October 2, 1958 - December 1, 1961
The Next Step
Ruff & Reddy had been a surprise success for the upstart new studio of Hanna-Barbera Enterprises. Screen Gems President John Mitchell spoke for the public and demanded more shows, more shows as soon as possible. The people were speaking, and they wanted Hanna-Barbera to come up with a second series, to strike while the iron was hot. To come up with “Stars! Stars like Tom & Jerry! Stars like Ruff & Reddy! Make them any way you’d like, but by God make ‘em stars!” (Hanna, 99)
For their next series, Hanna and Barbera looked at the way that Ruff & Reddy, and in fact all TV animation up to that point, had been presented. TV animation had been generally thought of as filler, series like Crusader Rabbit and the Gumby shorts packaged on local shows and syndicated programs like Howdy Doody alongside archival catalogs of theatrical shorts. Even their own Ruff & Reddy was being used as wraparound material for a compilation show of Columbia Pictures’ old cartoon catalog.
While creating a full half-hour cartoon was still too risky an endeavour, there was a solution toward transitioning in that direction: Creating their own package show, made up of three individual segments. Bill Hanna asked Joseph Barbera to come up with the characters that would be used in this show, and within three weeks, he had three sets of characters fleshed out and ready to be produced.
In 1953, while working on his Droopy series at MGM, Tex Avery created a character named Southern Wolf. Southern Wolf was an antagonist to Droopy, with a memorable southern drawl to his voice provided by his voice actor Daws Butler.
Most notably, Southern Wolf was laid-back, always opting to whistle a tune and speak to the audience rather than get upset at his misfortunes. This would serve as the basis for the headliner character of this trio of package shorts, Huckleberry Hound.
Huckleberry Hound is a blue dog, often sleepy-eyed but always a likable character. The name “Huckleberry” serves as an obvious reference to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn character, but also has a second meaning. The word “huckleberry” was once a slang word for a country bumpkin or sucker, which is an apt description of his personality as he is usually portrayed as naive and very trusting of others. One of his signature traits was his tone-deaf singing voice, most often (terribly) singing “Oh My Darling, Clementine” whenever in a joyous mood, much to the dismay of those around him. Another trait of his was the phrase “and stuff like that there”, which he’d often use at the end of sentences when describing or explaining something.
“[Huckleberry’s] low-key, ambling attitude” Hanna would say in his autobiography, “was particularly suited to our limited animation methods at the time, which stressed less movement and more dialogue to impart personality to the characters.” (Hanna, 101)
Much like the characters of theatrical short series, Huckleberry Hound would find himself in different job occupations from short to short. In the pilot episode, Huckleberry was a police officer on the lookout for an escaped gorilla. In other shorts, he could be a fireman, a knight, a sheriff, a hunter, a postman, or whatever the plot demands. A common plot thread would be that Huckleberry would spend most of the episode failing at the task set before him, before ultimately coming out on top either by luck or using his likability (such as one short where he is sent to kill a dragon and ends up befriending the dragon instead).
To voice their new star, Daws Butler (who had voiced Southern Wolf in the Droopy shorts) was cast, having already been voicing the titular dog character on Ruff & Reddy. Butler drew inspiration for the voice from a man who lived next door to his wife’s family in North Carolina, a veterinarian with a similar lazy southern drawl. Bill Hanna liked the voice, but suggested that Butler make it “warmer and friendlier”. Butler also voiced recurring antagonist Powerful Pierre, a muscular unshaven Frenchman. Don Messick, who had been the narrator for Ruff & Reddy (as well as the titular cat character opposite Butler), would be brought in for episodes that called for third-person narration (many episodes were narrated by Huckleberry himself).
Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks
For the middle segment of their three act show, Joe Barbera went back to the drawing board and retooled an old creation of theirs. “Pixie and Dixie and Mr. Jinks”, for all intent and purposes, was Tom & Jerry for television. Without the budget to create elaborate gags and settings, Pixie and Dixie focused more on funny voices and dialogue gags (which had been virtually absent from the Tom & Jerry shorts) while keeping the characters more heavily grounded within the home setting.
Tom was changed into Mr. Jinks (voiced by Daws Butler using an impression of Marlon Brando), a dimwitted cat who didn’t have Tom’s cunning planning skills, but would still try his hardest to catch the “meeses”, as he’d call them. Despite being dimwitted, over the series Mr. Jinks actually had a better track record for catching mice than Tom, as some episodes would indeed end with him outwitting the mice. Jerry was split into two gray mice, Pixie (wearing a blue bowtie, voiced by Don Messick) and Dixie (wearing a red vest, voiced by Daws Butler).
Notably, the show was also much less violent than the Tom & Jerry shorts, with none of the characters ever really being hurt. In fact, some episodes end with Mr. Jinks and the mice on good terms (which almost never happened with Tom and Jerry), though they’d go right back to butting heads by the next episode. It’s also worth noting that some plots were directly based on shorts Hanna and Barbera had done for Tom & Jerry, such as the pilot “Cousin Tex”. This episode features Pixie and Dixie’s cowboy cousin who comes to visit for a day, and fights with Mr. Jinks as if they were in a rodeo. This is similar to the Tom & Jerry character Uncle Pecos, who was Jerry’s southern uncle who’d antagonize Tom any time he came to visit his nephew. In fact, the Pixie & Dixie episode ends with Mr. Jinks inviting over his own Texan cousin, named Pecos!
