Times were changing in the late 1950s when it came to background music on television.
Some producers had been relying on leased stock recordings from production music companies. Hiring a composer and orchestra were too expensive and the head of the American Federation of Music, James Caesar Petrillo, was too meddlesome in refusing to lower the potential cost. But by 1959, Petrillo was out because of a scandal, and producers evidently decided the price was right to have someone come in and score themes, bridges, openings, endings and so on. The days of Ozzie and Harriet having music someone heard on Dennis the Menace were about to end.
Hanna-Barbera was one of those producers. Other than opening theme songs, the studio, from Day One in 1957, relied on sound cutters picking music from the Capitol Hi-Q library and Langlois Filmusic (distributed by Capitol) to fill the backgrounds of cartoons.
That day came to an end. In 1959, Columbia Pictures ended its theatrical release agreement with UPA and, in its place, put Loopy De Loop cartoons on the big screen produced by Hanna-Barbera. Why not? It owned part of the cartoon studio.
Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera decided Loopy should have something other than library music enhancing its theatrical shorts. The studio had hired Hoyt Curtin to write themes and arrange variations of them for bumpers. Why not hire him to create a library of cues for exclusive use of (and owned by) Hanna-Barbera?
That’s what it did.
Then H-B got into the half-hour prime-time television business, so Curtin was brought in to write music for The Flintstones then for everything else the studio was producing, music that is familiar to almost everyone of a certain age (the lyrics for some themes may not be, thanks to the production involving the Randy Horne Singers).
At the time, this was all “kid stuff.” No one gave it any serious consideration, especially because it had to do with television. But the kids grew up, they still liked Curtin’s music and some had the smarts to seek out Mr. Curtin for interviews.
This one was reprinted in the September 1992 edition of Film Score Monthly. Curtin’s H-B history is a bit off in places, and he was asked about cartoons outside the scope of this blog, but it’s interesting nonetheless, especially his references to Carl Stalling and Daws Butler. And he’s quite correct about The Jetsons second theme. When it became The Orbitty Show, you can hear the synth where Curtin had used horns in the original.
We’ve skipped the filmography mentioned below. Basically it gives him credit for every single H-B cartoon. According to it, Ted Nichols never existed; Mr. Nichols has his fans, too. And it mentions all the original Hanna-Barbera shows which, outside of theme songs, owe more to Jack Shaindlin, Spencer Moore and Phil Green when it comes to scores.
(The photos comes from a 1972 article in another magazine we have not reprinted on the blog).
FROM BEDROCK TO HOLLYWOOD
Hoyt Curtin has scored some of the most pervasive material in American culture, being the countless number of cartoons put out by Hanna-Barbera over the last thirty years. He began in the Hollywood of yesteryear, before lone musicians like Fred Mollin could capably score an entire television show or movie with only electronics. All studios had orchestras on call, and it was up to the composers to work with an "in-the-trenches " mentality of a different sort to score the assembly-line material for live players. It created a hectic do-it-yourself scoring schedule which many composers, like Henry Mancini and Jerry Goldsmith, claim to be instrumental in their training.
The following interview was conducted by James Vail for his radio program Cinemusic, which airs in Hammond, Louisiana on KLSU 90.9 FM on Tuesday nights at 9PM, re-run on Sunday at 4PM. The interview is reprinted here with Mr. Vail's permission, as is the mammoth Hoyt Curtin filmography which follows.
Vail: Could you describe your musical background and the events that led to your breaking into the film/television medium?
Curtin: I studied piano all my life, of course, and went to USC’s school of music and studied composition I was very fortunate to study with some very wonderful people because I was supposed to go to Juiliard after the war, on the G.I. Bill, and the man who enters you asked me why I was going to Juiliard [sic] when USC had people like Ernst Toch and the biggies at the time. Why go to Juiliard? They were just very crowded and they didn’t have anyone of that stature. So I called up my friend who let me enroll late at USC and drove back there at about a hundred miles an hour and went to lake my masters degree. It was great! We had some marvelous teachers. I studied with Miklós Rózsa and I just kept writing all I could, trying to get a job and that's not easy.
