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Since the early days of television, Saturday mornings have been special to millions of children.  You wake up, realizing there is no school today, and quietly make your way to the living room where the television is.  You have to be quiet—you can’t wake up Dad and Mom, because this is their only chance to sleep in.  Whether by yourself or with your brothers and sisters, you reach to turn on the television (no remote control yet) and wait for it to warm up (no instant-on back then either), then settle down to watch your favorite television programs—cartoons!

Cartoon illustrations have probably been around since the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440, and we know that Benjamin Franklin made use of cartoons as a political tool in the latter part of the 1700’s.  Animated cartoons were almost certainly made to be viewed with early motion picture devices like flip books, the zoetrope or the kinetoscope when they were invented, also.  But cartoons as we know them today first really came to life when the film industry began.

Used often as filler between movies shown in theaters, early cartoons were not originally intended just for children, and some of those would be controversial today because of their political or suggestive content, and not considered suitable for children.

The production of cartoons for film was an expensive process because for every second of film 24 pictures had to be drawn, with characters and backgrounds.  The cost was reduced somewhat in 1914 when the animation cel process was patented, using a single background drawing and then drawing the characters on sheets of transparent celluloid that could be placed on top of the background.  With the cel process the animator only had to draw the portions of the image that were intended to show movement.

Cartoons made for movies were drawn very realistically, which was a labor-intensive and expensive process for the studios.  After World War II, however, new movements in the world of art, like abstract expressionism, began to be adopted by the studios to speed production.  One of the leaders in using the new style, much more simplistic than the earlier style, was United Productions of America (UPA).  Their first success with the new process was their “Mr. Magoo” series, which debuted in 1949.

The new process came to be known as limited animation and used abstract backgrounds rather than the more realistic style used previously.  It also relied on bold, primary colors and limited movements of the characters, rather than the shading of colors and detailed movement used previously.  In addition, the limited animation process was much more economical, requiring only half the frames of the more realistic style.  This meant there was less drawing that needed to be done for each frame, and fewer frames that needed to be drawn, making it much more economical, and most studios were quick to adopt the new process in making cartoons for television.

Jay Ward and Alexander Anderson are credited with creating the first successful made for television cartoon, “Crusader Rabbit”, in 1949.  And, “The Ruff and Ready Show”, by Hanna-Barbera, is the first cartoon series broadcast nationally on Saturday mornings, laying the groundwork for children’s Saturday morning obsession with television.

Some of the major studios in the heyday of television cartoons were DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, Walt Disney, Filmation, Hanna-Barbera, Jay Ward Productions, King Features, Marvel Productions, and UPA.

Of course, there wouldn’t be any animated cartoons if not for the animators.  Some of the pioneers in the field of animation were Max Fleischer (responsible for characters like Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Popeye and Superman), Walter Lantz (creator of Woody Woodpecker), and Tex Avery (who brought Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Droopy to life).  When Walt Disney started his animation studio, Ub Iwerks was the first animator he hired.  A personal friend of Walt Disney, Ub became known as the fastest animator in the business, animating “Plane Crazy” (1928), Mickey Mouse's first short film, in just two weeks, producing around 700 animation drawings a day.  Later, in charge of research and development for Disney, he went on to create new processes to improve the production of cartoons and film, including the technology to combine live-action and animation in films such as “Song of the South” (1946) and “Mary Poppins” (1964). One of his greatest works was "Johnny the Giant Killer".

"Aesop's Fables”, based on works attributed to Aesop that contain moral lessons, were produced as silent animated short films by Fables Studios from 1920-1928, and then by Van Beuren Studios until 1933.  In 1928 Van Beuren produced “Dinner Time”, the first production of a sound cartoon.  Then in 1945 the Aesop's Fables series was produced by Terrytoons for television.

From 1932 to 1939 Betty Boop, the “Queen of Cartoons”, an animated character created by Max Fleischer, appeared in a series of very popular cartoon shorts.  Although the character was originally conceived as an anthropomorphic French poodle, she soon transformed into the character of a flapper, wearing a short dress, stockings and garters.  Betty’s sexy image was toned down considerably in 1934 when the Hays Code restrictions went into effect.  With the advent of sound for films, Betty was voiced by several different people, but beginning in 1931 Mae Questel became the voice of Betty Boop.  In 1955 the 110 cartoon series was sold for airing on television.  Betty Boop is still an extremely popular character, and was the first cartoon character featured on A & E’s “Biography”.

