Saturday 24 January 2015

Made-For-TV Cartoons in 1941

In the early days of television—and we mean pre-World War Two—any cartoons that appeared on the handful of stations on the air were old theatricals, like the Aesop Fables made by Van Beuren. By 1950, “Crusader Rabbit” and the barely-animated “NBC Comics,” made especially for TV, were on the air. But a TV-only cartoon was broadcast almost a decade earlier.

It wasn’t an entertainment short, though there was some entertainment value in it. There had to be, as it was a commercial.

The man behind it was Douglas Leigh, “the tungsten tycoon,” who was responsible for the electric signs in New York’s Times Square (silent-era Felix the Cat animator Otto Messmer worked for him) and later president of the Broadway Association. Judging by clippings in Variety, Leigh got into the animated sign business in 1930. In 1946, he put an advertising blimp with neon letters into the skies over New York. In 1953, he jumped into the wide-screen movie sweepstakes with his Glamorama deep-curve screen.

Leigh, briefly it seems, toyed around in the animated commercial industry. Cartoon commercials were airing in movie houses through the ‘30s but he may have been the first to have one created especially for the home screen. PM wrote a story about them, along with the screen shots below, which it published on October 15, 1941.

Television's Newest Character, a Weather-Predicting Lamb . . .
. . . Has a Sketch for Every Forecast

It's all wrong, that one about everybody talking about the weather and nobody doing anything about it. Television, and Botany Crinkle-Proof Ties, and young Douglas Leigh, the dapper animated-sign designer, have done something very amusing about it. The first sample of their handiwork was telecast over WNBT, the NBC television station last night at 9, and will go on nightly at the same time.
The something is a skittish, pipey-voiced cartoon character, a pert, snow-white lamb, which introduces itself this way:
It's hot, it's cold.
It's rain, it's fair,
It's all mixed-up together;
But I, as Botany's little lamb,
Predict tomorrow's weather.

Whereupon, Botany's lamb (which is really the Botany trademark, animated) last night gamboled into an 80-second sketch that showed a robber holding up the lamb, out for a stroll in the park. But the only one of Lambie's possessions that the footpad wants is his nice Botany tie. All of this, last night, was a rather non-sequiturish prelude to what followed, which was Lambie's prediction for today: Cloudy.
All told, there are 14 of these Douglas Leigh-produced Botany sketches. Most of them are as charming as the average movie-theater cartoon. The sketches cover just about every weather contingency you can think of. And they all work in sales blurbs lot the Botany ties, but in as easy-to-take a method as television has vet devised.
This is a first venture into television for 31-year, southern-born Douglas Leigh, who has long ago made his mark on Broadway. Leigh, a diffident little pioneer who wears bow ties (not Botany yet), is the creator of the Wilson Whiskey animated electric sign on Broadway and 40th St. Another Leigh sign familiar to all Broadway rubber-neckers is the Coca-Cola weather annunciator at Columbus Circle.
A typical Leigh-Botany lamb sketch starts off with Lambie hanging his tie on the washline (to show its washable), only to see it blown away in a rain storm. A dog picks it up on the ground, worries it and then gets into a tug of war (note sketch above) with another pooch. Despite all this hard treatment, when Lambie comes down to rescue his tie, it's as good as new, still its Wrinkle-Proof self. And the prediction: rain. In these sketches, Lambie has just the treble voice you'd expect. It look some searching to find the ideal voice for the part, but Leigh and Botany finally came up with Charita Bauer, a teen-age actress seen recently on Broadway in The Women as Margalo Gillmore's (Mrs. Haines) daughter. She was one of the few characters in the play you liked.

Mark Newgarden passes on the great news that at least some of these cartoons survive and were recently screened at an historical show in New York.

As television advertising had only been made legal the preceding July, Douglas Leigh can be considered a pioneer of TV animation.


  1. Yep! They survive! They appear to largely be the work of Messmer.

  2. Charita Bauer of "Guiding Light" (radio and TV)? I see she did some stage work as well as radio.

  3. These 1941 TV ads are an historic find indeed and are some of the only moving images of pre-war television, since the kinescope film did not emerge until 1947 and videotape not until 1956. Being shot on film, they survived and is a fascinating window into what 1941 sponsored TV looked like. I hope that someone posts them on youtube.