One of the formative TV shows of my youth was Muppet Babies. The show’s mixture of animation and live-action created an imprint on me that has lasted a long time. To this day, I’m amazed at the depth and breadth of the show’s references. Another program I enjoyed watching in my youth was Dumbo’s Circus, a Disney Channel puppet-and-costume program based around the classic Disney movie of the same name. What’s the common link between these two? That would be my newest interview subject, Katie Leigh. Ms. Leigh voiced Rowlf on Muppet Babies and Dumbo on Dumbo’s Circus, and that’s just for starters. Ms. Leigh began voice-acting in the early 80s, and continues to be an active talent to this day as she can currently be heard on the Sprout series Space Racers. On Monday, December 12th, she took time out of her schedule to speak to me, and I hope you all enjoy getting to know this legendary voice-over talent.
Say hello to Katie Leigh!
Johnny: Hi, Katie.
Katie: Hi, Johnny. How are you?
Johnny: I’m doing good. Well, first of all, thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Katie: No worries.
Johnny: Alright. I have my questions ready to go. I always start my interviews with these two questions. First: What were your pop-cultural likes growing up, like favorite movies and music?
Katie: Oh, well, I’m a very eclectic person, probably because growing up was pretty eclectic. I grew up listening to Dionne Warwick and Barbra Streisand, and then when I was in high school, I liked the indie artists of the time like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Movies? I loved watching musicals. I had to go to all the Disney movies like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. When I was a teenager, I didn’t go to a lot of movies, but we’d watch a lot of movies on TV. My parents were Canadian, so we watched a lot of English movies with talents like Cary Grant. Those old classic films were favorites to watch on TV. It’s funny you ask that. I’m going to give you really obscure titles. (Laughing) Two movies I remember that impacted me were a Henry Fonda movie called Sometimes A Great Notion, and Cabaret. Cabaret was very entertaining and scary at the same time. The way it depicted WWII made me feel the horror very intensely. I cried for days afterward.
Johnny: I’m familiar with Cabaret. That was a good movie. To my next question: What were your high school days like?
Katie: Very busy. I was very active in sports and government and junior achievement. I had a job in my senior year of high school. I got out of school at noon and worked. I volunteered as a Candy Striper and was a Girl Scout all the way through high school. I was very busy. (Laughing)
Johnny: Okay. What inspired you towards a career in the entertainment industry?
Katie: I did love the entertainment business. I loved movies and cartoons. What inspired me was somebody who suggested I do voice-overs, so I looked into it. I grew up in Los Angeles, and everyone was in the industry, so I pretty much shied away from it, thinking that success was impossible. I was a good student who talked too much, so I thought it was an opportunity to maybe do something fun and make money. I was in the right place at the right time, and making money. That’s what my friend Will Ryan says. My first paycheck inspired me to a career (laughing), right?
Johnny: According to the IMDB, your first credit was voicing the title character in the American dub of the anime The Adventures Of The Little Prince. As it was one of your first gigs, were you nervous about entering the recording booth?
Katie: That wasn’t my first gig at all. The first gig was, after doing some commercials, working on a Mork And Mindy cartoon.
Katie: Yeah. I was extremely nervous and excited, and I didn’t know what to expect. When we did The Little Prince, that’s when I learned how to do looping for the picture. Because it came from Japan, I got a lot of experience with ADR on that one. My first series was called Pandamonium, and that was a very high learning curve, being in the studio and learning how to work with the other people. I worked with a lot of older gentlemen who had been in the business a long, long time.
Johnny: You mentioned working on the Mork And Mindy cartoon. Did you share any scenes with Robin Williams, and if so, what was he like to work with?
Katie: No. I was hoping I would see him, but I was all by myself. I thought I was going to be a recurring character, and that never happened, so it was kind of a big disappointment.
Johnny: Oh, I see. You voiced Sheila The Thief on the cartoon Dungeons And Dragons. What was your favorite part of working on that show?
Katie: Working with TV stars was pretty fun. I worked with Donny Most and I was a big fan of Happy Days. I also worked with Willie Aames and Adam Rich. Our director is a great guy, Hank Saroyan, and it was a great experience working with him. He was a really good director, and he had a really big heart. He had a way of getting everybody to feel like family.
Johnny: Alright. In 1984, you provided the voice for Raj Singh, who played the Little Maharaja in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. How did you land that job?
Katie: I auditioned for it through my agent. I’m not sure if I saw or heard his voice since I was supposed to voice-match, or if they heard me and thought I could do it. I don’t know, but I seem to recall auditioning for it and then getting the job.
Johnny: Okay. I know that clips from that would be used on how I first became familiar with you, which is Muppet Babies, and that leads me to my next question.
Katie: The same director on Muppet Babies as on Dungeons And Dragons…
Johnny: Oh, Hank Saroyan?
