Saturday, 27 July 2019

Explaining Cats

Hanna-Barbera made good copy in 1961. The proof is in a search through newspapers as Arnie Carr’s PR department successfully pushed the studio’s newest series, Top Cat. Editor after editor opened up a full page of valuable space to promote the show. Quotes from Joe Barbera, Bill Hanna and/or the show’s stars, accompanied by what must have been a large stack of stills, filled space. In addition, some papers featured a picture of T.C. on the front page of their entertainment pullout section.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. The studio was on a roll. Critics loved The Huckleberry Hound Show when it debuted in 1958. The Quick Draw McGraw Show got positive ink in 1959 for its gentle satire of TV programming trends. The Flintstones was greeted with mixed reviews in 1960, but quickly became a hit with audiences. Audiences couldn’t get enough Hanna-Barbera cartoons.

Well, actually, they could. Top Cat turned out to be a prime-time failure. Its elements simply didn’t add up to attract a big enough audience. I’ve mentioned before I’ve never warmed to the series, though I love Hoyt Curtin’s tracking library and think T.C. was Arnold Stang’s best cartoon role. But let’s set that aside and bring you a couple of newspaper stories.

Story one was published November 11, 1961. The writer was syndicated; by whom, I don’t know. Interestingly, of the half dozen or so versions of this story I’ve read, each of them has a different publicity photo with it. The second story is from the Pittsburgh Press of December 3, 1961. I’m a little miffed with it because it omits John Stephenson in its profiles of the voice actors. It’s not as if he was obscure; in the 1950s he had been a regular on the sitcom The People’s Choice and hosted Bold Journey for a time. Stephenson began his Hanna-Barbera career with The Flintstones and was the studio’s go-to guy for starring, supporting and utility roles for more than 30 years. The funny thing in the second story is the writer evidently couldn’t make out all the theme song lyrics so he omits one line (all Curtin had to do was change the notes to fit the syllabic emphasis and there never would have been confusion).


'Top Cat' Keeps Things Swinging On Officer Dibble's Alley Beat
BY EDGAR PENTON

HOLLYWOOD—There's an alley somewhere in the heart of New York that's been swinging since September 27. That was the debut date of Hanna-Barbera's Top Cat," Wednesday night cartoon series on ABC-TV. And the alley is the home of T.C. and his rowdy band of fellow felines.
T.C., as he is affectionately called by his friends and cartoon cohorts, heads a quintet of TV's wackiest characters.
There are rotund Benny the Ball, T.C.'s sidekick who's a little slow but far from stupid; Choo Choo, an eager ball of fire with spinning wheels that take him nowhere; Spook, a pseudo-intellectual who's more often in orbit than not; The Brain, so named because of his almost complete lack of thinking power; and Fancy-Fancy, a feline fop who's great with the girls.
THE CLAN'S favorite target is Officer Dibble, the cop on the alley beat who is kept thoroughly confused but undaunted by their adventures.
Top Cat, himself, is a dyed-in-the-wool con man with a heart of gold. His spinning mind, glib tongue and out-of-this-world imagination are dedicated to one proposition to raise the living standard of his fellow cats. He's an opportunist and nimbly aggressive but he'd never hurt anyone.
"Top Cat and his pals live in a New York alley, but it's not a depressing alley," said Joe Barbera. T.C. has seen to it that it has all the comforts that a well-adjusted cat needs. There's a telephone on a nearby pole that's officially for police use only, but T.C. doesn't let this discourage him from making free and frequent use of it.
The lively group gets nourishment, with little effort, from bottle of milk left on neighborhood doorsteps.
"T.C. lives in a magnificent ash can, but when bad weather makes the ash can uncomfortable, he and the group congregate in the basement of a nearby delicatessen.
"Always anxious to improve their minds, the cat sextet studies the newspapers tossed on doorsteps."
WHEN ASKED why they chose alley cats as the heroes of their new half-hour series, Bill Hanna replied, "It's simple. Cats have a lot of personality on which we can capitalize. Stray alley cats, in particular have real living problems with which we feel viewers can easily identify. They're going to understand the gang's struggle for survival and they're going to enjoy the fun they have with their freedom."
Top Cat is a 'doer' and somewhat of a conniver, but he's wonderfully good-hearted.
"All his pals admire T.C.," continued Bill. "His word is law. He's not really a dictatorial leader—his clan is strictly democratic—but a breakdown of the voting would show that Top Cat has 50 per cent of the voting power."
"Even Officer Dibble loves T.C., down deep in his lawman's heart," added Joe Barbera. "Officer Dibble and T.C. are constantly engaged in a battle of wits, and the battles get pretty spicey sometimes.
"Dibble is no fool, nor is T.C. It's easy to see that both of them really love this brain trust battle.
"Arnold Stang, who supplies the voice of Top Cat, refuses to look on cocky T.C. as a cat. "He's a person, one with whom everyone can identify," said Stang.
"HE'S MY IDEA of a perfect television hero," Stang continued. "Viewers will think they know someone just like him, and the chances are they do. It becomes pretty personal at times.
"Take Top Cat's running battle With Officer Dibble. People are bound to love this because T.C., in a completely inoffensive way, flouts the authority that Dibble represents. "T.C. knows that he has to conform, but he, like many of us, would like to break away from the confines of conformity once in a while. He walks a fine line; T.C. never breaks the law, but he manages to make life pretty hectic for the law enforcer.
"You cant help but admire that canny intuition of his. Dibble has many Achilles heels, and T.C. has found most of them."
With Stang's enthusiasm for his role in "Top Cat," and his previous role in the animated series, "Herman the Mouse," the question may arise, "Are you man, cat or mouse?" At the moment, Stang might have a little trouble answering.
Maurice Gosfield, well-known for his role of Doberman in the Sergeant Bilko Show, provides the voice of T.C.'s chief confrere, Benny the ball.
"Frankly, I prefer Benny to Doberman," said Gosfield. "Benny is smarter. That chubby little character has become a real person to me. From now on, every time I go to New York I'm going to expect to see those cats in some alley."
"Benny is a combination aide-de-camp and conscience to Top Cat. Sure, he's somewhat of a dolt, but he always manages to be down-to-earth enough to ask logical questions."
Choo Choo (voice by Marvin Kaplan) is the eager beaver of the group. He's the errand-runner who is so eager that he usually dashes off on a mission without waiting to hear what it is. Spook (Leo De Lyon) is a four-legged beatnik who is trying very hard to be an intellectual. But he can't quite hide his foolishness.
THE BRAIN, also voiced by De Lyon, is described by Leo as "a sort of Nebish of the streets the outdoor-type Nebish. "He's not too bright, but his is an unusual type of stupidity. He knows he's stupid, but he's always in there pitchin'."
Fancy-Fancy (John Stephenson) is the ladies' man of the alley set. He's proud of his irresistible charms, but this is his only asset. Everyone knows that an alley wouldn't be as exciting without at least one lover-type cat.
Allen Jenkins is the voice of Officer Dibble, the upholder of law and order in the alley. This takes him into fascinating side trips in the realm of imaginative cat schemes. "Working with Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera in this series is great," said Jenkins. "I'm proud to be a part of it. Just imagine the built-in audience the series has.
"Out of approximately 170 million people, there must be at least 150 million cat lovers. Now, that's what I call a receptive group. I find that I'm taking the role of Dibble pretty seriously because it's Dibble's responsibility to uphold the two-legged end of the battle of wits.
"I look forward to seeing what new schemes T.C. is going to think up next."

