Wednesday 29 June 2016

Acting, Cartoons and John Stephenson

The man to your right may look like an irritable boss and, in fact, he played one on TV. You wouldn’t have seen him though. That’s because John Stephenson supplied the voice for Mr. Slate on The Flintstones.

He portrayed a bunch of other characters on the show, too, including private eye Perry Gunite. In fact, for a number of years, it seems he found his way into most of Hanna-Barbera’s productions in secondary and/or nemesis roles. His voice is the one that comes to mind when you think of a villain foiled by “those meddling kids and that dog” on the original incarnation of Scooby Doo.

We’ve talked about the late Mr. Stephenson’s career here before—on radio, in live-action television, in animation. But you’ll be able to hear about it from a different perspective. John’s son Roger will be the guest of Stu Shotak on the Stu’s Show podcast next Wednesday at 4 p.m. West Coast time. Roger grew up while his father was at the peak of his long career and will likely have plenty of insights into his dad that cartoon fans don’t know. So tune in. Click here.

Earlier this month, we clipped a piece from the Los Angeles Times of April 28, 1989 where Janet Waldo was interviewed during her recording for her ill-fated part in the Jetsons movie. Stephenson was interviewed, too. Here’s his portion:

Stephenson is the old guard—a stage and radio actor who takes his voices seriously, even when voicing Tom and Jerry in the popular cat-and-mouse cartoon.
In his cartoon work, there were times he was “literally talking to myself.” In one half-hour “Flintstone” caper, he had nine voices and had to mark his script in different colors to keep them straight.
Stephenson may seem a perennial second banana, playing Mr. Slate to Fred Flintstone, Mr. Dingwall to Yogi Bear. He doesn’t see it that way.
“These are the guys the other guys kick around. They provoke the action,” Stephenson said in a stately voice that could easily reach the far rows of any theater.
Mr. Slate, for example, was always making Fred and Barney miserable, but in the end, they always bested the boss. Since Slate provoked the action, Stephenson said, “I never thought of his as a second banana.”
The characters, including Doggie Daddy in the “Augie Doggie” cartoon, Fancy from “Top Cat,” Mr Arable in “Charlotte’s Web,” Finkerton in “Inch High Private Eye,” and the Sheriff in “Robin Hoodnik” are “the fun parts” of his work.
With his courtly manners and resonant voice, Stephenson seems almost too dignified to play cartoon characters. But he said he never feels silly because he doesn’t view his characters as one-dimensional.
“It’s their different facets that are intriguing. You can stretch as far as you want. It’s exaggerated, but it still reflects life.”
Although his two children always got a kick from dad’s gigs, Stephenson always saw voice acting as just a job. Stephenson, who wouldn’t give his age, said he doesn’t do his shtick at parties, and he doesn’t entertain for adults. “Some people can turn it on and off. Away from the mike, I don’t like to do this,” he said.
Stephenson has had a varied career—from stage plays to product pitchman; from television appearances on “Dragnet” and “People’s Choice” (where he played Jackie Cooper’s neighbor, Roger Crutcher, another second banana) to Armed Forces training films and the voice for some Mattel toys. He hosted the travel show “Bold Journey” from 1956-57 and appeared in the 1965 NBC soap “Morning Star.”
Even as a boy in Kenosha, Wis., Stephenson wanted to act. But acting was a risky profession, so he tried studying law. He interrupted his education to serve as a radio operator-gunner flying B-24s out of Kunming, China, during World War II, and when he returned to school, it was as a theater arts major at Northwestern.
Trained for the stage, Stephenson “fell into radio by accident.” When I moved to Los Angeles in1949, I found you had two choices—radio or movies.
He found plenty of work playing lead and featured parts in hundreds of network radio shows, including the title role in “The Count of Monte Christo” and the lead in the CBS comedy series “It’s Always Sunday,” but he knew by the 1950s that “radio was doomed. When radio died, you found yourself blending into television.”
Although radio work was low profile, it was satisfying “because you could wear many hats, you didn’t have to be locked into your own skin. It’s like putting a lamp shade on your voice. Age and image were not barriers.” There were those who referred to radio people as “throat actors,” a term Stephenson sees as derogatory. “They thought that was all they were getting. You had to be an actor from the top of your toes to the top of your head.”
The early cartoons like “The Flintstones” have held up so well, he said, because the writing was so good and the human condition is the same.
“The beautiful thing about cartoons is that there is no time barrier.” But, he added, with a rueful chuckle, “If we knew they would last so long, we would have asked for more money.”
In case you’re wondering, Stephenson’s son didn’t go into voice acting or show business. Instead, Roger spent many years serving the community in law enforcement.

