Ludwig Von Drake's Taleby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Ludwig Von Drake is Donald Duck's eccentric uncle from the European side of the family. Great care was made not to identify him as German (especially since World War II was just a decade or so in the past and strong feelings still remained) despite his distinctive accent but rather as an Austrian from Vienna.
Ludwig claimed that he had "98 degrees" in different disciplines, but was socially awkward and appeared forgetful at times. Ludwig proudly proclaimed he was—and was known to be—an inventor of odd devices.
His exact relationship to Donald was never clearly established although apparently in the comic books he was sometimes considered Scrooge's brother-in-law and sometimes Grandma Duck's cousin. In the television episode, The Hunting Instinct, Von Drake claims he is the brother of Donald Duck's father.
He made his first appearance on September 24, 1961 on the new NBC television show Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color episode titled "An Adventure in Color." As an expert on everything, he was to explain the superiority of RCA's color television sets.
RCA was the parent company of NBC and was in competition with other color systems at the time, so the company needed something to give it a higher visibility in the marketplace. The Disney television show succeeded in doing that and initial publicity at the colorful NBC peacock showcased with Ludwig.
For the first few years of the new series, Ludwig was the animated host for several segments, usually featuring a compilation of previously released Disney theatrical cartoons. His voice replaced the narration on the pre-existing cartoons. His greeting at the beginning of many of the television programs was usually, "Hello, 'dere!" He sometimes interacted with a live Walt Disney, who would then turn the show over to Ludwig.
Disney Legend Floyd Norman, who worked on the character when he was introduced, shared with me the following information:
"I don't remember the exact date, but it was not long after the completion of the Walt Disney feature film, 101 Dalmatians (1961). Story master, Bill Peet had a good deal of work completed on the upcoming feature, The Sword in the Stone (1963), but we were not quite ready to begin animation. Conveniently, a good deal of television work needed to be done and that would tide us over until the feature was ready to begin production.
"After a long and successful run on ABC, Walt Disney decided to move his weekly television show to a new network. Color television was the hottest new thing and it appeared that NBC and its parent company, RCA was about to take the lead in this new technology. Clearly, the network needed a big new show to introduce color to the viewing public and Walt Disney was the obvious choice.
"The Old Maestro would re-brand his show as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. Before long, we had a script up on the boards in the upstairs story room where in black-and-white, Walt Disney would introduce the new show and the importance of color in his theatrical films. A tour of the Ink and Paint department would lead to a transition to full color.
"Walt Disney would then introduce us to a new expert on color. After all, who better to explain the intricacies of color than 'the renown expert on practically everything,' Professor Ludwig Von Drake.
"Story man Bill Berg first created the wacky professor while developing the storyline for the television show. Berg's rough, cartoony sketches would be handed down to the master character designer and animator, Milt Kahl who would lead the animation on the zany professor and establish the final design.
"Von Drake would be given a voice by the celebrated voice actor, Paul Frees. Frees was a Disney veteran who had done voices for darn near everything Disney including films and theme park attractions.
"In many ways, it was my first introduction to Milt Kahl, the directing animator I would assist on the next Disney feature film, The Sword in the Stone (1963). This television job was the perfect way to ease in to my time with the obstreperous master animator. Working with Milt Kahl was a delight and sketching Professor Von Drake was one of the most fun jobs I've had at Disney Animation.
"Professor Ludwig Von Drake was initially considered a 'one shot,' but the zany character proved to be so popular he was brought back again and again as show host and resident expert on practically everything. I continued to work on the wacky character over time including a brief stint as Ward Kimball's assistant on the character.
"When Walt Disney removed Ward Kimball from directing the live-action feature Babes in Toyland, Ward was sent to work on Ludwig Von Drake as punishment. Ward had been a producer and director and now he was demoted back into animation.
"He had lost none of his skill with a pencil and in fact, would do a day's worth of work of animation in half a day and spend the rest of the time taking a nap. I guess that was his way of showing his defiance. I think he liked doing the character but didn't like being 'dressed down' especially over something he felt was a misunderstanding that he had nothing to do with."
