Animation, Personal Essay

A consummate groove: The Saturday morning cartoons of my youth, 1966 – 1968

By Scott Ross

In the 28 December 1968 installment of his “The Glass Teat” column for the Los Angeles Free Press, Harlan Ellison copped to being “a devout Saturday morning cartoon watcher,” noting in the nomenclature of the time, parsed as only he would, that the then-current network offerings were “a consummate groove.” I know what he meant.

Although my conscious memory stretches back, improbable as it might seem, to the age of one or two, I date my memory of that cherished ritual of the TeeVee Generation — rising before mom and dad bestirred themselves, bolting down a bowl of Coco-Puffs (or Rice Crispies or Cap’n Crunch or whatever the breakfast cereal du jour might have been) in the kitchen (we were not allowed to eat in the living room except on TV trays, and then only on special occasion) and plunking ourselves down in front of the tube for the next several hours — to 1966. I was five then, and already cartoon-mad. For roughly the next six years, as my tastes evolved and the glories of the form began first to magnify and expand and then to cheapen and recede inexorably, the cathode box was my companion, my babysitter, my best friend.

Thanks to TVParty.com http://www.tvparty.com/sat.html I have lately been able to reconstruct the full panoply of those (mostly animated) delights that held me rapt, and kept me out of my mother’s hair, for roughly four or five hours every Saturday morning during those years.

1966. Some lunatic called Ralph Bakshi, of whom I would learn more later, came up with a crazed entry for CBS called The Mighty Heroes, consisting of Diaper Man, Tornado Man, Strong Man, Rope Man and (my favorite) Cuckoo Man. My memory of the show is a bit vague, but those wild character designs remain vivid.

The TTV-Leonardo folks, meanwhile, who had previously given us King Leonardo and His Short Subjects, came up with their own wonky superhero, Underdog. Voiced by Wally Cox, of all people, his transformation from shy, retiring Shoeshine Boy to intrepid do-gooder was accompanied by the immortal cry, “There’s no need to fear: Underdog is here!” I can still recall his sweetheart, Polly Purebread, performing a song called “Let’s Bongo Congo.” Why? Beats me.

Over on ABC, vintage Warner Bros. cartoons were re-packaged under the rubric Porky Pig and Friends, featuring a truly ugly main title sequence.

As Porky ran opposite the Hanna-Barbera Atom Ant, I rarely saw him until the network moved him to Sunday morning. My first school lunchbox featured this formican wonder-worker. Hanna-Barbera had a second offering on ABC, Secret Squirrel; he and his co-hort, Morocco Mole, were on the flip-side of the Atom Ant lunchbox, along with a character I barely remember, the somewhat unsettling Squiddly Diddly. I recall with far greater alacrity Atom Ant‘s Precious Pup for his wheezing snicker, which H-B, never a pair to be shy about beating any gag into the ground and on to China, used for several other canine characters over the ensuing years.

“Up and at ’em, Atom Ant!”

Cashing in on the phenomenal popularity of a certain mop-topped quartet of Liverpudlians, ABC gave us The Beatles in Filmation form. The songs were theirs, but their voices were provided by Paul Frees (John, George) and Lance Percival (Paul, Ringo.) Like, too mod!

Milton the Monster is, sadly, forgotten now. But I recall him fondly; I was especially taken with Count Kook’s request, “When the stirring’s done, may I lick the spoon?”

“I’m Milton, your brand-new son!”

The Jetsons was one of many attempts by Hanna-Barbera to replicate their success in prime-time with The Flintstones. It ran a single season, but found life in perpetuity on Saturday mornings. As an adult, I was amused to discover the Joe McDoakes series of comedy shorts starring George O’Hanlon, the voice of George Jetson.

“Help! Jane! Stop this crazy thing! Help! Jane!”

Noon was a time of deep frustration. On CBS, there was The Road Runner Show with its catchy (albeit all too ’60s) theme song and Chuck Jones-designed main titles. Over at ABC, The Bugs Bunny Show, featuring the immortal “On with the show, this is it” opening and “Starring that Oscar-winning rabbit, Bugs Bunny.” And on NBC, Bob Kane’s Cool McCool with its own hip theme song (“Danger is his business.”) I must have driven myself slightly nuts deciding between this trio of mouth-watering entities.

A Virgil Ross model sheet for Wile E. Coyote.

Cool McCool.

I suspect I switched from the Cool McCool opening to Bugs and then back and forth between the bunny and the Road Runner. The choices! They could drive a poor child mad!

Since my parents never owned a color set until after I left home at the age of 19, this is how I saw everything while I was growing up.

Magilla Gorilla ran after that, briefly, followed by Tom and Jerry, which also eventually ended up as a Sunday morning offering. As I’ve grown older I have less and less admiration for those early Hanna-Barbera shorts, as beautifully animated as most of them are. But I still love it when Tom gasps.

