Monday, 13 April 2015

The Late Great Stan Freberg

Comedian, satirist, radio personality, voice artist, and advertising man Stan Freberg died on April 7 2015 at the age of 88. He had pneumonia and various age related ailments.

Stan Freberg was born on August 7 1926 in Pasadena, California. His father, Victor Frebeg, was a Baptist minister who also sold vacuum cleaners. His uncle, a stage magician, moved in with young Stan Freberg's family when Mr. Freberg was a child, and he often helped out in his uncle's magic act. He also spent a good deal of his childhood listening to the radio. He was a fan of the radio shows of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Norman Corwin, and he would practise comedy routines in front of his the rabbits he raised for his uncle's magic show.

Stan Freberg won scholarships to both Stanford University and the University of Redlands, but turned both down in hope of pursuing a career in radio. Instead of going to college after graduating Alhambra High School, he took a bus to Los Angeles and told the driver to let him out "in Hollywood". Not long after getting off a bus he found a talent agency, who arranged an audition for him as a voice artist with the Warner Bros.animation department. He was hired immediately.

Stan Freberg's first work for Warner Bros. was the unfinished short "For He's a Jolly Good Fala", which centred on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Scottish terrier Fala. Although the voices for it were recorded, it was never filmed due to President Roosevelt's death on  April 12 1945. His first filmed work for Warner Bros. would then be the short "Kongo-Roo" in 1946. Following the death of Kent Rogers, Stan Freberg took over the voice of Junyer Bear with "What's Brewin', Bruin?" in 1948. He also provided the voice of the gopher Tosh in Warner Bros' "Goofy Gophers" cartoons and Chester the Terrier in the "Spike and Chester" cartoons, as well as assorted other characters. He did a remarkable impersonations of Peter Lorre for the short "Birth of a Notion" (1947) and Walter Winchell  in "One Meat Brawl" (1947). Stan Freberg also did voice work outside Warner Bros. He provided the voice of Charlie Horse in Bob Clampett's short "It's a Grand Old Nag" (1947).

Stan Freberg also did some work for Walt Disney, including the short "Susie and the Little Blue Coupe" and the voice of Mr. Busy the Beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955). Stan Freberg continued to work as a voice artist long after he had become famous as a satirist and radio personality. He provided various voices for the animated TV series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo and Garfield and Friends, as well as voices in the animated TV specials The First Easter Rabbit and I Go Pogo. Not surprisingly, he would continue to provide voices for various Warner Bros. projects over the years, including the TV series Tiny Toon Adventures and Taz-Mania, and the feature film Looney Tunes: Back in Action. While Stan Freberg did extensive work at Warner Bros., during the Golden Age of Animation he only received credit for one animated short, "Three Little Bops" in 1957.

In the late Forties Stan Freberg served in the United States Army in Special Services. Afterwards he did comedy routines with the band Red Fox and his Musical Hounds. In 1949 he joined animator Bob Clampett for the legendary puppet television show Time for Beany. On the show Stan Freberg provided the original voices of Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent and Dishonest John. The show debuted on Los Angeles station in 1949 and was then aired nationwide in 1950 on the ill fated Paramount Television Network. Among the show's fans were Harpo Marx and Albert Einstein.

While Time for Beany proved to be a huge success, it would be another medium that would make Stan Freberg a household name in the Fifties. Quite simply, he released a series of phenomenally successful satirical recordings that skewered everything from popular TV shows to rock 'n' roll. His first comedy single was "John and Marsha", a soap opera parody in which the two title characters do nothing but repeat each other's names, their intonations varying with the mood. Released on February 10 1951, "John and Marsha" proved to be a hit. It peaked at #21 on the Billboard singles chart. Stan Freberg followed the success of "John and Marsha" up with parodies of popular songs. He spoofed Johnnie Ray's "Cry" with the parody "Try" (released in 1952). In 1953 he parodied The Chords' "Sh-Boom", Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin", and Henri Betti's "C'est Si Bon (It's So Good)". The relatively young genre of rock 'n' roll would be one of his targets, with Mr. Freberg doing send ups of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and The Platters' "Great Pretender". Even Lawrence Welk would provide fodder for Stan Freberg's song parodies. Mr. Freberg performed  Johnny Mathis' "Wonderful! Wonderful!" in the style of Lawrence Welk under the title  "Wun'erful, Wun'erful! (Sides uh-one & uh-two)". Stan Freberg was in many ways the forerunner of such song parodists as Ben Colder (the alter ego of actor and singer Sheb Wooley) and "Weird Al" Yankovic.

