Tuesday, November 17, 2009

TV Animation's Beginnings

A couple of years after I morphed out of my fetal stage, I remember watching a cartoon rabbit with a big. slow-witted sidekick on the family's small, black-and-white set.

The cartoon characters' names were Crusader Rabbit and Rags the Tiger.

I didn't realize that I was watching teevee animation's pioneer show ...

"[Jay Ward] and a childhood friend from pre-kindergarten, Alex Anderson, who was an artist, got together and created Crusader Rabbit," says Tiffany Ward, Jay’s daughter, who has run the family business for the past 20 years. "Crusader Rabbit was the first cartoon ever created for television. They did the show for a couple of years and then they lost the rights in a lawsuit.

"Alex went back into an advertising career, and my dad, who had a real-estate office in Berkeley, Calif., tried many different things, like marketing gourmet coffees from around the world. But he still loved the idea of cartoons and animation."

... "If you look at Crusader Rabbit, who was a plucky little hero, and at Rags the Tiger, who was the big, dumb sidekick, you can sort of see Rocky and Bullwinkle, the same kind of duo, just as different animals," Tiffany Ward says. "They put the show together, went on the air with it, and they had a big hit." ...

Consider the above. A Harvard MBA [Mr. Ward] jumps into the cartoon business, sets up shop in the San Francisco Bay area, and pretty much invents the template for television animation. (Eight years later, the unemployed cartoonists Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera jump in and get the lion's share of credit for inventing television animation, but Jay Ward is there first.)

As a kid in the late fifties and early sixties, I kicked around the edges of the industry. As I look back I'm amazed at how small, casual and interconnected it all was.

Almost everybody knew everybody, either personally or by reputation. Artists jumped around from studio to studio, going from Disney to Snowball to Hanna-Barbera. Gate-keepers and administrators were few and far between. (Disney Animation had a production-support staff of three in the 1970s.)

So the fact that Jay Ward could drift in and out of the t.v. animation business and make for himself two cartoon hits -- Crusader Rabbit, then Rocky and Bullwinkle -- isn't particulalry amazing, given the times. Fifty years back the stakes were low. Cartoons were a sleepy little sub-set of the motion picture industry to which only elementary school kids paid attention. Outside of their peers, nobody had heard of Chuck Jones or Tex Avery or Jay Ward.

Today, of course, the stakes (and grosses) are huge, and Hollywood pays close attention to Animationland. Cartoon studio bureaucracies are bloated, artists need to navigate batteries of tests and have their digitized portfolios and demo reels at the ready. The world has changed, and Jay Ward would probably find it a bit more complicated to gain entrance to the kingdom.

But his Harvard MBA would come in handy.


Anonymous said...

as soon as money is involved, the people who are involved just because they enjoy it are shoved to the side and have to sit by and watch painfully while the idiots run the business into the ground. then the idiots move onto the next thing they can pillage. comicon actually used to not be cool, believe it or not. now everyone poses as a nerd.

Tom Sito said...

Great stuff. I've been talking with ASIFA of doing a panel reunion for Disney TV anim. Like we did for the Iron Giant and Mermaid, this one would gather the veterans of Cahuenga Blvd who did GARGOYLES, GUMMI BEARS and DARKWING DUCK and more. Probably some time in Feb or March.

Anonymous said...

What Iron Giant reunion?! As a crew member on that production I would have
appreciated a heads up. On closer reading and googling, I find that it was a
"panel" reunion organized by ASIFA...still....did anyone think this through?
A fundraiser in a venue so small it sold out in 24 hrs? ...to an inner circle, perhaps?
I am working in a union studio, check this blog on a regular basis, and am on the union email notification list....what the hell?...

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