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Gracie Lantz Dies; Invented Woody Woodpecker

March 19, 1992|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gracie Lantz, who conceived of the irreverent woodpecker "Woody" on her honeymoon with her animator husband and a decade later became the voice of the mocking bird, has died.

A spokeswoman for MCA Universal, which manages the Woody Woodpecker cartoons and properties, said she had died Tuesday of spinal cancer at age 88 at St. Joseph's Hospital in Burbank. Her husband, Walter, and two brothers survive her.

A vaudevillian and stage actress, Grace Stafford came to Los Angeles in the late 1920s with the Henry Duffy acting troupe, the repertory company for the El Capitan Theatre. She made a few films and married cowboy star Tom Keene. They divorced in 1940 and she married Lantz shortly after.

While they were on their honeymoon at June Lake in the High Sierra, a woodpecker on the roof of their cottage disturbed the tranquil environment. But what Lantz viewed as a nuisance his bride found a source of inspiration. She suggested that the defiant bird be added to Lantz's growing list of cartoon animals, which he had been accumulating since he was in his 20s and animating comic strip characters for short films.

Over the years, several actors became the bird's raucous voice--which was patterned on the short croaking noise a woodpecker makes in flight--with its contemptuous "Henh-Henh-Henh-HENNNH-Henh" laugh. The best known was Mel Blanc. But after Blanc signed an exclusive contract to do the voices of Bugs Bunny and other Warner Bros. cartoon characters in the late 1940s, Lantz began auditioning new talent. His wife, who had been in vaudeville with her father and acted in such New York productions as "Abie's Irish Rose," asked to be considered but her husband refused.

She secretly made a recording and placed it among the audition tapes of seven other applicants, all men. Lantz, who didn't recognize her voice, made her a consensus choice.

"Woody wasn't cute until I took over," she told the Washington Post in 1981, shortly before the Lantzes attended a White House gala.

Over the next 40 years and about 200 cartoons, she put the irreverent words in Woody's mouth, most recently for a Southern California Gas Co. recycling spot aimed at the public schools. At one time in the 1950s, the Woody Woodpecker cartoon show was the top-ranked daytime TV program and over the years the bird became a pitchman for a variety of breads, cereals, toys, kazoos, dolls and even telephones bearing his likeness.

Many of the cartoons were dubbed in the Lantzes' home studio in the Trousdale Estates, which Lantz designed after their Bel-Air house was destroyed by fire.

When the Lantzes appeared together--at schools, on talk shows or to receive awards--Mrs. Lantz, of course, would be asked to do the Woody Woodpecker laugh. She would oblige and her husband would shake his head: "No dignity," he would say to no one in particular. "She used to be very proper."

Among Mrs. Lantz's favorite charities was the Braille Institute. Contributions in her name are asked to be sent to 741 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, 90029.

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