Janet Waldo the Ageless Teen Reviews her Career
For some, age defines you. You are either young or old. For others, age is a number and you remain your youthful, exuberant self. Then there are the ageless wonders, among them actress Janet Waldo. Generations of people have grown up with Janet’s work even though her name may not be a familiar one. The 87 year old actress sounds as vibrant as she did when she first wowed audiences on radio with Meet Corliss Archer.
Today, she is best known as Judy Jetson or Penelope Pitstop, but she has portrayed countless characters of all ages in a rich career that includes stage, screen, television and tons of animation. After high school in Seattle, Waldo, a distant relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was performing in local theater when she won an award presented to her by fellow alum Bing Crosby, who was accompanied by a latent scout. She left for Los Angeles where she appeared in several films before beginning her radio career.
She did numerous roles in comedies and dramas before CBS cast her in Meet Corliss Archer, a teenage sitcom series designed to compete with A Date with Judy. She played the part from 1943 until it ended its radio run in 1956. By then she was married and turned down the part for television in order to raise Lucy and Jonathan with her playwright husband Robert Edwin Lee (Inherit the Wind).
When Waldo resumed her career, she wound up doing some television work, such as the recurring character Emmy Lou on The Ozzie & Harriet Show, commercials and the then-new field of television animation. She was cast as teenage Judy Jetson in Hanna-Barbera’s The Jetsons and has voiced the character exclusively ever since (the one exception being having her recorded voice replaced by pop star Tiffany for the 1990 movie).
During the 1960s, Waldo could be heard on all three networks and in multiple roles from Granny Sweet and Anastasia on Secret Squirrel to Penelope Pitstop (first seen in Wacky Races), and of course, Judy.
In an exclusive interview, during her promotional tour for the Warner Archive release of Rockin’ With Judy Jetson, Waldo explained, that radio work was very different than recording animation. “It compares because they’re similar of course,” she said by phone. “You’re standing in front of a mike without an audience, except the cartoons are bigger, broader and less real. In radio you had to be real, you could not overdo it. You had to be a real person. Cartoons don’t want you to be a real person.
“I did a show my husband wrote, The Mystery of Room 323, a very dramatic show. I love doing dramas and I have been performing that on stage, and it’s so different than the past. I always loved theater; I always wanted to go to Broadway — my husband worked there. I loved any kind of work I do.”
Originally, recording animated series was similar to radio with full casts working together unlike the current practice that often sees actors recording their parts in isolation. “One on one is quite new,” she agreed. “We worked in one room on The Jetsons. We’d do a read through around the table, then one on the microphone, and then we’d do the recording. This way you’d hear what the other actors are doing. The last time I was shocked that I was all by myself. I didn’t know what energy level the character should be because I couldn’t hear the others.”
Waldo was no teen while she spent the 1960s as Judy Jetson and even Lana Lang on The Adventures of Superman. She found no difficulty in recapturing that youthful spirit and differentiating one teen from another. “I like the challenge of a real acting role. Judy Jetson was so easy for me, I played myself. So was Corliss but they were different teenagers with Corliss being snippier while Judy was ebullient. I love challenges as an actor. I totally enjoyed it, and the teen roles were very easy to do, it was relaxed and I had fun. I love the challenge of a heavy dramatic role, but I love Judy Jetson and each teenager has a different attitude and different lifestyle.”
During this period, she continued to do live action parts, including five episodes of the one season Valentine’s Day, starring Tony Franciosa. No part daunted her and she loved to audition for them. “He asked if it was like radio. He was interested. I love auditioning. A lot of people say they will not audition, love to audition, it opens up new vistas, new things you didn’t know what you could.” On the earlier Ozzie & Harriet, her character Emmy Lou “had just a little cameo, but it was the most fun to do. She was a very dramatic while Ozzie was kind of weak and insecure. She’d get him all steamed up, and we did that in front of an audience, and they responded beautifully.”
By the time of her greatest success, her children were able to watch the finished efforts on television every Saturday morning. Anytime mom’s voice was heard, her husband gathered the children to watch. ”I also did a lot of commercials, and they’d watch all the commercials. They grew up and they knew my characters better than I do.
