Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Selling of Top Cat

Last year, it was The Flintstones. This year, another Hanna-Barbera sitcom celebrates its 50th anniversary. Top Cat debuted on September 27, 1961.

All the deals to put together the show were evidently finalised in February that year. The publicity began the following month. Richard F. Shepard, in the New York Times financial pages, remarked on March 1:


A new entry for next season on ABC will be “Top Cat,” another half-hour animated cartoon comedy made by Hanna-Barbera Productions. This one will have a cat named TC in the starring role and two sponsors, Bristol-Myers and the Kellogg Company, in the wings. The series will appear Wednesdays at 8:30 P.M., ABC said that “Ozzie and Harriet,” incumbents of that period, might be moved to 7:30 PM Thursdays.

Indeed, that’s where the 17-year-old Ozzie and Harriet show ended up, playing out the final year of a ten-year, pay-if-you-cancel-us contract the wily Ozzie inked with ABC (though the show carried on until 1966).

An unbylined squib in the Montreal Gazette of March 9 gives you an idea how long the show was in development:


A new animated comedy by Hanna-Barbera Productions is set to start on the ABC Television Network next fall.
Titled Top Cat, the series will be telecast Wednesdays, 8.30-9 p.m.
The sale was announced by John Mitchell, vice-president in charge of sales of Screen Gems, Inc., which distributes all Hanna-Barbera shows, developing the new format six months ago.
The leading character in Top Cat will be a clever, urban cat called T.C.


Now it was time for Arnie Carr to do his job. No, Arnie wasn’t an animator. He was the studio’s P.R. man. At least, I envision agent Arnie getting on the blower to Hedda, Lolly and newspaper columnists several rungs beneath them and weaving the tale of another cartoon that’s ‘different,’ and ‘we can line up Joe Barbera for you’ and so on. At least one columnist bit—Bob Thomas of the Associated Press, whose Hollywood reporting career started in early 1945 and he’s still writing for the A.P. This is dated March 11, 1961.

Huck Hound’s Masters Add ‘Top Cat’ To List
By BOB THOMAS

AP Movie-TV Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP) – Here is the cast of one of next season’s most promising TV series:
Top Cat, Choo Choo, Brain, Benny the Ball, Spook and Fancy-Fancy.
Sound like a strange bunch of cats? They are. But they will be adding more gold to the already booming cartoon firm of Hanna-Barbera, now the world’s biggest.
The new series is titled after its star, “Top Cat,” and was snapped up in a hurry by ABC for showing in the prime time of Wednesday at 8:30.
As described by Joe Barbera: “Top Cat lives in an alley behind a bowling center and next to a policeman’s call box. The policeman is Officer Dibble who is always admonishing him about using the phone. We see Top Cat as a kind of Sergeant Bilk. He’s always dreaming up outlandish schemes for his fellow cats.”
The sale of the new series adds more strain to the bulging walls of the Hanna-Barbera studio, outgrown after six months of occupancy. “In TV you keep creating new shows, expecting your old ones to be dropped,” said Barbera. “Then we sell the new ones, but the old ones are renewed. So we have to keep expanding.”
It’s a nice kind of problem. But the team has conquered others in the past, including what to do when they were abruptly dropped from MGM’s cartoon studio. They turned to TV and sold a show called “Ruff and Ready.” [sic] They still had something to learn.
“We aimed the show at kids, and that was a mistake,” said Barbera. “We still haven’t gotten out money out of it after three years. For our next show, we took an adult approach.” After all, the kids are pretty hep nowadays. How many of them watched ‘I Love Lucy?’ They know what’s going on. So if you can hook their parents, you’ll get the kids, too.”
The next show was “Huckleberry Hound,” and it drew a wide and rabid audience. It was followed by “Quick Draw McGraw.” Yogi Bear got so popular in “Hound” that he spun off in a show of his own. And this season Hanna-Barbera leaped into the top nighttime ratings with “The Flintstones,” a domestic comedy set in prehistoric times.
“We wanted to do a cartoon with humans and we tried every kind of combinations,” said Barbera. “It was never funny until we put them in Stone Age clothes.”
For all their bright ideas, the firm’s operation couldn’t have succeeded without a different approach to animation.
“It’s something that goes back to the early days of cartoon,” Barbera said. “They used to be a caricature of human action. Then Disney began photographing live actors and copying the film to make the cartoon prince move like a real man. The result: Cartoons weren’t funny any more.
“We’ve gone back to the caricature of human action. It’s cheaper—you don’t have to draw so many pictures. And it’s funnier.”

