Voice Actor Spotlight: Jay Jennings

08.17.2010

Jay Jennings was mentored by Daws Butler, who felt Jay had the talent to do many of the classic Hanna-Barbera voices “spot on.” A meeting with Hanna-Barbera executives in Studio City was arranged so Daws could vouch for Jay’s talent, but before the meeting could take place Daws passed away and none of what he had hoped for Jay transpired. Unfortunately, Jay doesn’t have any photographs of himself with Daws, because they always went straight to work at Daws’ home studio in his garage and never posed for one.

Jay with Steve Allen

Jay Jennings’ speaking voice has been compared to a young Orson Welles, so to say he has been blessed vocally would be an understatement. Jay’s voice-over jobs have mostly been indie work: college radio station IDs, commercials, public service announcements, narrations, some horror movie trailers, and of course, his cartoon voices.

Jay is also a celebrity impressionist and has been fortunate enough throughout his career to be have been trained by two legendary entertainers: Frank Gorshin (The Riddler on the ’60s cult classic, Batman) and Steve Allen. Jay Jennings is now a film director and L.A. historian, and still does voiceovers. He is also known as “The Knott’s Guy” having written two books about Southern California’s oldest theme park, Knott’s Berry Farm.

Voice Actors in the News is pleased to present an interview with Jennings conducted by blog staffer Doreen Mulman:

DM: How old were you when you developed an interest in doing voices?

JJ: My love for doing voices probably started when I was very young. I instantly felt a connection to all the cartoons I watched on Saturday mornings such as Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss, Bullwinkle, Daffy Duck, and Tom Slick, to name but a few. I always tried to impersonate them during the week and at school. I also loved TV variety shows of the early 1970’s where voices and impressions were on display, such as The Jonathan Winters Show, The Red Skelton Show, and The Kopykats.

Interestingly enough, one of the first record albums I ever listened to was Rich Little’s Broadway, where I first learned to impersonate the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and President Nixon. As I got older and my voice matured, I was able to mimic voices and mannerisms by watching a lot of old movies on TV and listening to impressionists like Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Will Jordan, Fred Travalena, and George Kirby.

DM: How did you meet Daws Butler?

JJ: My mother, who once worked for the head of the William Morris Agency, was always on the look-out for agents and mentors to help me hone my acting and voice talent. She called in a few favors and arranged an initial meeting with Daws Butler at his studio in 1982. In fact, he was the first person to tell me that my speaking voice sounded very much like a young Orson Welles (on the radio).

During that first meeting, I was in complete awe knowing I was in the presence of the man whose cartoon voices I grew up with. He asked me if I did anything special with my voice. I replied, “Matter of fact, I can do most of your voices.” He replied, “Oh really? Well, let’s see what you can do.” With that, I rattled off my versions of Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss, Hokey Wolf, Super Snooper, Mr. Jinx, and a few others. Daws grinned and said, “You know something, Jay? You have a great ear. I’d like to train you to make them even better.” So over the next five years, I was mentored by Daws to carry on his cartoon voice legacy after he retired. I’d say we had about twenty sessions in his studio. It was definitely magical.

In 1987, while Daws and I were preparing for an upcoming meeting at Hanna-Barbera headquarters in Studio City, California, Daws’ health took a turn for the worse and he passed away less than a year later, so we never got to meet with Hanna-Barbera’s head of voice talent. I then turned my sights mostly to filmmaking, as my voicework kind of took a backseat over the next 20 years.

Listen to Jay’s Hanna-Barbera Voice Reel:

DM: Were your sessions with Daws one-on-one or were other students of his (such as Nancy Cartwright) present?

JJ: My sessions with Daws were all one-on-one, which Daws decided after our first meeting. He was very impressed with the fact that I could do a lot of his cartoon voices before ever being trained by him, so his goal was to help me perfect them and to excel in reading cartoon and commercial “copy” for auditions and future voice jobs.

DM: Was Daws a fun person to be with? Considering his profession one might expect him to be a bit of an imp with a silly sense of humor, or did you find him to be more serious individual? Are there any anecdotes of your times with him that might illustrate?

JJ: Daws, to me, was like a gentle grandfather figure, whose laugh was very childlike and innocent. He was serious when you were trying to read copy or learn something new and we would repeat it over and over until I got it right. “He would say, “No, try that again with more enthusiasm. Good, now try it again while breathing out slowly.” Daws knew every technique in the book when it came to teaching acting, voices, and breathing properly while recording in the studio, which by the way, was my favorite part of our sessions, going into the recording booth and making magic with our voices.

