Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What Happened, T.C.?

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.

TOP CAT
By LOIS STONKO
Republic
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.

19 comments:

  1. While TOP CAT, ALVIN, BULLWINKLE and the later JETSONS and JONNY QUEST were all single-season failures in prime time, they all had very successful afterlives as reruns on Saturday AM network schedules, syndication and cable. (CALVIN, other than bootleg video, has never been rerun possibly due to its' AMOS & ANDY derivation, but that's another story.) Alvin and the H-B prime time shows would be endlessly revived and spun off for decades to come.

    All of these shows were probably considered too 'adult' and/or 'prestigious' to be aired in first-run syndication the way most TV cartoons were in the early 1960s. (Actually, Bullwinkle began life as a made-for-syndication character.) Don't forget, cartoons weren't made specifically for Saturday AM network airing until 1963 with TENNESSEE TUXEDO.

    Much as I personally love THE ALVIN SHOW, I have to concur with Mr. Humphrey that its' generally juvenile approach and kid-friendly format (three shorts and two musical numbers) was inappropriate for prime time. THE FLINTSTONES, TOP CAT, JETSONS and QUEST were full half-hour episodes and often written with a certain 'edge' that more fit evening viewing.

    And kudos for Mr. Danzig for acknowledging TOP CAT's penchant for fast, witty dialogue. IMO that was one of the show's great strengths.

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  2. Thinking about the whole Prime Time cartoon spate that occurred during this time brings to mind a little record I found in my mom's collection that probably best summed up the viewer's thoughts on such programming...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mT5TwFeTGxI

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  3. The glut of cartoons announced for the 1961-62 season in the spring of '61 is also one of the things that prompted Newton B. Minnow, President Kennedy's appointee as FCC chairman, to deliver his "vast wasteland" speech, hitting the networks on the dumbing down of their prime-time TV schedules compared with the 1950s. It also led to the push to create a non-commercial broadcasting channel (NET for most of the 1960s until becoming PBS at the end of the decade). Most TV critics of the day agreed with Minnow's sentiments, so when it came time to review the fall shows, the long knives were already out for those that were considered part of the problem.

    Top Cat might have done better if it was part of an animation block, or at the very least paired near one of the four other other prime-time cartoons the network was airing in 1961-62. Instead, ABC tried to space all those shows out, with only "The Bugs Bunny Show" and "Calvin & the Colonel" airing on the same night (and even then, those were separated by "Bachelor Father", which ABC had picked up off the reject pile). I remember liking the show during it's ABC run, but also that when it was over, that was automatic bed time (though at least I didn't have to go to sleep in a trash can with a blinking neon sign over my head...)

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  4. Beautiful, byoo-tee-ful! Your reasons for not liking TC as much as Flintstone or Jetson are the precise reason I love the show so much. Top Cat and Dibble are both very likable and 'just doing their jobs' - really appeals to me - never could root for George and co. as much(loved the designs though).

    Those cool cats desevred 1 more season, the poor sods!

    HB to TC! Now make with the cake and soda boys, move move move!

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  5. Thanks for the reminder, J Lee. THE BUGS BUNNY SHOW also aired during that time. It premiered on ABC the same season as THE FLINTSTONES, and may have been part of a huge partnership the Warner Brothers Studio had with the network. Obviously the WB shorts had been successful enough in weekday- i.e. 'kiddie'- syndication slots to merit prime-time exposure. The fact that they also had adult appeal, much like Rocky and Bullwinkle, may have also been a contributing factor.

    And as with all the failed prime-time cartoons, THE BB SHOW enjoyed huge success on Saturday mornings.

    TOP CAT is one show that probably was better because of its short run. The scope of stories (TC comes up with a scheme; recruits his crew with mixed success; charms assorted humans; runs afoul of and humiliates Dibble; seems to win but ends up losing) and relatively one-dimensional personalities of the gang were too limited to sustain more than one season. The creative toll that multiple seasons took on THE FLINTSTONES is painfully obvious.

    You'll notice that THE JETSONS and JONNY QUEST did have revivals years later, quality notwithstanding. But other than one two-hour syndicated movie, TC and the gang had no further adventures. But their 30 episodes still remain funny and entertaining.

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  6. "CALVIN AND THE COLONEL" certainly WAS syndicated during the 1960's and early '70s by MCA Television {WABC-TV in New York carried repeats on weekends during the mid-'60s}- they wouldn't have produced it in color if they hadn't correctly determined the future of TV was going to be in full color, and to spend the extra money to do so [like "TOP CAT", it aired in black and white on ABC because they didn't have color broadcasting facilities until September 1962...and on a VERY limited basis].

    The main reason "TOP CAT" wasn't renewed for another season was because of its competition: NBC's "THE PRICE IS RIGHT", which happened to be scheduled after the network's #1 show on Wednesday nights, "WAGON TRAIN". To put it simply, Bill Cullen got more adult viewers than "T.C." did.

