Sunday 30 November 2014

Benny: Fact or Fiction

No wonder Jack Benny confused some people into thinking he really drove a Maxwell and was incredibly cheap. It’s easy to leave that impression when you give interviews that are a mix of real life and fake life.

Jack filled in for the radio columnist of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on August 26, 1940 (Mary had pinch-writ in the same space four years earlier). The column—and I don’t know whether he actually wrote it—is an odd mish-mash of fact and fiction.

Poor Fellow, He Never Sees His Nice House

Pinch-hitting for vacationing Jo Ranson.
One of Uncle Sam’s better-pressed mailmen brought me a letter a few days ago. It caught up with me at the Paramount lot so I went off in a corner where Fred Allen couldn’t read over my shoulder before finding out it was from my old friend Jo Ranson.
Jo was going on a vacation, he wrote, and went on to talk of how nice it would be to get away from home for a while. I suppose he will think me wacky just like the rest of my pals for feeling the way I do, but all that I want is to stay at home.
You see it would be a novelty for me to enjoy my home for a change. For all the good I’ve gotten out of it this year, I might just as well sell the place to Mr. Billingsley, my boarder, and rent a room from HIM. He’s there more than I am.
To begin with, I started the year by going to San Francisco for a broadcast, then over to Yosemite for the Winter sports (why I’ll never know), and then Rochester had no sooner unpacked my toothbrush than Paramount decided my gang and I were needed on location at Victorville for a couple of weeks.
Upon my return, I was just preparing to head a safari and explore the unknown vastness of my patio when my writers suddenly became obsessed with the notion they might think better at Palm Springs. So we sweltered in the desert sun every few days for the ensuing six weeks, while I learned all about my Beverly Hills chateau from a tourist who’d been by it on one of those “See-the-Stars’-Homes” trips. . . .
And I’d no sooner succeeded in talking my gang out of a trip to Catalina Island by telling them an active volcano had been discovered next door to the St. Catherine Hotel, than Paramount announced that we were to pack up and hop to New York for three weeks to attend the world’s premiere of “Buck Benny Rides Again.”
Honestly, I haven’t so much as had a chance to work out my new croquet field, and it’s been so long since I’ve played badminton on my court that the “birds” are beginning to molt.
Well, to make a long story short, I’d been back in the West just long enough to strike up a speaking acquaintance with the pantry maid, when my family emerged from three layers of travel folders and whisked me off to Hawaii.
I’m back in Hollywood once again, but things haven’t, improved. When I get home from the studio where they’re filming “Love Thy Neighbor,” I see Fred Allen in front of my eyes.
But I’m not giving up without a fight. No, sir! Confidentially, I think I've figured out a way to beat the rap. I’m going to have my house done over as a dude ranch. And before I’m through, I’ll have Mary Livingstone begging me to get away from it all and spend a few weeks at this inviting new rendezvous.

So let’s tote this up.

● Away from home in 1940. Yes on the air, yes off the air.
● Rent to Billingsley. Yes on the air, no off the air.
● Rochester is his butler. Yes on the air, no off the air.
● Pantry maid. No on the air, yes off the air.
● Family. No on the air, yes off the air.

Is it any wonder in later years, Benny interviews included a disclaimer that he played a character on the air and he wasn’t like that character. In some minds, though, that probably didn’t clear up the confusion. As today’s apologist-fans for misbehaving stars prove, people insist they “know” someone because they’ve seen him or her on the screen. Real life sometimes proves someone to be something much different.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Gallopin’ Galaxies!

There was more than one space race in the 1960s. Of course, there were the Americans and the Russians squaring off to see who could get to the moon first. And, to really stretch the analogy, there were animation studios and syndicators vying for space on children’s TV shows for their product.

Some cartoons were popular and desirable—Hanna Barbera’s Touché Turtle/Wally Gator package for one—and then there were others which, today, languish in obscurity. One of those is Rod Rocket.

Trying to sort out the lineage of this one has proven to be tricky. Trade papers have part of the story, Lou Scheimer’s autobiography has some other information. I like to think that answers to many animation history questions are out there, it’s just a matter of finding them. Parts of the history of the Rocket cartoons are missing but, perhaps, will eventually turn up. But here’s what we can discover through trade papers, most of which had similar stories.

Rod Rocket seems to have been the brainchild of Jim Morgan. I presume it’s the same Morgan was involved in a variety of radio and TV ventures; for example, Morgan-Forman Productions put together a show starring Pinky Lee. Morgan’s name surfaces in connection with a company called Space Age Productions. Rod Rocket wasn’t the company’s only venture. Morgan announced a pilot had been completed for “Pupsville USA,” starring live, costumed dogs with lip-synched voices (Variety, July 17, 1962) and something called “The Man Who Sings To Birds” (Variety, Oct. 23, 1962).

But back to young Mr. Rocket. Here’s a good sampling of his history from 1962:
Rod Rocket—This animated cartoon series of five -minute programs deals with two small boys and their adventures with a rocket in space. Space Age Productions has completed five episodes. Jim Morgan is producer. (Broadcasting, Feb. 19, 1962).

