Saturday, December 9, 2006

The Beatles Cartoon

While they are my favourite band of all time, I have to confess that I have no idea when I heard my first Beatles song. I may well have been in the crib when it occurred. Then again, it could well have been on The Beatles cartoon which originally aired from September 25, 1965 to September 7, 1969 on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Today The Beatles is largely forgotten except for those younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers who were growing up when it aired, not to mention a few younger die-hard Beatles fans, but for awhile it was among the highest rated cartoons on Saturday morning.

The origins of The Beatles cartoon can be traced back to King Features Syndicate and its head of motion picture and television development at the time, Al Brodax. Among Brodax's first accomplishments at King Features Syndicate was the production of 220 new animated shorts featuring Popeye. Brodax managed to produce these shorts inexpensively and in a short period of time simply by giving much of the work to animation studios overseas. Broadax would also be responsible for the Beetle Bailey, Krazy Kat, and Snuffy Smith cartoons that King Features Syndicate produced in the early Sixties. When Beatlemania swept American shores in 1964, a Saturday morning cartoon based around The Beatles seemed like a sure-fire hit to King Features. Brodax got the rights to do a Beatles cartoon and then set about getting financing from toy giant A. C. Gilbert Company with little more than a rough outline of the show and some preliminary artwork. It was A. C. Gilbert Company that sold ABC on the idea of a Beatles animated series.

With the series sold to ABC, Brodax had only six months to actually produce the show. Fortunately, having produced 220 Popeye cartoons in only a brief amount of time, Brodax already had the experience necessary to get the cartoon out in time. He hired Englishman Peter Sander to design the characters of The Beatles. Like the Popeye cartoons before them, the animation for The Beatles would be handled overseas. TVC (Television Cartoons) London (who later co-produced the classic animated film Yellow Submarine) and Astransa Park of Australia were largely responsible for much of the work, although animation for the series was also done in Canada and Holland. The format of the series was rather simple. Each show would feature two episodes of anywhere from four to six minutes in length, each one based on a Beatles song (which would be featured in the climax of the episode). The episodes generally featured The Beatles either trying to get away from their fans or caught in such unusual situations as facing monsters or spies. In between the episodes would be sing-a-long segments featuring various Beatles songs.

For the voices of The Beatles Brodax hired only two men: American voice actor Paul Frees (who had provided the voice of Boris Badenov for The Bullwinkle Show, among many other animated characters) to voice John and George and Englishman Lance Percival (perhaps then best known for his work on That Was the Week That Was) to voice Paul and Ringo. Brodax also made the controversial decision of not letting the actors mimic the Beatles' actual voices. Brodax thought that American children would not understand anything approaching The Beatles' natural, Liverpudlian accents and thus Frees and Percival gave The Beatles of the animated series accents that Americans think of as stereotypically English. Of the characters, only Ringo sounded even faintly Liverpudlian (and even his voice on the cartoon was far from that of the typical Scouse). The worst was perhaps the voice given John Lennon, who sounded more like Inspector Fenwick from Dudley Do-Right (no coincidence, as Frees had also voiced that character) than anyone else. It would be Brodax's unfortunate choice regarding the voices of The Beatles that would keep the cartoon off the airwaves in the United Kingdom for many, many years. Hearing the voices, no less than The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein banned the cartoon from British airwaves, fearing that most Brits would be offended by them. The cartoon would not air in the United Kingdom until years and years after it was first broadcast in the United States.

Regardless, The Beatles was a runaway hit when it debuted Saturday morning, September 25, 1965 on ABC. It received among the highest ratings of any Saturday morning cartoon up until that time, a phenomenal 52 percent of viewers. Naturally, The Beatles was renewed for a second season, with six brand new episodes featuring such songs as "Nowhere Man" and "Paperback Writer." Unfortunately, the series did not receive the phenomenal ratings it had in its first season. Much of this was due to the success of the TV show Batman in primetime. Not only had that series became an outright fad, but it spurred a cycle towards superhero cartoons on Saturday morning. Facing such stiff competition as Space Ghost on CBS, The Beatles cartoon found it more difficult to compete. Another reason for the series' decline may have been that many of The Beatles' fans were simply growing up and simply felt too mature to be watching Saturday morning cartoons. At any rate, The Beatles was renewed for a third season. The third season would see five new episodes featuring such songs as "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." It would also see the series take a turn towards psychedelia. In fact, a few of the episodes actually foreshadow the work that would be done on Yellow Submarine, albeit on a smaller and cheaper scale. The Beatles would return for a fourth and final season, although it consisted entirely of reruns and was aired on Sunday morning.

