Voice of Goofy was Oregon's 'Pinto' Colvig
Nov 15, 2013
By Finn J.D. John
Special to the News-Register
On any list of nationally famous Oregonians, there are a few names you probably won’t see.
For example: Bozo the Clown ... Goofy, the original hayseed hick from early Disney cartoons ... Bluto, Popeye’s nemesis ... comedian Jack Benny’s imaginary Maxwell motorcar ... and the list goes on.
These legendary characters are all the creations of the same gifted Oregon show-business pioneer: Vance “Pinto” Colvig.
Vance Colvig was born in 1892 in Jacksonville, the youngest son of William and Adelaide Colvig; William was a prominent Jackson County attorney. He acquired the nickname “Pinto,” a reference to the plethora of freckles on his face.
Very early in life, the young Vance showed remarkable comic instincts, along with musical and artistic talents. Efforts to teach the young lad to play the clarinet succeeded primarily in giving him a much-loved and very squeaky prop to clown around with.
When his father took him to the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland in 1905, the 12-year-old Pinto brought his clarinet and used it to get himself hired in the “House of Mirth.” While his father browsed the exhibits and admired the proud presentations of the young state, Pinto spent the entire time clowning with his clarinet, his eyes crossed and his face painted white.
Despite a somewhat checkered academic career in Jacksonville and later Medford, Pinto moved to Corvallis to attend Oregon Agricultural College, as Oregon State University was then called. But by this time his self-taught drawing skills had advanced to the point of being really quite good. His cartoons became a popular item in the OAC Barometer newspaper and in the yearbook.
He also played in the OAC band — clarinet, of course. All kidding aside, anyone who’s ever picked up a clarinet knows that you cannot use one to make funny noises (as opposed to horrible ones) unless you know how to actually play it pretty well.
Pinto soon became famous on campus for two things: His remarkable skills as an artist, and his lack of attention to his studies.
“A cartoonist is just a clown with a pencil,” he once famously said.
And so for the entire school year, he would clown with a pen (when his professors would have preferred that he use it to write papers) and when summer came, he would skip town to clown in person, with a circus or a Vaudeville show. In Vaudeville, his schtick was a “chalk-talk” in which he’d perform an improv monologue while rapidly sketching illustrations to go with it — a kind of an on-the-fly DIY Powerpoint show.
Finally, in 1913, he left OAC for good and signed with the Pantages Vaudeville circuit — the chain of theaters started by the ex-fiance of another legendary Oregonian, “Klondike Kate” Rockwell — to try to turn his “chalk talks” into a career.
It must not have gone particularly well, because the next year he was back in Oregon, and he soon landed his first job as a newspaper cartoonist — at the Nevada Rockroller. Now, finally, financial stability slowly started to coalesce around him, and his life started to develop a pattern: He’d join a circus, travel and act as a clarinet-squeaking clown until his money ran out, and then he’d find a job at some newspaper drawing cartoons for a while, get back on his feet and do it again. Pinto loved circus work.
But in 1916 he got married, and soon was in San Francisco with a family to support. While working at the Chronicle there, he started dabbling in a brand-new field of show business, one uniquely suited to a fast-sketching “chalk-talker” like Pinto: Animation.
In those days, animation was not done with clear celluloid or plastic “cels” — it was done with paper cut-outs simply laid down on the background. Each had to be sketched and cut out, 12 of them per second of film.
Pinto spent years in the broiling heat of the massive floodlights, sketching and cutting and positioning and shooting animations frame by frame, in his own studio — Pinto Cartoon Comedies Company — and others. He produced what he claimed was the world’s first feature-length animated cartoon, a work called “Creation” — and, in fact, it probably was, but so little of that early animation and movie work survives that we can’t be sure. In fact, all that’s left of “Creation” is a frame from the title card.
By the mid-1920s, Pinto was in Hollywood and making a name there. At the time, comedy movies were being made using very dangerous stunts, and a skilled animator could actually save lives by providing the 1920s equivalent of green-screen work. Some of his animated interventions can be seen on old Buster Brown comedies, among others.
In 1930, Pinto joined forces with Walt Disney, and his most enduring character — Goofy — got his start.
Over the following dozen years or so, Pinto worked with Disney and other Hollywood producers on some of his most memorable projects. He was the voice of Grumpy and Sleepy in “Snow White”; some of the Munchkins on “The Wizard of Oz”; Gabby in “Gulliver’s Travels”; Bluto in the “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons; and even (with the help of his battered old trombone) Jack Benny’s legendary Maxwell motorcar.
After the war, Pinto landed his other major role. He was cast as the voice of Bozo the Clown in the original Capitol Records series, and actually played the clown personally in a television series starting in 1949.
Pinto died in 1967 at the age of 75. He’d been a heavy smoker all his life, like so many others in his creative set, and the cause of death — as with his colleague and former boss, Walt Disney, three years before — was lung cancer. In his later years, Pinto campaigned to force tobacco companies to put warning labels on cigarettes, but he himself was never able to break the addiction, and eventually it took him down.
Pinto was one of the earliest pioneers of animated cartoons. Although virtually nothing remains of his work from before he signed with Disney, techniques that he developed are still in use today. And although his name isn’t as well known with the general public as Disney’s, among professional animators, cartoonists, clowns and Foley sound technicians, he’s a legend.
(Sources: Historian Ben Truwe’s Southern Oregon history page, http://id.mind.net/~truwe/tina/pinto notes.html; Pinto Colvig bio at imdb.com; Southern Oregon Historical Society; Portland chapter of ASIFA)
Finn J.D. John is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.
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