Stan Freberg - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
Stan Freberg has had one of the most multi-faceted careers in show-business history. From his voice work in Warner Bros. cartoons, to his puppeteer work on the groundbreaking Time For Beany TV show, to his successful career as a comedy recording artist, to his dovetail between being the last network radio comic and the first advertisement comic.
Stanley Victor Freberg was born August 7, 1926 in Los Angeles, the son of a Baptist minister. He grew up absorbing the golden age of radio – two of his biggest influences were Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Shortly after graduating high school, Freberg’s gift for vocal impersonations landed him a job at Cliffie Stone’s early-morning program “Coffee Time at Harmony Homestead,” where he’d often have to pretend he was several different audience members during the “man on the street” segments. This led to voice work for Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes cartoons, including such characters as Pete Puma, Beaky Buzzard, Chester the Terrier, Junyer Bear in Chuck Jones’ “Three Bears” series, Tosh in “The Goofy Gophers.” Unfortunately, he got no screen credit for any of this, due to a clause in Mel Blanc’s contract, but more voice work followed – including the voice of a beaver in Walt Disney’s Lady And The Tramp – and Freberg finally got credit for doing the voices in Friz Freleng’s 1957 cartoon The Three Little Bops.
By that time, Freberg had also established himself as a star on both records and TV: in 1949, former Warner Bros. director Bob Clampett hired Freberg and voice actor Daws Butler as writers, actors and (unbeknownst to them at the time) puppeteers for the Clampett-created puppet show Time For Beany, one of the first television shows of its kind and certainly one of the best and most popular TV shows of its time. The admittedly inexperienced puppeteers eventually mastered the craft over the five years Beany was on the air, and the witty show left quite a mark on American culture – no less than Albert Einstein counted himself amongst its’ fanbase, and Jim Henson later claimed it to be his biggest influence.
In 1951, Stone got Freberg signed to Capitol Records with his first single, “John and Marsha,” simultaneously a spoof of overwrought soap operas and an exercise in comedy through repetition. Over intentionally sappy violin, Freberg’s titular male and female characters simply repeat each others’ names over and over again, with every possible exaggerated human emotion. The record was a hit, and over the next ten years Freberg would record dozens of singles for Capitol, mostly spoofing topical TV shows or pop records. His biggest hit (and his only #1 single in Billboard) was 1953’s “St. George and the Dragonet,” a merging of Dragnet and fairy-tale myth featuring Freberg as the Jack Webb character (“This legend is true. Only the needle should be changed to protect the record”), with supporting turns from Butler and voice-over legend June Foray. Two follow-ups came out in quick succession, “Little Blue Riding Hood” (the color, says “Webb,” was changed to prevent a McCarthy-esque investigation) and “Christmas Dragnet.” Freberg and Butler released a similar record in 1954, spoofing The Honeymooners (“The Honey-Earthers”) and The Lone Ranger (“The Lone Psychiatrist”).
But more typically, Freberg recorded spoofs of pop records. In the pre-rock era, these spoofs were generally bizarre and nonsensical (such as a melding of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with “On Top Of Old Smokey,” or a rendition of “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise” which frankly goes ballistic). But by the time rock & roll dominated the charts, Freberg found his ideal formula: take the most annoying element of a popular record, and turn the “song” into little more than a frustrated comedic argument between the musicians, regarding that element. In “The Yellow Rose Of Texas,” it was the pounding snare drum. In “Heartbreak Hotel,” it was the trademark Sun Records heavy echo. In “Sh-Boom,” it’s the mumbling vocals (their vocal coach turns out to be Marlon Brando). In “Banana Boat (Day-O)” a beatnik bongo player complains about Harry Belafonte’s loud vocals on “DAY-O!” and requests that Belafonte leave the room whenever he screams like that – by the end of the record, Belafonte accidentally locks himself out. And “The Great Pretender” rather brilliantly widens the chasm between jazz and rock – the pianist gets tired of playing the same note over and over, and ruins the record by improvising.
In 1957, Freberg’s star had risen high enough to let CBS give him his own network radio show, replacing the time slot held for decades by Jack Benny. The Stan Freberg Show only lasted fifteen episodes, and stands today as the last network radio show in history, but it was fairly radical (for its time anyway) in the meantime – “Incident At Los Voraces” was a twenty-minute evisceration of Las Vegas, while “Elderly Man River” mocked the flaws inherent in “political correctness” decades before the term was even coined. But the greatest moment in The Stan Freberg Show was undoubtedly a sketch that spoofed, with unusual ferocity for Freberg, the accordion-fueled mediocrity of TV’s “The Lawrence Welk Show.” It was perfect timing: by that exact point in 1957, Welk had become ubiquitous to the point of national annoyance, and Freberg nailed on the head everything that made Welk’s show ridiculous, from Welk’s odd speech mannerisms to his knack for missing notes to the convoluted song titles to those inexplicable bubbles, which in a divine bit of cartoonish inspiration, finally fill the entire ballroom and set it loose at sea, where the captain and first mate of a nearby vessel mistake it for a mirage. The bit went over so well at the live taping that Freberg had no choice but record it in a studio and release it as the single “Wun’erful! Wun’erful! Parts Uh-One and Uh-Two.” It reminded listeners that Freberg was not merely a mocker of rock & roll; he was an equal-opportunity mocker of all music he considered flawed.
By the end of the 1950s, Freberg had all but left singles behind in favor of a lucrative new medium, in which he, in a way, was a big fish in a small pond: advertising. It’s hard to believe nowadays, but the idea of a “funny commercial” wasn’t considered financially viable until Freberg tried his hand at it – his groundbreaking commercials for the likes of Contadina Tomato Paste, Chun King Cow Mein and Esskay Meats made Freberg a highly sought-after one-man ad-agency, which continued to produce successful commercials for over thirty years. Among his biggest triumphs have been his ubiquitous campaigns for Sunsweet Pitted Prunes (“Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles!”) and Encyclopedia Brittanica (that “annoying kid with glasses” in those early-nineties ads was Freberg’s son Donovan).
Still, Freberg hadn’t entirely left records behind. In 1958, he bit the hand that fed him with “Green Chri$tma$,” a moralistic biting satire of ad men who tie the Christmas season directly to their product for no discernible reason, just because they can. In 1961, Capitol released Freberg’s first theme album, Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America Volume 1 (The Early Years) which traced American history from Christopher Columbus to George Washington through a series of irreverent sketches (plans for further volumes were put on hold in favor of a torturous experience trying to get it made as a Broadway play). And in 1965 came Freberg Underground Show #1, a radio show on vinyl, or as Freberg called it, an experiment in “Pay Radio.” The highlight of Underground, and perhaps Freberg’s entire radio-loving career, was a track in which Freberg’s daughter asks how radio could possibly be as good as TV. Freberg demonstrates, with the miracle of sound effects, the sound of Lake Michigan being drained and filled with hot chocolate, whipped cream and an enormous cherry flown in by helicopter. “You wanna try THAT on television?”
“But doesn’t television stretch the imagination, too?”
“Up to twenty-one inches, yes.”