Many mysteries grip the world of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, ones the Scooby-Doo gang in the Mystery Machine could never solve (like why some people enjoy Scooby-Doo cartoons). But none are more baffling as the origin of the word “Tralfaz”.
Those who have a love for the word remember it from the Jetsons. It surfaced on one episode, Millionaire Astro, which first aired January 6, 1963 (and forever after in reruns). Astro was originally owned by the fabulously wealthy J.P. Gottrockets, who called him Tralfaz. The plot sees a Jury-Vac award the dog to Gottrockets, who finally decides to return him to his adopted family which divests him of the unwanted moniker for good (Astro spends the cartoon going “Tralfaz. Yeccchh!”).
The episode was written by Tony Benedict, who I don’t ever think has commented on where he got the name. But cartoon watchers have heard it before. In fact, Benedict likely heard it only a few months earlier.
Fish and Slips was released by Warner Bros. on March 10, 1962, which opens Sylvester and son watching TV and Mel Blanc intoning “A record-breaking, sharp-nose tralfaz was caught by Mr. Treg Brown.” It was written by Dave Detiege. But before that, Sylvester and “Tralfaz” tangled again in the form of a sign outside a run-down mansion in The Slop-Happy Mouse, written by Tedd Pierce and released on September 1, 1956.
But before that, “Tralfaz” appears as the name of part of a secret weapon that Private Snafu tells his girl-friend about in the Warners-made short Going Home (1945). The cartoon was never released—something about a war ending was the reason—but an animation drawing of it can be found in Chuck Jones’ book Chuck Redux.
But before that...
Warners cartoons were known for grabbing all kinds of catch-phrases and personalities from network radio, far too many to even begin to mention here. One show they seem to have left alone was Burns and Allen. Maybe it’s because George Burns and Gracie Allen didn’t have catch-phrases (other than “Say goodnight, Gracie”), and their show changed formats several times. They adopted the format they later used on TV—George suffering through the illogical logic of his wife—after Burns decided a format with the two of them as single people just wasn’t working. That was despite the presence of Artie Shaw and his orchestra.
This incarnation of the show, on September 9, 1940, opens with the following dialogue with announcer Bud Hiestand (who, incidentally, was later the announcer on the Mel Blanc Show):
George: Am I happy tonight.
Bud: Well, you should be, George, winning that $200,000 breach of contract suit against Elsie Tralafaz.
George (to Gracie): Well, I’m going down to write out that check for $25 for court expenses which will clear up that Elsie Tralafaz case once and for all.
So what was all this about?
There were several consecutive episodes of the show beginning on August 19th where George meets a bimbo named Elsie Tralafaz at the beach and, fed up with Gracie, offers to make her his new radio partner. The following week (August 26), Elsie decides to sue George for reneging on the offer, then the following week (September 2), a judge dismisses the case. That brings us to the September 9 broadcast, after which the character disappeared for good. You can hear the broadcast here and have to cue in to about the four-minute mark for the first bit of dialogue.
I realise there’s an extra ‘a’ in the character’s name, but if you say the word fast enough, it sounds like “Tralfaz;” it did when I first heard the show and that prompted this post. It could very well be Tedd Pierce (who was writing for Jones when he was making the Snafu shorts) heard the shows and remembered (or misremembered) the funny name and pulled it out when he needed one.
Then, again, it could all be coincidence. But if someone has the definitive explanation, they can let me know.
There’s another little connection between “Tralfaz” and Hanna-Barbera, if you want to stretch things a bit. The Burns and Allen Show at the time all this happened was sponsored by Hormel. And Geordie Hormel (heir to the Spam fortune) wrote some of the background music picked up by the Capitol Hi-Q library which was used in the Hanna-Barbera cartoons.