While Stan Freberg produced a large number of song parodies, his biggest success would be with comedy sketch records. In fact, his biggest hit was a parody of Dragnet, "St. George and the Dragonet", along with its flip side "Little Blue Riding Hood" (another Dragnet parody). "St. George and the Dragonet" blended the legend of St.  George and the dragon with the phenomenally popular radio show Dragnet; "Little Blue Riding Hood" did the same with the well known fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood". The single proved extremely popular, peaking at #1 on the Billboard singles chart in October 1953 and staying there for three weeks. Stan Freberg would follow "St. George and the Dragonet" and "Little Blue Riding Hood" up with another Dragnet parody, "Christmas Dragnet" (also known as "Yulenet") in 1955. Stan Freberg occasionally tackled topics on his records that only few would dare to in the Fifties. In 1954 he sent up Senator Joe McCarthy with "Point of Order" and in 1958 he attacked commercialism at Christmas with  "Green Chri$tma$". He spoofed The Search for Bridey Murphy (the then popular book on reincarnation) with "The Quest for Bridey Hammerschlaugen". His Christmas single from 1955  "The Night Before Christmas"/"Nuttin' for Christmas" remains popular to this day.

Stan Freberg's particular brand of satire did invite controversy. Capitol Records was very nervous about "Point of Order", but released it after a few cuts had been made. Capitol refused to release two of his comedy sketches. "That's Right, Arthur" was a send up of then popular but egoistical television and radio personality Arthur Godfrey. "That's Right, Arthur" was performed as a somewhat exaggerated Arthur Godfrey monologue, with Daws Butler (imitating Arthur Godfrey's announcer Tony Marvin) saying "That's right, Arthur" after each of Godfrey's comments. Capitol Records also refused to release Mr. Freberg's parody of Ed Sullivan's variety show Toast of the Town, "Most of the Town". Both were later released on a Rhino Records box set.

Stan Freberg also released several albums over the years. His first album, A Child's Garden of Freberg, was released in 1957. It collected many of his song parodies and sketches, including "St. George and the Dragonet". In 1959 Stan Freberg ‎– With The Original Cast was released. It also contained many of his classic song parodies and sketches. The album Oregon! Oregon! A Centennial Fable in Three Acts. was the result of a request from the  the Oregon Centennial Commission for Mr. Freberg to create a musical that would celebrated the state's 100th anniversary. Fifty years later Stan Freberg would update Oregon! Oregon! for the state's sesquicentennial.

Stan Freberg's best known album also ranks as one of his biggest successes, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume One: The Early Years, released in 1961. Done in the format of musical theatre, the album parodied American history from 1491 to the end of the American Revolution in 1783.  The album peaked at #34 on the Billboard albums chart and won the Grammy for Best Engineered Recording, Non Classical. It was followed by Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America, Volume Two in 1996. Volume Three was planned, but was shelved due to the death of Mr. Freberg's first wife Donna and his own declining health. Among Mr. Freberg's other albums were Face the Funnies (released in 1962),  Freberg Underground! Show No. 1 (released in 1966 and done in the style of his old radio show), and Songs in the Key of Freberg (an album recorded with his second wife, Hunter) in 2010.

Stan Freberg's success as a recording artist would lead to a career in radio. On January 8 1954 the situation comedy That's Rich debuted on CBS Radio, starring Stan Freberg as Richard E. Wilk, an employee of  B.B. Hackett's Consolidated Paper Products Company in the town of Hope Springs. The radio show featured dream sequences, which allowed him to incorporate many of his more popular satires. That's Rich ran until September 23 1954.

In 1957 Stan Freberg received his own show, The Stan Freberg Show, which aired in the former time slot of his idol Jack Benny. In addition to Stan Frebeg, the cast included June Foray, Daws Butler, and Peter Leeds, all of who had worked with Mr. Freberg on his comedy records. Billy May, who had also worked with Stan Freberg, on his records, was the show's musical director. The Stan Freberg Show proved very popular, but faced problems throughout its run. Not the least of these was the lack of a sponsor. Stan Freberg refused to accept sponsorship from any tobacco companies, even though the American Tobacco Company was eager to sponsor the show.  Not surprisingly, the show also proved controversial at times. CBS's Standards and Practices were so unhappy with a sketch titled "Incident at Los Voraes", that not only sent up Las Vegas, but American/Soviet relations, the arms race, and the hydrogen bomb as well, that Stan Freberg had to re-write the sketch and re-record it before it aired. The original version of "Incident at Los Voraces" would eventually appear on the album The Best of Stan Freberg. Needless to say, "Incident at Los Voraces" was not the only time CBS was unhappy with Stan Freberg. Between the lack of a sponsor and interference from the network, The Stan Freberg Show ended after only 15 episodes.

Stan Freberg would return to radio in 1990 on  KNX (AM) in Los Angeles with a series of sketches under the title Stan Freberg Here. It lasted until 1998.

It would be Stan Freberg's radio career that would lead indirectly to his career in advertising. Lacking a sponsor for The Stan Freberg Show, Mr. Freberg inserted parodies of commercials into his show. He advertised mock products such as "Puffed Grass" and even himself. It was in 1956 adman Howard Luck Gossage talked Stan Freberg into writing commercials. In 1957 Stan Freberg, Howard Luck Gossage, and J. Joseph Weiner formed the advertising agency of Weiner & Gossage in San Francisco.

