Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review - June Foray's Autobiography


The title of the new autobiography of legendary voice actress June Foray is Did You Grow Up With Me, Too?, a question that I can readily answer “yes” to. Ms. Foray’s numerous voices are so ubiquitous throughout animation that I can’t say for certain where I first heard her. My parents tell me that the first movie I ever saw in theaters was Cinderella in which she provided the hisses and yowls for Lucifer the cat, so maybe that was it. But some of my clearest memories involving June Foray’s voice are of enjoying the adventures of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose while visiting my grandparents. The first two words in the first chapter of Ms. Foray’s autobiography are “Springfield Massachusetts,” which is not only where June Foray grew up, but the location of my grandparent’s home where I curled up on the couch next to my grandma and watched Bullwinkle fail to pull a rabbit out of a hat. It was on that same couch that I watched a PBS special about Rocky and Bullwinkle and learned that there was a lady named June Foray who provided the voices for Rocky, the villainous Natasha Fatale, Dudley do-Right’s lady love Nell Fenwick a plethora of fairy godmothers, wicked witches, princesses, and countless other characters.

Chances are that you grew up with June Foray too, even if you don’t know it. Even if you somehow missed both Cinderella and the various incarnations of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s televised doings (Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky, Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends), you have almost certainly encountered her voice before. Did you ever see virtually any Looney Tunes short, movie, or TV show where Tweety’s Granny was in the cast? That’s June. Ever watch Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck get menaced by one of two very different looking witches who are both, surprisingly, named Witch Hazel? June voiced them both. Did you spend Saturday mornings in the 80s watching Adventures of the Gummi Bears and DuckTales? June was Grammi Gummi and Magica DeSpell, among others. Did you play with Chatty Cathy, Mattel’s popular pull-string talking doll? June was the original voice. Were you seriously creeped out by Chatty Cathy after seeing the very similar Talky Tina on an episode of The Twilight Zone? June also. Ever go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride? She’s in there too. I could easily go on, but you’d be reading credits all day and there’s still the book to get to.

My idea of what makes a good autobiography is much the same as my idea of what makes a good audio commentary on a DVD. I want to feel like I’m sitting down with someone and listening to that person’s first hand account of her or his life or work. The great strength of both autobiography and audio commentary is that the stories are coming directly from the people who lived them and, ideally, there’s no filter. They are free to talk about almost anything they wish to. Ms. Foray’s autobiography takes full advantage of this. Because the book is her story in her own words, she is able to relate whatever memories she feels are important for whatever reason, including moments that a biographer may have omitted because they seemed unimportant in the narrative of June Foray, voice actress. Her charm and personality come through in the writing, making the book a fun and engaging read.

The book starts off going chronologically, describing Foray’s childhood in Springfield, her family’s move to Los Angeles, and her early work in radio. But as Foray’s career starts to take shape, the chapters focus around her employment with different studios in various media: comedy records, dialogue looping for live-action films, and of course voice acting for animation, with whole sections devoted to her work and friendships with Chuck Jones and Jay Ward. (Foray is probably one of the only people – aside from maybe Sylvester Stallone – who can have a chapter in her autobiography called “My Rocky Life” that is about positive thing happening for her.) The format makes sense and plays well into the conversational feel of the book, but it can lead to some momentary confusion when Foray describes her first encounter with a fellow actor, then later recounts a story from before she had met him. But the confusion is fleeting and the separate focus on each stage of Foray’s career, even when they overlap in years, helps to put them in a much better context than time. Foray’s first meeting with Chuck Jones means much more when told as part of the story of their lifelong friendship than it would sandwiched in between all of the other work she was doing at the time she first met the legendary director.

I had plenty of reason to admire June Foray as a kid with an interest in animation and the people who make it happen. As an adult, I’ve found that I have even more reason to sing her praises. June Foray has long been a vocal champion of animation and had done much to increase the respect for the medium and recognition of the writers, artists, and actors who create animation in this country. I was very happy to find a chapter towards the end of the book that increased my knowledge of her work on this front. Foray was instrumental in making ASIFA-Hollywood into an organization active in encouraging and promoting the art of animation. The annual Annie Awards were her concept. While serving on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she has fought to keep both animated and live-action short films from being bumped from Oscar broadcast and campaigned for a Best Animated Feature Award, a dream that became reality in 2005. Her voice acting credits alone make Foray a bona fide star, but her dedication to animation and to shining the spotlight on its often unsung talents make her a true hero of the industry.

I guess my biggest problem with the book is that there isn’t more of it. I know that sounds like the lamest possible criticism, but that was my reaction. I started reading the book wondering how such a slim volume could possibly tell me everything about June Foray’s life that I could ever want to know. While the book is packed with all sorts of fascinating stories and does not suffer from any glaring omissions that I noticed, I still could have easily read many pages more about Foray and her work, about how she crafts a voice for a character, about the many amazing people she’s met who had such an influence on animation, and the kind of jokes that were cracked when the microphones were off. More specifically, I’d love to know if Foray ever got in hot water with Mattel for giving voice to The Twilight Zone’s considerably less benign version of the doll. I do know more about June Foray now than I did before reading the book, but I still wonder what more I might have learned had the book been two hundred, even three hundred pages long instead of just over one hundred sixty.

The last chapter before the epilogue is a collection of eulogies that Foray has given over the years, some for people she only met briefly, others for longtime friends. Reading through them, I was reminded of how every year we say goodbye to more people whose impact on animation will outlive them and more stories, more tricks of the trade, and more seemingly trivial little anecdotes go with them. Foray never mentions her own age (which you can look up for yourself if you want to, because I’m not risking her wrath), but Rocky first took flight fifty years ago and he was far from the first character June Foray gave voice to. So many of the original voices of Rocky's friends and foes have gone silent and I can only imagine what tales and memories they took with them. It's comforting to know that fans of June Foray who can't meet her in person for whatever reason will always have a way of knowing her better. Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? will be there for people who grew up with June Foray and kids who have yet to put a name to the voices in their favorite cartoons.

Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? is available at many fine bookstores and online retailers. But if you want an autographed copy like mine above, you'll want to order the book directly from her website.

UPDATE: Mark Evanier, who assisted Ms. Foray in writing her autobiography, has just stated on his website that time is running out to order and autographed copy of the book. The book will still be available to purchase, but once the last of the current stock of signed copies sell, you will have to track Ms. Foray down at a public appearance to get her autograph. So if you're thinking you'd like a signed copy of the book, now's the time to order.

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