While The Beatles cartoon was well received by youngsters in the United States, it was not particularly well received by The Beatles themselves. John Lennon himself complained that it made them look like "the bloody Flintstones." None of The Beatles were particularly happy with the voices given them on the cartoon. It was because of their unhappiness with the television cartoon that The Beatles would ultimately have little to do with the classic Yellow Submarine. Eventually some of The Beatles would reverse their opinions of the series. Talking to writer Roy Carr, Lennon would later say he got a blast out of watching reruns of the series. In 1999 Harrison would admit that he found the show's episodes "so bad or silly they were good..."

Regardless of The Beatles' initial feelings about the cartoon themselves, it would have a lasting impact. Indeed, it may well have been the first television cartoon to have been based on real people. It was also the first animated series to be based on a rock group. Its influence on Saturday morning cartoons would be seen well into the Seventies. Such cartoons as The Archie Show, The Brady Kids, and even Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! would incorporate popular music years after The Beatles left the air. In the Seventies even pop groups such as The Jackson Five and The Osmonds would have their own short lived, animated cartoons. It must also be pointed out The Beatles is one of the earliest examples of rock video (albeit in animated form), pre-dating even The Monkees.

A more important legacy of The Beatles cartoon may be the classic movie Yellow Submarine. Al Brodax, who produced The Beatles animated series, initially came up with the idea of producing an animated feature based on The Beatles' songs, suggesting to Brian Epstein that this could satisfy The Beatles' agreement with United Artists to do a third film (after A Hard Days Night and Help!). With the rights to do the film secured, Brodax then hired TVC London to produce the feature itself. Indeed, the film was directed by the late, great George Dunning of TVC London and Jack Stokes of TVC London served as its animation director. While Yellow Submarine would ultimately look very different from the Saturday morning cartoon, it was in many respects an outgrowth of that cartoon produced by many of the same people and two of the same companies (King Features Syndicate and TVC London).

Of course, the most lasting impact that The Beatles would have would be the creation of new Beatles fans. There can be little doubt that for many this TV series was their first introduction to the band. Indeed, I rather suspect that my first real exposure to the music of The Beatles may have been through this cartoon. At any rate, I have fond memories of watching, in reruns on St. Louis station KPLR.

While there can be no doubt that The Beatles cartoon had a lasting impact, the question of whether it was actually good or not is a different matter. Even those who saw The Beatles in its original have had little opportunity to do so since it first aired. Television station KPLR in St. Louis re-ran the cartoon from the Seventies well into the Eighties. In 1986 and 1987 MTV reran the series. More recently several episodes, as well as the third season opening (featuring "And Your Bird Can Sing"),  have become available on YouTube and other video sharing sites. Having watched many of episodes on YouTube, I can honestly say that as Saturday morning cartoons go, it was actually pretty good. The animation does leave something to be desired (let's face it, we are not talking a feature film here), but, comparatively speaking, it is actually quite good for a Saturday morning cartoon of its time (let it not be said that the folks at TVC London did not have a talent for making do with a little of nothing). As to the episodes themselves, they are both funny and imaginative. As to the musical sequences, they vary in quality, but many are very well done. Seen today, forty one years after its debut, The Beatles seems both fresh and innovative.

That having been said, my one caveat with the series are the voices of The Beatles themselves. As a Beatles fan I have heard The Beatles many times over the years and the voices of the cartoon characters sound nothing like them. In fact, I find the "Inspector Fenwick" voice foisted on Lennon particularly annoying. I have to say that I think Brodax made a big mistake in insisting that the characters of The Beatles did not mimic the real life voices of The Beatles. Beyond the fact that even at that time any Beatle fan would realise the cartoon characters sounded nothing like the originals, there is the simple fact that I think even in 1965 the average American had no problem understanding the way The Beatles spoke. Both A Hard Days Night and Help! featured The Beatles with their accents intact and both were hugely successful. On Yellow Submarine (apparently against Brodax's wishes in the beginning) the decision was made that the actors would mimic The Beatles' voices--they were so successful that to this day many do not realise that The Beatles did not provide their own voices in the film. Yet, Yellow Submarine was initially more successful in America than it was in Britain! I then think that the characters of The Beatles on the cartoon could have easily spoken with Liverpudlian accents without affecting American children's understanding of what they were saying or the cartoon's success. In fact, I think Brodax's decision may have impeded the cartoon's success over all. Let's face it, would Brian Epstein have banned the cartoon in the United Kingdom if the characters had sounded more like the actual Beatles?