 It was not long before Stan Freberg was creating commercials, many of which would become as well known and as popular as his comedy records. His 1957 commercial for Contadina tomato paste asked, "Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?" For Butternut coffee he wrote a nine minute musical, "Omaha!", an abbreviated version of which debuted on radio in 1958. His 1958 TV commercial for Esskay Franks starred Jesse White and took a poke at cigarette smoking.

Arguably it was during the Sixties that Stan Freberg came into his own with regards to advertising. In a 1965 commercial for Jacobsen Mowers Mr. Freberg promoted the advantage of Jacobsen Mowers over sheep when it came to mowing one's lawn. In 1969 commercial for Sunsweet Prunes he depicted prunes as the food of the future, despite author and friend Ray Bradbury protesting, "I never mentioned prunes in any of my stories." In print advertisements for Pacific Airlines, Stan Freberg acknowledged the common fear of flying on aeroplanes. What might have been his greatest commercial of all time was a spot he did for Jeno's Pizza Rolls in 1968. Set at a party, the commercial was a poke at the Lark cigarettes ad at the time that used the "William Tell Overture". A cigarette smoker (played by  Barney Phillips) protested the use of the "William Tell Overture", only to have another protest registered by Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. One time when it was shown on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson commented that it was the only commercial to ever receive applause from the audience.

Stan Freberg's 1970 commercial for Heinz Great American Soups was the most expensive commercial of the time. It starred Ann Miller, whose ordinary kitchen became the setting for a big, old fashioned, Hollywood production number. Over the years Stan Freberg created humorous commercials for several products, including Chun King Chow Mein (one of his first clients), Cheerios, Jeno's Frozen Pizza, and the Encyclopædia Britannica.  Today Stan Freberg's commercials are regarded as classics by many. While Bob and Ray had pioneered the use of comedy in commercials, it was arguably Stan Freberg who not only fine tuned the use of humour in commercials, but made it acceptable.

Stan Freberg's presence on television was not just felt in his commercials. Following Beany and Cecil, Stan Freberg appeared on various variety shows and talk shows in the Fifties such as Colgate Summer Comedy Hour, The Steve Allen Show, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and Tonight Starring Jack Paar. Often he appeared with his puppet Orville the Moon Man, an alien who would comment on the foibles of humanity. In the Sixties Mr. Freberg continued to appear on various talk shows and variety shows, including The Jack Paar Programme, Frost on Saturday, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He made rare guest appearances as an actor on The Monkees and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. In 1962 he had his own TV special, The Chun King Chow Mein Hour. In the Seventies Stan Freburg appeared on The Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour. In the Nineties he had a recurring role on Roseanne, and on The Weird Al Show he played J.B. Toppersmith and provided the voice of the puppet Papa Boolie.

Stan Freberg also made a few appearances in feature films. He made his feature film debut in 1951 in Callaway Went Thataway, and he had a major role in the 1953 comedy Geradine. He had a non-speaking cameo as a Deputy Sheriff in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and also provided the voice of a dispatcher. He provided the voice of a race announcer in Stuart Little (1999).

It is difficult to summarise Stan Freberg's career in a single blog post. Quite simply, the man worked in so many different media and excelled in nearly all of them. What is more, he was very prolific in several different media. Unless it happens to be the length of a book (and a large book at that), it is simply impossible to include every single thing Stan Freberg did in his career. He was a legendary voice actor. He had a phenomenally successful career releasing comedy records. He created several of the funniest commercials ever made. And he was one of the greatest satirists of the late 20th Century. Stan Freberg did so many things in his life that it was enough to fill three or four other individual's careers.

It is a mark of Stan Freberg's success in the various media in which he worked that his impact on popular culture is still felt to this day. Through the years "John" and "Marsha" have persisted as the names of couples, to the point that they are familiar even to youngsters who have never heard of Stan Freberg. The phrase "Just the facts, ma'am", forever associated with Dragnet, was never actually spoken on the show. Instead the phrase is a truncated form of a line from Stan Freberg's Dragnet parody "Little Blue Riding Hood", ""I just want to get the facts, ma'am." The line "Why do you always have to make such a big production out of everything?" from Stan Freberg's Heinz Great American Soups commercial has remained in circulation  long after Heinz stopped making Great American Soups. Song parodist Weird Al Yankovic acknowledged Stan Freberg as a major influence on his career. Artists as diverse as Sir Paul McCartney and David Mamet have also said that Mr. Freberg was an influence upon them.

Of course, the reason that Stan Freberg was so successful, not to mention so influential, was that he was outrageously funny.What is more, Mr. Freberg was absolutely fearless in his satire. No one was safe from the his razor sharp wit. He satirised McCarthyism, but he took pokes at liberals as well. He took aim at such popular celebrities as Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan. Stan Freberg's brand of comedy was irreverent, acerbic, and offbeat. Often when one thinks he or she has reached the punchline of one Mr. Freberg's sketches, Mr. Freberg often tops it with something even funnier. Few men were ever  as funny or as brilliant as Stan Freberg, and few ever will be.

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