Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Get Set! Get Ready! Here Come Lucille and Reddy!

It’s pretty well the established story that Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera got their notice to leave MGM (from an accountant), planned their own studio, took their MGM staff with them, hired Daws Butler and Don Messick, sold Ruff and Reddy and began a multi-billion-dollar television animation industry.

Well, not quite.

For one thing, not everyone came over from MGM; former Disney artist James Escalante vanished somewhere after leaving Culver City. It seems Bill Hanna, for a brief time, had his own separate company, as revealed by historian Keith Scott in ‘The Moose That Roared.’ And Don Messick was not the first choice for one of the starring roles in Ruff and Reddy. Lucille Bliss knows who was. She was.

Lucille Teresa Bliss is a remarkable 94 years old. She may be best known to one generation for her role in The Smurfs. She may be known to a later one for Invader Zim. She may be known to an earlier one as Crusader Rabbit. She appeared in Walt Disney’s version of Cinderella (1950).

Five years ago, Lucille was interviewed for the Archive of American Television about her career. The site is a wonderful treasure of information about the Golden Age of Television told by the people who were there. The interviews are more interesting than what’s on television today.

She tells a fascinating story about the man who wrestled Crusader Rabbit from Jay Ward and Alex Anderson—Shull Bonsall. Lucille had been the rabbit’s voice in the original cartoons in 1950-51 and Bonsall decided to play a game of hardball to get her to return for his 1957 version. Bonsall told her his was going to be a non-union shop and she’d get a $30 fee and no residuals.

Let’s pick up her story. Here’s a transcription of the interview:


And then Hanna-Barbera called me the next day, and said “We’re starting ‘Hanna-Barbera.’ They were leaving MGM, they had left. “And we’re going to do a show called ‘Ruff and Reddy.’ We want you as our Ruff and we’ll pay you $50,000 for four years, exclusivity.”

Awwwgh! 50 thousand. I’d never had that much money in my life. I thought “My God, to be at Hanna-Barbera, oh, this is fab...” I had worked commercials for them at MGM. I thought “This is wonderful.”

Well! I didn’t realise that Bonsall called again and said, “You are our rabbit.” But I said “I don’t want to do it.” “But you belong to us.”

So I went to the union. They had a lawyer there and I didn’t understand. I understand the game now. Shall we say that when somebody says “You help me and I’ll help you, and I’ll help you, you help me and I’ll help you, mainly I’ll help you” you think “It’s my big brother and he’s going to help me.” But he means “You’ll pay me, baby, and then I’ll help you,” but—

Well, I didn’t get the message. I was too dumb, I mean too ignorant. I didn’t know things like that. I was [unintelligible], I was innocent and ignorant. And I didn’t know what he meant; I thought I got a big brother.

Nothing happened. And Bonsall kept calling. And I said “Wait a minute. What about, you know, uh, what’s happening with me?” “Well, so far, it’s hard to do, honey, it’s hard to do.” So, nothin’.

So then, I got a call—wait a minute, that was the other call from Hanna-Barbera, from Bill Hanna. He said, “Lucille, we want you. We’ll make it up to you. We can’t touch you because Bonsall is a rich, wealthy man, a successful man, he owns part of the L.A. Times, he owes somethin’ else, and somethin’ else, and he’s so rich and so powerful in L.A. If we go against him, Hanna-Barbera will never get off the ground. We can not use you. But we will make it up to you some day.” And they did later. 20 years. Joe [Barbera] said to me 20 years later, they made it up with Smurfette.

But, anyway, so—I couldn’t work. Any time I went to a studio, they said “Oh, you’re supposed to do Crusader Rabbit, aren’t you?” And I said “Well, no, I won’t work. I’m union. It’s non-union.” “Well, sorry, hon.” I could not work for three months, either.

