Walt Disney World Chronicles: Theme Park Thurl

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the April 16, 2013 Issue #708 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.


Mellomen One of the most magical things that a Disney theme park accomplishes is to create an almost seamless experience for a visitor.The details are so correct and just right for the area that guests sometimes fail to notice them because those elements blend in so smoothly.

One of those details that is often ignored is the outstanding voice work provided in the attractions.

"Open the Fantasyland Castle in the name of the children of the world," commanded the deep bass voice of a knight on horseback in front of Disneyland's castle on the live broadcast documenting the opening of Disneyland on the ABC network on July 17,1955.

It never occurred to me to question who provided that voice for that historic Disney moment until I recently confirmed that it was done by Disney Legend Thurl Ravenscroft.

Ravenscroft, perhaps best-known for doing the growling voice of Tony the Tiger for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes ("They're Grrrreat!") for more than 50 years (beginning in 1952), had a rich and varied career as both an actor and a singer before his death at the age of 91 in May 2005.

Born in 1914, he officially began his voice acting career in 1940. He found success as a member of several different musical groups, most importantly The Mellomen, who performed on many records and radio shows. (That's The Mellomen surrounding Walt Disney in the photo at left. Ravenscroft is the tall singer, second from the left.) Ravenscroft's distinctive basso profundo voice may be best familiar as singing "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" on the popular Christmas cartoon "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."Ravenscroft was on a ton of records, radio shows, television shows, cartoons and more.

More significantly, for the purposes of this column, Thurl provided voice work for many Disney animated cartoons and Disney theme park attractions.

Ravenscroft's earliest work for Disney was singing as part of the vocal group The Sportsmen on the demo for the song "Honest John" that was cut from the final version of the animated feature Pinocchio (1940). They also sang in the Disney cartoon Nifty Nineties (1941) with Mickey Mouse in a turn of the century setting.

As part of The Mellomen quartet, Ravenscroft also sang in several Disney animated shorts, including Trick or Treat (1952), Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953), and Noah's Ark (1959). Thurl was the voice of the famous oversized lumberjack in Paul Bunyan (1958).

In the animated features, Thurl was part of the chorus in Cinderella (1950) and provided the voice for one of the singing mice in "The Work Song." He was one of the singing card painters in Alice in Wonderland (1951), was one of the singing dogs in the pound in Lady and the Tramp (1955), and was the voice of the bass-playing Russian cat in The Aristocats (1970), besides many, many more Disney animated credits.

He also performed (often as a narrator as well as a singer) on dozens of Disney records (which sometimes could not use the original talent from the film), including singing the role of Barnaby on "Babes in Toyland," Eeyore on "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day," and singing "The Headless Horseman" on "Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

He narrated albums on the Haunted Mansion, "Nikki, Wild Dog of the North," "Island at the Top of the World" and Pirates of the Carribbean.On the "Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room" album on Side Two, he acts as a guide on the Jungle Cruise attraction.

At the personal request of Walt Disney, The Mellomen recorded an album of barbershop quartet songs entitled "Meet Me Down on Main Street" that was sold at Disneyland for many years.

Thurl's first on-screen Disney appearance was for the Disneyland television show on February 16, 1955, in an episode called "Cavalcade of Songs." Part of the show is devoted to the making of Lady and the Tramp, and features The Mellomen performing as the Pound Hounds.

"One time (Walt) said, 'Thurl, I'm going to make a picture called Lady and the Tramp,' and he said that it was all dogs," recalled Ravenscroft in his last interview with pop culture historian Mark Arnold. "He said, 'In every one of these movies that I have ever seen, they have a prison sequence with four prisoners in the background singing in barbershop harmony. I want one of these sequences in Lady and the Tramp.'

"And of course it was all dogs. 'So the four prisoners are dogs and they have to howl Home Sweet Home in four-part barbershop harmony. What do you think?' And we (The Mellomen) said, 'We'll try, Walt.' We started messing around the arrangement and messing with howling it in four-part harmony for about an hour, and finally Walt says, 'Guys, it's wonderful, it sounds great, but it sounds like guys howling like dogs. It doesn't sound real. It doesn't sound like dogs howling.'

"So we said, 'Walt, why don't you go back to your office, we'll have lunch and then we'll mess around with it, and then we'll get something on tape that is right, and then we'll call you when it's time.' So, we messed around and we came up with the tape that we thought had potential of dogs howling, and we called him and had him listen to the song with the lights out. We called him down. We had four voices. We turned the lights out, played it back and Walt started to cry. And afterward he said that was exactly what he wanted. He heard it and it was wonderful."

