Sunday, 9 September 2018

Hanna-Barbera's Music Man

At the age of eight in 1931, he gave a piano recital with fellow students of the Ingalls-Bishop studios in San Bernadino. By the time he was in high school in 1939, he was fronting his own band (with a vocalist). And in 1957, he was living in Los Angeles when he got a phone call asking if he might be able to compose a theme song for a new TV show called Ruff and Reddy.

He might. And he did. With that, Hoyt Curtin began a long association with the Hanna-Barbera cartoon studio, composing theme songs that fans can sing even today.

Curtin would have turned 96 today (he died in 2000). He was involved with music all his life, with a bit of a time-out for baseball (he was a left-handed pitcher on his high school team) and the war (his oldest brother was killed in the South Pacific), at least judging by the pages of the San Bernadino Sun. There are numerous stories through the 1930s of Curtin playing piano, singing, giving narratives and then performing with his own orchestra.

Whether Curtin had composed any music by that time isn’t revealed, but he was certainly in the film business by the end of the ‘40s, a few years before he was hired to provide scores for cartoons at UPA. Here’s the Sun of February 2, 1948. It’s unfortunate the paper doesn’t seem to have published a picture of him.

Hoyt Curtin's Music Wins Acclaim in L.A.
S.B. Man Completing Studies for Master's Degree at U.S.C.

Hoyt S. Curtin, son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank M. Curtin, 782 Twenty-third street, has received acclaim in Los Angeles music circles for two outstanding contributions in the music field.
The first was a program of his original compositions presented as a partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of master of music from the University of Southern California, where he has been engaged in graduate work for the past year. He expects to receive his degree in June.
The recital was given Jan. 9 in Hancock hall at the University and attended by prominent musical artists of Southern California.
The following week, a premiere showing of a motion picture, “Music from the Mountain,” featuring music composed by Mr. Curtin, among other graduate students studying composition for motion pictures under Miklos Rozsa, well-known film composer.
The film depicts the new school of music and arts at Idyllwild plans for which are well-advanced. This premiere was also shown at Hancock hall with many of the trustees and advisors, who include Dennis Morgan, Jean Hersholt, Dr. Max Krone, Jose Iturbi and Yehudi Menuhin in attendance.
Mr. Curtin, graduated from San Bernardino High school in 1940, was active in the music department. He studied with Rowena Bishop, San Bernardino piano instructor, and attended Valley college for a year before enrolling in the accelerated war course at U.S.C.
Following his discharge from the Navy, in which he served two and one half years as a lieutenant (j.g.) and was wounded at Okinawa, he returned to his studies at U. S. C.
Mr. Curtin also has written music for many commercial and educational films, including, “The Best Policy” and “And Now to Live.”
We’ve told the story on the blog before that Bill Hanna liked a musical composition of Curtin’s for a Schlitz commercial (whether the commercial was made at MGM before its cartoon studio closed is unclear), and hired him to write the Ruff and Reddy opening/closing theme. Every year, Hanna-Barbera came out with a new show and every year, Curtin would compose the theme (and variations for any bridging cartoons): Huckleberry Hound in 1958, Quick Draw McGraw in 1959, The Flintstones in 1960, Top Cat and Yogi Bear in 1961, The Jetsons (and a new Flintstones theme) in 1962.

For the first few years of the studio’s life, Hanna-Barbera followed the custom of most TV shows—it got background music from production libraries. When the studio and Columbia Pictures worked out a deal for the Loopy De Loop theatrical cartoon series in 1959, Curtin was asked to write his own music cue library for it. For The Flintstones, he again wrote a whole series of cues. By 1961, Hanna-Barbera phased out the Capitol Hi-Q and Langlois Filmusic libraries for all its cartoons and strictly went with Curtin.

Curtin’s work on the half-hour shows was great. The Jonny Quest underscores may have been the most effective ever created for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, and I personally love the Gershwin-esque urban cues he composed for Top Cat. But I still prefer hearing Phil Green’s or Jack Shaindlin’s music behind the seven-minute comedy adventures on the Quick Draw and Huck shows over the sparsely-orchestrated cartoony music of Curtin.

Here’s a short piece on Curtin from Back Stage, a trade paper, published June 9, 1978. I thought we had posted this before, but apparently not. It gives you an idea how, as Hanna-Barbera grew, his business grew, too.

