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Pioneer in TV animation is a one-woman chorus

May 09, 2003|Michael Mallory | Special to The Times

Interviewing voice actress Lucille Bliss is like talking with an entire cast. The veteran performer, best known as the voice of Smurfette in 1980s 'toon phenomenon "The Smurfs," slips from one persona to another so completely that one can actually witness the inhabitants of her stories -- among them, a bored studio receptionist, a crooked taxi driver and the naive teenage Lucille, who took her first stab at Hollywood in the late 1940s.

"I see all my characters," she says. "Even if I'm doing a commercial of a woman mopping a floor, I see the woman in the kitchen."

Bliss' five-decade career will be the focus of a luncheon and salon Saturday held by the L.A. chapter of Women in Animation. It's part of a series of conversations with women who have spent their careers in the male-dominated animation trenches.

Like many animation actors, Bliss began her career in radio as a youth. Her entree into animation came in 1948 with Disney's "Cinderella" (released in 1950), for which she was cast by Walt himself.

Bliss entered the record books as the voice of the original "Crusader Rabbit," the first cartoon show made for television, which was test marketed in 1949. She also paid her dues in live television through a program of her own creation, "The Happy Birthday to You Show," broadcast from her then-home base of San Francisco (where she still maintains an apartment, to which she regularly commutes).

As star of the show, Bliss shared the stage with kids and enough wild animals to fill a zoo, including a bear (in heat), a penguin who bit her finger during a live commercial, and the circus lion "Fearless Fagan," who, having been improperly fed, demolished a birthday cake made of hamburger on camera.

"The children had been taken away, so [the audience] saw the set with the little empty chairs and meat all over, and you know the phone calls we got!" she says, laughing. "One woman called [in tears]: 'Did they eat my little boy?' "

She faced an even fiercer opponent in 1957. A producer who had acquired the rights to "Crusader Rabbit" planned to do a new series -- nonunion. Having founded the San Francisco SAG chapter some years earlier, Bliss was not about to take that job but never dreamed that the man would retaliate by threatening to make trouble for the then-fledgling Hanna-Barbera studio, which had offered Bliss the role of Ruff in its first TV series, "Ruff and Ready."

She says that when Bill Hanna withdrew the offer, he promised to make it up to her. He did, although it wasn't until 1980. "Joe Barbera said: 'Honey, you're doing Smurfette for us. We made it up

While she is still a fixture in animation -- she can currently be heard as Miss Bitters in Nickelodeon's "Invader Zim" -- some of Bliss' most challenging parts now are in video games: a PlayStation version of "Battle- star Galactica" and LucasArts' "Star Wars: Bounty Hunter."

Although approaching the subject of age coyly (as voice actresses who still perform youthful characters tend to do), Bliss is forceful when she declares: "I'll never retire from acting. I have the passion."

What's more, she says it in her own voice.

*

Women in Animation, Los Angeles

Who: Event honors Lucille Bliss

Where: Smoke House restaurant, 4420 Lakeside Drive, Burbank

When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday

Contact: (310) 535-3838

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