Saturday, 19 April 2014

Crusader Rabbit

“Crusader Rabbit” wasn’t the first made-for-TV animated cartoon series but it was arguably the first popular one. Crusader appeared on stations across the U.S. through the 1950s. And Hanna-Barbera borrowed the Crusader cliff-hanger format when it came up with “Ruff and Reddy” in 1957; whether it was coincidental, we’ll let you decide.

The book every TV animation fan should own, Keith Scott’s The Moose That Roared, has a full chapter on Crusader. I don’t think you’ll read anything in this post that Keith didn’t research first-hand, but I needed an excuse to put up the Crusader trade ads you see below. So allow me to pass on some little notes about the show.

Keith’s book reveals that Jay Ward and Alex Anderson, living in the San Francisco Bay area at the time, took their idea for Crusader Rabbit to NBC. The network sent them to Jerry Fairbanks, who won two Oscars producing shorts for Paramount and had signed a television film production contract with NBC in January 1948. In the financing deal to get Crusader made, Fairbanks ended up owning the negatives to the cartoons.

The trades started taking notice. This story is from January 25, 1949 and appears similar to a Daily Variety blurb from the 14th.

New Cartoon Series Set By Fairbanks
West Coast Bureau, RADIO DAILY
Hollywood — Series of 130 open-end five minute films employing a newly-developed animation technique will be made available to stations and sponsors within a few months by Jerry Fairbanks Productions, it was announced yesterday.
The method eliminates many of the most costly features of theatrical animation, Fairbanks said, yet retains the illusion of movement. Closeups are featured, with backgrounds kept to a minimum.
Titled “Crusader Rabbit,” series will be animated by Television Arts Production, new Berkeley, Calif., firm headed by J. Troplong Ward, San Francisco radio producer, and Alexander Anderson, formerly with Terrytoons Films, will be completed at the Fairbanks studios here.

Things seem to have sat for a bit until Daily Variety reported on September 7th that production was about to begin.

Crusader didn’t make it on the air in 1949. Radio Daily reported on February 17, 1950:

New Cartoon Series Set By Fairbanks Making Another TV Series
Hollywood—Filming of 65 additional "Crusader Rabbit" video programs was scheduled yesterday at Jerry Fairbanks Productions following completion of the first group of 65 five-minute shows. The series, designed as a daily program for children. is being readied for early distribution.
Television Arts Productions of Berkeley is doing the animation and films are being completed at the Fairbanks studios where scoring, voice-dubbing, editing and narration are added.

The publication further announced on June 30th:

Film Cartoon Series To Be Sponsored On KNBH
West Coast Bureau of RADIO DAILY
Hollywood — "Crusader Rabbit," first series of cartoon programs filmed especially for television, will make its video debut July 15 under the sponsorship of Carnation Milk Company. Program will open on KNBH in Hollywood with additional bookings throughout the nation scheduled to follow sometime during the Autumn.
Starts August 15
Starting at three showings a week on KNBH, the program is set to be telecast five times weekly beginning August 15th. Jerry Fairbanks Productions has completed 130 releases of the series and has started work on a second weeks' supply. The children's show is being placed by the Erwin Wasey and Company advertising agency.

But there was a delay for some unknown reason. The show debuted at 6 p.m. on August 1, 1950. Now NBC Films was ready to sell Crusader (and other Fairbanks productions, including musicals and sitcoms) to its affiliates. Here’s part of a trade ad below.

Weekly Variety only had one review of the cartoon. The DuMont station in New York City, WABD, bought Crusader to air on its “Funny Bunny” programme starring Dick Noel in a full-sized rabbit costume, puppets and a record-playing pumpkin. In its April 21, 1954 edition, Variety liked the costumed rabbit but not the animated one. It decided: “Here, though, show planners made an unwise move in choosing material of that ‘to be continued’ variety. Small kids are wont to forget what the story line was yesterday, but they will note that the story seems incomplete today.”