Then I got a call from Shull Bonsall saying “This is Shull Bonsall.” And he said “We’ve got now Ge-Ge Pearson. She’s understudying you. She’s going to be the rabbit. And we’ve got all your tapes, so we’re going to use a lot of your dialogue and very little of hers’.” I said “How can you—” “Ha, ha, ha!” He says “We can do that and that’s what we’re going to do. So, go out now and get a job.” I said “Go out now? After three months and you ruined the best deal with Hanna-Barbera I ever could have had?”

“Well,” he says, “Honey, all you’ve”—and I’ll never forget—“All you’ve got is a phone call to prove it.” And then he burst into wild ‘ha-ha-ha-haaa’ laughter and hung up.

And so it was that Hanna-Barbera went with Don Messick as Ruff. Whether he had been hired to do other roles on Ruff and Reddy at that point is unknown.

Incidentally, Joe Barbera didn’t wait 20 years to hire Lucille Bliss. She appeared on the best-left-forgotten Space Kidettes (1965), along with people I’ve, well, forgotten because I haven’t seen the show in 45 years.

What’s odd is Hanna-Barbera didn’t hire her when opportunities came up after the Bonsall incident. In the first season of the Huck Show in 1958, it sounds like Ginny Tyler was brought in for a couple of cartoons. The following year, Jean Vander Pyl was hired. Then Julie Bennett. Then Bea Benaderet (after June Foray was brought in for a Flintstones test reel). Then Penny Singleton (after a brief go-around with Pat Carroll) and Janet Waldo. In fact, Lucille reveals later in the interview she landed a role in The Jetsons—as Elroy. But perhaps we’ll transcribe that interesting story at another time.

If you’d like to hear this part of the interview, you’ll find it here. The Archive also conducted a conversation with Joe Barbera, with the established story we all know. Minus what you’ve just read.

17 comments:

  1. The Lucille Bliss post sure illustrates and underlines some evergreen truths about dealing with radio/teevee/showbiz people in particular as well as some kinds of people in general.
    Kudos and thanks as ever for the info, Yowp. Thanks especially in edifying me for its own sake, rather than engaging in the sort of psychological hijinks that Ms. Bliss was on the recieving end of. Those Archive interviews are marvelous! I'm now going to make a point of checking out the Lucille Bliss installment.
    Bob Schaeffer

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  2. Lucille sounds like she did at least one other job in 1957, for Friz Freleng at Warner Brothers, voicing the little girl in "A Waggily Tale" (it might not be Lucille, but it's a voice that sounds a lot like the one she'd use for Smurfette 24 years later).

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  3. Bob, I knew nothing about him until I read Keith Scott's book and what he did to Jay Ward.

    JL, sounds like her. The same person's doing the mom and the girl. I'm not crazy about the sped-up voices, though.

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  4. Great post, Yowp. Boy, having been in the radio and voice-over business for the last 30 years, and having dealt with agents and agencies..I think some of these self important types play these power games simply to justify their existence. Who else would put up with them? Love the Archive of American Television site. The interviews with producers, writers and actors are very insightful. By the way, I have seen " Space Kidettes " within the last year or so. I remember watching it as a child....forgettable.

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  5. I loved Space Kidettes. Great design, etc. Loved Daws Butler as the evil Captain Skyhook. But Yowp is mistaken. Dick Beals was not in the show. He was in Frankenstein, Jr., however -- another favorite of mine. :-)

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  6. Anon, thanks. Shows you how foggy my memory is after all this time. Maybe I'm thinking of Beals as Space Boy Arthur and his dog Zero. I watched the show a couple of times way-back-when and just couldn't get into it.

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  7. Yowp --

    The sped-up voices are a bit on the irritating side, though I will give Friz credit for trying to do a then-topical characture of Jerry Lewis (Since he'd do Dean Martin 12 years later for The Ant and the Aardvark, Friz must have been at least a bit of a fan of Dean and Jerry).

    I really can't recall any other use of Bliss at Warners, at least on the theatrical level, and thought it was odd they'd call on her for just one cartoon instead of just using Foray (who certainly wasn't short of work at Warners in the late 1950s).

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  8. I would have thought Daws came up with the voice, since he did it in Fractured Fairy Tales and it twice in the Quick Draw cartoons, once as Quick Draw, Jr.

