Thursday 30 November 2023

A Silent Cartoon With Sound

I was watching the Van Beuren cartoon Happy Polo the other day and thought it looked awfully primitive for 1932. There’s a reason. It’s a silent cartoon from 1929 that Gene Rodemich slapped a sound track and sound effects over it.

That’s also the reason no animators are credited. The short was made when Paul Terry ran the Fables studio. Amedee Van Beuren fired him that year, reconstituted the studio into Van Beuren Productions while Terry and Frank Moser formed their own operation with Joe Coffman.

The cartoon storyline is familiar and weak, even by 1929 standards. A cat (in a top-hat like an 1890s melodrama villain) has sexual desires for a mouse. The hero saves her. We get mechanical horses with detachable parts and other things we’ve seen before.

Perhaps one of the better gags is when the hero and his horse twirl in the air and land on a goal post. The post develops a helping hand which send them back onto the field of play.

Rodemich tosses “Tiger Rag” in the background. The song had been around for a while, but the Mills Brothers recorded a version of it in 1931 that was a smash hit. People who complain about repetitious lyrics in songs today should seek out the words to this one.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

How To Warm Up a Night With Richard Nixon

We passed along a couple of stories on the weekend about Fred Allen warming-up his radio audiences.

In the television era, that task generally fell on people other than the stars. The general consensus at one time was the best in the business was Johnny Olson.

Likely your first thought when Johnny’s name comes to mind is the 1970s revamped version of The Price is Right and his excited call to contestants to “Come on down!” Those of us at the age of superannuation will fondly remember him before that on To Tell the Truth, The Match Game (the New York-based version) and “from the Fun and Sun Capital of the World, Miami Beach,” home of the mid-1960s version of The Jackie Gleason Show.

There were many, many more shows.

And there was one extremely unusual warm-up job—for a political rally.

Here’s the scoop from the Chicago Tribune of July 4, 1971.

