Sunday, September 5, 2010

Flagstones! Sell the Flagstones!

Take it from Yowp—the mainstream media loves pop culture anniversary stories. I guarantee newspapers and television will bathe you in “Flintstones 50th Birthday” stories closer to blow-out-the-candles day on September 30th. Sources tell this cartoon dog the Los Angeles Times will be doing something this coming week.

Naturally, the blog has had a couple of related posts already and we’ll be continuing them through the month.

Fans know the show was originally called ‘The Flagstones’ but had to undergo a name change because it was a little close to “Flagston,” the last name of the unanimated Hi and Lois, who began appearing in newspapers in October 1954. We’ll get to the change in just a minute.

First, let’s read what Joe Barbera had to say about getting ‘The Flagstones’ on the air. He was interviewed by Leonard Maltin for The Archive of American Television on February 26, 1997. He explained the push for a half-hour prime-time show came from the brain of John Mitchell, the head sales guy at Screen Gems, the television distribution arm of Columbia Pictures. Disney went from movie shorts to movie features. Barbera and Hanna decided to try the television equivalent of that. Here’s what he had to say:


We developed two storyboards with Dan Gordon...one was they had a helicopter of some kind and they were going to the opera or whatever [The Flintstone Flyer]. Another...Barney and Fred were trying to share a swimming pool, ending up building a fence across the middle of it, you know, and fighting each other [The Swimming Pool].

So, now, I go back to New York with this portfolio with two, half-hour boards stacked in there, and some other artwork, and...no one would even believe you’d dare to suggest a thing like that, I mean they looked at you as if you were crazy.

But slowly the word got out that I used to do the presentation, which took almost an hour and a half to go over two storyboards and tell them what they did, and the voices, and the blah-blah, and make the sounds, and all that stuff. And I would stagger back to the hotel and collapse. And the phone would ring; like one time I did Bristol Myers. The whole company was there. When I got through, I went back to the hotel, the phone rang and said ‘The president wasn’t at that, he just came in now, could you come back and do it for him?’

So I had many of those. One time I had two agencies fill the room. I mean, got about 40 people. And I did this whole show and I got to know where the laughs were and where to hit it. Nothing. Dead, dead. So one of the Screen Gems guys said to me ‘This is the worst. Those guys.’ And he was so angry at them. What it was, was they had two agencies and neither of them was going to let the other one know they were enjoying it so they could run out and call their [bosses].

But nobody bought it. I mean, you could go along and do this, which I did for eight straight weeks...From the window [of Barbera’s hotel room], I could see Central Park...and when I started with this pitch, it was covered with snow. Gradually, over eight weeks, I saw the snow disappear. I saw the swans come back. I saw the trees begin to bud. Eight weeks there...

After sitting in New York and just wearing out...pitch, pitch, pitch, sometimes five a day. So, finally, on the very last day, Leonard Goldenson, head of ABC, Danny Melnick, who was still around, and I think it was Tom Moore or Ollie Treyz, showed up at the, I think, it was my hotel, and bought the show in 15 minutes.

...At that time, ABC was a daring young network, they were doing a lot of Western things, and they were the ones who’d take a shot at this, you know. Thank goodness because if it wasn’t for them, this was the last day, and I was slated to get on the plane at noon, and if they hadn’t bought it, I would have taken everything back, put it in storage. And you never come back next year with it. You never try to repeat a show and sell it because it doesn’t work; they say ‘We saw that.’

But sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat thinking ‘If it wasn’t for that last meeting at 9 o’clock in the morning, when we ran across the street and got some hot coffee and sweet rolls for them.’ And John Mitchell’s carrying two coffees and I’m carrying two, we got sweet roles under the arm, hot coffee is running down your sleeves burning your hands, and we’re getting ready to make the pitch. And I think to myself ‘This is how close you come to disaster,’ right?


Joe’s spun a lovely little story. But there’s only one problem with it. The impending debut of ‘The Flagstones’ on ABC was announced in newspapers just after Christmas. The snow left and the swans came back awfully early in Manhattan that year, it seems. The Oxnard Press-Courier of December 31, 1959 revealed:

The Channel Swim: An adult cartoon show, the flagstones, is going into ABC-TV’s nighttime schedule next fall. The situation comedy format by Hanna-Barbera Productions will comment on modern-day life by depicting life among a family of suburban stone age cave dwellers.