Those of you who love the early Hanna-Barbera animated series (and you must, otherwise you wouldn’t be here) may not know that Stu has interviewed a number of people over the years about those fun cartoons: Janet Waldo, Jerry Eisenberg, Tony Benedict and the late Earl Kress, who probably knew more about the cartoons than anyone else. Those interviews are available for purchase for under $1. They’re bargains.

If Earl were still with us, he might have had an answer to this question. To the right, you see a makeover of Mr. Slate for the Flintstones episode “Moonlight Maintenance.” Why does he look different, Stu enquired of me, because the character had already been established by the time this cartoon appeared on TV. I can’t, and won’t, pass myself off as an expert on very much to do with the studio. The credits for this particular episode say the layout artists were Dick Bickenbach and Ed Benedict. The layout guys generally designed the incidental characters. My only guess is Benedict wanted to try something different if he was the man behind it (I don’t see Bick being responsible). This was a fifth season cartoon (1964-65) and, to be honest, the series was more miss than hit that year. It was also dealing with the real possibility of cancellation as it was being killed in the ratings by TV newcomer Herman and the rest of The Munsters on CBS. And H-B was starting to be stretched pretty thin, with Jonny Quest, Magilla Gorilla and Peter Potamus in production, with Secret Squirrel and Atom Ant being developed. But all that production meant more voice work for John Stephenson, and I’m sure he didn’t mind.

Saturday 25 June 2016

Dan Gordon's Sketches

Dan Gordon was one of the originals at Hanna-Barbera, providing story sketches for the Ruff and Reddy series in 1957. Gordon was originally an architectural draughtsman (he was employed as one according the U.S. Censuses in 1920 and 1930). Whether he went into animation before his younger brother George is unclear, but the two of them both worked for the Van Beuren and Terrytoons studios in New York (with Joe Barbera) before he moved on to employment after the war on comic books, then with the John Sutherland and Transfilm industrial studios in the ‘50s.

Gordon seems to have worked on all of Hanna-Barbera’s series (possibly excluding Top Cat) until 1965 when he vanished from the studio. Heritage Auctions recently accepted bids on a number of items to which Gordon’s name was attached. Whether he drew them all is open for discussion.

First some great sketches that appear to have been made in preparation for The Jetsons (1962). There are some nice concepts here.

Next are some panels of either the Flintstones or Flagstones (the series’ original name). These drawings are definitely by Gordon, though the dialogue appears to have been scribbled in by Joe Barbera. They’re from “The Swimming Pool,” the first episode put into production, though the dialogue isn’t verbatim what’s in the finished cartoon.

Finally, some great sketches of Yogi Bear for a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial. I don’t know whether these are Gordon’s. Yogi’s very attractively drawn and I like the crowing rooster on the package.

Gordon left the studio around the start of 1961 to work for Quartet, the commercial studio eventually run by Hanna-Barbera alumnus Mike Lah (he was Bill Hanna’s brother-in-law) but returned by the time Magilla Gorilla was in production then seems to have left again around the time Secret Squirrel and Atom Ant were being made in 1965. Gordon died five or six years later (I have not found a definitive source on when or where). He was one of a number of fine cartoon artists who put their stamp on the early (and best) Hanna-Barbera comedy series.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Flintstones Weekend Comics, June 1966

Pebbles took an awful lot of the spotlight in the Flintstones newspaper comics, but the Sunday colour ones from 50 years ago this month revolve around Fred (with one exception). Frankly, that’s the way I prefer it. The cartoon series originally revolved around the grouchy, occasionally-scheming Fred barking at his wife and his best friend and I wouldn’t have minded if it had stayed that way.

