Wednesday 29 September 2021

The Huck Birthday Express

Children loved it. Teenagers went nuts for it. Adults watched it. Even critics thought it was entertaining. And it began appearing on TV screens 63 years ago today.

The Huckleberry Hound Show was syndicated across North America by Kellogg’s ad agency Leo Burnett, buying half-hour early evening timeslots where available. That meant not all stations that picked up Huck were airing it on Monday, September 29, 1958. The station in Kellogg’s home office (aka Battle Creek, Michigan) was one that did. In Los Angeles, the show was on Tuesdays. In Chicago, it was on Wednesdays. In New York and many other cities, it was on Thursdays.

Sorry, Ruff and Reddy, but the Huck show was the one upon which Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera built their empire. They started with four animators—Ken Muse, Lew Marshall, Carlo Vinci, with Mike Lah freelancing—though it appears Phil Duncan and Ed Love were brought in to do little cartoons between the cartoons in the first season. There were opening and closing pieces with all the main characters on the show interacting, with Huck finishing things by urging us to watch for the next Huckleberry Hound Show.

For the record, the first cartoons aired (not produced) were Huckleberry Hound Meets Wee Willie, Cousin Tex and Yogi Bear's Big Break (with Boo Boo).

Some time ago, Stu Shostak sent a dub of Huck show that was on 16mm and transferred to VHS. It was an episode in French. I’ll post a few frames. You’ll have to live with scratches on the print. I don't know which year this appeared.

Engineer Huck introduces the others riding the "Huckleberry Hound Express" train: Yogi Bear, guest conductors Dixie and Pixie, and Mr. Jinks (“bringing up the rear”) in the caboose.

Dixie decides to “pull the pin on that silly grin” and get rid of Jinksie.

“Hey! I'm loose in the caboose!” Some expressions and then “Wait for me!”

Ah, the old tunnel gag.

Never fret, kids. We’re invited back again for more cartoons with Huckleberry Houuuuuuund!

Huckleberry Hound had the same appeal as his direct predecessor—Tex Avery’s southern wolf in the MGM cartoon Billy Boy, where nothing ruffled him, no matter what happened. Yogi Bear wears Ed Norton’s get-up, the same as Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera’s Down Beat Bear at MGM. Pixie and Dixie are catalysts who got a few good lines from writer Charlie Shows in the first season. Mr. Jinks is the star of the segment, and his voice is borrowed from Stan Freberg’s parody of mumbling method actors in his Capitol record “Sh-Boom.”

Yogi became the biggest star of the lot, but I still like the casual Huck as he takes on all comers, including crooks, a TV set, a mosquito, potato and weinerschnitzel monsters and, of course, dogs that act like dogs.

You can read more about the 60th Huckiversary in this post.

Monday 27 September 2021

Let's Party With T.C.

What were Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera doing the night Top Cat debuted 60 years ago?

Watching TV, what else?

And so were members of the Hanna-Barbera staff and sundry actors, as detailed in this story in the Pittsburgh Press of October 2, 1961. The series aired beginning September 27th.

The story focuses on the money the studio tied up in the series, hoping to reap profits in all kinds of merchandise. And there were potential BIG profits.

The New Steve Allen Show premiered immediately preceding T.C. I have not been able to discovered what the “animated insert” was that caught the attention of the H-B staff.