Sugar-coated science ■ Space Age Productions, Hollywood, has produced several pilot films for a space- adventure series titled Rod Rocket. Animated color cartoons detail the adventures of the teenage hero in outer space in five - minute installments, five of which tell a complete story. Each program includes at least one "space fact" which is described on an information sheet available to youngsters on request, affording a merchandising angle for sponsors. (Broadcasting, May 7, 1962).

Rocket' Recharged
Space Age Productions' prexy Jim Morgan has set 115 more tele- film segments of "Rod Rocket," animated series. (Variety, July 12, 1962).

Jim Morgan Adds 2
Prexy Jim Morgan of Space Age Productions in readying "Rod Rocket," animated telefilm adventures of a boy in space, has signed Dick Robbins as writer and Jack Meakin as musical director (Variety, July 20, 1962).

Set 10 ‘Rocket’ Segs
Jim Morgan, prexy of Space Age Productions, has authorized launching of ten episodes of "Rod Rocket," tv cartoon series written by Dick Robbins, for syndication. (Variety, July 31, 1962).

3 In TV Rocked
Jim Morgan has set in his "Rod Rocket" telefilm series Hal Smith, Sam Edwards and Pat Blake. (Variety, Aug. 7, 1962).

Sell 130 'Rockets'
Chuck Forman, sales vice president of Space Age Productions, discloses 130 episodes of "Rod Rocket" animated telefilm series has been sold to WNEW, New York; WTTG, Washington; KMBC, Kansas City; KOVR, Stockton- Sacramento; WTVR, Peoria; WTCN, Minneapolis - St. Paul; KPAC, Port Arthur, Tex.; KGNC, Amarillo, Tex.; and KPTV, Portland. According to Jim Morgan, company's prexy, negotiations are on with foreign [broadcasters]. (Variety, Oct. 11, 1962).

'Space Dictionary' Promo For 'Rod Rocket' Cartoon
"Space Dictionary," featuring latest information on [future?] travel, will be a promotional give-away of Space Age Productions five-a-week cartoon, “Rod Rocket.” A booklet for sponsors and stations will be distributed around Jan. 1, when the syndicated juvenile show starts nationally. WNEW-TV is the New York outlet. . (Radio-TV Daily, Oct. 24, 1962).

'Red Rocket' at ½ Market Of Its Production Orbit
West Coast Bureau of RADIO TV DAILY
Hollywood —Completion of XX segs of "Red Rocket," video cartoon series for national syndication, has been announced by Morgan, Space Age Productions prexy, bringing the total to XX completed shows. Total of XX shows will be produced for a full year's supply The strip is prepared for five-a-week issue in three and a half minute segs, each week completing a complete adventure. A 15 minute episode is also prepared for one-a-week screening. (Radio-TV Daily, Oct. 31, 1962, numbers unreadable).

Space Adds Just That
Space Age Productions' prexy Jim Morgan has expanded its Hollywood offices. Firm makes syndicated “Red Rocket” [cartoons]. (Variety, Nov. 7, 1962).

Desilu 'Rocket' Distrib
Desilu Sales Inc. has acquired distribution rights to "Rod Rocket," space age cartoon series of 130 three-and-one-half min. episodes produced by Morgan-Foreman Productions [sic]. (Variety, Nov. 19, 1962).

New space completions ■ Ten new segments of Red Rocket, an animated cartoon series for tv, have been completed by Space Age Productions, Los Angeles. A total of 130 are planned for a half -year's supply. Plans call for five 3 1/2- minute segments comprising a complete story each week. The series is also available in a 15- minute, once-a-week format. (Broadcasting, Dec. 10, 1962).

Jim Morgan, Space Age Productions prexy, in from Mexico City location filming of "Rod Rockets." (Variety, Dec. 11, 1962).
Things seem to have been humming along for Rod and, especially, for Desilu. The cartoon brought the studio nearly $250,000 in sales (Variety, April 19, 1963) and was snapped up by six Metromedia stations and five in Australia (Sponsor, June 24, 1963). But things had taken a bit of a left turn. Morgan’s Space Age Productions was apparently out of the picture; the company turned its attention to a TV game show and a comedy that featured clips from old Pathé newsreels and shorts (Variety, Dec. 13, 1963). The cartoon series ended up in other hands.
SIB Productions head Walter Bien has delivered 14 segs of "Rod Rocket" series to Desilu for distribution. Lou Scheimer directed. (Variety, July 26, 1963).

12 More “Rockets”
Walter Bien reports his SIB Co. will make 12 more "Rod Rocket" vidpix segments for Desilu distribution, making 26 in all. Director Lou Scheimer starts shooting today (Variety, Aug. 1, 1963).
Bien went on to produce Tom and Jerry cartoons with Chuck Jones for MGM before running out of money in 1965 (MGM then took over the production). Scheimer had co-founded Filmation in 1962 to make TV commercials. “Rod Rocket” was the company’s first animated cartoon series.

