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.
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.