Vail: I see your first score was for The Mesa of Lost Women in 1952.
Curtin: (laughs) It’s the world's worst film, I think. It was really bad when I wrote it but now it’s worse. As I remember, it was about ladies on an alien planet who turned into tarantulas. I believe that was it. I didn’t have any budget so I had to do it with two pianos. A friend of mine, Ray Rash—one of the real great jazz guys—played the other piano. We really had fun doing that. I started out in what was called the industrial film business, because TV had just started to come in and companies like GE, Ford, and all the rest, they didn't spend their money in television, they spent it in industrial films. I finally got a job, by accident I went up and pounded on the door, literally, and the guy that owned the studio. Ray Wolf, had just fired his musical guy in a great huff. They were friends; that’s the worst kind. They had a big blow-up just the day before and here I am standing with this can of film in my hands that we made at USC. USC has a very good film department. They not only make the films but they have the kids score them. They’re still doing that. In fact I speak at USC, on occasion, and talk to the class that’s doing this. It’s marvelous! How else could you get to score films when nobody's going to ask you to do it for money? So, that part was marvelous. But then the company stopped making them and so I was unemployed, again. A friend of mine suggested I go to a studio called UPA which made the original Mr. Magoo shorts and they hired me to do some shorts. My teacher at the time was working there too. He wrote the one for Gerald McBoing Boing. Do you remember that one?
Vail: Yes I do. It's a fantastic short—exceptional score by Gail Kubrick. [sic]
Curtin: They tried a whole lot of new things. It was a little tiny company stuck behind a building out near Warner Brothers. They cranked out some of the real great stuff. In fact, the first one I did got an Academy Award and the second one got nominated. When Magoo Flew was the one that got the Academy Award. It was wide-screen animation; that shows you how ahead of things UPA was. I started working in TV commercials. That was where I really got going and I worked for a large company that was the “hot" company. That’s what happens these days. The ad agencies get on a company and do all of these ads at this company and if they’re not doing them there, then they’re not being done. I was the composer for Cascade Pictures and I’d write about ten a week. In so doing, I was called out to MGM to do a Schlitz beer commercial and Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were doing the commercial. We got along and we did a nice job. I didn't think anymore about that and finally the phone rang and it was Bill. He said, "Could you write a tune for that?" I called him back in about five minutes and sang it to him. He said. "Could you record that?" This was the way we started; it was over the phone—go do it! They didn’t have time to do any fooling around — no meetings, forget it. And they were on their way. This was Ruff and Ready [sic], their first one and we did the same thing for The Flintstones. That was supposed to be The Flagstones but somebody didn’t like the word ‘Flagstones’ for some reason and so they made it Flintstones. Yogi Bear and all of them were done over the phone, too.
Vail: The theme songs?
Curtin: Yes. And then, of course, there had to be the cues written. In animation, you don’t have lead-ins and lead outs. You let the action handle it. You score the whole thing. So, each episode had to have 22 minutes of music—that’s a lot. It was an awfully busy time. I was doing all of their writing until about last year.
Vail: At what rate were these TV cartoons being turned out back in the ‘60s?
Curtin: I'm not sure how many in 1960, but I know in 1970 we had nine, count them, new shows, new series. And those all had to be scored immediately. They all aired on the same day in September when the network season started. It was really something to have nine shows going. At times it would take ten of us to write that stuff I would write all the themes and then I had to find guys that could write for animation. It's not like live-action. That was a big chore. We put out an awful lot of music but very little of it was recorded at the studio. The studio had a very nice recording studio there, but it isn't big enough for the band. Originally, we used great big jazz bands.
Vail: What caliber of players did you have in the band?
Curtin: I always had the hottest — Pete Condoli, Conte Condoli. Franke Capp — the drummer, Nick Fortula, Barney Kessel. I always had the names, not because of their names, but because they played great. But see, these are the earlier guys. The later guys were hot, but you wouldn’t know their names as well.