Barbera was engaging in either spin or 20/20 hindsight by saying it was “a mistake” for aiming Ruff and Reddy at kids. Anyone watching the TV industry from 1954 onwards knew that distributors were snapping up old cartoons specifically for children’s programming, and plans for new Crusader Rabbit TV cartoons were announced in October 1956. The children’s market was the only—let alone, obvious—one for cartoons on television in 1957. Hanna-Barbera simply followed the hot trend; it created cartoons as inserts on shows featuring live-action kiddie hosts. There was no market for adult cartoons, outside of advertising. That’s why Hanna-Barbera didn’t get into it in 1957.

The Huckleberry Hound Show was aimed at children, too. Kellogg’s paid the bills because it was using the cartoons to sell breakfast cereal to children. Huck was broadcast in the late afternoon/early evening, the traditional spot for children’s programming on network radio (‘50s network affiliates interrupted it for a newscast of a mere 15 minutes). But Huck was written, drawn and voiced by people who had worked on theatrical shorts that weren’t aimed strictly for a juvenile audience. And, like the theatricals, the cartoons on the Huck show attracted (much to the surprise of seemingly every newspaper columnist) a large following of adults. It was then that Hanna and Barbera—egged on by Screen Gems’ John Mitchell—took the next logical step: a cartoon ostensibly aimed at adults. The success of the Honeymooners-inspired Flintstones sparked the studio’s second attempt at an adult cartoon based on a popular sitcom. That, of course, was the Bilkoesque Top Cat.

And Barbera’s Disney analogy isn’t quite on the mark. Certainly, there was film referencing for the prince in Snow White. But the reason Snow White wasn’t funny (though it had amusing moments) was it wasn’t supposed to be. It wasn’t a comedy. Meanwhile, other studios—including the one Barbera worked for—were making funny cartoons. They caricatured human action (and emotions) and put it in animal characters. That’s the reason Barbera and his partner won a bunch of Oscars. And if the studios weren’t making funny cartoons, why would Hanna and Barbera hire the people who worked for them to make what he called “funny cartoons”? Using Disney and rotoscoping to create a leap of logic to laud limited animation is disingenuous on Barbera’s part.


Arnie Carr had done his job. Now it was time for the network to do its’. That happened 50 years ago this month. This April 24, 1961 column from the Utah County Daily Herald is one of the end results:


Predicts Success For T. C.
Writer Out On Limb In Success Bid For Cat

By ELAYNE SCHWARTZ
TV Amusement Editor

Having predicted the success of “The Flintstones,” a cartoon feature on the ABC Television network, I am about to climb the tree with “Top Cat” and say:
“This, too, should be amusing and just as entertaining.”
Joe Maggio, personable publicist at the ABC TV network in Hollywood, is paid to say nice things about his company’s shows. He first introduced me to the Flintstones last summer, almost a year ago, when I joined a tour of his network along with several TV editors from across the United States.
A preview of the then unknown Flintstone characters convinced me they would be liked and now since Joe has again introduced me to “Top Cat,” I'll just go along with Joe.
Joe joined a luncheon in the executive dining room at ABC recently when Utah County high school journalists were hosted there by Edgar Jones, judge of “Day in Court” fame. I made the mistake of saying: “‘What do you know, Joe.’”
This particular day Joe knew “Top Cat” was in production and he was enthused about it. In fact he was so enthused that we forgot about the judge and the 10 inquiring reporters seated at another table and we talked about “Top Cat.”
“Top Cat,” a new, half-hour situation comedy series will feature animal characters and be produced in animation for showing on Wednesday evenings. Hanna-Barbera are producers of “Top Cat” as well as “Flintstones,” according to Joe who should know and readily replies: “It’s a ringer,” when asked his own opinion of the cat.
“Top Cat,” which has been in development for six months, deals with a band of fun-loving, adventure-seeking felines who live in a big city. They have hilariously human characteristics, and each has a distinctive personality of his own. Their leader is Top Cat, familiarly known as T. C., a brash, aggressive opportunist.
T. C. and his feline friends also have dealings with human animated characters, such as the milkman, the postman, the policeman and the delicatessen owner.
I guess I’ll just have to sit on that proverbial limb for some time, though, cause “T. C.” won’t greet the public until next Fall.