Animated Cartoon ‘Top Cat’ Watched Intensely By 160

$800,000 Investment Spells Reason For Their Interest
By FRED REMINGTON, Press TV-Radio Editor
HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 2—There was something strange and ironic about 160 prosperous, well-dressed adults watching an animated comic strip with silent, fierce intensity.
They were members of the Hanna-Barbera organization, gathered to watch the television debut of their newest property, "Top Cat." For its first appearance they had taken over the Tahitian restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. It's a spectacular place, visible for miles up and down the San Fernando Valley by the great flaming torches which mark its entrance.
The intense preoccupation of these people with an animated cartoon becomes understandable, though, when you consider the finances involved.
“We have $800,000 in this thing before the public has ever set eyes on it,” said Bill Hanna, one of the partners in this fantastically successful firm of animators.
"We are irrevocably committed to making thirty of them at $68,000 a half hour," said his partner, Joe Barbera.
Hanna-Barbera merchandise—Yogi Bear dolls, Flintstone paint sets, etc—last year grossed 43 million dollars. The cartoons are seen in 38 countries by an estimated 300 million people.
This week the Hanna Barbera offices here received, a fan letter on "The Flint-stones"—now also a comic strip in The Press—which they cherish. It was from a viewer in Russia who watches 'The Flintstones" on a TV channel in Helsinki, Finland. The English was faltering, but the Russian got across the idea that like many other people he digs “The Flintstones.”
"I wonder if we've got 'em saying 'Yabba-dabba-doo' in Russian," mused Joe Barbera.
Present for the "Top Cat" kickoff were most of the actors who provide the voices: Arnold Stang who is the title character, a breezy Runyon-esque Manhattan alley cat; Maurice Gosfield who is another of the cats.
The "Top Cat" party had gotten underway at 6 p. m. and was swinging pretty well by air time at 8:30. There was one brief interval during the Steve Allen show, which preceded it, when stillness fell over the room.
This was when Allen introduced a brief cartoon segment on his show. This was a New York-done animation and the California animators of Hanna-Barbera rushed to the room's many TV sets to inspect it.
One kept his face not three inches from the screen during the brief cartoon insert on the Allen show.
"Brush work is kind of rough," he said to a colleague. "But the jokes are good." The other nodded in agreement.
But when "Top Cat" came on absolute hush fell over the room. The lights were lowered. It was like curtain time at a Broadway opening or the first pitch of a World Series.
When it was over there was wild applause. People shook hands with one another, "You got another winner, Joe," someone told Barbera.
"Thanks," he said gratefully. “I like it. You like it. Now if the public just likes it. . .”

By the way, there was a little confusion at the time about the first episode that aired. The ad above lists "The $1,000,000 Derby" (animated by Ken Muse) and that is what Variety reviewed two days later. But there were a few ads with a drawing from "Top Cat Falls in Love" in some papers. It actually aired October 18th. I can only guess the network made a late switch. I don’t know what the production order was.

Top Cat showed up on the 1961-62 prime time schedule along with a host of other new animated series. Networks thought they’d have another Flintstones-like success on their hands. They didn’t. The prime-time animation fad died, though Hanna-Barbera convinced ABC to give it a go the following season with a show just like The Flintstones—except in reverse. It would be set in the future, not the past. It was cancelled before the TV year was up.

But Top Cat was only a failure in prime time. The same 30 episodes were run over and over again for years. It’s never been among my favourite H-B shows, but it has a great cast and wonderful background music by Hoyt Curtin and his session men.

Saturday 18 September 2021

Promoting Top Cat With Arnold Stang

Top Cat had a top cast.

Marvin Kaplan (Meet Millie) and John Stephenson (The People’s Choice, Bold Venture) had both worked on television series. Leo DeLyon appeared in nightclubs. And since Top Cat was meant to invoke memories of Phil Silvers’ quick-talking Sgt. Bilko, who better to cast as the main sidekick than Maurice Gosfield, who performed the same function on Bilko as Pvt. Doberman.

Casting T.C. himself was a bit of a challenge. Film actor Michael O’Shea was tried out but couldn’t handle the dialogue. You can read more in this post. Daws Butler was tried out but he was already doing a Silvers-like voice as Hokey Wolf. Finally, Arnold Stang won the part.

By 1961, when Top Cat first aired, Stang had distinguished himself on radio, television and film (live action and cartoon). And like many stars, he was pushed out onto a publicity tour for his show. During a stop in his hometown of New York City, the Daily News talked to him about the series, his career, the Hanna-Barbera studio, and cats. It was published November 12, 1961.