Television’s Top Second Banana Reaps Rewards
By Carol Kramer

He jumps up and down, kisses the ladies on the aisle, makes funny, faces, and does so much to make an audience appreciative that even the most hardened cynic, including a television writer, feels impelled to applaud and applaud and applaud.
Who is this magician? Johnny Olson, television's top second banana, the man you've probably heard more often than any other television voice. This is his 25th year in television. He spent the first decade as a top banana, host of his own shows, the Johnny Olson Luncheon Club and Rumpus Room, the first daytime network television show from New York.
But then, he explains, the tide turned, and "since I had always done warmups I got the idea of being a second banana, announcing the shows and doing the stunts. I'm not seen, but the money's the same."
That money has often been as much as $100,000 a year. But he works hard for it.
I visited Johnny recently during the taping of two segments of Joe Garagiola's Memory Game. Johnny's regular assignments this season have included that show, which goes off the air soon. [He's already been approached about some other shows, as well as What's My Line? And To Tell the Truth. The latter is syndicated and not seen in Chicago just now.]
Johnny has been announcing What's My Line? for 18 years and To Tell the Truth for 12. The current top performers on those shows are Wally Bruner and Garry Moore. Johnny's first radio job in New York, when he arrived in 1944, was as a replacement for Moore on Everything Goes.
The boss that people associate Johnny with most in recent years is Jackie Gleason. Johnny warmed up the Great One's audiences for 11 years. For six of those years, he commuted to Florida every Friday night just so he could tell people that Jackie Gleason was about to step out of the wings.
Now that the Gleason assignment is over, Johnny Olson has not slowed down his pace. He does 18 shows a week.
And he doesn't confine his work to the studio. People standing in line at NBC are often surprised to find Johnny Olson shaking hands and asking them where they're from.
"I feel the pulse of the crowd and it gives me food for material. I find out if there are any special groups, and it helps to know that there are people from Chicago or Libertyville."
Over the years, he's announced I've Got a Secret, the Match Game, Play Your Hunch, the Peggy Fleming special at Madison Square Garden, and the Victor Borge special at Lincoln Center.
That warmup holds the record. The cameras kept breaking down, Borge didn't want to come out before air time, and Johnny did a 42 minute warmup.
What does he say? He never knows. The day I watched him, he found a group of kids from P. S. 227 and a little boy named George who broke everyone up because when Johnny offered George a buck to say "a big black bug" three times in a row, George refused his money.
Kids seem to take naturally to Johnny. Once, he had a show called Kids and Company on Saturdays. And when Leslie Uggams was nine years old she sang with Johnny on Rumpus Room.
Leslie has never forgotten, Johnny says, and he glows whenever he reads a quote from Leslie about how "Johnny Olson gave me my first break."
Some of the other kids who were on Johnny's early shows Include Connie Francis, Sal Mineo, Bobby Darin, Patti McCormick and George Segal.
Perhaps the most difficult warmup he's had to do, aside from those for shows that have been taped just after national tragedies, was a nontelevision assignment. Johnny was asked to warm up the crowd at a rally for Presidential candidate Nixon in 1968. It was at Madison Square Garden, the Friday night before the election, and a lot of hecklers were in the crowd. "Ron Ziegler and the others kept asking me how I would handle it. I didn't know. I never know until I get out there."
Johnny just went out and gave them that Scandinavian charm, asked the crowd to have some respect, and asked the nonhecklers to squelch any heckling as soon as it began. It worked so well that Nelson Rockefeller came over and said, "Where were you when I needed you?" [Remember Miami?]
The fact that Johnny worked at the Nixon rally doesn't indicate his political bent. He says he's nonpolitical, but he also is quick to tell you that audiences have changed in the last couple of years "and I hate to say it, but I think it started when the Republicans came in."
Whatever it is, audiences are more somber today. "They're not in that fun mood. Maybe they're more concerned with world problems. Sometimes I come out and they're sitting there in deep thought. They're not as happy as they used to be."
But being a second banana hasn't made Johnny more somber. "It was a little difficult at first. I've had to bite my tongue a lot of times. But as far as fulfillment, I get that from the audience, and I don't have any ulcers because I don't have to worry when a show is canceled."
Johnny has been married to the former Penny Towers of Stevens Point, for 32 years. During the week, they stay in their Manhattan apartment. On weekends, they head for their 16-room, four-story stone house in Greenwich, Conn. It's so big, Johnny hasn't been on the top floor in two months.
I guess that's proof enough that being a second banana at least has some monetary advantages!

Olson died in 1985. Bell-McClure Syndicate writer Richard K. Shull, long-time entertainment editor of the Indianapolis News, had a personal remembrance published Oct. 30, 1985. He reveals Olson played a little subterfuge on audience members that was similar to one on a Bob and Ray radio show, except Olson’s is funnier because it’s real.

