A life of ease and convenience awaits you in the future, thanks to science. That merry message of consumerism has woven its way through popular culture for decades. Tomorrow was laid forth for astonished eyes at World’s Fairs in 1939 (New York) and 1962 (Seattle) and at Disneyland. Commercial films of the 1950s happily displayed gleaming modern suburban homes rid of time-consuming chores and drudgery (thanks to sponsors’ products) as cheery pizzicato strings plunked in the background. Popular Science magazine amazed curious readers with can-you-believe-this contraptions that, it was suggested, were just on the horizon.
They all gave us hope. The fears and problems of the present would disappear and we could optimistically look forward to a new, carefree world. It’s a message that still resonates. And, perhaps, that’s why The Jetsons remains popular after its debut 50 years ago today.
The real stars of The Jetsons weren’t the human characters who weren’t much more than mild, white-bread, Saturn-ringed suburbanites. The real stars were the inventions that left you wondering if they really would exist in the future. Unlike the over-the-top future gadgets of the Tex Avery’s “House of Tomorrow,” the ones on The Jetsons had an aura of authenticity. You wanted to believe we’d be in flying cars and space needle homes some day.
Not having access to studio records (if such exist any more) or the trade press of the day, it’s difficult to say when Hanna-Barbera seriously put The Jetsons in development. Newspaper stories in 1961 make no mention of it, though a United Press International story datelined Hollywood in late November predicts a Top Cat failure and reveals the studio had three replacement shows in the can ready to go. But I suspect they’re the cartoons that made up the Lippy-Wally Gator-Touché Turtle package that went into syndication. A story in the Oakland Tribune dated February 19, 1962 reveals ad agencies in New York had come up with a tentative fall schedule and The Jetsons was on it (Fridays at 7:30 p.m). On April 28, 1962, it was reported Morey Amsterdam and Pat Carroll had been signed for the lead roles and the following day, Larry Marks would be writing for the show. By May 7, UPI released the ABC fall schedule which put the show in its familiar time slot, the “Jet Screamer” episode was in (or had finished) production by May 26 and stories toward the end of June revealed George O’Hanlon and Penny Singleton were voicing the adult leads, with Janet Waldo and Daws Butler as the kids.
September 23, 1962, the show launched at 7:30 p.m., sponsored by Colgate, Dow Chemical (Saran Wrap), MMM (Scotch Tape) and Whitehall Pharmacal (Anacin). While Joe Barbera gushed about the show in pre-premiere interviews, Bill Hanna was more reserved. His measured prediction to the Long Beach Independent:“You just can’t say until the guy in front of the tube watches it.”
After The Flintstones debuted, Jack Gould of The New York Times called it an “inked disaster.” After The Jetsons debuted, Gould blew off the show in one line. All he had to say was: “‘The Jetsons,’ on Sunday night over Channel 7, is a space age cartoon made up of about equal parts of ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘Hazel.’”
The television landscape had changed since The Flintstones went on the air in 1960, riding the universal acclaim of Hanna-Barbera’s late-afternoon syndicated shows and the novelty of a half-hour animated sitcom. The following season produced nothing but prime-time animated failures. It was now 1962 and The Jetsons was blown off as a been-there, done-that concept. A review by UPI’s Rick Du Brow gave it two lines: “ ‘The Jetsons,’ an animated half-hour comedy series about a futuristic family, made its debut Sunday night on ABC-TV. There are robot maids, schools on space platforms, and the like. It is a genial time-killer.”
The AP’s Cynthia Lowry was less impressed. “A new cartoon series—ABC’s plunge into color programs—also came into view: ‘The Jetsons.’ This is the usual suburban set-up—idiot father, cute-trick mother, teen-age daughter with ponytail and small brother. But there is a difference. They live in the year 2062 on what is apparently a space platform where everything is done by pushing button and launching rockets. A very, very little of this can go a long way.”
The gadgets weren’t enough to attract the numbers of viewers ABC wanted. Neither was the fact the show was in colour for the comparatively few homes with a colour set. So was another family show broadcast opposite it—Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. By the end of the season, Disney knocked CBS’ Dennis the Menace into permanent syndication and The Jetsons onto Saturday mornings (for Marx Toys) where it did extremely well, thus re-enforcing the belief that cartoons are kid programming.
Besides the creative gadgets, The Jetsons is best known for the great theme composed by Hoyt Curtin. Curtin never turned down a chance to make a brassy big-band splash. Martin Goodman wrote for Animation World Network in 2007:
Curtin went jazzy for this one, showcasing his songwriting versatility. The lyrics are minimal (11 words) but the instrumentals are wonderful, including a free-form turn by noted trumpeter Bud Brisbois. Curtin originally wrote the piece for a small combo, but Hanna and Barbera wanted a more symphonic sound. Curtin gave the pair their money's worth, with a hint of "Chopsticks" thrown in for good measure.
An Associated Press story from 1985 insisted Pete Candoli was on trumpet. Listen and decide for yourself. This is from the Mark Christiansen collection and includes original titles and bumpers. Your announcer is Dick Tufeld.
Curtin admitted he liked the theme because it was written “to provide challenges to my friends in the band.” It’s full of key changes and sixteenth notes that change from sharp to natural. Not only did Curtin have a knack at writing great themes, he had a great ear for writing underscores that perfectly fit whatever prime-time show he was working on. For The Jetsons, he came up with light music for electric Wurlitzer and marimba that could be easily matched to a particular scene’s mood. Want to listen to some? Just press the arrow below each cue name.
1. CANAVERAL COUNTDOWN CLOCK
2. FAST CHASE THROUGH VENUS
3. FAST DANCE
4. JETSONS ORGAN ROCK
5. JETSONS TWIST
6. JETSONS WHIRLWIND
7. JETSONS WINDUP
8. LET'S STROLL WITH ASTRO
9. LOPING ALONG
10. MARTIAN MOLECULAR MARCH
11. MEDIUM FAST SPACE SKIP
12. MISS SOLAR SYSTEM
13. ONCE UPON A TIME
14. RUNNING GEORGE
15. SATURN SAMBA
16. SKY PAD STROLL (JETSONS ‘B’ THEME)
17. SPACE CAR CHASE
18. TRIPPING OVER MOONROCKS
19. WHISTLING ELROY
The names you see are NOT the names of the cues. Each cue was given a descriptional name so it could be found in the music library by the sound cutter. But I have no idea what the names are and had to call them something. Hanna-Barbera didn’t let some of them go to waste; they appeared on later H-B shows.
The Jetsons lasted 24 episodes in one year of prime time but, thanks to reruns, have been a pop culture phenomenon ever since. The show has become a metaphor for the wonderous future that awaits us. I just wish they’d hurry up with those flying cars.