Johnny: Yeah. I’m friends with him on Facebook. When it came to Muppet Babies, as you were voicing Rowlf, one of the late, great Jim Henson’s characters, what advice did Jim offer for you when playing the character?
Katie: (Laughing) He just kind of said, “You’ve got this. You already got the role. Just make it your own”. I wanted to hear how he would do it all the time, and copy him, but he wasn’t as picky about it as I thought he’d be, which had made me nervous.
Johnny: Yeah. Jim was a great guy. I actually met him when I was 7 years old. I met him at Walt Disney World a couple of weeks before he passed away. He was filming The Muppets At Walt Disney World, and he was a real gentleman.
Katie: Wow, that’s amazing.
Johnny: When it comes to Muppet Babies, what were your favorite episodes of the show to work on?
Katie: It was so much fun pretending we were different things. I liked getting into the other characters as they did some historical ones. I remember we did one where we did Miami Vice-type characters, and I liked when I got to sing country-type music. I remember “The Green Ranger” was a fun song to sing, and I really loved working on the Valentines’ show where I got to sing. I really loved the song and I loved the sentiment.
Johnny: Yeah. There were some really great songs on there. It’s a tie between “You’re Special To Me”, from the Valentines’ episode, and “Playing In The City”, for my favorite song from the series.
Katie: Oh, yeah. I remember that song.
Johnny: With “Playing In The City”, that seems like the kind of thing that, if it were rewritten a little, and had a mention of guitar replacing that of piano, it could’ve been done by David Lee Roth.
Katie: (Laughing and singing) “Playing in the city, singing in the street. Hey, there, everybody, get up and move your feet”. I remember that.
Johnny: Great stuff, but considering the tremendous amount of footage from movies, TV shows and even music videos that were utilized on Muppet Babies, do you think there will ever be a release of the series on DVD or streaming formats?
Katie: That has nothing to do with the release of it. I don’t know what makes Disney decide to do what they want to do, but I don’t think any of those things you mentioned have anything to do with it.
Johnny: I definitely think it would be a big hit if Disney were to work with, say, StarVista, who put out the DVDs of stuff like The Wonder Years and China Beach.
Katie: I think it would be really terrific if they did that.
Johnny: One more question about Muppet Babies before moving on to other projects: Disney recently announced a Muppet Babies reboot for Disney Junior. Talents from original cartoons often return for reboots. Examples that come to mind are Rob Paulsen returning for Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the cast of Teen Titans coming back for Teen Titans Go. Would you be interested in returning for the reboot?
Katie: Absolutely. It would be a thrill.
Johnny: I hope they will reach out to you and the other talents from that series. I know that Disney, when reviving, sometimes has to do major recasts. I know that they had to get a whole bunch of new cast members for the Ducktales: Remastered video game.
Katie: Yeah, because they did it differently.
Johnny: Well, staying within Disney, you voiced the title character on the Disney Channel series Dumbo’s Circus, which I loved as a kid.
Katie: Oh, thank you.
Johnny: Not many people recall it, as you yourself said in a video where you did Dumbo’s voice, but I definitely recall it and enjoyed it. What was your favorite part of working on that show?
Katie: Being the voice of Dumbo (laughing). That, in and of itself, was pretty awesome, because I’m the only person who will have ever done a voice for Dumbo in history. They won’t ever do that again. It was an unheard-of schedule for me. We worked on that show about three days a week for a year-and-a-half, and people don’t work like that in voice-over. What a wonderful regular job to go to. I loved the songs.
Johnny: The songs were good, too. With the Muppet and puppet work you did in the 80s, did you ever consider puppetry as a hobby?
Katie: (Laughing) Not really. It’s hard work. You have to have big muscles to do that. I think I auditioned once for a puppet show, but I didn’t get the job. I would’ve learned how to do it.
Johnny: Another one of your memorable voice-over roles was as Sunni Gummi on Disney’s The Adventures Of The Gummi Bears. It’s still fondly remembered to this day. What do you think has made it stand out in people’s memories?
Katie: That’s a good question because I meet people at conventions who just burst into tears. It’s such a good memory for them. I’m going to have to ask them that question, but perhaps it’s because I think the characters and relationships were very clear, as well as the fantasy of bouncing. It was a magical thing. I think the voices were very familiar, yet very different, meaning that they were separate from each other. We had the original voices of Rocky and Bullwinkle on that show. Theres also the artwork. I think it was probably the best-produced cartoon show of that time.
Johnny: It was an enjoyable program. What was your personal favorite episode of The Adventures Of The Gummi Bears?
Katie: I remember when Rob Paulsen played Gusto. I was really happy he came on the show. Sunni had kind of a crush on him, and that was pretty fun.
Johnny: Pardon me for being tongue-tied. I just think about Disney and how these programs really had an impact on my youth. I caught a lot of Hell for my Disney fandom as a kid. I mean, I liked Mickey Mouse so much that I thought he was a real person, and the kids jumped on that and said things like, “Hey, John! Mickey Mouse is dead!”.