Why the change from Morgan to Bien and Scheimer? Historian Jerry Beck has leafed through Scheimer’s autobiography. His note to me:
[I]n Lou Scheimer's autobiography, on SIB he says: "They were calling themselves SIB Productions in their logo, but in the trade papers like Variety they were Space Age Productions."
Scheimer's book also mentions that that Rod Rocket started at a studio called True Line run by Lou Livingston and Marcus Lipsky (who owned the Reddi-Whip whipped cream company). True Line was disorganized and Scheimer and Hal Sutherland (who had also worked there) decided to do the show themselves—as Filmation.
SIB was set up in 1960; Bien was involved at the time. I’ve found nothing that states Morgan was ever a part of it. Perhaps SIB sub-contracted from Morgan. Anyways...

Whether any of the Morgan versions of the show, seemingly produced in Mexico, made it to air is unclear. But the writer and actors he used were all credited in cartoons with Filmation’s name on it. Musical director Jack Meakin didn’t make the final cut, at least in the one cartoon you can watch below. SIB saved money by licensing the Capitol Hi-Q library which was heard in all the early Hanna-Barbera cartoons (since you want to know, the cue playing as the professor explains his glass invention is ‘EM-116B Lite Mechanical’ by Phil Green).

Well, we can’t delay this any longer. Watch an episode for yourself. The best way to be entertained by this thing is by turning it into a drinking game every time Hal Smith’s kid voice says “Gallopin’ galaxies!”

Amazingly, I found listings for this show as late as 1986 in Brazil. By 1988, TV-Radio Age reported the distribution rights to the show were owned by the Peter Rodgers Organization which, today, syndicates old episodes of “Queen For a Day,” which had been produced by Jim Morgan.

Another little mystery surrounds the character drawings you see in the post, graciously supplied by Chris Sobieniak. They’re from a book issued in 1969 and credited to Jiro Enterprises. What was Jiro? Beats me. I cannot find any reference to the company, other than the same one-line sentence that came from who-knows-where and regurgitated on multiple web sites. If anyone has any concrete answers, as opposed to rumours or “I believe”s, let me know. Fans of weak cartoon series everywhere will salute you.

Friday 28 November 2014

Beans, Beans

Oswald the Rabbit’s boxing rooster Jumping Bean is almost out for the count—until the lucky rabbit pours some Mexican jumping beans into him. Then luck strikes.

The bean-powered Bean (even though he’s passed out) bounces into Pancho Pete’s rooster and knocks him cold. Bean wins. And since this is a cartoon from 1930, the ring posts come to life and dance around them.

The other “bean” in this cartoon is Frederick Bean Avery, listed in the credits for “Mexico” along with Manny Moreno, Ray Abrams, Les Kline, and Pinto Colvig, as well as co-producers Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan.

At one point, Jumping Bean rides a motor bike around in the ring, a far cry from the tricycle gag in “Porky and Daffy” eight years later at Warner Bros. The story isn’t great in this one but the second half of the cartoon is taken up with a song, which is about all a cartoon in 1930 was about.

Thanks to Devon Baxter for the frames.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Longnecked Longhorns

You know how “The Flintstones” worked—things from the Stone Age were transposed into mid-20th Century suburbia. The basic idea wasn’t all that original, but the Hanna-Barbera did borrow a little, now and then.

In “The Flintstones,” a dinosaur was a pet dog. In Tex Avery’s “The First Bad Man,” a dinosaur is a horse being ridden by the title character.

“He rustled all our cattle,” says narrator Tex Ritter. Pan over to the cattle. They’re dinosaurs. But they’re cattle, too.

Incidentally, the designs are by Ed Benedict, who later worked on “The Flintstones.” However, this updated-stone-age idea didn’t originate with Avery, Benedict or writer Heck Allen. Dan Gordon directed a series of “Stone Age Cartoons” at Fleischer in 1940. And Gordon was part of “The Flintstones” development team (among other things, he drew the storyboard for the first episode).

The cartoon was released on September 30, 1955. It took a while to get to screens. Variety announced on August 26, 1952, more than three years earlier:

Fred Quimby Returns
Metro cartoon producer Fred Quimby returns today from a Hawaiian vacation. He'll immediately put into production two shorties, “The First Bad Man” and “Pup On a Picnic”
[a Tom and Jerry cartoon also released in 1955].

Avery’s unit was let go in March 1953, almost 2 1/2 years before this cartoon appeared in theatres.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Fixing Radio the Fred Allen Way

Two things about Fred Allen—he read a number of newspapers every day, and he constantly complained about the state of radio programming and executives.

He managed to combine the two in 1937.

Allen wrote a guest column for the Long Island Daily Press, which had a radio critic simply named “The Radio Reporter.” He ticks off some annoyances from his own listening and gets in a shot at Jack Benny as this column was published not too many weeks after the climax of the Benny-Allen “Fight of the Century.” Fred was occasionally hypocritical with these “bad practices” lists as he indulged in some of the things he was criticising. As for comedians laughing at their own jokes, Allen would break himself up, especially at the beginning of the show when he did some schtick with Portland Hoffa.

