Saturday 21 January 2023

High Hopes For T.C.

Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had high hopes for Top Cat.

The Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw shows were still attracting audiences in syndication. Both had been nominated for Emmys in 1960—and Huck won. The Flintstones had some critics pouting at the outset, but soon gained an audience. Now, cartoon studios were falling over themselves to put an animated show in prime time. ABC picked up Top Cat.

Considering all that, and the fact the series had plenty of the popular Bilko show mixed into its formula, it shouldn’t lose.

It was likely ABC that set up a junket for entertainment reporters to come to California and find out about its new shows for the fall season. Jim Downing of the Tulsa Tribune was one who took advantage of the freebie and got two columns out of his visit with Joe and Bill as they plugged Top Cat. The first column appeared on June 28, 1961, the next the following day.

It’s a shame the scan of Joe’s drawing of T.C. is poor, but you get the basic idea. The busted hat didn’t make the cut—probably too much pencil mileage involved. And he’s borrowing a sweater from Choo Choo.

FROM TIME to time from now on through the summer I’m going to tell you about the new shows which are scheduled to be introduced on the TV screen next season. I talked with stars and producers of some of them when I was in Hollywood this spring and got a line on a number of them.
You haven’t heard about most of these shows, so I can brag that what you are going to be reading will be real little old scoops on the TV writing gentry.
Let’s start out today with a real scoop. The picture you see here is “Top Cat," star of a coming cartoon series to be seen on ABC-TV this fall.
Joe Barbera, half of the cartoon team of Hanna-Barbera which produces "The Flintstones" among other popular pen-and-ink epics, picked at his lunch at the Tail O'Cock [sic] restaurant—I think that's in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and talked very happily about the success of "Flintstones" and the prospects for "Top Cat.”
"ITS A DAMON RUNYON kind of a yarn,” he explained, rubbing his blue jowls with a talented hand. (He looks pretty much like Fred Flintstone, if you must know.) “Top Cat is the leader of a gang of alley cats and he lives in a garbage can behind a bowling alley. He is trying to improve the standard of living of his pals, see?
“His buddies are Bennie the Ball, Choo-Choo, The Spook, Fancy Fancy and The Brain. He's a real operator—even has a telephone on the pole right by his garbage can. Sometimes his secretary answers it. . .”
“My, my,” I said. “Is he some kind of a nut?”
"WELL, YOU MIGHT SAY SO. He's a kind of an efficiency expert—efficient at conning the general public into supporting him in the style to which he has become accustomed. He— well, here's an example of how he operates: He blows his whistle, see? and times the other cats to see how long it takes ‘em to congregate. No excuses for tardiness."
I said it sounded like he was a Sgt. Bilko type.
“Yeah, that's the idea. In fact, we got one of Bilko's boys— Maurice Gosfield who did the Pvt. Dobermann part— to be the voice of one of the cats. He's Bennie the Brain.” [sic]
So I said that was fascinatin' —but what did Top Cat look like? Barbera took my notebook and scribbled rapidly with a pencil.
"There. That’s what he looks like. That’s the first time we’ve shown him by the way. I guess it’s all right to let you see him now.”
The ABC-TV publicity man who arranged the luncheon-interview was wringing his hands. "We were going to send Jim some nice drawings, glossy prints for good reproduction,” he said. “Later, that is."
“Oh, well, anyway, that's what Top Cat looks like,” said Barbera. "He doesn't have to use this sketch.”
LITTLE DID HE KNOW! MISS an opportunity to reproduce a real Joe Barbera original? From my own note pad? Ha! (I also am treasuring another pair of sketches he made, showing Top Cat’s garbage can-castle.)
Hold your breath until tomorrow and I'll tell you some more about Hanna-Barbera stones factory.

The second column refers to their first studio on Cahuenga, not the one fans would recognise. This was the “window-less bunker,” as layout artist Jerry Eisenberg referred to it. Bill and Joe kept bragging about “no time clocks or memos” but never gave the reason. The bunker was so small, people worked from home. Of course there were no time clocks there.

People are curious about the animating process, so the column gives a brief summary.

