From Ukelele Ike to Jiminy Cricket: Cliff Edwards

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

"When you wish upon a star...your dreams come true" sang little Jiminy Cricket in the animated feature Pinocchio (1940).

"When You Wish Upon a Star," written by Leigh Harline with lyrics by Ned Washington, was the first Disney song to win an Academy Award.

Unfortunately for Cliff Edwards, the original voice of Pinocchio's conscience, the dream became a nightmare.

When I meet people in person for the first time, one of the questions they usually ask is "who is your favorite Disney character?" Without hesitation, I respond that it is Walt's original black and white Mickey Mouse from the mid-1930s when he was full of mischief and adventure and quite a decent little fellow. However, I do have another favorite, and that is Jiminy Cricket, especially from his appearances on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show.

I love telling the story that when I attended Thomas Edison Elementary school in Glendale, Calif., that my third-grade teacher was Mrs. Disney, Walt's sister-in-law, married to his postman brother. One day, I took a huge piece of easel paper and drew a big picture of Jiminy Cricket and gave it to her in the hopes that she would be so impressed that she would take it to the Disney Studios in nearby Burbank—and they would hire me and I wouldn't have to learn my multiplication tables. I guess portfolio review at the time was backed up by several decades, so I was not offered a job and struggled with math—and continue to do so today.

At the time, I had no clue that Jiminy's distinctive, lively and reassuring voice was supplied by Cliff Edwards who had been entertaining audiences for decades.

Clifton Edwards was born in Hannibal, Mo., on June 14, 1895. As a child, he sold newspapers and worked in a shoe factory and then ran away from home before finishing school. Before the age of 16, he was singing in St. Louis saloons and, since many of these dives had no piano, he learned how to play the ukulele to provide his own accompaniment. (He tried to attract more tips by planting a dollar bill on his uke.) His first traveling job was working with a carnival pitchman who sold nose whistles in department stores so Edwards learned how to play the kazoo.

In Chicago, Edwards attracted the attention of Joe Frisco, a popular stuttering comedian, who hired Edwards as part of his vaudeville troupe and he eventually ended up playing the Palace Theater on Broadway. Edwards became a star performer in his own right and appeared in Ziegfeld's Midnight Follies, as well as making the rounds of the Keith-Albee circuit of more than 400 vaudeville venues around the country. Edwards adopted the stage name "Ukulele Ike" after a waiter at the Arsonia Cafe in Chicago where he was performing couldn't remember his name and kept calling him "Ike".

For a brief time, around 1922, he teamed up with Lou Clayton doing a blackface act (that while grossly inappropriate and insensitive today was common practice for entertainment at the time) and received some recognition for achieving what one reviewer called a faithful degree of black speech nuances.

That performance was one of the reasons that animator Ward Kimball cast Edwards as Jim Crow in Dumbo (1941).

As Kimball remembered:

"We were recording the track for the Black Crows...and we got the Hall Johnson's black choir from the Methodist church in Los Angeles for it and Cliff was the only white guy among them. Cliff Edwards doing the voice of Jim Crow really made the whole sequence, because he was quite adept at doing kazoo solos on his old records, and he could vocally imitate other instruments. Many of the instrumental effects on the track were done by Edwards. Voice-wise, he really sounded more black than the blacks we had backing him up...The development and differentiation of the [crow] characters really began on the night that we started recording. I decided that Jim Crow would be the big, dominating boss crow with the derby.... By the time the voices were set, you have a pretty good idea how they would individually look, react and even function in the sequence."

Between 1923 and 1933, Edwards recorded more than 120 sides for records, and one account claims that during his career, he sold more than 74 million records. One of his biggest hits was "June Night," a ukulele and tuba duet that sold more than $3 million records. As a recording artist, he did pop and novelty tunes like "California Here I Come" and "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby."

It was around this time that he reportedly developed his weakness for cocaine and heroin. He was fond of chorus girls, alcohol, drugs and gambling. He also continued to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies and earned extra income by appearing on radio, including being a frequent guest of the Rudy Vallee Show. He also started appearing in movies and introduced the song "Singin' In the Rain" in the film The Hollywood Revue of 1929. (He even appeared briefly in an offscreen role as a hallucinating soldier in Gone With the Wind, and made 105 films between 1928 and 1943. His last film appearance was in The Falcon Strikes Back as the comic relief to the famous detective.

However, despite making a fortune even in the depths of the Depression, Edwards found himself in financial trouble due to taxes, gambling losses and expensive alimony payments to three ex-wives that left him bankrupt three times over his long career.

"He made millions and lost it all," Kimball said.

Before being hired by Disney to do the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, Edwards made two "party" adult only records: "Bear in a Ladies' Boudoir" and "I'm Gonna Give It To Mary With Love."

Originally, the storymen considered that Pinocchio's sidekick should be a bothersome termite, since Pinocchio was a little wooden puppet. Fortunately, one of the storymen pointed out that the original story contained a cricket. From the Disney publicity material from 1940: "When time came to name the new cricket character, everybody around the studio sent in names like Abner or Marmaduke or Cedric, but Disney said one day: 'Why not name him Jiminy? Everybody knows that expression, Jiminy Cricket.' The name was a natural, of course, and stuck from that minute on." ("Jiminy Cricket" was a politically correct expression of surprise that replaced a much stronger J.C. name just as words like "fricking" replace a stronger more offensive word.)

Edwards was the 37th person auditioned to do the voice of Jiminy.

"At first, we made Jiminy sort of a pompous old fellow--kind of a windbag," stated Walt Disney.

However, once Edwards was cast, Walt said that his smooth, upbeat performance had "so much life and fun in it that we altered the character to conform with the voice. Thus Jiminy comes to screen...lively and full of funny quips."

