Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Story of the Nutty Squirrels

You might have seen a short cartoon featuring two squirrels with sped-up singing in the background and thought “Hey, they’re ripping off the Chipmunks.” Well, you’d be right. And you’d be wrong.

Among the many obscure TV cartoon series is one called The Nutty Squirrels Presents. It exists thanks to a chicken feeding machine maker, a Yale graduate and Ross Bagdasarian.

Novelty records were big in the 1950s. Bagdasarian was a song-writer who came up with the gimmicky tune “Come Ona My House” for Rosemary Clooney. Evidently he was intrigued by advances in technology during the decade which allowed someone to record a song on tape and play it back at any speed. The end result was a song he wrote and sang about a witch doctor that featured silly lyrics in a chorus that played back at a higher pitch. “Witch Doctor” became a monster hit in 1958, spending three weeks atop the Billboard charts. Bagdasarian’s kids thought the sped-up voice sounded like a chipmunk. That gave him another brilliant idea. He put out another novelty song at the end of the year called “Christmas Don’t Be Late” in which he played sped-up singers in three-part harmony that he dubbed The Chipmunks. It was even bigger than “Witch Doctor,” spending four weeks at number one and giving birth to a chipmunk mega-industry.

It also gave birth to imitators. Don Elliott and Granville “Sascha” Burland got together and did their own sped-up rodent song, except they called their creatures “The Nutty Squirrels.” Burland was a Yale grad who had written the theme to “What’s My Line?” and was a commercial copywriter for McCann-Erickson in New York. Elliott had been a singer with Hi, Lo, Jack and the Dame after being discharged from World War Two service and then played with George Shearing, Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson. Hanover Records picked up their musical concoction, called “Uh-Oh” (Parts I and II). It was released by October 19, 1959 and began charting on Billboard in early November.

It was an instant smash. The Squirrels “appeared” on the Steve Allen show on November 16th and four days later were part of a show with Connie Francis at, believe it or not, Carnegie Hall. The song peaked at number 14 of the pop charts after eight weeks and also appeared on the Billboard R&B chart, selling 1½ million copies.

Elliott and Burland decided to ride the squirrels as far as they could. They got busy on plans for follow-up songs and, apparently with album art in mind, drawings of the two squirrels by former UPA commercial director Jack Goodford were copyrighted on December 7th. Drawings? TV appearances? Put the two ideas together and you have an animated cartoon series.

Enter into the picture the Buckeye Corporation. It was a Midwest-based manufacturer of poultry and livestock feeding equipment. It also had aspirations to be an entertainment powerhouse. In early 1959, the company purchased several firms, including Flamingo Telefilm Sales and Transfilm, Inc. The latter was founded in New York in 1941 as an industrial and commercial film company with an animation division that had employed, at one point, Jack Zander and Steve Muffatti as directors. Cartoons for television were starting to take off, thanks mainly to Hanna-Barbera’s hugely successful Huckleberry Hound Show and it appears Translink wanted part of the action. It’s unclear how Translink hooked up with Burland and Elliott’s Nutty Squirrels but as Translink made commercials and Burland wrote them, the two would have been familiar with each other. The teaser ad you see to the right appeared in trade papers in late March 1960. Then came this story, in Variety on April 6, 1960:
Elliott-Burland Cartoons
Don Elliott and Sasha Burland, creators of “The Nutty Squirrels” characters and the recording artists of the “Uh-Oh” novelty number, have concluded a deal to be featured in a cartoon series. The deal with made with Flamingo Films.
Elliott and Burland will do the voices in the series which is to be produced by Transfilm-Wylde Animation. Flamingo will distribute. The pair of “Nutty Squirrels” also will act as host of the series. Each cartoon will be six minutes long. The “Squirrels” will be sold in conjunction with their Transfilm-Wylde cartoons.
Wylde Studios, Inc. was another New York-based commercial producer with an animation component that was snapped up by Buckeye, then merged into Transfilm.