Arnold Stang Likes Doing Voice of ‘Top Cat’ on TV

Appearances are deceptive. There's Arnold Stang, for example. For years you've laughed at him; you've thought of him as such a funny, helpless, lovable dope, a pint-sized schlemiel. But you've been wrong. He's really a very smart fellow.
Arnold proved that emphatically, when as a pupil in our town's Townsend Harris High School he won a gold medal for the highest state-wide scholastic average. He also gave evidence of his capabilities through successful appearances on radio shows, among them those of Joe Penner, Henry Morgan and Orson Welles, plus many hilarious TV stints with Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and other stars.
The distraught, squeaky voiced, rabbit-like youth with horn-rimmed glasses seen on television bore no resemblance to the serious, sedate man who sat beside me in the Beverly Hills Trader Vic restaurant. There, amidst the Polynesian surroundings, he told me why after many years of appearing as Arnold Stang, he had consented to become a mere voice, that of the title role in the new cartoon series. "Top Cat" (ABC-TV, Wednesdays, 8:30 to 9 P.M.).
Accepts Challenge
Speaking in low, well-modulated tones, he said simply: "It's a challenge and I've accepted it."
"But aren't you doing what most actors hate to do—eliminating your personal identification?" I asked.
Arnold, a mere five-foot-three and weighing only 103 pounds, squinted his brown eyes and answered: "Although I've been starred and featured, I've never tried to have a show of my own. Doing a series before the TV cameras is the surest way of eliminating yourself.
"Just look at the list of comedians who used to be on the air week after week, years ago—Wally Cox, George Gobel, Henry Morgan and others. They were consumed by television. Jack Benny and Red Skelton are about the only survivors.
Real Characters
"As for 'Top Cat,' in my opinion, it's not only a highly amusing animated feature but it presents characters who are just as real as a show in which people appear before the cameras."
"But the fact is that the audience only hears your voice." I said. "They don't see Arnold Stang." "That's where the challenge comes in," he answered. "Just through my words I have to create a three-dimensional cat out of a one-dimensional picture.
Good Radio Actors
"And believe me, you've got to be a good actor to do that. But come to think of it, that's what performers and sound men had to do all the time in radio. Nothing on the air was ever as funny as some of those sound effects on the old Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly shows."
"How does a fellow act the role of a cat in one of these cartoons ?" I wanted to know.
"It's quite a job." Arnold explained. "But the firm of Hanna and Barbera, who created ‘Top Cat,’ are geniuses when it comes to producing animated cartoons. You know what they did with ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘Huckleberry Hound.’ So they've worked out a good system for their live actors.
‘Story Board’
“First of all, there's a 'story board.’ It's a sheet of paper containing about 30 frames of pictures. These represent the key incidents of the action. While looking at this, we actors have a script of the dialogue; in this way we can visualize the scenes in which our lines are spoken.
"This takes place in a recording studio. We read the script and our words are taped. We convey character through our tones. For example, as Top Cat, I have a low, throaty voice, one that suggests a lovable con man."
"Now that you play a feline, are you fond of cats?" I asked.
"Oh, I like 'em; but I can take ‘em or leave ‘em," Arnold told me. "I've always owned dogs; but some of my best friends have cats."
Cats Aren't Villains
"Why is it that cats are so often portrayed as villains?"
"I don't think they are anymore," he said. "Today, most persons regard cats as very intelligent animals, strong-minded, determined and independent. Why, even such a virile fellow as the late Ernest Hemingway was fond of them.
"Incidentally, this is not the first time I've been associated with an animal. In one show I was the voice of a gorilla, and some years ago, I appeared in an NBC color special, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ in which, believe it or not, I portrayed the giant. And that production had an animal ballet. And guess who played the hind half of a cow? None other than Jason Robards Jr!"
Audience Laughed
The son of an attorney, and the nephew of a man who at one time headed a New York City school district, Arnold was born in Chelsea, Mass. Sept. 28, 1923. Many years ago, he sent from there a postcard to the famous Children's Hour radio show asking for an audition. Getting an affirmative response, he appeared garbed in knickers and wearing glasses, to give a serious reading of Poe's poem, “The Raven.” But his voice was changing at the time. "No sooner had I read the opening line than the audience roared. From that time on, although a serious youngster, I was tabbed as a comedian," Arnold recalled.
Soon he was on radio as a regular with Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen and Milton Berle. He created what is now known as the "Stang type" of characterization in "Duffy's Tavern" and the "Easy Aces" series. When TV came, Arnold made a hit as Francis, the stagehand, in the Berle shows.
A 'Serious' Actor
Arnold also appeared in many Broadway plays including "Sailor, Beware," and not long ago scored as a serious actor with his moving portrayal of Sparrow in the movie, "The Man With the Golden Arm." His success in that role was one of the highlights of Arnold's life. For despite the laughs he evokes, like most comedians, he has always wanted to be a "serious" actor.
"As a matter of fact, I'm a serious guy," he said. And always a student, he might have added. That's why, after his family had moved to New York, he was able to win that scholastic honor at Townsend Harris High.
Lives on Coast
Following years of shuttling between New York and Hollywood, Arnold, his wife, Jo Anne, and their two children, David, 10, and Deborah, 9, have finally moved to the Coast. There they bought a house in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles which, unfortunately, was destroyed by fire last week.
Stang, unlike some stars, has a special fondness for the press. He said: "My wife once worked for the Sunday section of The News and I met her the first time when she came to interview me for the now-gone Brooklyn Eagle."

