Doug Thompson: “YEP, LOOKS LIKE SOMEBODY SURE CUT THROUGH THAT FENCE ALRIGHT.”

Doug Thompson headshotStan Freberg passed away on Tuesday, April 7th, 2015 in Santa Monica, California.  He was 88.  Despite his incredible success in the recording world (albeit in the 1950’s), radio, television and advertising (Freberg is in the Advertising Hall of Fame after all), somehow, Stan wasn’t hip enough for the TMZ generation.  They’d rather report on yet another lame Kardashian/Jenner photo op, so Stan’s passing didn’t even merit a mention on their popular website or TV show, although his obituary did make the New York Times.

stan

That, is as it should be, since Madison Avenue, the heart of American advertising in the 1960’s is in New York City and Stan Freberg turned American advertising on its ear.  In fact, that same New York Times once called Freberg “The Che Guevara of advertising.”

The NPR Obit on Stan “Che” Freberg

And for those of you in the TMZ generation reading this, in his day (and his day lasted several decades), Stan Freberg was the hippest of the hip.

Anybody who grew up listening to the radio and watching television in the late 1950’s and early 60’s (which includes your humble scribe), certainly knew Stan Freberg.

He was a freakin’ comedy genius.  But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.

Pasadena 1926

Stan Freberg was a native Californian, born on August 7, 1926 and raised in Pasadena.  In  distance, Pasadena isn’t that far from Hollywood, but in terms Pasadena old moneyof show business, it was light years apart.  Pasadena is OLD money, don’t ya know?  Hollywood is fake money, but there’s plenty of it.  In 1970, I lived in the heart of Hollywood, a few blocks from Sunset & Vine the first time I went to work there.  Every day, I’d walk to work and every day, I’d walk past the Aquarius Theatre on Sunset where the play “Hair” was being performed.  Directly across the street was the studio where Lawrence Welk taped his weekly TV show.

Aquarius Theatre

…and directly across the street….

$_35Welk at the Paladium

Talk about a generation gap.

Freberg had wanted to be in show business since he was a kid.  His father was a Baptist minister, so that career path didn’t really seem to be in the cards for the young dreamer.  But his uncle helped change all that.  During WWII, CBS 1940Raymond Conner was an all night security guard at CBS in Hollywood and during his rounds of the offices and studios, Uncle Ray would occasionally find a radio script such as the Jack Benny Program in the wastebasket. He’d bring them home and give them to young Stan, who spent hours in the family garage acting out all the parts in front of his pet guinea pigs and white rabbits. A few years later in high school, Stan wrote and directed a Freberg-produced school variety show. Naturally, Stan played all the parts.  Freberg has said that hearing laughter from the audience for the first time, hooked him forever.

Hollywood wouldn’t have long to wait for its newest star.

In high school, Stan had won three California State Championship trophies for debate and speech and upon graduation, was offered two University scholarships, one being Stanford. But this was the summer of ‘44 (wait, wasn’t that a movie?), and Fall was months away, so young Stanley decided to take a shot at Hollywood, then he’d go to University. Freberg literally got off the bus from Pasadena in the centre of Hollywood, landed an agent his first day and within a matter of a few more days, had obtained his Screen Actors Guild card and was creating voices for Warner Bros. cartoons, children’s albums for Alan Livingston at Capitol Records (“The Grasshopper and The Ant”), Walter Lantz Studios (“Woody Woodpecker), Paramount, MGM and Walt Disney.

clampettOne of the animators at Warner Bros. was Bob Clampett, who left in 1949 and created a local Los Angeles TV series called “Time For Beany”.  The live action puppet show eventually went national and aired until 1954.  “Time For Beany” is not to be confused with the animated TV series for ABC Television called “Beany and Cecil”, which aired from 1962 until 1969 even though only 26 episodes were produced (although Bob Clampett created both shows, Freberg was not involved with “Beany and Cecil”).

“Time For Beany” was hilarious and like later animated series like “Rocky & Bullwinkle”, the comedy wasn’t just aimed at kids.  In an excerpt from Freberg’s 1988 autobiography, “It Only Hurts When I Laugh”, Stan recalls stan cec and johnthat “One day the show received a letter from a nuclear physicist at the California Institute of technology, who told us of a meeting at which Dr. Albert Einstein was present.  As the time approached for our ‘children’s show’, Einstein pulled out a gold pocket watch, studied it for a minute and stood up.  ‘You vill haf to excuse me, gentlemen’, he said, shuffling towards the door, ‘It’s time for Beany’.”  It’s kinda cool knowing that Albert Einstein was watching the same TV show that I was.  Einstein, of course was the ‘theory of relativity’ genius.  I have no theory about my relatives at all.

einstein

“Time For Beany” was where Freberg first worked with fellow puppeteer and legendary voice actor Daws Butler.

It wouldn’t be the last.

