Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Huck, You’re Our Second Choice

There was a time when Hanna-Barbera cartoons could do no wrong. Well, almost. Syndicated columnist Harvey Pack remarked in 1960 “Joe [Barbera] has an excellent record for selling. In fact, he told me about a couple of episodes of The Flintstones and I was hysterical laughing before I realized that I had seen two of the episodes in question and thought they were awful.”

Joe didn’t really have to do anything to sell the studio’s cartoons before then. The cartoons practically sold themselves. Viewers loved them. The Emmys loved them. Critics and columnists unanimously loved them. The story was the same. They weren’t those tired, old, overplayed theatrical cartoons nobody wanted to see any more (except kids). They were funny and smart enough for adults to watch.

Still, the studio had a well-functioning P.R. machine and having finished pushing the premiere of The Flintstones in September 1960, it switched gears and pumped out hype about the studio’s next coming attraction—The Yogi Bear Show, debuting 50 years ago next week. In fact, not one but two UPI reporters wrote glowing reviews about two weeks apart before the show even aired.

Perhaps the most unusual preview can be found in the Hutchinson Sun on January 20, 1961, less than two weeks before the Yogi show aired. We’ve all heard how Yogi was a part of The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958, grew into a star and became the first spin-off in TV cartoon history. Both Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera told the story in their autobiographies. But this story is a little different. It has no byline and no source, and I haven’t found it anywhere else. It could have been concocted by a writer at the paper but it seems obvious the information came from a studio handout. Huckleberry Hound was not Bill and Joe’s first choice for stardom.


Yogi Bear Becomes Star in Own Rights
HOLLYWOOD - One of the corniest Hollywood success stories is presently being unraveled about a blustering bear whose body belongs to a pot of paint, whose voice belongs to an anonymous actor, and whose soul belongs to a couple of cartoonists.
The star in question is Yogi Bear. This month exuberant Yogi finally gets to star in his own series, the Yogi Bear Show, which debuts on some 130 TV stations coast-to-coast.
Three years ago, when Screen Gems set out to sell the first all original half-hour animated program, cartoonists Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera recommended a boisterous bear as the lead. At that point, they had over 100 possible names for the character, running from Abby Bear to Zippy Bear. Someplace in the middle of the list was Huckleberry Bear, Then, toward the end was Willy Bear, Yucca Bear, Yogi Bear, etc.
But the sponsor, who was about to plunk down some millions for a first-of-its kind series, was not feeling bearish at that moment. They were afraid that a bear might be confused with a couple of other popular characters, such as one being used to fight forest fires.
So the lead role went instead to a lovable, lethargic little hound dog that Hanna and Barbera were doodling with. Running down the ever expanding name list again, “Huckleberry” stood out as a natural for the star. And Yogi Bear (they swear it had nothing to do with that major – league catcher) the combination just sounded right) was given feature billing.
In the two-and-a-half years that the Huckleberry Hound show has been on, Yogi has cheerfully held down the number two spot. When the show won the Emmy last spring, the pictures showed Huck holding the statue. When Huck ran for president last summer, Yogi was campaign manager.
Nobody would bother or even dare to survey it, but insiders suspected that the bear was at least as popular as the hound. Sure, Huck had an island in the Antarctic named after him; but Yogi gave his name to Britain’s entry in the international model aeroplane race. Huck became mascot of the Hull (England) Marching and Jazz Society; Yogi became the mascot of an Ohio based wing of the Strategic Air Command.
So it went.
When the sponsor decided this fall that it wanted still another animated show, there was little question that Yogi would be its star, one of the few instances in television in which a supporting player has been promoted to lead.
Nobody but Hanna – Barbera has such a promotion-from-within policy. The two major continuing featured roles in the new Yogi Bear Show are going to a couple of characters that have previously done service on H-B shows. Snagglepuss, a hammy lion, made his debut last season as an inept sheep poacher on the “Quick Draw McGraw” show. The second new featured player is a little duck named Yakky Doodle, who made his first appearance in one of the very first Yogi Bear films, two-and-a-half years ago.

