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A True Grrr-eat! Nebraskan Thurl Ravenscroft Brought Tony the Tiger (And More) to Life

May 23, 2023 03:30PM ● By Kim Carpenter
60+ nostalgia Omaha Magazine June 2023 Thurl Ravenscroft

Design & Illustration by Reneé Ludwick.

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'They're grrr-eat!' It’s one of the most famous and enduring advertising catchphrases of all time. We’ve all heard Tony the Tiger enthusiastically extoll the flavor of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, but while that booming voice is familiar, not many of us know that the man behind it was native Nebraskan Thurl Ravenscroft, a 6’5” singer and voice actor known for his distinctive baritone.

Born in Norfolk in 1914, Ravenscroft was raised and educated in Nebraska before heading to California in 1933 to make his way in Hollywood. Succeed he did, and although his unusual moniker might not be a household name, his inimitable basso profondo became for many the voice of a collective childhood. 

Within four years of his arrival on the West Coast, Ravenscroft became a member of the Sportsmen Quartet, which frequently performed with the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Rudy Valle, and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The group also did work for Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons as well as Disney, with Ravenscroft providing voices for Fantasia and Pinocchio, both released in 1940, and two voices in Dumbo one year later.

World War II interrupted Ravenscroft’s rising career when he joined the Airport Transport Command in 1942. Stationed out of Washington, DC, he flew international missions, including one that involved transporting Winston Churchill to the Conference of Algiers and Bob Hope to entertain the troops. After the war, he wed his wife June, with whom he remained married for 53 years. The couple had two children. 

Although Ravenscroft trained to become a pilot with airline TWA, he returned to Hollywood in 1948 and cofounded the group The Mellomen, which recorded backup for such legends as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Arlo Guthrie, and Elvis Presley. Through The Melloman, Ravenscroft did more voice work for Disney, and his film credits included classics like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, Mary Poppins, and The Jungle Book, among numerous others. 

That wasn’t his only Disney work. Ravenscroft also provided the voice for many animated features at both Disney World and Disneyland and can still be heard at attractions such as the Pirates of the Caribbean, for which he played a drunken pirate, and the Haunted Mansion, where he was one of the singing busts. Even today, visitors often mistake his animatronic bust for Walt Disney, who, like Ravenscroft, sported a a pencil-thin mustache.

Keith Scott, an Australian cartoon voice actor, impressionist, comedian, and animation historian, penned a two-volume chronicle of voice actors called Cartoon Voices of the Golden Age, 1930—70 in 2022. His insider knowledge of the profession gives him keen insight into Ravenscroft’s success, and he understands well why the voice actor became such a mainstay for Disney parks, citing his “charismatic and truly distinct tones, that unique ‘bite’ Thurl had in his deepest notes.”
Scott continued: “What made Thurl a legendary voice actor, as opposed to other straight bassos, was his gift for comic or dramatic interpretation. He was chosen to narrate or play characters at Disneyland attractions because he was flexible beyond his marvelous singing gifts.”

In 1953, Ravenscroft took a job as the voice of Tony the Tiger, the Frosted Flakes’ mascot. In an interview published posthumously in 2006 in Hogan’s Alley, a publication dedicated to cartoon arts, Ravenscroft said the line he was supposed to answer was “Tony, are Frosted Flakes any good?” The ad agency recommended that he play with the response. “So, I messed around and finally came up with ‘They’re Grr-eat!”

But it was more than just his inimitable delivery. “I made Tony a person,” he continued. “For me, Tony was real. I made him become a human being, and that affected the animation and everything.”

Ravenscroft went on to give the cereal-loving feline a voice for over 50 years, or into his 90s. In 1996, he joked in an interview with The Orange County Register, “I’m the only man in the world that has made a career with one word: Grrrrreeeat!”

Ravenscroft even continued playing Tony through health complications. When corresponding with Scott during his later years, he confessed that he had finally quit smoking in his 80s, and  although he’d had one lung removed, he kept going. The voice actor joked, “I just breathe twice as hard into my one good lung and say, ‘Okay! Let’s do another take!’”

Given this attitude, Scott isn’t surprised that Ravenscroft endured for so many decades as Tony. 
“A great voice actor is always trying for the truth in the words of a script, as opposed to people who think it is simply about distorting the vocal chords and making a strident or silly sound,” he reflected. “The true voice actor knows about the character to be portrayed and, although animation is one of the main topics and a medium that is broadly caricatured by definition, the artistic voice actor will make a character fully believable as well as being richly amusing.”

Amusing Tony the Tiger certainly was, and thanks to Ravenscroft’s ineffable imprimatur, he continues to rank as one of the most recognizable advertising icons of all time, with news outlets like Business Insider placing the mascot at the top of their lists.

Ravenscroft also became famous to generations of children for his often uncredited rendition of the classic Christmas tune “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” from the 1966 TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,which was erroneously attributed to the show’s narrator, Boris Karloff. (Karloff, for his part, alongside Dr. Seuss author Theodor Geisel, felt terrible that Ravenscroft did not receive proper credit.)

Scott said that in addition to Tony, the Grinch, “spooky yet humorous,” is Ravenscroft’s most distinctive role, “simply because of the number of times it has been re-run worldwide…I know from speaking with Chuck Jones, who directed that TV special, that he and Thurl worked on a particular delivery of that song with author Ted Geisel’s input, so that Thurl’s bass voice was not only meant to be a bogeyman-style of singing voice but it also had to have a subtle comedic twinkle in it.”

Ravenscroft continued working almost until the end of his life, finishing his tenure as Tony the Tiger in 2004. He died one year later in May 2005, and the following month, Kellogg’s ran an ad in the publication Advertising Age to memorialize the man who gave their mascot his personality, saying, “Behind every great character is an even greater man.”

Scott agrees, and reflects on what Ravenscroft brought to the voice-acting industry. 

“Thurl’s legacy is very important. His unique quality and outstandingly one-of-a-kind vocal delivery was unmatched in his specialty area of the character bass man who could do any assignment from stentorian straight narration to comic bass singing…to his character voices like Tony and the Grinch,” he said. “He should be acknowledged for his incredibly long career and his one-off voice which is known throughout the world and which has never been matched.”
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This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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