What inspired Ludwig Von Drake?
Walt Disney did not want to use one of his prominent characters like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck in limited animation done with a Xerox line rather than the full traditional animation process used on his theatrical output. He felt it would cheapen the character.
However, it was too expensive to use that traditional process, so a new, never-before-seen character was created for a one time appearance to explain color television and so could be used in the less expensive format. He became the first Disney animated character specifically made for television and its animation restrictions.
Comedian Sid Caesar played a buffoonish and pompous Viennese (although people assumed he was German) professor character in a battered, squished top hat and rumpled frock coat who spouted authoritative nonsense on his 1950s television shows. Usually, the character was interviewed by Carl Reiner.
Although inspired by the dialect comedians of vaudeville, the character owed a great deal to America's recent fascination with German scientists who had been brought over to aid in the U.S. rocket program after World War II because of their supposedly superior knowledge.
Caesar's professor character who was a self-proclaimed expert in a variety of areas was given different names in the comedy sketches, including Ludwig von Spacebrain, Ludwig von Fossil and Ludwig von Henpecked, but was generally just referred to as "the Professor." He was an expert on everything from fishing to mountain climbing to sleeping to space travel and self defense.
So it was natural to name the Disney character "Ludwig" and use the name "drake" since it meant a male duck. The "von" probably came from the well-known Wernher Von Braun just as it had for Caesar's character.
Two prominent German outer space experts, Wernher Von Braun and Heinz Haber, had been technical consultants on the space-related programs produced for the Disney weekly television show and were frequent visitors at the Disney Studio with their thick German-accented English.
Reportedly, the flamboyance of Von Braun and the seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Haber were major inspirations for the Ludwig Von Drake character.
Haber was even one of the writers on Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land (1959) as well as hosting Our Friend the Atom (1957) for Disney.
"Von Braun had an imagination and a sense of humor," animator and director Ward Kimball told me when I interviewed him. "That was the secret of von Braun: tremendous imagination to see things that other people couldn't visualize… he [also] knew when to ease the tension with a gag."
Veteran performer Paul Frees provided the voice for the character, but was given wide latitude to ad-lib and improvise dialog that was later included in the final film to help create a high energy and the same sense of spontaneous "kooky" non-stop chatter as the Sid Caesar character. After many years doing radio and television work, as well as being known for his expertise in mimicry, Frees had a comic German accent as part of his extensive repertoire which he utilized.
After Frees retired from the role, the character was briefly voiced by Walker Edmiston. As writer Mark Evanier remembered, "being an ethical person, he only agreed to take it on after talking to Paul and getting his blessing."
Since 1987, the character has been voiced by Corey Burton.
In the past, Disney would generally introduce an audience to a new animated character in a theatrical film or short. Ludwig von Drake had no "origin story" or introduction like Gus Goose, Donald's nephews, or even Uncle Scrooge (who physically bore some superficial similarites including the glasses).
Ludwig simply appeared with the unstated understanding that he had always been around and had had previous interactions with Donald Duck and others but that an audience had just never seen those encounters.
However, to help establish a familiarity with the character for the audience, several merchandising venues were leveraged to showcase him.
In the Donald Duck Sunday comic strip for September 24, 1961, Donald shows his girlfriend Daisy a portrait of his Uncle Ludwig. Both the daily and Sunday Donald Duck strips were written by Bob Karp and drawn by Al Taliaferro. This is the same day that Ludwig first appeared on the Sunday night television show.
Ludwig himself appears in the daily strip on September 25 where he is introduced to Daisy and kisses her hand and then complains that her hand lotion is filled with carbolic acid and chicken fat. A sheepish Donald explains, "He has a degree in chemistry, y’know."
Ludwig continued to appear periodically in the Donald Duck strips in September through December of 1961, sometimes as the sole character but often interacting with Donald or his nephews. He was featured prominently in the daily strips in 1962 and 1963, as well.
