Stan Freberg, R.I.P.
The word "genius" gets tossed around a lot in the entertainment world, applied at times to anyone who has been anywhere near a success. One of the few people I've met who truly earned it was Stan Freberg.
Stan had more than a few successes. Right out of high school, he was hired as a cartoon voice actor for Warner Brothers Cartoons. He was half the cast on one of the first hit TV shows for kids, Time for Beany. He was a best-selling recording artist for Capitol Records, creating discs that have stood the test of time for both inventiveness and sheer musical delight. He starred in the last real network radio comedy show in the classic tradition.
And then he got into advertising, bringing the concept of the "entertaining commercial" to a whole new level. For a long time in this country, if you laughed at a radio or TV ad, it was either created by Stan Freberg or by an advertising agency that was consciously trying to imitate Stan Freberg.
Those were the highlights of his career and there were others as an actor, puppeteer, voice performer, writer and all-around creative talent. He inspired several generations of notable practitioners in his fields.
I had a long and fascinating history with Stan, starting when at an early age, I discovered his work and loved every single bit of it. I used to tell him — quite honestly — that I got a goodly chunk of my sense of humor from him. I was hardly the only person who told him things like that. I later got to know him and work with him and consider him a very close friend. I'll post some more stories about him in the coming days.
Six months and three days ago, some of us were involved in a tribute to Stan that was staged at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. The last year or so of his life, Stan's health fluctuated. To put it in the simplest of terms, he had good days and bad. On the good days, he was sharp and alert and he sounded a lot like the old Stan Freberg. On the bad days, he didn't. Alas, the tribute fell on one of the bad days. He really could not speak the way he wanted to, could not tell the stories he wanted to. Still, he was well aware of the love in the room. There was so much you couldn't miss it.
A few days ago, Stan was hospitalized with pneumonia. Last night, he took a turn for the worse. He died shortly after 10 AM this morning in the place he most enjoyed being…in the arms of his beloved wife, Hunter. She took such good care of him. Without her, I have no doubt we'd have lost him years ago. He was 88.
People are writing and calling to ask me if I know of plans for a public memorial. There are no plans yet. I believe there will be something but not for a while.
Stan Freberg was an extraordinary man. He was very honest and very perceptive, an observation which should come as no surprise to anyone who knew him only through his work. That was one of the things that was so compelling about it: Even his advertising was truthful. He would not sell a product, no matter what fee was involved, if he didn't believe in the message. He was one of the first people in his field to turn against cigarette advertising, for example.
He was gifted with an amazing imagination and the performing gifts necessary to transfer that imagination into something that others could see and hear. He was a wonderful singer, a superb mimic and a terrific actor. And take note of this: Of all the actors who'd been doing voices for animation in recent years, Stan was the guy who'd been at it the longest. He recorded his first cartoon voice roles in 1945 for release in 1946. As far as I know, his last job was in an episode of The Garfield Show I voice-directed last year. It's currently scheduled to run on Cartoon Network this October, giving Stan a career span of 69 years.
Right after Stan's first wife died, I would go over and take him out to dinner, just to get him out of the apartment. One night, I took him to Matteo's, an Italian restaurant that like so many in Los Angeles, boasts not so much about its food but about that fact that Frank Sinatra used to dine there often.
The maître d' they had then would greet you and then, to make you feel special, he would tell you, "I'm going to seat you in Mr. Sinatra's booth." Every time I went to Matteo's, I was seated in Mr. Sinatra's booth and it was a different booth every time.
I don't think it's there now but when you walked in, you passed a display of photos that looked like a shrine to Mr. Sinatra. As the maître d' escorted us to tonight's Mr. Sinatra's booth, we passed it and I pointed out a picture. It was this picture…
The man you don't recognize at lower left is record tycoon Glenn Wallichs. The others were then the top recording artists for Capitol Records: Frank, Danny Kaye, Gordon MacRae, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin and Stan. That evening at Matteo's, Stan was the only one still with us.
I pointed to it and said, "Hey, Stan! There's you with Frank!" The maître d' whirled around and gasped, "You mean you actually met him?" It was pretty much the same line reading he'd have given if I'd said, "Hey, Stan! There's you with Jesus Christ!" Stan did know Frank. They were good friends. Once when Frank toured Australia, he took along Freberg as his opening act.
We had a lovely dinner. When I asked for the check, our waiter said, "It's been taken care of." I thought Matteo's was comping us but no. A minute later, he came over with a cloth napkin on which another diner in the restaurant – one, the waiter said had already left – had written in ballpoint pen…
Mr. Freberg…you don't know me but your work has meant so much to me over the years. It's an honor to pay you back in even a tiny way by paying for your dinner tonight.
It was not signed.
Stan sat quietly when he read it and he cried a tiny bit. Being around him, I was aware that he often got reactions and praise like that and it wasn't just "You're very funny," though there was that. More often, it was heartfelt acknowledgement that the work was special and that, like the guy said on the napkin, it "has meant so much to me over the years." That's kind of the same thing I've been trying to say here but I didn't have a cloth napkin.