Voice of ‘Honest Abe’ Under Debate

LA Times blogger Dawn C. Chmielewski has a piece on Disneyland’s four-decade-old animatronic Abraham Lincoln which has been under “re-imaginationeering” for the last year.

Among the many improvements is the addition of “cutting-edge technology” which offers a wide variety of facial expressions.

And rather than recast a voice for the upgraded robotic Lincoln, Disney opted to remaster “the original 40-plus-year audio recordings made by character actor Royal Dano.” [The original narration for Disneyland’s “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” attraction was provided by cartoon voice acting legend Paul Frees.]

Disney park enthusiasts would likely agree this was a wise decision as Disney “changed the voice in the previous show and [they] got tremendous negativity,” says Tony Baxter, senior VP for creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering. “So we brought back this voice which has kind of been the voice of Abraham Lincoln for 45 years.”

Baxter is referring to Disney’s drastic changes to the attraction in 2001, one of which was recasting the voice with soap opera star Warren Burton (who is a great voice talent in his own right, having voiced characters for a number of video game titles). And Frees’ voice as narrator was also replaced with Corey Burton (also a voice acting legend, as far as I’m concerned) who is widely recognized by animation and voice actor enthusiasts as performing a perfect voice match for the late Frees.

But this time, it’s not Disney park fans who are voicing concerns about the voice, but Lincoln historians who argue that “Dano’s rendition didn’t sound much like” Lincoln’s genunine voice.

Lincoln expert Harold Holzer says, “I’m listening to Royal Dano again. You know, I am an absolutely committed Sam Waterston man. … I will take his readings of Lincoln over anyone’s on earth.”

Chmielewski adds that “much of what scholars have deduced about Lincoln’s delivery comes from contemporary accounts describing a high-tenor voice”:

“He often was so nervous at the beginning, he would almost shift up into a falsetto before he settled himself,” said historian Ronald C. White Jr., author of “A. Lincoln: A Biography.”

The rest is inferred from a collection of Works Projects Administration recordings of regional accents, which captured a kind of the early-mid 20th century patois of people living in rural Kentucky, where Lincoln was raised.

“The very best of the Lincoln impersonators will speak in that dialect,” said White. As in: Thank you, Mr. Cheerman (not Mr. Chairman).

Baxter says “criticisms about Dano’s performance are all based on third-person accounts of Lincoln’s voice — no one knows for sure. And while he acknowledges Dano tends not to be as soft-spoken as the president is described, the late actor nonetheless evoked a Lincoln that is ’emotionally right.'”

Animation/comics writer and voice director Mark Evanier sounds off on this topic, saying he thinks Lincoln probably sounded like Green Acres’ TV star Pat Buttram:

Far be it from me to quibble with Lincoln scholars…but I’m quite sure I remember reading or hearing somewhere the opinion of poet-historian Carl Sandburg on the subject. Sandburg, of course, never heard Lincoln speak having been born in 1878. But I’m certain he said somewhere that his research had led him to conclude that Lincoln sounded very much like the late Pat Buttram.

You all remember Pat Buttram, perhaps as Gene Autry’s sidekick, perhaps as Mr. Haney on the TV series, Green Acres. He was a lovely, funny man and I had the pleasure of directing him a half-dozen times for his recurring role on Garfield and Friends. In fact, I once asked him about the Sandburg remark and he said he’d heard it, too. Pat had a squeaky voice filled with highs and lows, often at different ends of the same word, and he said, “People would never believe ol’ Honest Abe sounded like me.”

One Response to Voice of ‘Honest Abe’ Under Debate

  1. Love your efforts here. WOW. I’m going to tell all my seminar students nationwide about this.

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