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Brett Rogers on Don Messick

Brett Rogers on Don Messick



 On October 24, 1997, the animation industry lost a treasure. Don Messick's entertainment career spanned seven decades, with forty years of voice work in animation. Messick performed in over 100 animated programs, providing voices for some of the most beloved cartoon characters on television, including Astro and Rudy on "The Jetsons," Bamm Bamm on "The Flintstones," Boo Boo and Ranger Smith on "Yogi Bear and Friends," Dr. Benton Quest and Bandit on "The Adventures of Jonny Quest," Ricochet Rabbit on "Magilla Gorilla," Papa Smurf on "The Smurfs," and his most famous role, Scooby Doo, in countless formats.


Messick's desire to entertain began in modest surroundings. Following his birth in Buffalo, New York in 1926, his family moved down the East Coast to Baltimore, where he lived in his grandmother's house and attended kindergarten. After a few years, the lingering effects of the Great Depression forced Messick to relocate along with his family to the town of Nanticoke on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where his father was employed. Messick shared with me some of his memories of that time in a 1995 conversation:


"Life in Maryland had its ups and downs. It was good for me to get out of the city and get into a country atmosphere, but I didn't like it at the time. I resented it. I thought of myself as a city boy, and I didn't like the lack of amenities. We were in a house that had no electricity. I had to do my schoolwork by lamplight. That section of the Eastern Shore-- it was back in the fields. Another house we lived in had electricity, but it didn't have indoor plumbing. I missed Baltimore."


While the youthful Messick attended elementary school and adjusted to his new surroundings, he spent much of his leisure time listening to the radio.


“I grew up being a fan of radio shows like 'Fibber McGee and Molly,' 'Jack Benny,' and later 'The Great Gildersleeve,'" Messick fondly recalled.


By the time he reached age 13, Messick was performing a ventriloquist act for audiences in rural areas of the Eastern Shore with aid of his dummy, Kentworth DeFrost. He was completely self-taught, learning to act from books and his favorite radio shows.


“Ventriloquism got me started doing different voices... I never did impersonations. I just developed my own characters, having discovered the versatility of my vocal cords."


Two years later, the 15-year-old Messick performed in front of the program manager and chief announcer at WBOC in Salisbury, the lone radio station on the Eastern Shore at that time. One week later, Messick was on the air with his own weekly show.


Messick explained, "It was a little sit-com built around my main ventriloquist puppet character and some other characters I introduced. It was a one-man show. I wrote the script and did all the voices and half of the sound effects manually… I studied books on radio writing and how to bring radio to life with sound effects [and] music."


Entertaining came naturally to Messick, who moved back to Baltimore to be trained as an actor after graduating from high school at age 16. "I never had mike fright. I was always fond of performing at the microphone and in front of a live audience, too."


Messick lived with his maternal grandparents on Linden Avenue in Bolton Hill, an area of Baltimore that was home to many German and Russian immigrants, a Mecca for intellectuals and artists. At the Ramsay Streett School of Acting, Messick performed in plays and performances in a small theater owned by his instructor. "[Streett] was a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York, so he patterned his technique of teaching after the Academy's," Messick recalled, "We did plays and performances and we'd get requests for some talent from the local radio programs."


Messick's drive to perform as a professional radio actor took a rough turn, however, when he approached Baltimore's WCAO about getting on the air with his own show.  The young student faced a voice crisis as "the manager of WCAO identified the accent which I didn't know I had."


The intonations of his Maryland accent had never been noticed among his fellow Eastern Shore residents, but radio in the big city demanded a more cultivated sound. Thankfully, the problem soon faded, along with Messick's accent.


"Going to the acting school quickly got me out of it. We didn't work on my dropping an accent, but it just happened. I can't even duplicate it now."


Tragically, just as Messick's professional radio career was beginning to take shape, his father was killed in an accident while working at the Nanticoke School. He and two other workers were taking down a flagpole when it came into contact with electric power lines, killing all three men.  According to his younger brother Tom, Don handled the death of his father, "very maturely, even philosophically.”


Shortly after, the 18-year-old Messick faced yet another life-changing event as he was drafted into the Army. He departed from Baltimore in 1944 by train, carrying his ventriloquist dummy, now named Woody DeForest, along with a tiny uniform his mother made for it.


Messick spent 20 months in the Army, where his talent for entertaining was quickly recognized. He was assigned to Special Services, where he had the opportunity to perform for troops stationed across the United States.  


"The fond memories I have of being in the Army [are of] meeting other performers and doing shows with them in the soldier's clubs. We'd go off base and do shows for local clubs like Lions or Elks, and we were paid for that. It was a nice little sideline to supplement my Army monthly stipend," Messick remembered.


World War II ended before Messick saw any overseas duty. After his discharge from Fort Lewis, Washington, he traveled to San Francisco where Monty Masters, a friend of Messick's from the Army, produced and acted in a radio show with his wife on KGO Radio. Messick worked with Masters on his show until he had readjusted to radio performing, then continued his move down the West Coast.


In Hollywood, Messick approached a theatrical agent who booked variety talent and was promptly signed up to perform a ventriloquist act. He also performed in local theater and was eventually cast as Raggedy Andy and Farmer Seedling on the "Raggedy Ann Show", broadcast on the Mutual Broadcasting radio station in Los Angeles.