By far, the most memorable session that we had in his studio was the time Daws suggested that we both take turns performing all the classic Hanna-Barbera voices as if we were at a big Hollywood party, commenting on the food and scenery. In essence, I would imitate Quickdraw McGraw, Lippy the Lion, and Snagglepuss, while Daws would answer back as Yogi Bear, Wally Gator, and Elroy Jetson. Unfortunately, I never asked Daws for a copy of this recording since I was too blown away at the time to realize the significance of this once-in-a-lifetime collaboration.

DM: Could you describe some of the teaching techniques Daws Butler, Frank Gorshin, and Steve Allen used when you were being mentored?

JJ: The main thing Daws pressed upon me during our sessions together, no matter what vocal technique we were working on, was to have correct pronunciation, cadence, and the right vocal audio level, not to mention, to have proper lip, mouth and teeth manipulation, which in turn, would make it easier to perform certain voices (i.e. an old man, a little boy, a British aristocrat, a gangster, or an Old West sheriff).

Jay with Frank Gorshin

I met Frank Gorshin at an autograph show in Hollywood, California in the early 2000’s. He took a liking to me after I told him I was a big fan and a celebrity impressionist myself. During our half dozen meetings, Frank taught me the importance of facial expressions and contorting my face and lips when doing an impression. Frank was an extremely nice and cordial man.

I met Steve Allen in 1990 while I was hosting a cable TV show in Beverly Hills. In the three meetings we had, Steve taught me the importance of sketch comedy and how to be generally funny, and how to make an audience laugh. He said, “You must always have a punch line that knocks the audience dead with laughter, otherwise you’ll simply drown, which is a comedian’s worst nightmare.”

DM: Which celebrities do you like to impersonate?

JJ: My favorite celebrities to impersonate are obviously the classic stars of yesteryear, such as Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Vincent Price, George Burns, Jack Benny, Ed Sullivan, Charles Bronson, George C. Scott, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, and countless others.

DM: What physical preparation do you find helps your throat/tongue/vocal cords to duplicate voices best? For example, warm/cold liquids, lemon, honey, gargling, clearing your sinuses, etc.

JJ: Before every voice session with Daws, he would offer me some hot chocolate to soothe my throat and voice and I’ve stuck with that vocal preparation ever since. If hot cocoa isn’t available, I find that hot tea with honey works very well.

DM: Are you still interested in a career in voice-overs?

JJ: I’ve been a film director since 1989 and it’s basically what I’m known for. I’ve made a name for myself in the amusement park genre by writing two books about Knott’s Berry Farm. With that said, it’s safe to say that I’ve never stopped working on my voice over endeavors, as I still perform the occasional narration, movie trailer, radio spot, and cartoon voice, always making myself available if called upon.

Watch Jay in a TV Appearance about Knott’s Berry Farm:

Thank you for your time and use of your photographs, Jay.  Voice Actors in the News wishes you much success in all that you do.

~ Doreen Mulman, Staff Contributor
Voice Actors in the News

Jay Jennings may be contacted at: jenningsfilms@gmail.com


Rich Little to Perform Jimmy Stewart Tribute Show

02.07.2010

In an interview with the Times-Herald, impressionist Rich Little announced that he has turned his impression of and close friendship with Jimmy Stewart into a one-man tribute show, “Jimmy Stewart: A Humorous Look at His Life.”

According to Little’s official site, the inaugural performance is scheduled for Friday, May 7th in Bettendorf, IA.

“It’s great fun for me to do,” Little told the Times-Herald. “I think [Stewart is] my best impression. I knew him extremely well.”

Little said he approached Stewart about the one-man show years before it came to fruition, “I said, ‘You know, Jimmy, I’m thinking about a one man show about you,’ and he says (Little becomes Stewart), ‘Rich, why can’t I do that?'”

In the show, Little includes impersonations of Gary Cooper, Andy Rooney, Dr. Phil and others.

“A lot of one man shows, for two hours, can be boring. I didn’t want to make it boring,” Little said. “So I put all the other voices in it. I want to take it to Broadway. I’ve been working on it every day for three years.”

Little adds that he’s also considering a tribute show to Ronald Reagan. Little’s friendship and history with Reagan is detailed on RichLittle.com.

Related post: 1.07.2010 — Impressionist Rich Little Becomes U.S. Citizen


Updated: Impressionist Rich Little Becomes U.S. Citizen

01.07.2010

The Las Vegas Review Journal reports:

Rich Little will no longer impersonate a U.S. citizen. On Friday, the Canadian impressionist takes part in a naturalization ceremony in U.S. District Court. The 71-year-old Little has lived in Las Vegas more than 10 years.

Update: 1.27.2010The Las Vegas Review Journal has coverage of Little’s naturalization ceremony, including an interview and photo of Little wearing a very patriotic tie for the event:

“America, I like the sound of the word,” Little said in a slow Wayne-like drawl. “It makes a man tight in the throat — makes him choked up. As I travel the world, I run into many Americans. I know they’re Americans because they’re wearing Italian shoes, eating Chinese food and drinking French wine.”

