Hundreds upon hundreds of cartoons were produced for theatres. They were disposable. Run ‘em for a little while, then send them back to the exchange for new ones. Eventually, studios decided they could save money by re-releasing some of the cartoons and then put them back on the shelf for good. Those shelves started piling up with what, at the time, were worthless pieces of film.
But then came television. And television wanted cartoons, no matter how old and how used. One man who had cartoons was Walter Lantz, all kinds of them making nary a penny. Now they were worth something again. So he sold the TV rights to 179 of them to Motion Pictures for Television in November 1954. Then he landed a big deal, one that seems to have come out of nowhere.
Woody made his network TV premiere on October 3, 1957; the Los Angeles Times reported Who’s Cookin’ Who aired. Other than CBS’ high-cost failure, The Boing Boing Show and the crude NBC Comics show in 1950, there hadn’t been cartoons on network television until Kellogg’s put Woody on the air. That made it news. Lantz always seemed to find a way to get quoted, and he managed to get an interview with King Features Syndicate’s TV Key daily newspaper column to talk about his new show. This appeared in papers on October 31, 1957. You’ll note this version of the Woody origin story doesn’t involve a honeymoon with Grace; to be honest, I haven’t found out when that became the version that Lantz and his wife would tell every interviewer. There’s still no mention of Bugs Hardaway, who had died earlier in the year, and who came up with a Woody-ish rabbit for Leon Schlesinger in the late ‘30s. Surely he must have played the major role in the woodpecker’s creation after he arrived on Lantz’s doorstep.
Nuisance Spawned WoodpeckerThe reference to Mel Blanc is interesting; the story leaves the impression that Mel was still the voice of Woody Woodpecker, which he hadn’t been since the early ‘40s (there’s no mention of anyone else, including Mrs. Walter Lantz). Toward the end of the decade Blanc sued Lantz for using his Woody laugh and lost, but Lantz settled with him out of court before an appeal could be heard. Blanc then proceeded to play Woody on records, on a radio show broadcast on the Mutual network, and used the voice for several years on the aforementioned Benny show.
By STEVEN H. SCHEUER
TV Key Staff Writer
"A real homey show with no tricks," says cartoonist Walter Lantz about his Thursday afternoon ABC Woody Woodpecker series, which comes on before the Mickey Mouse Club.
Walter's old fashioned about his cartoons. He was doing film cartoons at the very beginning, 1918, when they flashed balloons over characters' heads to insert dialogue. "My theory has always been to make cartoons like real people. I don't go for two eyes on one side of the head. For the art set, yes, but not for the theatrical audience."
Woody Woodpecker, with that incredible laugh or trumpeting, is Walter's most famous character and he's the result of a continuing nuisance back in 1941. Walter was busy at his drawing desk while a woodpecker outside was drilling away on a tree. The incessant noise got on Walter's nerves, and then suddenly the idea of using a woodpecker as a cartoon character flashed across his mind.
"Woody was a hit the first time on the screen," said Walter. "When we recorded the show I asked Mel Blanc (one of Jack Benny's TV regulars), who was to do Woody's voice, to think up some kind of a laugh for more character. Mel tried a few versions and then came up with his distinguished contribution."
"I'm no actor," he said when approached. He thought about it for a while and said he'd do it if he could tell the kids how animated cartoons are made. Sponsors said fine and Lantz went to work.
Luckily they were ahead on theater shorts so he could put the whole shop (52) to work. Each week on the show Walter shows a different segment, the cutters, the animators, the story boards, etc. He even does a little drawing himself.
What stuns him is what it would cost him today, starting from scratch, to make the present series. "I couldn't do it for less than $225,000," says Walter. Today it costs $35,000 to make a six-minute movie cartoon. Another $10,000 for printing and distribution costs. Then cartoonists have to wait about four years to get their money back, get it in driblets." This has sounded a death knell to the theater cartoon industry. Disney has abandoned movie cartoons for full-length features. MGM's Tom and Jerry is no more.
"Warner's Bugs Bunny, me, UP, Terry Tunes [sic] and Paramount in the East are the only survivors," says Lantz. "If only the distributors would give us a tiny bit more we might have a chance.
Walter keeps going with re-issue of cartoons, comic magazines and now the TV show. After 40 years in a topsy-turvy business Walter looks in good shape, financially and otherwise. His secret? Walter's blue eyes twinkled. "I never worry," he said.
Woody was a hit, more so than even Superman, which Kellogg’s had sponsored on a different day in the time slot. Here’s Lantz again to Billboard, December 23, 1957.
Lantz on Cartoons: Put Some $$ in ‘Em
Walter Lantz states the formula for successful cartoon programming: "Make them non-seasonal, uncontroversial and musical, and above all, put some money into them.
"We've shot 9,000 new feet and developed new characters like Chilly Willy the penguin to avoid that stale look," says Lantz. "Mail indicates that our pantomime-to-classical-music cartoons are big favorites, so we've scheduled one in each show in a center spot. When you’re doing a new series, you make changes like that. When you're unloading old product, you never tinker with the form.
After 41 years in the business, Lantz was "forced" into TV because "cartoons for theaters will soon be extinct. Costs have gone up 165 per cent in 10 years, booking fees only 15 per cent. Video is the answer, Lantz feels, tho “There's nothing wrong with theatrical exhibitors that a buck won’t cure.” Once in, he and Universal (for whom this is a first TV series, too) labeled the “Woody Woodpecker” backlog not as the finished vidfilm product but a starting point for activity which is currently keeping a staff of 55 busy in Hollywood.
“Long animated commercials are coming,” predicts the veteran animator. “Too many which should be live now use animation. Once they clear out, there’ll be room for cartoon spectaculars among commercials. Cartooning is to TV what comics are to newspapers, supplying space and variety of style.”
“Woody” is the hero of the Kellogg-ABC-TV “Fun at Five” strip, the other four entries averaging an ARB rating of 8.4 on reruns. Its Thursday telecast has climbed from 101 to 166 stations since the show’s premier in October, with Kellogg holding an exclusive for 104 weeks. It’s finally been revealed, incidentally, that the voice of “Woody” belongs to actress Grace Stafford, Mrs. Lantz.
No matter to Walter Lantz. He still kept pumping out cartoons for theatres (and still complained about how long it took them to turn a profit), while new syndication deals kept Woody on the small screen for many years. The woodpecker even appeared in new made-for-TV cartoons starting in 1999.
Not bad for someone who had a bunch of unwanted old short films.