Dell comic books often introduced new characters or series in its Four Color line first to measure reader reaction but Ludwig was immediately given his own comic book that ran for four issues beginning with a December 1961 dated issue (although that meant it was on the newsstands weeks earlier) to May 1962. The artwork for all the stories was pencilled by Tony Strobl.
Throughout 1962, Ludwig made other comic book story appearances including Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Album, The Wonderful World of Ducks, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, and Walt Disney’s Christmas Parade.
All of the Ludwig von Drake comic book stories were reprinted in Disney’s foreign comic book line. The character was so popular that many of these foreign countries, especially Italy, created original stories featuring Ludwig, as well.
As far as other collectables, Disneykins, miniature hand-painted plastic Disney character figures manufactured by the Marx Toy Company from 1961 to 1973, were noted for their wide variety of 160 characters and the unique packaging formats that usually had a background stage for the character. There was only one Ludwig Von Drake Disneykin pose with the Professor standing, looking to his right and holding a long pointer in his right hand. That figure had many different color variations, including his vest being blue, yellow or pink.
The figure was released in a series of twelve boxes referring his expertise in a particular subject he would pontificate on at the drop of hat or his role as a television host: The Astronomer, The Psychiatrist, The Ichtyologist, The Professor Misses, The Nearsighted Professor, The Friend, The TV Debut, The Schoolmaster, The Archaelogist, In the Dark, The Hunter and In the Office. The back of each box had a story relating to the title and to help explain the scene.
To help promote both the launch of the new weekly Disney television series and sales of RCA’s color television, viewers were invited to go to an RCA TV dealership to experience the new television sets. As a promotional gift, people received a unique Disneykins set packaged in a red cardboard box with a cellophane TV screen–shaped window, showing five Disneykins and the lettering "Courtesy of your RCA Victor dealer".
The 4-by-3-inch box box featured Professor Ludwig Von Drake in the center, surrounded by Disneykins figures of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto. Inside, on the yellow cardboard insert was a graphic of Nipper, the famous RCA Victor dog, as well as the RCA logo and the tagline: "RCA: The most trusted name in electronics".
A rarer second version of the RCA Disneykins Giveaway was also produced the following year, featuring the Pinocchio characters. It has Ludwig Von Drake in the center surrounded by Disneykins Gepetto, Jiminy Cricket, the Blue Fairy, and Figaro. It was meant to promote the 1962 theatrical re-release of the Disney animated feature Pinocchio.
Ludwig appeared on dolls, pencil cases, tin toy wind up, twistable figure, Little Golden Book (with artwork by Hawley Pratt & Herbert Stott), coloring books, lunch box, board games, squeaking bill hat, and more.
The Gund Manufacturing Company produced a talking plush Ludwig von Drake doll in 1961 with an accompanying booklet with songs and stories. Attached to the back of the doll was a speaker cord and amplifier unit and the doll had a built-in speaker. This was designed to connect to an RCA Victor tape cartridge recorder unit that was sold separately. The pre-recorded tape cartridge featured the voice of Professor Ludwig Von Drake (Paul Frees) singing songs and telling stories like Little Wet Riding Hood, Jack and The Cornstalk, Aladdin and the Eenie Weenie Genie, and Sleeping Beauty.
A special Disneyland LP record was released in 1961 titled Walt Disney Presents Ludwig von Drake. It was a mixture of commentary and singing by Paul Frees as Von Drake allowing the performer plenty of leeway to include comical muttered asides.
The Sherman Brothers songs on the LP include: "I'm Ludwig Von Drake, "The Spectrum Song," "The Green With Envy Blues," and "It Gets You."
The only theatrical cartoon release with Von Drake was A Symposium on Popular Songs (December 19, 1962) directed by Bill Justice where the Professor discusses and demonstrates popular music through the decades 1900-1960. The cartoon was nominated for an Academy Award. The music was written by the Sherman Brothers parodying the various song styles of each era.
Most Disney fans know of Ludwig from his appearances on the Wonderful World of Color television show that includes the following:
- An Adventure In Color (September 24, 1961). Introduction of the character in a half-hour segment where he explains color and in particular, color television. The other half hour was filled with the Donald Duck featurette Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land.