Johnny Olson, master of warm up
When Johnny Olson died at age 75 a couple of weeks ago, the only photo Associated Press could find to send out to newspapers was 33 years old.
The picture was taken back in the days when Olson still was considered "talent" on TV, a fellow who could move easily from game shows to talk shows as a host.
That was before he reached his real forte as television's premier warm-up man, a guy with a special talent, who could take 200 or so human beings and train them in about 20 minutes to laugh and applaud on cue.
In recent years, he was best known for his work on "The Price Is Right." "Come on down," he would shout to prospective contestants.
But I admired him most for his glib ability to make any stranger feel like a long lost friend. He had the knack for what palm readers and fortune tellers call a "cold reading," to get people to tell all while thinking they are revealing nothing.
He never acted superior about it. Olson genuinely loved people. And the cons he pulled on them were to make them feel good, not to take advantage of them.
One rainy morning, I met Olson at the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in New York where he was scheduled to warm up audiences for three game shows. In those days, he did the warm-up for 14 different shows, a behind-the-scenes chore that brought him about $250,000 as year.
It was mid-morning, but Olson decided it was time to have a little eye-opener, so we dashed up the aisle of the empty theater intent on going to a bar next door.
He never forgot
In the lobby, a horde of tourists waited to be seated. We pushed through the crowd, and a gray-haired lady looked at Olson with anticipation.
"Good to see you again," Olson told her.
"I was here 10 years ago," she replied.
"Why, of course." Olson gushed, "You're Mrs. . . .”
"Of course, Mrs. Appleton. I never forget a name. And you've come all the way from. . .”
"Davenport. Iowa."
"That's right. Davenport. Once I see a face. I always remember the name and where you're from. I'm glad you came back to see me, Mrs. Appleton."
Olson repeated the routine three more times before we got through the lobby. And each time, the women turned and beamed to their friends, a bit awed by Olson's photographic memory.
In the bar next door, Olson stowed away a boilermaker while I attempted to gag down a few sips of draft beer. It's 10:30 in the morning, remember.
Warming up an audience was an exacting science, Olson explained as he fondled the second jigger of bourbon before him. A lot of amateurs are in the warm-up business, he complained, inepts who will clumsily make an audience crest 10 or 15 seconds early, losing the moment.
He prided himself in working his audiences to peak pitch at the precise microsecond the cameras roll and the emcee steps out.
Sometimes, he said, if he had an audience finely tuned, he'd reuse it, cajoling the people to stick around and sit through another show, and maybe another, having them move around in their seats so the home viewers couldn't detect the deception.
One time, he laughed, he not only used the same audience on three shows taped for CBS, but trooped it down the street to NBC and used it on three more shows.
When he had an audience ready, it was ready for anything.
When we returned to the theater, the fortified Olson moved back through the lobby crowd, making a few more tourists feel like he'd had their names and hometowns on his lips all along.
Having a laugh-in
When the audience was seated, Olson began working with the people—gentle humor, a few jokes, maybe patter, all calculated to put the guests at ease and ready to respond to his commands.
He taped their loudest guffaws. Later, when the show was rolling and they laughed, he'd dub this pretaped laughter in on top of their live laughter, compounding the sound.
And if anyone asked if that was really the reaction of that audience, he could swear on a stack of Bibles that it was.
"Watch me, don't watch them," Olson told his audience. When he applauded, they applauded. When he laughed, they laughed.
When the game show started, Olson was in position on the wing of the stage, just out of cameras range, and all eyes in the audience were on him, not the performers. At the end of the half-hour, the emcee could congratulate himself on how well the audience had loved the show. But I knew, and now you know, it wasn't the show, it was Johnny Olson who earned their reactions.
The obituary from California said that Olson died on Oct. 12, which was technically accurate. Actually, he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on Oct. 7 while driving to the studio for yet another taping of another game show. When there was no hope of recovery, his wife invoked a pact they had made against heroic medical measures and ordered the plug pulled on the life support systems on Oct. 12.
And all these years, you thought the audiences were laughing at the shows.

Warming up could be dangerous. A December 1961 newspaper story revealed Olson was running toward the stage as usual to begin his warm-up. It was a rainy day in New York. A woman in the audience left her umbrella in the aisle. Olson tripped on it and broke his ankle.

Perhaps even more unusual for Olson than warming-up an audience for Richard Nixon was his casting in a Broadway musical. He played himself in “The Selling of the President,” which opened March 22, 1972. Olson’s role on stage was, not surprisingly, as an audience warm-up man. He even understudied. No, he didn’t get to sing (though he did in his first radio job in 1928), and was quickly back in Los Angeles. Audiences didn’t “come on down” and the show closed after only five performances.

Johnny O wasn’t known for being on-camera, though he was eventually put into showcase sketches on The Price is Right.. But he was actually one of the first game-show hosts who appeared on the small screen. His Blue Network radio show Ladies Be Seated jumped to television in February 1945 for a short test run. He was among the hosts who stopped on the DuMont television network before 1950.