Just like The Flintstones, come the fall, most of the reviews weren’t kind. Unlike The Flintstones, the show lasted on prime time for only a year. We hope to bring you some of those reviews when we get nearer to the anniversary date.

12 comments:

  1. As a 4-year-old, "Top Cat" was one of my favorite shows, to the point of pleading with mom and dad to stay up an extra half-hour to watch it. I'm still not sure whether it was the time slot that did it in after one season, the relative glut of animated shows on the 1962-62 network schedule, or that only Phil Silvers and his writing staff could get away with making Bilko a likable enough character for a long-running sitcom (the fact that it didn't have the same hook in the gimmicky stone-age everyday items like "The Flintstones" may also have hurt with the overall yute audience, but gimmicky futuristic everyday items didn't save "The Jetsons" from a single-season run, either).

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  2. "But Huck was written, drawn and voiced by people who had worked on theatrical shorts that weren’t aimed strictly for a juvenile audience. And, like the theatricals, the cartoons on the Huck show attracted (much to the surprise of seemingly every newspaper columnist) a large following of adults. "

    Even as a kid, i knew those HB cartoons have a theatrical cartoon feel, as WB. And it's the reason why i still have the pleasure to watch it again and again.

    About Top Cat, we never know so much about that show in Canada, except for cartoons clips who shown in a syndicated NBC channel. But i just see one episode for the first time in 2001 and see the show in 2009. It's a great underatted show who was overshadowed than The Flintstones and The Jetsons, two driven-sitcoms cartoons who are based of celebrities of their era.

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  3. While I like Top Cat very much, even I have to admit that it would have gone stale if it had gone into a second season. There just wasn't as much room to expand the premise as there was in The Flintstones and even The Jetsons (although it took until 1985 before George and his family got a second season, losing the charm of 1960's Hanna-Barbera shows in the process). TC and the gang just kept doing the same sorts of stories over and over, and by the end of the series' 30 episodes, there wasn't much that could be done without rehashing previous episodes again in a rather obvious way (although Hanna and Barbera made a career out of that at MGM with Tom and Jerry...and later with Scooby Doo...).

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  4. As we all know...another of the big success about this crafty yellow alley cat was the voice cast, unique for the HB stock company of the day:(the first two profiled Christmastime 2009 on thtis blog)

    ---Arnold Stang (RIP since 2009) as T.C. (you can call him that, if you're a friend and do it WITH DIGNITY!)
    ----Marvin Kaplan as Choo Choo
    ----Leo DeLyon as both Spook and the lovably goofy Brain
    ----John Stephenson (the only Hanna-Barbera regular in the regular cast) as Peter Lawford/Cary Grant-reminiscnient Fancy Fancy and French rival Pierre.
    ----Maurice Gosfield (bridging with Bilk) as lovable chubby Benny the Ball, who looks like a blue pool room ball (died shortly after the show's end in 1962)
    ----Jean Van Pyl (the other HB stable regular in the csst as semirurrant Top Cat girlfriend Goldie, pictured above)
    Allen Jenkins (as the only regular human, collective nemesis Officer Dibble, apparently named after "West Side Story"'s title song-mocked "Officer Krupe".

    In fact TC has some of that musical and the Dead End ids as much as Sgt.Bilko. T.C. is like Mr.Jinks crossed with Yogi Bear and Hokey Wolf.

    ANd the theme song is one the dang catchiest.

    That and the score is among the best things that Hoyt S.Curtin contributed to that golden age...and very few crossed over except for a cue like Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin that showed up in 1963's "Dino Runs Away" and another heard in 1962's "Happy Housewife", both Flintstone episodes, when we hear Paul Frees (heard in one of his only Flinstone guest spots, but many times in Top Cat), as the southern TV guy saying "You're Clobbered", to rival Rockenspiel.(Big city panaramonic sweep cue with cool jazz piano--this may have been one of the Top Cat cues that Yowp mentions being in a 1962 Pixie and Dixie).


    There was also a 1965 Hanna-Barbera Records TC record where he and the gang are "Robin Hood", using both TC and "Flintstones" score!

    In it Arnold Stang was replaced for loigistical reasons (Mark Evanier once told me on Compuserve) by Daws Butler, Mo Gosfield I think by John Stephenson, yet Al Jenkins, Marvin Kaplan AND Leo DeLyon are still on the record.

