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037_04 - Woody Woodpecker Reaches Out
Woody Woodpecker, in my mind, has always been a cross between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck. Donald, due to Disney's duck's being someone who starts trouble just for fun. After all, here he is grabbing my butt at a restaurant in Universal Studios Florida! Daffy, because Warner Bros' duck's personality could shift drastically from cartoon to cartoon. Because of this, even though Woody Woodpecker cartoons could sometimes be very funny, Woody never came across as a likeable character.

The same was not true with his creator, Walter Lantz. Lantz, due to his own short-lived TV show in the early 1960s, became second to Disney as a creator audiences could know and love. During that TV show, Walter (Lantz, not Disney) would chatter about his characters and how cartoons were made. Occasionally an animated Woody would interact with him. I have not seen an episode in years, but I recall one set where Walter and Woody would be around a 16mm projector and start up a cartoon for the audience.

Unlike Disney, Lantz's series only lasted one season. By the 1970s, Lantz and Woody were largely forgotten. Perhaps the better term was neglected. The Lantz cartoons seldom had the lushness of Disney, or the wit of Warners. Like UPA and Terrytoons, they were more remembered by occasional merchandise than anything else.

When I got to meet Walter Lantz in the early 1980s, I found him to be as gracious as I remembered from TV. I was there to interview him about his latest endeavor, oil paintings. This new venture, when he was in his 80s, was to create oil paintings and put a little image of Woody somewhere in the image. These paintings were sold at a variety of galleries during the animation art boom.

Just like in his TV show, Lantz invited me into his office and sat in a large chair and talked freely, and gently. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about his career and animation. He was like visiting a friendly uncle who loved to tell you stories about the "good old days". Unlike other golden age animators (or even actors) I talked to, Lantz often slipped in references to money and schedules. He was a creator, but still a businessman.

When our time was up, Lantz showed me out into the lobby. Upon my arrival, I was amused to see Lantz's receptionist was an age that could have meant she was his original receptionist. In the lobby, Lantz introduced a number of his other staff members. Not one was under the age of 60. Then, true to the family uncle image, he asked one of his staff, "What have we got for the boys?" (A friend had come along who wanted to meet Lantz.) The staff member disappeared and returned with a pair of ties featuring Woody.

As I left, Lantz told me I was always welcomed to come back and talk about other things. One of those regrets one always has is that, even though Walter Lantz lived for another decade, I never took him up on his offer. Perhaps Woody should have kicked me in that restaurant.

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