August 7, 1926
Pasadena, California, United States
Advertising creative director
|Spouse(s)||Donna Freberg (1959–2000) (her death)
|Awards||Winsor McCay Award|
Stan Freberg (born Stanley Friberg; August 7, 1926) is an American author, recording artist, animation voice actor, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer and advertising creative director, whose career began in 1944. He is still active in the industry in his mid-80s, nearly 70 years after entering it.
Freberg was born Stanley Friberg in Pasadena, California, the son of Evelyn Dorothy (née Conner), a housewife, and Victor Richard Friberg (later Freberg), a Baptist minister. He is of Swedish and Irish descent.
Freberg's work reflects both his gentle sensitivity (despite his liberal use of biting satire and parody) and his refusal to accept alcohol and tobacco manufacturers as sponsors—an impediment to his radio career when he took over for Jack Benny on CBS radio. As Freberg explained to Rusty Pipes:
After I replaced Jack Benny in 1957, they were unable to sell me with spot announcements in the show. That would mean that every three minutes I'd have to drop a commercial in. So I said, "Forget it. I want to be sponsored by one person", like Benny was, by American Tobacco or State Farm Insurance, except that I wouldn't let them sell me to American Tobacco. I refused to let them sell me to any cigarette company.
Stan Freberg's first wife, Donna, died in 2000. He has two children from that marriage, Donna Jean and Donavan. He married Betty Hunter in 2001, and she adopted the personal and family names Hunter Freberg.
Freberg was employed as a voice actor in animation shortly after graduating from Alhambra High School. He began at Warner Brothers in 1944 by getting on a bus and asking the driver to let him off "in Hollywood". As he describes in his autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, he did this, getting off the bus and finding a sign that said "talent agency". He walked in, and the agents there arranged for him to audition for Warner Brothers cartoons where he was promptly hired.
His first cartoon voice work was in a Warner Brothers cartoon called For He's a Jolly Good Fala, which was recorded but never filmed (due to the death of Fala's owner, President Franklin D. Roosevelt), followed by Roughly Squeaking (1946) as Bertie; and in 1947, he was heard in It's a Grand Old Nag (Charlie Horse), produced and directed by Bob Clampett for Republic Pictures; The Goofy Gophers (Tosh), and One Meat Brawl (Grover Groundhog and Walter Winchell). He often found himself paired with Mel Blanc while at Warner Bros., where the two men performed such pairs as the mice Hubie and Bertie and Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier. In 1950, he was the voice of Friz Freleng's "Dumb Dog" in "Foxy By Proxy", who meets up with a disguised Bugs Bunny wearing a fox suit. He was the voice of Pete Puma in the 1952 cartoon Rabbit's Kin, in which he did an impression of an early Frank Fontaine characterization (which later became Fontaine's "Crazy Guggenheim" character).
Freberg is often credited with voicing the character of Junyer Bear in Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (1944), but that was actor Kent Rogers. After Rogers was killed during World War II, Freberg assumed the role of Junyer Bear in Chuck Jones' Looney Tunes cartoon What's Brewin', Bruin? (1948), featuring Jones' version of The Three Bears. He also succeeded Rogers as the voice of Beaky Buzzard.
Freberg was heard in many Warner Brothers cartoons, but his only screen credit on one was Three Little Bops (1957). His work as a voice actor for Walt Disney Productions included the role of Beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955) and did voice work in Susie the Little Blue Coupe and Lambert the Sheepish Lion. Freberg also provided the voice of Sam, the orange cat paired with Sylvester in the Academy Award-nominated short Mouse and Garden (1960). He voiced Cage E. Coyote, the father of Wile E. Coyote, in the 2000 short Little Go Beep.
Freberg was cast to sing the part of the Jabberwock in the song "Beware the Jabberwock" for Disney's Alice in Wonderland, with the Rhythmaires and Daws Butler. Written by Don Raye and Gene de Paul, the song was a musical rendering of the poem "Jabberwocky" from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. The song was not included in the final film, but a demo recording was included in the 2004 and 2010 DVD releases of the movie.
