Ninety years ago today, J. Troplong Ward—better known to cartoon fans as Jay Ward—was born in San Francisco, and the world of animation became a far better place as a result. A pioneer in the fledgling industry of making cartoon for television, Ward would write and produce several animated series—Rocky and His Friends, The Bullwinkle Show, Hoppity Hooper, George of the Jungle—that live on in the hearts of every kid who got up at the butt-crack of dawn on Saturday mornings and risked the ire of waking a sleeping parent in order to revel in the misadventures of Rocket J. Squirrel, Bullwinkle J. Moose, Dudley Do-Right…”and a host of others.”
With the help of a childhood pal, animator Alex Anderson (nephew of Terrytoons magnate Paul Terry, and the individual who created Rocky, Bullwinkle and Dudley), Ward got in on the ground floor of boob tube animation in 1949 with Crusader Rabbit, a series that featured the titular character and his loyal sidekick, Rags the Tiger, that was an embryonic version of the more celebrated adventures of Moose and Squirrel. In fact, Rocky and Bullwinkle were characters in another series Ward tried to sell to the networks entitled Frostbite Falls Follies—and were suggested as the stars of his next project when Ward and Anderson lost the rights to Rabbit through a series of legal maneuvers.
Rocky and His Friends premiered over ABC on November 19, 1959 under the sponsorship of General Mills…who would soon learn to their dismay that no subject was safe from Ward and Company’s satirical eye-squint, particularly in a lengthy story arc in which the world’s economy—symbolized by cereal box-tops—was in danger of being sabotaged by the program’s villains, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. (The company wasn’t amused, and insisted that Ward put a premature ending to the tale.) The animation on Rocky was cookie-cutter at best, but kids, who’ll watch anything with movement, didn’t care…and adults got a hearty chuckle out of the slyly subversive scripts cooked up by scribes such as Ward, Bill Scott (a Ward crony who also supplied Bullwinkle’s voice, among other characters), Jim Critchfield, George Atkins, Lloyd Turner, Chris Hayward and Chris Jenkyns. Rocky also provided a lot of great vocal talent and OTR veterans with a steady paycheck: June Foray, Paul Frees, Hans Conried, Daws Butler, Walter Tetley and William Conrad, who narrated the adventures of our heroes. (Classic movie veterans Edward Everett Horton and Charlie Ruggles also provided narration for the segments Fractured Fairy Tales and Aesop and Son, respectively.)
Rocky and His Friends became The Bullwinkle Show in 1961 when the series moved to NBC—and in prime-time, no less!—and would remain the most successful cartoon program produced by Ward…though its follow-ups, Hoppity Hooper and George of the Jungle had their audiences, too. But Jay’s legendary struggles with the network “suits” made him persona au gratin at the Big Three (it didn’t help matters that the production costs on Jungle went over budget—a big no-no in television land), and any future series from his wacky factory never saw the glow of the cathode ray tube. By that time, however, Ward had entered into a partnership with Quaker Oats to produce animated commercials for their line of breakfast cereals—Cap’n Crunch, Quisp, Quake—ads that Leonard Maltin once commented were better than the programs they were sponsoring. Even though Mr. W had to do a little time in cinema purgatory for mocking silent cinema with his series Fractured Flickers, his cartoon legacy of Rocky, Bullwinkle, Mr. Peabody, Sherman and the rest of his delightful creations lives on…so happy birthday, Jay—from your friends here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.