He nicely fits in some credit for his supporting cast. An odd situation on some radio comedy shows existed where supporting players never got on-air credit for their work, even if they appeared weekly. That’s even though newspaper radio listings might mention that, say, Elvia Allman was appearing on a show, and might even list her role in the highlights section. In Allen’s case, he didn’t give his regulars on-air credit for years. I suspect you could count on one hand the number of times the name “Charlie Cantor” was spoken on the Allen show.

This story was in the edition of March 28, 1937.

I HAVE always envied the Radio Reporter.
I have a mental picture of him sitting back in his dimly lighted corner of the bustling newspaper office, his radio going full blast, wallowing in Power. What a swell way to spend the time.
Just the same, you must admit that sponsors spend untold—maybe they are told, only not to me—sums of money hording their talent to the microphones. Although they do it for the expressed purpose of pleasing some 20,000,000 people, you can't convince me that every soprano who splits the stratosphere and every comedian that releases a bewhiskered joke to totter around the studio and slink under a chair, ashamed of its age, isn't thinking of the Reporter, who is busy stalking material for his column.
Yep, the radio artists quake in their boots—or, if you surprise them later in the day at dinner, in their stocking feet—at the thought of what the newspaper man is going to write as he crouches in his rodent-infested nook.
CREDIT PLACING—There are four and one-half people on my program who deserve an awful lot of credit, I'm afraid. Although I call them things like "The backwash of the American theater" and "Those hunks of driftwood on the sands of time" the Mighty Allen Art Players, who are really Minerva Pious, Charles Cantor, Eileen Douglas and Walter Tetley, are unusually capable. John Brown is the person who always interrupts my sessions with Portland Hoffa; Walter Tetley is the fourteen-year-old actor who accompanies him. Cantor does all those fine dialects.
Which brings us rather neatly to the matter of burlesques on the air; since the Art Players have a great deal to do with those on Town Hall Tonight. The burlesque, whether it be of a current movie or of a book or of another radio program, is one of the most important phases of radio humor, it seems. At least, the Mighty Allen Art Players are about the important single spot on my show.
It's an important little business—and by that I mean the true burlesque and not the strip-teasing they are selling under that name these days. I want to take this opportunity to take my hat off to it, too.
Getting back to the Radio Reporter for a minute, I do envy his power. And since I am him for today, I think I will haul out my Aladdin's Lamp, rub it vigorously, and hope that the following things will happen in radio, immediately:
All Lone Cowboys to be forced to bring a friend to the mike with them. This would necessarily stop cowboys from being lonesome and with an acquaintance in the studio he would be assured of one listener.
All bridge experts who explain plays over the air to be made dummy for the duration of the program.
All hill-billies to be forced to stop singing through their nostrils. I know a hill-billy 60 years old whose throat is practically as good as new.
Jack Benny to be on the air every evening from 9 until 12.
All studio audiences to be equipped with woolen mittens. Their applause would then be seen and not heard and those who listen at home would not be disturbed.
All known jokes to be printed on slips of paper bearing 10 little squares. As each comedian uses a gag, he punches one of the 10 squares with a little hand punch I would supply gratis. After the 10 squares had been cancelled, the joke would then be retired to pasture.
All cooking experts who skip over a line of the recipe in their scripts to be forced to go from house to house and collect the burnt offerings that repose in housewives' ovens.
All band leaders who feature their brass sections to have their heads thrust into the French horn as far as the Adam's apple while their horn players render "Christopher Columbus" al a swingo.
All comedians to be prohibited by law from laughing at their own jokes, thus insuring a 100 percent lull.
All guest stars to have their right legs broken above the ankle on their way to the studios. If that is too cruel, let the traffic delay them.
All news commentators to be immersed in a pan of faulty-diction eradicator. Half the time, you can't tell whether the League of Nations is at odds with a dictator or whether you are listening to the finals of a pie-eating contest.
All announcers who spell out one-syllable words over the air, like This is the Eureka Cat Nip program—spelled C-A-T," to have their tongues tied to the top buttons of their vests.
All this to happen—-if I had Aladdin's Lamp.
However, I haven't, so it won't.
The reporter might do something about it though by massaging typewriters heavily and at length.
PONDERING—The question most often asked of me by reporters is: What will be the next trend in air humor?
The way I most often answer it is: "I wish I knew."
Radio humor has so far followed a rather well marked path. From the crude vaudeville sketches of the early days, it progressed into a crude situation comedy of its own. From there it went on to more sophisticated situations until it has at last reached the plane of brilliant satire, in many cases, brilliant burleque in others.
The ultimate will be a type of humor as exclusively radio's as the humor of Josh Billings and Mark Twain was America's. I hope I get there among the first.

