Becoming Donald Duck: The Clarence Nash Storyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Donald Duck's 80th birthday was June 9, 2014, and there certainly wasn't a lot of hoopla about it. I believe the Disney Company released a pin. (Officially, for many years, the Disney Company maintained that Friday the 13th was Donald's birthday and, amazingly, this June there was a Friday the 13th).
I have some fond memories of growing up as a child in Glendale, California. One of them was of an elementary school assembly where this old man came out and did some bird calls and animal impressions. Then, once the educational value of the assembly had been firmly established, he brought out a ventriloquist doll.
Not just any ventriloquist doll, but Donald Duck. He began talking like Donald Duck. He was a very bad ventriloquist with his lips constantly moving, except I and my peers weren't looking at him at all. Our eyes were intently focused on the puppet as if it was Donald Duck come to three-dimensional life as it bounced around quacking away non-stop.
The performer, of course, was Clarence Nash who did the voice of Donald Duck for more than 50 years and often performed at local schools and events. When I was older, I got to meet Nash as he was tending to his front lawn of his house in Glendale. He was as funny, energetic and kind as others have portrayed him.
One of the things I remember clearly was him telling me the gag, "My parents wanted me to be a doctor but they are still proud because I grew up to be the biggest quack in the world." I later learned it was a standard gag line he would use with some variations over the decades.
There have been a lot of interesting versions about how Nash got the job doing Donald's voice but here, to the best of my research, is the true story.
Clarence Nash was born December 7, 1904, in Watonga, Oklahoma, roughly three years before it even became a state of the union. He never grew to be taller than 5-foot-2.
He was raised on a farm and for amusement started to imitate the barnyard animals. At age 10, his family moved to a town that is now part of the city of Independence, Missouri.
At school, Nash said, "It was a big thing for the kids to try to outdo one another imitating animal sounds. By the age of 12, I could do the sounds of dogs, cats, baby chicks, horses, pigs, raccoons, frogs, baby coyotes and a lot of birds."
It was as this time that he acquired his final childhood pet, a baby billy goat named "Mary." Nash had a 1918 photo of her posing with one leg in the air on a wooden box. She died several years later and was laid to rest by a tearful Nash.
"When I got the goat, it was only a couple of days old and I had to feed it with a baby bottle. When I stopped feeding it, it would cry like a frightened little girl," recalled Nash who was challenged to imitate the unique sound which he did to the delight of his schoolmates.
He also worked at trying to convert the sound into simple words.
For a school talent show when he was 13, he recited the poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb," in the voice of the goat, and received wild applause from the audience.
Eventually, Nash dropped out of school as a teen so he could tour the Midwest as a mandolin player in the Alamo Quintet and an "animal impressionist" on the Redpath Chautauqua and Lyceum circuit. His most popular encore was doing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in the voice of his billy goat. At the time, Nash felt that vaudeville would last forever, but was given a shock as it died out in the late 1920s.
Nash married his 18-year-old sweetheart, Margie Seamans, on January 25, 1930, and moved to San Francisco looking for a "normal" job, but in the beginning of the Depression that was not easy. So the couple moved to Los Angeles where Nash found work doing his animal impressions as part of the KHJ local radio show, "The Merry Makers" that led to a job with the Adohr Milk Company when they heard him perform.
To promote its brand of milk, Adohr hired Nash as "Whistling Clarence, the Adohr Bird Man." He would drive a miniature open-topped milk wagon (decorated with games, plugs for the milk and Clarence's name with painted black silhouettes of different birds underneath) pulled by a team of miniature horses. He would go to local schoolyards and assemblies to entertain children with his bird calls and animal sounds as well as giving out treats like a small tape measure with Adohr's name on it. He was attired as a standard Adohr milk man.
After two years working of Adohr, as a favor to a friend in San Francisco who missed hearing him on the radio, he did one free show on the local "The Merry Makers" radio show, unaware that it was that particular performance that Walt Disney was casually listening to at the moment.
Nash's friends had urged him to audition for the Disney Studios since they had announced they were looking for someone to provide animal sounds for their animated short cartoons. Two days after the radio broadcast, Nash found himself at the Disney Studios.
"On my way to work one day, I was driving my milk wagon down Hyperion Boulevard," Nash remembered. "I saw this big billboard picture of Mickey Mouse and it said 'Walt Disney Studios, the home of Mickey Mouse'. So I pulled over to the curb and decided to go in. I gave the receptionist a circular advertising my work with the milk company and did some bird imitations. I suggested she give it to somebody who might be interested and, two days later, I got a call from animation director Wilfred Jackson to come in and audition."
Nash was still wearing his milk man outfit because after the audition, he had to go back to work. He performed all his animal sounds, his bird calls and then began to recite "Mary Had a Little Lamb" as his big finish. Jackson stopped him for a moment. He switched on the intercom which went directly to Walt's office and then asked Nash to continue.
Within moments, Walt rushed into the Jackson's office and said excitedly, "That's our talking duck!"
Nash was smart enough not to say it was the voice of a goat. Walt was thinking of doing a cartoon with a girl duck, but it hadn't quite jelled as a story yet.
