Here are some more excerpts from my September 1978 interview with Bob Clampett at his studio on Seward Street. In this installment, he concentrates on his popular television puppet show, Time for Beany that led to an animated version. Bob reviewed the transcript and made some changes (additions, eliminations and clarifications) before it saw print. All of those changes were for the sake of accuracy not ego.
Jim Korkis: So, you left Warners but you didn’t jump right back into animation. I know you tried several different puppet shows, including one with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, that never sold until you developed “Time for Beany”.
Bob Clampett: When I first went out to sell my puppet show in the early days of television, people would say, “You are known for your cartoons so give us cartoons. Don’t give us puppets.” And no matter how I tried to enthuse them about puppets they kept stressing animation.
“Time For Beany” originated from Paramount’s KTLA-TV studio and we did fifteen minute shows, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year for six years. During that time we won three Emmys for Best Children’s Program in 1949, 1950 and 1952.
We were also nominated in 1954 but didn’t win. We won a Peabody award. Stan Freberg was nominated, as Cecil, for a Best Actor Emmy in 1950 but didn’t win.
My mother remembered: “When my son won the first of his three Emmys for the Beany show, I was present at the awards dinner, and he presented his Emmy to me in thanks for helping him make his first Cecil puppet. . . and I still have this award in my front room, which I enjoy viewing.”
(Korkis Note: Clampett had interviewed his mother and kept those notes on file. I wonder where they are now and I wonder what other treasures are in them including her memories of Bob making the first Mickey Mouse stuffed dolls with Charlotte Clark. Bob’s dad was actually the head salesman for that company. Bob Clampett earned thirty cents per doll stuffing each one with kapok and brushing off the excess. Clark sold them to department stores like J.C. Penny and Bullock’s for $2.50 a doll and the stores sold them for five dollars each. But that is another story.)
JK: How was “Time for Beany” different than the other puppet shows of the time?
BC: I wanted to create a fantasy world, peopled with characters so believable that an audience could lose themselves in the illusion. Viewers watching “Howdy Doody” or “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”, both very popular shows, knew they were watching marionettes or puppets appearing as just that with humans. Whereas, fans who watched “Time for Beany” were amazed to see everything done in miniature. They accepted the illusion we attempted to convey that Beany and Captain Huffenpuff were full sized people and Cecil was ten feet tall. In addition, we offered the look, the sound, the movement, the adventure and comedy and ever-changing scenic locations that you might see in one of your favorite animated cartoons but we were dimensional to boot.
JK: I don’t think people today realize how popular the show really was.
BC: It was rumored that Albert Einstein liked it so much, he stopped work every day to watch. He was addressing a group of Nobel prize winners in 1950, and stopped abruptly, telling his audience he had to leave since it was “Time for Beany”. Groucho Marx of the Marx Brothers wrote to me and explained that it was the only show adult enough for his young daughter Melinda to watch. In fact, Groucho even made “Time For Beany” references on his own popular early television program, “You Bet Your Life”.
I was told that actor Jimmy Stewart pleaded with Paramount not to change the show’s air time so that he would not be forced to miss it. When actor Lionel Barrymore worked on the MGM set, studio head Louis B. Mayer forbade television sets on the lot because he felt they were a threat to the motion picture industry. So, Barrymore was forced to send his chauffeur to a local bar to watch “Time For Beany” and return to report on the plot developments in the puppet show when he wasn’t able to see it himself because of the shooting schedule.
The show was so popular that I created two additional daily shows, “Thunderbolt the Wondercolt” and “Buffalo Billy”, and a 30 minute-show that aired weekly, the “Willy the Wolf Show”.
JK: You were so successful with those shows that I have to ask why you didn’t just continue.
BC: I had been on the air with the Beany puppet show and it was a tremendous success but I felt the medium could be carried much further. I felt with the proper money we could do something with the puppet medium similar to what Disney had done with “Snow White”. About that time a fellow from Paramount had moved over to the ABC network and he had seen a preview of what Disney was going to be doing for the network and he told me in confidence: “What it all means, Bob, is frankly, no matter how well you do your puppets, animation is going to take over just like cowboys took over from detectives on tv.” I wasn’t willing to accept that fact right away but it became apparent that the buyers were only thinking “Cartoons!”
JK: How did the Beany and Cecil cartoon series develop?
BC: The first animated Beany and Cecil cartoon was “Beany and Cecil Meet Billy the Squid” in 1959. It was released theatrically. Most people don’t know that fact. The puppet show went on the air February 28, 1949 and exactly ten years later, the color cartoons started.