Stang was one of a number of actors who fudged about their age, likely to get younger roles in radio in the ‘30s and ‘40s. He was five years older than he let on.

Screen Gems tried a different kind of publicity tour involving Stang before Top Cat aired. Here’s a description from Variety, Sept. 27, 1961.

A Screen Gems Primer On How to Promote A Cartoon ('Top Cat')
ABC-TV is preeming "Top Cat" tonight (Wed.), but there was a problem originally of how to promote the cartoon series via one of tv's traditional pre-preem road tours to warm up local audiences.
Screen Gems, the outfit that sold "Cat" to the web, solved the touring problem. SG flack chief Gene Plotknik, giving his show the edge over the three other cartoon series preeming this fall, got producer Hanna-Barabera [sic] to have Arnold Stang and Maurice Gosfield, the show's main voices, prerecord five-minutes of banter with local tv emcees. Gosfield and Stang ask the questions and spaces are left on the disk for answers, which any local performer can answer.
That accounts for the voice part of promo. As for "bodies," Plotnik got Eaves to turn out costume replicas of the cartoon characters involved, Top Cat and his pal Benny the Ball, which are being bicycled around to ABC affils in special containers. Costumes have been worn by office boys and flack gals at the local station level, who have gestured, mimed and danced to the words of Stang and Gosfield.
The "Cat" has played nine major markets since Aug. 15.
Main trouble? Plotnik says that there were no press interviews as on other promo tours. "With the press these days," he says, "you can't get down the answers in advance."

Despite the fine cast, which also included veteran Warner Bros. character actor Allen Jenkins, and an effective music library by Hoyt Curtin, the show didn’t survive. Daily Variety reported less than two months after Top Cat debuted that ABC was negotiating for a revival of The Rebel to replace the cartoon series in mid-season. That didn’t happen, but ABC announced reruns would appear on Saturday mornings the following year (Variety, March 14, 1962).

Fans will argue the show was just as popular as H-B’s other prime time animated half hours, and they might have a point. Reruns showed up on small screens season after season, first on regular TV then cable; a flash-animated movie was released in 2011; an “origin story” computer-animated film came out to major yawns several years later; and he’s one of the characters in the Jellystone! streaming series.

Arnold Stang is no longer with us (Leo De Lyon is apparently the only cast member who is) but you can always pull out home video with the 30 episodes and enjoy him one more time.