Terminator 2’s T-1000 and Robin Hood’s Sheriff of Nottingham might be the villains of the moment, but do they have staying power? Will audiences rush to see them in 2021 as they’re rushing to see Cruella De Vil now? A fur-ocious, flamboyant, Kabuki-faced vixen who puts speckled puppies in peril, Cruella is the star of the surprise hit of the summer — Disney’s 30-year-old 101 Dalmatians, which has grossed $47 million since its rerelease in July and a reported $136 million all told.
The gravelly voice behind Cruella belongs to Betty Lou Gerson, 77, whose vocal chords have supported a 55-year career in radio, animation, and TV, and who is currently proprietor of a phone-answering business near Hollywood and Vine. ”Betty Lou has one of the greatest voices of all time. It has such variety,” says Marc Davis, the Disney animator who created Cruella. ”Cruella makes everything happen in the story, and people respond to her because everyone knows someone like her.”
But it’s those tart, smoky tones and that long, heinous laugh that define Cruella. ”That trailing laughter was an important part of Cruella,” says Gerson. ”Very flamboyant, nothing contained, huge voice.”
The voice that scared 101 pups, and a few million kids, has roots in live radio. Raised in Birmingham, Ala., Gerson starred with Don Ameche in a Chicago radio soap in the ’30s. When Ameche moved the show to Hollywood, she went along, but after a couple of movie moguls let their hands stray at a business dinner, she took a train home to Chicago, married, and went back to radio. She returned to Hollywood in the ’40s and went on to appear in Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, and Wanted: Dead or Alive, among others. But it was Disney that unleashed her Tallulah Bankhead alto: After reading the dulcet-toned prologue for 1950’s Cinderella, Gerson landed Cruella. Searching through her bag of accents, she pulled out what she calls her ”phony theatrical voice, someone who’s set sail from New York but hasn’t quite reached England.” Animators used her features, including her wraparound cheekbones, as a model for Cruella’s body, while Gerson supplied the personality.
Today Gerson gets occasional calls from animation houses requesting Cruella soundalikes, but she refuses to rip off her beloved character. After her husband’s death, she married the owner of one of Hollywood’s oldest answering services, but don’t call expecting to hear her raspy tones. ”I told my husband I’d do anything, but not the switchboard,” she says. ”I didn’t want to mess things up.”
Disney paid Gerson approximately $3,500 for Cruella and a nominal sum this summer to help out with publicity. If 101 Dalmatians is released on home video, will Gerson finally share in the phenomenal profits? In April, Peggy Lee was awarded $2.3 million for her contribution to Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (the decision is being appealed). ”The case sets a precedent,” Gerson says in a theatrical sotto voce. ”Before Disney releases 101 Dalmatians on video, they should talk to me.” They might get an earful.