Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and a staple of TV animation in the 60s and 70s yet today she is almost totally forgotten. Of all the cast members in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, perhaps the most difficult to find biographical information for was Joan Gardner. There was almost nothing on the internet, she had not been written about in any books and even newspaper articles were extremely difficult to find. To add to the confusion, there was also a British actress in Hollywood with the same name. However, with persistence, I finally was able to locate her cousin who was able to flesh out her story and provide me access to some of Joan’s personal memorabilia. Here, for the first time anywhere, is an overview of Joan Gardner’s life and career.
Joan, born in Chicago on November 16, 1926, came from a rich heritage of performers on both sides of her family. Her grandmother and mother, both named Adelaide, had a stage act, "Adelaide and Baby Cline" (Cline being her mother’s maiden name) and Joan began her show biz career appearing with them on stage at the age of five. Her father was famed jazz pianist, “Jumbo” Jack Gardner (so named because of his girth-at one point he was rumored to have weighed 400 pounds), who became one of the original members of Harry James’ big band. Her parents divorced when she was but a toddler, probably due to her father’s drinking habits (he was later fired by Harry James for drunkenness), and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles.
Soon thereafter, her mother married Edward Halpern, who, although he never adopted her, became the only father Joan ever knew. Joan Gardner continued her stage and musical training through her high school and college years and even had some bit parts in movies including a deleted scene in the 1947 Cecil B. DeMille film, Unconquered.
Her career in television began in January 1948 when she became an assistant production supervisor and writer for Stokey-Ebert TV Enterprises, the company that produced Armchair Detective (CBS, 1949) and Pantomime Quiz (1947-1959, CBS, NBC, Dumont and ABC). Both shows were filmed at KTLA, a local Los Angeles television station, which is how she ended up joining former Looney Tunes director, Bob Clampett, in December 1949 as a writer and performer for his television puppet show, Time for Beany, also filmed there. Joan provided the voice of Beany’s girlfriend, Susie, as well as the vocals for all the female characters.
(Below is behind-the-scenes look on the set of Time For Beany. You can see more images from this photo session at the Life Magazine photo library.)
Her mother, Adelaide Halpern, also contributed to Time for Beany, writing songs and special material including “Cecil the Sea Sick Sea Serpent” and “Beany” (i). Joan’s next gig with Clampett was in 1950 as head writer, puppeteer and assistant producer on another of his puppet series, Buffalo Billy, which originated out of CBS in New York; writers on the series were Bob Clampett, Don Messick and Gardner. (Adelaide Halpern also made musical contributions to this series). Many of the characters on Buffalo Billy later showed up on the 1962 animated series, Beany and Cecil, where Gardner once again found herself providing voices for Bob Clampett.
She took time off from her career when her stepfather passed away in 1952 but rejoined the work force in earnest a year later to help pay off the debts left from her stepfather’s sudden passing. Gardner re-signed with Clampett in 1953 to work on Flyboy, another daily puppet series out of the KTLA studios, where she supplied the voice of Flyboy himself as well as miscellaneous female characters. (The second photo below has Joan posing with legendary Hanna Barbera voice-over artist, Don Messick.)
Joan Gardner finally entered the animation field in 1958, voicing the character of the boy, Spunky, in Spunky and Tadpole for producer Ed Janis, whose Beverly Hills Productions produced the low budget animated show. The character of Tadpole was played at first by Don Messick, with whom she had worked on Flyboy, and later by Janis himself. The show lasted only three years although her association with Janis would continue for the rest of her life; they married in 1960.
Also in 1960, Gardner began her fortuitous relationship with UPA, doing voice work for The Mr. Magoo Show, the new TV cartoon series ushered in by Henry G. Saperstein. Next up was Gay Purr-ee for producer Lee Orgel, which led to her roles as Tiny Tim, the Ghost of Christmas Past, etc. in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. For 1964’s The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, she contributed female voices for over 10 episodes, alternating between children, ingénues, matrons and villains for Sherlock Holmes, Noah’s Ark, Frankenstein, Don Quixote Parts 1 & 2, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Count of Monte Cristo, Snow White Parts 1 & 2, Rip Van Winkle and The Three Musketeers.
Gardner continued her writing career and made her big screen debut in 1965, penning the low budget beach party/horror film Surf Terror for producer husband, Ed Janis. The film saw release as The Beach Girls and the Monster, later running on TV as Monster from the Surf. (Newspaper articles during her lifetime would credit her with writing three different movies, using all three titles, although they were all one and the same.)
Between animation gigs on such other shows as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Valley of the Dinosaurs and Snorks, Joan found work doing radio commercials and on camera roles in television commercials. As the 60s rolled into the 70s, Joan started working with Rankin-Bass on their TV specials, providing voices for The Mad, Mad, Mad Comedians, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, the second of her animated Christmas specials, and Here Comes Peter Cottontail.
Her last writing effort to make it to the big screen was the little known 1973 Western/horror film, A Man for Hanging, also produced by her husband. There was a later effort by Ed and Joan to film another one of her scripts, Scavenger’s Gold, but funding eluded them and it was never produced. (Right, Ed Janis and Joan Gardner, ca. 1973)
Joan Gardner died December 18, 1992, thirty years to the day from the debut of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Sadly, Joan, her mother and grandmother all died fairly young from the same cause, cancer. Although her passion was writing, immortality seems to have eluded her there but she will always be remembered for her vocal performances in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Christmas perennials viewed with fondness each holiday season by succeeding generations.
(i) There were announcements in the trades at the time that Halpern was to provide the theme song for a feature film version of Cecil the Sea Sick Sea Serpent, to be sung by Danny Kaye. The film was to be directed by former Looney Tunes director, Frank Tashlin.