By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Lee Marshall wasn’t born Tony the Tiger.
With his magnificent basso profundo reverberating in wrestling arenas and radio newsrooms for decades, he had to earn his stripes.
Marshall, who first voiced the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes icon in 1999, died April 26 at a Santa Monica hospital. He was 64 and had esophageal cancer, his son Jason Marshall VanBorssum said.
A sports broadcaster and a rock ‘n’ roll deejay as well as a ring announcer and voiceover artist, Marshall spoke in deep, rich, practically evangelical tones that turned out to be ideal for selling cereal and a whole lot more.
“If God ever wanted to make a speech,” former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda once quipped, “Lee Marshall would get the call.”
The original Tony the Tiger was an actor named Thurl Ravenscroft, whose line “They’re g-r-r-r-e-a-t” resonated across the airwaves from 1952 until months before his 2005 death at age 91. In interviews, Marshall said he started helping out as Tony when Ravenscroft was in his 80s and had an increasingly difficult time with dialogue.
Playing the goofy, gregarious tiger was an unusual gig for Marshall, whose deep voice more often landed him roles as cartoon villains.
“I would just once like to be the guy who saves Scooby-Doo,” he complained to his agent.
That would never happen, he was told: “You’ll always be the guy who tries to kill Scooby-Doo.”
Marshall’s voice often was recognized by strangers, who’d want him to “do” Tony, said his friend and former colleague “Shotgun” Tom Kelly, of KRTH radio in Los Angeles.
“He wouldn’t do it with children around,” Kelly said. “He was very protective of Tony’s image.”
“What a set of pipes,” Kelly said. “Sitting next to him, even a whisper became a roar.”
Born Marshall Aaron Mayer in Los Angeles on Nov. 28, 1949, Marshall grew up in Hollywood, where he was first exposed to a microphone on the “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” segment of Art Linkletter’s “House Party.” At 10, he would sometimes drop by radio station KFWB, where the crew let him work as gofer, fetching coffee and copy.
After Marshall’s parents moved the family to Phoenix, he picked up his first full-time radio job, as a deejay from 7 p.m. to midnight. With a prematurely deep voice, he lied about his age to get through the door. He was 14.
Three years later, he was made a newsman at another station. Soon he was at Phoenix’s over-the-top rock station KRIZ, where he and his colleagues boosted their ratings with zany stunts: saving the seal living in Marshall’s bathtub, saving the city’s Tallahatchie bridge, promoting the grand opening of a supermarket chain called Ticonderoga — “like the pencil.”
The seal and the supermarkets were imaginary. The bridge, the setting of the popular 1967 song “Ode to Billie Joe” — was in Mississippi. Thousands of Phoenix residents attended a KRIZ rally for it anyway.
“We believed in creating theater on the radio,” said W. Steven Martin, a Phoenix radio personality whose “W” was a handle added to his name by Marshall, on air, on the spur of the moment.
“He told me that nobody named Steven Martin could become famous,” Martin said.
Marshall was a newscaster at the brassy, sensationalistic CKLW in Windsor, Ontario — Detroit killings were tracked on the “Motown Murder Meter” — before working for KCBQ in San Diego, and KHJ and KABC in Los Angeles. At the latter, Marshall hosted a talk show from Dodger Stadium.
He also delivered newscasts laced with anti-gang messages at the Los Angeles rap station KDAY, which called itself “The World’s Most Dangerous Radio Station.” Many listeners visualized “King News” — Marshall’s nom de rap — “as a black prophet,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1990, and were “probably shocked when they discover that this inner-city voice belongs to a white, 40-year-old former bodybuilder who used to be a sportscaster.”
All the while, Marshall traveled the U.S. to do televised ringside interviews of professional wrestlers. One of them once heaved Marshall, clad in his black tuxedo and white ruffled shirt, into the second row, injuring his back.
In later years, Marshall, an Oxnard, Calif. resident, worked at KVEN in Ventura and taught at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
In addition to his son, Marshall’s survivors include his wife, Judie, stepdaughter Eve Borders Ottis and granddaughter Kate.
Photo: Todd Franklin via Flickr