Freberg made his movie debut as an on-screen actor in the comedy Callaway Went Thataway (1951), a satirical spoof on the marketing of Western stars (apparently inspired by the TV success of Hopalong Cassidy). Freberg costarred with Mala Powers in Geraldine (1953) as sobbing singer Billy Weber, enabling him to reprise his satire on vocalist Johnnie Ray (see below). In 1963's mega-comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Freberg appeared in a non-speaking part as the Deputy Sheriff and also voiced as a dispatcher.
Contrary to popular belief George Lucas called upon Freberg, not Mel Blanc, to audition for the voice of the character C-3PO for the 1977 film Star Wars. After he and many others auditioned for the part, Freberg suggested that Lucas use mime actor Anthony Daniels' own voice.
Freberg began making satirical recordings for Capitol Records, beginning with the February 10, 1951, release of "John and Marsha" (in both 45-rpm and 78-rpm formats), a soap opera parody that consisted of the title characters (both played by Freberg) doing nothing but repeating each other's names, and "Ragtime Dan". In a 1954 follow-up, he used pedal steel guitarist Speedy West to satirize the 1953 Ferlin Husky country hit, "A Dear John Letter", as "A Dear John and Marsha Letter" (Capitol 2677). A seasonal recording, "The Night Before Christmas/Nuttin' for Christmas", made in 1955, still remains a cult classic.
With Daws Butler and June Foray, he produced his 1951 Dragnet parody, "St. George and the Dragonet", a #1 hit for four weeks in October 1953. Also with June Foray, he recorded "The Quest for Bridey Hammerschlaugen", a spoof of The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein, a 1956 book on hypnotic regression to a past life. On "Little Blue Riding Hood", the record's B-side, the title character is arrested for smuggling goodies. After "I've Got You Under My Skin" (1951), he followed with more popular musical satires, including "Sh-Boom" (1954), with Freberg imitating Marlon Brando, who at the end yells "STELLA", based on "A Streetcar Named Desire", "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (1955), where a "Yankee" Snare Drummer goes out of hand on the recording, "Rock Island Line" (1956), based on the Lonnie Donnegan Skiffle version with interruptions by Peter Leeds, and "The Great Pretender" (1956). He spoofed Elvis Presley in 1956 with his own version of Elvis' first gold record, "Heartbreak Hotel", in which the echo effect goes out of control. In Freberg's spoof, Elvis rips his jeans during his performance. Another hit to get the Freberg treatment was Johnnie Ray's weepy "Cry", which Freberg rendered as "Try ('You too can be unhappy… if you try')", exaggerating Ray's histrionic vocal style. Ray was furious until he realized the success of Freberg's 1952 parody was helping sales and airplay of his own record. Freberg reported getting more angry feedback for this than from his other parodies.
Freberg's "Banana Boat (Day-O)" (1957) satirized Harry Belafonte's popular recording of "Banana Boat Song". In Freberg's version, the lead singer is forced to run down the hall and close the door after him to muffle the sound of his "Day-O!" because the beatnik bongo drummer (voiced by Peter Leeds) complains, "It's too shrill, man. It's too piercing!" When he gets to the lyric about "A beautiful buncha ripe banana/Hide the deadly black tarantula," the drummer protests, "I don't dig spiders, man!" the flip side was the song "Tela Visin", an anti TV song about what television has done to his family, set to a Calypso tune.
