It was 50 years ago today that Hanna-Barbera’s second prime-time network cartoon show made its debut.
You remember what happened when The Simpsons became a smash, right? Suddenly, there were plans aplenty to put more animation in prime time. Television programmers thought they had sure hits coming. They didn’t.
The same thing happened in 1961. The Flintstones became a smash. Suddenly, television programmers thought “There must be more of those cartoons out there somewhere.”
One of the places they looked was at the place where The Flintstones came from. So it was that 50 years ago today, Hanna-Barbera’s second prime-time network cartoon show, Top Cat, made its debut sponsored by Kellogg’s, who had put three syndicated H-B shows on the air and was all over prime time family shows.
Of course, there was more to it than the traditional trembling network executive sticking to the tried and true. H-B had a good reason to put another show on the air. Here’s Dick Kleiner’s syndicated column of September 16, 1961:
HOLLYWOOD (NEA) — The Hanna-Barbera factory keeps grinding out the cartoon shows. The latest is “Top Cat,” which will join “The Flintstones” and all the other H-B cartoon shows.
While there is good money in cartoon shows, there is even better money in the merchandising end of the business. All the H-B shows are planned with one eye on the borne screen product, the other on the dolls, dishes and doughnuts which can bear the show’s name.
Joe Barbera, one of the firm’s partners, says they did $43 million worth of merchandising business last year.
“We could get by without merchandising,” he says, “but I’d rather not have to try. We even have good sales of Yogi Bear bath salts.”
Barbera and his partner, Bill Hanna, believe in planning ahead. Joe says you “must always come up with something new.” Currently, they are considering ideas for six new cartoon shows. Joe hints strongly that their next offering will be an hour-long program.
With “The Alvin Show,” “Calvin and the Colonel” and “Top Cat” joining “The Flintstones,” there will be four cartoon shows in prime evening network time this season. Joe Barbera thinks he knows why.
“Cartoon shows,” he says, “offer more escape from reality than Westerns. And that’s what the people want from television — escape.”
Some people didn’t like the idea of all those cartoons. One of the AP’s TV and radio columnists had this to say on October 11, 1961, after the shows had made their debuts (I’ve snipped the part of the column where he gripes about the non-animated shows):
Things Are Nervous Along The TV Front
By HAL HUMPHREY
Not quite all of the new TV shows have made their bows yet, but already there are developing what Wall Street refers to as “soft spots” in the lineup.
One of the sponsors of ABC’s “Calvin and the Colonel” cartoon series will cancel out after four episodes. The network insists it is only because the sponsor wants to buy in on “Untouchables” and “Follow the Sun.” The second episode of “Calvin and the Colonel” was pulled this week and another one substituted because, said an ABC official, “we thought it could be improved.”
“Calvin and the Colonel” is the cartoon whose title characters are a bear and fox voiced by Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden (“Amos ‘n’ Andy”). It certainly seems to have more going for it than the other cartoons for TV have.
CBS PREMIERED its “Alvin” cartoon last week, and it was awful — unless, of course, you happen to be between the ages of 3 and 8. ABC’s “Top Cat” falls in: the same category.
Over on NBC, the “Bullwinkle” cartoons may be slightly more adult, like maybe a couple of notches above cutting out paper dolls. If we stop to think about it, isn’t it a little crazy to admit that two and a half hours of prime network TV time each week are now taken up with cartoons?
If Americans read a report informing us that for two hours every week about one-third of all Russian adults sat immobilized in front of TV sets watching animated cartoon pictures, we would shake our head disparagingly. No wonder a Khrushchev can keep them under his iron paw, eh?
STILL, IF THEY wanted to, the creators of these cartoon shows would argue that their stuff is making more sense than most of the human drama on TV this fall...
Finally, the viewer is driven crazy, too, so he winds up turning back to the cartoon shows and happily watching them while humming and running his forefinger across his vibrating lips.
His kids keep yelling, “Daddy! When are you gonna let us watch ‘Meet the Press’? Can’t we have the TV set now, huh?”
