Animation, Personal Essay

The bloom is off the rose: The Saturday morning cartoons of my youth in decline, 1969 – 1972

By Scott Ross

Partly as a result of getting older, I suspect, the allure of Saturday morning cartoons began to abate somewhat as I turned eight. But only partly. I was still wild about animation (even the “limited” sort Chuck Jones once astutely termed “illustrated radio”), still spent my allowance on comic books, still went to every Disney movie that opened, and still listened largely to cartoon-related records. But the Great Moment was ending, and I think I sensed it. From the highs of Jonny Quest and The Banana Splits and The Mighty Heroes, there were more and more items like Hot Wheels, which — quite rightly — brought the ire of the FCC down on the network. And there was worse yet to come.

1969. Old Business: The previous season Bugs Bunny moved from ABC to CBS, and was coupled with the Road Runner series under the omnibus heading The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, alleviating my 12-noon, which-should-I-watch? conundrum. Whew.

New Business: The networks took their Saturday morning fare very seriously in those days. Each typically ran a 30-minute promo on the Friday evening before unveiling their new shows. On one memorable Friday night in 1969, CBS aired not only their promo piece but a full half-hour pilot for what it was obviously expecting to be its breakout hit that year. More on that anon.

I was more interested in a few other items on the slate. First, one of two Hanna-BarberaWacky Races spin-offs, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. The voice of the villain was provided by my favorite Bewitched warlock and Hollywood Squares regular, Paul Lynde. The fact that my family had just moved from Canton, Ohio to Mt. Vernon, birthplace of the then-ubiquitous Mr. Lynde, was serendipity.

Penelope seems dubious. Perhaps she knows something about Paul Lynde? (Who, if they had eyes and ears and a little imagination, DIDN’T?)

The other was Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, a strange series revolving around Dick Dastardly attempts to shot down a carrier pigeon during World War I (“Stop that pigeon! Stop that pigeon!”) “abetted” by, to paraphrase MAD magazine, a gang of the usual idiots. Since D.D. was voiced by Paul Winchell, using the same voice he’d employed in Wacky Races, his “side” didn’t seem to have been the Germans. But he could hardly have represented the Allies, especially as he’s clearly the villain of the piece, and is always foiled. See what I mean when I say it was strange? Still, I loved it. One of my most vivid memories of that time is walking back home from the YMCA on a bitterly cold December Saturday and finding my DDandMITFM Fan Club package in the day’s mail.

The other new show that tickled my fancy was a rare live-action series, The Monkees. Of course at the time I had no notion of just how ersatz and pre-fabricated the band was, or how determinedly the people behind the group (among them Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider) aped The Beatles in their feature films. But I suspect that, even if I had, it wouldn’t have mattered. I found them, and their show, cheerful, charming, and fun, from their famous “Monkees Walk” to their under-cranked antics. And it certainly didn’t hurt that their British component was the adorable former chorus-boy Davy Jones.

The show that CBS had pinned its hopes on turned out to be its big winner that year, but I found Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! a let-down. I liked the big, dumb Great Dane (memorably voiced by H-B stalwart Don Messick in the manner of Daws Butler’s Snuffles character from the old Quick Draw McGraw series, especially in Scooby’s adoration of “Scooby-Snacks”) and the first image of the main title gave me chills: Bats screaming from a prototypical haunted-house. Oh, boy! But in the pilot, as in every single episode after, the plot’s seeming phantasmagoria turned out to hold (yawn) a logical, and all too human, explanation. Like most children, I loved the eerie, the creepy, the ghastly, the ghostly. I wanted to be scared. I wanted ghouls. I wanted blood-thirsty monsters. Not guys running around in rubber spook suits. For this 8-year old viewer, Scooby-Doo violated my expectations in the most prosaic fashion. I continued watching the show, but for the characters (such as they were) and for the cute blond Freddy, not for the series itself, its lame mysteries, or its anti-spectral solutions.

The Mystery, Inc. gang has been the collective victims of countless Internet porn spoofs… especially Shaggy and Fred.

The NBC line-up continued to be great fun. I remember tearing this promo spread from a Heckle and Jekyll comic; although I thought the artwork was strange, even crude, something about it appealed to and intrigued me.

Along with the returning Banana Splits and Underdog, the most enjoyment was to be had with two new NBC series. The Pink Panther Show provided a forum for airing the Friz Freleng/David DePatie-produced theatrical Panther shorts, along with new ones, including a curious series called The Aardvark and the Ant in which a Dean Martin sound-alike emmet is menaced, Wile E. Coyote style, by a Jackie Masonesque anteater. (The Inspector shorts followed later.) But the cream of the crop was the genuinely bizarre Sid and Marty Krofft offering, H.R. Pufnstuf.

Pufnstuf was a comic fairy-tale in which a cute adolescent (the adorable Jack Wild, the Artful Dodger of Oliver!) washes up on an island populated by costumed characters, led by a Southern-accented dragon. Jimmy is perennially pursued by the ineffectual camp villain Witchipoo (Billie Hayes) because she wants her talons on the magical talking flute the boy carries in his pocket(!) There was also a big frog in a derby who looked like she wandered in from a Bob Fosse musical, evil trees, talking alarm-clocks and a sneezing house. It was crazy, atrocious, and enchanting.