He also used the beatnik musician theme in a parody of "The Great Pretender", the hit by The Platters—who, like Ray and Belafonte (see both above) and Welk (see below), were not pleased. At that time, when it was still hoped that musical standards might be preserved, it was quite permissible to ridicule the ludicrous, as Freberg had obviously thought when he parodied Presley. The pianist in Freberg's parody is an Erroll Garner and George Shearing devotee who rebels against playing a single-chord accompaniment. He retorts, "I'm not playing that 'clink-clink-clink jazz'!" But Freberg is adamant about the pianist's sticking to The Platters' style: "You play that 'clink-clink-clink jazz', or you don't get paid tonight!" The pianist relents—sort of. The pianist even quotes the first six notes from Shearing's classic piece "Lullaby of Birdland", before getting back to playing "Great Pretender". The parody was itself partly parodied when Mitchel Torok recorded "All Over Again, Again" for Columbia Records in mid-March 1959 but billed it as "The Great Pretender", as a spoof on the recent Sun Records recordings of Johnny Cash. Cash had only recently been signed to Columbia. The annoying pianist on the Freberg record was replaced by an equally annoying banjo player and a showboating guitarist on the Columbia release, a song written by Torok's wife who was then billed as "R. Redd" (Ramona Redd).
Freberg's musical parodies were a byproduct of his collaborations with Billy May, a veteran big band musician and jazz arranger, and his Capitol Records producer, Ken Nelson. Two weeks after Johnny Mathis' "Wonderful! Wonderful!" fell off the Billboard Top 100, "Wun'erful, Wun'erful! (Sides uh-one & uh-two)", Freberg's 1957 spoof of TV "champagne music" master Lawrence Welk, debuted. To replicate Welk's sound, May and some of Hollywood's finest studio musicians and vocalists worked to clone Welk's live on-air style, carefully incorporating bad notes and mistimed cues. Billy Liebert, a first-rate accordionist, copied Welk's accordion playing. In the parody, the orchestra is overwhelmed by the malfunctioning bubble machine and the entire Aragon Ballroom eventually floats out to sea. Welk denied he had ever said "Wunnerful, Wunnerful!", though it became the title of Welk's autobiography (Prentice Hall, 1971). Some of the regulars on Welk's show got lampooned as well; Alice Lon became "Alice Lean," Larry Hooper became "Larry Looper," and the Lennon Sisters became the "Lemon Sisters."
Freberg also tackled political issues of the day. On his radio show, an extended sketch parallelled the Cold War brinkmanship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by portraying an ever-escalating public relations battle between the El Sodom and the Rancho Gomorrah, two casinos in the city of Los Voraces (Spanish for "The Greedy Ones"—a thinly disguised Las Vegas). The sketch ends with the ultimate tourist attraction, the Hydrogen Bomb, which turns Los Voraces into a vast, barren wasteland. Network pressure forced Freberg to remove the reference to the hydrogen bomb and had the two cities being destroyed by an earthquake instead. The version of "Incident at Los Voraces", released later on Capitol Records, contains the original ending.
Freberg had poked fun at McCarthyism in passing in "Little Blue Riding Hood" with the line, "Only the color has been changed to prevent an investigation." Later, he blatantly parodied Senator Joseph McCarthy with "Point of Order" (taken from his frequent objection), about which Capitol's legal department was very nervous. Freberg describes being called in for a chat about this and being asked whether he had ever belonged to any "disloyal" group. "Well," he replied, "I have been for many years a card-carrying member of... "—the executive went pale—"... the Mickey Mouse Fan Club." "Dammit, Freberg," the executive angrily retorted, "this isn't a game." A watered-down version of the parody was eventually aired, and Freberg never found himself "in front of a committee".
On two occasions, Capitol refused to release Freberg's creations. "That's Right, Arthur" was a barbed parody of controversial 1950s radio/TV personality Arthur Godfrey, who expected his stable of performers—known as "little Godfreys"—to endlessly toady to him. The dialogue included Freberg's "Godfrey" monologue, punctuated by Daws Butler imitating Godfrey announcer Tony Marvin, repeatedly interjecting, "That's right, Arthur!" between Godfrey's comments. Capitol feared Godfrey might take legal action and sent a tape of the sketch to his legal department for permission, which was denied. Capitol also rejected the equally acerbic "Most of the Town", a spoof of Ed Sullivan's "The Toast of the Town", under the same circumstances. Both recordings eventually surfaced on a box-set Freberg retrospective issued by Rhino Records.
