When Janet Waldo passed away on June 12, at the age of 96, most of the obituaries spotlighted the fact that she was the voice of Judy Jetson on the long-running Hanna-Barbera animated series The Jetsons. But that was just one facet of the actress’ long and colorful career. I interviewed her for my Movie Crazy newsletter in 2004 and thought it would be worthwhile reprinting that conversation now in tribute to this lovely lady.
As an adolescent in Seattle, Washington, Janet dreamed of performing on the Broadway stage. Instead, fate (and the fine hand of Bing Crosby) brought her to Hollywood. For many another attractive teenager this might have led to stardom, or at least starlet-dom, but she never felt comfortable in front of the camera and, as she readily admits, the studio didn’t seem to know what to do with her.
Waldo did build a rewarding career, however: she discovered radio, at a time when the major networks were operating in high gear on the West Coast and jobs were plentiful. She established herself as the preeminent teenage actress in the situation-comedy field, working on all the top shows (with everyone from Orson Welles to Frank Sinatra), starring in “Meet Corliss Archer,” and playing opposite many of the biggest stars in movies.
Like many of her colleagues, she did a fair amount of television work as radio drama faded from the scene (she and Richard Crenna, longtime friend and fellow radio juvenile, played teenagers in a memorable I Love Lucy episode of 1952 called “The Young Fans”) but this was never her forte.
Fate smiled again when she agreed to audition to play the daughter in a new Hanna-Barbera cartoon series called The Jetsons in 1962. Doing the voice of Judy Jetson has brought her a kind of immortality. It also opened up an entirely new career which kept her busy for decades, contributing voices to scores of television cartoons, including the lead role in Josie and the Pussycats and assorted other characters on The Smurfs, Wacky Races, The New Adventures of Superman, and other series right up through King of the Hill.
Waldo enjoyed another perspective on show-business as the wife of Robert E. Lee, whom she met when he and his partner Jerome Lawrence were prolific radio hyphenates—writing, directing, and producing a variety of shows ranging from Favorite Story, a dramatic anthology hosted by Ronald Colman, to The Railroad Hour, a series of condensed musicals and operettas starring Gordon MacRae. Lawrence and Lee later gained greater fame as playwrights, with such enduring successes as Auntie Mame, Inherit the Wind, and First Monday in October to their credit.
More recently, Waldo was active in California Artists’ Radio Theatre, founded by actress Peggy Webber, and played a wide variety of parts including a starring role opposite Robert Rockwell in her late husband’s two-character play “The Lost Letters of Robert E. Lee.” Listening to this poignant drama, one can hear time stand still, as the actress sounds just as girlishly endearing as she did on network radio in the 1940s. (Tapes and CDs of CART productions can be purchased at www.cartradio.com)
Janet Waldo was dismissive of her movie career, yet her experiences in Hollywood were as rich and varied as anyone’s in show business. I think her natural charm and enthusiasm comes through in this interview.
LM: When I called you today on the phone you said, “You must have worked in radio, you’re so punctual.” Was that one of the first lessons you learned?
JW: Oh, was that ever a lesson! When I first started in radio, of course, it was live, and I lived quite close to CBS. I got a call because the ingénue that was playing a role opposite Kirk Douglas on a “Silver Theatre” had panicked. She just panicked, she couldn’t go on, and they said, “Can you get here in fifteen minutes?” I had just gotten my license, and I got in my car and I sped; I was going so fast and a policeman stopped me and he said, “Young lady, you’re speeding…” and I said, “But I’m late! I’m late! It’s radio, I have to be there on time, they’re going to go on the air without me, I have to be there” and he said, “Oh–I’ll escort you.” So he blew his siren, escorted me to the studio, and I got there and did the show without having seen it at all. I can’t believe I wasn’t terribly nervous but I wasn’t. And opposite Kirk Douglas, you know… It went beautifully. In fact, Harriet Nelson heard it and she said, “That’s the way you should sound all the time,” ‘cause I did Emmy Lou on her show as a teenager. So the policeman stayed and watched the show and after we finished he said, “Gee, that was great, I really enjoyed that. I just want to thank you. And here’s your ticket.”
JW: I even I remember my husband Bob chewing out an actress who was five minutes late. He said, “You won’t work in radio if you’re late. You can’t do that.” That’s why I really can tell people who’ve worked in radio; they’re never late.
LM: Where did you grow up and how did you get started in show business?