Unfortunately, some of the things Fred Allen complained about were later saddled on him, and not willingly. He griped in his book Treadmill to Oblivion that one of his sponsors in the 1940s wanted a Jack Benny-type show with guest stars. So Allen was stuck using them and, in the process, unable to come up with a “type of humor as exclusively radio’s.” In many cases, he used his guests well. Allen’s “early morning radio” spoof with Tallulah Bankhead is brilliant and the “Queen For a Day” satire with Benny is beloved by fans who can (thanks to the studio audience’s laughter) picture what’s happening on stage.
One thing about the “Mighty Allen Art Players” listed in the story. Fans of old radio are probably familiar with all of them save Eileen Douglas. There’s a pretty good reason. She died before Allen’s biggest fame on radio in the “Allen’s Alley” days of the mid-to-late 1940s. Her real name was Alina McMahon. Her father was John R. McMahon, an author and magazine writer. She was on the stage on by the 1920s and appearing on Broadway (it seems she used both her real name and her alias while performing, like Teddy Bergmann also used the name “Alan Reed”). By September 1929, she was singing on a half-hour programme on WMCA New York and the following year, she appeared two mornings a week on CBS. She co-starred in “Eileen and Bill,” a 15-minuter in the afternoon on NBC Blue in 1932. She joined Allen earlier in his run. Douglas died on October 16, 1939 in New York. She was only 35. I have yet to find a news report which stated how she died.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Not All Beer and Skittles

Ernie Nordli was Chuck Jones’ designer when Maurice Noble left the Warner Bros. studio for John Sutherland in early 1953. Noble came up with some lovely space settings in “Duck Dodgers and the 24 ½ Century.” Nordli’s attempt at doing the same thing came in “Rocket Squad,” released in 1956. This was the first cartoon put into production when Jones’ unit returned on January 1954 after the studio’s six-month closure; it was written by Tedd Pierce, who had returned to the studio from UPA.

Phil De Guard constructed these backgrounds. Nordli’s designs are great but they seem a little more solid than Noble’s work on “Dodgers.” Maybe it’s because of the colours.

Pierce’s story takes a parody of the title of “Racket Squad” and puts it into a parody of “Dragnet” (Pierce wrote a number of TV parodies for Bob McKimson when he was moved back into the “guys-nobody-else-will-take unit”). Comparisons with Mike Maltese’s earlier Buck Rogers parody in “Duck Dodgers” are inevitable. Still, Porky’s sidekickish observation that “a cih-cuh-cop’s life isn’t all buh-bee-buh-beer and skittles, you know,” is one of the better lines in a ‘50s Pierce story.

Monday 24 November 2014

Corny Barney

Barney Bear isn’t the greatest character and the cartoons in his third go-around at MGM are hit-and-miss. Dick Lundy directed ten Barneys that were released between 1952 and 1954. The stories were much the same. Barney always seems to be outsmarted by a character much smaller than him (a possum, a gopher, a duck and so on). Some of the gags are like less outrageous versions of things you might find in a Tex Avery cartoon and even the animation seems a little familiar. That’s no surprise as Lundy took over the Avery unit, and used his story men, animators and background artist.

In “Cobs and Robbers” (released in 1953), it’s corn farmer Barney vs. corn-thieving crows, a pair named Joe and Moe being the focus of most of the cartoon. Here are the crows peeking out from behind one of Johnny Johnsen’s overlays. Notice how their eyes are together.

Then Barney does a little stomp on twos before he runs off. Here are the drawings.

The joint eyes and the pre-run stomp were staples in Avery’s cartoons in the early ‘50s. As far as I know, Mike Lah animated these. He animated for Avery, of course.

Walt Clinton, Grant Simmons, Bob Bentley and Al Grandmain get the other animation credits.

After Lundy left, Fred Quimby kept talking in the trades about bringing back Barney Bear. For example, Variety reported on July 15, 1954 and September 27, 1955 that Lah’s new unit would be animating Barney shorts. It never happened. Barney was relegated to comic books and, in 1960, TV reruns

Incidentally, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera produced a cartoon in 1958 called “Two Corny Crows” where corn farmer Huckleberry Hound comes out on the losing end (during most of the cartoon) with a pair of corn-thieving crows named Iggy and Ziggy, who their studio marketed in the early days. Coincidence?

Sunday 23 November 2014

He Didn't Like Mr. Kitzel

Nobody got worked up about dialect humour 120 years ago. America was a land of newcomers from Europe and they all laughed at each other’s accented mangling of English. They laughed at themselves. Stereotypes were considered funny exaggerations. No one took it seriously. Staying out of poverty, that was to be taken seriously.

Dialecticians were big on the vaudeville stage and then appeared on radio when it replaced vaudeville. With new generations came new attitudes. Dialect humour was not only old and tired, it offended people who saw it as ridicule, not good-natured fun.

Jack Benny’s radio show had a bit of dialect humour, certainly in the ‘30s. Jewish accents a specialty. Ralph Ashe played Schlepper. Later, Sam Hearn was Schlepperman, who became so popular he decided to go off on his own. Pat C. Flick played a variety of characters, including Jewish ones. Benny was Jewish. His writer Harry Conn was Jewish. Neither saw anything demeaning.

