A Chat with Young Bambi, Donnie Dunagan

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Donnie Dunagan, Voice of young Bambi
Donnie Dunagan, voice of young Bambi, photo provided by Disney.

Recently I was honored to take part in a chat with Donnie Dunagan, the voice of Young Bambi, to promote “Walt Disney: Bambi” available on Diamond Edition Blu-ray on March 1, 2011. Donald “Donnie” Roan Dunagan was born August 16, 1934 in San Antonio Texas. He made his film debut in “Mother Carey’s Chickens” (1938), playing the son of the “Son of Frankenstein” (1939) and provided the voice of young Bambi for the 1942. Dunagan later became a career Marine (1952-77), serving in Vietnam and working in counter intelligence. He was very generous in his time discussing keeping the fact that he voiced Bambi when he was in the Marines, remembering the production of the film, interacting with fans and more. Here’s a look at our chat.

How old were you when you got the role of Bambi?

Donnie Dunagan: I want to share good specifics with everyone, on my wonderful life story. But on your question I must guess some. My agent got some feeler contact months before Disney reached my mother. I was just six years old in the fall of 1940 when production started on the film and my trips to the Disney studio to work on it extended into early 1941. I was born in August of 1934.

What started your career in the film industry?

Donnie Dunagan: In Memphis, TN, late 1938. My parents and thousands of other in Tennessee were poor as dirt. My Mother entered me into a talent show contest. The theater was loaded with people. There was no TV yet and talent contests and even spelling bees drew large gatherings. I had learned to do some fun tap dances and songs. At not quite age 4, I won the contest. A real talent-scout was in the Memphis theater. He visited with my parents and a couple of days later we were put on a train to Hollywood. Within a month I was acting in Mother Carey’s Chickens for a wonderful director named Mr. Lee, who then took me into two other movies with co-star billing within half a year.

How did you go about obtaining the role of Young Bambi? Did you have an agent as a child actor?

Donnie Dunagan: Yes. I had an agent when I met Walt Disney. But in the end, I know my Mother got a call from the Studio and was excited, as was I. Interestingly, I fired my first agent. He then said that I was too young to fire him. He had been rude to my Mother thinking she was not a college graduate, and she was. So at age 5 and ½ I fired him.

What was the hardest part about playing Bambi?

Donnie Dunagan: If I had spoken of this while working on the film, I might have been fired! The hardest part was being serious. I loved the studio. The people were very different. I had a great time. Animators and all of the different people at Disney offered to show me how certain things worked, and the ice cream in the dining room was great.

Did you have to record many takes before finding the right tone?

Donnie Dunagan: I do not think so. I remember that I was encouraged to just be myself, a real, natural kid. I suspect Thumper had the same instructions, be honest, natural kids. Listen to Thumper. He sounds just like some kid playing second base on a dirt field in New Jersey…wonderful. Walt Disney was way ahead of his time in respecting the use of age appropriate voices for his characters.

At what age did you enjoy Bambi best?

Donnie Dunagan: Boy, what a wise question. In the mid 1970s when it was first re-released. I was a mature man then, age 40, and with a ton of uncommon life experiences, I related to Bambi much better, taking some of the real life cycles that story shares and feeling them with my own life. Mr. Disney was way ahead of his time in visual story telling. I know Ph.D., heavy-hitters that have told me of their experiences realizing more life and humanities from each viewing of Bambi.

After all these years: Do people still ask you to do recitations from “Bambi”?

Walt Disney: Bambi (Diamond Edition) Available 3/1/11
Walt Disney: Bambi (Diamond Edition) Available 3/1/11

Donnie Dunagan: Yes. Boy, did that get me by surprise. Kids always ask. At first I had to modify my long developed adult voice and get all the Marine tones out of it, in order to say “bird,” “flower” and so on. With some practice I have been able to do it!

How was a recording session like, for you? Please share with us the details you can remember, what kind of facility, how did it seem to you as a young child?

Donnie Dunagan: It was a relaxed atmosphere in the sound booth with one or two Disney crew people there, plus my Mother. It was easy does it. I thought it would be harder, since there wasn’t any on-camera work. I recall there was very little pre-recording rehearsal time. The microphones were rather basic back then, one was in a small bird-cage on a stand. It was easier than one might suspect.