The Men Behind The Voices
By Fred Remington
Press TV-Radio Editor
Top Cat—the most effectual
Top Cat—whose intellectual
Close friends get to call him T. C.
Top Cat—the indisputable
Leader of the gang.
He's the boss, he's the king
But above everything
He's the most tip top
Top Cat.
Yes, he's the boss, he's the king.
But above everything
He's the most tip top
Top Cat.
Top Cat!

WITH THIS swinging theme music, each Wednesday evening at 8:30 (Channel 4) 'Top Cat," one of this TV season's crop of animated cartoon series, makes its appearance.
Like several other cartoon series, "Top Cat" is more of a radio show with pictures than it is a TV program. The voices make it. The pictures, while often inventive, are supplemental.
As with other cartoon series, both in and out of the prolific Hanna-Barbera stable, the voices of "Top Cat" are arrestingly familiar. There is a more than casual touch of Phil Silver's Sgt. Ernie Bilko to the jaunty, angle-man tones of "Top Cat."
(More tantalizing still, however, are the voices in the "Bullwinkle" series on Sunday nights, a production of the colorful Jay Ward studios. The voices are fleetingly, hauntingly familiar, but whom do they remind you of? Red Skelton, among others?)
With the upsurge in popularity of animation series, voice actors have come back into their own to an extent they have not enjoyed since the days of radio drama. Needless to say it also has been a godsend to artists specializing in animation techniques.
Here are the men who provide the voices for the "Top Cat" characters.
Arnold Stang—The voice of TC (Top Cat) has been in show business ever since he mailed a penny post card from his home in Chelsea, Mass., to the Horn and Hardart Radio Hour on a New York radio station, seeking an audition. The audition was granted and Arnold, wheezy and raspy, recited Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven." He hadn't got beyond, "Once upon a midnight dreary. . . ." before the producers realized they had found a rare radio voice. He was on virtually every big radio hour and was in a number of Broadway shows. His one serious role was as Sparrow in the Frank Sinatra picture, "Man with the Golden Arm." He met his wife, JoAnne, when she interviewed him for the late and lamented Brooklyn Eagle, for which she was a reporter. They have two children, David and Deborah.
Allen Jenkins—The voice of Officer Dibble traveled widely as a youth from Staten Island, where he was born, to Brooklyn, to Nyack and finally into Manhattan. This accounts for the ripe New Yorkese which he has brought to his movie and TV roles. His involvement in a series about cats is fortuitous, for he is a devoted cat-lover. Divorced, he lives alone at Malibu Beach, Calif., his only companion being a 23-pound cat named Smiley.
Maurice Gosfield—The alley in which "Top Cat" makes his residence is, Gosfield asserts, "maybe 44th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues because it's not too far from Broadway but still the right area for a neighborhood cop like Officer Dibble." Gosfield, remembered as Private Doberman in Bilko's platoon, is the voice of Benny the Ball. He started in radio thirty years ago.
Marvin Kaplan—The voice of Choo Choo is a protege of Katherine Hepburn, who was struck by him when she saw him perform in a community theater in Los Angelas [sic]. She got him a part in the movie, "Adam's Rib." He did several other movies before switching to TV in the "Meet Millie" series.
Leo De Lyon—Leo is two characters, Brain and Spook. His music teacher in New Jersey discovered in his early childhood that he had perfect pitch. He studied music and his career was suspended by a long tour of submarine service in World War II. After service he worked up a vocal act—he can sing as either a high soprano or a baritone. He believes he may be the only man alive who can hum one tune while simultaneously whistling a completely different one. (If you think that's easy to do, try it.)