Fred reading a girly magazine? That’s what it appears in the opening panel of the June 5th comic (Cave Boy instead of Playboy). He’s also maintained his subscription to Golf magazine, I see. There are jagged expression lines around the annoyed Betty in the first panel of the middle column. The final panel has not only a run-down Christmas tree, but birds nesting in it. Fred has a nice weary expression.

The idea of Dino and Pebbles “talking” in the newspaper comics isn’t something I’m taken with, but it opened more story possibilities, such as the one in the June 12th comic. And a dinosaur that shaves? (third panel, top row). The last panel is my favourite with the full moon, the dark clouds, Dino in silhouette and the volcanoes in the background.

Fred’s got great expressions in the June 19th comic. I like the composition of the opening panel, with a good use of foreground and background space to avoid making it look cluttered. This two-tone comic is from the Richard Holliss collection, as is the full-colour one above. I guess some papers wanted to save money. Bill Hanna would appreciate that.

Fred’s swearing in the opening panel of the June 26th comic is creatively lettered. Same goes for the SLAM! in the rare round panel in the middle row. The foreman not only smokes a cigar, but has a watch chain, like someone out of the 1900s.

Click on any of the comics to enlarge them.

Saturday 18 June 2016

Snagglepuss – Fraidy Cat Lion

Produced and Directed by Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna.
Credits: Animation – Art Davis, Layout – Paul Sommer, Backgrounds – Dick Thomas, Written by Mike Maltese, Story Director – Alex Lovy, Titles – Art Goble, Production Supervision – Howard Hanson.
Voice Cast: Snagglepuss, J. Evil Scientist, Cat – Daws Butler; Mrs. J. Evil Scientist – Jean Vander Pyl; Junior, Mouse – Don Messick.
Music: Hoyt Curtin.
Episode: Production R-4 (third Snagglepuss cartoon).
Copyright 1960 by Hanna-Barbera Productions.
Plot: J. Evil Scientist hires Snagglepuss to catch a mouse, which has been unknowingly enlarged in an experiment.

Hanna-Barbera seemed to use the Snagglepuss cartoons to showcase recurring secondary characters it may have wanted to turn into series leads. Thus Snagglepuss met up with Yakky Doodle, Bigelow the Mouse, Snuffles and, in this cartoon, Mr. and Mrs. J. Evil Scientist.

As much as the Scientist clan is reminiscent of TV’s Addams Family, it should be noted that the John Astin-Carolyn Jones series debuted a few years after this cartoon, though books of the single-panel Addams cartoons in The New Yorker were published as early as 1954.

As well, the scary-is-delightful, ugly-is-beautiful turnabout humour of J. Evil and family draws a bit on the “sick” humour that came into vogue in the late ‘50s. The “sick” school of punchlines came in for a lot of criticism by bluenoses for being “tasteless.” No one could accuse Mike Maltese of that with the J. Evil Scientists; the dialogue was too silly to be offensive, just as how Bob and Ray’s newscaster Peter Gorey growled out stories like “A poor shopkeeper was killed accidentally while attempting suicide.” This cartoon includes a loud screech of fear from Mrs. Scientist, to which J. Evil responds “How thoughtful! She’s singing our song.” And when Mrs. Scientist informs her husband that “guillotine stew” is for dinner, he remarks: “It sounds delicious! Why don’t you put in a head—(pause)—of cabbage?” After a while, Hanna-Barbera beat the idea to death but it’s funny in small doses in this cartoon.

Poor Snagglepuss doesn’t even appear in the first 2½ minutes. He finally shows up at the door of the Scientists’ standard-issue creepy house (excellently painted by Dick Thomas in the opening shot). Before that can happen, Maltese sets up the plot. Junior Scientist is playing with daddy’s experiment equipment in the basement and uses a ray to enlarge a mouse. The great Art Davis is the animator here. As Greg Watson (or whoever) fills the soundtrack with Hoyt Curtin’s minor key organ music, thunder sound effects and electronic buzzing, Davis comes up with some neat flashing animation effects.