Things changed after the war. Most of Benny’s stable of characters—Rochester being a notable exception—could be suburban WASPs for all anyone knew. Even the New York accented phone operators played by Bea Benaderet and Sara Berner (later Shirley Mitchell) didn’t sound like they belonged to an ethnic minority. About the only ethnic characters who made somewhat regular appearances were Mel Blanc as Sy the Mexican and Artie Auerbach as Mr. Kitzel. Sy existed simply for wordplay. Kitzel sounded like a short, nice, older Jewish man who liked to pay a friendly visit.

Arthur Allan Auerbach was born May 7, 1903 in New York City to William Wolffe and Rose Feiner Auerbach. His father was from Germany, his mother from Russia. He didn’t start out in life to be a radio entertainer. Walter Winchell knew Auerbach from the newspaper business and wrote this little note in his column in 1957:

VIGNETTE—Artie Auerbach, the popular "Kitzel" on the Jack Benny radio shows who passed recently, was a comic find by Phil Baker, who howled at Artie's dialect humor. . . . Baker met Artie when the latter starred as a news-photographer. He introduced him to Lew Brown, who was casting a revue named "Calling All Stars." Brown was also convulsed by Auerbach's Yiddish accent. . . . He immediately signed him for that Broadway show. . . . as a hill-billy.

Auerbach had been employed by papers including New York Graphic and covered the Lindbergh kidnapping case. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of October 25, 1934 revealed Auerbach’s turn in “Calling All Stars” was to begin “soon.”

His career with Baker didn’t last long. In October 1936, it was revealed that Auerbach had been stolen by the Thief of Bad Gags, Milton Berle, for his show. The following April, he was on Eddie Cantor’s show, then took his Jewish accent to Jack Haley’s show for the 1937-38 and 1938-39 seasons, the latter called “The Wonder Show.” It included Lucille Ball and Lucy’s cousin Cleo Manning in the cast (Gale Gordon was the announcer). Artie and Cleo got married and Lucy signed the marriage certificate as a witness. By this time, Kitzel (he wasn’t “Mr.” at this point) had developed the catchphrase “Could be!” which found its way into untolled Warner Bros cartoons.

Well, maybe the accent wasn’t Jewish. The Buffalo Courier-Express of March 13, 1940, had this item in its entertainment section:

Artie Auerbach, dialectician on the Al Pearce programs, came by his stock in trade in a curious way. While serving as a photographer with a New York daily, he dropped into a Bronx candy store to phone his City Desk. The photographer's "singing" dialect intrigued Artie so much that he spent the whole afternoon listening to it--and many more afternoons and evenings thereafter, finally mastering the jargon himself. Most listeners would consider it as Jewish in origin, but Artie claims that the dialect comes from a combination of several Balkan tongues.

Kitzel appeared on the Pearce show for two seasons, then Auerbach took a year off to tour 250 Army posts and Navy boot camps. By 1944, Mr. Kitzel was on the air again, this time with Abbott and Costello. On January 6, 1946, Auerbach made the first of many appearances on the Benny show, first as a hot dog salesman at a Rose Bowl game. His selling refrain “Pickle in the middle with the mustard on top” was turned into a song by one of Benny’s writers and Mr. Kitzel remained on the show, appearing every few weeks to kibbitz with Jack with humour based on his Jewishness (Kitzel would remark that he had a cousin with an Irish name or a son who went to Southern Methodist University). Mr. Kitzel moved along with many of the other secondary players when Benny went into television and remained on the show until he died on October 3, 1957 (one episode was aired posthumously).

But there was someone, a long-time friend of Benny’s, who wasn’t happy with the Kitzel character, someone who had been known for years for dialect humour, beginning in vaudeville. Here’s the story from a syndicated column dated March 2, 1963.

Rubin In First Jewish Part

Hollywood—A relatively small but nonetheless significant event took place on ABC's “77 Sunset Strip” series last night.
Benny Rubin, one of the great dialect comedians in show business, played his first Jewish character part since 1938.
You’re nuts, somebody will say. We see him on Jack Benny’s show all the time. But on Jack’s show, Benny Rubin does not play Jewish characters.
Three weeks ago, he was an Arab in a commercial with Don Wilson.
On Tuesday of this week, he was a stagehand on Jack’s show, but just a mug type with no particular ancestral identification.
“I quit doing Jewish characters because the movie producers in 1938 banned them from all pictures," Benny recalls.
“A campaign by Walter Winchell started it. He and the movie moguls decided that because of Hitler and his treatment of the Jews, it was better not to play up Jewish accents. The funny part of it was that Winchell in the next paragraph would quote his favorite character, ‘Mefoosky.’”
A score or more of Jewish dialect comedians suddenly had no work, says Benny. The late Fanny Brice went into radio and became the non-Jewish “Baby Snooks.” Bert Gordon went to Eddie Cantor's radio show to become the "Mad Russian.”
Benny Rubin opened a dress shop. When it didn't go, he began peddling barbecue barrels. Later, he got into radio as host of a show called “Best of the Week.” Benny's salary was $23 per show.
Since then, Benny has managed to do all right, although nothing like his days as a vaudeville headliner and movie character actor. TV, radio and movies still shy-away from Jewish and Negro dialects.
“I’d rather not do the Jewish characters they do have, the way they are written,” says Benny. He was about to turn down the one on Friday’s “77 Sunset Strip.”
“When I saw the script, I almost cried. One line had this Jewish clothier asking, ‘Would you like your pants I should matching by the coat?’ Can you imagine gibberish like that? I went to the director and he told me to say the lines the way I wanted.”
Benny never liked the way the late Artie Auerbach did his Kittzel character for Jack’s show.
“I thought it was phony. There are ways to do these things so that the character is made warm,” says Benny.

