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Bob Clampett, Boy Wonder Of Stage C

Everyone knows the Bob Clampett of Termite Terrace, but what about the Bob Clampett that received 3 Emmies for one of television's first daily live puppet shows, Time for Beany? Robert Story was there and tells us this and other stories.

Editor's Note: Everyone knows the Bob Clampett of Termite Terrace, but what about the Bob Clampett that grabbed headlines and received 3 Emmies for one of television's first daily live puppet shows, Time for Beany. Robert Story was there and tells us this and other stories. PART I

Time for Beany. Beany and Cecil puppets from the early 1950s. All photos are courtesy of the Bob Clampett Collection. © 1999 Bob Clampett Productions LLC. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce in any form.

Time for Beany

It's 1954 and KTTV's Stage C is crammed full of flats, props, lights, scrims, ladders and scaffoldings, tables, chairs, cables and wires, cameras, and a 6 foot high by 12 foot long "set." Behind it, Time for Beany puppeteer-actors prepare to manipulate their hand-puppets while reading from scripts. It's a juggling act for "actors," Stan Freberg, who plays Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent and Dishonest John, and Daws Butler, who plays Captain Horatio Huffenpuff and Beany, the little kid with the propellered beany atop his head, who, with his Uncle Cap'n Huffenpuff sails the seven seas in search of adventure each day, Monday through Friday, from 6:30 to 6:45 pm. It's moments before their air-time, and the actors wait expectantly as Dick Aurant, the staff organist, sits at the Hammond organ listening over earphones for the director's cue to begin playing opening music and later, incidental and closing music for the pre-prime time kid's show, Time For Beany. Color television is far in the future, so Beany art direction is a matter of coordinated shades of gray: each prop and set-piece is color-keyed to emphasize its various, and essential, parts. Leakin' Lena's hull is one shade of gray, while the trim around the good ship's combings, the hull's uppermost ridge, is another. The mast is yet another shade of gray, and the crow's nest is a medium gray. The Leakin' Lena's cabin is gray, but the sails, the whitecaps on the foreground sea and the puffy clouds air-brushed on the backdrop behind the "set" are an off-white. Early television cameras do not take kindly to white's tendency to "flare" or "bloom" on TV screens. "One minute," the director's voice announces over a PA, in preparation for the countdown to that moment when the show goes out over the airwaves to TV-Land. Carpenters hammer the last nail, the set designer makes final adjustments, an artist from scenic touches up a scrape on Lena's hull, writers scratch out and scribble replacement dialogue on mimeographed scripts, one massive DuMont television camera on a telescoping dolly is focused on the first shot, while a second is pointed at an easel where an assistant waits to flip white-letters-on-black title cards to be superimposed over the opening scene. "Standby..." the voice says. The gaffer switches on key-lights. The racket is deafening. In short, chaos reigns. "Ten....nine...eight..." a voice over headsets counts down the seconds until air-time and cameras are "hot." A hush falls over the studio. It is the dawn of commercial television. "...Seven...six...five..." continues the stage manager, and with his index finger, continues a silent count: four...three...two. Over his headset, the director signals the stage manager, the talent and organist. FADE IN: to shot of Beany and Captain Huffenpuff on the Leakin' Lena. MUSIC CUE: "Blow The Man Down" starts. SUPER TITLE: "Time For Beany." ANNOUNCER: "It's time..." ...says Jimmy McGeorge, somewhat stridently so as to differentiate his announcer voice from later character voices, "...for...BEANY!" The picture fades up on the half dozen studio monitors. Videotape is a dream, so Time for Beany is going out over the airwaves the only way possible -- live. Every problem, every error may be apparent to the viewer, while if the show goes along smoothly, except for the actors and the people in the booth, the smoothness will go unnoticed. The Beany actors are trying very hard to provide yet one more flawless performance and the energy level in Studio C has never been higher.