Just as H-B cartoons can have a dog that can only say “Yowp,” they can have an enlarged mouse with a vocabulary restricted to “Snarf!” The big rodent scares Mrs. Scientist, who actually exhibits no fear (other than standing on a chair) and continues to calmly flick cigarette ashes on the mouse as she requests help, maintaining the same relaxed, throaty voice as she does in the rest of the cartoon (Jean Vander Pyl as Tallulah Bankhead). The family cat bolts when asked to get the mouse; J. Evil develops multiple eyes to watch the cat’s streaking exit.

The set-up complete, Snagglepuss arrives. The ensuing dialogue:

J. Evil (opening door) – It’s a mouldy-looking mountain lion, my dear.
Snagglepuss – Mouldy-lookin’! If it were not, I were to the manor born, I’d reciprocate in kind. Whaddya think of that? Whaddya think of that?
J. Evil – I still think you’re mouldy. What do you think of THAT?
The dialogue continues...
Snagglepuss – I seek not but food, ere I continue me weary travels. Whaddya say to that? Whaddya say to that?
J. Evil – I’d say “scram or I’ll sic a dragon on you.”
Snagglepuss begs for food, promising work in return. “Anything you need, name it, name it. Chop wood, beat a rug, jelly eels, fix a fig maybe.” Only Maltese would throw in “jelly eels.”

Naturally, Snagglepuss fails at his task, overcome by Junior and technology. There’s a nice bit of running dialogue when Snagglepuss employs a tea strainer to catch the mouse. “It’s tea time, little rodent,” he exclaims. Then when he realises the mouse is huge, he looks at the camera and says “Heavens to Murgatroyd. A verita-b-b-b-ble Frankenmouse monster, even. Which isn’t my cup of tea. So, exit, stage left!” This is the only time in the cartoon where we hear Snagglepuss’ catchphrases.

Another neat bit of dialogue (or, rather, monologue) ensues, featuring Maltese’s use of mounting ridiculous phrases:

Snagglepuss (to Junior) – Say! Why aren’t you in school? Better yet, why aren’t you in jail?
Mouse – Snarf! Snarf, snarf, snarf!
Snagglepuss (to mouse) – Say! Are you followin’ me? Don’t yazz realise that you’re breakin’ a city ordinance? Malpractice. Pedestrum follow-ita. With an ipso factory. And an accessory after the carbohydrate. So watch it. Watch it.
The mouse grabs Snagglepuss. A couple of nice drawings.

The cartoon ends with Junior and the mouse shrinking Snagglepuss, who runs to the comfort of the mouse’s hole and finds a piece of cheese. So Snagglepuss succeeds in getting something to eat after all. Note the brush strokes and multiples in the exit drawings.

Daws Butler gives J. Evil a Peter Lorre-esque voice, though it’s less nasally than you think Lorre sounds like. If you’re familiar with how Lorre emphasized certain words, you’ll notice when Davis stretches J. Evil’s mouth when emphasizing.

The sound cutter makes good use of Hoyt Curtin’s music tracking library. I like the bass fiddle music during one scene where the large mouse is walking. And a variation on “Meet the Flintstones” is heard when Snagglepuss is at the door.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Kids Say the Darndest Things ... About Huckleberry Hound

What?! Someone who grew up not liking cartoons!? Could there be such a person?

Well, there was. She was a columnist for the Milwaukee Sentinel. But the errors of her youth were pointed out to her by the youth of today, 1961 version. Here’s a cute column from May 28th of that year when Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw were still appearing in brand-new cartoons on TV. It proves that kids are sometimes smarter than adults.

