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Betty Lou Gerson's Phony Accent Was a Natural for Cruella De Vil

July 20, 1991|SUSAN KING

Mirror, mirror on the wall.

Who's the favorite animated Disney villainess of them all?

Could it be the Wicked Stepmother?

That sea witch Ursula?

Or how about Sleeping Beauty's nemesis, Malefecent?

Well, this trio have nothing over the infamous puppynaper Cruella De Vil ("If she doesn't scare you, no evil one will") of "101 Dalmatians" fame.

The chain-smoking, whippet-thin harpy with the whiskey-soaked voice and skunk-striped, black-and-white hair has become something of a cult figure since "Dalmatians" was first released 30 years ago.

And Betty Lou Gerson, the grandmotherly Alabama native who created the voice of Cruella, is amazed that Cruella has taken on a life of her own.

"I got the general idea she was a kind of a cult figure when years ago I went to my manicurist," she recalls. "Her niece had an English boyfriend, and when he heard I was there, he came over to meet Cruella."

Gerson, who also narrated Disney's "Cinderella" and played an old crone in "Mary Poppins," arrived at Cruella's distinct tones by exaggerating her own voice. "The character has a real sweep to it, and I gave my own voice that sweep."

Of course, Gerson admits, everyone thought she was spoofing flamboyant actress Tallulah Bankhead.

"Well, I didn't intentionally imitate her," Gerson explains. "I was raised in Birmingham, Ala., and Tallulah was from Jasper (Ala.). We both had phony English accents on top of our Southern accents and a great deal of flair. So our voices came out that way."

Gerson began her career in radio nearly 60 years ago. "It was a new medium then," she says. "I didn't get to do much theater because I was so successful in radio. It's a dreadful thing, though--success where you can't do anything else."

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