Dr. Toon: The Last Picture Show
That same year at MGM, studio bean counters made an interesting discovery: An already existing cartoon which was reissued (or recycled in these green times) earned something like 90% of what a new cartoon earned when the shekels rolled in at the end of the day. And so, in 1955, MGM actually reissued more cartoons than their animation studio produced. This, of course, meant that MGM could coast on years of completed shorts and no longer needed an animation department.
As animation veteran and studio head Ralph Terry explained, "The cartoon never demanded a price." It was simply sold along with studio features. If, say, a Warner film made in 1955 produced a box office take of $12 million, it was impossible to say how much of that profit was attributable to Rabbit Rampage. It was even possible that more people paid to see Elmer and Bugs than the feature, but how could the studio heads really know?
Some studios hung on by cheapening the animation and cutting every corner possible, but in the end audiences noticed every cost-cutting trick. Walter Lantz was down to working on a budget of $45,000 per cartoon by 1972 and figured that it would take 10 years to recoup the production, print and distribution costs. That was the year that the amicable veteran and pioneer of American animation closed his doors.
The Lantz studio was preceded in death by Paramount Studio (1967), Terrytoons (1968) and Warner Bros. (1969). All suffered the same slow, pitiful decline in quality and sophistication. From the indirect ashes of the Warner studio rose DePatie-Freleng, who soldiered on with the phenomenally successful Pink Panther series as well as some long-forgotten offerings such as The Tiajuana Toads, Roland and Ratfink and The Ant and the Aardvark. But the same fate awaited them as well. DP-F was the final animation studio to produce an original theatrical release, Therapeutic Pink in 1977. For a very long time, it would be the last picture show.
Simply this: Back in the 1930s a song titled What? No Mickey Mouse? was briefly popular; it was a lament about a local theater that was not showing a Mickey short along with the feature. Theatrical cartoons had their own lobby cards, just like the films did, and theatergoers could anticipate that night's communal treat. Animated characters were part of the theater experience, and it was theatergoers, not studio executives, that made them into beloved stars. When an animated short sprang on to the screen, it was a shared experience. Audiences sat together and laughed at their favorite animated stars, characters whose fame and recognition factor ranked alongside the Hollywood stars that also appeared on the screen that night. When Mickey Mouse and Popeye had fan clubs, kids celebrated together in movie theaters that hosted special events for club members.