JW: You really want to hear that? OK… I was born in Yakima Valley, Washington, and I went to a little country school in a little town called Parker. My father was a railroad man and we moved from place to place to place. My parents were very concerned because my sister was a genius at the violin, and my father used to say, “I don’t want my girls to grow up and marry some guy who’s gonna take the eggs to market. I want them to have a good education.” They had owned a ranch which they traded for a house in Seattle, Washington and my sister and I got to go to school in Seattle. Then I got very interested in drama, all phases of drama. As a little girl we’d come home from some place and they’d put the headlights of the car on and I’d perform. I was doing a play and Bing Crosby had a publicity gimmick going where he was [doing]a sort of talent hunt. His scouts saw this play and they said “We want you to enter a contest.” I was fourteen, [and] I was scared of contests. My mother and my sister said, “You’re going to do it,” and I won it! They brought me to California with my mother and Paramount put me under contract, but the problem was they did not know what to do with me. I was very young, and I was trying to compete with all of the glamour girls. To this day I know how to pose for a bathing suit picture because, you know, you stand on your toes, you don’t ever let your heels go down. They taught me a lot of things like that.
LM: So you were being groomed as a starlet at Paramount
JW: Well, [I had] what they called a stock contract.
LM: Who else was there at that time?
JW: Susan Hayward. She had been under stock contract. Let’s see, who else was there? Interestingly enough, not much has happened to any of the girls who were there with me, but they were all gorgeous. They were all models, but they couldn’t act. And I could act, because I had had really good experience in Seattle and I had done play after play after play. I was very comfortable acting and they didn’t know how to act. They used to say that I was the best actress on the lot, but they didn’t know what to do with me. They used to call me the little girl with the little boy’s figure.
LM: Did they give you bits in movies?
JW: Oh, yes, they gave me bits. I got to work with some wonderful people. I remember working with Fred MacMurray and they had me be a hat check girl. I remember I was in a little outfit, he picked up his hat and gave me a tip. And I thought, being an actress, how can I make them notice me? So I did a double take on the tip. And they made a little bit more to do because they would like me to be inventive. But I wasn’t glamorous and I wasn’t sophisticated in any sense. They used to say to my mother when she brought me down, “Be careful of the wolves,” and she didn’t know what they meant. She thought they meant a wolf at the door. My mother was more naive than I was, ’cause my parents were right out of Dickens, they were so sweet and so naive and so gentle and totally unsophisticated. A lot of people said “Were you approached, did people try anything?” Actually, a couple of them did, but (laughs) I was so dumb and so young that I didn’t know what [was going on.] One young man, you probably know him, I don’t dare mention his name, a big, big producer in the business took me in his office, locked the door and–you’ve heard “chasing around the desk?”–that’s literally what he did. I didn’t know what his problem was!. (laugh) And he was a very, very big producer. You see, I was so dumb that I didn’t know what they wanted of me and I didn’t think I could deliver it. One producer said, “I have a part for you coming up in a picture, but you have to show me that you can kiss passionately…” And I’d say, “I don’t know how to kiss passionately!” And he’d say, “Well, do you want to try it?” And I’d say, “No!” I didn’t get the part.
LM: Would you show up for work every day? Would they have things for you to do?
JW: What you did was what we called glorified atmosphere, just background stuff, and once in a while, they’d give me a little break. I was pretty fortunate but I was miserable. And that’s why I have never felt comfortable doing on-camera [work], even though I’ve done a lot of on-camera and was working on a show when I got the cartoon. But I just have felt inhibited. I remember I would get so nervous doing on-camera stuff. That’s why when I discovered radio, it was like a beautiful coming-home to me. I’d done a little theatre, never radio, but, I loved it, I felt secure and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
LM: How did it come about?
JW: Well, my option was dropped. I had an agent; actually Larry Crosby sort of took my under his wing. Bing was so sweet and wonderful to me; he’d give me a lot of little bits in his pictures, but Bing knew that I was not a happy person in front of the camera. His brother Larry would take me to his show, “Kraft Music Hall” and my mother and I would walk to the studio and they would arrange for us to sit right down front, and I just thought, “This is the most wonderful thing in the world, ’cause they had scripts, they didn’t have to worry about lines and they were so relaxed; this is so great.” As time went on, I got to work with Bing in radio and in fact, one of the shows that I got–I wanted to play the lead in it–they were auditioning for it and they auditioned ninety girls. Now, in radio days, that was a lot. But my mother and I knew the title of the script that they were doing. We knew that it was an old Alice Faye movie. My mother went down to Los Angeles with me to one of the faraway places where they showed old movies in those days, and I watched Alice Faye and I imitated her. I picked up every nuance that she had, I would take a little piece of paper with me in the theatre and write down her lines and then I would listen until I heard it in my own head. I auditioned and I got the part.