Freberg continued to skewer the advertising industry after the demise of his show, producing and recording "Green Chri$tma$" in 1958, a scathing indictment of the over-commercialization of the holiday, in which Butler soberly hoped instead that we'd remember "whose birthday we're celebrating". Released originally on 45-rpm discs, the satire ended abruptly with a rendition of "Jingle Bells" punctuated by cash register sounds when reissued by Capitol on LP and CD. The original version was somewhat longer, but Capitol did not reissue the full recording. Freberg also revisited the "Dragnet" theme, with "Yulenet", also known as "Christmas Dragnet", in which the strait-laced detective convinces a character named "Grudge" that Santa Claus really exists (and Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and the Easter Bunny, but Grudge still hadn't made up his mind yet about Toledo). Butler does several voices on that record.
In 1958, the Oregon Centennial Commission, under the sponsorship of Blitz-Weinhard Brewing Company, hired Freberg to create a musical to celebrate Oregon's one-hundredth birthday. The result was Oregon! Oregon! A Centennial Fable in Three Acts. Recorded at Capitol in Hollywood, it was released during the Oregon Centennial in 1959 as a 12″ vinyl LP album. Side one featured two versions of an introduction by Freberg (billed as "Stan Freberg, Matinee Idol"), with the second version including a few words from the president of Blitz-Weinhard Co. This was followed by the show itself, which runs for 21 minutes. Side two includes separate individual versions of each of the featured songs, including several variations on the title piece, Oregon! Oregon!
Fifty years later, as Oregon approached its Sesquicentennial, an updated version was prepared by Freberg and the Portland band Pink Martini as part of a signature series of performances throughout the state. Pink Martini toured the state and performed four regional performances in the northern, southern and central areas of Oregon in August and September 2009. This was made possible by a grant from the Kinsman Foundation for a $40,000 launch of Pink Martini's Oregon! Oregon! 2009 with Freberg.
In 1960, in light of the payola scandal, Freberg made a two-sided single entitled "Old Payola Roll Blues", which had a corrupt recording studio promoter (Jesse White) who gets a teenager who cannot sing to record a song called "High School OO OO", as well as the flip side, "I Was on My Way to High School". The promoter then tries to bribe a disc jockey at a jazz station to play the song on the air, which he flatly refuses, suspecting that the promoter was never in the music business in the first place. Afterward, a song in the big band style heralds the end of rock and roll and a resurgence of swing and jazz. Freberg's record was on the Hot 100 only the week of Leap Day 1960, at #99, about three and half months after Tommy Facenda's multi-versioned "High School U.S.A." peaked at #28. Alan Freed, whose career fell prey to charges of payola, reportedly laughed at Freberg's interpretation of the scandal.
Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years (1961) combined dialogue and song in a musical theatre format. The original album musical, released on Capitol, parodies the history of the United States from 1492 until the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. In it, Freberg parodied both large and small aspects of history. For instance, in the Colonial era, it was common to use the long s, which resembles a lowercase f, in the middle of words; thus, as Ben Franklin is reading the Declaration of Independence, he questions the passage, "Life, liberty, and the purfuit of happineff?!?" Most of that particular sketch is a satire of McCarthyism. For example, Franklin remarks, "You...sign a harmless petition, and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee."
The album also featured the following exchange, where Freberg's Christopher Columbus is "discovered on beach here" by a Native American played by Marvin Miller. Skeptical of the Natives' diet of corn and "other organically grown vegetables", Columbus wants to open "America's first Italian restaurant" and needs to cash a check to get started:
Native: "You out of luck, today. Banks closed."
Columbus: [archly, knowing what the response will be] "Oh? Why?"
Native: "Columbus Day!"
Columbus: [pregnant pause] "We going out on that joke?"
Native: "No, we do reprise of song. That help ..."
