He was created in 1940 by Lantz and storyboard artist Ben "Bugs" Hardaway, who had previously laid the groundwork for two other screwball characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at the Warner Bros. cartoon studio in the late 1930s. Woody's character and design evolved over the years, from an insane bird with an unusually garish design to a more refined looking and acting character in the vein of the later Chuck Jones version of Bugs Bunny. Woody was originally voiced by prolific voice actor Mel Blanc, who was succeeded by Danny Webb, Kent Rogers, Ben Hardaway and finally Grace Stafford (wife of Walter Lantz).
Lantz produced theatrical cartoons longer than most of his contemporaries, and Woody Woodpecker remained a staple of Universal's release schedule until 1972, when Lantz finally closed down his animation studio. The character has been revived since then for special productions and occasions as well as for The New Woody Woodpecker Show, a late 1990s/early 2000s Fox Network Saturday-morning cartoon television series that featured prolific voice actor Billy West as Woody.
Woody Woodpecker cartoons were first broadcast on television in 1957 under the title The Woody Woodpecker Show, which featured Lantz cartoons bookended by new footage of Woody and live-action footage of Lantz. Woody has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on 7000 Hollywood Boulevard. He also made a cameo appearance alongside many other famous cartoon characters in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Like Mickey Mouse of The Walt Disney Company and Bugs Bunny of Warner Bros., Woody Woodpecker is the official mascot of Universal Studios. Woody and his friends are also icons at the Universal Studios Theme Parks worldwide, as well as the PortAventura Park in the PortAventura World, Salou, Spain (they were originally brought to the park by Universal Studios, and remain there today despite Universal no longer having a financial stake in the park).
History with the Macy's Parade
The story of Woody Woodpecker's history in the parade begins in the 1960s, when creator Walter Lantz contacted Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company about the possibility of featuring a larger-than life balloon replica of Woody in the parade. However, Goodyear declined, citing that the character's design could not be properly replicated into an aerodynamic balloon. As a result, the idea was dropped for over a decade, enough time for the bird to make his debut in the parade atop the Rocking Giraffe in 1976. Following the takeover of Macy's balloon operations, Walter Lantz proposed the idea again in 1982. This time, Bob Kemp and his team agreed to produce the balloon, and the plan to include Woody in the parade was announced on April 13, 1982.
Walter, his brother Michael, and the Kemp team worked to bring the bird to life, with Goodyear providing tips on how to construct the balloon. First, a doll-size model was crafted by the Lantzes, which was then analyzed by a computer to see how well it would fly. Once the necessary changes were made in the design, the balloon was crafted and eventually assembled with nylon fabric and rubber. After construct ruction was completed and the balloon inflated, it was given two coats of paint - a primary coat and a special surface paint for the decorative colors. All in all, it took five months and $100,000 to craft the balloon, which was expected to remain in the parade for five years.
The 75 foot by 45 boot balloon, one of the largest ever built for the parade, made its grand debut in the 56th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that year, with newspapers noting that its vibrant colors "made parade-worn oldtimers look dowdy". But while many of the veterans that year made it to Macy's without issue, the newcomer almost immediately ran into trouble when its head was punctured three blocks along the route. The thirty-five handlers keeping the 450 pound balloon in tow lowered it to the ground, carrying it along the parade route for the rest of the two mile trek.
While the balloon's debut was overshadowed by that of fellow newcomer Olive Oyl, the balloon proved so popular that it was brought to Aventura, Florida, in October 1983 alongside Bullwinkle in celebration of the opening of a new, 270,000 square foot Macy's store (where Woody resided for the weekend). During the parade proper, Woody was accompanied by creator Walter Lantz and his wife Gracie, who had been voicing the troublemaker for over 30 years.
The balloon encountered further difficulties in the 1984 parade, at times almost flying upside down or close to the ground. Near the start of the parade, Woody was snagged by a tree, halting the parade as workers freed his arm without damaging it but one of his arms was bent. The trouble continued in 1985 even before the parade, when the balloon's 14-foot coxcomb tore a hole before the parade. While it was repaired prior to the parade, the wind and rain resulted in the balloon's hand being ripped and his legs being deflated. Once the balloon was deflated, it was rolled up without drying it off, resulting in damage to the strings holding up his head.
The following year, in 1986, an attempt to avoid the balloon hitting trees resulted in the two of the rotted strings snapping two blocks into the route, partially separating the balloon's head from its body. Jean McFaddin was informed of the issue, and she made the call to "bring him on". Woody's struggles continued for the rest of the trek; by the time he reached Herald Square, only one of the six strings had not snapped, and he had lost both of his feet to tree branches. Reflecting on the incident, McFaddin admitted "You don't know the sense of relief I felt when Woody finished that parade".
Woody endured yet another incident in the 1988 parade, when he was snagged by a tree once again. The balloon, by then the oldest still in the parade, was stuck in place for nearly an hour as his handlers tried to free him. As in 1984, the balloon was eventually successfully freed without any damage. It would be another five years before Woody's next notable accident - during the 1993 parade, a rip to his hand caused him to slowly deflate, requiring him to be lowered to the ground.
Woody's numerous accidents, as it turned out, would pave the way to a strong component of his legacy; the Thursday before the 1994 parade, Woody was featured in a starring role in the Seinfeld episode The Mom and Pop Store. Inspired by a previous incident of the balloon in the parade, the show featured a sequence in which Jerry Seinfeld unintentionally punctures it, forcing its handlers (including Elaine's boss Mr. Pitt) to carry the deflating balloon across the route. Even in the real parade, Woody could not avoid trouble; his start behind the AMC float was postponed to the Dunkin' Donuts float due to concerns about wind.
After fifteen years of high flying success and close calls, Woody was retired from the procession following the 1996 parade. It is commonly believed that the new rules introduced after the 1997 parade were the reason for his retirement, but it was clarified that the aging of the balloon, not size, was the true cause. The balloon has made just one public appearance since, in the premier edition of Balloonopolis in 2001. Unlike the other balloons, which were inflated completely, only the 33-foot tall head of the twenty-year-old veteran was inflated. Following this, the balloon was shipped back to Macy's, remaining in the float warehouse as of 2016.
Also starting in 2002, walkarounds of him and his girlfriend Winnie Woodpecker were included in the first edition of the Macy's Holiday Parade, riding the NUTZ Bus alongside other costumed characters. The walkarounds would return to the parade on floats such as the Toon Trolley and Pep Rally. The walkarounds were retired after the 2015 procession, ending Woody's involvement with Macy's for the time being.
- The Woody balloon's feet were orange, which is inconsistent with his animated appearance; his feet are actually yellow. Curiously, the feet of the model were painted yellow and the poster for the 1994 Parade as well.
- Woody Woodpecker was the longest lasting balloon produced by Kemp Balloons, and the sixth-longest lasting overall.
- During the timespan of Woody's use, a sound clip of Woody Woodpecker's laugh was heard during the NBC telecast whenever the balloon was on camera, with hosts like Willard Scott trying to do an impression of the character's iconic laugh.
- Woody Woodpecker is the widest balloon to ever be made in the Parade's history, being 45 feet wide.