The opening theme fades out, and what follows, sprinkled with cleverly integrated commercials of course, is a few minutes of adventure, chases, comedy, explosions, fights, shipwrecks, funny dialogue and turmoil, visually expressed by the Clampett hand-puppet characters, among whom is everyone's favorite, the marvelous and goofy personage of Beany's sidekick, Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, pronounced in all narratives as "sur-pent," with pent emphasized. Beany was created for kids, but Cecil was created for everyone! Beany and Cecil and their adventures captured an enormous children's audience and, unexpectedly, an adult audience as well. In fact, even Albert Einstein called Beany his favorite TV show! In an early kinescope, first broadcast in December, 1952 from Paramount, Los Angeles' Channel 5, the Time for Beany story-line concerns Cecil's confrontation with a menacing robot-Cecil who has appeared in previous Beany episodes as an evil threat to the boys on the Leakin' Lena and their friends, the natives of nearby islands. Except for its "metal" skin and the deliberately visible nuts and bolts that hold him together, the robot-Cecil character is a dead-ringer for the "real" Cecil. During one confrontation, robot-Cecil lands one tremendous haymaker on Cecil's noggin, who spins backwards, landing on the "set" on his back, mouth open, unconscious. Fade to commercial... When we come back to the story, robot-Cecil has disappeared, and Cecil awakens, saying: "Like the lollipop said to the lollipop sticker: `I'm not licked yet!'" In the meantime, robot-Cecil is chasing Beany who calls for help. Cecil hears Beany and zips out of the frame: "I'm comin' Beany. I'm comin'...." As today's story evolves, robot-Cecil, although presumed evil ("ee-vee-il," as the word "evil" is invariably pronounced during the Beany opening narratives), is in reality good natured and not one whit brighter than the Cecil "in the flesh." It can be surmised that following Beany, Cecil and robot-Cecil's predictable reconciliation, the show, as many segments of Beany do, concludes with a Ragg Mopp duet: "Rag Mopp Doodly-dah-de-do-dah... Rag Mopp Doodly-dah-de-do-dah... Rag Mopp Ragg Mopp R-a-g-g M-o-p-p (spelled out) Ragg Mop! Ragg Mop!" ...and so on. The song, Rag Mopp, represented the good natured Cecil's joie de vivre and piece of mind following another hair-raising adventure. After its fleeting but spectacular moment of public recognition in the `50s, Ragg Mopp became on some level unquestionably the on-air property of Cecil the Seasick Sea Ser-pent; Cecil "owned it," as they say. Time For Beany audiences were both loyal and colossal. In its heyday, TV rating bureaus estimated that during the Time for Beany broadcast time-period, of the total number of sets turned on to watch anything on TV, 60% were tuned into Beany, an enormous audience for a children's show. Additionally, Time for Beany was syndicated into roughly 60 television broadcasting markets, nationwide. It is also something to note that Bob Clampett had two other shows in production at the same time, Thunderbolt the Wondercolt and Buffalo Billy. Plus, a half-hour weekly show The Willy the Wolf Show and another Time for Beany half-hour to do on Saturdays. Bob and his entire staff was spread between these shows. Bob Clampett Productions Bob Clampett is a stickler for security, and the doors leading from Sunset Boulevard into the Clampett production offices complex adjoining Stage C are loaded with locks, buzzers and alarm devices to keep employees in and the unwashed out. Behind the doors, gates and locks are conference rooms for meetings, offices for storyboard and script pick-and-shovel work, workrooms for puppet manufacturing and Bob's office which houses a quagmire of models and drawings on bulletin boards, artwork, scripts, books and puppets. In addition, other areas of the Clampett complex are jammed with wardrobe, props and sets, while elsewhere on the lot sit thousands of pounds of equipment -- owned by the broadcasting station -- necessary to transmit Beany over the airwaves. While Beany is being broadcast live from Hollywood to Southern California audiences, downstairs it is "Kinescoped," a system whereby the broadcast TV picture is sent on wires to the Kinescope or Kine (pronounced "kinnie") department -- a dimly lit, refrigerated series of rooms called Master Control wherein the massive kinescoping equipment sat. The rooms house the big, black, humming machines with buttons, dials and switches and one very bright televised picture the size of a 35mm movie frame, originating on Stage C and projected into yet another 35mm frame-size aperture where it is exposed onto black and white motion picture film. This is the videotape equivalent of its time. Years later, when I am working on the animated Beany and Cecil cartoon series, in the bowels of Clampett's Snowball Productions on Seward Street in Hollywood, I come upon reel after reel of 16mm Beany kinnies carelessly stashed among other production paraphernalia including one Cecil hand-puppet, looking sorrowfully up at me, displaced by animation.