Hoyt Curtin hasn’t found anyone to dispute his claim to being the man who writes more TV program music than anyone else in the business. And there aren’t likely to be any challengers at the rate he goes.
Through this company, Soundtrack Music, Curtin creates the music for up to seven hours of programming a week for the Saturday morning airwaves of all three networks, ranging from shows like ABC’s “Scooby Doo” to NBC’s “Godzilla.” Reason behind this prolific output is that Curtin is music director for the big supplier of children’s programming, Hanna-Barbera.
The flow of music from one source is the result of a 10 year association between Hoyt and the Hanna-Barbera organization. Both Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera acknowledge Curtin’s musical contributions to the success of the myriad of cartoons and features that have come out of the company’s Cahuenga Blvd. ink and paint pots.
Hoyt says “With the growing cost of animation both Bill and Joe realize the importance of music to achieve the excitement they want in their product. It’s a great feeling to have that attitude coming from the top.”
Curtin uses up to 45 musicians per session. He averages four sessions per week, three hours in length. With cartoons using “wall-to-wall” music, he needs to get 20 minutes of music per session. This 80 minutes-plus of original music a week is all scored to a storyboard. Music and film go into the editing room at the same time so Curtin seldom sees his picture until it airs.
Curtin draws heavily on the talents of Jack Stern, his chief arranger, as well as a group of other talented people. Coordinating for Hanna-Barbera is Paul DeKorte, H-B’s music producer.
With the ever increasing production at Hanna-Barbera now encompassing features and television specials, there’s virtually no letup in the schedule. One major non-TV project for Hoyt and the studio has been the production of the classic children’s story “Heide.” Film has 18 major production numbers and features the voices of, among other stars, Sammy Davis Jr. and Lorne Green [sic]. There are also four ABC-TV After School Specials and four primetime “Flintstone” specials.
How does Curtin feel about the continuing challenge to produce week in and week out? He said, “I take it one project at a time. It’s really such a kick though to have such a vast outlet for your work.”
Hanna-Barbara rundown for the 1978-79 TV season with scores by Soundtrack Music include: ABC-TV: “Scooby-Doo”, “Captain Caveman”, “Superfriends”, “War of the Superheroes”, and “Laff-A-Lympics”. NBC-TV: “Yogi’s Space Race” and “The Godzilla Power Hours”, CBS-TV: “The Popeye Show” and “Big Dog”.
Incidentally, Curtin wasn’t exclusively employed by Hanna-Barbera; in fact, he never signed a contract with the studio until January 1985 (according to Variety of the day). His name is found on the end credits for the Beany and Cecil and Linus the Lionhearted cartoon series (though both used stock music in their underscores).

As time went along, things changed at Hanna-Barbera and it’s reflected in the music. Curtin’s first scores had a jazzy, brassy flavour. But rock and roll took over the charts in the ‘60s. Bye-bye hot trumpets. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, real instruments were packed away in favour of a single keyboard that could quasi-mimic anything. And Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons changed from ones made for a family audience (like the old theatrical shorts) to kiddie stuff. What’s better to your ears, the Jonny Quest theme or the insipid opening to The Smurfs?

Anyway, even though Mr. Curtin is no longer with us, you can celebrate his day today by pulling out and listening to some of his great music from those early Hanna-Barbera cartoons. If your flash player plug-in works, you can find some on this blog.


  1. Hoyt also did some anime scoring for "Battle of the Planets" in the 1980s, and had done some UPA work prior to his Hanna-Barbera association. (and yeah, the Curtain scores on the Huck & Quick Draw show episodes just doesn't seem right -- I don't feel as strongly about the Snaglepuss shorts, because those never had any episodes with the stock music library)

  2. This might seem like a weird question, but how many set numbers did Curtin use, other than 1-8, J, Q, T, and V?

  3. In the FWIW Department: The "Super Friends"/"War of the Superheroes" concepts evolved into Challenge of the Super Friends, and "Big Dog" became Dinky Dog, a segment on the likewise re-titled All New Popeye Hour.

  4. The underscores for Top Cat and The jetsons were my favorites

    1. Agreed (and for me also the Huck and early Flinstones.)

  5. For those who grew up with his wonderful scoring on the first decade or so after they replaced the library music, watching anything after 1970 is excruciating, but once he discovered the synthesizer--yikes! I choose to think that Hoyt Curtin became a victim of his success, and we paid the price for the fact that H-B needed him to score everything. It's not that unusual, sadly.

    Arguably, his last great theme songs occurred during the 1964-65 syndicated years, and his last nice, if not terribly memorable, themes occurred during the network/super-hero years--right before he abandoned the jazz orchestrations. That all of this corresponds with the studio's descent in quality may be coincidental, but it seems perfectly apt. It might have been worse to be hearing great music paired with badly drawn, uninked, limply written cartoons voiced by nondescript voice actors recorded in a closet. (Or am I going too easy on them?)

    1. Very good point...and conversely,too, Mike we didn't need bad music with beloved stars of 1957-66...btw 1968 or was when they started going Archie with the music and I.Tak designs...rolleyes

  6. One of his early feature film scores was for "Mesa of Lost Women," with its insistent flamenco guitar - a score that would be reused in Ed Wood's "Jail Bait."

    1. Yep!! You are absolutely right. Jackie Coogan and Lyle Talbot. It sure was a Hoyt Curtin scored movie. Saw it years ago.

  7. There’s quite a difference between the Quest cues and the Wacky Races cues just a few years later (Wacky Races and D&M Flying Machines were the last H-B shows that were even funny). I’m curious as to the reason Ted Nichols ended up taking over the primary music director role by 1965 instead of Curtin. (But apparently Curtin wasn’t entirely out of the picture in the late 60’s, Wacky Races, for one.). Seems Mr. Nichols is still with us. According to Wikipedia he’ll turn 90 on October 2nd.

  8. How do you pronounce Cahuenga? I've read that word at least 6,000 times on this blog alone and I still don't know how to say it out loud.

    1. That would be "kuh-'weng-guh."

      It is the Spanish transliteration of the Tongva (a Native American tribe that settled in what is now Los Angeles) word "Kawengna" (also spelled "Kawee'nga"), which translates as "place of the hill."