After his death, producer Mark Goodson said Olson “can never be replaced.” Of course, he was. The show had to go on. Goodson-Todman director Mark Breslow said it best when he declared “There isn’t a single person at CBS...who didn’t love Johnny Olson.” That went for millions of TV viewers, too.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Good Night!

Perhaps this shot is the most famous ending of a Tex Avery cartoon.

The cat and mouse chasing each other, trying to get an advantage on the other by beefing up their bodies with a bottle of Jumbo-Gro, “run outta da stuff.” That means the cartoon has to end. After the mouse (played by Frank Graham) wishes “Good night,” Avery cuts to the two at the top of the Earth, giving a friendly wave goodbye to the theatre audience as the cartoon ends.

The final scene is a switch of the ending of Ride Him, Bosko! from 1932, where Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising run outta da stuff (in this case, gags) and abruptly end the cartoon.

King-Size Canary was released in 1947 with Heck Allen assisting Avery with gags, Bob Bentley, Ray Abrams and Walt Clinton animating, and Johnny Johnsen painting the backgrounds.

A theatre in Wichita Falls seemed to think Avery was a cartoon character but we know better. He was one of the finest directors ever to come along in animation.

Monday 27 November 2023

Vanishing Popeye

How do you draw violent animation? Simple. You have no animation.

Here’s an effect in Shape Ahoy, a 1945 Popeye cartoon. The animation shows the impact of the blows by having the characters disappear for two frames. Here’s an idea of what the scene looks like.

Multiples, held cels and dry brush are used, too. These are consecutive frames.

Jim Tyer and Ben Solomon are the credited animators.

Sunday 26 November 2023

Unreal Benny

Perhaps it’s a tribute to his acting ability, but Jack Benny was able—quite easily, it seems—to convince listeners what they heard on his show was a biography, not a sitcom full of fiction.

On more than one occasion, he was dumbstruck by how intelligent people really thought Rochester was his butler and Dennis Day mowed his lawn as part of his weekly salary.

He complained in print a number of times that he was forced to leave huge tips so people wouldn’t think he was really a cheapskate.

Here’s a piece from the Detroit Free Press of May 27, 1950. Jack was whistle-stopping in the Midwest in the latter half of the month.

Air Role Embarrasses Lots-of-Jack Benny

Free Press Staff Writer
Jack Benny the comedian embarrasses Jack Benny the man.
As a comedian known for throwing a fast half-nelson on a dime, he causes waitresses to faint when he lays down a buck tip in real life.
They are slow to pick it up. They think Benny has it attached to a rubber band up his sleeve. So fine has Benny etched his radio character of the tightwad, the feudist with Fred Allen, the perennial 39-year-old, that everybody takes that for the real Benny.
BENNY, AN affable, easy-going guy, related when he visited the Free Press Friday how he is haunted by his radio ghost—like Scrooge by Marley—wherever he goes.
When he gave a hat check girl in Earl Carroll's cafe a buck tip she pushed it back. "Please, Mr. Benny," she said, "leave me with one illusion."
Everybody assumes he really drives around in a Maxwell and every press agent thinks he is the first to meet Benny at the station with a beat-up Maxwell. Detroit-ers, undoubtedly, would like to know that the real Benny travels in a Cadillac convertible, for which he paid.
PEOPLE THINK Rochester works in Benny's house. Rochester's got a house—and butler—of his own. Every novelty manufacturer in the country keeps writing Benny that he's got a great idea for a toy—a little safe that creaks and makes a sounds like Benny's radio vault.
When he toured the fronts in the war his hardest job was mustering up a "big take" and a big laugh for the same gag: Every outpost thought it was the first to put up a sign saying "Welcome, Fred Allen."
"I don't think I ever disappointed the kids," he said. "But after a few hundred times it was rugged always being surprised by the same old thing."
OLDSTERS ALWAYS cackle when they meet him and say, "I'm the same age as you—39." Even the Veep, although he varied it, was guilty of giving Benny the same old stuff.
When they met recently in Washington, Vice President Alben W. Barkley cracked, "If you're 39, I won't be vice president for 12 more years."
Halfway around a swing of 21 cities in 21 days with his Detroit appearance, Benny admitted he was weary. Maybe you have an idea now of what helps make him tired.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Woody: Made in Japan?