Vail: They were studio musicians?
Curtin: That’s right, but they were the best of them. The whole studio scene comes down to a very few guys because the particular kind of music I was writing was very difficult sight reading; it had to swing. We could only get one shot at it; we usually got a run-through. Then we would record it and go on to the next cue.
Vail: The rehearsals/recordings were pretty much a one-shot deal?
Curtin: That’s right. We recorded usually three times a week, three hours each time. They had a big stack of music in front of them and we just went through it. Everybody was geared-up to work hard, get ten minutes off an hour and then come back and hit it again.
I remember now. I have main titles from 142 different series. You know, Speed Buggy, The Jetsons, of course, and things like Wheelies and the Chopper Bunch [sic], These are the Days, and The Smurfs. It was a big pool of music — just hundreds of hours of it. The studio was recently sold to a group and they brought in their own people and it’s going to be sold again, I believe. I think Universal is going to buy it.
Vail: Was The Flintstones your first Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon scoring assignment?
Curtin: I think it probably was the first big one, but they did Ruff and Ready, Quick Draw McGraw, Hokey Woolf [sic], Wally Gator, Huckleberry Hound — those things were first. Then The Flintstones came. It just took off. It started out in prime time — Friday night. It would go off the air, then be revived, and come back with new episodes. One of the things, I think, that helped the music was that the musicians liked to jam on that piece. I know a lot of recordings have been made of it by jazz groups. It’s fun. I love to hear it.
Vail: How long was The Flintstones’ original run?
Curtin: First they made two, maybe three years of new things. Then it went off for a while and later a large food company picked it up and did a series as the sponsor. Then it would go off and it would come back on again. I don’t think they’ve made any new material for some time, but I notice they are going to do a live-action picture with John Goodman as Fred.
Vail: I seem to recall hearing about that some time ago. Isn’t [Steven] Speilberg [sic] producing it?
Curtin: Yes. It’s going to be a real dynamite thing.
Vail: Are there any hopes of your writing the score?
Curtin: Would that I were. They haven’t asked me, but I'm ready. I’d love to do it.
Vail: Like most kids, I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons. One of my all time favorites was one of yours, Hong Kong Phooey.
Curtin: It was funny because I remember that one very well. We had decided to write a song and to have Scatman Crothers sing it. I forget if Hanna wrote the lyrics to that or if I did. It didn’t make any difference because we went in as a duo. That was Scatman Crothers’ favorite song, too. We had a big Hollywood Christmas parade here and he was the Grand Marshall and when this guy came up to him to interview him, you know, off the street, he started singing Hong Kong Phooey. He was an awfully good musician and a nice guy. He played great — good guitar player. He sang great and was at his best when he accompanied himself. He was really a good scat singer He was in clubs and doing this and that, but when he did this Hong Kong Phooey thing, from then on do you notice he was a contender as far as motion picture acting is concerned?
Vail: Come to think of it, yes. I can recall seeing him more frequently in the public eye.
Curtin: Well, this all started with Hong Kong Phooey. That was his thing. He said, "I want to sing my theme song” and he would sing that thing.
Vail: Another one of my favorites has once again come back — The Jetsons.
Curtin: The Jetsons was another funny one. Every one of them was funny because you just don’t know what you’re doing and you'd wait to see if it worked out or not. It was a nice little show, just an idea, and I wrote a piece for the main title of it—just cute little cars going around in the air and everything. Everybody looked at the picture after it was done and they said, “Hey, this thing works!” So they had me write a chart to go with the chart that was on it. I think if you listen carefully, you can hear the two bands in there. I put strings and every thing on it with all those runs. When were were recording that, we were listening in the headsets to the original track so we’d stay with it. That’s how that was done. That was a two-part main title. You see, they’d see the picture done and somebody would say. "Hey, this is better that we thought it was going to be. Let’s load the music a little bit.”
Vail: Did you use any electronic instruments for The Jetsons?
Curtin: If you heard the record, we did two versions—a main title, the original around 1960, and then later they made a record. That one. I’m sure, had synthesizers. But I can't make that darn synthesizer swing. I have to have the band. You've got to have the swinging guys.