Variety wrote of a shake-up at Flamingo in its April 20th edition and revealed more about the cartoons.
Flamingo’s catalog has 115 features, mostly foreign, and eight half-hour series, including “Deadline,” “Citizen Soldiers,” “The Country Show,” “Cowboy G-Men,” and “O.S.S.” Flamingo is currently negotiating for another 50 feature films and has moved into cartoon distribution with the “Nutty Squirrels” package (bundle of foreign fairy-tale films with especially-created “Nutty Squirrel” intro etc. segs) produced by Wylde Animation, in association with Buckeye subsid Transfilm-Caravel.
The foreign fairy-tale films, according to a report in Broadcasting magazine two days earlier, were “150 cartoons originally produced for theatrical distribution.” In other words, Transfilm decided not to animate a full half-hour show. Instead, it bought cartoons that had been made in Europe, added a soundtrack and titles in English, and then bookended them with bumpers in limited animation, presumably made by people on Transfilm’s staff. The company’s animation director at the time was Bill Hudson, who had been a writer and animator at Famous Studios in the1940s and ‘50s.

Flamingo’s sales team hit the road. After two weeks, it had sold Nutty Squirrels Presents to 15 stations (Variety, June 20, 1960). The biggest station on the list was WGN-TV in Chicago, which began running the squirrels in their own show from 9 to 9:25 a.m. as of September 12, 1960. The cartoons were also sold to KVOS-TV in Bellingham, Washington, which was the go-to station for kids in southwestern British Columbia who wanted to watch cartoons in blocks on weekday mornings and afternoons. Evidently, the squirrels were dropped in amongst the Warners and Popeye cartoons from the AAP package; I don’t remember seeing them in the early ‘60s so they couldn’t have been on the station for long.

The squirrels cartoons, obscure as they might have been, apparently had an interesting effect. Over in chipmunk land, Ross Bagdasarian realised that he, too, had rodent recording stars with great potential as an animated property, one that he could use to cross-promote Chipmunks 45s and albums he would make under his contract with Liberty Records. So it was that in March 1961, CBS announced it would be airing The Alvin Show in prime time starting in the fall, a full year after the cartoon squirrels made their TV debut.

Mentions of the squirrels disappear in the trade papers before September 1960; Burland had already moved on to form his own TV and radio commercial production house (taking some Flamingo people with him). But rights to old TV properties never die, they just keep getting passed around. Someone still had ownership of the squirrels cartoons in 1975 because they aired on WSBK-TV in Boston in a half hour slot between Popeye and Wally Gator. When the squirrels were last seen on the small screen is your guess.

But one old print has made it to a video sharing site. You can see it below. Goodford’s design of the squirrels seems to owe a little bit to the designers at the Jay Ward studio.

16 comments:

  1. Yowp, thanks so much for this post! I've always thought there was a connection between the Nutty Squirrels Presents cartoons and Flamingo Telefilm sales, but you have made it all clear. Flamingo was the original company syndicating the Fleischer Superman cartoons in black and white to television in the 1960s, I think. Flamingo's original principal was the infamous Fred Ladd, who imported many Russian and Eastern European cartoons, dubbed them and got top dollar for a low-cost product. Later, Fred Ladd reeked havoc with the classic black and white cartoons by sending them to Korea for the "Entercolor" process. Low-wage artists traced the original images from 16mm prints and made new color cels, and you all know the results! Fred Ladd also introduced "Astroboy" AKA Mighty Atom to US TV. If any of you are boiling tar and hoarding feathers, I will say thee nay!

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    1. Flamingo must have been the ones who refilmed the "based on Superman appearing in Action Comics..." title to exclude Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's names.

      I think you meant "wreaked havoc," but "reeked" seems to be a better fit - if the color tracings are as bad as those in the Looney Tunes. Those certainly reeked.

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    2. Not only Looney Tunes, but Betty Boop and whatever else he could get done through "Radio & TV Packagers, Inc." I guess the need for color product on TV was ridiculously strong by that point and gullible stations bought into it like moths to a flame.

      Aside from Astro Boy and Gigantor, one odd Japanese production from Tezuka's Mushi Productions was picked up by Fred, dubbed into English and redrawn in color by his Korean staff that also saw some obscure VHS release in the 80's. This guy just couldn't stop!
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xnZb1C6kiFI

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  2. Bagdasarian had written "Come On-a My House" for (and with) his cousin, the eminent playwright William Saroyan, to include in the latter's play "Son." I think Kay Armen may have recorded it before Clooney did.

