Saturday 15 June 2019

Clampett and the Wolf

The name “Bob Clampett” conjures up wild cartoons at Warner Bros. and possibly the animated Beany and Cecil Show which aired on ABC in the early 1960s. But there were a number of years where Clampett’s fame involved puppets.

His Time For Beany show became a hit in California and was eventually kinescoped for airing on a syndicated basis elsewhere. Clampett responded by creating more puppet shows. The great irony is they were all killed off by cartoons, including his own. More and more old theatricals became available and it was easier and cheaper to programme them with a live-action host instead of a full-cast puppet show.

Here’s Clampett in an interview published November 14, 1954, talking about his various puppet programmes and his earlier career. He’s taking credit for creating Bugs Bunny and did for a number of years until a howl from some of his former co-workers and diligent research by pioneer animation historians. Almost a year after this interview, his puppeteering would be reduced to appearances on the KTTV morning show (with Bill Leyden and then Del Moore), though he managed to get briefly get Willy the Wolf back on the air in a 15-minute evening show in 1957.

Beany’s Creator Makes Bow With a Puppet for Adults

Television is a world in upheaval. It is filled with creative forces continually attempting to extend its dimensions, to burst it out of its standard orbit.
One of the more successful of these forces is a man who has created a world within the world of TV—a world peopled with puppets. He's Bob Clampett, father of Beany, Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, Dishonest John, Thunderbolt, Buffalo Billy and a host of other characters more real to children than Ed Sullivan and Groucho Marx are to their elders.
And last Monday Clampett sent a gesticulating orator named William Shakespeare Wolf into your living rooms, and in his own way created a new extension to his world the first puppet show for adults.
This was the fourth Clampett show to reach the air. Three of his shows are on daily, Buffalo Billy at noon, Thunderbolt at 6 p.m. and Time for Beany at 6:30, all on KTTV (11). The new show, Willy the Wolf, is a weekly half-hour on the same station, seen each Monday at 8:30 p.m.
"Curiously," says Clampett, "Willy was my first show, the first I created for television. That was in the dark days right after World War II when I was working in the garage behind my home wondering where the next meal was coming from.
"Willy had been in my mind for years. I grew up around Hollywood. Lived next door to Chaplin as a boy and used to see him playing his violin on his front porch. And I knew actors in the old Christie comedies, the horse operas lots of actors.
“There was one actor who used to parade up and down Hollywood Blvd. reciting Shakespeare to all who would listen. I used to watch him as he strode along in his great, black cape, thundering out the words of the Bard. He was the germ cell of Willy.
"The actor later became very famous. His name's John Carradine."
Clampett, a big, jovial man with horn-rimmed glasses and close-cropped hair, grinned broadly and added: "I'd like to have John meet Willy on the show and let them throw soliloquies at each other."
Clampett from boyhood set his sights on being an artist. He attended the old Otis Art Institute and sold his first drawing to The Times.
Leads to a Job
"They printed it in full color and another newspaper immediately gave me a job," he said.
He worked as a newspaper artist for awhile and then joined the Disney staff of cartoonists. He left Disney to go to Warner Bros. where he created the animated character Bugs Bunny.
"Bugs had more of the element I wanted," says Clampett. "His was really an adult humor.
"I started doing Bugs in the 30s but even then, long before George Pal came to this country, I was working with puppets. I was thinking of movies then, of course. I wanted to use puppets to give more depth than the flat screen of animated cartoons. I filmed a puppet show in my spare time but it got me nowhere.
TV Natural Medium
"Then television appeared. I immediately saw it as the ideal showcase for my puppets. But it took a long time to convince television of it."
Clampett quit Warner Bros. in 1946 to "get ready for television." He first rented an office but soon was unable to keep up the rent and retreated to his garage. Here Willy was born and later Thunderbolt and Beany. Their births were ignored "by the growing TV industry. As a matter of fact, for three years television firmly turned thumbs down on the ideas in Clampett's fertile brain.
Beany finally went on the air in February, 1949 on KTLA (5). Its success was immediate. In no time, half the youthful population of Southern California was trotting about with propellers on their heads and talking familiarly of sea serpents.
Last year, the show moved to KTTV and Thunderbolt and Buffalo Billy joined it. And now Willy.
Clampett first produced Beany with a staff of four, which doubled as actors, directors, set designers, costumers, everything. Today, in a big sprawling wing of KTTV where all the Clampett shows are produced, the staff has grown to 25, but the same spirit of everybody taking a hand in everything persists.
"We're like a little theater group," says Clampett. "Take the actors. Our principal voices, Walker Edmiston, Don Messick and Erv Shoemaker, are voice artists. They rotate in all the roles, one week playing Cecil, the next doing Beany. Each plays 50 or 60 characters, All three will play Willy at one time or another. "You remember when Stan Freberg left us. He'd been so closely identified as the voice of Cecil people thought the show would fold. That was ridiculous. Stan was good but all of my people are good. They have to be."
Day Begins at Home
Clampett's schedule begins at his house every morning. Writers, actors, set designers gather for a conference, usually on the shows they will do that day. By 10 a.m., everyone is at the studio. Buffalo Billy is in rehearsal. At noon it goes on. Then rehearsals for Thunderbolt and Beany begin.
Each show has its separate permanent set. The actors work behind the set with the puppets, which fit like gloves over their arms. Willy, of different. He's a life-sized-like puppet and works with real people, mostly girls, as his foils.

1 comment:

  1. My dad grew up watching TIME FOR BEANY and always considered the Beany and Cecil cartoons to be sorry imitations of the original puppet show. He used to complain that the cartoon series should have been titled THE DISHONEST JOHN SHOW, since he seemed to take center stage in most of the stories.

    All this commentary was just kind of annoying to me, because it was usually being delivered while I was trying to watch the cartoons.

    At one time I was hoping to see the entire BEANY AND CECIL cartoon series on DVD (or Blu-Ray), but it doesn't appear that's ever gonna happen.