Bob Clampett, mid-1950s.

Bob's Story

Robert Clampett was born in San Diego, California in 1913. From the beginning, Bob was intrigued with and influenced by Douglas Fairbanks, Lon Chaney, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and began making film short-subjects in his garage beginning when he was about 12. Word got out about Bob's artistic ability and interests. It is said that among early assignments, Bob designed Walt Disney's first Mickey Mouse doll. In 1930, when Clampett was just seventeen years old, Leon Schlesinger viewed one of Bob's 16mm films and was so impressed with the young man's work, he offered him an assistant position at Harman-Ising Studio. The team of Harman and Ising were creating Bosco theatrical cartoons directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising with Friz Freleng and others animating, and Schlesinger producing from the art and title company on Melrose Avenue where he held forth. The Bosco cartoons, short on plot, substance and artistic finesse, were distributed with Warner features and exhibited across the U.S. At Harman-Ising, Bob performed his assistantship with energy and enthusiasm. Bob was transformed by his experience; he was no longer the boy with a camera in a dusty garage, making do with what was at hand; instead, he was one among a group of Hollywood artists and animation professionals who had the talent and tools necessary to create animated films -- artfully made motion pictures that bent reality and entertained while so doing. It was here where he learned the craft that was to take him far in Hollywood. While working-hours were long at Harman-Ising, Bob watched and listened, asked questions and hung over the shoulders of animators and animation directors. He was filling in the gaps of that which he did not know with what he observed and was told, adding to his already extensive bank of know-how with information gleaned from the pros. Bob's enthusiasm and capacity for hard work did not go unnoticed by Leon Schlesinger. Bob had learned fast and Schlesinger soon promoted Clampett to animator, where he found himself working on day-to-day Bosco assignments at his own desk. After work, however, Bob continued experimenting with hand-puppets in his garage, an activity for which he received plenty of teasing by the pros who so encouraged him on the job. Welcome to Termite Terrace At the far corner of Sunset Boulevard on the old Warner Bros. Vitaphone lot next to the Bronson Avenue gate, stood a ramshackle building used by gardeners and WB custodial staff for storage of cleaning supplies, solvents, brooms, lawnmowers and other implements. When the Harman-Ising directing team broke with Schlesinger in the mid-1930's and made their move to MGM, Leon Schlesinger cut a deal with Jack Warner to put together and run an animation unit at Warner Bros. It was in the barely renovated outbuilding that Merrie Melodies was installed. The humble custodian's cottage was immediately named by Bob and Tex, Termite Terrace in honor of its dilapidated, spidery condition. However unpretentious the accommodations, animation history would be made in that building. The Warner Bros. Days Set up and rarin' to go in his own office at Fernwood and Van Ness, with Merrie Melodies' writers in the main Warner's building on Sunset Boulevard and his animation staff across the lot at Termite Terrace, Schlesinger began looking for a star. In 1935, he proposed an animated version of Our Gang Comedies, a highly popular series of black and white live-action short subjects produced by Hal Roach out in Culver City. Bob and the other animation people remaining after the Schlesinger-Harman-Ising breakup began fooling around with various character ideas and situations for the cartoons that were to become Merrie Melody's first products. Schlesinger's suggestion led to the first Warner Bros. animated star, Porky Pig. Porky, together with a black cat named Beans, began their zany antics in Warner's first hit series of theatrical cartoons, Porky & Beans. It was Beans who starred, but Bob Clampett's stuttering, innocent and gullible Porky captured the imagination and hearts of American audiences. When Hollywood's animation community became aware of Porky & Beans, and the quality of the animation coming out of Termite Terrace, Merrie Melodies started drawing to it the zany, pivotal and remarkably creative brains of people like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin (Tee Hee), Dave Monahan, Cal Howard, Mike Maltese, Warren Foster, Tedd Pierce, the voices of Mel Blanc, sound effects by Treg Brow, and a man named Carl Stallings, who revolutionized cartoon music forevermore. These men would one day be called the greatest talents in the history of cartoon comedy.