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    1. Though famously Ms.Clooney probaly waived the credit for singing it to Kay Armen or ANYONE else, if HER opinion about singing it (as Mitch Miller had to legendarily FORCE her to do so).

      I didn't even notice till just this morning this very interesting article.

      I've seen that one Nutty Squirrel cartoon but they really didn';t have any "Alvin" type adventures but really more seemed like hosts to old films...(Al vin of course gave way to all kinds of different ioncarnaitons including those (by now FIVE!!) movies but the 1961 version is THE one for me..) SC and Happy New Year..

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    2. The first recording of "Come On-A-My House" may have been one by Bagdasarian and Saroyan themselves, on Coral Records. Saroyan got top billing but his cousin handled most of the "heavy lifting" vocally. Here it is on You Tube... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQFi612fjbI

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  3. But rights to old TV properties never die, they just keep getting passed around. Someone still had ownership of the squirrels cartoons in 1975 because they aired on WSBK-TV in Boston in a half hour slot between Popeye and Wally Gator. When the squirrels were last seen on the small screen is your guess.

    Though I'm not sure if it's related to "Nutty Squirrels" or not, I do recall the cheapo "America One TV Network" used to play Flamingo Telefilm prints of foreign cartoons during the 1990s from rather dingy prints. I can only assume the rights to these had lapsed at this point and nobody cared to be bothered about it so yeah, Public Domain material.

    The deal alone was pretty sleazy to say the least when it was out, just show them in the intro and nothing else. All an excuse to push a lot of unheard of animation to a public unaware of its origins.

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  4. Mark, thanks for your note. I didn't see Ladd's name amongst any of the stuff I went through so I don't know who brokered the deal(s) for the European cartoons on Nutty Squirrels.
    The first note I can find in Variety on Ladd in connection with animation is in July 1965 when a company called Banner financed "The Big World of Little Adam" cartoons that he compiled (Variety says with Al Singer. Does it mean Sam Singer?). Of course, he had been working on "Pinocchio in Outer Space" before this. By the way, the nastiest pan I've ever seen in Variety for an animated cartoon was for "Gigantor."

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    1. Wouldn't surprise me, the same also happened with Astro Boy too, recall sharing that article on my Facebook page a while back.

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  5. Along with the design of the squirrells, another Jay Ward connection that post-dated them when the Alvin Show came, in this case with the Aesop and son, is that the narrator sounds a lot like Charlie Ruggles, whose voice's recognize in animation and known by now (with reference books filling the credits gap*) as Aesop in the Aesop and Son, among his many other appearances (again,of course by the time Aesop and Alvin both appeared the last of the Nutty Squirrells was long gone from production).

    *Mr.Ruggles wasn't credited for his Aesop and Son credits, so it's only the thirty-five plus years of TV books that filled me in on him, Bill Scott and Daws Butler at Ward, who, to tie it, has apparently a staff tie or two to the squirrels. Don't they sounds like chipmunks..?:

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    1. Granville "Sascha" Burland went on to write a number of commercial jingles in the 60's, best known probably "No Matter What Shape Your Stomach's In," written for Alka-Seltzer and a hit record for the studio group The T-Bones.

      There was a connection between Steve Allen and the Squirrels; "Uh-Oh" was released on Hanover Records, one of a couple of small labels owned at least partly by Allen. Unfortunately, Allen stored all the master tapes in his offices, and they were destroyed by a fire in (I think) the 80's.

      I've heard, but don't know for sure, that some or most of the European cartoons in the "Nutty Squirrels" package were reused from the "Captain Sailorbird" package which silent-movie maven Paul Killiam had a hand in assembling, with intros and bridges animated by Ted Eshbaugh.

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    2. It wouldn't surprise me if they were all cut from the same cloth, so to speak.

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  6. THE NUTTY SQUIRRELS AND FRIENDS reminds me of the the Czech "Worker and Parasite" cartoon Krusy showed on the "Krusty's Comeback" ep of THE SIMPSONS.

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    1. I'm sure it did for plenty noticing the stark differences in these films compared to what was being done domestically at the time.

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  7. Here's another of those films: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRpqb_7Vfnk

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  8. Is there any chance someone can renew the link for The Nutty Squirrels Presents episode of "Tiger Trouble" previously put on Youtube. It has been blocked by a troll. It has been seen already by 30,000+ people but I have missed out.

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