never felt slighted by the industry."
Holloway paused and gave a slight chuckle. "Everything has come too easy for me. I never had trouble with anything.
"People always ask me about my voice--how I get this sound, and I tell them there's nothing I can do about it.
"I'll let you in on a little secret: Years ago when I started out in the theater, the critics would comment about my eccentric dancing. Actually, they were all distracted by my blowing hair out of my eyes constantly. It took attention away from my feet. I can't yet do a time step.
"You see, I've been a trickster right from the start."