Daws

Daws was a regular on Freberg’s summer radio series for CBS (filling in for “The Jack Benny Program” no less) and was featured on several Freberg’s parodies for Capitol Records, including “St. George & The Dragonet” (a spoof on Jack Webb’s popular 1950’s police TV series “Dragnet”), “The Honey Earthers” (a spoof on Jackie Gleason’s hugely successful series “The Honeymooners”)  and Freberg’s 1961 groundbreaking recording, “Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America”.  Daws Butler went on to greater fame as the voice of Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, Baba Looey, Snagglepuss, Hokey Wolf, Super Snooper, Wally Gator, Elroy (“The Jetsons”), Barney Rubble (“The Flintstones”) and so many more for Hanna-Barbara.  For commercials, Daws was the voice of Cap’n Crunch and Snap (of Snap, Crackle, Pop fame) for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies.

In my family room, I have an animation cell of Huckleberry Hound sitting at a microphone in a recording studio.  Near the bottom is the inscription “For Daws” and signed by Scott Shaw.  I bought it at an animation gallery in Santa Monica in late 1988 and the moment I saw it, I knew I had to have it.  I asked the owner of the store about the cell and he said that it hung in Daws’ office at his home for many years and after he died (in May of ’88), the family sold most of his animation art to this gallery.

It’s still one of my most prized possessions.

Click here for tons of great Daws Butler recodings, books, etc….    

Jack BennyBy this time, Stan Freberg was building an excellent reputation for his voice work.  Stan wound up being hired by CBS Radio for various shows and one day, he was given a line in Jack Benny’s weekly radio program.  Stan’s carer almost ended right there.  From his autobiography, Stan recalls that awkward moment.  “[It was] a dream come true.  At the dress rehearsal I saw that my small part was coming up fast.  In order to bo be at the mike on time, I leapt out of my chair on stage and hurried towards the other side of the star’s diamond shaped mike.  Too late, I realized that I had stepped on [Jack’s] punch line. 

‘Young man!’ Benny bellowed.  ‘What’s your name?’

The studio became deadly still.  Mary Livingston, Rochester, Dennis Day and Phil Harris’s entire orchestra stared at me.  I swallowed hard.  ‘Stan Freberg, Mr. Benny.’ ‘Well, let me tell you something Stan Freberg.  Don’t you ever dare walk on my punch line again.’  He said it with that great Benny inflection, but believe me, nobody was laughing.  My mouth seemed to be full of cotton balls.

JACK AND DAWS and Stan“I…have the next line after your punch line Mr. Benny’, I stammered. ‘I wanted to be sure I got to the microphone on time.’

Benny glared at me over his reading glasses.  In that pedantic delivery he was famous for, he laid it out for me with precise enunciation.  ‘Welll, leave LATER…and walk FASTER.” 

I never again walked, moved or breathed on anyone’s punch line.”  

Stan served a two year hitch in the U.S. Army, then for a short while, after an honorable discharge, he drove a delivery truck for the Dainty Didy Service, a baby diaper laundry, all while continuing to create voices for cartoons, including the 1957 Warner Bros. classic, “Three Little Bops”, Stan’s only on-screen credit.

For a year, Stan joined a travelling comedy band called Red Fox and His Musical Hounds (no, not THAT Redd Foxx).  After that, he signed a contract with Capitol Records based on a sketch he’d created while with Red Fox (no, not THAT Redd Foxx).  It was Freberg’s soap opera parody, “John and Marsha”, which are the only two words spoken on the record, although they’re read with different emotions each time.  Naturally, Freberg voiced both John and Marsha.  Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson suggested recording a syrupy underscore and the song became a huge hit in 1951.

John and Marsha” was banned on Boston radio stations.

That was followed by Freberg’s 1952 take off on Johnny Ray’s sobbing hit of the day, “Cry”.

Stan called his parody “Try” and during the record session, he was able to wring every ounce of emotion in his body.  Initially, Johnny Ray was furious with what he thought was an insult, but after being informed by his record company, Columbia, that Freberg’s parody was actually helping his own record sales and radio airplay of his song, Johnny quickly quieted down.

Try” was another hit for Capitol and as Stan wrote in his autobiography, “Everyone but the legal department seemed happy to have me on the label.”      

Stan also recorded barbed parodies on Ed Sullivan (“Most of The Town”, a spoof on Sullivan’s original title for his CBS TV variety show, “Toast of The Town”) and Arthur Godfrey (“That’s Right Arthur”), a huge radio star of the day.  Godfrey had a homey, folksy delivery, but was, apparently, a task master as a boss.  Capitol’s legal department insisted on approval from both Sullivan and Godfrey before releasing anything and dispatched copies of the recordings.  Capitol quickly received letters from both of their lawyers saying “NO! NO! NO!”

Those masters remained locked away in Capitol Records vault until the Stan Freberg 4 CD + VHS video box set, “Tip Of The Freberg” was released by Rhino Records in 1999.

Capitol continued to release Freberg parodies throughout the 1950’s and early ‘60’s, including “The Yellow Rose of Texas” where the snare drummer tries to take over the song.  That one got to # 16 on Billboard Magazine’s singles chart in 1955.

