Back in the days with only three television channels, Saturday mornings was the place for kids to find their programming. Granted there were cartoons on at other times, like after school, but Saturday was the goldmine.
In the 1950’s, there were some wonderful cartoons, a few of which were created for film, but found new life on television. But television was the medium for the masses, and soon, most homes would have that box with the rabbit ears. Cartoons were entertainment for sure, but they were also ways that kids learned about the world, alas one with talking animals and superheroes. Tom & Jerry, Popeye, Woody Woodpecker, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, Mighty Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, Huckleberry Hound, Ruff and Reddy, Heckle and Jeckle, Winky Dink and You, Clutch Cargo and others.
Cartoon shows also did one thing that other children’s shows would pick up on later, they didn’t talk down to kids, and they offered something for adults who might be watching with their kids.
One of the best examples of this shift in content can be traced to the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show that combined satire, wry humor, bad puns and oddball characters. From this show came other features and characters like Peabody’s Improbable History, Dudley Do-Right, Fractured Fairy Tales and Aesop & Son. The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show served to showcase or wrap-around, with their adventures interrupted by the inclusion of one or more of these other features, and then back to the Rock and Bullwinkle story, which usually ended in a cliffhanger till the next episode.
Besides the movie studios, animation production houses included Jay Ward Productions, UPA, Terrytoons, Total Television, King Features, DePatie-Freleng, Rankin-Bass and the most successful, Hanna-Barbera Productions. These production houses now live on as part of larger media companies, their libraries are hugely valuable intellectual assets.
Let’s look at a few of my favorites.
The Yogi Bear Show. Yogi started on the Huckleberry Hound Show, then got his own show in 1961. Based on the Ed Norton character from The Honeymooners, and was constantly getting into mischief in Jellystone Park. The show also featured shorts with the Snagglepuss character. With Boo-Boo, he was smarter than the average bear. The show debuted in 1961 and 35 episodes were produced.
Rocky and Bullwinkle. Maybe the wittiest of the shows, it certainly was the most creative. Contained within the show were the features listed above, each brought something special to the game. From the “wayback machine” to explore history to the absurdist view of fairy tales and Aesop’s fables, these shows were entertaining and hip.
Jonny Quest. Another Hanna-Barbera show about the adventures of 10-year old boy and his scientist/adventurer dad. From 1964 to 1964, 26 episodes aired, and it’s been forever in syndication and inspired series re-boots. The show was done with a serious tone and incorporated secret agent gadgetry with sci-fi themes. The character of Jonny Quest was voiced by actor Tim Matheson.
Deputy Dawg. A southern deputy, with a sly sense of humor, who deals with a regular group of varmints, chasing them and locking them up, when he isn’t fishing for catfish. The animation was simple but the character had a charm and humor that was appealing. Aired in 1981-1962. Animation legend Ralph Bakshi got his start drawing on this show.
The Jetsons. The space-age version of The Flintsones, with flying cars and inventions we looked forward to having in our lifetime. Interestingly, only 24 original episodes were produced in the 1960’s. In decades since, The Jetsons have been revived with new episodes and films.
The Flintstones. Perhaps the most successful animated series of the era. It ran for six seasons, 166 episodes, and even aired in prime-time. Loosely based on The Honeymooners, the show was a melting pot for pop culture of the era. Who knew the Stone Age was so fun?
Mister Magoo. The character began with shorts produced for theatrical release but became a regular television series in 1960. Jim Backus voiced the character from 1949 to his death in 1989. Magoo was sight impaired but never admitted the issue and this got him into many calamities. It aired in the 1960-1961 season with 130 episodes. Mister Magoo’ Christmas Carol aired in 1962, a version of the Dicken’s story, complete with original songs. It’s a must see every Christmas season. The character has aired in a variety of television and film formats since, including a theatrical film starring Leslie Nielsen.
Top Cat. Airing 1961-1962, 30 original episodes were produced. The character would appear in other formats and media in years since. Top Cat was the leader of a group of swinging alley cats who hope for the big score, like Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko of the previous decade. Actor Arnold Stang voiced the character.
Wacky Races. A show about 11 “wacky” vehicles, with 23 different racers. Each segment is about one race. Only 17 episodes were produced, running from 1968 to 1969. Characters on the show, Penelope Pitstop, and Dick Dastardly and Muttley, each got their own spin-off shows.
Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales. Aired 1963-1966, the adventures of a penguin (Tennessee Tuxedo) and a walrus (Chumley) who constantly get into trouble trying to help others. They live at the Megapolis Zoo, but their adventures usually take place elsewhere. Sounds like a simple concept but resulted in 92 episodes. This show, like others, served as a launching pad for characters like Commander McBragg and Klondike Kat.
Cool McCool. Created by Bob Kane (Batman), it aired from 1966-1969, for a total of 20 episodes. A send-up of spies, in the spirit of Get Smart, a bumbling secret agent who foils the re-occurring villains somewhat through luck. “Danger is my business.” The show included a feature about Harry McCool, the father and brothers as the Komedy Kops.
The World of Commander McBragg. A character who did not have his own show but appeared in 48 segments on Cool McCool and Underdog. A retired British military officer, McBragg would be talking about his adventures while at his gentleman’s club and point to a globe which led to a flashback of his misadventure. Like the name, he exaggerated his heroics that somehow resulted in his favor.
Underdog. Wally Cox perfectly voiced Underdog. “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!” Airing from 1963 to 1967, 124 episodes were produced. The villain was usually Simon Bar Sinister. The show included features from Tennessee Tuxedo, Commander McBragg and Klondike Kat.
Dudley Do-Right. A total of 39 episodes were filmed, first as a part of Rocky & Bullwinkle, then Tennessee Tuxedo. He was a Mountie in the fashion of the silent films, overplayed with great drama, rescuing his girlfriend Nell from villain Snidely Whiplash.
Fireball XL5. Not an animated program, rather one with puppets. The show focused on adventures of the Space Patrol. A total of 39 episodes aired over several seasons in the mid-1960’s. Fireball XL5 was the spaceship used for patrolling space.
Roger Ramjet. A heroic figure who is not very bright, but is able to save the world in each episode. Aired in syndication for five seasons. The animation was low-quality but the emphasis on the humor in the situations The character was voiced by actor Gary Owen (Laugh-In).
Secret Squirrel. Voiced by Mel Blanc, the character was a take-off on the spy genre, assisted by Morocco Mole and a variety of spy gadgets. Secret Squirrel was often paired with another superhero, Atomic Ant. A total of 26 episodes aired over two seasons in the late 1960’s.
Space Ghost. Originally, the series aired from 1966-1968. A super hero who had the ability to become invisible, fly and fire rays from his wrist. He also had a variety of sidekicks that helped battle galactic villains. The Dino Boy was a character that appeared in most shows in a separate feature. Over the decades, the Space Ghost character has been revived in a variety of different shows including as talk show host. Gary Owens voiced the original character.
The Super Six. Produced by DePatie–Freleng, with a rocking theme song by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. The six were superheroes: Captain Whammo/Zammo, Super Scuba, Elevator Man, Magneto Man, Granite Man and Super Bwoing. Over 1966 to 1969, 20 episodes were produced. Each show also featured an unrelated segment, The Brothers Matzoriley.
George of the Jungle. A famous character considering the show only aired for 17 episodes in 1967. Produced by Jay Ward and featured George, a zany version of Tarzan. The theme song was quite memorable, watch out for that tree! Tom Slick and Super Chicken were characters featured in their own segments in each show.
The Archie Show. Airing from 1968-1969, for a total of 17 episodes, this show took the Archie comic book characters and put them in a Monkees type musical-comedy show. “Sugar, Sugar” became a number one hit. Other songs and albums were released from music in the show. After the original series ended, the characters continued in other versions and spin-offs through the 1980’s.
The Banana Splits. A mostly live-action show, airing from 1968 to 1970, with 31 episodes produced by Hanna-Barbera and the Kroft Brothers. Featuring characters in costumes and animated shorts, as a combination of Laugh-In and The Monkees, with jokes, music and live-action adventure features like Danger Island and H.R. Pufnstuf.
The Pink Panther. The character first appeared in 1963, in support of the initial Pink Panther film. A total of 124 shorts would be produced, mainly for television. DePatie-Freleng provides the animation with theme music by Henry Mancini.