Did you did any other dubbing / voice over work after Bambi?

Donnie Dunagan: No. Like a lot of companies affected by WWII, Disney changed immediately after Bambi came out and was used by our War Dept. to help our country. My family had some problems and I never was approached to work in films again, and I did not search that out either.

What kind of interaction with Walt Disney did you have during the voice recording and live action staging. Also, did you keep in touch with Mr. Disney during the next decades after making the movie?

Donnie Dunagan: There was no follow-up with Mr. Disney. The start of WWII for America changed the country and life-styles more radically than younger generations can think possible.

Can you tell me about the direction you get for the recording of Bambi desperately calling for his dead mother?

Donnie Dunagan: I remember this well. When I was told to say, with some stress, “Mother….Mother,” I must have not had the tone of fear that the story needed. A coach, I think it was a nice lady at the studio, asked me how I would cry out loud if my own real Mother was lost and in great danger. That made it easy…..thus, the fear-tone of “”Mother…Mother…”

Were you excited about being in a Disney film? Had you seen any of their films before entering the studio?

Donnie Dunagan: I was so excited to learn we were going to Disney studio than I constantly pestered my poor Mom. I had not seen a Disney film when chosen to do Bambi. We seldom went to the movies. Time was always pressed with practicing dancing, singing, language, and on and on. But I knew of the Disney studio and was thrilled to do it.

One of your first roles was ‘Peter von Frankenstein’ in the film ‘Son of Frankenstein’ – what do you remember about the experience on that set?

Donnie Dunagan: Son of Frankenstein was a child’s dream of fun. “Frankenstein” off-camera, was a good humor guy, liked by all. Mr. Lee, the director, should get an award for courage, casting me with all those polished voices. I was just a few months out of the deep south. It was great fun.

What would you say you’ve gained from your childhood career in film?

Donnie Dunagan: How to quickly identify reality from fantasy, and how to enjoy both but realize the difference.

Do you have a favourite scene from Bambi?

Donnie Dunagan: The young dear kiss, while Bambi was feeling sorry for himself, sitting in a thicket. I had to pretend to have taken a double-dose of cod liver oil, grim stuff for a kid, in order to make such an unhappy face with angry eyes. Boys at that age do not want to be kissed by a cute girl. I am glad that I grew-out of that phase!

Were you afraid at any time whilst first watching Bambi as a child?

Donnie Dunagan: Yes. While I had some sense of the story-line, nothing could prepare my Mother and I for the scope and power of Bambi the first few times we saw it. I had very wet eyes when Bambi’s mother was killed by hunters off-camera. Someone at the studio told us that the original drawings had her killed on-camera and that Mr. Disney had the very good taste to direct that to be changed.

Bambi is ageless, what do you think is the secret of this magical feeling? Is it the rhythm of the movie, is it the voices, is it the color and the photography?

Donnie Dunagan: Your question is darn bright and like some of the best questions in life, self answering. Bambi is truly unmatched in visual animation. It is like the lead song….”Love is a story that will never end”… Bambi has so much story, so many real-life emotions, and beautiful animation. It is a love song to all of us, and it will never end.

What are your current and future endeavors?

Donnie Dunagan: I am about as retired as a professor who has a night job as a police officer. I tutor truly caring students, high school and college undergrads in science and physics, mostly pro bono. The hardest working kids anywhere. Sometimes they deliver food from our food bank to elementary schools. I’m also active in Lions Club, who are great service people to area communities. And I also work for peanuts for my wife. Captain Honnnny-Dooo. Ha!

Did anyone nickname you Bambi through out your life?

Donnie Dunagan: Ha! Only in the last few years, all in good fun and mostly at my expense. And I have come to love that teasing.

Did you ever go hunting yourself?

Donnie Dunagan: Yes, but with a camera only.

Donnie Dunagan
Donnie Dunagan, photo provided by Disney.

Do you recall any aspects of Bambi that your mother recognized as being similar to you?

