This is the season of “best of” lists. I was surprised to see that on one list the Best Actor of all time was an actor named Mel Blanc. You probably have no idea what he looks like – I certainly didn’t – but we all know his voice. He voiced over 400 cartoon characters including Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Flintstone’s Barney Rubble and Daffy Duck. He was referred to as “The Man of a Thousand Voices.”
Mel Blanc has an incredible life story. He was a musical genius, proficient in bass, violin and sousaphone and rising to serve as the youngest orchestra conductor ever in the United States, at age 19.
And there was trauma as well. In 1961 he was in a head-on collision on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and was in coma for two weeks. When traditional attempts to rouse the patient didn’t work, the doctor instead said: “How are you feeling today, Bugs Bunny?” Legend has it that after a pause, Mel answered in a weak voice, “Eh… just fine Doc, how are you?”
I love this story because it shows the resiliency of the human soul. Even though he couldn’t come to the surface from his coma as Mel himself, his characters, his creations, were still within him. Anyone who has spent time with people with memory loss know that music, art and creativity are still profoundly present even when daily conversation and tasks are challenged.
But what I really love about the Mel Blanc story is that he’s mostly unknown. I love that someone who knew all of the Hollywood Golden Era greats, who was the first voice actor to ever get screen credit for his work, who sued the city of Los Angeles and got the “dead man’s curve” on Sunset Boulevard changed to a safer strip of road – I love that he is not a household name.
To me, the lesson from Mel Blanc is that our deeds outlive the span of our years and even our names. He died in 1989. His tombstone reads: “That’s All Folks.” Today, his name may not be familiar, but his work surely is.
I think of this in the context of the Book of Exodus we are reading in the upcoming weeks. The Exodus narrative of the Israelites leaving Egypt is one of the most familiar in all of the Torah. And the main character’s names are quite well known: Moses, Pharaoh, even Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam are mentioned by name.
But Judaism is careful not to enthrone these characters as gods or even heroes. Famously, Moses is not even mentioned in the Haggadah, our retelling of the story in which Moses clearly is one of the main characters.
To me, this speaks to the Jewish value of humility. Our works and our deeds speak for us. Generations from now, our names will likely be forgotten, but what we have built in our lives, close relationships, meaningful work and community ties, those will carry on.
Mel Blanc changed the spelling of his name from Blank to Blanc because a teacher once told him he’d amount to nothing just like his name, Blank. So he changed it to Blanc. We also have such power in our lives.
Just as our Jewish new year offers opportunities to redirect and re-prioritize in our lives, so too does the secular new year. The rabbis teach us to do teshuva every day because we never know what lies ahead.
May this secular new year inspire us all to return to the voices most authentic within ourselves and to focus on deeds that will long outlive our personal names.
Rabbi Amy Rader