It was 1982, and I was on my first visit to Los Angeles. Unlike other holidaymakers who were making an immediate, predictable, bee-line for Hollywood Boulevard, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Universal Studios and the other attractions of Tinseltown, I jumped in a yellow cab and headed off to “beautiful down-town Burbank” which as well as being the sometime home of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, is the location of the studio known in the business as the Mouse Factory.
I had made a pen-pal of the Disney archivist, David R Smith, and as soon as I’d booked my trip to California, I blagged an invitation to visit the archive. And now here I was, in a state of bleary-eyed wonderment, staring into cabinets containing such holy relics as early Mickey Mouse watches, toys and comic books when I suddenly heard an explosive outburst of spluttering and squawking.
Turning around, I found myself looking at a dapper little man, at the time almost eighty years old, whose face was contorted into a shape that any gurning champion would be proud to have pulled, in order to produce the strangulated voice that could only belong to Donald Duck!
To my astonishment, I found myself being introduced to Clarence Nash who, for nearly fifty years, had been responsible for Donald’s impenetrable vocal tirades and who, rather sweetly, was known to everyone around the studio simply as ‘Ducky’.
So, what do you say to a man who’s spent his life playing a duck (or, more accurately, a ‘drake’) in a sailor suit? Fortunately, there was no need to say anything beyond the basic civilities, because Mr Nash was as loquacious as his fine-feathered friend.
He whisked the archivist and myself off to the Disney commissary where, over lunch, he retailed his history: his early career in vaudeville; his days as a bird impressionist on an LA radio show; his experiences as ‘Whistling Clarence’, touring local schools promoting the products of a local dairy; and his audition for Walt Disney when he had recited ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ in the voice of a baby goat and got re-cast as a duck in the Silly Symphony, The Wise Little Hen.
Mercifully, these anecdotes were not recounted in ‘duckese’ but in English (or, at least, American), and Nash explained that - alone among the Disney voice talents - he had personally dubbed all Donald’s foreign language soundtracks, learning the dialogue phonetically, and then delivering it in French, German, Italian, Spanish and several dozen other lingoes. Then, to the great amusement of the other diners, Nash slipped back into duck-talk and gave a vocal demonstration of his skills.
Whilst, frankly, it was impressive - and the most wonderfully eccentric beginning to any American holiday - the truth is that when Donald Duck flew off the handle in Serbo-Croat, he was as just as unintelligible as in his native tongue. But then maybe the fact that we never really understood was part of his charm.
Blind fury is not the most engaging of attributes, but Clarence Nash at least made it funny. Apart from which, seeing Donald Duck incandescent with rage can only make our own most intemperate outbursts seem positively innocent by comparison!
Here's a treasured memento of my encounter with Ducky Nash...
Tree and Stone - Astley Castle, Warwickshire © Brian Sibley, 2017