Husband to wife, entering White House for gala dinner:
"Now, Gracie, promise me this one thing: When you shake the president's hand, promise me you won't do your Woody Woodpecker laugh."
Gracie Lantz is 78 and her husband, Walter, is 81, and they invented Woody Woodpecker on their honeymoon 40 years ago. Sometimes she bursts out with that incredible raucous, maniacal cackle, arguably the world's most famous laugh, in restaurants, "but not very loud," she confides in her pleasant, low voice.
"Oh, give us a loud one," says Walter Lantz. "There's nobody here."
She glances around the sedate Four Seasons palm court. "Henh-Henh-Henh-HENNNH-Henh!" she crows. Loud. Then covers her mouth and stares around appalled. The other diners go on talking as though they couldn't possibly have heard what they just heard.
"Woody has sort of taken over my personality," she says. "I'm a New Englander, you know." It is, at that, rather a long way from Ed Boyle and Daughter, the vaudeville act she shared with her blind father.
Lantz shakes his head. "No dignity," he says. "I just don't know. She used to be very proper."
Now, there's a marriage. The pioneering film cartoonist -- one of the great names in animation -- originally had Mel Blanc do the Brooklyn-edged voice of his new woodpecker character, an ugly creature with buck teeth, but then Blanc went over to Bugs Bunny, exclusive. For reasons lost to history Grace Lantz wanted desperately to do the Woody voice. Her husband absolutely refused even to let her audition. So she cut a record in another studio and put it in with the seven male applicants. She was the unanimous choice.
"Woody wasn't cute till I took over," she says, and her husband draws the old woodpecker and the revised standard version on a menu. She's right.
"There actually was a woodpecker. He kept banging on the roof of our cabin in the Sierras. He made Walter just furious."
The forest ranger said nothing could be done about the woodpecker. So Walter immortalized him. Woody is a pileated, or crested, woodpecker, by the way. Gracie Lantz's white hair is slightly pileated too.
Lantz was a 16-year-old office boy at Hearst's New York American when he got the chance to help make animated cartoons of the famous Hearst comic characters, Happy Hooligan, Krazy Kat, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff and others. He worked in a studio at 127th Street under Gregory La Cava, later a noted film director.
"We'd project Charlie Chaplin movies on the wall and trace the body movements," he says.
Then Hearst closed the shop in 1922. This didn't stop Lantz, already supporting his two brothers and his invalid father, who had emigrated from Italy on a cattleboat and had run a locomotive in a Scranton, Pa., coal mine. Walter's mother died at 28 giving birth to his brother Michael. (That would be Michael Lantz, the distinguished sculptor.) Anyway, Walter went independent and produced his own character, the Munchausenish Col. Heeza Liar.
"I did combination live-and-animation. I shot film of myself, blew up the frame negatives to 8 by 10, inked the character onto them. I did 105 of those movies. I used a lot of child stars. Anita Louise at age 9." He says it quietly, with a gentle smile. This happened, you understand, 20 years before Walt Disney made a big thing out of having Mickey Mouse shake hands with Leopold Stokowski.
1926. Sound came in and the bottom dropped out of silent cartoons. Lantz drove his Locomobile to Hollywood, met Frank Capra, who got him a job drawing cooties for Mack Sennett. It was a World War I comedy, and the cooties were supposed to march across the battlefield. Lantz did about 45 drawings of six-legged black blobs in one afternoon, but Capra told him to wait three weeks before turning them in, or Sennett wouldn't be impressed.
"I learned broad gags with Sennett. I didn't even know the word before. Then I went to Universal and did Oswald Rabbit for Carl Laemmle."
Disney had been drawing the rabbit for years, but one day he told Laemmle he had an idea for a new character, a mouse. "Who wants another mouse?" Laemmle grumbled. "We got too many mice already." So Disney quit and worked on his mouse by himself. Meanwhile, Lantz was turning out 26 Oswalds a year with a staff of 125. He drew the first Technicolor cartoon, a segment for "King of Jazz" for which Paul Whiteman supplied a kid singer named Crosby. In 1928 Universal dropped its cartoon department, so Lantz went independent again.
"I had $14,000 and needed another $14,000, but I had a terrible time getting it. Even Harold Lloyd a millionaire many times over said two-reeler comedies were the thing, not cartoons. Of course, cartoons killed the two-reelers. He would have made another fortune with me."
There were several characters, including Andy Panda and Chilly Willy, but Woody was the one with star quality. Brash and bumptious, unawed by an astoundingly hostile world, he fulfilled the secret, violent wishes of a million ids. Today, ungrayed at 40, Woody Woodpecker struts and caws in 80 countries, dubbed into a dozen languages. Only the laugh is never dubbed. He has 120 domestic and 68 foreign TV shows, and the comic books are inescapable. Lantz stopped making new films in 1976, because each six-minute cartoon took 7,000 drawings and costs were running over $50,000, but he still has 200 that haven't been on television yet. He owns everything he's done since '37.
"Kids who were raised on these cheap, limited-animation TV shows where only the jaw moves, or the arm or the eyes -- they've never seen anything like a fully animated cartoon. It knocks them over. They don't learn to draw anymore, I think," he adds wistfully. "I learned to draw by copying the comics."
Yes, that, and also by commuting to the Art Students League in New York every night and coming home to New Rochelle to work in a garage and take care of his little brothers. At 15.
He paints in oils now. He did a striking picture of Mount Rushmore with Woody as one of the heads. It sold for $12,000. He did a Norman Rockwell-style self-portrait, the painter working before a mirror, with Woody as the painter. It sold for $29,500. He did a Mona Lisa . . . Yes. (Lantz makes the sign of the cross. Da Vinci never saw that much money in his life.) And an edition of 10,000 collectors' plates which oversold instantly. He wears Woody Woodpecker gold cuff links that Grace had made for him. In 1969 the Lantzes visited all the naval hospitals in the Pacific theater, flying 30,000 miles, drawing thousands of Woody faces, emitting thousands of Woody laughs. They still make hospital tours.
Then there was the Museum of Modern Art retrospective, the film festivals from L.A. to Zagreb, the special Oscar in 1979. Next year the biography of Walter Lantz, by Woody Woodpecker, will come out.
"It's been fun," he says. "It's a fun life."
His 54-year-old contract with Universal, the longest-running in show biz history, winds up in 1982.
He already has signed for five more years.