Could Rubin’s comments be a case of bitterness? He was a vaudeville headliner who had been reduced to doing bit parts. Mr. Kitzel wasn’t as over-the-top as Sam Hearn’s Jewish Schlepperman 10 to 20 years earlier. Kitzel was, if nothing else, fairly benign, though the Judaic switching of names (ie. Nat King Cohen for Nat King Cole) and his “hoo-hoo-HOO!” might have become tiresome for some fans. Still, the fact he remained on the show for 11 years until his death shows that there weren’t really any objections to him. He never would have stayed otherwise.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Fun Factories of Filmland, 1916

J.R. Bray invented the animated cartoon. Well, that’s what the papers suggested.

A 1916 syndicated newspaper feature looked at the Paramount-Bray Pictographs which had started appearing on movie screens that year. There had been animated cartoons before that, but the story makes no mention of Winsor McCay or Raoul Barré. Bray was the one being interviewed, and he wasn’t going to share credit with anyone. Indeed, as events soon revealed, Bray’s claim of the invention of the animated cartoon extended to the U.S. Government Patent Office, which he used to attempt to rake in royalties from other studios from the animation process. Bray eventually forsook cartoons for educational films.

Tom Stathes has compiled a fine, footnoted primer on the Bray Studio HERE.

This story appeared in newspapers on a variety of dates; I’ve found one as early as June 13, 1916. These pictures appeared with the story; I’ve had to omit one of Bray himself because it’s not visible in any of the copies I’ve found.

J. R. Bray of the Paramount-Bray Studios is the Wizard of Laugh Getters.
His Animated Cartoons Make Film Fun For the Nation