Since it left ABC in 1969 very little has been seen of The Beatles in the United States. Only a few TV stations in America would rerun the cartoon, among them KPLR in ST. Louis and WSNS in Chicago. And as stated earlier, MTV reran The Beatles in 1986 and 1987. In the Nineties Apple Corps Ltd. bought the rights to the cartoon. Since then very little has been seen of them, save for the few that have surfaced on YouTube, other video sharing sites, and a few bootleg DVDs. Given its significance in the history of American animation and the history of The Beatles (at least here in America), I am personally hoping that Apple Corps Ltd. will one day release the series on DVD. Of course, if they do, I also hope they re-dub the voices with something more appropriately Liverpudlian....

Friday, December 8, 2006

It Was 26 Years Ago Today...

It is strange sometimes the days that human beings choose to observe. A nation's government can declare a day a "national holiday" and, yet, no one will celebrate it (for example, Columbus Day). At the same time, however, there are traditional holidays that nearly everyone celebrates and, yet, somehow they have never been granted them the status of national holidays (for example, Halloween and Valentine's Day). And then there are those days we choose to observe as individuals ourselves. These are days when something important occurred in our lives--when someone was born, when someone died, when someone got married, and so on. This is one of those days for me. The difference is that today it was not someone I knew personally who died, yet someone who had an enormous impact on my life regardless.

It was 26 years ago today that John Lennon was murdered in front of the Dakota in New York City. Every year I observe the day by listening to several Beatles songs and John Lennon songs, and usually watching one of The Beatles movies (this year it will probably be Yellow Submarine). If I could, I would probably even take the day off from work. And I'm not the only one who observes this day. Every year in New York City, Lennon fans gather in the area of Central Park known as Strawberry Fields. Music is banned there all year around with the exception of one day--the day of Lennon's death. On this day every year fans will be allowed to sing and play Lennon's songs there. I'm sure that there are mass observances elsewhere, particularly in his hometown of Liverpool. Neither the United Kingdom nor the United States have ever declared the day of Lennon's death a national holiday. I doubt it will ever be declared a day of mass mourning. And yet I suspect many, many more people observe it than Labour Day.

The reasons for this are very simple. Often times nations will arbitrarily decide to declare a holiday in the name of an idea. An example of this is Labour Day. Unfortunately, what governments don't realise is that people simply aren't that thrilled about celebrating ideas. Other times they will declare a national holiday in honour of some event or someone who actually had little impact on people's lives and hence seems distant and important to them. An example of this is Columbus Day. Given that people already lived in the Americas, the idea that Columbus "discovered" the Americas is debatable. For that matter, he was never even close to North America and Leif Ericson crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus. But the day of John Lennon's death is different. Lennon had an enormous impact on individual's lives. His music is still popular after over forty years. Arguably, of all the composers of the 20th century, Lennon and McCartney may well have had the biggest influence on popular music, more so than even Berlin, the Gershwins, and Porter. It is for that reason that over 5000 people gathered outside the Dakota the day of his death to mourn him. And for that reason that people still mourn him. And while I doubt the day of his death will ever be declared a national holiday, it really won't matter. People will still be observing the day of his death a century from now.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Holiday Books for Kids

With the Yuletide and Hanukkah only a few weeks away, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss a topic suitable for the season--namely, children's books that make good reading over the holidays.