Evidently the studio or the network sent out a release of some kind because unbylined squibs on the show began appearing over the next few weeks in various newspapers. The Lima News had the following article on January 16, 1960. Don’t take the word “today” too literally. The Syracuse Post-Standard quotes ABC’s Tom Moore in its January 6th edition; small-town newspaper editors had no qualms about banking material like this for use when space was available.

Comedy Series Starts In Fall
“The Flagstones,” first half hour situation comedy series to be produced in animation will make its debut as an evening feature on the ABC Television Network next fall, it was announced today by Thomas W. Moore, ABC-TV Vice President in Charge of Programming.
Hanna Barbera Productions, one of the most original production organizations in television, created the new all family program. ABC-TV purchased the program from Screen Gems, TV subsidiary of Columbia Pictures.
“The Flagstones” is a program for the entire family,” said Mr. Moore. “It will paint a bright, satirical picture of modern family life with the bold strokes that only the animation process makes possible. The language and behavior of the characters will be those of the contemporary world, but the settings, costumes and props will be those of prehistoric times. The pleasures and pressures of suburbia are shown as they might be in prehistoric dwellings instead of split level houses. The rigors of office procedures, will be depicted with chisels and stone tablets, instead of typewriters and triplicate forms,
“The Flagstones,” Mr. Moore added, “is one of the most refreshing program ideas brought to my attention.
The exaggerations and anachronisms inherent in the format, presented with the Hanna-Barbera animated technique will produce an entirely new brand of comedy that every American televiewer find appealing. “The Flagstones” will offer fun for children as well as wit and social satire for adults.”
John Mitchell, Vice President in charge of Sales for Screen Gems, said, “The creative talents of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera already have been demonstrated in their three animated programs which Screen Gems has placed on television. “The Flagstones” will prove their genius beyond any doubt. There never has been a program even similar to it on television.”
To produce “The Flagstones,” Hanna-Barbera Productions has begun an expansion program in Hollywood that will make it one of the largest animation studios in the world. For 20 years at M-G-M, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera produced the “Tom and Jerry” theatrical cartoons which won seven Academy Awards. In 1957, they set up their own studios to produce animated cartoons for television with Screen Gems their “Huckleberry Hound,” now seen on over 175 stations through the country, was the first half-hour series in television to consist entirely of original cartoons.

The show was apparently ‘The Flagstones’ for roughly four months. Both Fred Danzig of UPI and Cynthia Lowry of the AP mentioned at the tail end of their television columns of April 5, 1960 the name of the show had been changed to ‘The Flintstones.’ Danzig added that it would air in the fall at 8:30 p.m. Fridays but neither gave a reason for the change.

Several papers toward the end of 1959 make reference to the studio looking at a prime-time programme but it appears to have been close to New Year’s Day 1960 when ‘The Flintstones’ (né ‘The Flagstones’) were officially set to go on the air.

And you can see Joe’s interview below. He starts talking about how he and Mitchell sold the show at about the 5:15 mark.



By the way, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise The Flintstones landed at ABC, even though Hanna-Barbera’s first-ever deal was with NBC. Ollie Treyz took over as president of the company in October 1956 and his newly-named assistant was the fellow who had been president of the ABC TV network for two years—one John H. Mitchell.

9 comments:

  1. Wonderful post. I love these stories of Joe Barbera's even if they're a bit embellished. Thanks for printing them and putting them in context.

    One thing I never got was: why the name change? Of course today corporate types fight the most trivial and tenuous copyright issues to the veritable death, but back then it didn't seem to come about as often. It seems odd that given HB's penchant for (ahem) paraphrasing names, titles, voices, characterizations, voices etc. this particular thing drew enough pressure to back off. Did some uniquely sharp legal in King Features Syndicate go nuts when he saw these blurbs?

    Of course, THE FLINTSTONES was a perfect name, so however it happened, it worked out well.

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  2. I believe Screen Gems sold the show to ABC -- ABC committed to airing it, as long as Screen Gems booked the advertisers. Joe's road show was to line up sponsors for the season. "Selling it," in this case, was "selling it" to advertisers who would foot the bill.