    I don't recall if he did it on the Freberg show.

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  9. Very interesting write-up of a relatively unknown voice artiste. Ms. Bliss' IMDb bio lists very few credits through the 1960s, with nothing from a guest part in a Season 1 FLINTSTONES (as a nondescript boy scout) and SPACE KIDETTES five years later. She did resurface towards the ends of the 1970s in several prime-time FLINTSTONE seasonal specials. Maybe that's how she got the part of Smurfette.

    As to her relative absence in the interim, one wonders if she was doing commercial voiceovers or took a temporary leave from the business after the horrible treatment accorded her.

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  10. It's fascinating to read of the various casting considerations for characters that we grew up watching and wondering how different shows would have turned out.

    Somehow I just don't see Lucille Bliss as Elroy. While she provided the voice of another young boy, SPACE KIDETTE Snoopy, it's hard to think of her sustaining such a prominent role as one of the four Jetson family members for 24 episodes. And since Daws Butler ultimately became Elroy, who would have voiced Henry and Cogswell (perhaps they wouldn't have been created without Butler to do their voices), not to mention virtually every cop, crook, snooty merchant, and other incidental characters?

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  11. They had Blanc and Messick. I think they could have handled just about any role between the two of them. Actually, they wouldn't need Blanc; Messick could do almost anything himself.

    Her Elroy certainly would have been different but I can see it working. Certainly better than whoever thought Morey Amsterdam could play George.

    I can't remember if the interview addressed it (I actually wrote the post in July and it's been in the can since), but I suspect she was doing radio spots.

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  12. Don't forget Howard Morris.

    Blanc and (believe it or not) Messick weren't in every episode of the 'Classic 24' JETSONS. H-B's budget in the early 60s apparently was such that the principal cast of a show provided many incidentals as well- especially Blanc on THE FLINTSTONES and John Stephenson on TOP CAT- with only one or two guest voices (credited as "other voices") per episode. In later seasons, THE FLINTSTONES frequently had three or four guest voices.

    Since George O'Hanlon had no range to speak of, and the other three Jetson family members were originally to be voiced by women, there would be no 'core' male actor to provide incidentals. Butler ultimately ended up providing that service.

    The only early (pre-1966) H-B show I can recall to have a regular 'utility' actor for incidentals was the titular segments of THE ATOM ANT SHOW. Allan Melvin, who played no recurring characters, was in nearly all 26 episodes.

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  13. Don't forget Leo De Lyon and Marvin Kaplan provided incidentals on TOP CAT. The only regulars on TOP CAT were: Paul Fress,Don Messick, and Hal Smith. Suprisingly Daws Butler only guested on one TOP CAT episode "ALL THAT JAZZ".

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  14. Sad that when Lucille Bliss got to do a Hanna-Barbera that lasted much longer than the mercifully forgotten 1966 "Space Kiddettes" it was for the Smurfs [John K. has, as a former staff veteran on the show, described it as cruel blandess.:)]

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  15. I can’t imagine how Lucille Bliss would have worked out as Elroy… as he was the future equivalent of Augie Doggie – often having some of the same schticks.

    Bliss would not have carried the character forward with the same “certitude” that Elroy – and especially Augie – possessed.

    I’m glad things worked out for her as Smurfette—even though I could never bring myself to watch that – even with the starring talents of Messick and Winchell.

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  16. Space Kiddettes appeared in 1966, and IS a considerable bit better than expected, esp.in design, or than the 1970s - 1980s shows [dreadfult o imagine what the Kiddettes would've been doin' in the 70s...as another Catt.Cats/Josie rock group?] Correct, Dick Beals never appeared, and neither did June Foray, also known for playing kids. We know the situation with June, as Yowp's detialed elsewhere in this fine blog.

    Steve

    PS If it were up to ME in the 50s, I'd have been NON union, and relied on non-Bonsall ran media, and HIRED Lucille right off the bat.:-)

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  17. I think there is no record exists of Lucille Bliss marrying.

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