Dr. Toon: From Whence We Came
Larry Harmon, a merchandizing whiz who rarely missed a trick, purchased Bozo in 1956 and set up his own animation house. From 1958-1961 he produced 156 five-minute cartoons starring the clown, and they were the only ones allowed on the show.
Personal meme: Even as a very young child, I could tell these cartoons were stunningly inferior to anything else shown on television. If nothing else, Bozo cartoons likely set the course for my future as an animation commentator and critic, as they were they very first to prove that not all cartoons are good ones.
Walter “Salty” Brine was a venerable sea captain who hosted a kiddie show out of Rhode Island. However, that was considered a local market and Salty’s warm personality and love for kids made him a Boston fave. The victim of a crippling accident in his youth, Salty had great empathy for disabled kids and made sure they were represented on his show.
Not surprisingly, Salty’s cartoon comrade was Popeye, and Captain Brine showed only the finest; the black-and-white Fleischer shorts that turned Popeye into an icon. The effect of these cartoons on me was incalculable; Popeye became my favorite character, my idol, and my toon of choice. Inspired by his feats, I would race around the room pretending to be him, a tiny sailor hat perched on my head as I clobbered an innocent stuffed animal. Salty, I can’t thank you enough.
Personal meme: When I was very small, my parents took me to a parade. A band went by playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. I tugged my Dad’s shirt and told him, “That’s the music from Popeye!”
“The Grass is Always Greener” was a personal composition by entertainer and kid show host “Big Brother” Bob Emery. Old enough to be your grandpa, Bob Emery played the ukulele, banjo, and sang songs of wisdom. You could join his Big Brother Club, the perks of which I no longer recall. He also showed cartoons made by Sam Singer Productions, which meant they looked nothing like any other cartoon on any other kid show.
Emery showed us episodes of The Adventures of Pow Wow, a small American Indian lad who was as stereotypical as he was boring. Pow Wow shared the stage with Sinbad Jr. He was a young sailor lad who wore a magic belt of strength. He pulled it tight/with all his might/ and a mighty sailor was he. The only possible notes of interest: Tim Matheson was the titular character and Mel Blanc the voice of Salty, Sinbad Jr.’s feisty parrot.
Personal meme: A lifelong desire to learn where this weird stuff (and it certainly was) came from. What were the stories behind them? Did the same people who made Bugs Bunny do this too? How many people were making how many cartoons, anyway?
That was the golden age of kiddie shows and their hosts. It was the only way to get an animation fix, and the only way to obtain a lifelong interest in the art. They existed in every major TV market, and I’m sure there are those among you who remember your own locals. After this column goes live, older fans in Boston may point out errors in this recounting, such as which cartoons were shown by whom. However, that’s not the point. What I’m truly recounting is how the meme was passed on before the era of digital, mass entertainment.
It is of interest that when Steven Hillenburg was developing SpongeBob Squarepants he conceived that show as carton shorts hosted by a live-action pirate in the spirit of kiddie shows gone by. Nickelodeon nixed the idea, and Patchy the Pirate is now the occasional host of a SpongeBob Special. Hillenburg was inspired by a past that included his local kiddie shows.
Another point I find interesting is that animation fanzines and the first interviews with golden age animators did not really appear until the mid-1970s. I am certain that the generation watching these old, oddball cartoons presented by genial hosts became the pioneers in animation history and journalism once they hit their twenties.
The local kiddie show is now extinct. The last known episode of Bozo took place in 2001. All but one of the Boston luminaries mentioned above are hosting kiddie shows for the angelic host: Rex Trailer, the last of them, died in January of this year. The favors they did for fledgling animation fans will not be forgotten. Before the age of instant cartoons 24/7 in all available media, they were the keepers of the great theatrical repository of animated shorts not featuring Disney characters.
This column is dedicated to:
Rexford (Rex) Trailer 1928-2013
Edward T. (Major Mudd) McDonnell 1926-1979
Walter (Salty) Brine 1918-2004
Clair Robert (Big Brother Bob) Emery 1897-1982
Frank Avruch, Boston’s own Bozo the Clown, is still with us.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.