Friday, July 28, 2017

Book of the Day: “That voice, where have I heard that voice?”

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Today Henry Bemis Books remembers June Foray, the animation voice pioneer who populated all the female voices- and one squirrel- for a legendary TV show in the 1960s.

Foray died this week, two months short of her 100th birthday. She gave her last reading of Rocket J. Squirrel for a Dreamworks short feature in 2014 when she was 96.

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Almost sixty years ago, two men, Jay Ward and Alex Anderson, got an idea for an animated TV show, The Frostbite Falls Review. Anticipating the legendary Muppet Show, the concept featured a cast of woodland animals running a television station.

It went nowhere, but they retooled it as a 1940s-style radio adventure show with pictures (Ward thought of it as “a moving comic strip”), sold it to General Mills in 1958, and- blessed be the date- rolled out Rocky and Friends, later changed to The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, on ABC on November 24, 1959.

Which brings us to a commercial message. Rocky used to preface them, “And now, here's something we hope you'll really like.”

Louis Chunovic, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Book (Bantam Books, 1st ed. 1st printing, November, 1996). ISBN 0-553-10503-5. Hardcover, unclipped dustjacket, 221 pp. 11” x 11”. Very good condition. A comprehensive, copiously illustrated history of one of television’s most influential and beloved cartoon programs.  HBB price: $49.95 obo.

It took some doing to be a first-run R&B fan. ABC ran it late Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, after its daytime hit, American Bandstand. Then they canceled the show, which went to NBC in September 1961, as the lead-in to Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (the step down from one to the other was demoralizing to many viewers).

Strangely, the intrepid pair of animated animals got killed in the ratings opposite Lassie, a live action show about a dog who couldn’t even speak English and relied on the godlike interpretation of barks by a small boy called Timmy to cause the rescue of humans in peril.

When Jay Ward tried to move the show to CBS, NBC moved it to an earlier Sunday slot, the into the cereal shows for kids on Saturdays, which, in those days, extended well into the afternoon. NBC gave up in 1964, and the last episode aired June 27.

ABC passed on taking the show back but signed its reruns as part of its Saturday schedule from 1964 to 1973. A fifteen-minute version ran on some channels. NBC put it back on for the 1981-82 afternoon schedule, and as cable television emerged, it enjoyed long runs on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network in the 1990s.

Each episode consisted of two cliffhanger adventures shorts featuring Rocky- a flying squirrel, his pal Bullwinkle, a dimwitted moose, and their Cold War arch-enemies, the secret agents Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Narrated in a frenzied, machine-gun style by the radio actor William Conrad, they veered giddily between silly kids’ gags and double entendres for their parents.

In between came a regular rotation of features: Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, a moustache-twirling melodrama parody of Nelson Eddy and  Jeanette McDonald films as well as the later TV series, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon; Peabody’s Improbable History, which featured an imperturbable beagle who traveled through time with his pet boy, Sherman; Fractured Fairy Tales, narrated by the veteran character actor Edward Everett Horton; Aesop & Son, with another ancient actor, Charlie Ruggles, in Horton’s role and retelling the same tales; as well as several other, lesser sketches.

The show's characters regularly broke the fourth wall to talk with the audience:

Rocky: Bullwinkle, I'm worried.
Bullwinkle: Ratings down in the show again?
Rocky: No.
Bullwinkle: That's odd.
Rocky: I'm worried because there have already been two attempts on your life.
Bullwinkle: Oh, don't worry. We will be renewed.
Rocky: I'm not talking about the Bullwinkle Show.
Bullwinkle: You had better; we could use the publicity.

Rocky: Bullwinkle, do you know what an A-Bomb is?
Bullwinkle: Sure, a bomb is what some people call our show.
Rocky: I don't think that's very funny.
Bullwinkle: Neither do they, apparently.

Ward constantly mocked the prominent: when he created a top-secret defense hat that imbued the wearer with super intelligence, he called it the Kirwood Derby. The real Durwood Kirby, the avuncular sidekick on Candid Camera, sent a cease-and-desist letter.

Ward sent him a hat.

Walt Disney came in for regular jabs in Fractured Fairy Tales, appearing once as a Prince Charming who saw Sleeping Beauty as the centerpiece of his new amusement park. Stokey the Bear, an idiot cousin of The Muppets’ Fozzie Bear, blundered through one episode starting, rather than preventing, forest fires; after some heated pressure by the Forest Service, the character was retired.

Ward once rented an island between Minnesota and Canada, renamed it Moosylvania, and launched a petition campaign to admit it as the 51st state. He showed up at the White House to deliver the demands to President Kennedy, who was busy with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

One of the first animated prime-time TV shows, R&B paved the way for The Flintstones and the Jetsons, as well as The Simpsons, whose creator, Matt Groening, grew up watching the antics at Wassamatta U.

It was also among the first outsourced shows, all its animation being done by a studio in Mexico City, which process added some unanticipated extra zaniness to the rushed-to-deadline final versions.

Ward, who died in 1989, also created animated spokescharacters for other General Mills sugary cereals- including Cap’n Crunch- and the seventeen-episode George of the Jungle in 1967.

In the manic world of Hollywood, the underlying rights to “Moose und Sqwerrel” are owned by Dreamworks (and, apparently as of last spring, by Comcast, which bought the company for $3.8 billion). General Mills holds the US distribution rights and only releases the shows for limited runs.

As if to show you can’t make lightning strike the same place over and over, four animated and live action movies have been spun off the series. While Mr Peabody and Sherman (2014) has its fans, Boris & Natasha (1992), The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000), and Dudley Do-Right (1999) were, as Rocky might say, A-Bombs.

One measure of the show’s- and June Foray’s- influence is The New Yorker’s cartoon of the day for March 29, 2017:

"Tell them is fake news, is work of moose and squirrel."


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