The story of the Grrrrreeeat! Nebraska man who voiced Tony the Tiger and called the Grinch 'a mean one'

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Thurl Ravenscroft, voice of countless characters.

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard the name Thurl Ravenscroft. But there’s a significantly better chance you’ve heard his voice — many times and as many characters, in films and TV shows, commercials and popular music.

The Norfolk, Nebraska, native with the basso profundo voice struck a note that resonated for much of the 20th century.

You’re probably most familiar with his work as the voice of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes spokesman Tony the Tiger. Ravenscroft started roaring his “Grrrrreeeat!” catchphrase in the early ’50s and continued voicing the character almost until his death in 2005.

But Ravenscroft’s contributions can be heard across thousands of works.

“What made Thurl so unique was his wide-ranging talent,” said Keith Scott, an Australian voice actor in animated films who is writing a book on the history of the great American theatrical cartoon voice actors, which includes Ravenscroft. “He was gifted with an amazingly rich voice, which he was putting to use from a very early age.”

Ravenscroft did an awful lot. He was the singer of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” He voiced the pig in “Mary Poppins,” Monstro the whale in “Pinocchio,” Kirby the vacuum cleaner in “The Brave Little Toaster” and Captain the horse in “101 Dalmatians.”

His singing can be heard in “Dumbo,” “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “South Pacific,” “The Jungle Book” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

As a part of the quartets the Sportsmen and the Mellomen, he sang alongside such artists as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney. He sang in “Looney Tunes” cartoons. He sang for various attractions at Disneyland and Disney World. In fact, his likeness can be seen (and voice heard) as one of the singing busts in the “Haunted Mansion” ride. The bust is sometimes mistaken for Walt Disney, a man whom Ravenscroft knew well.

With the new “Grinch” movie in theaters and the sequel to “Mary Poppins” opening later this month, we thought it would be a good time to explore the extraordinary life and work of a Nebraska man with a peculiar name and an unforgettable voice.

* * *

The early years

Ravenscroft was born on Feb. 6, 1914, in Norfolk.

It was when he attended Norfolk High School that his voice became “The Voice.” He was the tenor lead in the school musical his junior year, and the bass lead his senior year.

“It just dropped,” Ravenscroft said of his voice in a 1983 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t go through the breaking and stuff. It just fell.”

Shortly after Ravenscroft graduated in 1932, his father encouraged him to move to Los Angeles to go to art school. While at college, Ravenscroft quickly revealed himself to be an inveterate ham. He had that voice for one thing. But also a flair for entertainment and a great sense of humor.

Before long, friends started asking him if he’d ever considered going into show business.

* * *

Show business

After auditioning as a group singer at Paramount, Ravenscroft landed all manner of musical work at the major studios. He earned $15 a day for recording sessions and an additional $40 a week singing for the Country Church of Hollywood. (Ravenscroft was a devout Christian who often sang gospel throughout his 60-something-year career.)

In the late ‘30s, he formed the Sportsmen quartet, who were featured on Jack Benny’s radio show and sang on “Looney Tunes” and “Merrie Melodies” cartoons. Ravenscroft had fully broken in to Hollywood.

Then came the war — which, in its own way, kept Ravenscroft connected to show business. He enlisted in 1942, hoping to be a pilot but learning that — at a height of 6-foot-5 — he was too tall for the fighter planes. So he served as a navigator for the Air Transport Command, flying VIPs around the globe.

According to the Elkhorn Valley Museum in Norfolk — which continues to display a Ravenscroft exhibit — he flew Bob Hope to Casablanca to perform for the troops at the Christmas show and flew Winston Churchill to Algiers to plan the Allied Invasion.

After the war, Ravenscroft became a training pilot for Trans World Airlines. Through the job, he met his wife, June Seamans. They were married three weeks after meeting and remained married until her death 53 years later.

At this point, Ravenscroft had a few career options. He could keep flying or give Hollywood another shot. He chose the latter, and he had a steady string of work the rest of his life.

When people asked him how he made a living, he said, “Well, today I sang like a mouse, I was a horse out in the barn, I was the voice of a coyote.”

 

Disney

“You can’t be in the Disney community and not run into (Ravenscroft’s work),” said J.B. Kaufman, a Wichita, Kansas, film historian with a focus on the early animated Disney movies.

Kaufman said Ravenscroft’s earliest contribution to the studio was in 1940’s “Pinocchio.” He provided the voice (or, rather, the sound effects) of Monstro the whale. And with his quartet the Sportsmen, Ravenscroft provided promotional songs for the film.

And just like that, Ravenscroft had forged a relationship with Disney that lasted through the late ’90s, when was doing the voice of Kirby the vacuum cleaner in “The Brave Little Toaster” and its sequels.

In between “Pinocchio” and “Toaster,” he performed singing and speaking roles for dozens of Disney works.

In an interview Ravenscroft did with the cartoon arts magazine Hogan’s Alley, he described being directed by Walt Disney himself for the film “The Lady and the Tramp.”

