Saturday, 30 March 2013

Cal Went to the Dogs

What do Jonathan Swift, Morey Amsterdam and little people wearing huge dog heads have in common?

The answer is Cal Howard.

Howard had two distinct careers. Animation fans know him for his work at a variety of cartoon studios. He wrote some of the most disjointed animated shorts ever made (Screen Gems, late ‘40s) and some of the worst ones (Walter Lantz cartoons of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s), though it’s likely unfair to entirely blame him for the latter. But Howard was also behind the scenes in network television as it began to blossom in the early ‘50s.

By all accounts, Howard was a pretty funny guy, though you wouldn’t get that impression watching “Bye-Bye Blackboard” (the last Lantz theatrical cartoon). Chuck Jones’ books have some great stories about him—the Cal Howard makeshift commissary, the Cal Howard bar mitvah collection (Howard was a gentile). There’s the story about how Howard took his son’s Cub Scout troop past the MGM cartoon studio and taught them to yell “Quimby is a red-faced jerk!” All pretty funny. And the ideas he generated for the non-animated TV shows he wrote or directed were creative, too.

No doubt biographical information and anecdotes by Howard are hidden away in one of the fine, unpublished interviews Michael Barrier did with many of the people involved in the Golden Age of Animation, but here’s what we can tell you from other sources. Calvin Henry Howard was born in Los Angeles on March 11, 1911 to Samuel L. and Mabel (Coates) Howard. What happened to his parents is unclear, but Cal was living with grandparents by age eight. He attended Lincoln High School and the Los Angeles Times nostalgically reported in 1953 that Howard used to surreptitiously paste cartoons he drew at the side of Ptomaine Tommy’s lunch wagon in the Lincoln Heights district. His Times obituary states he was hired by Walt Disney in 1929. By 1932, he was working for Walter Lantz and seems to have migrated to Leon Schlesinger’s studio around the time Tex Avery, Virgil Ross, Sid Sutherland and Cecil Surry made the jump in 1935.

Schlesinger sub-contracted some cartoons from Ub Iwerks and Howard went over to storyboard and, apparently, voice the character of Gabby Goat. He then co-directed a couple of cartoons with Cal Dalton before bolting with Pinto Colvig in November 1939 to the Max Fleischer studio in Florida where, among other things, he worked on the story of “Gulliver’s Travels” (there is the Jonathan Swift connection). Boxoffice magazine reported on May 17, 1941 that Howard had been hired by Quimby at MGM as a story unit head and gagman, and his first cartoon was the Tom and Jerry cartoon “The Midnight Snack.” How long was he at Metro? Hard to say, as the Hanna-Barbera unit never credited story men (Joe Barbera liked to leave the impression the ideas for the Tom and Jerry shorts were solely from the mind of Joe Barbera). But animator James Tim Walker related once how Howard brought some Christmas cheer to the ladies of the ink and paint department in 1946 and Quimby fired animator Ed Love, thinking he was responsible. I suspect Quimby eventually axed Howard, too (as he did Avery’s writer, Heck Allen, on more than one occasion). Howard wasn’t enamoured of him. Tom Sito’s history of animation unions tells how Howard used to roll down the window when driving past Quimby Street with Bob Kurtz and yell an “F” word at the sign (standing in for the unrelated producer), either in self-amusement or some kind of belated revenge.

The Screen Gems cartoon studio of Columbia Pictures was his next stop and gave him screen credit. But no one seems to have liked the weak cartoons it produced and the studio closed by 1947. Howard tried television cartoons, crafting “Brother Goose” that was part of the original “Telecomics” line-up eventually picked up (without Howard’s effort) by NBC.

Television in 1950 was like an elevator on the ground floor, the door open, waiting for people to get in right away and ride to the top. That’s what Howard did. He couldn’t get employment on the west coast, so he headed east to work on “Broadway Open House” with Morey Amsterdam and Jerry Lester. The Los Angeles Times reported on November 28, 1951 that Howard had come west to talk about producing/directing a new daytime network show starring Ralph Edwards. He was hired and the programme debuted January 14th. It wasn’t a success, so Edwards made a switch. Edwards replaced himself with Johnny Dugan and kept Howard as a producer/director. What was the show like? Edwards liked stunt shows where contestants basically shamed and embarrassed themselves as they were laughed at by the studio audience; he built his career on one such radio show called “Truth or Consequences.” One not-so-demeaning stunt involved blindfolded women throwing a dart at a picture of a steer. Whatever part of the animal it landed on, the woman took home—in real beef. An Associated Press column in 1952 listed some of Howard’s gag accomplishments. The last one sounds familiar from animation, doesn’t it?

HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 25—Like parlor games? I’ve several dandy ice-breakers here, and they cost a few cents at most. They come from Cal Howard, who lies awake nights thinking up crazy stunts for “The Johnny Dugan Show”, seen five days a week on coast-to-coast NBC-TV.
A stunt on a show I attended went like this: Seat three women in front of a large, shallow, empty cardboard box. Have them take off their shoes and put them in the box.
Blindfold the contestants. Tell ‘em there’s a prize for the one who can put on her own shoes and tie or buckle them first. Then, while everybody’s laughing and before you give the “go” signal, put in a lot of other shoes and mix them all well.
Howard, whose blue eyes have the melancholy look of most professional funnymen, has come up with these other games for the show:
Blow up several tough-textured toy balloons. Give a prize to the contestant who breaks the most balloons by sitting on them. It probably is unfair—but is funnier—if some contestants are fatter than others.
Have several men bend over. Give a prize to the lady who sews a neat patch on the seat of her partner’s pants first. Somebody’s always sure to get stuck.
Blindfold three couples, with an apple suspended on a string between each pair. Promise a prize for the couple who get the most bites out of their apple. Remove one man’s blindfold. He, of course, starts kissing his girl, who thinks it’s part of the game.
His proudest stunt requires a more uncommon prop—a vibrating reducing machine. He ties its belt across a contestant’s forearms. With arms thus wobbling wildly, a man must thread a needle or roll a cigarette. A lady must make up her face with lipstick and eyebrow pencil. The prize is announced for the lady who does the best make-up job. Actually it goes to the one who messes up her face the most.
The beauty and adaptability of most of Howard’s stunts lie in their low cost. He’s used to working on TV shows that require resourcefulness. For one New York telecast he rented, for $18, a penny-arcade flea circus. A telescopic lens showed close-ups of the insect stars—strong man, chariot racer, juggler, football players, merry-go-round riders.

Edwards loved Cal Howard. He kept Howard as a writer for a juvenile version of “Truth or Consequences” called “Funny Boners” starring Jimmy Weldon, the future voice of Yakky Doodle. Producer Les Raddatz told the Times of December 11, 1954: “We have our best session early Saturday mornings at camera rehearsal. Since we can’t use the actual contestants, every one of the crew takes turns trying the childish tricks. So far writer Cal Howard is the champ. But then he knows all the answers because he writes the questions.” And when Edwards decided to tweak “Truth or Consequences” and bring in Bob Barker to host on December 31, 1956, Howard was assigned to gag the show.

Someone else had their eye on Howard. Two of Steve Allen’s writers dared Howard to appear on Allen’s post-“Tonight” Sunday night show and get clobbered with breakaway bottles. So he did. That was March 31, 1957. Reference guides insist Howard appeared on the show in the 1959-60 season. But soon he was back writing cartoons for Format Films, then for Walter Lantz and fit in freelance work during the last gasps of the Warners studio. Howard wasn’t enamoured of the restrictions placed on TV cartoon stories and gags by that time. Reported Daily Variety on November 25, 1974: “The state of animation was derided by several speakers, with writer Cal Howard saying of Saturday morning kiddie shows, "I have five grandchildren, and not one of them cannot karate chop a cop, rob a bank, or rape a nun."” His Times obit says he became a story editor for Walt Disney Publications in 1974 and retired in 1986. His longevity in the animation industry was marked with an Annie award in 1980. Somewhere in the ‘50s, he wrote comic books featuring Bob Hope and Martin and Lewis.

Cal Howard died in Los Angeles on September 10, 1993.

Oh, you’re wondering about the little people wearing huge dog heads.

“The Adventures of Superman” lasted six seasons and wasn’t renewed in 1958. But producer Whitney Ellsworth thought there was still life in the series if it were adapted for a younger audience. So he hired Howard to come up with a screenplay for a pilot show featuring Superman as a dog. But not a real dog. The denizens of Metropolis were portrayed by actors in dog costumes, and Ellsworth cast former Oz munchkin Billy Curtis and other little people in the roles. Telefilm magazine in 1958 mentions the show as “Projected Programming” but it never aired.

“Super Pup” isn’t even unintentionally hilarious. It’s just bad. Even the intended kid audience could have seen that. The actors can’t talk through the huge, plush heads so Dal McKennon dubbed in all the male voices in accents you’ve heard countless times in Walter Lantz cartoons. There’s stock footage and stock music, the latter mainly from Jack Shaindlin’s Langlois Filmusic library with a few cues you’ll recognise from Yogi Bear cartoons. A notable exception is when Super Pup appears. Ellsworth needed something public domain (ie. cheap) and fitting for a hero, so the strains of the Lone Ranger’s theme, the William Tell Overture, fill the soundtrack. Howard must have been amused by the cheapness. His script fits in an explanation by a narrating mouse about why two pieces of automobile stock footage don’t match. You won’t be able to sit through it all unless you’re masochistic, but I’ve embedded both parts below. It’s so bad, it makes Howard’s work on those wretched Paul J. Smith cartoons seem like pure genius. And that’s no small feat.


  1. Howard may also be the only person to do turns at two incarnations of Screen Gems -- Cal gets a "Visual Gags By" credit on the 1966 NBC sitcom "Camp Runamuck" that came out of Columbia's television subsidiary, apparently right before he went back to Warners to work on the Bill Hendricks-produced cartoons.

  2. I wondered if someone would mention that.
    David Ketchum was interviewed at the time the series aired and said that Howard would add sight gags to David Swift's scripts. Swift had worked at Disney at one time.

  3. cal howard was one of the funnest gag man ever! the best!