(Note to readers: The review of "Landing Stripling" I'd originally intended to post is temporarily grounded, while I recover from an allergy attack brought on by the miserable Wisconsin weather. Kevin, meanwhile, has stepped in with this wonderful look at local cartoon shows of the past--Rachel)
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN…AND CHILDREN OF ALL AGES”: CARTOONS, YOUR BEST ENTERTAINMENT!
By Kevin Wollenweber
Well, apparently, last weekend, there was this lengthy celebration of WPIX-TV, once our local Channel 11 and now a CW super station. I missed most of the hoopla, but I do have my memories of it and a lot of kids’ television back in what I still consider the heyday. If it wasn’t for the short-sightedness of TV executives, thinking that anything cartoon is automatically for the little ones, most of us would probably never have seen most of the cartoons we talk about on our blogs.
What I wouldn’t give, now, to see a program that devotes itself solely to the earliest LOONEY TUNES and Paul Terry cartoons, along with guilty pleasures like “COURAGEOUS CAT & MINUTE MOUSE”, “Q. T. HUSH” and even “SPUNKY & TADPOLE”, perhaps the strangest of these cheaply knocked-off chapter-type adventure cartoons, this time about a boy and his clueless teddy bear who, for some reason, is given the name Tadpole. Of course, that is not the only question mark that one has when watching the series, but hey, one has to have grown up watching local kids’ TV to know how much fun seeing even these strange little cartoons is again.
Checking out the last half hour of the special retrospective on the programming over the years of the former WPIX-TV, I was reminded, even if I didn’t see the representations throughout that finale, that it was on Channel 11 here in New York/Long Island, that I’d seen “THE WOODY WOODPECKER SHOW”, hosted by his creator in the theatrical age, Walter Lantz. The animator must have wanted to have a kind of rapport with kids that the other Uncle Walt had and, so, guided his viewers through the inner workings of an animation studio with dialogue that seemed so over-rehearsed and contrived, but hey, for those of us who had never visited such a place, this was a good way of learning how cartoons were made. I’m sure that this kind of background might have caused the mor artistic among us to start attempting our own drawing style and even creating flip books. I know that I had tried, with limited vision, to create a moving character in the flip book style, but this never worked out. I guess it was easier on see-through cells, but it sure was fun trying.
I was also reminded that WPIX-TV was possibly the home for the direct-to-syndication cartoons like WALLY GATOR, TOUCHE TURTLE and LIPPY THE LION. Gee, whatever happened to the proposed DVD volume that was due to come out earlier this year on those three characters? While I wouldn’t count these three as large a priority as “QUICK DRAW MCGRAW”, I still would have welcomed that set.
Television was wonderful when it was local. I was a choosey TV watcher, although I did spend way too many hours in front of that old black and white box. My day began, as those of you have heard from me too many times now, with “THE EARLY BIRD CARTOON SHOW”, on our local WABC-TV affiliate, the stellar cartoon lineup that featured a hodgepodge of MGM and Van Buren cartoons wedged in between episodes of “COURAGEOUS CAT & MINUTE MOUSE” or “Q. T. HUSH”, TV cartoons created by Sam Singer, one now dubbed the Ed Wood of the cartoon industry for very good reasons. These toons were created with the credo that “kids will believe anything”. Courageous Cat, a kind of “BATMAN” parody, could do anything with his trick gun *EXCEPT* shoot bullets. It’s a hip idea, but it really was an over-the-top use of cartoon license, perhaps to avoid outcries of too much senseless violence in animation due to gunfire and other implements of destruction, but throughout the series, there were many, many incidents of senseless violence without gunfire, as well as all sorts of strange impressions of the world in turmoil, very few of them now deemed politically correct!!
Dal McKennon, the one time voice of young Gumby for Art Clokey Productions, did almost all the voices. I wish I knew who the other voices were as I always enjoyed the voices of the gangster called the Frog and his extremely dopey assistant, Harry (“Duh, I like ba-nan-as”) Ape. I’ve been told that WPIX-TV did pick up “COURAGEOUS CAT” for afternoon broadcasting, but I somehow missed this, thinking that they left WABC-TV for that big cartoon data base in the sky that we’re all waiting to see come back down to earth, someday, in the form of DVD releases. Actually, the entire “COURAGEOUS CAT” series is put on DVD, in four volumes, from A&E Home Entertainment, if anybody cares, but for a rather hefty price…and not even restored. One wonders, though, whether these prints featured on this set make up the only existing source material that remains. Some opening credits look as if they were horribly spliced together from previous stories. Everything about these productions smacks of shortcutting, although I’d sure like to know where they got all the stock music used for this series. Surely, the opening theme should have been found for a CD released years ago called TOON TUNES—50 GREATEST CARTOON THEMES. Play the theme for anyone, and you’ll perk up even the biggest negative critic of the Sam Singer cartoons. It is considered his Citizen Kane.
But the big deal about that “EARLY BIRD CARTOON SHOW” was the inclusion of just about every MGM cartoon ever made, including the MGM version of BOSKO. Yes, they even regularly aired “HALF-PINT PYGMY”, a Tex Avery cartoon in which his GEORGE & JUNIOR characters, inspired by Steinbeck’s George and Lenny from the novel, OF MICE AND MEN, go on a “hunt” for pygmies, seeking out the littlest one. This was back when TV used to air old film, not even videotape or kinnies. I remember the afore-mentioned cartoon breaking right in the middle, and I recall another time when someone accidentally ran a cartoon in reverse. I don’t recall its title, but it was a ROBIN HOOD sendup; might have been a Van Buren?
In the afternoon, for me, I began at the stroke of 12:00, with “POW-WOW THE INDIAN BOY” which I believe was on WPIX, also featuring some post-Code Max Fleischer cartoons featuring BETTY BOOP. I recall having to wait until 3:00 for anything further that I liked. Among these were some shows on our local WNEW-TV, Metromedia channel 5, with creative hosts like Soupy Sales and Sandy Becker, who would go on to voice Mr. Wizard the Lizard for Total Television’s TUTOR (or TOOTER) TURTLE, which was part of the “KING LEONARDO’S SHORT SUBJECTS” cartoon series. Later, we’d gotten some interesting new imports in the form of anime like “ASTRO BOY”, “KIMBA THE WHITE LION”, “GIGANTOR” and “SPEED RACER”. The first appeared on WNEW-TV and the last three all were part of WPIX as far as I can recall!
So, as we celebrate, in our own way, the memories of the existence of WPIX-TV and local TV in general, we should recall the joys we got out of twisting that dial and know that television was such a great place to find old films of all kinds.