Janet Kern’s Column
Critic Caught Off Base
REMEMBER THE DAYS when adults used to catch the kids goofing off from their duties? Now it’s the other way around, for me at least.
A few weeks back, I was a dinner guest of a family with three children ranging in age from 6 to 13. Before my arrival, my stock was high with those youngsters who had somehow gotten the mistaken impression that I am by trade, a TV scout rather than a TV columnist. The moment that illusion was blasted the female member of the young trio gave up on me. The boys stuck, briefly.
“What is the best children’s show?” the older boy asked.
“Whu, uh, I really don’t know,” I stammered.
“Don’t you watch television?” the youngster probed.
“Well, yes, but not children’s shows,” I replied.
“Why not? Don’t children count?” came the pressing query.
I took refuge behind my favorite, and heretofore effective alibi.
“Being a grownup, I figure that I can’t really judge a children’s show. If it entertains me it’s no good for the children. If the children enjoy it, I probably wouldn’t like it.”
“Well, my favorite show is the Untouchables; lots of growups watch that, do you?”
“No,” I confessed, “I don’t watch it because I don’t like it or approve of it. I think it’s a dreadful show.”
That was the end of me so far as those kids were concerned!

MORE RECENTLY, a young lady of 4 . . . a trim, starched little doll named Holly Becker, who hadn’t seen me since she was 2 years old . . . came to call at my house. She arrived dragging a doll and clutching a long-eared rabbit.
Without so much as an “hello, how are you?” or what-have-you, Holly greeted me with:
“Pardon me, where may I put Bugs Bunny?”
Having found a suitable chair for Bugs Bunny, we got down to serious conversation.
“Do you know Bugs Bunny?” Holly inquired.
“Oh, yes,” I replied confidently.
“Do you know my grandmother?” she continued, and I had to confess I hadn’t had the pleasure.
“Well, then, do you know Pixie and Dixie?”
“Who?” I countered and her neat little eyebrows shot up in horror.
Pixie and Dixie, I learned later, are the “mice” on Huckleberry Hound.
“May I have a glass of milk, please?” Holly asked meekly and then, alone in the kitchen, over a glass of milk, she explained to me that her baby sister can’t talk “because babies have such tiny little ears.” For this education she wanted to be repaid in kind.
“Why did they stuff Yogi Bear?”
That one threw me. Calling for help from her mother, I learned that Holly had recently visited a museum where she had seen a stuffed bear. This distressed her because, to her, all bears are Yogi Bear and she objected to her friend having been killed so he could be stuffed.
Later, Holly gazed up at me affectionately and murmured in fond-sounding tones.
“I hate you to pieces.
“That’s Huckleberry Hound, too,” her father hastened to console me.
“I hate Daddy to pieces, too,” Holly whispered. “Do you know Hokey?”
Gradually, I learned that Holly never misses Huckleberry Hound nor Bugs Bunny.

ANOTHER YOUNG FRIEND, this one all of 11 years old, and named Tommy, turned out to be a Huckleberry Hound follower too . . . also a religious nightly viewer of Bugs Bunny.
Tommy also dotes on Dobie Gillis and Ozzie and Harriet and Hennessey. Most of all, though, he loves The Untouchables. “When he can get away with it, he watches it.” Tommy, apparently, has some trouble getting away with the Untouchables, because his big sister is my assistant and she’s been brain-washed anent The Untouchables!
Obviously, the professional viewer is out of touch with the main-stream of youth what with Bugs Bunny mainly from her own youth and not really knowing Huckleberry Hound and not approving of The Untouchables. Of course, I was an abnormal child. I didn’t even like cartoons.
That this was, and is, an abnormality, I know. For, the other evening, driving past a movie theatre, an extremely grown-up friend observed elatedly: “Oh, look. 101 Dalmatians is playing here!”
And, some time later, sitting at dinner at a largely adult-crowded restaurant, I heard the four extremely grown-up folk behind me conversing about the major affairs of the day.
They discussed most of the material in that day’s newspapers. Then one observed with equal solemnity:
“We went to see 101 Dalmatians last night; you really must see it.”
“I really don’t care for movies,” a woman at the table replied.
“Oh, but you’ll really enjoy this one; no one should miss it,” the first gentleman insisted gently.
And, I was tempted to butt in, no one should miss Bugs Bunny or Huckleberry Hound, either! Take it from a girl who’s getting more and more socially outcast because she usually does miss both shows!