When Hollywood's animation community became aware of Porky & Beans, and the quality of the animation coming out of Termite Terrace, Merrie Melodies started drawing to it the zany, pivotal and remarkably creative brains of people like Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin (Tee Hee), Dave Monahan, Cal Howard, Mike Maltese, Warren Foster, Tedd Pierce, the voices of Mel Blanc, sound effects by Treg Brow, and a man named Carl Stallings, who revolutionized cartoon music forevermore. These men would one day be called the greatest talents in the history of cartoon comedy. Tex Avery and Clampett teamed in 1935-1936 at the beginning of the Termite Terrace years. Avery directed and Clampett acted as gagman and animator. Together they moved animation into unexplored territory with wild and irreverent humor and an eagerness to squash and stretch animation farther than it had ever been squashed and stretched before, a technique that came to be called "The Warner Style." Tex and Bob came up with a character that produced some of animation's wildest moments: Daffy Duck -- a hard-driven, hyperkinetic, impudent, bewildering, lisping, salivating, one-track-minded character who hysterically zipped around the screen while muddling each and every animated supporting actor, especially his co-star, Porky Pig. Daffy first appeared in 1937 in "Porky's Duck Hunt" and subsequently, as part of an established Daffy-Porky team, who, at this writing has appeared in more than 120 cartoons in addition to feature-length movies, Saturday morning TV series and prime time TV specials. Now that is stardom! In 1937, Schlesinger promoted Clampett to full director and it was during the following nine years that Bob Clampett -- and Porky Pig -- became responsible, with the aid of the Termite Terrace regulars, for some of the most memorable moments in animated cartoon history: "Porky in Wackyland" (1938), "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs" (1943, a title and theme that in subsequent years would not see the light of day), and "The Piggy Bank Robbery" (1946), were among these. Bob, The Director Bob Clampett was tall, well over 6 feet, slim, and delicately handsome with a mop of dark hair falling across his forehead. He was a smart, courteous and pleasant man, a perfectionist, who encouraged the best efforts of the men and women who worked with, around and for him. A big part of Bob's personality was a boyish innocence. Some of the people who worked alongside him during those days remember Bob as the scrupulous artist he was. On productions he was directing or otherwise wielding creative responsibility, Bob invariably examined each animation scene and every drawing within each scene for fidelity to character, movement and line-quality. I T'ot I Taw A Puddy Tat! Bob created "Tweety Pie," of "I t'ot I taw a puddy tat" fame, the apparently innocuous but dangerously diabolical canary who became an instant star as the continuing source of feline frustration in the lunatic cartoons co-starring a lisping, salivating Sylvester, everyone's favorite feline. Tweety debuted in "A Tale of Two Kitties" (1942). Additionally, about this time, Bob developed our hayseed feathered friend, Beaky Buzzard, who later made his first appearance on the big screen in cartoons often featuring the three, Beaky, Sylvester and Tweety, to the wild acclaim of kids nationwide. What's Up, Doc? While Bob Clampett and animator Robert McKimson didn't create Bugs Bunny, they will be forever credited with refining him into the kwazy wabbit all the world knows and loves. With the two Roberts' help, Bugs became one of the handful of most recognized cartoon characters in animation history. Compare a 1930s or `40s Bugs to a Bugs Bunny of today, and you will have some idea of the painstaking refinements of character and movement Clampett and McKimson gave an increasingly popular animated character. In 1947, at what some people called the peak of his creative powers, and against everyone's advise, Bob Clampett left Schlesinger to produce the puppet show of his own design, Time for Beany. Socks of Another Color Beany and his friends shared their TV world with a gaggle of subsidiary "hand-puppet" characters, crafted from what were fundamentally socks -- tubes of fabric with an opening at one end, through which the actor-manipulator could thrust his hand, and a fabricated head on the other. Many of Clampett's puppets had sewn-on, rubberized and relatively inexpressive heads and faces, like Beany or Uncle Cap'n, which were both rigid Punch and Judy-style hand-puppets. But Cecil, for example, was fabricated of pale green terry-cloth for skin-texture, with sewn-on eyes, buttons representing nostrils, and a flap or folded "mouth," so fingers inside could make the "mouth" open and close. He could be in sync with the spoken word and expressive in numerous other ways like smiling, grimacing, appearing frightened or amazed, angry or coquettish. For Cecil, all of this was possible. Cecil was the simplest and least sophisticated of the Clampett hand-puppets, but probably the most expressive due to the uncomplicated, flexible construction and imagination and facility of Stan Freberg, who, on monitors installed behind the set, could view what movements and "face" he was giving Cecil as he manipulated the Cecil "sock" with his hand. As a comic and actor, Freberg intuitively knew what best expressed the Cecil character during specific circumstances.

