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Remembering Stan Freberg

Stan Freberg and Ray BradburStan Freberg was one of my heroes; he died on Tuesday at the
age of 88. If you don’t know his name, you should, and if you do a search
online you may find yourself an instant fan. (example: this TV spot for
Sunsweet Prunes) When I was a kid, committing his comedy records to memory and
eagerly awaiting his latest commercials, I never dreamed that I would meet him,
let alone call him a friend someday. I can’t overstate the influence he had on
me during my adolescence; he helped shape my sense of humor and permanently planted
his ideas, catchphrases, and voices into my consciousness. Say the name “Ben
Franklin” and I think of that founding father uttering the words “life, liberty
and the purfuit of happineff” from the album Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America. At odd moments his
parody of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat (Day-O)” (“too piercing, man…”) or his
bow to radio censorship, “Elderly Man River,” pop into my head. (“You’re
welcome, I’m sure.”)

Stan Freberg holding Looney Tunes Pete Puma

It’s heartening to know that I’m not alone. When some
friends of Stan’s mounted a tribute to him last November at the Egyptian
Theatre in Hollywood, notables ranging from Steven Spielberg to Weird Al
Yankovic sang his praises. Everyone spoke from the heart and few could resist
quoting their favorite Freberg lines.

I first met Stan when I got to interview him about his
autobiography It Only Hurts When I Laugh,
for Entertainment Tonight in 1988. When
he told me he was about to embark on a book promotion tour, I asked if he’d
ever done anything like that before. He said he hadn’t and I took the liberty
of offering some advice, based on my experiences: always have something to eat
with you for plane rides at inconvenient hours, take Vitamin C on a regular
basis, etc. Two weeks later he called me from out of town to thank me and declared,
“A book tour is the literary equivalent of the Bataan death march!”

Sometime later my wife Alice dubbed him an honorary Jew,
which delighted him no end, as many people mistakenly thought he was part of
our Tribe. In fact, he was the son of a Baptist minister. Our daughter Jessie
soon became a Freberg fan as well, sputtering with laughter while listening to
“Sh-boom” or “The Great Pretender.”

Imagine, then, what it felt like to have him as a guest in
our home. Our friends were amazed—even overwhelmed—to meet him. One night our
party turned into an impromptu musicale. I worked up my courage and asked if
he’d be willing  to sing “Take an Indian
to Lunch,” from his United States
album. He said yes without hesitation but asked who might accompany him on the
piano. I said I would, if he could
perform in the key of C. He did, and needless to say, he brought down the
house.

Stan Freberg Comedy Album

As a lifelong fan, I thought I knew all there was to know about
Stan as a radio, television, and recording artist, but it turns out he had more
to do with movies—especially animated cartoons—than I realized when I was
young. Because Mel Blanc was the only performer to receive credit on Warner
Bros. cartoons, I never knew that Stan contributed a number of voices to Looney
Tunes over the years, including Bertie of Hubie and Bertie, one of the Goofy
Gophers, Pete Puma, and that unforgettable lunkhead Junyer Bear in Chuck Jones’
Three Bears cartoons (What’s Brewin’,
Bruin?, A Bear for Punishment
, et al.). That alone would earn him a place
in the pop culture hall of fame. He finally got the credit he deserved on Friz
Freleng’s Three Little Bops in 1957.
He also provided the voice of the beaver in Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp and George Pal’s Yawning Man in tom thumb. He was even featured on-camera
in a 1953 Republic feature called Geraldine,
singing some of his parodies including the Johnny Ray send-up “Try.” He not
only appeared in It’s a Mad Mad Mad World
but created the TV commercials for Stanley Kramer’s mega-comedy.

I’m not sure the generations that followed the Baby Boomers
recognized Stan and his genius as we did. This may have wounded his ego in
recent years, but his admirers never lost sight of who he was or what he meant to
us. His humor has worn well and his voice work speaks for itself—pun intended.
He was one of a kind.

His loss hits me hard, because he lives inside my head, and
always has. I’ll never forget him, nor will I forget the kindness he showed me
and my family. Freberg forever!

24 comments

  1. Kevin S.Butler says:

    I was lucky enough to meet Mr.Freberg..when he appeared at The Sons’ Convention in Southern,Cal. last summer.He was a kindly and sweet gentleman..He told about his career and later..he signed autographs..While he was signing my program..I told him that I remembered his doing the voice of"The Yawning Man’..one of The George Pal Puppets in"Tom Thumb"..He was surprised that I remembered his doing that voice over and he did some of that song for me. He was a truly talented,creative and sweet person..He will be missed..Len.

  2. Peter says:

    The commercial I remember most from childhood was for Jeno’s pizza rolls, using The William Tell Overture. Very wacky!

  3. Dennis Reer says:

    Len, you got it spot on as usual. Thank you for saying what so many of us think. He was special and one of a kind. DR

  4. Mac says:

    Praise of this order from Mr. Maltin is high praise indeed. I worked for a guy in retail who would break into "Take An Indian" on the sales floor every Thanksgiving time.All three of my kids knew the lyrics as well:2-4-6-8.Who do we appreciate? Indians! Indians! Indians! Rah!Rah! Rah! Me,I’m forever in wonder how they got those eight great tomatoes in that iddy,biddy can. You know who. And if you don’t-it’s Contadina.

  5. Todd Dunne says:

    Leonard, excellent piece on a man whose talents everyone should have the opportunity to discover.

