A Tweet caught my eye yesterday that left me flabbergasted and intospective. She tweeted to a top cartoon voice actor, “Hoping to see the man who truly made the childhood of 90s kids better than any other generation”. She was obviously indulging in a bit of hyperbole in her lighthearted online fan mail, but being an aging Baby Boomer it reminded me of how blessed were the lives of most children of the 50’s and 60’s – especially when it came to entertainment.
Since we’re focused on animation, it must be said that the 1950’s were a remarkable era of Disney animated features. The decade included “Cinderella”, “Alice in Wonderland”, “Peter Pan”, and “Sleeping Beauty”. Interspersed among those landmark films were re-releases of Disney classics like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Pinocchio”, “Bambi”, and “Dumbo”, which filled the Saturday matinees in movie theaters. For fans of voice performers, “Alice in Wonderland” was a standout, featuring the voices of the young British actress Kathryn Beaumont as Alice (and later, Wendy in “Peter Pan”), character actor Sterling Holloway (Cheshire Cat), radio stars Jerry Colonna (March Hare), Ed Wynn (Mad Hatter) and Verna Felton (Queen of Hearts), and a character actor who was a favorite of mine, J. Pat O’Malley (various).
As everyone knows, the 1950’s were the dawn of television. But while most documentaries focus on prime time programs like the classic sitcoms “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners”, the dramas like “Playhouse 90”, or the westerns like “Have Gun Will Travel” and “Gunsmoke”, they rarely do more than brush the surface of programming for children. And there was oceans of it, and a good deal of it was animation. Walt Disney’s weekly program and the daily “Mickey Mouse Club” featured lots of the Studio’s cartoons originally shown in theaters. Similarly, Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes cartoons, as well as Popeye, Betty Boop, and Tom and Jerry were staples of many local children’s shows. The 1950’s also saw Jay Ward’s first series “Crusader Rabbit” and the series that made him famous, “Rocky the Flying Squirrel”. They were followed in the 1960’s by “The Bullwinkle Show” and “The Dudley Do-Right Show”, both famous for being loved by kids and adults.
Of course, when discussing the history of animation for television you have to give special attention to Hanna-Barbera who pioneered the technique of “limited animation” which made it financially attractive for TV networks to produce, starting with the Saturday morning series “Ruff and Reddy” which debuted on NBC in December, 1957 and featured the talent of the legendary cartoon voice performer Daws Butler. A year later, they produced “Huckleberry Hound” which was soon followed by “Yogi Bear” and “Quickdraw McGraw” which were syndicated and shown just before prime time in most of the country. In our house, these shows came on just after dinner, so I would rush away from the supper table and plop down in front of the TV. 1960 saw the premiere of the landmark series “The Flinstones” which ran for 6 years in prime time on ABC. It was followed in 1962 by the short-lived but much-loved “The Jetsons”, and later came shows like “Top Cat”, “Magilla Gorilla”, and “Jonny Quest”.
“The Flintstones” inspired Warner Bros. to produce their own prime time series “The Bugs Bunny Show” in 1960 that featured their post-war Looney Tunes cartoons spliced together with new material featuring Bugs, Daffy, Porky Pig and their other characters. The series moved to Saturday mornings after two years in prime time on ABC, and has been re-incarnated and repackaged dozens of times over the years.
And I have to mention a personal favorite, “Tom Terrific” which was a feature on “Captain Kangaroo” beginning in 1957 when I was only 4 years old. I loved Tom’s magic hat which was a large funnel, and Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog. On my first day of kindergarten, I carried a much-treasured Tom Terrific book with me for Show and Tell. Somewhere in the house there’s a picture of me standing at the bus stop that day with that book cradled under my arm.
In researching Tom Terrific, I discovered I’d neglected to mention “Mighty Mouse”. I loved Mighty Mouse, too. I’m sure I missed others as well (like Mr. Magoo), but I think I’ve made my point. When it comes to a remarkable time to grow up in America, the 1950’s and 60’s were fabulous. Oh yeah, and our music was better, too!