Saturday, 7 July 2018

Saturday Morning Cartoons, 1940s Style

There were Saturday morning cartoons before there were Saturday morning cartoons.

“Saturday morning cartoons” has become an umbrella term to describe made-for-TV animated shows that may, or may not, have aired on network television on Saturdays. It was a concept that evolved by the mid-‘60s. Before that, networks would run some non-animated programming, such as the wonderful Shari Lewis on NBC, in addition to old theatricals. Some networks didn’t even bother signing on until 9 a.m. because Saturday morning wasn’t a lucrative time period. How things changed!

But before cartoons showed up on the small screen on Saturday mornings, they appeared on the big screen on Saturday mornings or afternoons. Theatres in the 1940s and ‘50s, looking for whatever business they could get, staged what were dubbed in some cases “Cartoon Carnivals.” They’d rent a pile of cartoons from the local exchange and run them. Some theatres would add non-animated comedy shorts to the mix as well—Three Stooges, Lew Lehr, etc.

They were huge successes; some theatres programmed them for year. In fact, MGM got on the bandwagon as in 1956 the studio put together “The M-G-M Carnival” including seven Tom and Jerry cartoons and several live-action shorts. It debuted at the Plaza in New York City, where 73% of admissions on the first week were adults (Variety, Sept. 12, 1956).

But back to the kiddie matinees. Here’s a story from April 1, 1948 from one of the papers in Pittsburgh. I failed to find an ad listing the various cartoons at the festival in question. It seems it was set up like a vaudeville programme—the first act was one that, if you missed it, you wouldn’t be missing the stars. In this case, it’s a 1947 Columbia cartoon starring the Fox and Crow. It reveals, among other things, that pre-Boomers were rude slobs. And they seem more interested in the junk food (as theatre owners were hoping) than the cartoons.
All-Cartoon Shows Growing in Popularity
By James W. Ross
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
ROY ROGERS and Gene Autrey [sic] be burnin' up the plains and scatterin' the rustlers out yonder, stranger, but around these parts they'd better tighten up their cinches and get set for some real hard ridin'.
This is cartoon territory.
And this is the day of the “All-Cartoon Show.”
“17-Count ‘Em-17 Genuine Cartoons—Not a Live Actor in the Bunch”—and the kids are eating them up.
Started here about two years ago, the all-cartoon shows have been steadily growing in popularity with children of all ages, and reached a peak Easter Monday when one major chain alone scheduled them for 13 different neighborhood movies.
THEY'RE only held about four or five a year, usually at holidays, and theaters and management couldn't take it if the kids wanted them oftener.
At the Whitehall Theater, Brownsville road, the youngsters started to line up at 8:30, even though the show was set to start at 10:30.
The price was a flat two bits, and many a tyke had a fistful of change. The trick is to get one guy to buy a batch of tickets so everyone doesn't have to stand in line. One boy just about threw the harassed cashier by dumping out a fistful of 25 pennies.
BUSINESS is at its best at the popcorn counter. If a regular movie calls for one box, a cartoon show seems to indicate two or more. Plus candy. Plus innumerable drinks of water both before and during the show.
When about half of the 1,200 youngsters were seated, a young usher hurried up to the manager. "There's a couple of kids here with water guns. What do I do?" "Find them and take the guns away," the manager called back as he ran to the door to untangle the snarled line.
One girl, about 16, walked down the aisle looking for a seat. A small boy, who could have been her kid brother, wagged his finger at her and sing-songed "I'm gonna tell your boy friend. Coming to see a cartoon show with a bunch of little kids!"
WHEN the first of the 17 cartoons on the screen, a shout rose from the audience, 'then a hush to end all hushes settled in. The first cartoon, by the way, was titled, "Tooth or Consequence."
There was "Mighty Mouse" and "Tom and Jerry" and "Popeye" and "Mighty Mouse" again, and more and more up to 17.
Bigger boys lolled beyond the first row of seats, on a floor carpeted with spilled popcorn.
The little guys and girls, some of them on their mother's laps, craned to see what everyone else was laughing at. Titles were read aloud, quietly and in unison, apparently in an agreement to supply the small fry with the information.
STRANGELY enough, most are glad the end of 17 cartoons, although they usually count just to make sure they're getting a full measure.
At the Whitehall, and in several other movies, there was an added inducement to leaving "Free to everyone attending—a five-cent candy bar."
Cartoon carnivals, of sorts, still exist today. There have been animation festivals though, while not necessarily pretentious, are for people who want to examine Cartoon As Film-with-a-capital-F and not as entertainment. Jerry Beck posts about occasional animation roundups at theatres around the Los Angeles area that are fun events for fans. Popcorn available, we suspect. And on the other side of the U.S., Tom Stathes gets out his canisters of old reels and puts together a showing at a small venue for groups of diehards and friends. Want to see a Van Beuren, or a silent Farmer Alfalfa (with live musical accompaniment) or some creepy stop-motion film from 80 or so years ago? That’s where you go.

Maybe there are more of these kinds of showings elsewhere but I rarely hear of any. Too bad. Having first seen Tex Avery’s Magical Maestro on the big screen, I can say that watching cartoons at home is always entertaining, but there’s nothing like rows full of people in theatre seats laughing at a pair of rabbits suddenly joining Poochini in a Hawaiian dance.


  1. I'll take Fox and Crow over the likes of Mighty Mouse anytime.
    Quoth one Marilyn McCoo: "You don't have to be a star, baby, to be in my show".

  2. I attended a couple of cartoon matinees when I was a kid. This would have been early-to-mid '70s. I remember that both shows were a mix of Disney and post-48 Warner cartoons. The Disney's were pretty much Donald Duck and Goofy. (Sorry, Mickey.) I also remember a certain amount of grumbling over the Warner cartoons, with some kids complaining that they had already seen these on TV. There were, I would estimate, somewhere between fifteen and twenty cartoons in each show. I also remember that by the end, the audience was growing restless and more than a little rowdy. At the second show, they actually stopped the film at one point and the manager threatened to clear the theater if everyone didn't settle down. Probably a hazard of kiddie shows. As I was the weirdo amid all the chaos who was trying to enjoy Bugs Bunny, I was glad he did it.

  3. Repertory theatres such as the TLA in Philly ran cartoon carnivals on a regular basis; generally attended by adults. I mind one such Bugs Bunny-centric show where a wag shouted out before the show, "BRING ON FEARLESS FREEP!" It speaks well for the audience that they got the gag and applauded the wag enthusiastically.

  4. I think MGM released another prepackaged carnival in the early 70's, an odd collection of some of the earliest Tom and Jerry's and a fistful of the Gene Deitch tittles, the common factor being none had appeared on the network T&J show.