Interviewed by Milton Gray
Reprinted from Funnyworld No. 18 (1978), where it appeared (in slightly different form) as part of "The Moving Drawing Speaks," a multi-part feature on cartoon voices.
Clarence Nash, like Daws Butler, Jack Mercer, and many others who have become well known for cartoon voices, had stage experience in his youth. He did birdcalls and played the mandolin on the Chautauqua-and-Lyceum circuit in the 1920s. Jobless at the beginning of the Depression, he and his wife took a freighter from San Francisco to Los Angeles, arriving there on May 12, 1930. Through an acquaintance he had made in San Francisco, he made an appearance on a Los Angeles radio how, The Merrymakers, and he put his talent as a bird imitator to work in another job, as he explained in an interview with Milt Gray on February 18, 1978. Excerpts from that interview follow. M.B.
Clarence Nash: I drove a miniature milk wagon with a team of, not ponies, but miniature horses. I’d have little gimmicks to give to the kiddies—little tape measures, and other things. It said on the wagon, the Adohr Milk Company and "Whistling Clarence, the Adohr Bird Man." I could imitate a lot of birds; I’ve lost my canary bird, I guess from having dental work, and my baby chickens, baby ducks, baby turkeys aren't so hot any more. It's teeth and tongue whistle; the other is pucker.
They made a circular advertising my work, and they’d send it out to various clubs. I’d entertain at lodges, and clubs. Quite often, people said, "You ought to meet Walt Disney." Well, I couldn't afford to go to shows; I’d never heard of Mickey Mouse.
Finally, after two years of working for Adohr, we had a letter from some friends in San Francisco. "We haven't heard you on radio lately." I went right down to KHJ, and I said, “I'd like to go on The Merrymakers again, and I don't want any money, I just want to go on.” So they were glad to have me on their show.
The story is, Walt had a late story meeting, and just before the meeting was to close, somebody just happened to turn a radio on, softly, and I was on. He turned it off, but then Walt said, “Hey, that man sounds like a duck, let’s hear the rest of that.”
Two days after that broadcast, I’m driving on Hyperion Boulevard, where the old studio was; I had this truck with the miniature milk wagon, and the little horses, coming into Glendale. I just happened to look across the street, and here was this billboard-like picture of Mickey Mouse; it said, "Walt Disney Studios, Home of Mickey Mouse." The studio was such a small operation at that time that the switchboard operator was also the receptionist. I had the Adohr uniform on, and I was on the way to Glendale, but I took this little circular, and I gave it to the switchboard operator: "Would you give this to somebody who might be interested?"
Two or three days later, Wilfred Jackson called me up and wanted me to come out and do some bird sounds. He said, "Fine, we'll use them. What else can you do?" "Well, I’ll give you what I used to do on the stage. First we'll go in the house and hear mother's little musical pet." And I did the canary bird. "Now a little recitation from Mary." And I recited "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Right in the middle of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" Jackson reached over on the desk—there was a little lever on this intercom, the phone, you know. Instead of his voice going in to Walt, it was my reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Walt came down to Jackson's office. After I completed "Mary Had a Little Lamb," I said, "Now we will hear some baby chickens, baby turkeys, baby ducks ...now mama and papa duck." Walt turned to Jackson and said, "There's our talking duck!"
On the way out of the studio, who would I meet but Ted Osborne, who was the producer of that radio show. He said, "Hey, Walt heard you that night, he was going to look you up." It was just one of those things. We had to meet.
Milt Gray: Do you remember the date when you first auditioned at Disney's?
Nash: It was sometime in '32. Walt would call me in to do various sounds in recordings - birds, or some other sounds. Finally, he called me up and wanted me to go on a radio show with him. On our way over to rehearse, he said, ''I'm about ready to make a picture with the duck." The very next day, Otto Englander—Otto had worked for Walt once, then his contract expired and he went to work for Harman-Ising. When he went to work for Harrnan-Ising, he called me up, he wanted them to hear me, but I never heard from them. He called me up after [the radio show], and he said, "We're going to make a picture with a duck in it." He was with Ub Iwerks then. Since Walt had called me more than any other studios, I thought I should let him know, since he had told me they were about ready to make [a cartoon] with a duck in it. He said, "Sure, go ahead, but don't do any dialogue."
I went over [to Iwerks]; they weren't ready for recording, but Otto wanted me to see the board, and get acquainted with it. I got back to Adohr, which wasn't very far from where Ub Iwerks' studio was, and I called Walt. He wasn't in, but I gave his secretary the title of this story. Then I wasn't in, and Walt tried to call me; I understand he tried to call me about a dozen times. The switchboard operator at Adohr told me he did. Finally, [Walt] said, "Tell him not to do a damned thing for them."
I don't think they ever registered cartoon titles until then; that was the beginning of it, I guess, because Walt was going to make The Little Red Hen, and Ub Iwerks had [that title for his cartoon]. So Walt made The Wise Little Hen, the first cartoon that Donald was in. They called me up to come in to a story meeting, and who would I see first but Pinto Colvig. Pinto told me, "Walt told me about your calling about your going over to Iwerks. He said, 'I like that loyalty in that guy, I'm going to put him on the payroll.'"
Before the story meeting was over, Walt said, "Clarence, before you leave, came up to the office, I want to talk to you." He wanted to put me on a retainer; I could still work for Adohr. I told Walt, ''I'd rather work for just one organization, I don't want to work for two people." "Okay, we'll start you at the first of the year." "Walt, if you don't mind, I'd like to come to work sooner." "Okay, how about the second of December?" That was 1933, I went to work for him steady the second of December.
I’ll never forget the next picture that Donald worked on [after The Wise Little Hen]; it was Orphans' Benefit. We drove over to the Alexander Theatre, here in Glendale, for the preview. I was more nervous about that picture than I was about The Wise Little Hen. I don't mind telling you that I prayed a lot that day, that that character would be a success. I was with a group of Disney people, and my wife was with me, too. I was just like an average audience—I got a big kick out of it, and completely forgot that I had anything to do with it.