For a guy who plead poverty, Walter Lantz sure travelled a lot.

We’ve posted a number of stories about the cartoon-maker travelling to foreign countries or on a tour of the U.S. Lantz’s stop this time is the fabulous Orient, back when you could still call it that. He left his staff in 1960 to carry on making cartoons with Fatso Bear and Gabby Gator while he made a jaunt overseas.

The Valley Times of North Hollywood talked to Lantz about it. We’ll omit his comments about Hong Kong as they had nothing to do with animation. As you might expect, Lantz griped about money, a common topic in his newspaper interviews (besides the ever-changing story about how Woody Woodpecker was invented).

Allen Rich
Listening Post & TV Review

Woody Aids Foreign Relations
Mr. Walter Lantz has just returned from a six-week goodwill tour of the Orient on behalf of Woody Woodpecker, the noisy little fella that made him a millionaire.
Mr. Lantz created Woody in 1940. The cartoon is now in its 147th consecutive week on the air (KTTV, 6 p.m., Thursdays), pecks away on screens in movie theaters in the U.S., Canada and 72 foreign countries, and the sale of Woody’s cartoon books has now reached 32 million a year in this country alone.
The producer-creator-narrator of the cartoon series visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Honolulu during his junket.
While in Tokyo as guest of Toho Radio and TV, a company quite anxious to introduce Woody to Japanese TV audiences, which are already more than familiar with the little fellow on Nippon theater screens, Mr. Lantz suffered a bit of disillusionment.
It seems the Japanese government restricts its TV stations from paying more than $500 for a half hour program. Such an amount would hardly pay for Woody Woodpecker’s hemlock trees, or whatever a woodpecker chews on, so it was no deal.
“But,” said Mr. Lantz sagely, “the government eventually is going to have to up the ante. The stations need' programs badly. Then we will do business."
According to Lantz there are seven TV stations in Japan and about million receiving sets. The government collects a license fee from set owners periodically.
“But there are also more than a million illegitimate sets. These have inside aerials, the government is perhaps not aware of them, and the owners get away from paying the fee,” informed Lantz.
Most television in Japan is live. There’s lots of sword play and violence, but due to low budgets the live dramas are usually played against a backdrop, a couple of chairs as props.
Favorite American programs seen on Japanese TV are “I Love Lucy,” “Perry Como Show” and “Leave It To Beaver.” Explanatory titles are super-imposed and Japanese voices are occasionally dubbed in, although the latter is a pretty expensive and time-consuming proposition. (Wonder what Lucille Ball sounds like in Japanese?) . . .
In [a] more serious vein Lantz expressed as his opinion that Woody and others of his feather and ilk in cartoon form, have done a very great deal to promote friendly relations between this country and the Orient.
"It is something they all can understand. I was treated like visiting royalty everywhere. Not because of me, but because in those countries producers, directors and writers are accorded more homage than stars. They had seen me for many years in the theater cartoons and knew I had created and produced Woody," he explained.
If Mr. Kennedy hasnt filled the post yet, how about Woody Woodpecker as the next Ambassador to Japan?
Ah, so?