What is usually a solemn occasion in a federal courtroom turned into a comedic roast of sorts as Little’s longtime friends and colleagues Steve Rossi, Nelson Sardelli and Kathy Walker joked about his new life as a U.S. citizen.

“When I asked Rich what the first thing he was going to do when he was an American was, he said, ‘Collect unemployment,’ ” Rossi said.

Little also explained why he finally decided to get his U.S. citizenship:

“Well, I’ve been illegally in this country for 50 years. I just thought it was high time to become a citizen. It’s a lot easier to poke fun at the politicians when you’re an American. This country has been awfully good to me, and I can’t complain. It’s just a big thrill to become an American citizen.”

[Source: Immigration Daily]

Related post: 3.30.2009 — Rich Little on Tour


Stewart Honored at National Aviation HOF Event, Rich Little to Emcee

07.12.2009

Ohio’s Springfield News-Sun reports that comedian Rich Little will serve as master of ceremonies for the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s “annual enshrinement ceremony” on Saturday, July 18th in Dayton, OH:

The event is scheduled to coordinate with the annual Vectren Dayton Air Show, to allow prominent aviators the opportunity to attend both the Dayton-based events.

The astronauts expected to attend on either or both of two nights of the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s celebration include Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Walter Cunningham, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, Charlie Duke, Jim McDivitt, Vance Brand, Joe Engle, Harrison Schmitt, Gene Cernan, Fred Haise and Tom Stafford. The astronauts also are invited to July events in Washington to mark the 40th anniversary of Armstrong’s historic first steps on the moon.

The National Aviation Hall of Fame has scheduled its annual president’s dinner the night of Friday, July 17, at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. There, the organization plans to present the Milton Caniff “Spirit of Flight” award to the Apollo astronauts to honor their work in achieving moon landings and returning to Earth.

One of the honorees to be inducted is the late actor and World War II bomber pilot James Stewart who served as a colonel in the Army Air Corps during WW II. After the war he stayed on with the Air Force Reserves serving as a 1-star brigadier general, thus achieving “the highest active military rank of any actor in history” (IMDb.com), and he was also a highly-decorated officer during his military career.

While Stewart is of course remembered for his film and TV roles, he actually had quite a bit of voice acting work to his credit. According to IMDb.com, he was the narrator for several TV and film productions, had a cameo in an episode of the 1992 animated series Goof Troop, voiced Sheriff Wylie Burp in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991). He also performed on radio shows with such stars as Edgar Bergen, Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, and Lionel Barrymore. From 1953-54, he starred in the NBC radio western The Six Shooter, and even reprised his role as George Bailey in the 1947 Lux Radio Theater’s adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life joined by many of his original co-stars from the classic Frank Capra film.

Previous post: 3.30.2009 — Rich Little on Tour.


Rich Little on Tour

03.30.2009

Another early influence (previous report: Bill Cosby) on my interest in performing and voice acting is master impressionist Rich Little.

Little’s skill as a mimic is legendary as evidenced in this classic clip from the infamous Dean Martin Celebrity Roast of Jimmy Stewart, in which Little attempts to teach Stewart how to do a Jimmy Stewart impression:

And in this clip from The David Letterman Show, Little imitates Dr. Phil, a few U.S. Presidents, Andy Rooney, and Johnny Carson…as an ostrich:

His impressions are multi-layered, detailed and exacting, not just vocally but physically too. He’s pretty amazing to watch. And for you impressionists out there — if you watch him carefully, you’ll learn some deft techniques to improve your craft.

Now in his 70’s, Little is still performing and has begun adding new tour dates for 2009. You’ll find a schedule for his upcoming events at his official website: RichLittle.com.

In a bit of related trivia, Rich Little was involved in what has become #6 on the list of The Museum of Hoaxes’ Top April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of All Time:

    #6: Nixon for President

1992: National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation program announced that Richard Nixon, in a surprise move, was running for President again. His new campaign slogan was, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.” Accompanying this announcement were audio clips of Nixon delivering his candidacy speech. Listeners responded viscerally to the announcement, flooding the show with calls expressing shock and outrage. Only during the second half of the show did the host John Hockenberry reveal that the announcement was a practical joke. Nixon’s voice was impersonated by comedian Rich Little.

Unfortunately, audio of this broadcast is not currently available. I contacted NPR and they replied that they are “working to transfer [their] entire archives to a digital format” and that it “will be available at some point, though we cannot commit to a firm date.”

As a substitute, NPR does have an audio interview with Rich Little from a 2000 broadcast of “Morning Edition”: Rich Little: A Presidential Handful.

And speaking of April Fools Day, it’s this Wednesday. You have been warned.