The Mellomen sang the theme songs for Davy Crockett, Zorro and Mickey Mouse Club serials like the Hardy Boys. Those contributions would have been more than enough to earn Thurl his Disney Legend award in 1995. However, it was at the Disney theme parks that Thurl's voice has been enjoyed by thousands of guests every day for decades. Over the years some of his voice work has been replaced, but much of it still exists to be appreciated there today.

Thurl was the original on-board narrator on both the Disneyland Railroad and Walt Disney Railroad from their openings to around the year 2000 as the engine chugged its way around both Magic Kingdoms.

Thurl was the original voice of the First Mate on the Mark Twain Steamboat beginning in 1955 for nearly 45 years. Thurl was the original narrator on Disneyland's Submarine Voyage (1959-1998).

As part of The Mellomen, he can be heard in Peter Pan's Flight singing "You Can Fly" and in Alice in Wonderland singing "Painting the Roses Red." The Mellomen were also heard on the extinct Disneyland attraction Adventure Through Inner Space (1967-1986) singing the Sherman Brothers' song "Miracles to Molecules."

Thurl's voice can be heard singing on the early voyages of Disneyland's Sailing Ship Columbia beginning in 1958.

Fortunately, there are several major attractions at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World today that continue to feature the voice of Thurl Ravenscroft.

It occurred to me recently that while I have huge admiration for the voice work of Pete Renady who has done so many outstanding voices for the Magic Kingdom park at Walt Disney World from Henry the Bear (Country Bear Jamboree) to Captain Nemo (on the extinct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction) to Abraham Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents (1993-2008), that Thurl is just as strong a presence.

The Enchanted Tiki Room has undergone changes at both parks over the decades. The voice of Fritz the German parrot was performed by Thurl Ravenscroft when the attraction first opened at both parks and is still heard there today after the latest rehabs. The Mellomen, including Thurl, are part of the chorus on the song "The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room." At Disneyland, Thurl is also the voice of Tangarora, the tree of life in the pre-show waiting area.

At Walt Disney World, when the Tropical Serenade was renamed "The Enchanted Tiki Room, Under New Management," Thurl (Fritz), Wally Boag (Jose), and Fulton Burley (Michael) all came back to the studio in 1997 to reprise their roles as the parrot hosts for the new show. Ernie Newton (Pierre) had passed away and was replaced by Jerry Orbach, whose French accent as Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast (1991) had charmed audiences.

"They changed (the attraction) but they wanted to use the same cast," remembered Ravenscroft shortly before his death. "I was Fritz, the German parrot. And they called the four of us back but one of us had passed away. It was the French parrot. We got somebody else, but it was fun. Everybody in the studio came to see us perform. It was so wonderful."

Country Bear JamboreeThurl can be heard in many different locations in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. He is part of the group that sings "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirate's Life for Me." He is the voice of the drunken pirate leaning on a lamppost who is also singing along. In the trio of minstrels, Thurl is the accordion player but, drawing on his experience from Lady and the Tramp, he is also the dog who is sitting nearby "singing/howling" along with the trio.

In the Haunted Mansion, Thurl is singing the iconic "Grim Grinning Ghosts." He is one of the singing busts, the one most often mistaken for Walt Disney. He is the second bust from the left that has broken off its base. The others in the group are Chuck Schroeder, Bob Wright, Jay Myers, and Vern Rowe.

In Country Bear Jamboree (both the original Florida version and the later California version), Thurl is the voice of Buff, the buffalo head on the wall.

How many Disney park guests have loved these attractions for decades and it never occurred to them that a part of the magic came from the same deep-voiced actor?

"Walt Disney was a wonderful man. I knew Walt personally through my work there, and it was a real treat. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how it should be done. He was a charming, wonderful, warm man. I loved him," stated Ravenscroft, whose nearly 65 years worth of voice work for the Disney Company has brought joy and magic to several generations.

Thurl is truly a Disney Legend and his vocal talent provided some of those carefully crafted details that guests sometimes overlook on their visits.

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RELATED LINKS
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Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives:
http://allears.net/ae/archives.htm

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Jim KorkisABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney Historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, his skills and historical knowledge were utilized by Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of two new books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions on Amazon.com:

-- "Who's Afraid of the Song of the South"

-- "The REVISED Vault of Walt": Paperback Version / Kindle version


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.