1970. Hanna-Barbera continued exercising its pop music bent with two new shows, Josie and the Pussycats and The Harlem Globetrotters. Filmation likewise mutated The Archies (Archie’s Funhouse Fetauring the Giant Juke Box) and the Kroffts followed up the quasi-musical H.R. Pufnstuf with The Bugaloos, a bunch of adolescent insect musicians menaced by yet another wacky wiccan, this time played by Martha Raye, on NBC. The Archie Andrews universe also gave birth to Sabrina and the Groovie Ghoulies, fright-show refugees who (naturally) have their own rock band.

Josie, which looked like an animated Hefner fantasy, at least had the distinction of having an integrated trio. The Bugaloos was also integrated. I wonder why I don’t remember how cute John Philpott was.

I’d loved watching the real Harlem Globetrotters on television, and I enjoyed seeing them on Saturday mornings, even in lousy Hanna-Barbera animation and saddled with dumb plots and a little old (white) lady bus driver. They also sang, quite well (especially Meadowlark Lemon) and the eventual Harlem Globetrotters television soundtrack LP is still a cheery, funky delight.

Meanwhile, over at ABC…

While I was looking forward to Will the Real Jerry Lewis Please… Sit Down! (and which I now scarcely recall…)

…the winner of the bizarro sweepstakes that year was decidedly Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. Almost indescribable, LLSC starred a cast of costumed primates playing out a Cold War satire and riding around on chopped motorcycles complete with training wheels, with the lead’s voice performed a la Humphrey Bogart.

A part of me finds this sort of thing cruel now, but at the time it amused me no end.

1971. I continued to spend now-wasted hours in front of the tube on Saturdays at 10, but with an increasing loss of enthusiasm. Even comic books, my mainstay since the age of four, had begun to pall on me, what with paltry narratives and indifferent artwork. (The obvious exceptions being those featuring reprints, such as Uncle Scrooge.) The magic was waning.

The new Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show was mildly intriguing. Even more interesting than the teenage versions of the Flintstones’ and the Rubbles’ somewhat bland offspring — their sidekicks were quirkier, and more fun — was the fact that they were voiced by Sally Struthers and Jay North.

Archie’s world was re-jiggered yet again, with the utterly weird Archie’s TV Funnies. I was a comic strip maven, so I enjoyed it, but it’s hard to fathom that the Filmation team imagined 1970s kids would be turned on by animated versions ofNancy and Sluggo, Moon Mullins, The Katzenjammer Kids (or The Captain and the Kids, as it was known) and Smokey Stover. Broom Hilda was at least current, but Russell Meyers’ strip was far funnier, savvier, more clever, and better drawn, than what showed up on this curious piece of mishegoss.

The finest new show, hands-down, was not a cartoon but a revival of a 1950s series. You Are There dramatized historical events, and was hosted by Walter Cronkite. I still recall many of its episodes, notably the disappearance of Amelia Erhart, the incapacitation of Woodrow Wilson, and the confirmation of the Zimmerman telegraph. Instructive, never condescending, always intelligent, they brought history to life in a most immediate and engaging manner.

One of Hanna-Barbera’s endless sausage-factory entries this season was Help! It’s the Hair-Bear Bunch! which the author of the venerable TVParty.com site succinctly regards as “stupid beyond belief.”

1972. The Kroffts returned again, this time with Lidsville. Starring another of my early crushes, the erstwhile Eddie Munster, Butch Patrick, the show also featured former Witchipoo Billie Hayes as Weenie the Genie. But the greatest pull was the villain: The great Charles Nelson Reilly, described by TVParty.com as “the biggest queen ever to parade across the Saturday morning screens.”

The most pleasing of the new cartoons this season — the only good one, really — was without doubt Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Hosted by Bill Cosby and based in part on his childhood memories, and the use of them in his stand-up comedy LPs of the 1960s, the show gave voice (and presence) to urban black youth for the very first time on Saturday morning. The characters were quirky, funny and engaging, and while there were what I think of as Dread Moral Lessons in each episode, the series, which ran for 13 years, was often marvelous. Far above the Filmation norm… although I saw what might be regarded as the pilot, the 1969 Hey, Hey, Hey! It’s Fat Albert, when it first aired and it seemed to me that the characters, in their slicker Filmation incarnations, lost more than a little style and a great deal of soul, in the process.

This was the last year I really cared to sit around watching the Saturday morning shows, at least without something else to do… a pad to draw in, something to write, maybe a comic book. My interests were changing (novels, as opposed to comics, for example.) I was certainly changing. But the endless party was coming to a close. The shows were becoming cuter (The Smurfs, The Care Bears) and more opportunistic (The Jackson 5ive first, then The OsmondsThe Brady Kids and finally, the nadir, The Partridge Family 2200 A.D.) It wasn’t enough to engage a halfway intelligent adolescent mind (if that isn’t an oxymoron) and certainly a plunge into the abyss after the highs of my childhood.

One pleasant after-note: In 1971, The CBS Children’s Film Festival officially joined the Saturday line-up. Although, curiously, it was not on the official schedule until then, I had been enjoying the show (presumably in syndication) since the mid-to-late ’60s, drawn initially by its hosts, Kukla, Fran and Ollie, but held by the many splendid movies that followed the opening segment. The films themselves had charm and appeal, and while they were often about troubled youths in difficult circumstances in foreign climes, they never felt didactic or moralistic. And they had, in KF&O, the perfect, gentle hosts. Naturally, the Kuklapolitans were eventually axed by CBS, like Captain Kangaroo on weekday mornings.

The party was definitely over.

Thanks once again to http://www.tvparty.com/sat.html for so much of the information gleaned for this essay.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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