There was a legal mess ahead for Crusader’s creators. Jay Ward and Alex Anderson’s company TAP sued Fairbanks, his company and NBC. The network had bought the cartoons from Fairbanks, then sold them back for $175,000 but Fairbanks defaulted on the payments. So NBC decided to sell the cartoons. TAP sued to stop it and demanded $500,000 in damages (Broadcasting, June 1, 1953). A company called Consolidated Television Sales agreed to make the payments for Fairbanks (Broadcasting, July 6, 1953). TAP responded by suing Fairbanks’ company, Consolidated and NBC for $400,000 (Broadcasting, Oct. 26, 1953). Things got more complicated when Shull Bonsall bought Consolidated (Variety, March 3, 1954), meaning he now owed the 195 Crusader cartoons which were still being sold across the U.S.

Blocks of old theatrical cartoons started making their way onto TV and they proved to be a gold mine for syndicators like Associated Artists Productions. No doubt seeing those dollars floating around, and the fact his original cartoons (now owned by Shull Bonsall) were still being shown, Jay Ward got the idea to revive the rabbit. Billboard reported on October 20, 1956:

Filming Starts on Crusader Rabbit Again
NEW YORK---Crusader Rabbit, the indestructible cartoon character that sneaked onto TV about four years ago and made something of a hit in syndication about two years ago, is now back in production. The group that originated the show has just set up Crusader Rabbit, Inc., to distribute the new series. They are said to be planning production of about 260 more five-minute episodes, of which six are said to be in the can already.
They are reported to have sold the new show to American Bakeries for about 15 markets, with the possibility of 20 more. They have also sold “Crusader” to the RKO Teleradio stations. WOR-TV here plans to use them on its 7-7:30 p.m. show, “Crusader Rabbit and Terrytoons,” which also uses the “Baker Bill Terrytoons” [sic] bought from CBS-TV Film Sales.
The new Crusaders are being produced in color at a cost said to be around $4,000 an episode.
Bagnall Pix
The original group of 190 films is still being distributed by George Bagnall Associates. Bagnall acquired distribution of the series about three years ago, when Shull Bonzall bought Consolidated TV Sales and turned its catalog over to him. Consolidated acquired it from Jerry Fairbanks, who had become associated with the production of the animated show after NBC turned it down.
“Crusader” was probably the first and is still one of the few animated programs produced specifically for TV.

Billboard of December 29, 1956 revealed the series had gone into full production, would debut in February, cartoons had been sold in 53 cities (American Bakeries sponsoring in 28 of them) and 46 items, including games and stuffed toys, were being merchandised.

That’s when Shull Bonsall decided to play hardball with Jay Ward.

Money talks. And Bonsall had more money than Ward. Money to spend on lawyers. Bonsall threatened to bleed Ward financially dry by tying up Crusader in court—unless he handed over the character rights for a nominal fee. Keith Scott’s book says the fee was only $50,000. Ward had no choice but to accept.

Billboard from September 9, 1957:

260 ‘Rabbit’ Cartoons Put Into Product’n
HOLLYWOOD—A new series of “Crusader Rabbit” cartoons are being put into production by Shull Bonsall and TV spots. Total of 260 of the episodes, each four minutes in length, will be turned out on 35 mm. color.
Bonsall bought all the rights to the series, including the characters, merchandising, and 195 films now in syndication, from Alex Anderson and Jay Ward’s Television Arts Productions last week.
Films will cost about $3,500 per episode, or $900,000 for 260 segments. They can be used separately, or be put together into 15 or 30-minute shows. Merchandising deals have been made with Dell Productions and others. First of the new films will be ready for showing the end of this month. No distribution has been set so far.

TV Spots was a company incorporated in 1951 by Bob Wickersham as an outgrowth of his own company. He had been a director at Columbia’s cartoon studio. Bonsall apparently bought it in 1954.

Here’s another Billboard story, this one from February 10, 1958.