1967. One of the occasional pleasures for a comic book aficionado in the mid-’60s was the seasonal appearance, usually in two-page centerfold spread, of ads touting a network’s new fall Saturday morning offerings. I used to pull these from my comics and keep them in a growing cache of newspaper and other clippings.

Very few of the new ’67 shows appealed to me especially. My comics of choice were of the “funny animal” variety: Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck, Looney Tunes characters, Hanna-Barbera, the Harvey comics. Superheroes bored me then, as indeed they do now. I remember Spiderman mostly for its theme-song, but I suppose I must have watched a few of the others, simply because they made up the bulk of the offerings on all three networks, broken up only by The Flintstones, Atom Ant and another failed Hanna-Barbera attempt at prime-time, the Bilko-like Top Cat. Another catchy theme song in that, one that was cannibalized years later by the makers of the exuberantly, hilariously offensive Queer Duck.

Top Cat! / The most effectual / Top Cat! / Who’s intellectual…

The two standouts that season were polar opposites. One was completely new, the other yet one more Hanna-Barbera prime-time cast-off that ran a single season. One was the product of two of the most inventive, even subversive, minds ever to work in the field of television cartoons, forever pushing the boundaries between adult sensibility and childish humor; the other the natural outgrowth of comic book adventure tropes geared to pre-adolescent boys.

George of the Jungle issued from Jay Ward and Bill Scott, the inspired loons behindRocky and Bullwinkle. In it, an inept erstatz Tarzan (“Watch out for that… treeeee!”) disported himself with a gorilla who sounded suspiciously like Ronald Coleman, and a jungle maiden named Ursula (shades of Miss Andress), whom George called “Fella.” In between their escapades were the adventures of Henry Cabot Henhouse III, aka Super Chicken, and the stalwart racer Tom Slick. It was wild, unpredictable, full of outrageous puns and inexplicable sight-gags. And, as with Rocky and Bullwinkle, one enjoys it even more as an adult than one did as a child.

George’s polar opposite, Jonny Quest, was straight-up action-adventure, usually in “exotic” climes and often with supernatural, or seemingly supernatural, forces at work: Mummies, werewolves, terrifying globs of invisible energy, gargoyles, kimodo dragons, spider-like one-eyed robots and, in one especially memorable episode, a pterodactyl. It was a curiously homoerotic enterprise, what with Jonny’s widowed father Dr. Quest, his factotum, the humpy Race Bannon, Jonny, and the group’s Indian ward, Hadji and, aside from the mysterious Jade, no women or girls to speak of. The character designs were by the comics artist Doug Wildey. The astonishing, big-band driven theme was by Hoyt Curtin, and Jonny himself constituted my very first crush. Typical of me, I suppose, that the first boy I fell in love with was a cartoon character.

Doug Wildey’s model sheet for Johnny Quest.

1968.

TTV came up with Go-Go Gophers, an Indian Wars satire more or less on the level of F-Troop. The Natives may have been visually offensive, but the White Man was represented by bumbling foxes led by the incomparably inane Colonel Kit Coyote, so I suppose there was something here to offend everyone.

Hanna-Barbera weighed in with the truly bizarre Wacky Races, in which a platoon of improbable vehicles and their alternately weird and/or creepy drivers, vied each week to out-smart, and out-villainize, each other. The lead stinker was the superbly malevolent Dick Dastardly (voice by Paul Winchell) who seems to have been designed after Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate in The Great Race. His side-kick, Muttley, inherited Precious Pup’s wheezy chortle.

Also making their debut were The Archies, Filmation’s adaption of the Archie Andrews comics, in which the teens had, naturally, their own band. They even got a Top 40 hit (“Sugar, Sugar”) out of it.

Best of the… er… bunch… though, was the Hanna-Barbera produced The Banana Splits. Four costumed nut-cases (the character designs were by Sid and Marty Krofft, and Fleagle was voiced by Paul Winchell) danced, cavorted, engaged in slapstick, played pop songs, and hosted animated shorts (The Three Musketeers, The Hillbilly Bears, Arabian Nights, Micro Venture) and a live-action cliff-hanger called Danger Island! whose catch-phrase (“Uh-oh… Chongo!”) became ubiquitous. The Banana Splits theme (“The Tra-La-La Song”) was pretty nifty too.

I was wild about this show. I had Banana Splits hand-puppets, Banana Splits comics, and was a Banana Splits Fan Club member. Somehow, I missed the two 45 rpm EPs. Well, one can only eat so much sugared cereal.

Curiously, I didn’t recall that Danger Island featured a much later crush, the impossibly pulchritudinous blond beach-bum Jan-Michael Vincent. Perhaps I was too distracted by Jonny Quest to notice. But with that boy running around half-naked and being a part of such jaw-dropping homoerotic images as the above, I’m shocked it all went past me so easily.

[Stay tuned, boys and girls! Part Two comes your way next!]

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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