  6. Dan Dippery says:

    I echo your comment that Stan "shaped your sense of humor." And I too, feasted on everything from John & Marsha to Lawrence Welk’s Bubble Machine drifting out to sea.
    I ended up doing cartoon voices–again thanks to Stan’s influence–and had the rare and unforgettable privilege of voicing one of two BIC ball-point pens with him. I have never laughed as hard in my life as I did in that session. Thank you, Stan.

  7. Jeff Nettleton says:

    Some of us, in the generations that followed the Boomers, loved Stan Freberg, thanks to fans like Dr Demento. I heard Freberg, as a kid, as a voracious lover of Warner Bros. cartoons; but, was introduced to Freberg’s comedy albums via the Dr Demento radio show, in college. I also discovered that I had seen some of his commercials, without knowing who had created them. The more I knew, the more I loved, particularly after reading his wonderful memoir. Just a brilliant, funny man.

  8. Andy Klein says:

    Gack! Obviously omit "History of" from the post above.

  9. Andy Klein says:

    I’d guess that at least a third of the first dozen albums I ever bought with my own money (if saved allowance counts) were Freberg. I hadn’t checked my remaining vinyl in a few years, but I just did and it only took two minutes to find four Freberg albums (my original copies, I’m pretty sure) — Child’s Garden, Original Cast, United States of America, and the 2-disc Best of the Stan Freberg Show — a little water damage on the covers but otherwise apparently okay. Like the rest of you above, he was a major figure in my upbringing. I’m not sure I can still sing all the songs from History of US of A, but I can come close. In fact, I think I’ll try.

  10. Stephen Lodge says:

    I’m old enough to remember Stan when he did voices for "Time for Beany", a local Los Angeles TV children’s show, telecast by KTLA.

  11. Maggie Munro ("Santa Barbara on Celluloid") says:

    I still have a lot of LPs, and his "…Presents the United States of America" is one of my favorites.

  12. John says:

    Great tribute Leonard! Right along side Mad Magazine Stan Freberg was one of the very few things that made my difficult teen years bearable. I still crack up thinking of "Day-O", "The Great Pretender", that Lawrence Welk satire…and so many others. An entertainment giant who will definitely be missed by all, in particular those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. RIP Stan Freberg.

  13. Brett Canavan says:

    I grew up loving Stan’s work, but much of it anonymous until I read blogs like yours and Mark Evanier’s plus "Of Mice and Magic". My first exposure to the magic of Freberg was "Beany and Cecil". I’ve expressed condolences to Mark for the loss of his friend, I add condolences to you and other Frebergers who will miss this treasured performer.

  14. Eric Jamborsky says:

    Somewhere I still have a 78 RPM record of Stan Freberg’s, "I’ve Got You Under My Skin" with "That’s My Boy" on the flip side. At around age 5 that was my introduction to the brilliant madness of Stan Freberg.

  15. Norm says:

    I suppose Stan Freebergs gifts lay in his creativeness and his understanding of comedy. Don’t forgrt the pizza roles…While Stan will be missed we still have his works to bring a smile to our faces and warmth to the heart…It was great living in the same era…just don’t forget the pizza rolls…

  16. JLewis says:

    Ooooh… I hate to post three comments here all at once. Unfortunately, I am unable to edit my above posts. Once I press "comment", I am doomed. I saw a date listed for her online that took me by surprise, but it could be a mistake. There is a part of me who would like to see her make her centennial in the next two years, just as Olivia de Havilland is hoping to make it in another year.

    Back to Freberg…

    He, June, Daws Butler and Mel Blanc… (and we should also include Paul Frees, William Conrad, Hans Conried, Alan Reed and the many voices we radio fans liked in SUSPENSE and ESCAPE in the ’40s and ’50s before they became the voices of Disneyland and Saturday Morning TV) are so much a part of that golden era when you just needed a distinctive enough voice to span multiple medias (radio, TV commercials, animated cartoons, records) and stand out as distinctive as any VISIBLE movie star like Bogart or Hepburn. There are so many voices we hear today, but not one that stands out as so defining. The problem is that we live in an internet and cable TV era where there are too many voices competing on too many "medias".

  17. Steve says:

    As a tween, I used to play disc jockey in the fifties at my house. Stan Freberg’s albums were some of my favorites to play. A great talent who will be missed.

  18. JLewis says:

    Wait a minute! I take that back. That may be a false rumor. I am hopeful she is still alive, now in her nineties. Yet I googled her recently and saw a date listed and was completely shocked. Oh boy… I hope we do not have two back to back columns here.

  19. JLewis says:

    I only just heard of June Foray’s passing…

    They always said April was the cruel month.

  20. Lee says:

    That was one man who did some great work.

  21. Rinaldo says:

    I’ll chime in similarly. As someone born just post-WWII, I grew up at just the right time to become addicted to his humor. Looking back, I’m delighted to recall that our (very comprehensive and rigorous) general music class in 7th grade included playings of his "Banana Boat" and "Great Pretender" parodies as part of our musical education.

  22. Nat Segaloff says:

    Wish I’d crashed your musicale! You know, Leonard, it’s getting to the point where, in the absence of your TV Movies book, you can publish a book of personalized obits every year. We are losing so many great talents — and look what’s coming up to replace them.

  23. Michael Scott says:

    I’d forgotten how much I loved his work when I was a teenager, especially the USA album. And I never knew about all of his cartoon voices and advertising work. Your personal account was so important.

  24. mike schlesinger says:

    There are millions of us who could have written this almost word-for-word–but not nearly as well. Thank you.

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