Saturday, 26 December 2009

A Final (?) Note About Arnold Stang

A couple of months ago I promised to reprint a news story about Arnold Stang and, with his passing a few days ago, now may be as good a time as many to pass it on.

The Hanna-Barbera PR machine was well-oiled by the time Top Cat was heading toward its debut. Unlike any of the previous series, where Joe and Bill did the talking to reporters, the star himself was enlisted to push his new cartoon show in media interviews. Maybe it was because of Stang’s name recognition.

Here’s the interview I promised, un-bylined in this version, from a couple of months before the show aired. You can see that the voice cast still wasn’t quite settled; I don’t think Bea Benaderet did anything on the show; Jean Vander Pyl did.

TV Toppers: Is He Man or Mouse?
NEW YORK, June 13 (UPI) —The usual question, “Are you man or mouse?” won’t do for Arnold Stang.
In his case, you have to ask, “Are you man, cat or mouse?”
And he just might have trouble giving a snap answer.
The complication in the career of the slight, begoggled performer arises from the fact that besides being constantly employed as comedian Arnold Stang, in person, or as an actor creating a human character for stage, screen or TV, he has become prominent in the animated cartoon field.
STANG HAS been the voice for “Herman the Mouse,” a series of filmed shorts widely used in theaters and on TV programs, and now he has the important assignment of voicing the title role in “Top Cat,” a half-hour weekly animated series made especially for television that will be a new entry on the ABC network schedule next fall.
“Actually, I received no billing from the ‘Herman the Mouse’ series,” Stang explained, “and now, of course, I’ll make no more of them.
“However, everyone who saw one of those shorts knew, right away I did them. On account of the voice.
“They recognized it.
“But I’m not using the ‘Stang voice’ for the ‘Top Cat’ series. I won’t sound like me. When we first started making them, the question came up as to whether I shouldn’t voice T.C.—that's the way the cat is usually referred to—in my natural manner, but I talked them out of it. I don’t think my natural tone quite fits the character of T.C.”
“TOP CAT” IS another major cartoon creation by the Hanna-Barbera Firm in Hollywood that made a splash this season with “The Flintstones” on ABC, the first “adult” animation series especially created for television.
“Top Cat” also is intended to be a bit above the “kiddie level,” with a certain sophistication.
T.C. is a big-city vagrant with a leadership quality that binds assorted felines to him.
They get involved in stories which might just as well be played by humans. A policeman will be the only regular human character of the show.
“Some of the other well-known actors providing voices for the show,” Stang said, “are Maurice Gosfield—you know, the Doberman of Phil Silvers’ old series; Allen Jenkins, who talks for the cop; Leo de Lyon, who speaks for a beatnik-type cat, and Bea Benaderette [sic], who also does one of the voices on ‘The Flintstones.’
“We have a dozen of the episodes completed, and I have to go right back to work this week.
“We record on tape from script in a studio, and the technicians blend the lines with the animation frames.
“I came back here for a few days to close up my home in New Rochelle and move the family out to Bel Air, where we bought a house.
“I’VE BEEN commuting so much in recent years between New York and Hollywood, as more and more of the television work centered there, that about the only way. I could expect to have much time with my wife and two children was to set up our home out there.”
Cat lovers will want to know whether Stang really likes cats.
“Well,” he replied cautiously, “let’s say I’m very fond of this cat character.”

Something just doesn’t seem right with the interview, though. The show is about a conning cat that uses Bilko-like flattery, has Bilko’s sidekick (Gosfield) and was written at times by a Bilko writer (Barry Blitzer)—but the studio wanted him to sound like Stang and not Bilko? Call me a little sceptical.

Top Cat debuted on Wednesday, September 27, 1961. The Big Cartoon Database says ‘Hawaii—Here We Come’ was the first show. But that’s not what the TV listings of the day say. You see to your left a TV ad which suggests the first show was really ‘The $1,000,000 Derby.’ In fact, a couple of newspapers in their “week ahead” TV listings the previous weekend give that cartoon in their plot summary. But on the day of the show, the papers changed their minds. Here’s a typical summary:

7:30—2 Top Cat: (Premiere) New half-hour animated cartoon series about the adventures of a band of felines in Manhattan. Tonight: "Top Cat Falls in Love" — Benny the Ball has his tonsils out but, after one glimpse at the nurse, smitten T.C. is stricken with a rare ailment to keep him hospitalized.

That, according to BCDB, was supposed to be the seventh episode. So which one aired? It’s tough to say. The Chicago Tribune’s Larry Wolters had this review the following morning:

Top Cat, also known as Ali Khat or alley cat, is a happy addition to all of TV's animated cartoon characters TV's animated cartoon characters. He gets mixed up with some pretty mixed up characters including "a compact horse" which he manages to run in a derby. Arabelle, the nag, came in second—she stopped to have her picture taken.