As he was leaving, Nash ran into Disney storyman Ted Osborne, who had produced the recent episode of the radio show featuring Nash and said, "Hey, Walt, heard you that night and he was going to look you up." Apparently, during a break at a late-night story meeting, Osborne had turned on the show to see how it was going and Walt heard Nash.
Nash was not hired, but put on a retainer for a year so he kept his job with the dairy. His first actual voice work for Disney was supplying bird sounds in the Mickey Mouse short The Pet Store (1933) and he kept being tossed similar little bits.
Walt's former partner, Ub Iwerks, had left to start his own animation studio and had also heard of Nash's expertise. He asked Nash to come in and audition to do a voice or voices for his new cartoon short in production, The Little Red Hen, based on the children's story of a hen looking for help to plant, harvest and grind her corn.
Nash wisely phoned to ask Walt's permission, but Walt was unavailable. Ironically, Walt also had a version of the same story, titled The Wise Little Hen, in development and was planning to have Nash do the voice of the duck.
At the time, those working at the Disney Studios thought Donald's co-star Peter Pig was going to be the big breakout star of the short. There had also been plans to include a character named Tom Turkey, but he was cut before the short went into production.
Walt called Nash back roughly a dozen times but couldn't reach him since he was out on the streets doing his job, but finally left a message for Nash not to do anything for the Iwerks cartoon.
Nash got called into a story meeting for "The Wise Little Hen" and met Disney storyman Pinto Colvig who told him, "Walt told me about your calling about your going over to Iwerks. He said, 'I like that loyalty in that guy, I'm going to put him on the payroll.'"
After the story meeting, Walt asked Nash to come to his office to talk about revising the retainer agreement so that Nash could still work for Adohr while doing voices at Disney.
As Nash told animation historian Milt Gray, "I told Walt, 'I'd rather work for just one organization, I don't want to work for two people.' 'OK, we'll start you at the first of the year.' 'Walt, if you don't mind, I'd like to come to work sooner.'"
On December 2, 1933, Nash became Disney's 125th employee. He was earning the same amount he made at Adohr: $35 a week.
Nash could not put in enough hours just doing voices to justify that full-time salary, so he often found himself temporarily in side jobs from accepting artist portfolios and processing them to being a chauffeur for visiting celebrities.
His wife's reaction to him being hired to do the voice of a duck was "That's nice but it probably won't last."
"Donald lasted a lot longer than I thought he would," said Nash. "I figured he was just like any other cartoon character who would eventually run his course. It never occurred to me he would last over 50 years."
Disney's The Wise Little Hen was released on June 9, 1934, which is now considered Donald Duck's official birth date. Iwerks' The Little Red Hen was released February 16, 1934 as part of the ComiColor series and is rarely known or seen today.
Nash was not immediately known to the public as the voice of Donald Duck. Walt always felt that the voice was just one of many elements in a character and so actively tried not to publicize any particular vocal artist. Walt felt that the lines the storyman wrote, the design of the character by the animator, and even how other animators made the character move and react were equally important in the final character.
"It was all right with me that people didn't know who I was but I was happy when they eventually did find out," Nash stated. "In the early days, Walt didn't want us voices to have any publicity. I went along with his wishes but one time my name got out in the newspapers. Walt and I had a big argument over it, but, when I left his office, I wasn't upset. Walt was a very fair man. I ended up with a raise.
"Before Walt came up with the idea, I had never even thought of being angry or laughing in that voice," he said. "But the more I learned to use it, the more it developed. Walt believed it was important for Donald to have a strong personality so he would seem alive."
Donald's voice was known as a "stunt voice" because it was not created using the familiar voice placements or combinations that most voice actors use to create a voice.
However, this did not prevent Hanna-Barbera animation studios from trying to duplicate that ducky sound both in several of the Tom and Jerry theatrical cartoons with "Little Quacker" (voiced by "Red" Coffey, the stage name of Merle Coffman) and later on their Yogi Bear television series with "Yakky Doodle" (voiced originally by Jimmy Weldon, who was a local Los Angeles area children's show host with a ventriloquist doll named Webster Webfoot who also spoke like Donald Duck).
These imitations often led to some confusion.
In 1977 when I talked with him, Clarence Nash was not happy.
"Everybody thinks Mel Blanc is Donald Duck! He's not. I'm Donald Duck," he said. "We've had some problems with people who say they're the 'original donald Duck' and we've even had some problems with them at the Disney Studios in the past. Every once in a while, we hear that I died and we get Christmas cards saying they're sorry I passed away during the year."
Donald cartoons are shown in dozens of countries and are usually dubbed rather than use subtitles. In the beginning, for foreign releases, Donald's voice was dubbed by Nash into a foreign language. The words were written out phonetically for him but generally, Donald had very little spoken dialog.
"I had to learn to quack in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Swedish and even Chinese," stated Nash. "There were, however, foreign language coaches who helped me. I listened through earphones to the English dialogue, and I'd match the length and mood of the dialogue in that other language. It was critical to get everything down pat so they never had to re-animate. It had to seem like the language came out smoothly and matched the mouth movements of Donald."
