Andy Panda
'Andy Panda' from Crackajack Comics #49, with art attributed to Lantz himself.

Walter Lantz was an American animation director and producer, one of the major figures during the Golden Age of Animation (1930-1960). He is most famous for characters like 'Andy Panda' (1939), 'Chilly Willy' (1953) and, of course, 'Woody Woodpecker' (1940). His studio, founded in 1935, produced cartoons for Universal Pictures. He kept it profitable until 1972, being effectively the last classic cartoon studio to cease production. While less of an innovator compared to his contemporaries, his cartoons are still remembered as quality animation. Lantz was one of only three animation pioneers to ever receive an Academy Award for his entire career (the other two being Walt Disney and Chuck Jones).

Early life
Walter Benjamin Lantz was born in 1899 in New Rochelle, New York City. His father was a grocer of Italian descent. His mother died while giving birth to his younger brother Michael. Lantz' father became physically incapacitated not long afterwards. As a result Walter had to run their grocery store from a young age. Between all the hard labour he still found time to take a mail order course in cartooning. At the age of 15 he moved to Manhattan, while his younger brother took over their store.

Early comics and animation career
Lantz studied at the Art Students League of New York and found a job as an office boy for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper The New York American, where he occasionally was allowed to draw and letter comics by such professionals as George Kerr and Willy Pogany. Another major graphic influence was Winsor McCay. In 1915 Hearst founded his own animation company, International Film Service, to produce animated films based on his most successful newspaper comics, such as George McManus' 'Bringing Up Father', Frederick Burr Opper's 'Happy Hooligan', Walter Hoban's 'Jerry on the Job' and Rudolph Dirks' 'The Katzenjammer Kids'. Lantz joined in since one of his good colleagues, Gregory LaCava, was in charge of the department. The pay was much better too. Lantz worked two years as an animator until he unexpectedly got more responsibilities. In 1917 the United States entered the First World War and many employees were drafted. LaCava and Lantz - who was underage - were among the only ones left behind. They tried to keep the company running, but in 1918 Hearst still closed down the studio since its profits were well beneath his expectations.

Lantz thereupon joined the studio of Raoul Barré, helping with animated adaptations of Bud Fisher's comic strip 'Mutt and Jeff'. In 1921 he became assistant-director, animator and scriptwriter at John Randolph Bray's cartoon studio, where he worked on series like 'Colonel Heeza Liar' and 'Dinky Doodle'. Lantz created Dinky Doodle and came up with the idea of combining the animation with live-action, much like the 'Koko the Clown' cartoons by the Fleischer Brothers. In 1926 he also developed the 'Pete the Pup' and 'Outlandish History' series. His colleagues in those days were John Foster, Clyde Geronimi, David Hand, Jack King, Frank Moser, Bill Nolan and George Vernon Stallings. These seven men were literally his entire staff, which explains why Lantz was credited as director, writer, animator and actor in all their cartoons. Just like the last time when he and only a small number of men had to run an entire studio, Bray eventually went bankrupt in 1927, but some of their produced pictures still came out the next year.

Lantz animated the 'flying elephants' scene in the Laurel & Hardy film 'Flying Elephants' (1928). He, George Canata, George Vernon Stallings and Rudy Zamora Sr. also worked on the first "adults only" cartoon in history:  'Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure' (1928). A collection of naughty pornographic jokes, it was allegedly intended for a party to honour Winsor McCay's birthday. According to Disney animator Ward Kimball it was made as a collaboration between Raoul BarréMax Fleischer and Paul Terry's studios, who all animated certain scenes without each other's knowledge. Other sources claim that the short was too risqué to be processed by any lab at the time, which led the footage to sink into obscurity until the 1970s. 

Walter Lantz in 1928
Walter Lantz in 1928 (source:

Gag writing for Mack Sennett
In the 1920s most animation studios were located in New York City, but since the entire movie industry moved to Hollywood, Lantz decided to do the same. His Hollywood neighbour at the time was Frank Capra, the film director who'd later become famous for feel-good live-action pictures like 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (1937) and 'It's A Wonderful Life' (1946). In those days Capra was still a young intern working for legendary slapstick film director and producer Mack Sennett. When Sennett needed someone to animate a tiny bug for a gag in one of his films, Capra suggested Lantz. He did such a swell job that Sennett employed him as his scriptwriter for six months. Unfortunately both Lantz and Capra eventually got fired for no official reason. Lantz found a new job at Universal Pictures, where he wrote gags and scripts for their live-action films.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
As fate would have it, Lantz rolled right back into animation. Universal had recently obtained the rights to 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit', a cartoon series created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. The studio also bought almost their entire staff, including people like Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising and Friz Freleng. Their only problem was that Universal didn't have an actual animation department. Lantz was given the task of building and organizing one. While doing so, he challenged Universal's producer Carl Laemmle to a card game and actually won the rights to Oswald this way! Lantz could now use the character any way he wanted and earn a profit from him. He redesigned Oswald and even asked Disney for professional advice. Disney had all good reason to refuse help, since Universal bought away his breakthrough character. However, he still gave Lantz useful advice and the animation legends even became lifelong friends. Later, when Disney became the market leader in animation, the men never saw each other as rivals. Disney regarded Lantz as basically the only animation director he respected, other than Winsor McCay. Coincidentally they both shared the same first name. Lantz also copied Disney's business strategies. Just like Disney did in 1930, Lantz established his own independent animation studio in 1935. The 'Walter Lantz Cartune Specials' imitated Disney's 'Silly Symphonies'. The cold-fearing penguin Chilly Willy was basically a rip-off of Pablo the Penguin from Disney's 'Saludos Amigos' (1942). Fatso the Bear (1960) plagiarized Humphrey the Bear. Both men were also the first theatrical animators to realize the possibilities of television to distribute their cartoons. Their studios also survived longer than all their rivals in the industry. 

Just like other silent animated characters at the end of the 1920s, Oswald also made the transition to sound. Among the famous actors who once voiced him were Pinto Colvig (best known as the voice of Disney's Goofy), Mickey Rooney (only nine years old at the time) and June Foray (the voice of Granny in Friz Freleng's 'Tweety & Sylvester'.). Nevertheless the rabbit was never that popular. In 1935 the character was redesigned by animator Manuel Moreno and Lantz kept producing new cartoons until 1938. Yet once his studio created breakout characters of their own, Oswald was discontinued. In 2006 the Walt Disney Company finally bought the rights to Oswald back, making him part of the Disney empire. The original Oswald cartoons from the 1920s and 1930s are basically forgotten today and the character itself nothing but a footnote in Disney history. Only two of his animated shorts have some historical significance today. An animated segment in the all-star live-action musical 'The King of Jazz Revue' (1930), with Paul Whiteman and Bing Crosby, was the first colour cartoon, predating the first official colour cartoon – 'Flowers and Trees' (1932) – by Disney. The only difference is that the Oswald cartoon was made in two-strip Technicolor, while Disney's short two years later was made entirely in full colour. Another 'Oswald' cartoon, 'Confidence' (1932), is remembered as a propaganda film for U.S politician Franklin D. Roosevelt who'd eventually be elected President later that year.

As a comic character, Oswald lasted longer. In 1935 National Periodicals (DC) launched a comic book feature, drawn by Al Stahl for the New Fun comic books. In 1942 Dell Comics relaunched 'Oswald' comics, with the help of writer John Stanley and artists like Dan Gormley, Dan Noonan, Lloyd White and Jack Bradbury. Oswald now received two adopted children, Floyd and Lloyd, to create stories around. Production kept going long after Oswald had vanished from screens.

Lantz' animation department in the early 1930s
Apart from Oswald, the studio also produced the animated series 'Pooch the Pup' (1932-1933) and the 'Walter Lantz Cartune Specials'. Production rate was high and soon the studio had to hire many new talents, including Ray Abrams, Tex Avery, Ed Benedict, Steve Bosustow, George Grandpre, LaVerne Harding (notable for being one of the few female animators at the time), Cal Howard, Chuck Jones, Hank Ketcham, Fred Kopietz, Victor McLeod, Manuel Moreno, George Nichols, Virgil Ross, Win SmithCecil Surry and Sid Sutherland. One of Lantz' main writers during this period was William Arthur Smith. Unfortunately Universal still closed down their cartoon studio in 1935.

Woody Woodpecker in 'The Barber of Seville' (1944).

Walter Lantz Productions
In 1935 Lantz established his own independent animation studio. Under the name Walter Lantz Productions and with a bank loan from Universal, he kept producing cartoons for them. A major advantage was that he had more creative and financial control. By 1938 Lantz discontinued Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and looked for new star characters. Many of their early try-outs, like Meany, Miny and Moe, Baby-Face Mouse, Snuffy Skunk, Doxie and Jock and Jill failed to catch on. Lantz deliberately started using animals other animation studios didn't use. Their first character with staying power was Andy Panda. In his original 1939 debut film he was a naughty baby panda, but he gradually evolved more into a cute straight character like Mickey Mouse. 