“Bosko” is an animated character who looked a bit like Felix the Cat, and has the personality of a blackface vaudeville performer.  Created by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, Bosko starred in Looney Tunes short cartoon films.  He made his first appearance in 1929’s “Talk-Ink Kid”, voiced by Carman Maxwell.  Like most vaudeville performers, Bosko sang and danced his way through more than thirty musical short films, and was seen often on kids’ shows on television in the early days.

Many of the early cartoons shown on television were included in programs hosted by characters who would engage the kids in the audience, sometimes telling stories or playing games between the cartoons.  One of the early and very popular hosts was Engineer Bill.  The character of Engineer Bill was played by William Stulla, who hosted Cartoon Express from 1954 to 1966.  Thousands of people who were children then will fondly remember his “red light, green light” game.  When the announcer said “green light”, you would drink from your glass of milk, and when he said “red light” you would stop.  The point of the game would be to not finish your glass of milk until the game was over.

Another favorite with children was Jimmy Weldon, who appeared with his puppet, Webster Webfoot, on “The Webster Webfoot Show” in 1950.  ‘Uncle Jimmy’ hosted the program and was the voice (ventriloquist) for Webster.  In 1959 he also hosted another program called “Hi, Mom”.  Although he is remembered as ‘Uncle Jimmy’, his voice is perhaps best remembered as the voice of Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon character Yakky Doodle Duck.  Yakky Doodle appeared in several Yogi Bear cartoons, and from 1960 to 1962 he had his own show, “The Yakky Doodle Duck Show”.

With his little hat and bow tie, “Magilla Gorilla” was a hit with children.  The Hanna-Barbera creation aired in a series of cartoons between 1963 and 1967.  Voiced by Allan Melvin, Magilla is a gorilla for sale in the pet shop of Mr. Peebles (voiced by Howard Morris).  Since all Magilla did was laze in the window and eat bananas all day, costing Mr. Peebles money, Mr. Peebles was anxious to sell Magilla, but every time he was bought he was returned to the shop.

He’s wealthy, short, and constantly in trouble because he’s short-sighted and won’t admit it.  He’s Mr. Magoo.  Created at the UPA animation studio in 1949, Mr. Magoo was voiced by Jim Backus, and originally was a grumpy character always muttering about people.  Featured in film shorts since his creation, Mr. Magoo made the move to television, appearing in 130 cartoons from 1960 to 1962 in “What’s New, Magoo?”, and in the first made-for-television animated special, “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” in December, 1962.  Still shown on Saturday mornings and in the early afternoon, Mr. Magoo then starred in another UPA series, “The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo”, this time in prime time, beginning in 1964.

Out of the Inkwell” was a cartoon series featuring a clown character, produced by Max Fleischer from 1918 to 1929, first as drawings for magazines, and then as short silent film cartoons.  When the Fleischer brothers started their own studio in 1921, the clown was named KoKo, and in 1923 Dick Huemer redesigned the cartoon for animation.  What made the animated cartoons unique was that they began with film of Fleischer sitting down to his drawing board to draw the characters and they would materialize ‘out of the inkwell’ to interact with him.  The cartoons were sold to television in 1955.  Then, in 1960, Max Fleischer created a new series of 100 cartoons, including a girlfriend for KoKo named Kokette.  KoKo the clown was voiced by Larry Storch.  The new cartoons were aired beginning in 1962 in an all-new cartoon adventure series for television, produced by Hal Seeger.

A flying squirrel, Rocket ‘Rocky’ J. Squirrel, and his best friend, a good-natured moose who was a little bit slow, Bullwinkle J. Moose, were the heroes of the cartoon series “Rocky and His Friends” (1959-1961) and “The Bullwinkle Show” (1961-1964).  The heroes, from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, were often called upon to battle the evil Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale.  The series was popular with children and adults because they were action-filled and incorporated puns and contemporary references that adults could appreciate.  The show aired almost continuously from 1959 to 1973, usually in a half-hour format consisting of two cliffhanger-type shorts.  The program was narrated by William Conrad.