Of course, there was no question Yogi was star material, even in the executive suite of the initially-reluctant sponsor. Yogi adorned boxes of Kellogg’s OKs starting around 1959 and occasionally on Corn Flakes in 1961. And Huck is obviously the back-up to his secondary player in this full-page contest ad from May 1960, eight months before he got his own show.


But there’s one other, and more unusual, connection Yogi had with his sponsor. Kellogg Community College was opened in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1956. And like colleges all over the U.S., it is football crazy and has a college team—the Bruins. And that provided a natural tie-in with a certain cartoon bruin. A newspaper clipping from January 11, 1961 about a game with Benton Harbor Community College reveals:


Battle Creek led once more at 32-31. The Bruins went ahead just after they had received inspiration from the arrival of six tardy cheerleaders and a Yogi Bear, not to be confused with the television personality also sponsored by Kellogg.

Call me a cynic, but having Yogi supporting a football team supported by his sponsor’s college doesn’t strike me as a mere coincidence.

Unfortunately, Yogi wasn’t sent into the game to win it, like he was in Rah Rah Bear (1959). Kellogg lost. But Yogi proved more valuable to the company in other ways. As Joe Barbera revealed in his memoir:


A few years later, when “The Yogi Bear Show,” sponsored by Kellogg’s, was a big hit, the folks from Battle Creek launched a door-to-door survey in which they showed families and children a picture of Yogi and Boo Boo and asked, “What does this make you think of?” Overwhelmingly, the response was “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.”

And to think Kellogg’s almost killed him and Huck before they were born. That story coming soon.

5 comments:

  1. Given Bill and Joe's ability to "borrow" from others, you'd think Huck would have been the one pushed No. 1 originally, due to the success Avery and Lah had with Daws' voice in the four wolf cartoons done at MGM (though I suppose they also could have been keen on combining the Ed Norton-type dog mannerisms and Butler voice from their own "Give and Tyke" with the picnic basket-stealing bear in Jellystone National Park from Lunday's "Barney's Hungry Cousin")

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  2. Yogi Bear had nothing to do with the major league catcher? Nothing except the name. Did Yogi Berra ever pursue any kind of compensation?

    And Battle Creek's Yogi Bear not to be confused with the other Yogi Bear? My head hurts.

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  3. Great promo pic of "The Yogi Bear Show" cast. And fun article. I find it strange that each participant seems to have his own version of how one show or another came about...and the versions don't always sync up.

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  4. Tom, the promotional drawing is the same one used in the news story, except it was a mirror image. This one is from the collection of reader Greg Chenoweth. As for the veracity of the newspaper story, it's hard at this late date to know if the HB people simply embellished things to make it a better story. But it would explain why Yogi was almost named "Huckleberry Bear" (Barbera mentioned that in his book). They must have been considering names for the bear first.

    David, yeah, they picked the name "Yogi" because, well, uh, em, he behaves like an eastern mysticist? Actually, there's a story behind your question that I completely put out of my mind but I'll include it in 50th anniversary post next Monday.

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  5. Kellogg's "OKs" were originally introduced in 1959 with "Big Otis", a live-action character (a tall, brawny Scotsman}, as their icon on the box. But their answer to General Mills' "Cheerios" wasn't selling that well, and they decided to slightly redesign the cereal AND the box in late 1960, replacing Otis with Yogi. After both appeared in a transition commercial for "NEW OKs", Yogi became the cereal's official spokesbear {"It's the only cereal with a bear on the box!"}, continuing to appear as their icon while his own Kellogg's series premiered in January. However, even with Yogi on the box, sales of "OKs" still weren't enough to keep Kellogg's from finally discontinuing it by 1962.

    At the same time, Yogi appeared with Huck in several Corn Flakes commercials during 1961 and '62 [some of them were seen during the first season of "THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES", primarily sponsored by Kellogg's].

    The "Yogi Bear Contest" appears to have been held only in Canada [the entry blank gives a Toronto address, and there are no "provinces" in the U.S.]....and "HUCKLEBERRY HOUND" was originally syndicated in Canada as well. I don't recall a similar contest in North America.

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