Cecil's mouth and facial design emphasizing a varied capacity for expression with what was simply a sock, was carried over into some of the other Clampett characters as well (a design that was later to become the collective characteristic of Jim Henson's Muppets). Time for Beany included such characters as Hopalong Wong, Clowny, Crowy, and my favorite in name, "Tear-Along, the Dotted Lion," all continuing participants in the puppet show and some later appearing in the animated Beany and Cecil series. The design of one character, Dishonest John, a.k.a. "D.J.," was based on one of Bob Clampett's animation bosses at Warners, Larry Martin.

Putting a 15 minute puppet show on the air is no small feat, however simple it may appear. It is a live television show, requiring actors, writers, a musician, a sound effects man, technical personnel, an art director and production artists, grips, gaffers, cameramen, stage crew, a stage manager, a director and of course, Bob Clampett, invisible to home audiences, but ubiquitous in the background, masterminding every part of Beany with the finesse and single-mindedness of a symphony orchestra conductor. Each character is Bob's design; what they wear and how they act was his decision. Each character's utterance was fine-tuned as Clampett worked with specific actors to determine the character's appropriate voice, action and expression. One overriding characteristic of the Beany show was there was apparently no "plan" in the invention of the Beany scripts; there was never enough time for a logically developed scenario which would move viewers from here to there in 13 weeks. Instead, Clampett's writers appeared to be climbing all over each other in an effort just to come up with today's script, which frequently followed public sentiment very closely. But they had fun doing it, and the fun they were having and the excited absurdity of the popular show is what intrigued me. Because no one but Bob Clampett seemed to be controlling what the writers wrote, and because doing so gave everyone connected to the show something to giggle about, "in-jokes," comedic situations or dialogue that only people attached to Beany or KTTV could possibly understand, were often written into the script. An example of this was when someone came up with a bad guy puppet character named Kcaj Dleiffud, pronounced "Kadge Du--lee--uh--fuh--fud," which was the actual name -- backwards -- of the account man, Jack Duffield, the executive who sold commercial spots within Beany to sponsors. The creation of the strange character, Kcaj, was a hoot around the studio and I'm certain among Duffield's clients. The character no doubt sold a heck of a lot of air-time. It didn't matter that in-jokes were added, because Beany was fun to watch with or without them. There were no TV audiences more loyal than Beany audiences. PART II: Production and financial bedlam results when Bob Clampett sets up Snowball Productions and Beany and Cecil becomes a half-hour ABC series. On October 12, 1999 in the US, Image Entertainment is releasing Bob Clampett's Beany And Cecil: The Special Edition DVD. The DVD will include a dozen of the original Beany and Cecil cartoons from 1962. Plus, a huge amount of bonus material, including: the original Matty's Funnies (the show during which Beany And Cecil cartoons were first shown) opening in color; a couple of the original Matty's Funnies bumpers; four full episodes of Time For Beany that have not been seen since their original airing fifty years ago; a full episode of Thunderbolt The Wondercolt; a musical number from The Willy The Wolf Show; a fund-raiser promotional film featuring the Mr. Peepers Wolf puppet and a sexy live-action little Red Riding Hood; backstage and home movies from Time For Beany and Thunderbolt; Bob Clampett's first television interview; and other early home movies. It will also include a section called "The Lost Work," which will include ten projects Clampett developed, but never released to the public. There is also an audio oral history from Bob Clampett speaking about his career that was edited by Milt Gray, and an audio commentary from Stan Freberg, who, with Daws Butler, did the voices on Time For Beany, talking in depth about the experience of working on Time For Beany, and a commentary from Walker Edmiston talking about Beany and his work on Thunderbolt and Willy The Wolf. There is also a story session recording of a Time For Beany episode where Bob Clampett and staff create a satire of the McCarthy hearings. There are even over 550 stills! The disc's producer, Rob Clampett, Jr., also promises some more surprises. The suggested retail price is US$29.99.

Robert Story is a producer and writer. He lives in Laguna Beach, California.