“When Jonathan was two and he heard me on a radio show, he said, ’Get my mommy out of that little box.’ As soon as they could talk, I had them cue me, helping learning my lines. My little girl went with me to an audition, and the producer asked if she wanted to perform in front of an audience and she said, ‘No, I want a normal life’.” Despite that, Jetsons director Gordon Hunt “called her to play a little boy on The Jetsons, and he thought it would be fun for Janet and Lucy to be together. Of course, it was the only one without Judy. Lucy was cast as a boy and she got scared, when he asked her to change the intonation. She didn’t like it and didn’t want to be dependent on phone calls. She’s now teaching at USC and Jon is a manager at the Mark Taper Theater.”
During those prolific years of the 1960s, Waldo played varying parts and many different ages. She noted that going from teen to grandmother happened in the same day. Much as she loved the challenge, fellow performer Daws Butler loved it more, going from Elroy Jetson to Cogswell during a recording session. “I found it more fun than anything.
“George O’Hanlon would not do other voices, he had the one for George Jetson and that was it. Penelope [Penny Singleton] was only Jane, she was so distinctive, she didn’t know how to change it. I found it challenging to change. You know, Daws taught voice work and many of his students are now doing many of his voices.
“It was such fun, such joy. We couldn’t wait for everybody to get into the studio. There was a rapport; we loved each other, comparing stories, and it was great fun.”
The Jetsons, a futuristic take on the nuclear family, followed the wildly successful Flintstones and Waldo noted, “I think people were totally intrigued with both shows because of the introduction of other worlds, the past and future; and I do admit that I see so many of things we talked about that are already out there like the microwave oven. The visiphone is the equivalent of Skype. I feel the kids who grew up with The Jetsons, that they invented these things. They are controlling things, inventing new things and The Jetsons made a great impact.”
Joe Barbera, who produced the countless hits with his partner William Barbera, was actively involved during those early years. “Joe Barbera encouraged me to try; he never accepted the first reading, asking, ‘What else have you got?’” she recalled. “Once I had to be a honey bee, which I didn’t like at all. In cartoons they let you get away with anything. Actually, some of the shows I did, even in cartoons, were challenging. My favorite characters were Penelope, Josie, and Judy but I remember liking Morticia [in the 1973 Addams Family show], who was sort of a challenge, actually. I tried to give each part, like the bee, a signature of some kind to make it real.”
She admitted that some of the scripts she was given left something to be desired but a job was a job. “You would have to give your best, although there were times you think, ‘Are they kidding?’ It was a job like any job; you do the best with what you’ve got.”
“I liked the reality of the early shows. There was a truth in them; now they are sort of hokey to me. Joe Barbera wanted it to be like a real family. And I think it was. I think some of the cartoons now, it’s kind of hard to follow the plots, you don’t know what they’re talking about. I have to admit, I liked it better, earlier,” said Waldo, who counts among her credits such roles as Battle of the Planets.
Despite a working career that extends back to the 1940s, it wasn’t until more recent times that Waldo discovered she had a tremendous fan following. She’s been a frequent guest at Comic-Con International and said, “It’s thrilling to me. I get so much fan mail. I get boxes of mail, and I’m feeling really bad since I don’t always answer them promptly. I get fan mail from Europe, and people send me such wonderful things like Belgian chocolates.
“I’m writing Out of Orbit about my career and I’m going to incorporate the fan mail I continue to get. It’s very exciting and I’m very grateful that it influenced people in positive ways. All the cartoons have an influence on the audience, and I agree with Joe, each show should have a message the audience will cling to and keep. I do think the older shows had more of a message.”
As Waldo prepared to move on to her next call, she did add, “I wish for everyone I talk to: if you could be fortunate enough to be hired to do a job for something you really love to do, you are home free, and that has been my good fortune. I have always been so fortunate. I worked in all facets of acting: theater, radio, cartoons, TV shows, it’s just a joy to me to go to work.”