The last segment of the initial show is one who, in many ways, would become the real breakout success of the Huckleberry Hound Show. This segment would be about a bear named Yogi (named after Yankees catcher Yogi Berra) and his short pal Boo-Boo, who live in Jellystone Park (a parody of Yellowstone) and try to outsmart campers for their “pic-a-nic” baskets, while avoiding the park ranger. Yogi is often the schemer, plotting out tricks and causing trouble for campers, while Boo-Boo is the level headed one who always tries to obey the rules. The park ranger in these shorts, though he serves much the same role and has the same voice, isn’t the Ranger Smith who would appear in later incarnations of Yogi Bear; Rather he is an unnamed older character with a white mustache.
For the voice work on this segment, Daws Butler chose to mimic the deep voice and silly mannerisms of Art Carney, specifically his Ed Norton character on The Honeymooners. Don Messick voiced both Boo-Boo and the unnamed Ranger.
The Yogi Bear segment only lasted on the show for two of its four seasons, not because it wasn’t popular, but rather that it was too popular. Feeling that Yogi would do better as the headliner of his own show, Yogi was moved off the Huckleberry Hound Show in late 1960 with the Yogi Bear Show debuting in January of the following year.
With Yogi Bear off the show in late 1960 to headline his own, Hanna-Barbera had to scramble to put together a replacement segment on Huckleberry. To do this, they used Yogi and Boo-Boo as a basis, changing them from bears into wolves. The star would be Hokey Wolf, a con-artist who would try to con people for food and shelter, often having his schemes work for a time before ultimately backfiring on him. Hokey Wolf was brown furred with a small hat and a collar just like Yogi, except with a bowtie instead of a tie. His partner in crime would be Ding-a-Ling, a small wolf who was all too eager to get involved in Hokey’s schemes (as opposed to Boo-Boo not wanting to get involved in Yogi’s schemes but ending up in them anyways). A common theme in Hokey Wolf episodes was putting the characters into fairy tale settings, ending up in stories ranging from the Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, Aladdin, and even Romeo & Juliet.
Daws Butler, who once again was voicing a main character, based his performance as Hokey on Phil Silvers, an actor who was best known at the time for playing con artist Ernie Bilko in “The Phil Silvers Show”. The role of Ding-a-Ling went to Doug Young, who had already been working at Hanna-Barbera in several roles on their third animated series, “Quick Draw McGraw”.
Sponsored by Kellogg's
The pilot for “The Huckleberry Hound Show” was completed in spring of 1958, but to get the additional funding needed to give their first half-hour show the greenlight, Hanna-Barbera needed a sponsor. John Mitchell suggested that they contact the Kellogg cereal company, and soon Joe Barbera found himself in a projection booth in New York, ready to screen their new program to a group of Kellogg’s executives and public relations representatives from the Leo Burnett Agency. The screening was almost a total disaster; When Barbera started up the projector, Pixie & Dixie began playing, but the audio was for Yogi Bear! However, he was able to quickly fix the problem, and by the end of the screening (they saved Huckleberry for last), the entire room was in laughter. Kellogg’s signed up to be a sponsor on the program, and the stage was set for Huckleberry Hound’s debut.
Television Gets Its First Cartoon Superstar
The program debuted in syndication on New York station WPIX on October 2, 1958 to outstanding reviews. Audiences and critics loved how likable Huckleberry was, as well as the fun cast of characters that accompanied him. In 1960, a survey was taken to find out who Huckleberry Hound’s primary audience was, and the results showed that just as many adults watched it as children. Also in 1960, the Huckleberry Hound Show won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Children’s Programming, the first television cartoon to do so.
Combined with some of the strongest ratings any cartoon had gotten to that point on television, Huckleberry Hound had become television’s first real cartoon star.
The Huckleberry Hound Show would eventually end in late 1961 after four seasons strong and nearly 60 half hours worth of material. By that point, Hanna-Barbera had already become the leading animation studio on television, surpassing even Disney, with four additional programs by late 1961 and countless others to follow in the decades to come.
Additionally, in the wake of Huckleberry’s success, a boom in television animation began. From an average of only one or two new cartoon series on television a year (if any) between 1949 and 1958, to six cartoons in 1959 and no less than ten in 1960, television had finally proven itself to be a viable outlet for animation.
Thanks, in no small part, to the risks and successes taken by Hanna-Barbera on their first half-hour cartoon series, Huckleberry Hound.
Hanna, William. "A Cast of Friends" De Capo Press, 1996. Print.
Barbera, Joseph. "My Life in 'Toons: From Flatbush to Bedrock in Under a Century" Turner Publications, 1994. Print.
© 2015 Josh Measimer
Anne Harrison from Australia on July 29, 2015:
It's amazing how much thought, effort and detail went into these cartoons we consumed as children, oblivious. Perhaps that is one reason they were successful beyond an American audience. Thanks for sharing, voted up.