Disney Legend Carl Barks recalled at NEWCON 1976: "Donald evolved out of Ducky Nash's way of saying things in duck talk. He would quack, quack, quack and blow words out of the side of his mouth or something and that created Donald. They just wanted some character that would fit the crazy sound that Clarence Nash was making. He used to come in on the story meetings."
"We had a lot of dialogue that he had to practice," Barks said. "And it would determine, sometimes, what the dialogue would finally be, whether or not he could say the words. Of course, none of us could understand him even when he said, 'Well, I said that all right."
When I interviewed Donald Duck director Jack Hannah in 1979, he said:
"Clarence was always nice to work with. He did many little side voices, such as meowing cats or miscellaneous characters. One problem we always had was the understanding of Duck lines. He was great when he lost his temper and all of that.
"However we had to pantomime pretty well in the drawing what the Duck was thinking or doing because if you tried to get over a gag or a line of dialog with understanding, you were in trouble using that voice. One thing I'll say about Clarence Nash: he was a hard worker and I actually thought a couple of times he was going to faint on me. The blood would come to his face on these wild tantrums especially where they were prolonged.
"It was the bane of my existence to get that voice understood! It was aggravating as hell to do a picture with dialogue and not be able to understand the main character. But he did have a variety of moods and you could get over with strong poses what he was trying to tell you.
"I got some old acetates of a television show I made and I notice that Jimmie Dodd says, 'And now Donald we're going to take you around the world.' The Duck asks, 'Around the world?' Jimmie replies, 'Yes, that's right. Around the world.' We did it that way to be damn sure you could understand what was being said. Once a human said it, then you could understand the way the Duck said it. We did that in some of the cartoons, as well. If you heard the line repeated by a straight voice, it made it easier to understand the Duck.
"We always did a minus dialogue track whenever we did a cartoon so they could do foreign voices and fill them in for foreign release. Jack Cutting was in charge of the foreign department and he made sure the foreign voices were done and I never had anything to do with any of that.
"Well, not long ago, I talked with Clarence Nash on the phone. I mentioned something like, 'Well, on those foreign voices, that was one good thing. You didn't have to redo the Duck in different languages.' But Clarence was very proud of the fact that anybody could understand him doing the Duck and he replied, 'Oh, yes, I do Spanish. Listen to this.'
"And he did it in Spanish over the phone and he did a couple of other languages and to me it still sounded like the same old English you couldn't understand. But, Clarence, knowing what he was supposed to be saying, naturally thought everyone else could understand him.'"
As Walt Disney stated on the "Donald's Silver Anniversary" episode (November 1960) of the weekly Disney television show, "But of all Donald's accomplishments, we're the most proud of his efforts in spreading good will throughout the world. You might say Donald speaks a universal language. That is to say, that no one can understand what he says in any language but the whole world laughs at him."
Nash was actively involved in 1984 with the 50th birthday celebration for Donald Duck, touring the country, giving interviews and appearing at special events.
In order not to spoil the festivities, Nash did not let people know he was suffering from leukemia. In what turned out to be his final public appearance, he went back to his hometown of Watonga, Oklahoma, on December 7, 1984, where Governor George Nigh declared that day to be "Clarence Nash Day" throughout the state of Oklahoma. Watonga renamed a street Clarence Nash Boulevard in his honor.
Nash was unfortunately too ill to ride on the City of Glendale Tournament of Roses float on January 1, 1985, which was themed to Donald Duck. He died February 20, 1985 at the age of 80. Today, animator Tony Anselmo does Donald's voice, as he has done since Nash's passing.
One of my favorite episodes of the Disney weekly television show was "A Day in the Life of Donald Duck" (February 1956) where the real life Clarence Nash meets an angry animated Donald Duck in Donald's office at the Disney Studio.
Donald Duck: [handing Clarence Nash a fan letter] Read this.
Clarence Nash: [reading letter] Can't understand me?
Donald Duck: ME, you fathead!
Clarence Nash: Oh, can't understand you. Must be that fat beak of yours.
[Nash shapes his hand like a duck's beak and opens and closes it] Can't mouth the words right.
Donald Duck: Why, you pigeon brain, you just don't articulate!
Clarence Nash: Oh, yeah? Well, listen to this... [doing Donald's voice] "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers!"
Donald Duck: Phooey! Can't understand you myself!
Nash's granddaughter, Maggie, is currently finishing a biography of Nash, and I have been in contact with her over the last few years supplying some information and offering encouragement. I am sure we would all love to know more about this man who brought so much joy to everyone he met.
Besides Donald, Nash often supplied bird calls and animal sounds for Disney characters from Uncle Remus' bluebird in The Song of the South to the meows for little Figaro the kitten in a handful of short cartoons to the earliest voices for Huey, Dewey and Louie.
By the way, Nash's tombstone in the San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California, is shared with his wife (who died in 1993) and has a carving of Donald and Daisy Duck holding hands.