Monday 13 June 2016

Janet Waldo

Janet Waldo was America’s Perennial Teenager.

Janet played teenager Corliss Archer on radio in the ‘40s and ‘50s. She played teenager Judy Jetson in the ‘60s. And if you heard her in interviews 50 years after that, she sounded exactly the same as both of them.

She wasn’t a teenager during any of that time. Miss Waldo was born in April 1919 (according to the 1920 US Census) in the small Northern Pacific Railway stop of Grandview, Washington and was plucked for stardom off the campus of the University of Washington by none other than Spokane’s Bing Crosby in 1937. It turned out Paramount (Crosby’s studio) had all the ingĂ©nues it needed and Janet found work in radio, and then in network TV when it came along.

Historian and interviewer Stu Shostak has passed along word from her family that Janet Waldo died yesterday morning.

As Yogi Bear used to say, she was “one of the good ones.” Every interview I’ve heard her do, she was upbeat. Never negative. That’s even though she was unexpectedly dumped from a Jetsons feature film and replaced by some singer who was hot at the time (and not since). I have yet to see anything bad written about her. She was always kind and friendly to anyone I’ve spoken with.

There isn’t much about her cartoon career that we haven’t posted already. So allow me to pass on a portion of a story from the Los Angeles Times of April 28, 1989.

