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.