Interview: Jimmy MacDonald - The Dundee voice of Disney

JUST after he retired in 1976, Jimmy MacDonald, Disney Studio's head of sound effects, gave an interview about the day his life changed forever.

• Jimmy MacDonald, head of Disney's sound effects department, lent his voice to characters including bJaq and Gus from Cinderella. Picture: Complimentary

"They said, 'Walt wants to see you,' and I thought, 'What have I done now?' He said, 'Have you ever tried to do Mickey Mouse?' I said, 'No, Walt.' You wouldn't try to do that, because it was always Walt's voice; there was no reason ever to try it. So he said, 'Do it. Just say something'. So I said (in Mickey's voice], 'Hi, Walt, how are you?' You know, he always had that little identifiable giggle. He said, 'That's fine.' He told the directors, 'Have Jim do it in the future.'"

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You have probably never heard of MacDonald, but the chances are you have heard him. In truth, it would be hard to find many individuals who have not, at some point in their lives, heard the work of a man who not only voiced Mickey Mouse for 40 years, but was also the circus train in Dumbo, Pluto's laugh, Sneezy's sneeze and thousands more sounds and voices in Disney movies for half a century. Tomorrow, a radio programme investigating his life and work will air on BBC Radio Scotland. It will also examine the fact that, far from being an American with parents who owned the sort of apple pie accents he was later to become so good at imitating, MacDonald came from Dundee.

John James MacDonald was born in 1906 at a time when much of Tayside was dominated by the jute industry. His parents were desperate to make a better life for themselves and, seeing few prospects in Dundee, left the city for the United States when MacDonald was just one month old.

"He was short like his mother," Wayne Allwine, who became the third voice of Mickey Mouse after MacDonald retired in 1976, said in a Disney interview before he died earlier this year. "He had a brother who was also short – his father was 6ft 8in and a heavyweight boxing champion of the British Army, so it was kind of rough on this big man to have two little sons. Jimmy had kind of a rough childhood, but nonetheless he turned out quite well." He was brought up in Philadelphia, a blue-collar town on America's east coast and, after school, became a jobbing musician.

"He played in a lot of jazz bands back in the Twenties," said Allwine. "For a while he was a member of what they called the Black Gang on the steamship lines. He would go and shovel coal into the boilers, and eventually found his way to Hollywood."

For a time, MacDonald worked as an engineer for a company named Burbank, but after falling down a manhole and being injured, he started playing drums in a jazz band, which was then hired to play music for a Disney cartoon. After the recording was over, Disney himself asked MacDonald to stay on, and in 1934, with Disney's guidance, he found his way into the Disney sound-effects department.

"Jimmy ended up creating and establishing the largest, most complex and complete sound-effects library in the entire business," says Joe Herrington, principal media designer for Disney Imagineering. "And he was very proud of that."

MacDonald turned the sound-effects department into his own private world, where he would utilise anything he could think of to get exactly the correct sound – building more than 500 contraptions from scratch.

As one animator, Xavier Atencio, once recalled: "Jimmy would bring hundreds of gadgets – empty coconut shells, home-made contraptions and bedsprings. If he couldn't get a particular sound he wanted from one of those gizmos, Jimmy would do it with his mouth."

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One of his projects was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Disney's first animated full-length movie. His tricks included using a leather wallet as the sound of the creaking floorboards. He also did some of dwarfs' yodelling, because, as he once explained, "when Walt said yodel, you yodelled".

But his biggest challenge was yet to come. MacDonald himself explained how he graduated to doing voices. "Being on staff, you were asked to do bits of everything," he said in an interview a year after he retired in 1977.

"In the 42 years I was here, before I retired, I wore a lot of hats, and I never got rid of any. Whenever I did any voices, the director would say, 'Jim, will you try this?' For instance, on Cinderella, I did the two mice, Jaq and Gus. It was something that I'd never tried before; we just thought we'd try it because I was on staff, and if I could do it, it would save having to pay actors to come in." Indeed, he was also the voice of another mouse, that of the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland (for which he recorded his voice at double speed and then played it back), before Disney asked him to take over as Mickey in 1946, because Disney's voice was becoming gravelly through smoking.

Despite the enormity of the honour, however, colleagues said he always saw voicing Mickey Mouse as something of a sideline, rather than his main job, which was running the sound-effects department. Yet, despite that, he went on to voice many other Disney characters, including the chipmunks Chip and Dale and the dragonfly Evinrude in The Rescuers. He was seen on screen only once, when he appeared – in a nod to his early days as a drummer – as the silhouetted figure of a timpani player in Fantasia.

Despite his retirement in the late 1970s, he never truly stopped working and was often consulted on sound-effects projects, or asked in to do a voice. Indeed, even when he died of heart failure in 1991 at the age of 84, he was preparing to work on the sounds of a new ride at Disneyworld.

Finally, 18 years after his death and more than a century after he left Dundee, MacDonald's contribution to world cinema is going to be honoured by his hometown.

Next year, Dundee City Council will launch One City, Many Discoveries – a campaign which will highlight the global contribution made by Dundonians, such as Dr Thomas MacLagan, who pioneered aspirin, and James Keiller, who popularised marmalade. MacDonald will appear on promotional materials alongside present-day city ambassadors, such Lorraine Kelly, the GMTV host – and his rightful position as Scotland's most successful voice artist will at last be recognised.

Dundee councillor Will Dawson said recently: "Jimmy's story is a truly remarkable one – his voice is so familiar to so many around the world, yet his Dundee roots are relatively unknown. With Dundee being renowned as the birthplace of some of our best-loved cartoon creations, it is fitting that the city should have spawned someone who went on to become one of the world's most famous characters.

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"There is no question that Jimmy should be remembered and celebrated alongside them as one of Dundee's greatest characters."

As Mickey himself might have said, that's definitely not all folks.

• The Voice of Mickey Mouse is on BBC Radio Scotland on tomorrow at 2:05pm