Monday, July 12, 2021

Saturday Morning Musical Kid's Shows of the 1960s and 1970s Part One

From 1968 to 1973, Saturday mornings on American broadcast television were filled with music. It was during that period that a cycle of cartoons and other kid's shows incorporated music in some way, shape, or form took place. Among the more successful of these shows were The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, The Archie Show, and Josie and the Pussycats. Some of these shows even produced hits on the Billboard Hot 100. At five years it was one of the longer cycles on Saturday mornings on the broadcast networks, and many of the shows remain remembered to this day.

While the cycle began in 1968 with the debuts of The Archie Show and The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, there were precursors on American television to the musical cartoons that aired in the late Sixties and early Seventies. In fact, the first one aired at the beginning of the decade and on primetime at that. The 1960-1961 saw the beginning of a cycle towards cartoons in primetime with The Bugs Bunny Show and The Flintstones. Among the show that followed in the wake of The Flintstones was The Alvin Show. The Alvin Show was inspired by the highly successful recording act The Chipmunks. The Chipmunks were characters created by Ross Bagdasarian (who performed under the stage name David Seville), who recorded his voice at high speeds to create the voices of the three chipmunks, Alvin, Theodore, and Simon. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" proved to be a huge hit during the holiday season of 1958 and was followed by further singles and albums featuring The Chipmunks.

Given the success of The Chipmunks, it was perhaps inevitable that they would find their way to television. It was then that The Alvin Show was produced by Format Films, an animation company founded by UPA veteran Herbert Klynn in 1959. The show consisted of seven minute segments featuring The Chipmunks and David Seville, as well as inept inventor Clyde Crashcup. What really set The Alvin Show apart from other animated series on at the time was that it also featured a musical segment , separate from the episodes, with one of The Chipmunks' songs. Here it must be pointed out that the tone of The Alvin Show was quite different from the sweeter, gentler Alvin and the Chipmunks of the Eighties. In fact, Alvin could quite rightfully be considered a precursor to Bart Simpson.

The Alvin Show ran for only one season in primetime, after which it was rerun on Saturday morning for several years. It would prove successful in syndication, where it still occasionally appears. As of yet the complete series has not been released on DVD. While The Alvin Show might not have proven a success in primetime, it certainly set a precedent for blending animation with music on American television.

The following animated television series incorporating music would also be based on an existing music act, although in its case it would be based on real people rather than characters created for a novelty record. The Beatles had been phenomenally successful in their native Britain and proved phenomenally successful in the United States as well. It Al Brodax, head of motion picture and television development at King Features Syndicate, who got the rights to do a Saturday morning cartoon based on The Beatles. He got financing from toy company A. C. Gilbert Company with little more than a rough outline and preliminary artwork. A. C. Gilbert sold the series to ABC.

On the The Beatles, the characters' speaking voices did not sound like the Fab Four.  Al Brodax hired Paul Frees to voice John Lennon and George Harrison and Lance Percival to voice Paul and Ringo. Thinking that Americans would not understand Liverpudlian accents, Al Brodax did not allow the actors to imitate The Beatles' actual voices. In particular, John Lennon sounded more like Inspector Fenwick from Dudley Do-Right (who Paul Frees had also voiced) than the actual John Lennon. It was largely because of the voices that Brian Epstein banned the cartoon from airing in the United Kingdom. It would not make its debut there until the late 1980s. The Beatles themselves initially were not happy with the cartoon, with John Lennon complaining that it made them look like the Flintstones.

Regardless, The Beatles was the first animated cartoon made for television to be based on real people, beating the Three Stooges cartoon by a few weeks. It was also a hit. Debuting on September 25 1965, it proved to be the number one Saturday morning cartoon of the 1965-1966 season. Unlike The Alvin Show, The Beatles' songs were incorporated into the episodes, not unlike their movies A Hard Day's Night and Help!. The Beatles also featured a sing-along segment involving one of their songs.

The Beatles would prove successful enough to last three seasons on Saturday morning, after which it would spend one more season on Sunday morning. The success of The Beatles would lead to further cartoons that incorporated music. What is more they would not be long in coming.

Indeed, no less than two Saturday morning cartoons featuring rock groups would debut in the 1966-1967 season. The first of the two to debut was Frankenstein Jr. and The Impossibles. Frankenstein Jr. and The Impossibles featured a segment starring The Impossibles, a rock group who were also superheroes (Multi-Man, Coil Man, and Fluid Man). They reported to the mysterious Big D, who communicated with them through Coil Man's guitar. Despite the fact that The Impossibles centred on a rock group, music played very little role on the cartoon. Episodes centred primarily on their adventures as superheroes, with only brief snatches of The Impossibles performing as a band. Frankenstein Jr. and The Impossibles debuted on CBS on September 10 1966 and lasted two seasons.

It was later on September 10 1966 that a cartoon more significant to the history of musical cartoons on Saturday morning debuted. The Beagles was created by W. Watts Biggers, Treadwell Covington, and Joseph Harris of Total Television, the same company responsible for such classics as Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales and Underdog. Due to their name, some might think The Beagles were inspired by The Beatles, but the two lead characters were inspired by the comedy team of Martin and Lewis and owed more to such British duos as Chad and Jeremy and Peter and Gordon. The Beagles followed the adventures of Stringer (the Dean Martin of the duo) and Tubby (the Jerry Lewis of the duo). The Beagles' manager was Scotty, who was constantly involving the two in sometime dangerous publicity stunts.

Unlike Frankenstein, Jr. and The Impossibles, music played an important role on The Beagles. Original songs by Chester Stover, W. Watts Biggers, Treadwell Covington, and Joseph Harris were written for the show. The songs were incorporated into episodes, not unlike The Beatles. In fact, The Beagles would be historic as the first cartoon band to have an album and single released. Here Come The Beagles was released on Harmony, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. The single, "Looking For The Beagles"/"I Want To Capture You" was released on Columbia Records itself. Neither the album nor the single charted, but they did set a precedent with regards to fictional bands on cartoons releasing albums and singles. In the coming years, it would become common place.

The Beagles lasted a single season on CBS, before moving to ABC where it was rerun on Sundays. For a long time the series was feared lost, but decades later it turned up at Golden Books Entertainment, who had bought the Total Television properties.

What was perhaps the most influential show with regards to the Saturday morning musical kid's shows of the Sixties and Seventies did not air on Saturday morning, nor was it made for children. The Monkees debuted on NBC on September 12 1966. The Monkees was a sitcom inspired by The Beatles' movies  A Hard Day's Night and Help! (among other things) and centred on the rock group of that name. Although it certainly appealed to children, The Monkees aired in primetime and was made primarily for teenagers and young adults. Music was central to the show, with songs incorporated both in the plots of episodes and in separate musical segments.

The Monkees was only moderately successful in the Nielsen ratings, but proved to be a huge success on the music charts. Their first four albums hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart, and the band boasted three number one singles. The Monkees would be pivotal in the incorporation of music into children's shows on Saturday morning. In fact, it was one year after The Monkees ended its two season run that reruns of the show would join the Saturday morning line-up on CBS.

It was in part because of The Monkees that in the fall of 1968 two kid's shows that incorporated music debuted on Saturday morning. It was that season that The Banana Splits Adventure Hour and The Archie Show debuted. Saturday morning would never be the same.

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