Saturday, 29 September 2018

The Biggest Show in Town is 60

60 years ago today, at 6 p.m., viewers of WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan—also serving Battle Creek, home of Kellogg cereals—could tune up their TV set and watch a brand-new show. You could see it for the first time at the same time on WATE-TV in Knoxville and WCHS in Charleston, West Virginia, or a half hour later on WLW-I in Indianapolis. Viewers of WTAE in Pittsburgh could pull it in at 7:30 p.m.

They would have been watching the debut of The Huckleberry Hound Show.

Huck’s importance in television history shouldn’t be downplayed. The show proved that a full half-hour of animation could be done on a TV budget, it could be both entertaining and critically acclaimed, and it could be extremely lucrative. Huck, as far as I’m concerned, sparked the TV animation industry. The show was not only the first cartoon to win an Emmy (in 1960), it was also the first syndicated series to do it.

For young viewers like me, the show was fun. It had a theme song you could sing along to (whether you got all the lyrics right was immaterial), the story situations were amusing, the characters had funny voices and interacted well in little cartoons before the cartoons, and catch-phrases added a feeling of familiarity. Oh, and you could count the number of times the same background whizzed past.

Kellogg’s originally sponsored the show around dinner-time, which had been kid time on network radio a few years earlier. Curious parents watched to see what their youngsters were viewing. They could laugh or smile at the cartoons, too; the show was mature enough so it wasn’t strictly for children. Pretty soon word got out to critics. Charles Witbeck may have been the first syndicated columnist to notice H. Hound and friends, but here’s part of Harold A. Nichols’ column in the Rochester Democrat of January 11, 1959 that shows you the word-of-mouth Huck was getting. (No, Ruff and Reddy were never on the Huck show. I suspect the writer mis-read a Screen Gems news release).

THE WORD is in from Menlo Place, where Children's Book Reviewer Frank Dostal's family and some other pleasant people live: Keep an eye on Huckleberry Hound, one of the cutest shows on TV.
Huck Hound, as he's listed for purposes of brevity in our logs, shows up once a week, 6 p.m. Friday on Channel 10. It's not the most convenient time of the week, what with weekend grocery buying and dashing to the bank to beat the closing of the vaults.
But for televiewers who can spare a half hour it’s a Friday fillip. The show, they tell us, reminds of Burr Tillstrom and Kukla and Ollie (Oliver J. Dragon, that is) at their best.
Huckleberry Hound's delightful company of characters includes Yogi Bear, Ruff, Reddy, Jinks, Pixie and Dixie. Occasionally some featured players will come along, Dinky Dalton, Judo Jack and the Fat Knight, who holds the Fair Damsel in Hassle Castle.
All these are developed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, who produced and directed Tom and Jerry, the Oscar winners. Their readings remind of such screen stalwarts as Charles Laughton, Marlon Brando, Jack Webb and Andy Griffith.
Huckleberry Hound is produced by Screen Gems, a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. H.H. is a favorite with the children. Grownups enjoy the characters and the satire in the sketches.
This post was going to look at why critics and parents groups liked the Huck show, but we’ll save that for another time. Let’s make this more of a celebration instead. I’ve mentioned before I really dislike lists and really dislike declarations of “best” cartoons. But I’m breaking my own rule. These aren’t the “best” or even “favourite” Huckleberry Hound cartoons, but ten that come to my mind that I like.

Dragon Slayer Huck (December 15, 1958).
Huck is sent by a little king to slay a purple dragon. We get a guy selling a map to the dragon’s home, and even the dragon himself hawking souvenir toy replicas of himself (and pennants). The two end up friends at the end because the dragon can’t bear to see Huck marry the king’s ugly daughter. Daws Butler plays both Huck and the dragon, who has a Jackie Gleason-type voice. Dialogue by Charlie Shows.

Lion-Hearted Huck (October 6, 1958).
A lion who laughs wheezily at his own humour gets his comeuppance at the end, as one of his practical jokes on Huck backfires. As usual, nothing bothers Huck, as he calmly comments to us after each time he’s abused. He lets out with a bad pun that you can’t help but like; when LeRoy disguises his footprints with hen tracks, our hero says “Maybe this lion is chicken.” Points for some nice jungle backgrounds by Fernando Montealegre. Daws Butler plays both Huck and the lion, whose voice owes a bit to comic Frank Fontaine’s John L.C. Sivoney character. Dialogue by Charlie Shows.

Little Red Riding Huck (March 16, 1959).
Huck lands in the tale of Little Red Riding Hood which ends with a cop coming to arrest him because he’s butted into the story. “Okay, let’s take it from the top and do the whole bit over again,” the wolf tells grandma and Red. There are funny scenes as Huck uses disguises to try to get into grandma’s house, and when a college geek selling magazines gets thwopped with the wolf’s broom. The wolf has Daws’ Jackie Gleason voice. Art Lozzi provides some attractive huge-toadstools-in-the-woodland backgrounds. Dialogue by Charlie Shows.

The Tough Little Termite (March 23, 1959).
This is tough. The choices, not the termite. I could pick several other cartoons from the first season that are really enjoyable, but I’m going with this one because I love the termite. He’s designed by Ed Benedict. He has that jaunty little buzza-buzza tune he sings through the cartoon. And he eats everything in sight, including—gasp!!!—Huck’s television set cabinet. After the audience sees the damage, Bill Hanna cuts to Huck saying “Oh, well. It wasn’t working anyhow.” Don Messick is the termite. Dialogue by Charlie Shows.