    It's the only HBR records with Top Cat that I know of. (These have been mentioned earlier on the blog..)

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  5. PS "Semirurrant' was suppsoed to be "semi-recurrant", referring to Top Cat gal pal Goldie (I think that's the femme feline picutres above..she's in one with a very funny "blank gun" surprse endin; the French cat Pierre mentioned is in it as the rival.)

    Steve

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  6. " Top Cat " was " Sgt. Bilko " meets " Top Banana ". Both were Phil Silvers' successes from the small screen and Broadway, and later a motion picture. The fast talking idea man and his loyal buddies who attempt carry out his latest scheme. Whenever my youngest son and I see an old Allen Jenkins film and hear that voice..All I have to say is; " Who's that?" The answer without hesitation is; " It's Dibble ". Usually cast as a police officer, lovable goon or waiter. For the short time " Top Cat " was around, I enjoyed it. I remember it's network run in Primetime. But, there were only so many scenarios the writers could come up with on having the gang try to outwit " Dibble ".

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  7. Top Cat was always a favorite of mine. Choo Choo was my favorite character, don't ask me why. The theme of a gang with cool nicknames has always appealed to me, and I've toyed with that concept from time to time when coming up with ideas for my own characters. I could never come up with a way to describe the "theme" of such a property until just now... I just saw my niece in her high school play and after reading this, it hit me... It's Guys and Dolls-ish. Thanks !

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  8. I'm looking forward to the upcoming posts. "Top Cat" is an overlooked gem in the HB stable.

    As it happens, I watched "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" the other day. I believe that film came out in 1962, which means Stang, Kaplan, and the Real TC Phil Silvers were enjoying quite a bit of fame in that year. I wonder if Stang found it a little awkward voicing a Phil Silvers type of character?

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  9. What nobody mentioned in any of those 1961 articles was that "TOP CAT" was NOT going to be telecast in color. Why? ABC wasn't telecasting ANYTHING in color at the time, because they had neither the technology or money to do so- until September 1962, when their first color series were "THE FLINTSTONES" and "THE JETSONS"...the season after "TOP CAT" went from prime-time to repeats on their Saturday morning schedule.

    We take color TV for granted today, but in 1961, there were very few color shows on the networks or local stations; in fact, only NBC was scheduling a handful of color series daily and in prime-time, because their corporate parent was RCA, whose RCA Victor division was busy manufacturing VERY expensive color sets that few people could afford to buy back then {$500 was the "cheapest" for one of their smaller color sets}.

    Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, as previously noted, were thinking about an "all-color" future in TV, and made the decision to film all of their cartoons in color, begining with "RUFF AND REDDY", in 1957. Even though that was initially telecast in color on NBC, their syndicated cartoon series (starting with "HUCKLEBERRY HOUND" and ending with "PETER POTAMUS") were originally distributed in black and white prints, as not every station was equipped for color broadcasting. We know "THE FLINTSTONES" was shown in black and white during its first two seasons on ABC, and the same went for "TOP CAT" [not until NBC's Saturday morning repeats in the mid-'60s was it finally presented in "Living Color"]. Yowp's above illustrations of frames from various epsiodes are great examples of how meticulous Bill and Joe were in preparing the show for future generations who would watch it in color. If only 1961 viewers had the same opportunity!

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  10. SJC - A LOT of the Top Cat music was re-used (thank goodness) in The Wally Gator/Touche Turtle/Lippy & Hardy seris, many of which often had urban settings. A CD of that lovely music would be much listened to by yours truly I can tell you!

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  11. Does Yowp even like Top Cat? I thought Yowp was a dog! My favorite in TC's gang was Bennie the Ball! I always wanted to name a cat that! Anyway, I did't get to watch TC when it first ran in the 60's but I watched it in my day on Cartoon Network in the mid 90's where, if memory serves, they ran it in prime time again like the Flintstones and Jestsons. (Jonny Quest they ran close to prime time, like 6 or 7 p m I think) Ahh, those were the days! I LOVED Top Cat! I loved the gang of alley cats concept!(sorry Yowp! These cats were cuter than most HB dogs! Especially the pink one! Was he Chooch?) I also loved how TC was kind of an anti hero! I would have liked it even more than the Jetsons if I didn't have such a crush on Judy! (COME ON!!Who DIDN'T!?)

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  12. Nick, I like Curtin's music and I like the voices but the show itself doesn't do much for me.

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