My knowledge of Top Cat has huge holes in it, but I don’t recall Barbara Nichols ever voicing a character, though I can see her being cast as Honeydew Mellon. Fans are not helped by the Top Cat DVD having the same end credits spliced onto every cartoon. This is the first time I’ve read that Daws Butler was supposed to voice one of T.C.’s gang. He had been up for the role of Top Cat after Michael O’Shea fizzled out, but Barbera decided Daws was voicing too many lead roles for the studio and hired Arnold Stang, an excellent choice.

BILL HANNA and Joe Barbera produce such pen-and-ink operas as "Ruff and Ready" [sic], "Huckleberry Hound,” “Yogi Bear,” "Quick Draw McGraw” and "The Flintstones” for the panting television public. Now they are working on “Top Cat,” the Bilko-type feline I told you about in Wednesday's column who starts on ABC-TV next season.
These two modest fellows— and they are just that, as nice a pair of guys as you'll ever meet— no longer draw the stuff themselves because they just can’t do that much work. They have a staff of 150 animators, sketch artists, background painters and technicians working like mad to get the strips out. But Bill and Joe still check every detail and either one is capable of filling in anywhere in the production line.
Hanna-Barbera Productions is housed in a couple of one-story buildings sprawled on a hillside at 3501 Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood. From the outside the place looks about as impressive as a machine shop.
INSIDE, JOE AND BILL HAVE tiny cluttered, offices and their assistants have even tinier and more cluttered offices. Everything about the place seems miniature after seeing the vast halls of the Disney Studios. Every square foot of space is utilized and everybody works with somebody else's elbow in his ribs. H-B Productions simply has outgrown its quarters, but they're too busy to do anything about it.
"We used to turn out 48 minutes of ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoons a year for MGM," said Barbera during a luncheon interview. "Now we do twice as much in a week — with half as many people.”
To do that, Bill and Joe have worked out a system which reduces animation to the simplest elements. Their characters don't breathe, for example. And, usually, if one is talking, nothing else is moving about him. Movement is kept to a minimum, in fact. That makes for fewer drawings, faster production.
I have before me as I write this a complete "cell" of a scene from a Flintstones episode. The background is painted (with ordinary house paint, by the way) on white cardboard. Fred Flintstone is walking along in front of his house. He is in three layers. That is, most of him is painted on one transparent sheet of plastic, but his feet are on a second layer and his mouth is on the top layer. To make him talk, all the work needed is to draw his mouth. For walking, merely his feet change. The background is moved slightly each "frame" to make it appear he is walking past it.
All cartoons are done in color, by the way, on the theory that eventually they will be televised in color and also can be adapted for movie theater showing throughout the world.
At the time I interviewed the boys, they did not know who would be the "voice" of Top Cat.
Now it has been decided to give the job to Arnold Stang.
Voices are important in the cartooning business. Dawes Butler [sic] is a busy man at H-B. He does the voice of Yogi Bear and of Huckleberry Hound and will do The Spook, one of Top Cat's buddies. Alan Jenkins [sic], Maurice Gosfield, Herb Vigran, John Stevenson [sic] and Barbara Nichols will contribute their voices to TC (Top Cat) characters.
THE HOURS KEPT BY and Joe and their methods for getting the job done are considered unorthodox even by Hollywood standards. There are no time clocks or memos. If an animator or artist feels he does his best work by coming in at night and working until dawn, that's fine with them. Through a profit-sharing plan, all the employes share in the H-B success.
With nothing but success ahead of them, Bill Hanna (who looks like Barney Rubble) and Joe Barbera can trace their luck back to Huckleberry Hound who started them on the road to the top in 1958. And above each of their desks is a picture of Huckleberry Hound shaking hands with them. The inscription says, “Thank You Huck.”

Top Cat and the other new prime-time cartoons of 1961 failed to get audiences and several retreated to Saturday morning reruns. Some fans say the series was Hanna-Barbera’s best in prime time. “Best” is always debateable, but T.C. and his gang had staying power, were revived on occasion and are still remembered today.