Katie: Aw, that’s so heartbreaking. Why do you think Gummi Bears is so popular?
Johnny: I think, probably, what makes it popular is that it took this idea that nobody would think would make for a cartoon, and it made something memorable out of it. Before that cartoon came along, people heard the phrase “Gummi bears” and they thought of the candy.
Katie: The candy, yeah.
Johnny: Right, and after the show came out, then people associated it with the cartoon instead. I think it had that kind of influence, and I think that’s what made it stand out. To my next question: 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of your debut as Connie Kendall on the long-lasting, and one of the last of its’ kind, radio series Adventures In Odyssey. Although your book Adventures In Oddity answers most questions one would have about the show, what do you think has made it stand out throughout the decades?
Katie: Most people tell me it’s the honesty that they hear in the writing. They really relate to the characters and their depth. Our characters have depth and they’re very relatable. That’s what I think. They mostly see themselves in the characters. They find one that they really associate themselves with.
Johnny: I see. Moving back into the 00s, you voiced Zoe and Fuschia on several episodes of Animalia, a show written by former Animaniacs staffers in the time between that show’s cancellation and the debut of The 7D on Disney XD. I admire, and am Facebook friends with, talents like Sherri Stoner and Tom Ruegger. What was it like to be working with writing geniuses like them?
Katie: That was a great show. Tom Ruegger was working on it, and it was great working with him. I just thought the scripts were really well-written, and I enjoyed them very much, not to mention the characters and the artwork. The actual visuals are really wonderful. I wish more people could see that show.
Johnny: Yeah. I saw a couple of episodes and I was impressed. I liked how, even though it was based on the books, it still had the humor that could’ve been found in an episode of Animaniacs or Tiny Toon Adventures. Your most recent work has been on the Sprout series Space Racers. What’s been your favorite part of working on that show?
Katie: Well, our director, Mark Risley, is terrific, and I’m working with friends. A lot of us worked on The Mr. Men Show, so we’re familiar with each other and doing another project together. It’s always wonderful when you get to work with your old friends, and then hear voices that you haven’t heard them do before.
Johnny: Definitely. To a bigger question: What would you say has been the biggest change in the entertainment industry between the 1980s and 2016?
Katie: The use of the unions, and the marketplace. I mean, in the 80s we had four television stations available for distribution. Now the whole marketplace has completely changed. You don’t have to wait for anything…Well, I mean, you do in some respects, but if you don’t have that channel, there’s so much on demand and to record. I think, as far as production and marketing, that’s changed quite a bit. The cost of production has been reduced, and there’s the techniques available. There’s no hand-painted cells anymore. Labor is different. Does that answer your question?
Johnny: It does. It’s a question I often ask talents who have been in the business for decades.
Katie: Another change is the usage of more TV personalities than there used to be. I mean, people can be producing their own stuff. There’s a lot of people coming into the business sideways, so to speak, creating their own products and marketing them outside of the mainstream.
Johnny: Yeah. You know, this is a question I’ve never actually asked any of the voice-over talents I’ve interviewed before. There are some talents, like Billy West, who don’t care for major celebrities doing voice-over work, feeling it robs voice-over talents of work that could be theirs’. What’s your take on that?
Katie: Well, I’m always thrilled to meet a TV star or movie star that I have a fan crush on. I’m always happy to see someone in the studio I’ve always wanted to meet. As long as they do a good job, that’s the main thing. I do believe it’s made it a little harder as a voice actor to get cast nowadays, because it seems like a popularity contest, but I can’t say it isn’t a thrill to meet someone I am personally a fan of.
Katie: That’s one of the fun things about working in Hollywood. It’s getting to meet personal favorite stars.
Johnny: I can see that. You’ve appeared at quite a few conventions like Comic-Con. What’s been the most rewarding part of attending these shows?
Katie: Talking to the fans and hearing the impact some of my work has had on their lives. Meeting them face-to-face and watching the thrill and joy on their face it gives them to meet me or do a voice that they’re fond of, and seeing the joy on their face that they get is a really rewarding experience.
Johnny: Okay. Now I come to my final question. It’s one I haven’t asked in a while, but I usually end my interviews with it, and it’s this: If you could go back to your youth with the knowledge that you have now, would you do anything differently?
Katie: Probably, but not a lot. (Laughing) What would I do differently? I think I would be nicer to my sister.
Katie: (Laughing) Is that an unusual answer?
Johnny: I’ve gotten quite a lot of different answers to that question. That about does it for my questions. I apologize if I stumbled over my words at times.
Katie: No, you’re very eloquent. It was nice speaking with you.
Johnny: It was nice speaking to you, too. I hope you have a good afternoon.
Katie: You, too. Thank you so much.
Johnny: No problem. I’ll be in touch. See you later.
Stay tuned, because coming soon, I’ll be flashing back with actress and dancer Galyn Görg. Thank you all for your support of my writing, and have a happy new year.