Tv Spots Inc. to Produce New 'Crusader Rabbit' Series
A new Crusader Rabbit animated tv series, designed to appeal directly to adult as well as juvenile viewers, is being produced at the Hollywood studios of Tv Spots Inc. and will be offered to stations and sponsors by Regis Films. Both companies are owned by California industrialist Shull Bonsall, onetime associate of Jerry Fairbanks, from whom the rights to Crusader Rabbit were acquired. Tv Spots also is active in producing filmed commercials, such as the "Mr. Moo" spots for American Dairy Assn.
The new series is being filmed in 35 mm Eastman color film, from which 16 mm prints are available in both color and black and white, under the supervision of Mr. Bonsall as executive producer. Two units now are turning out 1,400 feet a week of completed animated cartoon film, said by Mr. Bonsall to be the highest output of any company in the country. By March 15 a third unit also will be on the job at Tv Spots, a total of 60 artists, scripters and animators turning out an unprecedented total of 2,400 feet of complete animation or six five –minute episodes, per week.
A total of 260 episodes will be produced, William H. Buman [sic], vice president and general manager of Tv Spots, said. Each story sequence will comprise 20 five -minute episodes, or they can be combined in units of four into five 15- minute programs if desired. Production cost for the full 260 –program series will total about $1 million, he estimated.

Bill Bauman quit a year later and was replaced by Bob Ganon, who was in charge of the “Calvin and the Colonel” cartoons in 1961 after Creston Studios spun off from TV Spots.

To the right, you see a trade ad from 1958 selling Crusader. No, that’s not Shull Bonsall on the phone. But Lucille Bliss, the original voice of the rabbit, didn’t mince words about him years later when she related how she refused his offer to voice the character after Ward and Anderson were knocked out of the picture. She, more or less, accused him of maliciously trying to ruin her career.

Competition became pretty fierce for TV cartoon syndicators. Crusader was up against A.A.P. and its hugely popular old Warner Bros. and Popeye theatricals. Felix the Cat was brought out of retirement. UPA decided to get into the TV animation business with Dick Tracy and a watered-down version of Mr. Magoo. Hanna-Barbera eventually produced cartoons (Wally Gator, Lippy the Lion, Touche Turtle) that weren’t part of a sponsored half-hour. Ken Snyder came out with the educational “Funny Company.” Al Brodax had sub-contractors churn out new Popeyes and several other series. Crusader changed hands. Below you see a 1967 trade ad from Wolper Television Sales offering the old TV Spots cartoons. They moved into the hands of Metromedia in 1969, and were still being offered to stations five years later.

Crusader appeared in Japan in the mid ‘60s and Australia and Germany (on an Armed Forces TV station) in the early ‘70s. But by 1975, the cartoon was being talked about in nostalgic terms in newspaper columns looking back at kids shows of a whopping 20 years earlier (which, somehow, doesn’t seem as ridiculous as “‘90s kids” being nostalgic for the past 20 years later).

Meanwhile, back in 1957, Bonsall made one mistake. His deal was for the Crusader Rabbit show alone; he let Anderson and Ward keep all their undeveloped properties that TAP had hoped to put on the air some day. One involved a dopey moose and a flying squirrel. They went farther than Crusader Rabbit ever did.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the first Crusader Rabbit cartoon.


  1. In New York in the mid-1960s, the Crusader Rabbit episodes played in 'pre-prime time' for kids -- i.e., at 7 in the morning Saturdays on WNBC, before the national block of Saturday-morning cartoons aired. Since NBC and RCA were really pushing color by that time, only the later color episodes were part of the package (and were paired with another syndicated offering in color, Do-Do, the Kid from Outer Space).

  2. In 1965, Wolper acquired the rights to "CRUSADER RABBIT" from Shull Bonsall, and began syndicating both the Ward and TV Spots editions of the series. WNEW-TV, Channel 5 in New York, acquired the rights to the color edition by 1966.....and WNBC-TV had to revert to the black and white edition until they cancelled it in 1967.

    1. Funny how that worked. Too bad nobody gives two s--ts for Crusader Rabbit these days sadly.

  3. "But by 1975, the cartoon was being talked about in nostalgic terms in newspaper columns looking back at kids shows of a whopping 20 years earlier (which, somehow, doesn’t seem as ridiculous as “‘90s kids” being nostalgic for the past 20 years later)."

    Well hopefully we'll never have to hear about "Hammerman" again.

  4. The other mistake Bonsall made, of course, was "banning" Lucille Bliss from the later ones from the very start for Ge Ge Pearson (ironically, one of the gals who took over for June Foray, herself a longtime major Ward staple, as Granny).Union issues.