While Messick was performing in Los Angeles, he made an appearance on a talent program called the Horace Height Show. He made such a good impression, he was asked to join one of Height's several groups of performers that toured across the country. Messick accepted the offer and joined the tour in the Midwest, performing his ventriloquist act for a few weeks before he decided to seek a change of pace.


Still in his early twenties, Messick returned to the East Coast, where he traveled with another ventriloquist act through small towns across upstate New York.


"That was my starving period," Messick confessed. But before poverty could drive him out of the entertainment business, Messick got a call from Bob Clampett, who was producing a live puppet show in Hollywood.


Messick recalled, "The show was 'Time for Beany', which was all over the country on television. I didn't get on the Beany show, but [Clampett] was starting up another production, so he brought me back to California."


Messick signed a six-year contract to work in live puppet shows, but programs that featured cartoons adapted from old film libraries were quickly supplanting such productions.


Rather than staff an entire puppet show, "It was cheaper for the local stations to hire one person to be the host of shows such as that," Messick explained.


When his contract expired, Messick followed the trend. "I started going to the major animation studios such as MGM and Warner Bros. to introduce myself to them, because I was under contract and unable to freelance for six years. It was like starting all over again."


It was during that time that Messick met William Hanna and Joseph Barbera at MGM. "I didn't know at that time that MGM was about to close its animation production. MGM couldn't see any future in cartoons for television. It was too expensive."



When Hanna and Barbera left MGM to start their own animation studio, they remembered Messick. In 1957, "Ruff and Reddy," their first made-for-television animated program, debuted. Messick and Daws Butler were hired to perform every voice on "Ruff and Reddy". Messick provided the voices for Ruff and Professor Gizmo, while Butler voiced Reddy.

        "They [Hanna and Barbera] asked me if I knew Daws Butler, and I said 'Yes, he's my best friend, I've known him for years,'" Messick recalled. "I first met him when he and I were in a radio acting workshop in Hollywood for ex-GIs."


Butler and Messick were very close outside of the studio. They would often go out with their wives to clubs or to dinner.


"Daws was responsible for getting me a Screen Actors Guild card. He introduced me to Tex Avery at MGM, who was the producer of the early theatrical Droopys. Bill Thompson was not available for some reason and they were in the midst of producing one of the theatrical cartoons with Droopy. Daws told Avery I did a similar type of voice to the Wallace Wimple that Bill Thompson did on the Fibber McGee show, so I was hired."


Messick continued, "In that theatrical, there was a bull out in the pasture and he was charging up to the rail where Droopy was sitting. Droopy looks at it and then turns to the camera and says, [in character] 'Y'know what? They think he's a mad bull… and he is too!'"


In 1958, "The Huckleberry Hound Show" aired, in which Messick and Butler performed as Pixie and Dixie. "Pixie was one of my generic, treble clef, high-pitched voices," Messick laughed.


Hanna and Barbera went on to conquer the realm of television cartoons, powered by their simplistic, inexpensive style of limited animation. Messick remained a crucial part of the studio's voice talent corps, providing voices for dozens of characters.


Reflecting on the time he spent with Hanna-Barbera, Messick said, "In the earlier days of limited animation, because of that process, Joe and Bill wanted to depend heavily on the voice of the character to bring it to life because the animation was so restricted. That's where Daws and I shined, I guess you might say. That's the reason that those characters developed with such realism and warmth. They have a genuine charm to them despite the limited backgrounds and so forth. The concentration [was] on the characters, their spoken personalities."


In 1969, Messick was cast in what would become his favorite role: Scooby Doo. He very was proud of his contribution to the Scooby's run of 22 years on television. As Scooby Doo was refined, Messick developed an affinity for Scooby as a character, not just another acting role.


"Everyone seems to like him," Messick said, "He's got human foibles. He gets into problems, but he always lands on his feet. It always works out for him."    


When Scrappy Doo was added to the show, Messick had the opportunity to perform two roles that frequently conversed with each other, an exercise he delighted in.


"It's been a forte of mine to be able to do so many different voices back and forth, talking to each other frequently. It all goes back to my one-man radio show in Salisbury. That's where I developed that particular ability."


Messick's career kept going strong through the 1970s and 80s, landing memorable voices such as Papa Smurf and even a live television role with a young Jim Carrey on "The Duck Factory". On that program, Messick played—what else —a cartoon voice actor named Wally Wooster. While many of his characters from years past still enjoyed popularity on television, Messick continued performing until 1996. Among his recent roles were the voice of Hamton Pig on "Tiny Toons" and an unforgettable appearance on "Freakazoid!" as Dr. Vernon Danger in a spoof of Jonny Quest.  


At the end of his career, Messick had grown from an eager young boy with a ventriloquist dummy into a respected industry favorite. He was soft-spoken and humble, quick to credit his colleagues for his success: "I've always been very grateful to people such as Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera and Daws Butler. There have been so many people I've enjoyed working for and with. I've been fortunate."


Don Messick was a remarkable actor whose dedication to his craft and to his fans will not be soon forgotten. We are fortunate in having the opportunity to enjoy the legacy he leaves behind.


    -- Brett Rogers


Parts of this text are adapted from an article of mine in Maryland Magazine’s November 2005 issue entitled, “Don Messick: An Animated Entertainer.”


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