The recording room is small, and it is stuffy as the six actors gather to do pickup lines for "Jetsons: The Movie." The actors exchange jokes and funny sounds as they settle on their stools, scripts resting on music stands, microphones a whisper away.
They are such a happy group, it's like watching a bunch of Smurfs. Janet Waldo, looking more like an elf in green mini-skirt and matching shoes and stockings than the voice of Judy Jetson, sits on one side of the room with Penny Singleton, who plays Jane Jetson.
On the other side are the "boys"—Frank Welker, the voice of Little Grungee; Rob Paulsen, who plays Judy's boyfriend, Apollo Blue; Ronnie Schell, playing robot Rudy 2, and Patric Zimmerman, the new voice of Elroy, Judy's brother.
Paulsen tries out his imitation of Robert Duvall laughing, while Schell tries to match that with the sound of Cary Grant sneezing.
Then as quickly as someone clearing his throat, they are in character and down to business, watching through a large window for a sign from director Gordon Hunt, who is manning the controls in a small sound booth. It seems tense, maybe because this is a movie and not just a half-hour cartoon. Everyone quickly makes room in the booth for animation guru Joe Barbera as he quietly sneaks in.
Cartoon actors are as different as the voices they portray. San Fernando Valley residents Waldo, Welker and John Stephenson are three who can crowd a room. When Waldo answers her telephone, she sounds just like a teen-ager. Although long past that stage, it's easy to picture the bubbly, blonde Waldo as Judy Jetson, the giddy, Space Age daughter of George and Jane in the still-popular 27-year-old cartoon series.
"Judy Jetson is one of the easiest voices for me to do because it's closest to my natural voice. It's just me being excited," Waldo said.
When the futuristic cartoon series made its debut in 1962, Hanna-Barbera made only 24 episodes. "Little did we dream this would become a cult," Waldo said. The series proved so popular 20 years later that 51 more episodes were made, followed by two TV movies and "Jetsons: The Movie," which is scheduled for Christmas release.
"There was a sense of family on the show, of being together so long," said the slightly built Waldo, dressed in red slacks, red sweater and red boots. "Doing the Jetsons again was like coming home."
Waldo, who won't even hint at her age, grew up in Seattle and "never wanted to be anything but an actress" since age 3. Bing Crosby discovered her at a talent search when she was 13, and she did a few movie spots before getting into radio. She was one of three actresses to star as teen-ager Corliss Archer in the popular radio program, which first aired in 1943. She was also teen-ager Emmy Lou on radio and TV's "The Ozzie and Harriet Show," and Tony Franciosa's secretary, Libby, on the 1964-65 TV comedy "Valentine's Day."
Radio was good to her in another way—it's where she met her husband, playwright Robert E. Lee. He was writing for "Favorite Story"; she was providing the voice for Corliss Archer.
Doing cartoons is "much like doing radio, just with more punch. In cartoons, you have to be a little bit bigger than life," she said. To get a character's voice, sometimes she needs to see a picture or a cartoon. "Then you create the image in your head so you can sound like her."
Breaking into a high, sweet and slightly Southern voice, she talks about Granny Sweet on the cartoon "Precious Pup," then drops it through her nose to demonstrate another favorite character, Hogatha, the incredibly ugly yet amazingly vain witch on "The Smurfs."
"The Perils of Penelope Pitstop" was fun because race car driver Penelope was a woman before her time, a female super-hero in 1969, long before She-Ra flexed her cartoon muscles. And she loved doing the deep, strong voice of Fred Flintstone's battle-ax of a mother-in-law because "it was a real switch from Judy. It's fun to hide behind a large character."
Her children were thrilled with her job on "The Jetsons." "They'd drop my name all the time to their friends. They have great awe and respect for my husband, but I got the squeals," she said.
The walls of the book-filled family room in her Encino home are covered with framed posters of plays written by her husband and his partner Jerry Lawrence—"First Monday in October," "Auntie Mame," "Inherit the Wind," "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail," "The Gang's All Here."
In Waldo's small office are cartoon cels (drawings on celluloid that are used to make cartoons) of some of her characters—Grandma and the ghoulishly glamorous Morticia from the cartoon version of "The Addams Family," lead singer Josie from "Josie and the Pussycats," Alice from a Hanna-Barbera version of "Alice in Wonderland" and, of course, Judy Jetson.
Waldo said she thinks that an acting background is what makes a cartoon actor more than just "a voice technician."
"An actor can play a role from the heart, not just from the neck up. An actor immerses himself in the character. You can tell the difference. I feel truly, deeply concerned when Judy has a problem," she said.
Commenting on how cartoons have changed, she said, "It used to be that cartoons were interesting to adults, as well as children." Now, Waldo complained, they are a bit boring and often too violent and too much like "one big commercial for toys."
"The Jetsons" was "a genuine story about a real family who happens to live in outer space. It stimulated the imagination of the audience and triggered a new vista of ideas and imagination," she said.
Waldo also dubs voices for American and foreign films, imitating everyone from Susan Anton and Sally Field to Aretha Franklin and the late Natalie Wood. If a movie line cannot be clearly heard, or naughty words are taken out for a TV run, voice actors are sometimes used instead of bringing back the star to do these "pickup lines."
With cartoon voices, Waldo plays three types: a typical teen-ager, a typical young mother and a typical secretary. "Eventually," she said with a laugh, "I'll have to be a typical grandmother."
She didn’t quite play “a typical grandmother.” She played Granny Sweet, the Little-Old-Lady-From-Pasadena-like owner of Precious Pupp, off riding her motorcycle while the dog vanquished bad guys and snickered all the time. A hepped-up suburban granny of the ‘60s and a squealing teenager of the future are just some of the roles we think about as we remember Janet Waldo today.

Listen to this interview with Janet about her radio days conducted by John Dunning in 1982.

Saturday 11 June 2016

The Jetsons – Astro’s Top Secret

Someone, no doubt, has a list of how many of the Jetsons prime-time cartoons featured the phrase “Jetson, you’re fired!” The number is probably smaller than people think, but because the cartoons have been run over and over and over for 50-plus years, it seems like a lot.

This cartoon features that particular phrase, along with what’s now a tired old plot point of dangling a company vice-presidency as a reward, something which strikes me as something peculiar to the 1950s and ‘60s as desirable.

