Thursday, December 10, 2015

The 60th Anniversary of Mighty Mouse Playhouse, the 1st Saturday Morning Cartoon

It was sixty years ago today, on December 10 1955, that Mighty Mouse Playhouse premiered on CBS. The premiere was significant for two reasons. First, it marked the television debut of Mighty Mouse, the star of theatrical animated shorts since 1942. Second and more importantly, it was the first animated cartoon series ever aired on Saturday morning on American broadcast network television.

Mighty Mouse was created by Paul Terry, American animator and founder and owner of Terrytoons. When he made his debut in the animated short "The Mouse of Tomorrow" (released on October 16 1942) he was called "Super Mouse". He remained "Super Mouse"  for his first seven animated shorts. Unfortunately, a character called Supermouse had made his debut in the October 1942 issue of Coo Coo Comics, a humour title published by comic book and pulp magazine company Pine Publications. Paul Terry then changed the name of "Super Mouse" to "Mighty Mouse" with the character's eighth cartoon ( "The Wreck of the Hesperus", released on February 11 1944). On all of the early cartoons but one ( "The Lion and the Mouse", the last to use the name "Super Mouse"), the name "Super Mouse" was later edited out in favour of the name "Mighty Mouse". Mighty Mouse's costume would also change. Originally wearing a blue and red costume similar to Superman's outfit, with "Eliza on the Ice" (released June 16 1944) he switched to a red costume with a yellow cape and yellow trunks. With the following cartoon, "Wolf! Wolf!" (released on June 22 1944), Mighty Mouse donned his familiar yellow costume with a red cape and red trunks.

Mighty Mouse became Terrytoons' most popular character, although his popularity was dwarfed by the superstars of the major animated studios, such as Warner Bros.' Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Disney's Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and MGM's Tom and Jerry. Regardless he was popular enough that between his debut in 1942 and 1954 he starred in 77 theatrical shorts. In 1955 Paul Terry decided to retire and so he sold Terrytoons to CBS. Mr. Terry already had something of a relationship with CBS, who ran his older Farmer Al Falfa shorts on their weekday afternoon children's show Barker Bill's Cartoon Show earlier in the Fifties.

CBS continued to produce theatrical shorts through Terrytoons. They also put the old Terrytoons theatrical shorts to good use as fodder for TV shows. Mighty Mouse Playhouse was the first to debut. On June 13 1956 CBS debuted CBS Cartoon Theatre, a primetime collection of old Terrytoons shorts hosted by Dick Van Dyke. As a summer replacement CBS Cartoon Theatre did not do well enough to warrant a place on the fall primetime schedule, but their next Terrytoons collection of old theatrical shorts would prove to be a success. The Heckle and Jeckle Show debuted in October 1956.  After a run on Saturday morning it lasted for years in syndication.

As to Mighty Mouse Playhouse, it proved to be a resounding success. Mighty Mouse went from an only somewhat popular star of theatrical shorts to a television superstar. Prior to 1955 Mighty Mouse was featured in comic books and, starting in 1951, he even had a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. That having been said, there was little else in the way of Might Mouse merchandise. This would change following the debut of Mighty Mouse Playhouse in 1955. There would be watches, games, sneakers, figures, and much more.  Terrytoons produced three more Mighty Mouse theatrical shorts between 1958 and 1961.  Mighty Mouse Playhouse proved successful enough to run for eleven seasons on Saturday morning on CBS.

While Mighty Mouse Playhouse left CBS's Saturday morning schedule in 1966, Mighty Mouse continued to appear on Saturday mornings in the 1966-1967 season. Mighty Mouse Playhouse was replaced by another Terrytoons show, The Mighty Heroes, which centred on a humorous superhero team created by Ralph Bakshi. In between the two Mighty Heroes segments on the show a classic Mighty Mouse theatrical short would be run. Sadly, Mighty Heroes lasted only one season.

Beyond insuring Mighty Mouse's lasting popularity, Mighty Mouse Playhouse would also have a lasting impact on American broadcast network television. Quite simply, it was the very first Saturday morning cartoon. From the late Forties into the Fifties weekday afternoons had been the preferred time for the networks to air children's programming. It was in this time period that Howdy Doody and The Mickey Mouse Club aired. By the middle of the decade, however, children's programming on weekday afternoons started to go into decline. Saturday morning, which had included some children's programming since Animal Clinic and Acrobat Ranch, had debuted on ABC in 1950, then became the preferred time for kid shows. With animated cartoons being popular with children, it was perhaps only a matter of time before an animated show debuted on Saturday morning.

Regardless, the success of Mighty Mouse Playhouse would lead to yet more cartoons on Saturday morning in the following seasons, although it would be a few years before the emergence of the huge blocks of cartoons that Gen Xers and younger Baby Boomers grew up with. The success of Mighty Mouse Playhouse led CBS to debut another collection of classic Terrytoon shorts, The Heckle and Jeckle Show, in 1956. That same year NBC responded with the stop motion animation series The Gumby Show, Gumby having first appeared on Howdy Doody the previous year. NBC would debut a cartoon made for television in 1957, The Ruff and Reddy Show, the first series produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions.

It was in 1963 that the Saturday morning cartoon block as Gen Xers and younger Baby Boomers knew them would finally emerge. That season CBS aired a two hour block of cartoons including The Alvin Show, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, The Quick Draw McGraw Show, and Mighty Mouse Playhouse. ABC also had a two hour block of cartoons, including The Jetsons, The New Casper Cartoon Show, Beany and Cecil, and The Bugs Bunny Show. NBC lagged behind, with only an hour's worth of cartoons. By the end of the decade the Saturday morning cartoon blocks on the networks had grown considerably.  ABC aired four hours. NBC aired four and half hours (excluding the live action H. R. Pufnstuf and Jambo). CBS went further than the other two networks. It aired a full five and a half hours (excluding reruns of the primetime sitcom The Monkees). The broadcast networks' Saturday morning cartoon blocks would last literally for decades, finally dying off only recently.

Although it might not have seemed important at the time, Mighty Mouse Playhouse would prove historically important. It was not a simple case of the show lasting eleven seasons, an extraordinarily long run for any Saturday morning cartoon. Quite simply, it was the very first Saturday morning cartoon, the one that would lead to Saturday mornings on broadcast network television being dominated by cartoons for literally decades. What is more, it sent Mighty Mouse's popularity to the stratosphere. Although somewhat popular as the star of theatrical shorts, Mighty Mouse became a household name with the TV series. Although CBS executives probably didn't realise it in 1955, in scheduling Mighty Mouse Playhouse on Saturday morning, they revolutionised television.

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