Thurl Ravenscroft

by Sheila Hagen, staff writer

“We're now entering Splash Mountain, where every day is one of those 'Zip–A–Dee–Do–Dah' days. If you look real hard, you might just find your laughin' place.” — Disneyland Railroad narration spiel.

The rumbling, velvety voice uttering these words belonged to Thurl Ravenscroft, who passed away on Sunday, May 22, 2005 at the age of 91. So many attractions at Disneyland were graced with his voiceovers that it's easy to believe he is still with us. From the booming singing bust in the Haunted Mansion graveyard to Fritz the talking parrot in the Enchanted Tiki Room, Ravenscroft has left an indelible stamp on Disneyland and on our memories.

Ravenscroft was born in 1914 in Norfolk, Nebraska, a small city about 100 miles northwest of Omaha. After finishing high school, he moved to California in 1933 to study interior design and set design at the Otis Art Institute. Active in a local church choir, he officially started his professional career when the choir director suggested Ravenscroft go to an audition at Paramount Pictures.

After that, Ravenscroft found steady work as a studio singer; so much so that he dropped out of school, thinking he could always go back if the studio work didn't pan out. He never did, and a lifetime of performing as a singer, actor and voiceover talent was in full swing.

“Hey Henry, what's holding ya up? Let's get on with the show! We can't hang around here all day.”
—Thurl Ravenscroft as Buff the Buffalo from The Country Bear Jamboree

Ravenscroft often appeared on radio shows, and sang back–up for Bing Crosby on The Kraft Music Hall as part of the Paul Taylor Choristers. Along with fellow choristers Bill Day and Max Smith, they formed their own group, a quartet called The Metropolitans, which was later renamed to The Sportsmen.

World War II intervened, and Ravenscroft enlisted in the Air Transport Command, serving as a navigator in the North Atlantic. While in the service, he met his future wife, June, with whom he shared his life with for the next 53 years.

When the war ended, Ravenscroft returned, intending to rejoin his old singing group—but his replacement, Gurney Bell, didn't want to step aside for him. The group was now a regular on The Jack Benny Program, with Bell threatening to sue Benny if Bell was replaced. Benny wound up firing the group until the legal wrangling was resolved. Despite the settling of differences, however, The Sportsmen were never rehired. Max Smith and Ravenscroft went on to form the now–famous Mellomen, who went on to perform in every facet of entertainment: Film, radio, television, commercials and whatever back–up gigs they could book.

When the crypt doors creak and the tombstones quake…
— Thurl Ravenscroft (as lead singer) and the Mellomen in The Haunted Mansion

The Mellomen worked with many of the big stars during the 1950s and '60s, including Frank Sinata, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Elvis Presley, in addition to working on films and television projects for Walt Disney.

Ravenscroft lent his talents to many Disney television shows and films, including:

  • “The Nifty Nineties” (1941) – Uncredited singer in this short about Mickey courting Minnie in the Gay Nineties
  • “Springtime for Pluto” (1944) – Uncredited singer in this short where Pluto celebrates spring
  • Alice in Wonderland (1951) – Sings as a card painter as one of The Mellomen
  • “Trick or Treat” (1952) – Uncredited singer as one of The Mellomen in this short where Donald Duck plays a trick on his nephews
  • Peter Pan (1953) – Uncredited chorus singer
  • “Toot Whistle Plunk & Boom” (1953) – Uncredited singer as one of The Mellomen in this short about a crash course on musical instruments
  • “Pigs is Pigs” (1954) – Uncredited singer in this short where a package of guinea pigs arrive at a station
  • Lady and the Tramp (1955) – voice of Al the Alligator
  • “The Story of Anyburg U.S.A.” (1957) – voice of Cyrus P. Sliderule
  • Sleeping Beauty (1959) – Uncredited singer
  • Paul Bunyan (1958) – Voice of Paul Bunyan
  • “Noah's Ark” (1959) – Uncredited voice of Noah's sons Shem, Ham, and Japeth
  • One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) – Voice of the captain
  • “Donald and the Wheel” (1961) – Voice of the Spirit of Progress and Senior
  • Zorro (1957), the TV series version where he sang the theme song
  • The Sword in the Stone (1963) – Uncredited voice of the knight at the tournament
  • Mary Poppins (1964) – Uncredited voice of the pig
  • The Jungle Book (1967) – The singing voice of George Sanders/Shere Khan
  • The Aristocats (1970) – Voice of the Russian cat
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) – Uncredited singer
  • The Brave Little Toaster (1987) – Voice of Kirby the vacuum cleaner

Mein goodness, you're all shtaring at us! Ve better start the show rrrrolling.
—Thurl Ravenscroft as Fritz the German parrot in the Enchanted Tiki Room

Ravenscroft's voice could be heard (and is still heard on some of these attractions today) on many of Disneyland's attractions, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion (the “broken” singing bust), the Enchanted Tiki Room (Fritz the German parrot), the Country Bear Jamboree (Buff the Buffalo), portions of the Disneyland Railroad narration, Adventure through Inner Space, and the Submarine Voyage. He was also the announcer for many of the ceremonies and events on Disneyland's opening day in 1955.

But even with so many Disney credits to his name, his most notable role would probably be as the voice of Tony the Tiger for Kellogg's Frosted Flakes, for which he associated with for almost 50 years, with his last assignment as Tony the Tiger occurring only a few months before his death.

“They're grrrrreeeat!” Thurl Ravenscroft as the voice of Tony the Tiger. Photo courtesy of AP.

In 1966, Ravenscroft was tapped by Chuck Jones to work on How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was a success and the two went on to work on other Dr. Seuss projects such as Horton Hears a Who, The Cat in the Hat and The Lorax. Ravenscroft worked constantly throughout the years, but he did not receive onscreen credit for many of his appearances and voiceovers. Ravenscroft once remarked that since he always worked freelance without an agent, he never negotiated contractual terms that are so common today; as a result, he remains uncredited even for his famous part in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

“You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch!”
—Thurl Ravenscroft singing, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Ravenscroft was also a member of the Johnny Mann Singers, appearing on 28 albums altogether, and performed at the White House for President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Chairman Leonid Brezhnev.

In 1973, he began a 20–year association with the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts in California, where he was the narrator for their Pageant of the Masters, a series of paintings that was brought to life by real people onstage. He also appeared on the Hour of Power Christian television show, and narrated the Crystal Cathedral's annual Glory of Christmas show in Garden Grove, California.

Ravenscroft received the Winsor McCay Award from the International Animated Film Society in 2004 (the Annie Awards) in recognition of his lifetime contributions to the art of animation.

In the last 10 years, Ravenscroft began slowing down, and with the exception of occasional Tony the Tiger recordings, he generally declined offers to appear in television, film or recordings. He is survived by his two children, Ron and Nancy, and four grandchildren. His wife, June, passed away in 1999. As of the date of this article, plans for a memorial service are still pending.