Columbus and Native together: "But not much, no!"
Freberg's early parodies revealed his obvious love of jazz. His portrayals of jazz musicians were usually stereotypical "beatnik" types, but jazz was always portrayed as preferable to pop, calypso, and particularly the then-new form of music, rock and roll. He whopped doo-wop in his version of "Sh-Boom" and lampooned Elvis Presley with an echo/reverb rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel". The United States of America includes a sketch involving the musicians in the painting The Spirit of '76. The terribly hip fife player ("Bix", played by Freberg) and the younger drummer (played by Walter Tetley) argue with the older, impossibly square drummer ("Doodle", also voiced by Freberg) over how Yankee Doodle should be performed.
The popularity of Freberg's recordings landed him his own program, the situation comedy That's Rich. Freberg portrayed bumbling but cynical Richard E. Wilk, a resident of Hope Springs, where he worked for B.B. Hackett's Consolidated Paper Products Company. Freberg suggested the addition of dream sequences, which made it possible for him to perform his more popular Capitol Records satires before a live studio audience. The CBS series aired from January 8 to September 23, 1954.
The Stan Freberg Show was a 1957 replacement for Jack Benny on CBS radio. The satirical show, which featured elaborate production, included most of the team he used on his Capitol recordings, including June Foray, Peter Leeds, and Daws Butler. Billy May arranged and conducted the music. The Jud Conlon Singers, who had also appeared on Freberg recordings, were regulars, as was singer Peggy Taylor, who had participated in his "Wun'erful, Wun'erful!" record. The show was produced by Pete Barnum.
The show failed to attract a sponsor after Freberg decided he did not want to be associated with the tobacco companies that had sponsored Benny. In lieu of actual commercials, Freberg mocked advertising by touting such products as "Puffed Grass" ("It's good for Bossie, it's good for me and you!"), "Food" ("Put some food in your tummy-tum-tum!"), and himself ("Stan Freberg—the foaming comedian! Bobba-bobba-bom-bom-bom"), a parody of the well-known Ajax cleanser commercial.
The lack of sponsorship was not the only issue. Freberg frequently complained of radio network interference. Another sketch from the CBS show, "Elderly Man River", anticipated the political correctness movement by decades. Daws Butler plays "Mr. Tweedly", a representative of a fictional citizens' radio review board, who constantly interrupts Freberg with a loud buzzer as Freberg attempts to sing "Old Man River". Tweedly objects first to the word "old", "which some of our more elderly citizens find distasteful". As a result, the song's lyrics are progressively and painfully distorted as Freberg struggles to turn the classic song into a form that Tweedly will find acceptable "to the tiny tots" listening at home: "He don't, er, doesn't plant 'taters, er, potatoes… he doesn't plant cotton, er, cotting… and them-these-those that plants them are soon forgotting", a lyric of which Freberg is particularly proud. Even when the censor finds Freberg's machinations acceptable, the constant interruption ultimately brings the song to a grinding halt (just before Freberg would have had to edit the line "You gets a little drunk and you lands in jail"), saying, "Take your finger off the button, Mr. Tweedly—we know when we're licked", furnishing the moral and the punch line of the sketch at once. But all of these factors forced the cancellation of the show after a run of only 15 episodes.
In 1966, he recorded an album, Freberg Underground, in a format similar to his radio show, using the same cast and orchestra. He called it "pay radio", in a parallel to the phrase pay TV (the nickname at the time for subscription-based cable and broadcast television) "…because you have to go into the record store and buy it". This album is notable for giving Dr. Edward Teller the Father of the Year award for being "father of the hydrogen bomb" ("Use it in good health!"); for a combined satire of the Batman television series and the 1966 California Governor's race between Edmund G. "Pat" Brown and Ronald Reagan; and probably most famous for a bit in which, through the magic of sound effects, Freberg drained Lake Michigan and refilled it with hot chocolate and a mountain of whipped cream while a giant maraschino cherry was dropped like a bomb by the Royal Canadian Air Force to the cheers of 25,000 extras viewing from the shoreline. Freberg concluded with, "Let's see them do that on television!" That bit became a commercial for advertising on radio.
