Alexander Hume Anderson Jr. was a pioneer in television animation. He developed Crusader Rabbit, the first made-for-TV cartoon. In the fall of 1948, NBC agreed to carry the show. Then, only months later, they turned it down. The network’s independent entertainment content provider, Jerry Fairbanks, decided to distribute it himself, selling it to stations across the U.S.A.
Anderson, who also created Rocky, Bullwinkle, and Dudley Do-Right, saw a pathway to making a cartoon for television after seeing an animation demonstration in the 1941 Disney filmn.The Reluctant Dragon The piece showed how even “limited animation” could still tell a story and be visually compelling.
That was the challenge. There was no way theatrical animation standards could be applied to made-for-TV cartoons. The revenue from a show would never cover the expense. It also had to be drawn differently, as well.
Alex Anderson imagined “limited animation,” a process that was less fluent, manipulated cut-out art elements, and that utilized motion of the camera, was the answer. Fewer drawings, close-ups, and characters reacting to action instead of fully depicting it. It made sense to him.
But it wasn’t going to happen at Terrytoons, where he worked. Not just yet, anyway.
Anderson was employed by his uncle, Paul Terry, founder of the company, when he first tinkered with a cartoon series for TV. Anderson approached Terry about it, but he wouldn’t touch it. 20th Century Fox, who distributed Terrytoons cartoons, saw the emerging field of TV as the enemy. They would drop Terrytoons if it got anywhere near creating content for the boob tube.As a result, Anderson left Terrytoons and partnered with longtime friend, Jay Ward, to establish Television Arts Productions, Inc. (TAP) in 1948. Their studio would turn out the Crusader Rabbit series for Jerry Fairbanks.
The character Crusader Rabbit originated back at Terrytoons. Anderson came up with an idea for a TV series starring a donkey. He brought his concept to Arthur Bartsch, who suggested nixing the jackass for a rabbit.
Subsequent influences occurred after TAP was established. Jay Ward suggested the title, Crusader Rabbit, giving the hare a name. Gerald Ray refined the rabbit’s appearance for the actual series.
The first series, completed in 1951, featured 195 black and white chapters, parsed into 10 adventures. With no further orders coming in, TAP closed its’ doors and Anderson and Ward found work elsewhere.
The second series, produced by Shull Bonsall’s TV Spots, included 260 chapters, all shot in color, parsed into 13 adventures.
Bonsall, a businessman and scavenger, loved to make money off the misfortunes of others. When Fairbanks couldn’t pay back loans he had taken out with NBC to make Crusader Rabbit, NBC sued and took all 195 films. They sold them through Consolidated Television Sales. Bonsall bought Consolidated in February 1954, acquiring all of the films. Bonsall then purchased TV Spots (animation studio) in the summer of 1955. Then Bonsall began entertaining the notion of producing a Crusader Rabbit series.
Jay Ward was doing the same thing at the time. His friends, Leonard Key and Michael Lah, had encouraged him to bring back Crusader Rabbit. This led to the establishment of Shield Productions. Shield, founded by William Hanna and Lah, produced 11 new Crusader reels before a court action initiated by Bonsall scrapped the entire venture.
The question was, who owned the rights to the character? Anderson did, with Ward, and settled the matter by selling Bonsall Television Arts productions. In May 1956, “Ramlen Associates” took over the exclusive rights to Crusader. Ramlen being Bonsall. He owned that company, too.
Leonard Key, who had encouraged Jay Ward to bring back Crusader, was now working for Bonsall, appointed as Ramlen president in December 1956. Key departed in April 1957 after TV Spots came under attack.
TV Spots was shut down in January 3, 1957 by striking members of the Screen Cartoonists Guild after complaints to the National Labor Relations Board. The Screen Actors Guild picketed outside TV Spots, next, on behalf of Lucille Bliss. Bonsall had offered Bliss less than union scale to reprise her role as the voice of Crusader Rabbit.
Most everything prior to the fall of 1957 regarding the Bonsall Crusader Rabbit series was hype. Stories had been written, but a full, competent staff wasn’t installed until then. The new series saw release in early summer, 1958.
Crusader Rabbit’s return was quickly overshadowed by Jay Ward’s studio productions, and Hanna Barbera’s new, and upcoming, offerings. Regardless, Bonsall made a fortune on Crusader Rabbit, But, he lost it all during the production of Calvin and the Colonel a few years later.
My new “Cartoon Research” book The Hare Raising Tales of Crusader Rabbit details the Shull Bonsall fiasco, but it is mainly a tribute to Crusader Rabbit creator, Alex Anderson. Anderson was ahead of his time, and his legacy has been restored, especially after action against the Ward estate decades ago, where he regained the credit for creating Rocky, Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right.
Now that Disney owns the rights, it would be nice to see the original series, from 35mm film, brought back in DVD/blu-ray format. All that is commercially available for public purchase today is a three-disc collection that made use of old VHS tapes to comprise an incomplete collection.
Here it is – adventure #1, episode #1, of Crusader’s first cartoon, “Crusader Rabbit vs. the State of Texas”: