Listening to old-time radio can often offer the benefit of letting you see or hear stars of other classic entertainment in a new light. For example, I grew up watching Lionel Barrymore play Mister Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. However, his career was far more diverse and interesting than that. His radiography provides a glimpse, as he starred as The Mayor of the Town, played Doctor Gillespie in the Doctor Kildare series, and served as host of the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
The same can be drawn with any number of older projects, whether you’re talking about 1970s movies or television programs. For the purpose of this article, we’re focusing on classic Disney animated films because they constitute some of the media most likely to be shared across generational lines.
Generations of children have enjoyed the work of Verna Felton. She’s probably best known as the Fairy Godmother in 1950s Cinderella. But she was in many films, from Dumbo to Lady and the Tramp to The Jungle Book. On radio, she had a long history of playing various characters, particularly of the motherly sort. She played the mother of singer Dennis Day both on the Jack Benny program and A Day in the Life of Dennis Day. She also was a regular on the Red Skelton show as the grandmother of Red Skelton’s mischievous child alter ego Junior.
Ed Wynn and Jerry Colona were a zany double act as the Mad Hatter and March Hare in the 1951 film Alice in Wonderland. However, each had an equally zany career over radio. Wynn hosted multiple radio programs and was known for his unmistakable voice and his frequent routine where he would offer his own interpretation of foreign-language opera lyrics. Colona was the mustached radio sidekick of Bob Hope. Whenever “Professor Colona” was announced, listeners knew the humor was going to get bonkers fast.
Betty Lou Gerson is remembered for voicing one of one of the most iconic villains of all time, Cruella de Vil. However, Gerson made an astounding number of old-time radio appearances. She was the voice of the president’s secretary on Mister President, and as a character actress appeared in every conceivable type of radio program during a career that dated back to the 1930s, including comedies, soap operas, and crime programs. She was one of the most versatile talents in the Golden Age of Radio.
Phil Harris is known to millions of kids through his role in The Jungle Book and his iconic song, “Bare Necessities”, in addition to voicing characters in the Disney Films The Aristocats and Robin Hood. However, Harris’s radio career was epic, with sixteen seasons working as the band leader on the top-rated Jack Benny program and playing a character as Benny’s cool band leader. Harris would later spin this off into a successful sitcom with his wife, The Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show, which would be a mainstay for NBC for six years.
Jim Jordan played Orville in The Rescuers. Orville was an albatross who transported the mice from the rescue aid society to rescue a little girl being held in the Louisana swamps. Jordan’s most famous radio role was as Fibber McGee in the signature Fibber McGee and Molly, a series that ran for twenty-four years and was one of the most beloved comedy programs of the Depression and World War II eras.
We could cover many more performers who lent their voices to Disney films also had substantial careers in radio and fans of their performances in these films may find an even deeper appreciation for them by doing a deep dive into their radio work.