Dr. Toon: From Whence We Came
My envy of the past two generations is boundless. When, someday in the future, they field questions about the cartoons they grew up with, they will have their memories of cable and satellite television to draw upon. Thousands of animated cartoons that never saw a moment on a theater screen have come and gone since the mid-1980s. These beneficiaries of the TV animation explosion are already writing books and blogs about their old faves. The animation meme was transmitted unto them not in faded driblets but in digital torrents.
Speaking of torrents, the generations of which I speak have had (for the most part) the resources of the Internet available. Not only do they have beloved favorites, there are websites, blogs, and wikis dedicated to these shows. Even if a second-rate cartoon such as BraveStarr was your cup of sarsaparilla, your mouse could click up every episode or obtain detailed minutae about Thirty-Thirty, B.J, or Deputy Fuss. Need I even mention the VHS and DVD permutations of entire animated seasons.
It was not always this way. Time was when the animation meme doddered along on its analog belly, a blind little mole seeking the loam of some – any – receptive young mind. It is the province of the critics to pay tribute to those that inspired them, and to pass along a bit of history in the process. Sit down a few minutes with old Dr. Toon and I’ll tell you how the animation meme was transmitted before Comcast, DirecTV, VHS, DVD, and Apple.
It is not my intention to write an “In MY day…” column. Those tend to bore, and no one cares. What I do want to do is highlight how the technologies of presenting animation disseminated the art form through the culture. When I first became an animation fan, the process of doing so was more difficult but it worked. I can only thank certain long-gone spreaders of the meme, unknown to today’s generation. This month’s column is for them.
I was storyboarded in mid-1955, and production was finished in Boston on March 10, 1956. The last Disney movie to date was Lady and the Tramp. Hanna and Barbera were making cartoons at MGM. The pencils that would draw The Flintstones, Huckleberry Hound, and Rocky and Bullwinkle were still encased in trees. An animated short preceded every feature film playing in the movie houses.
TV sets were mostly black-and-white, had thirteen channels that you dialed by hand, picture quality determined by the position of antennae augmented by “rabbit ears”. Sometime after midnight, you watched jets fly in formation while the national anthem played, and shortly thereafter, a humming test pattern replaced all programming until 6 a.m. the next day.
Swimming in this primordial soup were cartoons, long-forgotten public domain works found today in cut-rate DVDs containing upwards of 300 shorts. Our old vacuum-tube Philco TV, however, was only the secondary agent in the transmission of the animation meme. The primary transmitters, to whom I owe my lifelong love of cartoons, were the kiddie show hosts of Boston.
Rexford Trailer was a genuine Texas cowboy who learned to ride a horse at the age of four. He could also sing and act, and was given his break in show business by Gabby Hayes. At Hayes’ insistence, he became a TV kiddie show host on the now- defunct Dumont network.
The cowpoke, now known as Rex Trailer, made his way to Boston in 1956 where he began a show called Boomtown. During the show, he would take his young audience to the “Opry House”, run by a duck puppet, and there awaited cartoons, mostly old Looney Tunes. Joe Oriolo’s Trans-Lux incarnation of Felix the Cat sometimes showed up, as well as his “Mighty Hercules” entry.
Personal meme: Boomtown was the first place I saw a “Little Audrey” cartoon, and it delighted me because my parents used to get me the comic book. I always hoped there would be “Hot Stuff” cartoons too, but alas, there were none.
IBBY, as local kids knew, stood for “I’ll Be Blasting You!” It was the catchphrase of Ed T. McDonnell, aka Major Mudd. Replete in his spacesuit and helmet, this cheerful astronaut welcomed kids to his “space station” where they played games, won prizes, and watched cartoons. Major Mudd obtained his cartoons from I know not where, but either he or his producers seemed to keep an eye out for space-themed toons. Mr. McDonnell also hosted a local sci-fi movie show dressed as an alien named Feep, so perhaps it simply ran in his blood.
Personal meme: It was on The Major Mudd Show that I saw the seminal space kiddie serial Rod Rocket. If you’ve not heard of it, I beseech thee to get to thy Google. Also shown were episodes of UPA’s Dick Tracy and Mister Magoo.
Frank Avruch was a TV and radio personality as well as a man-about-town type of celebrity in Boston. He was also the local TV incarnation of Bozo the Clown. I won’t go into the history of Alan Livingston’s ubiquitous clown, except to say that Boston was a major market and that Bozo, unlike the other kiddie show hosts, actually had his own cartoon.