Beginning in 1949, Freberg and frequent collaborator Daws Butler provided voices and were the puppeteers for Bob Clampett's puppet series, Time for Beany, a triple Emmy Award winner (1950, 1951, 1953). Broadcast nationwide from KTLA in Los Angeles, the pioneering children's TV show garnered considerable acclaim. Among its fans was Albert Einstein, who once reportedly interrupted a high-level conference by announcing, "You will have to excuse me, gentlemen. It is time for Beany."
Freberg made television guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and other TV variety shows, usually with Orville the Moon Man, his puppet from outer space. He reached through the bottom of Orville's flying saucer to control the puppet's movements and turned away from the camera when he delivered Orville's lines. Freberg had his own ABC special, Stan Freberg Presents the Chun King Chow Mein Hour: Salute to the Chinese New Year (February 4, 1962), but he garnered more laughs when he was a guest on late night talk shows.
A piece from Stan's show was used frequently on Offshore Radio in the UK in the 60's: "You may not find us on your TV". Other on-screen television roles included The Monkees (1966) and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1967). In 1996, he portrayed the continuing character of Mr. Parkin on Roseanne, and both Freberg and his son had roles in the short-lived Weird Al Show in 1997.
When Freberg introduced satire to the field of advertising, he revolutionized the industry, influencing staid ad agencies to imitate Freberg by injecting humor into their previously dead-serious commercials. Freberg's long list of successful ad campaigns includes:
Today, these advertisements are considered classics by many critics. Though Bob & Ray had pioneered intentionally comic advertisements (stemming from a hugely successful campaign for Piels beer), Stan Freberg is usually credited as being the first person to introduce humor into television advertising with memorable campaigns. Freberg felt a truly funny commercial would cause consumers to request a product, as was the case with his elaborate ad campaign that prompted stores to stock Salada tea. The owner of Jeno's Pizza Rolls had to pay off a bet over the success of a Freberg ad campaign by pulling Freberg in a rickshaw on Hollywood's La Cienega Boulevard. Freberg won 21 Clio awards for his commercials. Many of those spots were included in the Freberg four-CD box set Tip of the Freberg.
Following his success in comedy records and television, Freberg was often invited to appear as a featured guest at various events. Each time has been memorable, such as his skit at the 1979 Science Fiction Awards, again playing straight man to Orville in his UFO. He innocently asks why there is a hole in the end of the spacecraft, only to be told, "That's where the swamp gas comes out."
In his autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, Freberg recounts much of his life and early career, including his encounters with such show business legends as Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra and Ed Sullivan, and the struggles he endured to get his material on the air.
Freberg had brief sketches on KNX (AM) radio in the mid-1990s, beginning each with "Freberg here!" In one sketch, Freberg mentioned that the band played "Inhale to the Chief" at Bill Clinton's inauguration.
Freberg voiced guest stars in Garfield and Friends.
Freberg was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1995. From 1995 until October 6, 2006, Freberg hosted When Radio Was, a syndicated anthology of vintage radio shows. The release of the 1996 Rhino CD The United States of America Volume 1 (the Early Years) and Volume 2 (the Middle Years) suggests a possible third volume. This set includes some parts written but cut because they would not fit on a record album.
Freberg appeared on "Weird Al" Yankovic's The Weird Al Show, playing both the J.B. Toppersmith character and the voice of the puppet Papa Boolie. Yankovic has many times acknowledged Freberg as his greatest influence. Freberg is among the commentators in the special features on the multiple-volume DVD sets of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection and narrates the documentary "Irreverent Imagination" on Volume 1.
Since 2008, Freberg has been doing the voices of numerous characters, including Doctor Whipple and Fluffykins on The Garfield Show.
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