For The Observer
Woody Woodpecker is alive and well. And he was born in La Grande.
Dallas McKennon, well-known voice and actor in television and movies for over 40 years, grew up near the Oregon Trail in the Grande Ronde Valley. When his mother died during his grade school years and his father was unable to take care of him and his two older sisters, McKennon was taken in by his mother's close friends, Jean and George Birnie.
McKennon had a difficult time growing up. Like many gifted people, his mind was always spinning its own stories, its own perspective on reality, and of course, he missed his mother terribly.
The first break for this future actor came in high school. The principal called him to the office and suggested that he apply for the local radio job.
"He recommended me, and I got my first job," says McKennon. "I had to get myself a sponsor; then I came out with my first show on the air."
His show consisted of stories from O. Henry and Mark Twain. He had an uncanny ability to create the characters he read about, using only his voice. The listening audience loved him.
"I was proud of the job I did," he reminisces. "You want to hear all the voices?"
He'll do them all for anyone who has the time to listen.
McKennon had done some farm work in his teens.
"There's nothing wrong with that," he says, "but it wasn't want I wanted to do."
After graduating from La Grande High School, he stayed with his father in Seattle for awhile, then joined the Army Corps of Engineers to go to Alaska. The far north is still one of his great loves as his well worn copy of "The Poems of Robert Service" will testify.
McKennon's first real break came after his return to the states from Korea. He'd been there as "Santa Bones" entertaining orphan children with Harry Holt, founder of the Holt Adoption Agency. When he arrived home, his wife Betty informed him that he was wanted right away at Western Costume.
McKennon remembered the audition he'd done in Portland before the Korean trip. "I had been selected along with Dick Rand to ride down off the top of that mountain." The movie was "Bend in the River" with Jimmy Stewart.
"When I got to the bottom of the hill, there was Jimmy Stewart taking my picture,'' McKennon recalls. "He asked me to come talk to him when I was finished with the shot because he said, I think you need to tell me something about your background. I think you are made for Hollywood.' I darn near bawled right in his face."
McKennon is also quick to credit Walt Disney and Walter Lance for his success. After he moved the family to Hollywood, the offers began coming in. Lance had McKennon demonstrate what kind of voices he thought the Woody Woodpecker cartoon characters would have.
"When I finished, I asked him, Do you think I could be one of your characters?' But Lance said, No, you can't do one of the voices. You're going to do them all.' "
And so began a long and fun-filled career.
McKennon appeared with Fess Parker in the "Daniel Boone" television show, playing Cincinatus, the store keeper. The show enjoyed a six-year run on television in the 1960s. It was his favorite role.
McKennon's youngest daughter, Wendy, recalls hearing a man impersonate Cincinnatus on the radio in 1999. She called the station, telling them that she knew the real Cincinnatus. She and her father were invited to come to the station where Dallas and the other performer did an impromptu Cincinnatus show.
Over the years McKennon has brought to life too many characters to count. He was Captain Jet and Mr. Buttons, and was involved in the introduction of the slinky and the hula hoop.
His list of movie credits is long, and the list of voice characters is even longer.
Oldsters may remember his voice as Archie, Frank and Fenton Hardy in "The Hardy Boys" as well as their friend, Chubby Morton, Gumby and the original Tony the Tiger. His voice also figures prominently in "Mary Poppins" and the original "101 Dalmations."
McKennon's desire to share the love of family and country have spurred numerous one-man acts, sometimes as Dallas McKennon, but also as Skinny Bones Jones the Tall-Tale Teller Feller, and Mr. McGeezer, Kid Pleaser.
McKennon performed in Pendleton for three years, telling and singing about the Oregon Trail for Queen of the West visitors. Pat Kennedy, Pendleton Convention Center manager, remembers Dallas as "a very interesting character who has refused to join the 21st century. I loved to listen to his stories."
He has also written a number of songs emphasizing down-home values. And McKennon is never too busy or too refined to burst into song on the spur of the moment, no matter where he is or who might be embarrassed by his antics.
Dallas and Betty McKennon were married in 1942, have raised eight children and now live in Cannon Beach. His memories ebb and flow like the tide or perhaps more like the coastal mists. Remembering what he had for breakfast
doesn't seem too important; remembering his address doesn't really matter.
But the characters those will never be forgotten. The voices are ready at a moment's notice.
At 87, McKennon's retirement is well earned, but he can't bear the thought of not doing what he's always done, of not making someone laugh not while there are still kids who need a chuckle, people who want to learn about our country, and a man who wants to see them