Bing was wonderful to me and very sweet. I worked with him several times [and once it was with] Charles Boyer. I have a picture of us together. Bing and Charles Boyer were standing and while we were waiting for them to take the picture, Charles Boyer said, “I’ll wear mine if you wear yours.” And Bing said, “Well, I’ll wear mine if you wear yours…” I had no idea what they were talking about…and it was their toupees.
LM: Great! So at this point did you start going out on open auditions?
JW: Oh yes, and I was more aggressive in radio; I was so laid back in films, I would hide in the ladies room, you know, rather than run into somebody that I should meet and should say hello to. In radio, I would go to the lobby of CBS and sit around with all the other actors and wait for the directors to come by and say, “Hi! I’m Janet Waldo and I’d just love to work for you!” (laughs) Then they’d say, ”Well OK, come on, I’ll give you a chance, I’ll have you audition.” But the real break came [because] my sister knew a man who was very close friends with Edward G. Robinson. The next thing I knew, Tommy Freebairn-Smith (the director) gave me a call to be on the show, not an audition. But I was confident, because I knew acting, I knew theatre and I loved radio. So, they gave me the script…
LM: This would be on Robinson’s show “Big Town”?
JW: On “Big Town.” And it was [the role of] a very emotional, very dramatic young girl. I read it and I realized later Lurene Tuttle was sitting right beside me and they were just going to let me try it. I was called for the job, but they were prepared to replace me in the event I couldn’t deal with it. I remember hearing Eddie say, “She’ll be fine. She’ll be just fine.” And he called me many, many times after that and I got to do wonderful roles in “Big Town.” It was a wonderful experience because he was so wise as an actor and as a performer. He would rehearse all day long and I learned so much from working with him. He would give direction, but he was great, he’d give you wonderful ideas. That really got me started in radio, because then I was kind of a biggie, because I’d worked on Eddie Robinson’s show. After I did “Big Town”, I started getting lots of calls and then, very early in my career I got the call to audition for “Meet Corliss Archer.” I didn’t want to do a teenager, because I always wanted to be a Broadway actress and theatre was what I really loved, next to radio. And I thought, “I want to be the world’s greatest actress,” and I thought “just a teenager,” that was too easy. So I [auditioned] and they chose me and I did it for ten years.
LM: The original show that introduced Corliss Archer, Kiss and Tell, had been a success on Broadway, right?
LM: Was the playwright F. Hugh Herbert involved in the radio show at all?
JW: Yes, he was my mentor. I just loved that man, he was so good to me. He wanted me and no matter what I did, it was perfect as far as he was concerned. He was the most sentimental and adorable man and his family; his daughters, I always felt, resented me because they wanted to play Corliss. Hugh was wonderful. He hired my husband—-who was not my husband then–to do ghost-writing of a couple of scripts. Bob never liked to admit to this (laughs); he’d be mad at me for telling. In fact, on the “Meet Corliss Archer” show he invented the fact that Dexter had an old jalopy car, and they got more gags with that car doing all the different sound effects; Bob invented that. Hugh liked Bob very much and encouraged him. He was just a wonderful man. I think he considered me like one of his daughters. I had a fan club and he let me have my whole fan club come out and have a pool party at his place; they had a beautiful home up in Bel Air, which Casey Kasem bought later. But doing Corliss was both good and bad for me; it was easy for me, I just loved doing it, but there was no challenge as far as acting.