When the original stone-age caricaturist created the first mother-in-law joke by hammering rock against rock, he is credited with having stepped back to view his efforts with this wish:
“If I could only make her more alive and breathe and still look like that, I’d make the old rocks grin.”
Shades of Tom Nast and Phil May! It was scores of centuries later that these world’s greatest caricaturists made the world jump over the same overworked jest. No doubt they, too, uttered the cave man’s thoughts as they viewed their grotesque conceptions of the much-abused mother-in-law:
“If I could only make her move I’d make the world laugh.”
That was all before the days of the screen drama. Now, at one bound, an ingenious comic artist has succeeded in making his characters not only move and act as he wills, but accomplish feats that no human actor would find possible. To say that he is making whole world laugh would hardly be an exaggeration since his piquant conceptions furnish amusement for a greater number of men and women than any artist ever before dreamed of reaching. Fifth million mirth-loving patrons of Paramount Pictures go into paroxysms of laughter over his comic figures on the screen each week.
J. R. Bray, creator of the Paramount-Bray animated cartoon may well be called the Edison of caricaturing. What the wizard of electricity did in his field, Mr. Bray has succeeded in doing for laugh-making.
Blase moving-picture directors to whom life is a yawn and who wouldn’t possibly twist a single smile out of five reels of the most ridiculous gyrations of the slap-stick comedian admit that they get enough mirth out of a few feet of animated cartoons to create a hearty appetite or add several years to their lives.
For J.R. Bray has accomplished what every cartoonist since the days of the stone-age joker has no doubt wished he could do—he has made his cartoons move. He hits given to the screen what photography cannot give it—the fantastic brain children which the public craves, but which do not exist in reality—the dragons and dodoes and other mythical creatures of the fairy tales. Colonel Heeza Liar, in a brief life, has acquired a reputation as a leading man at Paramount that few living comedians can equal, and Inbad the Sailor and a bottle of tabasco sauce have created comedy for a nation.
Back of the debut of Colonel Heeza Liar lies an interesting story. Mr. Bray, who was born in Detroit, Mich., and has been a resident of New York since 1901, was a newspaper artist and a regular contributor to “Life” and other weeklies before he turned his attention to the screen. He had acquired a reputation for Teddy Bear drawings and had often remarked to Mrs. Bray—
“Wouldn’t those bears be funny if they could move?”
Sitting in a motion picture theatre one evening in the days before the flicker had been taken out of the reel, Mr. Bray caught the glimmer of an idea. He suggested a plan to his wife:
“Put the Teddy Bears into motion pictures.”
Little by little Mr. Bray began to experiment with his drawings. Suddenly he found himself in the position, not so much of a cartoonist, but of a director of comedy. His studio became a dressing room for a stock company of comedians that sprang into life when he sat before his drawing board, and he, himself, assumed the role of stage director.
His characters assumed their roles at the stroke of his pencil, but he found his power more wonderful than that of any director of the legitimate drama. He gave the actors not only life and action—he created them at his need or pleasure. Perhaps his cast consisted of a dragon and a flying brickbat if the day’s work called for that. Heeza Liar came and went at his will.
The legitimate stage director may have his limitations. Not so the animated cartoonist. His equipment is limited only by his imagination and the versatility of his brain.
Out in the sunny Bray studio in New York City, Heeza Liar, Farmer Al Falfa and the rest of the merry troupe rehearse their antics and evolutions for the mirth-mad public. No back-of-the-scenes setting was ever more devoid of decoration than this studio. Certainly no comedies were ever staged with so little disturbance. The walls are lined with the necessary ceiling-to-floor windows and the properties consist of many tables covered with drawing boards at which sit busy artists turning out one hundred drawings a day.
There is no shifting of scenes, no careless disarray of make-up and costumes and no bellowing of orders from a feverish stage director in this motion picture studio. Heeza Liar wins a pennant or directs a charge from a trench at the top of Dead Man’s Hill. No 23, Bobby Bumps, breaks all the speed laws on record in his goatmobile and Farmer Al Falfa flirts with a group of milkmaids or conducts a scientific dairy as the case may be. Nobody in the Bray studios turns a hair even when Heeza Liar wins the greatest battle of the European war. It’s all in the picture and the drama lies in the inventive brain and fingers of J.R. Bray and the splendid staff of artists which he has associated with him in his work including L.M. Glackens, Paul Terry, Earl Hurd, Frank Masses and most important of all C. Allen Gilbert, who among other great illustrators made the American girl famous on canvas.
Sixteen different drawings are flashed on the screen each second in the Paramount-Bray Animated Cartoons. Each artist in the studios turns out approximately one hundred drawings each day, or more, and thousands are turned out to the course of a week. Much of the scenery remains stationary during an entire cartoon so that much of the routine work can be timed out automatically without being repeated countless drawings.
Each movement of his brain children is carefully laid out by Mr. Bray himself in a series of successive positions showing with infinite care the projected movement of each animated figure. It is the fine touches in the animated cartoons which place them among the most popular features on the program.
For a guiding genius of comedy Mr. Bray at first glance appears more than necessarily serious. But that is before you have discovered that life’s an eternal smile with this originator of the animated cartoon, who is slight, rather blonde, and very boyish.
“Every born caricaturist since the days of the cave-man would probably have given half his life to make his characters move,” declares Mr. Bray.
“Cartooning is a comparatively recent art development, but caricaturists have lived since the days when the care man’s feelings of the mother-in-law topic became too much for him and he took to the stone yard to vent his sorrows on the rocks. Research has shown that the stone-age man invented the first joke and it was one on mothers-in-law carved in stone. The Chinese reduced their conception of trouble to five lines representing two women and one man under a single roof; Egyptians carved the comedies of their dynasties on the pyramids, and the Peruvians reproduced on pottery drawings that closely resembled cartoons.”
On his work and the qualifications necessary for a successful screen cartoonist Mr. Bray has distinctive and original ideas. He believes that the public wants the animated cartoon because it gives to the screen what the camera-man can never photograph, the fantastic creatures we have never seen, but never fail to be interested in.
“The animated cartoon marks an epoch in motion pictures as well as in caricaturing,” asserts the Paramount’s cartoonist. “Its possibilities are as yet undreamed of. Eventually it will become to the screen what the drawn illustration is to the magazine of today.
“It takes more than a sense of humor and the skill of the caricaturist to make a man a successful animated cartoonist. The man who is valuable in my studio is the one who has the technique of the cartoonist and the dramatic sense of the stage director. He must not alone be capable of drawing a ridiculous character to provoke mirth or to merely create strange monsters in his brain and transfer them to the screen. His sense of the dramatic must be as finely developed as that of the man who directs a Paramount feature play so that his fantastic actors may be convincing.

Friday 21 November 2014

Wacky-Bye Baby Backgrounds

Here’s some more of Fred Brunish’s work, this time of the Wally Walrus mansion in “Wacky-Bye Baby,” a 1948 cartoon made during Walter Lantz’s United Artists release. It’s a shame I can’t snip together some of the long interiors from this cartoon (characters get in the way and there are colour matching problems). Wally must have spend a fortune on floor wax.

Brunish was only 49 when he died on June 25, 1952 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Slap Happy Skeleton

A lion swallows a bomb to blow up a mouse in his stomach in Tex Avery’s “Slap Happy Lion.” The mouse gets out—then the lion realises what he’s done. He bids us a fond farewell.

Fortunately, the lion isn’t dead. Parts of his body descend from the sky in sequence and he’s just like new again.

This is another one of Avery’s “the-little-guy-is-always-there” cartoons, in this case a lion-frightening mouse (voiced by Frank Graham).

Bob Bentley, Ray Abrams and Walt Clinton are the animators in this cartoon.