6 comments:

  1. The Bilko concept depended so much on Phil Silvers putting the character across (helped by some of the best comedy writers and producers of the era behind the scenes), that it just didn't fully translate to the animated form, no matter how well Stang performed the title character role (plus there were no Stone Age items as side jokes to help carry the scripts, as was the case with Bill & Joe's borrowing of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney's characters the previous season).

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  3. Two things about TOP CAT. (Forgive me if I've said either of them before on this site. Seems like I might have, but what the heck?)

    First, I will always prefer TOP CAT to FLINTSTONES and JETSONS simply because they are funny animals. While I saw and read about the show at the time it originally aired, I never saw it until later in the sixties when it was on Saturday morning because our TV's picture tube blew out in 1960, and my parents couldn't afford to get it repaired until 1964. I did see THE JETSONS because we visited my grandparents on Sunday nights. Nonetheless, TOP CAT was my favorite, based purely on the wonderful Ed Benedict character designs and the Colpix LP I was gifted with in 1962.

    Second, to me it seems TOP CAT's failure could be laid at the feet of the ABC programmers, who, nonsensically, didn't grasp the synergy of airing two cartoons in a row. Slotted between THE FLINTSTONES and 77 SUNSET STRIP on Fridays, instead of between STEVE ALLEN and HAWAIIAN EYE on Tuesdays (up against two veteran shows, CHECKMATE on CBS and JOEY BISHOP on NBC), I doubt seriously you'd have seen people turning the channel to watch ROUTE 66 or the final season of THE DETECTIVES. Heck, the two shows they DID slot before THE FLINTSTONES on Fridays, STRAIGHTAWAY (a racing drama) and THE HATHAWAYS (a sitcom with chimps), couldn't have been much worse choices (STRAIGHTAWAY only made it to January, to be briefly replaced by SOUPY SALES, which also failed, while HATHAWAYS made it to August just short of a full season, counting repeats). They never learned their lesson, though; JETSONS was chosen to lead off Sunday nights instead of following FLINTSTONES on Friday in place of I'M DICKENS, HE'S FENSTER, and then, after a year where there was no new series from H-B in primetime, JONNY QUEST got the lead-off slot on Fridays, but FLINTSTONES had shifted to Thursdays in 1963. When that didn't work, what did they do instead? They swapped the two shows. And what did they slot after FLINTSTONES on Friday nights? A DOCUMENTARY series on F.D.R., which I'm guessing probably didn't break 60% clearance nationally, replaced by whatever syndicated series local stations believed (with very good reason) would perform better! Nowadays, of course, since Fox has successfully run a block of animated shows on Sunday nights, seemingly for decades, you'd have to not care about remaining head of a network if you DIDN'T group your cartoons together.

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  4. Loved the show when it aired. Badgered mother to buy corn flakes box with picture of TC on the back, framed and everything.
    One of my biggest, hugest regrets was not finding out until reading his obit in the paper that Arnold Stang lived in a nursing home RIGHT DOWN the street from me for apparently eight years. (!) I would've loved to have gotten permission from his family to contact and (dream come true) visit with him. So wish I had known.

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  5. Good possibility Warner Archives next HB Blu-ray release is TC. Concerning they're starting with they're already done with Quest, Jetsons and Scooby. Good bet some time in 2020.

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  6. Yes, Top Cat was, indeed, a primetime failure...in the USA. But in the rest of America, especially Latin America? It was huge, and I mean huge. Still remains one of the most beloved cartoons of all time. Ask anybody, from Mexico to Peru, from Chile to Argentina, from Colombia to Venezuela and most likely they'll name every character and even repeat entire phrases/puns from memory.

    Why? Well, it could be a miriad of reasons: we didn't have incompetent CBS programers messing up the schedule, St. Bilko simply didn't exist for us (it was never dubbed into spanish and therefore we didn't get to see it as far as I know) so Top Cat's plots and creative ways were completely new for us. Voice acting was the icing in the cake: the actors gave the characters unique personalities/accents and made them relatable for us (well, as relatable as a group of alley cats with real-life problems being chased by the police may be) and of course those snappy dialogues. We fell in love immediately.

    Why an animated property completely fails in it's country of origin, but becomes hugely popular/successfull worldwide? A real mystery indeed, don't you think?

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