Disney wanted Ravenscroft’s quartet, The Mellomen, to sing as the four-legged prisoners in the film’s dog pound sequence. But he wanted them to really sing like dogs. They tried it out a few times in the recording studio, and Disney got them closer and closer to the forlorn howl you hear in the movie.

“He was a wonderful man,” Ravenscroft said of Disney in the interview. “He knew exactly what he wanted, and he knew how it should be done.”

 

Ravenscroft voices Captain the horse in this clip from "101 Dalmatians":

* * *

Tony the Tiger

“I’m the only man in the world that has made a career with one word: ‘Grrrrreeeat!’” Ravenscroft told The Orange County Register in 1996.

When Kellogg’s ad agency, Leo Burnett, sent Ravenscroft a sketch of Tony the Tiger and the intended catchphrase, he suggested they do something with the word “great.” Why not rumble it out with an explosive roar?: “‘Grrrrreeeat!”

For the next 50 years, he did the voice of Tony. Odds are he’s brought “out the tiger in you” at some point in your life.

Over the decades, Tony grew taller (to 6-foot-2) and bulked up quite a bit, and he remained one of the most popular and enduring product mascots of the 20th century. In 1999, the ad industry magazine Advertising Age ranked Tony No. 9 in the list of the top 10 advertising icons of the century, just behind Aunt Jemima and the Michelin Man.

“I made Tony a person,” Ravenscroft said in the Hogan’s Alley interview. “For me, Tony was real. I made him become a human being, and that affected the animation and everything.”

But Ravenscroft did far more ad work than Tony. He appeared in TV commercials as the Marlboro Man and sang with the Melloman in ads for Pabst Blue Ribbon. According to the LA Times, he at one point had 27 different beer accounts throughout the U.S.

In the book “Cerealizing America: The Unsweetened Story of American Breakfast Cereal,” Ravenscroft said that his voice was at times too distinct.

“When I did a commercial for another company, and it had the word ‘great’ in it, they would change it,” he said. “Because even if I said ‘great’ straight, it would be identifiable.”

* * *

The Grinch

Ravenscroft scored the most memorable music number on the 1966 TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” purely by happenstance.

He didn’t really know anything about the Dr. Seuss book nor the adaptation that Chuck Jones was directing and Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel was producing. But MGM called him into the studio to do a few hours of work.

He joined several other singers as the people of Whoville. Toward the end of the session, the music director told Ravenscroft there was a solo they’d like him to take a shot at called “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Ravenscroft describes what happened next in a documentary on the special edition DVD of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”:

“They handed me the music, and we went through it with the orchestra a couple of times and made two or three takes, and that was it.”

The lines Ravenscroft was told to sing were a bit odd. Lines like, “Your soul is an appalling dump heap overflowing with the most disgraceful assortment of deplorable rubbish imaginable, mangled up in tangled-up knots!”

But Ravenscroft nailed it. The whole session only took a few hours. “As we finished it,” Ravenscroft said, “and we’re in the control room listening to the last playbacks, Chuck and Ted turned to each other and said, “Well, that takes care of this.’”

Ravenscroft had another job to run off to, and he didn’t do much more thinking about “The Grinch” until the TV special and the song became holiday classics.

And his name was nowhere to be found in the credits.

He was mistakenly left out of them, with only Boris Karloff being credited, as the narrator and the voice of the Grinch. When news got back to Geisel that Ravenscroft had been forgotten, he called Ravenscroft and apologized profusely.

“And then,” Ravenscroft said in the DVD documentary, “to show you what kind of a wonderful man he was, (Geisel) wrote a letter to many columnists and said, ‘Please print this.’ And it was the story of this guy who sang the song about the mean old Grinch. Which was darn nice.”

 * * *

Essential (and essentially unknown)

Ravenscroft: “It was hard to know if anything, any one particular thing, increased my career or not. I know Tony being around, of course, so long, everybody knew me and knew my voice. And of course the Grinch helped again. But to put any one thing, saying this did something for my career, I couldn’t tell ya.”

As Ravenscroft’s career flourished, he began wondering whether he should change his name to something simple — like, say, Ted Raven. But ultimately he stuck with Thurl Ravenscroft.

Though it wasn’t the unique moniker that kept Ravenscroft from becoming famous but the nature of his work. His was the kind of God-given talent that stayed out of the spotlight. These days, much vocal work in animated films is fronted with famous actors. But it wasn't always that way.

“Thurl and his fellow voice artists and session singers actually loved and preferred the anonymous lifestyle that Hollywood afforded them,” said the voice-actor-turned-author Scott, who had a letter correspondence with Ravenscroft late in the legend’s life. “It meant they could work constantly on a wide variety of ‘in-and-out’ recording sessions, with none of the burdens of fame. No photo shoots, no interviews, none of the constant stress of keeping your name in the limelight to a fickle public.”

Ravenscroft was a product of an era, Scott said, “when talent, professionalism and a courteous demeanor virtually guaranteed success, as long as the artist kept exercising and growing the innate gifts with which they were blessed.”

Now thanks to the Internet, he said, “a new generation is slowly coming to know and appreciate these people who remained essentially unknown during their own lifetimes.”

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