Vail: I've even played it with a college band and it's a fun chart to play.
Curtin: Awful simple, isn't it? Four notes and forget it. You know, it brings back the memory of writing the damn thing. I didn’t have any idea, I hadn't seen anything. I knew what was going to be on the film. We had one animation director who liked to get a tune, a track, and the track should have action and then when would design the pictures to go with it. And I somehow think I liked that because the music flows. You wrote a piece of music and then he'd put the animation on it. The kind that were tough was when you'd get the animated pictures and you had to match it with the music. There were always compromises to make to hit this and that. You can’t swing, it works but not as well. I like to write a tune, a piece, orchestrate it, make it move and let somebody put the pictures to it
Vail: When you found a certain cue that worked extremely well, be it action, suspense, or whatever, was it ever used again for other cartoons?
Curtin: Yes. The cutters get onto cues that work and those are their special cues. They go into their special bin and when something happens that they need it, they use it. But the musicians union requires that we score each and every thing. Then, if they substituted an old cue, nobody cared.
Vail: The consistency seems to be that most TV cartoons run for one, maybe two seasons and then they're off. Are there any cartoons in the past few years that have "stuck out" from the rest?
Curtin: Well, The Smurfs has done beautifully. It came over from Europe and it was Americanized. Scooby-Doo has done beautifully. The Flintstone Kids is still on. There aren't a lot of them as you say. One of the nicest ones I did went off after one season. A lot of times that happens. Wildfire it was called. The tune was written by Jimmy Webb, an awfully good writer. I didn't write the song, I scored it for him. It was a beautiful thing but it didn’t catch on. And that happened a lot
Vail: You wrote a lovely song for The Last of the Curlews.
Curtin: It was about these two curlews, they were just a pair, and they were flying over a field and this doggoned farmer picks up a shotgun and blows the lady away. It brings a tear to your eyes. Then old Clyde has to go wandering off but there aren’t any other curlews left. He's the last of them. That’s what the song is about
Vail: You also wrote an interesting primitive percussion theme for Korg 70,000 BC.
Curtin: It was live-action and it was about cavemen finding fire and all that good stuff I just thought, why not do it with just percussion and a conch shell? I had to find a guy to play the conch shell, of course. I deliberately played it out of tune. There’s a chord at the end and it’s just a little off, by design.
Vail: Could you describe the main difference in scoring for cartoons and live-action?
Curtin: I would say that you're a lot broader in animation. You haven't got facial movements, body movements, emotions, etc. The guy is thinking, the guy is getting ready to blow the town up or whatever—you haven't got that in animation. In live-action, whole areas might carry without music. Music might be an intrusion. Whereas, in animation, you pretty much have to go wall-to-wall. After you write animation, writing live-action is such a pushover. It's like you could write it with both hands at the same time... and I have, when behind.
Vail: Which do you prefer?
Curtin: Oh, I like the animation when the animation is good and funny like it used to be with this guy, Daws Butler. He was their [Hanna Barbera’s] big voice guy — Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw. I’d get to listen to his tracks and it was just easy to write the music.
Vail: In the past thirty years, has the TV cartoon evolved for the better or the worse or is it still basically the same?
Curtin: You know. I'm deeply rooted in Bugs Bunny and Carl Stalling and that kind of music. That kind of animation is just too expensive, so that's why we have the look we have now. Some of it is very inventive and some of it isn’t. But, if you ask me which would I prefer to watch, it would be the older stuff, naturally. Think of the things they put into it. The studio was required to have a studio orchestra — on call all the time. They had to be paid for ten hours a week whether they played or not so why not use the orchestra to play. That’s why you had all of those great scores.
Below is an industrial film scored by Curtin in 1959. It looks like American Motors shelled out some pretty good cash to make this, considering it was produced at MGM and has a good size cast for this kind of film. The director, incidentally, is Dave Monahan, who wrote cartoons in the 1930s at Warner Bros.