Donnie Dunagan: Nothing I can recall now. But I will share with you something… the drive between our home in West Los Angeles and Disney Studios was a drag! Boring! We learned to play spelling bee in the car, each one challenging the other. I had been reading newspapers since age 5 and could spell reasonably. One time I challenged my Mom that I could spell Disney “better” than she could. I remember her response,” how can you spell anything better than the correct spelling?” Mom, bet I can….bet you a quarter. ‘OK’ she said, thinking me a bit silly. She then spelled it d.i.s.n.e.y ., and then she said, OK, smarty, how can you spell that better for a quarter. My spelling of Disney was ‘F. U. N.’ She smiled, laughed and gave me a quarter.

Why did you never talk about being the voice of Bambi even when you were still a child? Haven’t you been excited to show off with your Hollywood-adventures in front of your friends?

Donnie Dunagan: During WWII, and into early teens, my thoughts were focused on just getting by. I totally supported myself from age 13 and ½ on. While I did many school plays, and later was awarded many times for being a leading instructor at the Marine officer’s colleges, I had such a dislike for ‘show-offs,’ and those that boasted about themselves, that I became a very poor self-promoter. Now, in my 70s, I am having a ball with young and old people loving Mr. Disney’s Bambi and it is an honor to be a part of it.

Have you had an interest in going back into voice acting at all?

Donnie Dunagan: Yes. I would do it in a flash. Moreover, I would love to get a shot at a real challenging on-camera character role. Send me that leading role and I will do 20 push-ups in the snow for you.

What is your favorite encounter with a fan who knew you as the voice of Bambi, either then or now?

Donnie Dunagan: It was nearly 6 years ago, in central west Texas. I was asked to help at a local fund-raising dinner with lots of people attending. I was the third speaker. The first two, gentle, gracious caring civic folks, had asked the large crowd to please pay attention to this local funding problem and please help. They were gentle and passive. That was not moving the group to do much. Then it was my turn. Right after hello…”Now, no nonsense with this. Get you check book out, guys and ladies. Now waive them in the air…Hold them up. Good. Now pens out. Start writing….I am watching.” It got lots of laughs and guess what? Lots of checks. At one of the tables was a wonderful WWII widow and the only person in Texas that knew I was part of Disney’s Bambi. She turned to a friend at that table and said, too loud, “would you believe that that fighter up there was Bambi in 1940-something.” Right behind her was the manager of the local TV station. Well, the next morning, with no notice, up pulls a TV van and a reporter. Then the Disney Studio heard of it from someone else and called me immediately.

What would Bambi’s fans find in this new Diamond edition Blu-ray?

Donnie Dunagan: Fans should put their senses on “Happy Alert.” Bambi on Blu-ray will knock your socks off. The Blu-ray technology is a visual atmosphere all its own, thanks to Mr. Disney’s insistence that even the background of the forest and the rain drops be painted in real oil paints. Stand-by for Joy.

Do you still feel connected to the character of Bambi?

Donnie Dunagan: Yes, in many ways. Bambi had to fend largely for himself, rather young, and so did I. He had to learn some hard realities at a young age and stand-up to threats and real danger. So did I. He made it, despite much and tried to stand as an example. I hope I have too.

Are you involved in any new projects right now?

Donnie Dunagan: I have many uses of my time, all for good humanist purposes. I am usually up at 4:30am, and busy in helping others including veterans, tutoring children in math and sciences, and my own home life.

How do you feel now in 2011 about being the original voice of Bambi?

Donnie Dunagan: Wonderful. Not many would understand this, if they had a clue of even half of my teen and long adult life. The reality is, at age 77, it is pure joy that both children and 80 year-olds can enjoy the film together. I could be working in the White House and children could care less. But let someone say, “that dude over there was the face, or voice of Bambi,” and I am an immediate adopted grandfather to them. That is just an unmatchable joy, and a real responsibility.

Can you share with us any final thoughts on Bambi?

Donnie Dunagan: This animated film has been with us for almost 70 years now. It has additional dimensions that one may not see or feel in the first viewing. Bambi touches us, in many good humanist ways. Disney and Bambi are truly spelled F.U.N. I was a super lucky-duck kid to have been any part of it. And to this day, I feel indebted to Mr. Disney.

Aljon Go is our in-house Jedi and  Star Wars aficionado. Between battling the Sith and visits to  Disney World, he is also the co-host of the ‘WDW Tiki Room‘ radio show and station manager for Sorcerer Radio, the official Disney station of Chip & Company! E-mail: aljon@chipandco (dot) com. Follow Aljon on Twitter@JediMouseketeer!

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