“Astro’s Top Secret” has its moments; a ‘60s Jetsons episode featuring Astro always has something worth watching. I like the eager Harlan, Cogswell’s assistant, who enthusiastically throws himself into the role of corporate spy by incorporating secret agent clichĂ© dialogue into his spiel because, well, that’s how spies talk. That great comic actor, Howard Morris, provides Harlan’s voice, as well as that of the mock-serious narrator who appears in the first part of the cartoon. There’s a neat bit of timing when Cogswell grills Astro in a dark room under a spotlight. Astro quickly whips out a pair of sunglasses. “No cheating!” says Harlan, who grabs them away. And there’s a vaudevillian bit of corn when Cogswell tells Astro to start talking. So he does. In rowrs, bow-wows and woofs. Cogswell has his assistant Moonstone read back the transcript. “Bow wow, wow wow wow. Wow wow wow, wow...” says Moonstone. You can probably see the gag coming a mile away but it’s funny. Don Messick plays both Astro and Moonstone, but the two characters sound completely different. Astro always sounds exuberant. Moonstone is clinical and earnest as he reads back the indecipherable dog talk. Messick’s a real master.

The story revolves around the old misunderstanding routine. Spacely threatens, yet again, to put Cogswell out of business. Meanwhile, Astro swallows Elroy’s toy space car. Cogswell’s spy, Harlan, sees Astro flying around (powered by the car in his stomach), thinks George Jetson has developed an anti-gravity device, dognaps Astro, who escapes. Cogswell, Spacely and Astro all end up back at the Jetson’s home where the car pops out of the dog. Misunderstanding ended. The ending has Astro swallowing a mini-computer. Yet another misunderstanding at the fade out.

George Nicholas is one of the animators in this cartoon. I can’t pick out the others (see Howard Fein’s always helpful comments below). The characters on this show aren’t designed to have big mouths and floppy tongues, like when Nicholas animates Fred Flintstone or Yogi Bear, but they do have beady eyes and wavy mouths that Nicholas liked to draw.

The cartoon is really inconsistent when it comes to takes. Below are two extremes. They’re a real take because the animator starts with a regular drawing of Astro, then expands his eyes for a number of frames so you get the effect.

To the right is a drawing from when Astro swallows the toy car. There’s nothing wrong with the drawing. The problem is that the other drawings accompanying it look similar so there’s no real take. Even worse is a little later in the cartoon when George realises that Astro is “flying” past him. There’s no take at all. Jetson’s expression doesn’t change. There’s simply a short “sproing” on the soundtrack. That’s one way of handling it, but I’d rather see the animator at work.

Time for some examples of dry brushwork on characters quickly leaving the frame. The characters become outlines or partial outlines to make the exit appear quicker. I’ve always liked the effect. The first two are consecutive frames of Harlan. The final two features the old “Follow that car” gag with the car taking off before the person gets inside. This time, it’s “Follow that dog!” It still works.

Here are some exteriors. I haven’t had time to check to see which other cartoons used the establishing shots of the Skypad Apartments and Spacely Sprockets buildings. The background artist is unknown.

Inventions? Well, there are plenty of visiphones in this cartoon. There’s the golf course that consists of floating platforms of grass (Spacely has a putter that converts to a number 3 driver by pressing a button; balls that drop off the platforms sprout parachutes). Most of all, I really like the sandwich maker in Spacely’s office. Oh, and dig that home computer—with a tape! It must be future retro.

Odds and sods...
● Judy does not appear in this cartoon. However, Janet Waldo makes an appearance as Marilyn, the sexy temptress dog. She talks just like Astro, pronouncing all words with “r” at the start.
● George makes $1,000 a week.
● Spacely and Cogswell drive past the same set of golf greens ten times before the scene changes.
● Music in Hanna-Barbera cartoons was strictly for mood, it wasn’t scored with the drawings in mind like in theatrical cartoons. But there’s one scene where a golf ball hits Spacely on the head and bounces into the hole. Each bounce is accompanied by a declining music stab, so the music matches the animation.
● Several scenes have characters walking behind overlays. It’s nice when Hanna-Barbera cartoons go to the trouble of doing that.

It appears Jerry Eisenberg laid out part of this cartoon. The drawing below matches the visiphone frame above.

The story is by Tony Benedict, who had an affinity for Astro. This isn’t as strong as some of the others featuring Astro, but it’s a pleasant enough half hour to watch.