I also did Emmy Lou on “Ozzie and Harriet.” As much as I loved Corliss, there was no teenager written as well as Emmy Lou. Sherwood Schwartz wrote most of the spots; they were little cameos, and they were always after the first act. Emmy Lou, their little girl who lived next door, would come breezing in and say, “Yoo hoo, Mr. Nelson! Hi, Mr. Nelson!” and then she’d come in and do this little bit with him and she would have an imagination that would just go crazy and then Ozzie would connect with her imagination and he would get all steamed up and then she’d say, “Well, goodbye Mr. Nelson!” and she’d go. It was just a little gem; it was just the most fun to do. In fact, Bing Crosby wanted me to do a radio show of his and he wanted me to do the squeals which I invented–well, Ozzie and I invented–on “Ozzie and Harriet.” I was very gullible and very naïve; Ozzie would tease me all the time and I never knew when he was teasing or when he was real. I said, “Bing wants me to do this Emmy Lou character in his show and we’d have to go to San Francisco to do it.” He said, “I don’t know about that, Janet… Well, if he wants you to do the squeals, he has to say ‘squeals courtesy of Ozzie Nelson’.” I believed him and I said to Bing, “Ozzie Nelson thinks that I shouldn’t do the squeals unless you can give him billing,” and Bing says, “Well, I’ll give him billing, what the heck?”
LM: Who directed the “Corliss Archer” show?
JW: Tom McAvity was the original director. Later on, his wife, Helen Mack directed it and later on, Edna Best directed it. When Edna Best directed it, it was the only time that Corliss (using accent) was just a little teeny bit British…because Betsy would say, “Janet, darling, you’re not sounding quite right in that line, now you’d better just give it a little more oomph, you know?” And I’d say, “OK!” and I was just a tinge British as Corliss, during that phase.
LM: Very funny. Was she a good director?
JW: Wonderful director. Edna Best was a very good friend and her husband, Nat Wolf, was an agent and was my husband’s agent. Her daughter, Sarah Marshall, is still very much around. She was also a very fine actress.
LM: Tell me about Helen Mack.
JW: I loved her dearly. She was a pixie. Very much of a pixie, a very cute little lady who was always playing sort of the little girl. She was always the little girl, and I should know about that, but she was a wonderful director for “Corliss,” very easy, very relaxed. A beautiful lady.
LM: Of course, I only know her as an actress in 1930s movies like The Son of Kong.
JW: She was beautiful, but she liked to direct and she had one of her first chances with “Corliss Archer.” I think she also directed “Date with Judy” on occasion. She was excellent, and she had a great sense of humor and timing.
LM: What other roles did you enjoy performing on radio?
JW: Bob, my husband, did “Favorite Story” and he really saved the day for me in radio because he cast me in all sorts of wonderful acting roles. I met Bob in the halls of CBS and he cast me as Cathy in “Wuthering Heights” with Bill Conrad, which was one of my favorite roles of all time. He cast me as Roxanne in “Cyrano De Bergerac” opposite Ronald Colman. Then later he had me do it again opposite Howard Duff. He also cast me as the Bird Woman in “Green Mansions” which is one of my favorite roles of all time; he gave me wonderful opportunities. And I’ll tell you a story: shortly after we were married, I did “Green Mansions” for him. It was three days after we had been married, and I came to rehearsal and, of course, this was very exciting for me, and he said, “Jan darling, you’re sounding a little too much like Corliss Archer.” Oooh, I was angry. I was furious. I thought, “How dare you say that to me!” and an old time actor, Norman Field, who worked in radio a lot, said, “Come here, I want to talk to you a minute. Janet, you want to keep a happy marriage?” And I said, “Oh yeah.” And he said, “When he’s your director, you’re an actor; never let your marriage or your relationship with him interfere with your job. You do your job and you don’t get personal about it.” I never forgot that lesson. And actually, it was one of the best jobs I ever did, because I didn’t sound like Corliss Archer!
LM: Was there any other downside to doing a long-running show?
JW: You could get lazy because it [became] routine. The trick in radio was to try to come up with something interesting with an uninteresting or rather dry piece of material. I remember one time with Bob Hope—-I don’t know whether it was a Bob Hope show or another show that he was on—I was supposed to be selling Girl Scout cookies. I had to give this big pitch to Bob Hope and I decided, instead of saying, “Hello Mr. Hope, I have these cookies and I hope you’ll be interested,” I did the whole thing really bored. I talked very fast, like I’d said it a thousand times, and it just went beautifully and it was a different approach. But if you get lazy and think, oh, well I’ll just read what’s here it doesn’t work. The real challenge in radio for me was working in front of an audience. Because the audience literally times things for you. I miss that now so much because you would know how to play to the audience.
[Also, in radio] you have to play it opposite each other, that’s what makes it so real. You can’t do radio if you aren’t real and if you don’t listen. Listening is the most important thing that we did in radio; we had to, because [there was so little rehearsal].