Including cartoons starring Crusader Rabbit, Porky Pig and many others, “Sheriff John's Lunch Brigade” and “Sheriff John's Cartoon Time” (1952-1970) were hosted by John Rovick, known to huge numbers of children as Sheriff JohnSheriff John began each episode singing “Laugh and be happy…”, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and then reading a safety bulletin to the children.  He taught lessons about safety and good health between cartoons, and was a much-loved character by the children who watched him.  Each episode also included a birthday celebration where Sheriff John would read a list of children’s’ names, bring out a birthday cake, and then sing the Birthday Party Polka.  Hearing “Put another candle on the birthday cake…..” inspires fond memories for many adults who were children back then.

Created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, “Tom and Jerry” are a pair of cartoon characters familiar to hundreds of thousands of people.  The pair, a housecat and a mouse, was constantly at odds, and with their madcap chases and stunts their adventures brightened many a Saturday morning or weekday afternoon.  The original series consists of 114 cartoons, produced between 1940 and 1957, and won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film seven times.  Additional episodes were produced after the original series by Hanna-Barbera, making a total of 161 shorts produced up until 1967.

Tom Hatten and Popeye go together like…well, like Popeye and spinach.  Dressed in a navy uniform, Tom Hatten hosted The Popeye Show and Family Film Festival throughout the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s.  The programs featured the cartoons of Max and Dave Fleischer, featuring the character of PopeyePopeye is a sailor character who eats spinach to gain strength, and was created by Elzie Segar for a comic strip in 1929.  Theatrical cartoons were produced by the Fleischer Studios from 1933 to 1942, and by Famous Studios from 1942 to 1957, starring Popeye and his girlfriend, Olive Oyl, and Popeye’s rival, Bluto (later renamed Brutus).  Then, in 1960, King Features produced another 220 animated cartoons for television.  These cartoons were the basis of The Popeye Show that Tom Hatten hosted.  Mr. Hatten was an artist and cartoonist as well as a host, and would show the audience how to draw various cartoon characters.  There would be two guests visiting in each episode, and one of the favorite features of the program was the contest where Tom Hatten would draw a shape on two easels (he called them squiggles), and each guest was asked to create a drawing using the squiggle and turning it into something recognizable without crossing any of the squiggle’s original lines.

Superman” is a fictional character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster who first appeared in comic books in 1938.  In 1941 Paramount Pictures commissioned Fleischer Studios to begin production of animated short films based on the Superman character.  Fleisher Studios produced eight ten-minute shorts from 1941 to 1942, and then Famous Studios produced an additional nine episodes from 1942 to 1943.  The animated cartoon series is credited with giving Superman the ability to fly.  In the comics he was able to leap tall buildings, but not to fly, and the Fleischers thought he looked silly jumping from place to place.  The first nine cartoons had science-fiction type themes, with robots, dinosaurs and meteors, but the last eight, which have come to be known as the World War II Superman cartoons, featured pro-American/anti-Axis propaganda.  The opening line for the first seven animated cartoons, “Faster than a speeding bullet!  More powerful than a locomotive!  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!” became the standard opening used in the radio and television series.  (The opening was changed for the eighth, ninth and tenth cartoon to “…Able to soar higher than any plane!”, and for last seven Famous Studios productions it was changed to, “Faster than a streak of lightning!  More powerful than the pounding surf!  Mightier than a roaring hurricane!”)

While most cartoons were seen weekdays after school and on Saturday mornings, there have been some cartoon programs that were also popular and aired in prime time.  An example of a prime time cartoon is Hanna-Barbera’s “The Flintstones”, which was the first half-hour animated sitcom.  Another prime time example is “Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color”, which included Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto, characters who were originally created as theatrical cartoons.

Cartoon specials for the holidays were produced by Rankin-Bass, such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman”.  And the “Peanuts” specials produced by Cinema Center Films and directed by Bill Melendez are shown every year on television.  The specials include 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and 1969’s “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”.

Whether silent or sound, black and white or color, cartoons are timeless.  Episodes of many of your favorites can be found here on Matinee Classics, so browse the selection, and settle in to laugh and re-visit the good old days.

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