Dr. Toon: Youth Shall be Served
Animation for young kids is actually a recent phenomenon, at least in America. Early kiddie shows were rarely animated to begin with; shows such as Romper Room and local productions featuring live-action "hosts" were much in vogue. (My native New England market, for example, was covered by Major Mudd (a spacesuit-clad chap), Rex Trailer (cowboy host of Boomtown), and Big Brother Bob Emery and the Small Fry Club. We also had two clowns: The ubiquitous Bozo, and Willie Whistle (whose high-pitched speech was functionally incomprehensible). The possibilities of animation for the very young probably did not catch widespread attention until 1969 with the debut of Sesame Street.
It took a surprisingly long time for America to produce animation for the younger set. European and Japanese television actually outpaced the US in that regard, at least up until the mid- 1990s. After Nickelodeon made its debut, its Nick Jr. programming block imported almost every piece of animation shown. The L'il Bits, The World of David the Gnome, Maple Town, Noozles, The Adventures of the Little Koala, Adventures of the Little Prince, Maya The Bee and Grimm's Fairy Tale Theater were all of foreign origin, reflecting the dearth of American effort in this area.
One reason for this may have been purely cultural; Europe was the birthplace of countless "fairy tales". America tended to produce folk tales, which were adult interpretations of national identity. The most notable exception was L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which Baum himself admitted was influenced by the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.
Baum went so far as to say he was trying to write "American fairy tales"; if so, 1900 was rather late in the game, and the first Oz book was really lightening in a bottle; Baum wrote thirteen sequels before his death in 1919. Ruth P. Thompson picked up the series and produced an additional 21 sequels, and virtually none of them are remembered today.
Why were there so few animated programs for preschoolers, why were they so late to the scene in an animation-loving culture like ours, and what sort of success have they found? As is typical with this monthly column, we'll dive into the intersection of animation with society, psychology, and economics.
One reason for the dearth of animation for the very young was, as mentioned, the lack of predecessors (such as fairy tales) to evolve from. This may strike some animation historians as strange, considering the fact that animation has typically been viewed as somewhat of a children's medium in America. However, much of American animation was produced by and for adults. Recall that its initial milieu was the theatrical screen; not many couples brought infants or small toddlers to the movies. Those who did often regretted it.
It is fair to say that Walt Disney broke this mold, but even his early features were dependent on the traditions and conventions of the European fairy tale. Bob Clampett, Dave Fleischer, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Walter Lantz did not produce cartoons that young children would have found comprehensible. At UPA, John Hubley, Pete Burness, Ted Parmalee, and Phil Eastman were aiming far too high over their heads. Paul Terry likely did not give a damn either way. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, in producing their first TV offerings, hired the same people who wrote and produced decades of theatrical cartoons; Huckleberry Hound (1959) attracted a larger adult than child audience.