Woody Woodpecker
In the fifth 'Andy Panda' cartoon, 'Knock Knock' (1940), Andy Panda was upstaged by a new character who'd become Lantz's signature star:  Woody Woodpecker. Woody was obviously inspired by Tex Avery's 'Daffy Duck' (1937) at Warner Brothers. Just like Daffy he was a completely insane bird who enjoyed tricking people. He was even voiced by the same actor: Mel Blanc, who also invented Woody's iconic cackling laugh. Blanc had used both the voice as well as the laugh before in the Looney Tunes shorts 'Porky's Hare Hunt' (1938), 'Hare-um Scare-um' (1939) and 'Elmer's Candid Camera' (1940), which starred a prototypical version of Bugs Bunny. He reprised the voice in two extra 'Woody' cartoons until Warners put him under an exclusive  contract. Woody's new voice became Ben Hardaway, followed by various female staff members until Lantz eventually settled on the voice of his wife, Grace Stafford. In 1947 the crazy bird even received his own song, 'The Woody Woodpecker Song', used in the cartoon 'Wet Blanket Policy' (1947). It became the first and only song from an animated short to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Song, but lost. Still, it was a huge hit in the US charts and covered by many artists, including jazz bandleader Kay Kyser. Lantz therefore adapted it as Woody's theme song. Meanwhile Blanc felt that the bird's success, as well as the novelty song, owed a lot to his voice and laugh. He took the case to court but lost, since he hadn't copyrighted the voice. Lantz, however, proved to be a gentleman and paid him an out-of-court settlement.

All throughout the 1940s and 1950s, 'Woody Woodpecker' was one of the most popular animated series in the world, only rivalled by Hanna-Barbera's 'Tom & Jerry' and Tex Avery's 'Droopy' at MGM and Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Bob McKimson's 'Looney Tunes' at Warner Brothers. Audiences loved Woody's madcap comedy and the character starred in dozens of cartoons. The bird originally looked rather grotesque and ugly, but from 'The Barber of Seville' (1944) on he was remodelled into a more appealing character who only bothered others out of self defense. He was often pitched against his recurring nemeses Wally Walrus (1944) and Buzz Buzzard (1948). In 1954 he received a girlfriend, Winnie Woodpecker, and in 1956 two little nephews, Splinter and Knothead, who originated in the comic book series. 

Walter Lantz New FunniesChilly Willy

Naturally Woody Woodpecker and most other Lantz creations also found their way to comic books, published by Dell and Gold Key from the 1940s through the 1970s. Whereas 'Andy Panda' had retired from cartoons in the late 1940s, he continued to live on in a series of comic books and in some one-shots in Dell's 'Four Color Comics' for years to come. 'Woody Woodpecker' also had its own title, and both characters additionally appeared in 'Walter Lantz New Funnies', while the 'Four Color Comics' collection also featured 'Chilly Willy' issues. Artwork was created by Dell mainstays like Phil De Lara, John Carey, Jack Bradbury, Dick Hall, Bob Gregory, Al Hubbard, George KerrJim PabianVivie Risto, Roger Armstrong, Frank McSavage, Bill Weaver, Paul Murry, Kay Wright, Fred Abranz and many more. Foreign publishers also got a license to produce their own material; in Denmark, for instance, Fred Milton worked on many stories with 'Woody Woodpecker' during the 1980s. Already in the early 1940s, Lantz and his co-workers made a couple of prototypes for newspaper comics of 'Andy Panda' and 'Woody Woodpecker', and the artwork is generally credited to Walter Lantz himself, although it is well possible that it was actually done by a studio worker. Both were never serialized, but the 'Andy Panda' material was published in 'Andy Panda All Picture Comics' (1943) and 'Crackajack Comics' (1941) by Dell Publishing. A 'Woody Woodpecker' newspaper comic did eventually run through Consolidated News Features from 1952 to 1956. The authors were presumably writer Al Stoffel (Bert Laws) and artist Bill Weaver. In the 1990s Spanish artist Oscar Martin drew 'Woody Woodpecker' comics for Egmont Publishing. 

Space Mouse
In April 1953 former animator Frank Carin created a comic character named Space Mouse, published by Avon Publications. The funny animal/science fiction series ran until 1954. I.W. Publication reprinted a few stories in 1958 and released it as a one-shot titled Space Comics. In 1959 Lantz’ studio produced a series of animated cartoons starring their mice trio Hickory, Dickory and Doc, named after the well known English nursery rhyme. Their first cartoon was coincidentally titled 'Space Mouse’ (1959). Chase Craig, editor of Dell Publishing, made a deal with Lantz to relaunch 'Space Mouse’ as a comic character. While the animated shorts didn’t catch on, Space Mouse enjoyed a longer run as a comic series. Between 1960 and 1962 his adventures were published by Dell, afterwards by Gold Key Comics until 1965. Carl Fallberg wrote the stories, while John Carey illustrated them. 

Woody Woodpecker
Prototype for a Woody Woodpecker newspaper strip (1941-42).