Whether Wolters actually saw the show the night of the debut or received an advance copy and wrote his column from that, I don’t know. But nowhere can I find evidence that ‘Hawaii—Here We Come’ aired first.

Incidentally, Jack Gould of the New York Times panned the show the following morning. He was the guy who called The Flintstones “an inked disaster” the day after its premiere. After moaning about how Steve Allen’s new show was too slapstick—yes, he panned Steve Allen, too—he wrote:

‘Top Cat’ in Debut
Following Mr. Allen's mishap on Channel 7 was another one: a cartoon series called "Top Cat." The central animal is an unattractive-Tommy-run feline and his bewhiskered minions are a dreary lot. Their adventures last night were dull enough to have been performed by humans.

And the Tribune capped the debut with this note in Herb Lyon’s column two days later on September 29th:

Silliest promotional stunt yet: ABC-TV publicized its new cartoon series Top Cat by sending TV critics, columnists, etc., jumbo sized garbage cans, with the lids done up in blue ribbons. Anybody need a JSGC? I can’t get past it to my typewriter!

Ah, but we’re getting away from the topic of Arnold Stang. Suffice it so say, he entertained many people in different media—radio, feature films, television, cartoons—for decades. Fortunately, his work is still around for us to enjoy even though he has gone.

Top Cat is a little beyond the time limit that this blog is supposed to focus on, but I’ll pass on one more set of clippings soon about Stang’s funny mate from Brooklyn, Marvin Kaplan.


  1. Bea Benadaret did do at least one voice on Top Cat, Benny the Ball's Mother in Law [a la Betty Rubble].

    Pokey aka Steve C.

  2. Jesus, Dodsworth!

    I'm recognizing this panoramic scene from the Top Cat series (Hanna-Barbera/Columbia Pictures, 1961-62)!
    It's from the episode The US$ 1,000,000 Derby. And it's exactly the scene in which Benny The Ball bought a horse for a concession stand to photograph children on a pony ride.
    I remember of this episode. It was animated by Carlo Vinci. Refering to design, it wasn't made by Jack Huber (how was recorded on BCDB). Actually, the design was made by Walter Clinton.

  3. The Flintstones premired with what is listed as their third episode, 'The Swimming Pool', while 'Flintstone Flyer' was supposed to be the first. Mixed up premiers must be a Hanna Barbera tradition, or some stupid technicallity.

  4. At least it's clear which one debuted, likely because The Flintstones is such an iconic show, people have their facts straight. But there seems to be all kinds of incorrect information about when other HB shows aired. I guess someone just took a production schedule and made assumptions.
    The Jetsons, by the way, did debut with 'Rosey the Robot.'

  5. Supposedly the first episode of TOP CAT aired by ABC is "Hawaii Here We Come"- which seems strange, because most of the action takes place away from the alley. "The $1,000,000 Derby" seems much more like a pilot episode, with a lot of expository dialogue and mention of many NYC elements, such as the subway. And Maurice Gosfield's portrayal of Benny seems much deeper than in subsequent episodes.

    There's little question that "Rosey the Robot" was the first JESTONS episode aired; there's loads of exposition in it. (Like the classic line "Don't pick fights with the little Russian boys".) But some sources say "A Date With Jet Screamer" was produced first. The characters do look kind of primitive in that episode (very heavy lines around bodies), especially when animated by Ken Muse.

  6. Howard, the problem with "database" web sites is no one knows where the information came from. Someone could have pulled it out of their ear for all I know. Or someone could have got a list of the production order and presumed that's how the show aired, in order, with all reruns coming at the end of the first run.

    The Flintstones was a huge hit and a television milestone, so all kinds of historical research was done and published. Top Cat wasn't that big nor historically important so it never got that kind of attention to detail from researchers.
    All I can tell from my very limited research is nothing points to the Hawaiian show as being the first one that aired. I'll be happy to be proven wrong.

  7. TV Guide (the real one, not the newspaper listings) seems to be most authoritative source of what-showed-when. Still today producers get last-minute cold feet about whether the explanative pilot or a later episode with better character development should be shown first.

  8. The first episode that aired on ABC TV was "The 1,000,000 Derby". I remember it well, as it opened with the extended shot of the city.
    I'm glad for the reprinted Stang article where he says that he uses a different voice for Top Cat. Indeed, it is sort of Bilko-ish.

  9. I can verify Scrabo's info -- the first ep aired was "The 1000000 Derby." I watched it.