The Yellow Rose of Texas

Stan’s 1956 parody of “Heartbreak Hotel” (“There’s too much echo on my voice”) apparently had Elvis in stitches.

Elvis Freberg – Heartbreak Hotel

1957’s “Banana Boat (Day-O)”, a take off on the Harry Belafonte hit from that same year, had actor Peter Leeds as the bongo player, tell singer Freberg that his “Day-O” was “too piercing, man, too piercing”.  Eventually, the bongo player convinces Freberg to move away from him every few bars until he finally asks him to leave the room entirely.  Freberg sings it from behind the studio door, but crashes through the window for the big finish.  “Banana Boat (Day-O)” climbed to # 25 on the singles chart.

The Banana Boat Song

Green Chri$tmas” in 1958 was a stinging indictment of the over-commercialization of Christmas.

1960’s “The Old Payola Roll Blues” was Stan’s satiric take off on the payola scandals in radio which had resulted in a Congressional Committee investigation in Washington.  While that one barely made the singles chart (it limped into # 99), it did receive a lot of airplay, ironically, on radio.

The Old Payola Roll Blues

And speaking of radio, CBS Radio came calling in 1957, asking Stan to replace “The Jack Benny Program” on Sunday evenings at 7 o’clock as Benny had decided to leave radio for the new medium of television.  Stan had problems with the network brass from day one.  They constantly asked for changes, plus the CBS censors, Freberg felt, were sanitizing his comedic talents.  In protest, Stan wrote a sketch called “Elderly Man River”, wherein a (fictional) censor (played by old, er I mean elderly pal Daws Butler) constantly interrupts Stan’s singing of the old standard “Old Man River” with an annoying buzzer and forces him to change many of the so-called ‘sensitive’ words and phrases.  In the song, the contraction ‘don’t’ becomes ‘doesn’t’, ‘tators’ becomes ‘potatoes’ to the point where the word ‘cotton’ becomes ‘cotting’ and ‘forgotten’ becomes ‘forgotting’.  This sketch was far, far ahead of its time, in fact, several decades before ‘political correctness’ came into vogue.

Freberg parodied the popular cowboy western theme with a sketch he titled “Bang Gunleigh: U.S. Marshall Field” (from which came the title of this blog).

CBS had a problem selling the program to advertisers because in his contract, Freberg had the right to veto sponsors he didn’t approve of, including tobacco companies such as Lucky Strike that had sponsored Jack Benny.

Stan CBSDespite glowing reviews of “The Stan Freberg Show”, such as the New York Daily News columnist Kay Gardella, who wrote under the headline “RADIO’S TIRED BLOOD REVITALIZED BY DR. FREBERG“, “[Freberg] is the man responsible for bringing radio back to life” and the New York Times radio and TV critic Jack Gould, who wrote “The impudent gentleman of the recording world unveiled a new half hour that showed there is still life in the sound medium…”,  CBS cancelled the show after only 15 weeks.

Every Single One of The Stan Freberg Radio Shows.

All 15 Stan Freberg Radio Shows

Oh my gosh, will you look at the time, and I haven’t even gotten to his most famous recording, “Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America” or his incredibly (in)famous advertising career.

Stan_Freberg_Presents_the_United_States_of_America_Volume_One_The_Early_Years

For that, you’re going to have to…as the old, er I mean, elderly radio announcer would say, cupping his hand to his ear…”STAY TUNED!”

=DT=

Doug’s column appears here every 4th Monday.

Contact us at: dbawis@rogers.com.

dbawis_buttonDoug Thompson has spent his entire adult life in broadcasting, both in Canada and the U.S. 
He’s won a shitload of awards for his creative efforts, over 150 at present count.  He’s interviewed, as well as 
worked with major celebrities on various radio and television projects, including Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, 
Randy Bachman, David Foster, Wolfman Jack, Bob Ezrin  and John Candy.  Doug was Creative Director for 
Telemedia Network Radio in Toronto for 13 years.  He’s also worked with ABC and NBC Radio networks in the U.S.  

His first television series, “Hi Fi Salutes”, for Canada’s Hi Fi Channel, won a Platinum Award at the World Television 
Festival in Houston, Texas.  He wrote and produced 28 episodes of “Hi Fi Salutes”.  Doug also wrote and produced 
“Pressed In Canada”, a one hour television documentary on the early Canadian independent record company scene.

He continues to do work for Sirius/XM, NFL Canada as well as other companies.  Doug’s also a Professor of 
Communications at Seneca College@York in Toronto.

Currently, he has no plans to sit in a rocking chair in his backyard and grow old gracefully.

One Response to “Doug Thompson: “YEP, LOOKS LIKE SOMEBODY SURE CUT THROUGH THAT FENCE ALRIGHT.””

  1. […] about Freberg, I learned again that much.  A fascinating character in advertising, radio and TV.  Click here.  And here.  Trust me.  It’s good stuff.  And we are less for not having Freberg around […]

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