Nottingham and Yeggs (November 23, 1959).
There are some great lines in this second season cartoon (Narrator: “For food, poor Robin would steal into the forest to set snares. But even the lowly animals would sneer at lowly Robin.” Rabbit: “Sneer, sneer, sneer, sneeeer.”), a cat doing a Jackie Gleason impression, a pop culture reference to a soap and Merrie Men who go “Yuk, yuk, yuk, yuk,” when told to yuk it up. Huck preys on the rich, so when he becomes rich, someone preys on him the same way. Story by Warren Foster.

Spud Dud (September 26, 1960).
A megalomaniacal potato wants to rule the world! The only one who can stop him is science genius Huckleberry Hound (who also makes a great chocolate sody). King Spud goes on a rampage after urging his fellow tubers to join him in revolution but instead they sit there like a sack of potatoes. Huck has a good chat with Mr. Narrator through the cartoon. The ending is a classic: the evil potato turns into potato chips raining from the sky when the rocket he’s in blows up. Don Messick is the narrator and the potato. This cartoon opened the third season of the Huck show. Warren Foster wrote the story.

The Unmasked Avenger (January 21, 1961).
This Scarlet Pimpernel-inspired cartoon comments about 1960s consumerism (despite being set vaguely in the Middle Ages). The townsfolk are told by the evil Lord their taxes are going to go up but what really gets them angry is when they cannot pay by credit card. When Huck, as the Perpil Pumpernickle (he’s a bad speller), vanquishes the Lord and gives the citizens bags of cash, they’re confused. They only get excited when he tells them they’re like credit cards. Huck promises them new roads, free schools and old age pensions but when he declares it means more taxes, they turn angry. The erstwhile hero is run off by the masked Blue Bouncer, who shouts “Down with everything!” Story by Warren Foster.

Science Friction (April 2, 1961).
Horror!! A scientist has turned a giant stuffed wiener schnitzel into a crazed monster. Just that premise makes this a fun cartoon, along with some dry, understated dialogue one expects from Englishmen which makes up for some not-so-strong gags. Don Messick must have had a good time screeching the monster schnitzel’s out-of-control laughter. Dick Thomas sets the mood nicely with excellent background art. Warren Foster wrote the story.

Cluck and Dagger (March 27, 1961).
This one drops Huck into the role of a U.S. government agent and clichés are piled on clichés. “They call you the man with a thousand faces,” the narrator says to Huck. It’s a spy cartoon, so naturally we think he’s talking about a disguise. Instead, Huck demonstrates a goofy face. The best line may be delivered by narrator Don Messick when Huck tells him information about his agency is classified and then pulls out a classified phone book (“Ain’t that a knee-slapper?” asks Huck. The narrator rather wearily replies: “I get it.”). The cartoon ends with a pack of spies, all wearing identical trench coats and sunglasses, failing to steal Huck’s briefcase on the Rutabaga Express. Story by Warren Foster.

The Scrubby Brush Man (1961-62 season).
The Fuller Brush people get a gentle nudging in this parody written by Tony Benedict in Huck’s final season (Warren Foster was busy with The Flintstones). Huck fails in every attempt to make a sale to a guy with anger management problems. During one attempt, Huck is ironically smashed with a brush (“That’s what we call in the trade ‘the brush off’,” he chuckles to the audience). The one personal downside: the Capitol Hi-Q and Langlois Filmusic libraries used in the first three seasons was replaced with Hoyt Curtin’s tunes heard in almost all H-B shorts in the 1961-62 season.

Yes, I know it’s Yogi Bear’s, Mr Jinks’ and Pixie and Dixie’s birthdays and we’re pretty much ignoring them, but you don’t want to keep reading, do you? Wouldn’t you rather watch Huck tackle a snickering, steak-stealing dog or run from a not-so-fair damsel locked in a castle? We’ll leave you to pull out some Huckleberry Hound Show cartoons, or find them on line, and enjoy this historic day in Hanna-Barbera, and TV cartoon, history.

6 comments:

  1. There was a Huckleberry Hound cartoon where the titular character was plagued by a really pesky mosquito (who even guzzled mosquito repellent!).

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    1. yes..a first season one (1958-1958; as of 1958) called "Skeeter Truble", where Daws Butler narrated like Fred Allen, who'd just died as of two years before, in 1956. With mosqitos (here in Southern Calif.and soon to spread) this is a correct one to see..Another insect "bugging" one, and one from the exact same season (not sure about before or after the "Skeeter" one, was the aforementioned buzzy buzz termite one..:) SC

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  2. Huck's show carried over the theatrical cartoon efforts of trying to entertain all audience age groups, and in hindsight, that's why they hold up so well 60 years later.

    While Chuck Jones noted that because Maltese and Foster had to do so many stories for TV "They used up the material pretty quickly", the other problem was by the time we get to the Wally Gator-Touche-Lippy trilogy that followed, the stories themselves were already being simplified and smoothed out for a child-only audience, and due to the limited animation, stories had to drive Hanna-Barbera's cartoons. You only see a few flashes of the old adult/kid writing styles from '62 on (the first handful of episodes on 'Magilla Gorilla' have a few nods to the parents watching in the TV audience as far as a verbal gags went, but then they used up the material pretty quickly).

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  3. I'm assuming "Cop and Saucer" and "Huck's Hack" came in at #11 and #12, respectively.

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  4. Jpohn L.C.Silboney would be recreated by Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim, of course, around this time, basically same shtick. Daws also did that, among OTHERS!-for a Warner Brothers orange cat, Sam, in fact several shorts, and of course Stan Freberg earlier there as Pete Puma.SC Take care!

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