Syndicated columnist Eve Starr had a chat with Lantz about his journey as well. Her column found in one newspaper of Jan. 1, 1961 read, in part:

Walter Lantz, creator of the Woody Woodpecker cartoons, just returned from Tokyo, Hong Kong and Thailand and tells me in Thailand, “They have two sets of sub-titles on the pictures, most of which are imported from the U. S. They run them with English sound and captions in both Chinese and Siamese. The titles run up half the picture, so that you can’t see what you're watching, but people don't seem to mind."
About cartoons in Japan, Walter and Mrs. Lantz, who is the voice of Woody, say, "they go in for real-life subjects, with no laughs. They are really very life-like, and quite good. Over four years ago some men from Japan visited Hollywood studios to learn techniques. I saw these same men and they are turning out two features a year—in wide-screen yet."
"In Japan," Lantz said, "people think more of the directors, writers and producers, than they do of the star. A Hitchcock will have a blown up picture of Hitch outside the theater, and large picture of directors and writers, then in small print the name of the star.

The visit to Toho is interesting. There are people well better versed in what was called “Japanimation” (okay, the first reference I’ve found to the term is from May 1986) so they will correct me, but my impression was the company was still into the monster business in 1960 and not animation.

Walter and Grace Lantz’s arrival in Hawaii was noted in the Honolulu Advertiser of Sept. 29, 1960, but it waited until Feb. 13, 1961 to report on the reason Lantz was sniffing around Tokyo. Shideler Harpe’s “Backstage” column revealed: “After a trip to Nippon, Walter Lantz has decided to make some cartoons there. A job that costs him $30,000 to make in Hollywood can be turned out in Japan for $6,000 without sacrificing quality.”

The Ottawa Citizen of March 11, 1961 reported “A Tokyo film company invited him to set up his operations at their studios.” Yet, despite the cash savings, Lantz kept making cartoons with his small group in Los Angeles. Hanna-Barbera had considered the same thing in 1959, with animation and inking to be done overseas, but decided against it because, as Variety reported, the studio crunched the numbers and found the cartoons would actually cost more to make.

For Lantz, it may have simply boiled down to his employees. By all accounts, he was loyal to those who had been with him a long time, even though the cartoons they made became increasingly mediocre and cheap-looking. His employees liked him. In Hollywood, that's an accomplishment in itself.

Friday 24 November 2023

Heraus, Mouse

An old plot gets reused in Runaway Mouse, a 1953 Terrytoon. Little Roquefort the mouse walks out on Percy the cat. But then the mouse misses the cat and the cat misses the mouse. They get back together at the end and the chase resumes.

Roquefort gets balletic as Percy chases him with a makeshift baseball bat. The scene has some stretch in-betweens.

Tom Morrison is responsible for the story and Mannie Davis is the director. I think Terry fans can guess whose animation this is.

Thursday 23 November 2023

I'm In a Cartoon

One of the appealing things about Tex Avery cartoons is the characters (at least in some of them) know they’re acting in front of a theatre audience.

An example I’ve always liked is in A Feud There Was, released in 1938. A hillbilly gets his beard shot and shortened. He looks down at it and at us, and quips “The old grey hair, she ain’t what she’s used to be.”

Gramps cracks himself up with his line.

His joke gets no reaction. He looks down and at us again and remarks, “Well, it sounded funny at rehearsal anyway.” As if cartoons are real movies/plays with a rehearsal.

Later a chicken comments on the action to the viewers, and a member of the theatre audience (in a typical Avery silhoutte) shots at a feudin' enemy on the screen.

The usual theatre-manager/correspondents to the Motion Picture Herald were happy with Avery’s efforts. “A very good cartoon. It is one of the best ‘Merrie Melodies’ that I ever saw,” “Vitaphone colored cartoons are usually very good and this one was no exception,” “A very entertaining cartoon in color showing the feuds that go on in the timberlands in a risqué and humorous style.” Conversely, another bluntly made this assessment about Mickey’s Parrot: “These Disneys are not getting better. We like the Merrie Melodies just as good and they don’t cost as much.”

Avery’s cartoon released prior to this was Cinderella Meets Fella and Daffy Duck in Hollywood came next; both fine shorts.

The cartoon was re-released in 1943 and 1952.

Sid Sutherland is the credited animator, with Tubby Millar receiving the rotating story credit.