- The Hunting Instinct (October 22, 1961). Introduces Herman the Bootle Beetle as Von Drake's best friend so he has someone to talk to when he is expounding his theories while using clips from previously released Disney cartoons.
- Inside Donald Duck (November 5, 1961) Von Drake attempts to get to the root of Donald's problems using clips from previously released Disney cartoons.
- Kids is Kids (December 10, 1961) Von Drake shows his expertise on child psychology using Donald's three nephews as examples with clips from previously released Disney cartoons.
- Carnival Time (March 4, 1962) Von Drake looks at carnivals in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans with the help of correspondents Donald Duck and Jose Carioca incorporated with live-action footage.
- Von Drake in Spain (April 8, 1962) Von Drake talks about the customs of Spain, including the distinctive dancing utilizing live action footage.
- Man is His Own Worst Enemy (October 21, 1962) Von Drake explains the biggest challenge facing people are themselves using examples from previously released Disney cartoons.
- Three Tall Tales (January 6, 1963) Von Drake and his sidekick Herman show Disney cartoons Casey Bats Again, Paul Bunyan and The Saga of Windwagon Smith.
- A Square Peg in a Round Hole (March 3, 1963) Von Drake founds the Research Institute For Human Behavior to study human's psychological makeup using examples from previously released Disney cartoons.
- Fly With Von Drake (October 13, 1963) Von Drake explains the history of human flight using footage from Disney's previous films including Victory Through Airpower, Man in Flight and Man in Space.
- The Truth About Mother Goose (November 17, 1963) The 1957 television episode is reformatted so that Von Drake is now the narrator about the stories behind Mother Goose nursery rhymes. In the episode, Von Drake claims that Mother Goose is his grandmother. The second half of the episode features the third version of the 1947 cartoon featurette Mickey and the Beanstalk. The first version had Edgar Bergen as the narrator and a 1955 version substituted Sterling Holloway as the unseen narrator. For this version, Von Drake takes on the role of narrator and this version includes new introductory animation as well as the ending with Willie the Giant interrupting Von Drake. Herman replaces Bergen's ventriloquist dummy, Charlie McCarthy.
- In Shape with Von Drake (March 22, 1964) Von Drake expounds on sports and fitness utilizing previously released Disney Goofy cartoons.
- Mediterranean Cruise (January 19, 1964) "Travel Agent" Von Drake looks at several countries that border the Mediterranean Sea using live-action scenes from the Disney People and Places travelogue series.
- Music for Everybody (Janaury 30, 1966) Von Drake lectures on the importance of music in people's lives using musical sequences from previously released Disney cartoons including The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.
Von Drake made appearances on several episodes of the Disney animated television series. He was Launchpad McQuack's psychiatrist on the original DuckTales. He was also a psychiatrist on Bonkers. In Raw Toonage, Ludwig was an expert on toon physics.
In QuackPack, Von Drake lived in a laboratory in Duckburg but also ran a pizza delivery service to pay for his experiments.
Mickey Mouse Works had special segments titled "Von Drake's House of Genius" where his inventions always backfired, as well as Ludwig appearing in several of the regular cartoons. Von Drake was more of the nutty professor in Disney's House of Mouse series and was featured in several episodes.
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse had Ludwig as the creator of the clubhouse and the various helpful accessories, like Toodles and the Mousekadoer, that make life easier for Mickey and his friends.
Ludwig also appears in a few cartoons of the new Mickey Mouse Disney Channel cartoon series, Mickey and the Roadster Racers, which has the professor living in Hot Dog Hills with a laboratory beneath Mickey Mouse's garage. Ludwig also makes a few appearances in the new DuckTales series.
In the 1970s, he appeared in a few television commercials for Gulf's No-Nox gasoline often accompanied by a clueless Goofy.
Of course, Ludwig was in a number of videogames and occasionally appears as a walk-around costumed character at the Disney theme parks that include a handful of casual references to the character. He continues to appear on merchandise, especially pins, and remains as robust as when he was first introduced.
As the song says, "Hooray for Professor Ludwig Von Drake!"