And we were all very good friends; everybody helped everybody. I remember when I first started in radio, I was very nervous and scared, and Elliott Lewis was on a show, we were doing a “Silver Theatre” or something and he just said, “You know what you do? Go and put your hand against the wall and it’ll steady you,” ’cause I was really shaky. I put my hand against the wall and he’d sort of lean up against me and say, “You can do it, you can do it, kid. You can do it.” They were just so helpful to each other and if I couldn’t do a part, I would always say I’m not free to do it, but why don’t you call so-and-so? We all did that for each other.
LM: Today there are professional cartoon voice-over performers, but in the first generation of television cartoons everybody came out of radio.
JW: I was so thrilled when I discovered cartoons because I was doing an on-camera show with Tony Franciosa and I had never done a cartoon. My agent sent me to audition for “The Jetsons” and I thought, “Oh, cartoons…” And when I started working, I knew most of them from radio: Daws Butler, Don Messick, Casey Kasem. Mel Blanc, of course, I had worked with in radio. He was a very good actor.
LM: But people don’t often realize just how good they were as actors.
JW: Daws was born teacher and if you worked on a show with him, he could hardly resist teaching. In my case, it was very gratefully received. He’d say, “Hey Janet, you don’t want to just make that an ordinary character. Give it a little something extra.” And he’d give me some ideas. He taught many of the current people in cartoons. Nancy Cartwright (who plays Bart on The Simpsons) studied with Daws and gives him full credit for her ability as a radio actress, certainly. By the way, Nancy and I did “Little Women” for Peggy Webber’s California Artists Radio Theater (CART); I played Amy and Nancy played Beth.
That’s one thing [about] cartoons: you have to have a different voice and that’s what I thought was such fun. Joe Barbera would always say, “Now that’s a good voice Janet, but can you sustain it? Can you hold it? Can you remember what you did?” And that is the real challenge, because you can come up with something on the spur of the moment—I remember I did a character, she was from “Good Cavekeeping Magazine,” her name was Hedda Rocker, and she was sort of a blustery lady. I did it and he said, “Mmm-hmm, well that’s OK, but now can you do it again?” And sometimes he would have me do it again to just be sure before he would let me have the part.
LM: Very interesting. Very canny, too.
JW: Joe was a wonderful director.
LM: Who did you most enjoy working with in radio?
JW: Bing. ‘Cause I loved Bing and he changed my life. You know, if it hadn’t been for Bing, I would never have come to Hollywood. Even though he was a very reserved and, some people think, cold man and hard to get to talk, I felt such gratitude to him.
LM: Why do you think some movie stars were so nervous when they appeared on radio?
JW: I think that movie actors were intimidated by the fact that “this is now,” and live. [When tape came in] they all relaxed a lot more and they blew [lines] like crazy. But in live radio shows, they couldn’t afford to blow; they knew that and they were feeling that their life was at stake, that they could ruin their career by being really bad. I worked with Clark Gable and he was terrified. He was trembling, his whole body was just trembling when he was doing it.. I couldn’t believe that this brilliant Rhett Butler was that scared. It just fascinated me ’cause I thought, what does he have to be scared about? He’s Rhett Butler!
I worked with Abbott and Costello and that was a time that I was mortified because I made a boo-boo. They talked so fast, you never could keep track of how fast they talked, and I was just reading; we’d had maybe one read-through and they had given so many instructions to the audience about “when we want you to laugh,” he would take his pant leg and jiggle it, you know? I was playing a very young girl who was talking to them and saying, “Oh yes, Mr. Abbott, Mr. Costello,” and there was this silence. It was my cue, but it was dead air—well, forever is ten seconds, five seconds, but I hadn’t realized they’d gotten to that place that fast. That was pretty mortifying to me.
Oh, so many stars that we worked with. And we learned from them. You know, working in radio, that was a thrill. You could work with these big stars and you could see what they did right and what they did wrong. And you could see why they were stars. Claudette Colbert was just wonderful, brilliant, a very good radio actress. She wasn’t intimidated by it at all. I played her daughter on “Secret Heart.”
LM: Did you work with Bette Davis?
JW: Yes. She was not temperamental, very nice, very businesslike. You know, it was very short, I mean, we didn’t have a lot of time together. I worked with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and Laurence Olivier said to Vivien, “Darling, that line, you’re reading it a little wrong. That line should be read this way.” And he read it and she looked at him and she said, “It’s my line, dear.”