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  3. Will, Bill Hanna says in his book that Barbera called him and told him "We're looking at a possible lawsuit." Barbera's book says they got a letter from the creator of 'Hi and Lois' complaining about the Flagstone-Flagston similarity and was ready to talk to his lawyers about it. I presume he's referring to Mort Walker.

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  4. Tom, if that's the case, if Screen Gems had a deal with ABC and they just needed to line up sponsors, the meeting with Goldenson should have been a mere formality. And, at 15 minutes, that's what it sounds like. Thus, the ABC meeting shouldn't have all the drama around it that Barbera puts on it. He could have easily put off that "deadline" flight back to L.A. if Screen Gems and ABC had to work out some stuff for a huge deal, knowing he had the sponsors and a contingency with the network. You don't just suddenly fly home and put everything in storage for at least two years.

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  5. Great piece! For those who would enjoy the trade's view, here's a link to a "Flagstones" article that appeared in weekly VARIETY on December 30, 1959:

    http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_uNET163SNII/S4RP2w7PvOI/AAAAAAAAALk/j2kJ5AI_M7g/s1600-h/Variety+12-30-59.JPG

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  6. Thanks for this great post. Whether or not there are articles that mark the anniversary, it is telling that whatever department is in charge of the HB franchise brand identities at WB seems to have done nothing for the anniversary. Unlike Scooby Doo and Yogi Bear, there seems to be no attempt to revive the Flintstones franchise. I for one (agreeing with Jean Vander Pyl from years ago) think this is a shame. I have read about the possible Broadway show, but the whole essence of the Flintstones, for me at least, is as an animated format, and since Flintstones on the Rocks--which I actually thought was pretty great--I don't believe there has been any new movement on anything new. I'd love to hear otherwise, but in the meantime am glad this blog can celebrate its history.

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  7. 88, I've seen a news release out today that Boomerang (in the U.S., I gather) is suspending programming on the 30th for a Flintstones marathon.

    Frankly, considering the coming Yogi Bear movie, I'd be happy if any "revival" would consist solely of the old cartoons, though a good book might be able to turn The Flintstones into a fine Broadway show.

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  8. Michael, that's a wonderful Variety story and actually answers something I wondered about that five-year NBC contract signed by H-B. I always wondered why Quick Draw, etc. were in syndication and not at NBC, but it sounds like the deal with the network was solely for Ruff and Reddy.

    I find it telling it's talking about one week of pitching and not eight. And there's nothing about swans and budding trees.

    Joe was the ultimate salesman. He told whatever story was best for business. In 1960, he told reporters how 'The Flintstones' sold instantly. He had to build in everyone's mind the show was winner, and therefore something to watch. In 1990-something, he told his tale of eight weeks of frustration and a desperate, last-minute deal to get the show on the air. Sure looks good in print to sell biographies.

    I suspect what really happened was something in between.

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  9. The 90 second "demo reel" used to sell the series (a proposed scene from "The Swimming Pool", which was partially reanimated- for example, Barney's head doesn't completely swivel around his body after he shoots the spear in the final version- and used in the episode that aired in October) was produced around the beginning of 1960. That, and the storyboards, is what Joe Barbera used to try to sell the show to prospective advertisers along New York's Madison Avenue that winter and early spring.

    Wanna know HOW the original sponsors bought what became "THE FLINTSTONES"? Well, Miles Laboratories {Alka-Seltzer. One-a-Day vitamins} and R.J. Reynolds {Winston cigarettes} were co-sponsoring a Western on ABC's Friday night schedule in the 1959-'60 season: a Screen Gems-produced series, "THE MAN FROM BLACKHAWK", starring Robert Rockwell as an Old West insurance investigator who usually found himself in murder, skullduggery, beautiful women and the like. However, there was a lot of flak from viewers about how violent the series was, and both sponsors were concerned that would affect sales of their products, making them quite eager to dump it at the end of the season. When Joe pitched "The Flagstones" to Reynolds' and Miles' ad agency, they bought it, explaining they wanted a nice, safe family-oriented series to replace "BLACKHAWK" [never mind that Fred was trying to bash Barney's head with a golf club while chasing him in the opening minutes of "The Flintstone Flyer"].

    By the way, Bristol-Myers eventually bought half-sponsorship of "TOP CAT" (with Kellogg's) for the 1961-'62 season.

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