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    1. No...TOP CAT was up against THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW on NBC. Note: This was the first format of the show, where Joey played a PR man, and Marlo Thomas his kid sister. While the series won the time slot it was with lower ratings than PRICE IS RIGHT had the previous three seasons, while losing a big part of the lead in from the year's top rated program, WAGON TRAIN. Bishop's show was revamped, to the one seen every so often (a few years ago on TV Land, currently weekends on the RTV network)--he plays a talk show host and is filmed in color.

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    2. Paul, you are quite correct, at least as far as where I grew up. The listings show "Joey Bishop" on NBC and "Checkmate" on CBS. Steve Allen was Top Cat's lead-in and "Hawaiian Eye" followed. Not a bad line-up.

      Wednesdays that year were great. Cartoon-watching started at 4 p.m. with the AAP packages of Warners and Popeye (and other stuff) for 90 minutes on KVOS Bellingham. Huck came on the CBC station at 5:30 and then Quick Draw from Seattle at 6.

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  7. Just like chiming in again at noticing the one ad from a "Community Antenna" type operation promoting both Alvin and Top Cat on it's service. That's pretty cool!

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  8. Thinking back on older reviews I can recall reading – on a variety of TV shows of the “good old days”, comedies, sci-fi and the like – it seemed to me that many critics went out of their way to be pompous, if not outright nasty in their criticisms.

    Aren’t you all glad we live in more civilized times? ;-)

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  9. Joe, I think J. Lee pretty well hit it. Newton Minow was a manifestation of elitist snobbery that infested critics and do-gooder groups that felt television should be disseminating high culture and education, and nothing else. The same type of people were around in the network radio days; Jack Benny, of all people, made fun of it on one show.

    Hal Humphrey must have been in a particularly bad mood the day he wrote his column. In his critique of The Flintstones a number of years later, he at least explained his logic for not liking the show. The review above is almost name-calling. His Russian arguement is nothing but a straw-man. And he never outlines what's so wrong about 2 1/2 hours of cartoons. Just because they're cartoons? Why should the format/medium make any difference if the programming is entertaining?

    Chris, I had finished writing the post and uploading the image files when I decided to add one last bit of information and stumbled across the cable TV ad. No one thinks of cable as being around that long ago so I dumped another picture and added that.

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  10. Yowp, that’s exactly what I mean! Were these people simply TOLD by their editors to be this mean-spirited to spur sales of periodicals, or could they possibly feel that the existence of something like Top Cat was a threat to the American way of life?

    If it weren‘t SO gratuitously disagreeable, I’d find it funny in view of the modern-day dominance of reality shows – which routinely bring aberrant and repulsive (…or, at its most benign, “eccentric”) behaviors into our living room (courtesy of my wife – not me!) each day.

    And, perhaps fittingly, the best known “Minnow” (albeit with TWO “n”s, rather than one – though I find it BOTH ways using Google) would come to be the “S.S. Minnow” of Gilligan’s Island – a series Minow and the legion of pompous critics he spawned or abetted – no doubt would have savaged.

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  11. The reviews above all are wire service stories. Wire services don't worry about sales as they have no advertising. And I don't know any columnist who considers sales when writing; that's the sales department's concern.
    Cartoons and situation comedies were the bane of reviewers in the first few decades of television. Sitcoms were denounced as unreal and banal (and that was probably fair comment in most cases). Cartoons were dismissed tired and ancient (first, when silents first appeared in the early 50s, then again in the mid 50s when AAP made a fortune selling Warners and Popeye). That's why Huck was so embraced by critics .. his show wasn't old and the jokes weren't aimed at six-year-olds.
    Critics turned on H-B when the Flintstones arrived for several reasons, part of it was because Hanna and Barbera promised an "adult" show and it wasn't; Barbera even admitted that was just P.R. It was too kid-appealing for them. Humphrey, in particular, became wary of puff releases from Arnie Carr at H-B and made fun of him in two columns.
    Minow's "vast wasteland" speech on May 9, 1961 drew a huge amount of comment for months afterward. One wonders whether it fuelled movements to emasculate TV cartoons to what they became a decade or so later.

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  12. Flintstones was adult in the sense that it stands up alongside Warners and MGM pretty well. I'd say.

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  13. LOVED the Hoyt Curtin tracks. Any chance in finding out their titles or what the name of the DVD is and if it's still available? It wouldn't be from the Top Cat DVD's would it?

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  14. Iceman, it's from Vol. 2 of the Pic-a-nic Basket set issued by Kid Rhino Records some years ago.

    As far as I understand it, all the cues have generic names (eg. 'Fast Underscore') that allowed the sound cutter to figure out what should be used in a particular scene.

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  15. Is there any way I can get a copy of this terrific Hoyt Curtin "Top Cat" music that you so kindly posted here? A wonderful reminder of my childhood and favorite cartoon show from the '60s, as a well as a marvelous example of early '60s jazz. I'd love to own a copy. Thanks for posting this!

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  16. I just received a complete 4-CD copy of Pic-A-Nic Basket from Rhino records, ordered online (used copy). I got lucky and paid $50, it's complete and in excellent condition. These are fairly rare and one vendor on ebay was charging $199. So glad that YOWP posted this wonderful clip. Thanks very much, I've been enjoying listening to "Top Cat" all week!

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  17. Are Marvin Kaplan, Leo Delion and John stephenson retired?

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