I love that Clarence Nash (1904-1985) was born on Pearl Harbor Day, for 80 years ago he starred in one of the greatest World War Two allied propaganda cartoons, Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942). (Yes, yes, I know, different enemies, but the same Axis.)
Nash was an Oklahoma farm boy who learned to play the mandolin and developed a repertoire of humorous animal sounds, which he brought on the vaudeville, Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits in the 1920s. His specialty was bird calls, but he also did things like goats and bullfrogs, and an impression of a frightened little girl singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. For a time he worked for the Adohr Milk Company (“Rhoda”, the founder’s wife’s name, spelled backwards) as “Whistling Clarence, the Adohr Bird Man”, where he went around on promotional tours in a miniature horse drawn milk wagon, doing bird calls. And he performed on a radio show called The Merrymakers, where he had the opportunity to demonstrate his wide variety of animal calls and voices.
In 1931 he auditioned for Walt Disney, and lo, lightning struck for both men. Disney was especially impressed by the novelty of what we now think of as the Donald Duck voice, made by squishing air through the inside of one cheek. I know how its done because I and many schoolfriends worked up impressions of it in the schoolyard in the first grade. Four decades earlier, that sound wasn’t just novel, it was unprecedented. As far as anyone knows, Nash invented this way of making noises, in the art of performance at any rate. The first Donald Duck cartoon was The Wise Little Hen (1934) and the character proved so popular, Donald became Disney’s second biggest star after Mickey Mouse and Nash wound up playing the character for a half century. They even briefly tried to replicate the success of the Mickey Mouse Club right down to an equivalent hat, though Mickey and the mouse ears had nothing to worry about:
Nash also played sundry other characters in Disney shorts and features — very often portraying purring cats and tweeting birds, as well as bullfrogs, hippos and the like. And of course Donald’s nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Occasionally there were side gigs like doing the duck voice on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and a ventriloquism act with a Donald Duck puppet.
The most amusing aspect of the character to me has always been — well, it isn’t precisely a duck, is it? He’s not quacking, and if you heard a duck make that sound you would be most alarmed indeed. He’s not just a duck, he’s Donald Duck, a sui generis if ever there was one.
For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.