Walter Lantz' studio in the 1940s and 1950s
In 1947 Lantz briefly got into an argument with Universal's new management over the licensing and merchandising rights to his own characters. Between 1948 and 1949 he distributed 12 cartoons through a different studio: United Artists. After his studio had to shut down a new deal was negotiated and by 1950 Lantz' production at Universal continued again. During the 1940s and 1950s Lantz employed many top talents, such as Homer Brightman, Shamus Culhane, Jack Hannah, Emery Hawkins, Volus Jones, Selby KellyAlex Lovy, Dick Lundy, Sid Marcus, Mike Maltese, Milt Neil, Don Patterson, Ray Patterson, Grant Simmons, Paul J. Smith and Riley Thomson. He was able to quit directing in 1942 and leave the job to others while he became the studio's producer. Between 1951 and 1952 he briefly resumed directing and oversaw eleven cartoons before returning to production work again. Lantz' studio also provided animation for some live-action films, such as Erle C. Kenton's 'House of Frankenstein' (1944), Frank McDonald's 'Sioux City Sue' (1946), Charles Barton's 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein' (1948) and Irving Pichel's 'Destination Moon' (1950, featuring a cameo by Woody Woodpecker). He was the uncredited co-director of H.C. Potter's live-action comedy 'You Gotta Stay Happy' (1948).

Chilly Willy
In 1953 Lantz created the penguin Chilly Willy, who became the studio's third major star after Andy and Woody. In 1954 animation legend Tex Avery left MGM and joined Lantz' studio for a year. He directed four Chilly Willy cartoons, widely considered the funniest shorts in the series. One of them, 'The Legend of Rockabye Point' (1955), was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, but lost. Unfortunately Avery was tired of the animation industry at this point. He went into advertising, despite Lantz' genuine efforts to keep him at his studio.

Ten of Lantz' animated shorts were nominated for an Academy Award: 'The Merry Old Soul' (1933), 'Jolly Little Elves' (1934), 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B' (1941), 'Juke Box Jamboree' (1942), 'The Dizzy Acrobat' (1943), 'Fish Fry' (1944), 'The Poet and Peasant' (1945), 'Musical Moments from Chopin' (1946), 'Crazy Mixed Up Pup' (1954) and 'The Legend of Rockabye Point' (1955). None ever won, but – in a much greater honour – he received a Golden Plate Award (1970), Annie Award (1973), Winsor McCay Award (1973) and Academy Award (1979) for his entire career. At the time he was only the second animator, after Disney (1942), to ever win an Oscar for his entire career. On 5 March 1986 he was also the third animator, after Disney (1960) and Hanna & Barbera (1976),  to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On 13 September 1990 Woody Woodpecker also became the fourth animated character, after Mickey Mouse (1978), Bugs Bunny (1985) and Snow White (1987), to receive a star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 

Final years and death
Like many classic Hollywood cartoon studios, Lantz found a new source of income by rerunning their old cartoons on television. They were repackaged in the TV show 'The Woody Woodpecker Show' (1957-1958), which reran for years. By keeping his budgets tight, but guarding overall quality, his studio managed to survive the entire 1960s. But by 1972 they eventually had to close down. Still, they were effectively the last Hollywood cartoon studio from the Golden Age to quit production, leaving only the Walt Disney Studios behind. Lantz spent his final years managing the distribution of his old cartoons on TV, while painting in his spare time. Woody Woodpecker was one of many classic cartoon characters to have a cameo in Richard Williams' 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' (1988), a live-action film which pays homage to the Golden Age of Animation. In 1994 Walter Lantz passed away.

Legacy and influence
Walter Lantz was one of the most commercially succesful animators of his time. Still, critics generally don't hold his cartoons in high esteem. While Disney, Warners, Tex Avery and UPA were innovators of the medium, Lantz's cartoons have always been unpretentious entertainment. His only cartoon generally hailed as a classic is 'The Barber of Seville' (1944), in which Woody becomes a psychotic barber. Nevertheless nobody denies his status as an animation pioneer and legend. 

Woody Woodpecker was revived in 'The New Woody Woodpecker Show' (1999-2002) on Fox Kids. Since 2018 he also stars in a YouTube series. He also remains the mascot of the Universal Studios Theme Parks and is particularly beloved in Latin America. So much, in fact, that the 2017 live-action/CGI comedy film 'Woody Woodpecker' premiered in Brazil first before being shipped to other countries. Celebrity fans of the character have been Stanley Kubrick, Quino (whose own character Mafalda is fond of the crazy bird too) and Tabaré. The Belgian comedy duo The Woodpeckers, consisting of Jef and Cois Cassiers, also named themselves after Lantz' signature star. Last but not least, Woody's iconic laugh is still recognizable to millions, even those who never saw one of his cartoons. 

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz and his characters.

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