Critics weren’t terribly kind to The Flintstones after its first show a year earlier. How did they receive Top Cat? The first episode was The $1,000,000 Derby. Jack Gould of the New York Times called the characters “a dreary lot” (he was the one who called The Flintstones “an inked disaster”). The major wire services weighed in. Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press wrote:
NEW YORK (AP)—Network television Wednesday night held the promise of a solid 3½ hours of comedy: premier [sic] of Steve Allen’s show and the debut of a new animated cartoon series on ABC and a Victor Borge and a Jack Benny special on CBS... The animated cartoon, “Top Cat,” was disappointing ... “Top Cat,” by the creators of “Huckleberry Hound.” Concerns the adventures of a band of alley cats with New York accents who live by their wits. The first show seemed neither witty nor unusual. But perhaps animated cartoon comedies, like olives, are acquired tastes with some viewers.
Fred Danzig of United Press International:
NEW YORK (UPI) — ABC-TV’s Wednesday night schedule also includes “Top Cat,” a cartoon situation comedy manufactured by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbara—creators of “Huck Hound,” “Yogi Bear” and “The Flintstones.”
Top Cat is the name of a leader of Manhattan alley cats. He shows the same talent for fast-talk that moved a two-legged top kick known as Sgt. Bilko into TV’s hall of fame. Maurice Gosfield, who was Doberman in the Phil Silvers series, supplies the voice for “Benny the Ball” in this cartoon format. Arnold Stang is behind T.C.’s voice.
These cats clicked off their roguish deeds at break-neck speed Wednesday night. While their antics aren’t especially inspired, they managed to line out some crackling dialogue along the way to provide some chuckles. For TV, 1961 style, this ads up to superior entertainment.
Perhaps the cutest review was in The Morning Herald of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The paper had a children’s page and it featured reviews.
By LOIS STONKO
I watch Top Cat. It is a new program on television. It is all about cats. It is a cartoon show. T. C. is short for top cat. He is the head of the gang. His pal’s name is Benny. Top Cat is on Wednesday at 8:30. It is a very enjoyable program.
Some people agreed with young Lois. Eventually. A studio puff piece in Hank Grant’s column of March 18, 1962 in the Hayward Daily Review crows:
Their second prime-time effort, “Top Cat,” which even the network was preparing to write off because of a slow start, is now topping “Checkmate” for audience supremacy.
But that wasn’t enough. Top Cat became Hanna-Barbera’s first prime-time failure.
What happened, T.C.? Bob Foster of the San Mateo Times took at stab at that one in his column of April 4, 1962:
Bill Hanna, and Joe Barbara claim “we believe that good clean humor is an international language. If you make cartoons honestly to project warmth and good feeling while gently spoofing basic situations, these situations are understandable anywhere. Language isn't really a barrier.”
Perhaps it was this concept that was missing in Hanna-Barbara’s second series, “Top Cat.” In this series, the use of animals probably annoyed people. After all the “Flintstones” are “people,” but in an entirely different situation, one that cannot be ... unless of course comes the bomb.
You’ll notice Foster is using the past tense referring to the show. So did a piece on The Jetsons, published in a Dover, Ohio paper; T.C. was buried way in the last sentence. Finally, Jack Gaver’s TV column in UPI on May 9 went through the cancellations on all three networks, and revealed ABC would move Top Cat into reruns on Saturday morning (Alvin suffered the same fate at CBS; ABC dumped Calvin and the Colonel altogether). ABC’s vice president in charge of television daytime programming announced at the month’s end that it would in the 11:30 a.m. slot as part of a two-hour block; “the first time ABC-TV will be fully competitive early Saturday and represents a considerable expansion in children’s programming.” No doubt little Lois Stonko was delighted.
I never watched Top Cat in prime time nor when it moved to Saturdays. It’s never really appealed to me. Hoyt Curtin’s music is excellent and I really enjoy Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan. In thinking about it, perhaps it’s because it didn’t have the things I liked in other night-time Hanna-Barbera cartoons, save designs that started in Ed Benedict’s mind. The Jetsons had flying cars and cool gadgets. The Flintstones had weary gadgets that talked back. The Jetsons had silly and distinctive Astro. The Flintstones had silly Dino. Both cartoons featured loudmouths. Top Cat really didn’t have any of this. It was a fairly straight-forward comedy featuring guys like Maurice Gosfield and Allen Jenkins who delivered every line the same. Dibble wasn’t an over-the-top guy you hoped would get his in the end, like Spacely or Cogswell; in fact, you were reluctant to even dislike him because he was just doing his job. That doesn’t set up real plot conflict.
Still, it’s a show that’s in the hearts of many Hanna-Barbera fans who are, no doubt, wishing it a happy 50th birthday.