Of course, the most famous children's story for the holidays may well be the poem originally published as "A Visit from St. Nicholas," but now better known as "The Night Before Chirstmas." Commonly thought to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore (although some have argued for Henry Livingston Jr. as the author) and first published in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. it established much of the mythos surrounding Santa Claus here in America. Among the concepts it introduced were the general appearance of St. Nick (as a fat, jolly old man who wears fur and boots), his use of reindeer to pull his sleigh, and the names of his reindeer. Given that the poem established much of the Santa Claus myth here in America, children can still relate to the poem even 183 years after its first appearance (about the only question I've ever received is why the poem doesn't mention Rudolph, to which the answer is that he wasn't born yet...).

If there is a holiday story as famous as "A Visit from St. Nicholas," it is probably A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Of course, A Christmas Carol is not a children's story, but a novella written for adults. That having been said, older children and teenagers can easily appreciate the classic tale. Today we tend to take the story for granted, particularly after the numerous dramatic, movie, and television adaptations that have been made, not to mention the many parodies. But A Christmas Carol was very influential on its first appearance. When first published in 1843, the old Yuletide traditions in England were dying out. The success of A Christmas Carol helped revive interest in these ancient customs. Ultimately, the novella would become Dickens' most famous work and one of the most famous holiday stories of all time.

Not nearly as famous as either "A Visit from St. Nicholoas" or A Christmas Carol is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, most famous for his series of Oz books. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus essentially tells how Santa Claus became, well, Santa Claus. The novel is filled with the usual imagination and originality with which Baum filled his Oz books. And there may even be a link to the Oz books. The villain of the book is the Gnome King, perhaps a variation on the Nome King, the recurring archnemesis of Baum's heroes in his Oz books... Any child who enjoys Baum's Oz books will probably appreciate The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus as well.

Of course, for many of us born in the late 20th century, the classic holiday story is "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss. First published in 1957, it has become perhaps his most famous work and arguably his most successful. Indeed, like "Scrooge" before it, "Grinch" has become a slang term for anyone who despises the holidays. The book was adapted into the classic, animated TV special in 1966, directed by Seuss's old friend and animation giant Chuck Jones. It has become a perennial part of the holiday ever since. It was also adapted into a wretched major motion picture in 2000. Forget the movie. Read the book and then watch the classic TV special instead....

Dr. Seuss was not the only great author of the 20th century to indulge himself in the holidays. J. R. R. Tolkien did so as well in letters he wrote to his children as Father Christmas. Tolkien wrote these letters to his children between 1920 and 1942. And in the course of the letters he creates his own mythos for Father Christmas, quite different from that created in "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Indeed, the elvan script called Tengwar makes its first appearance in print in these letters, well before the publication of The Hobbit! The letters were eventually published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters, then republished and retitled Letters From Father Christmas in 2004. They are well worth reading not only for Tolkien enthusiasts, but for anyone who wants to read something imaginative to their children for the holidays.

A Christmas Carol and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" are regarded as Yuletide classics. And many of us grew up reading them. A more recent entry in this list is "The Polar Express." This book was first published in 1985 and tells the tale of a young boy, whose belief in Santa Claus is slipping. The boy is then taken to the North Pole on the Polar Express to see Ol' St. Nick himself. The book is fairly short--it can be read in three minutes--but conveys the meaning of the holidays perfectly. It was adapted into an animated movie in 2004 by director Robert Zemeckis, which greatly expanded on the book without losing the general spirit or moral of the book. I rather suspect the film will become a holiday classic as well.

Of course, Christian parents may well wish to entertain and educate their children over the holidays by reading them the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus over Christmas.

Not being Christian myself, I am well aware that other holidays fall in December besides Christmas and I don't think it would be right to leave them out. I don't know of too many children's books dedicated to Hanukkah, but there are a few out there. Jewish parents may be interested in "I Have a Little Dreidel" by Maxie Baum. It is an adaptation of the traditional "Dreidel Song" associated with Hanukkah. Another fine book about the holiday is The Stone Lamp: Eight Stories of Hanukkah Through History. The book tells eight different tales surrounding the holiday throughout history. It is written for older children, but I think younger children could appreciate it as well.

For many of us the holidays are a very important time of year. And many of us have fond memories of our parents or other adults important in our life reading various holiday classics to us. Personally, I can think of no better way to celebrate the Yuletide, Christmas, or Hanukkah than reading about the holidays to the children in one's life. Not only does reading such material to children help entertain them, but it can endow in them the true meaning behind the holidays and continue those traditions passed down from old.