Jiminy was so popular that he was the first Disney animated feature character to appear in another animated feature, as the onscreen narrator in Fun and Fancy Free (1947) singing the title song to let the audience know that he is "a happy go lucky fellow, full of fun and fancy free." Actually, the song was originally written for Pinocchio but never used.

Throughout most of the 1940s, Edwards was considered a show business has been, although he did have a successful two-year musical tour of Australia and the South Seas Islands. When he returned, he unsuccessfully tried to launch a nightclub career. However, the launch of the Disneyland television program in 1954, and the original Mickey Mouse Club the following year, gave him a new professional start. A Disney publicity piece from the time quoted Edwards as saying "Looks like I'm going to be busy quite a while..."

The Disney Studio used Edwards as the voice of Jiminy Cricket on several animated short segments on the original Mickey Mouse Club show including the "I'm No Fool," "Encyclopedia specials," "Nature of Things," and "You (Are a Human Animal)" series, but the money seemed to slip right through his fingers. He appeared in person several times to entertain the Mouseketeers, including guest star appearances on November 15, 1955, February 21, 1956, and November 20, 1956 shows.

In addition, Jiminy was the master of ceremonies on several of the hour-long Disneyland television shows. (In later years, his function was taken over by Ludwig Von Drake.) Edwards also provided the voice for Jiminy for commercials including Baker's Instant Chocolate (which was one of the sponsors for the Mickey Mouse Club show) and American Motors (one of the sponsors of the Disneyland television show).

Even today, most Disney fans are unfamiliar with Edwards extensive work on Jiminy Cricket in the 1950s from singing the Jimmie Dodd songs like "E-n-c-y-c-l-o-p-e-d-i-a" (that taught me how to spell that word) to the 1957 record album A Day At Disneyland, where, in the only instance of Walt's voice being used on a phonograph record, Walt introduces each land at his Magic Kingdom and then Jiminy takes over to give an audio tour of the theme park. And who can forget Jiminy singing "From All of Us To All of You" each Christmas season? Edwards recorded many records as Jiminy for the new Disneyland records label that was also started in the 1950s.

As Jimmy Johnson, the man in charge of Disneyland Records remembered:

"I recorded Cliff as the Cricket on some of our Disneyland Records and he was paid royalties for those. But in his declining years—for Cliff was declining right before our eyes—I made some work for him on records which we really didn't need. Toward the end, royalties from records were his only source of income. The last time he came into my office, he didn't seem to know where he was or who I was. He was a sad and sorrowful sight that brought tears to my eyes. His housekeeper steered him out to her car. I never saw him again as he died shortly afterward."

"Ukulele Ike Sings Again" is a 1956 Disneyland record, suggested by Walt himself,to remind people of Edwards' phenomenal early music career. It showcases some of his big hits of the past, as well as provides an extra source of income for the performer.

Johnson remembered that album very well:

"We recorded the whole album in six straight hours on one night. There were no written arrangements. With an assist of John Barleycorn (alcohol), we made one of the most spontaneous and musical albums I have ever been associated with. In addition to 'June Night', we cut 'Singin' In The Rain', "Darktown Strutters Ball', 'Ja Da', "Five Feet Two Eyes of Blue', 'Toot, Toot Tootsie' and many others. We had a ball. Unfortunately, the album didn't sell well and there wasn't much in the way of royalties for Cliff."

Although this sounded a bit like a Cinderella story, the reality was that Edwards was still addicted to drugs and alcohol. "When they'd be expecting him for a shooting, he wouldn't show up. The booze just got to him," remembered Kimball.

In 1967, the Disneyland record The Further Adventures of Jiminy Cricket was released and according to respected Disney musicologist Greg Ehrbar "deteriorating health had caused Cliff Edward's diction to become slurred and his brilliant comic timing to virtually evaporate in what would be his last Disney recording." In his last years, Edwards sometimes spent his days hanging around the Disney Studio lot in hopes of more work and was occasionally taken to lunch by animators eager to hear his tales of the golden age of vaudeville.

He was no longer officially employed by Disney when he entered a nursing home in Hollywood in 1969 as a charity patient supported by the Actor's Fund. The Disney Company quietly paid Edwards' medical expenses as well.

At the time of his death from a heart attack at the Virgil Convalescent Hospital on July 17, 1971, at the age of 76, Edwards' passing wasn't reported to the public for several days because hospital officials didn't consider it newsworthy since they didn't know he had ever been famous. His body was initially unclaimed and donated to the UCLA medical school. When Walt Disney Productions, which had been paying many of his medical expenses, found out about this, it offered to purchase the corpse and pay for the burial.

The Actors Fund of America and the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund paid for the burial instead. A spokesman for the Actors' Fund, Iggie Wolfington, said at the time, "I can't praise [Walt] Disney Productions enough for the way they continued over the years to look out for Mr. Edwards' well-being."

Thirteen years after Edwards' death, Disney provided a marker for the performer's grave when the lack of a proper headstone was reportedly brought to the company's attention by the Ukulele Society of America. In addition to his name and years of life, the marker simply reads, "In loving memory of Ukulele Ike."

The talented Eddie Carroll, who is an excellent Jack Benny impersonator, took over the role of providing Jiminy's voice officially in 1973 and continues to do it today.

Jimmy Johnson, in his unpublished autobiography, wrote, "Cliff was a warm and wonderful man with never a sour word about anything or anybody. I cherish my memories of him.

In 2002, Edwards' original 1940 recording on Victor records of "When You Wish Upon a Star" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

"He made that song," Kimball remembered fondly.