The first toy-driven Saturday morning series inspired more than just negative pushback—it created an historic start-up opportunity and a groovy soundtrack LP.
The Original HOT WHEELS Sound Track
Mike Curb and The Curbstones
Forward Records ST-F-1023 (12” 33 1/3 RPM / Stereo)
Released in 1969. Producers: Mike Curb, Michael Lloyd. Running Time: 23 minutes.
Songs: “It’s Magic,” “Sky Hawks (Theme),” “Millie La Rue,” “Jack Rabbit Special,” “Mother’s,” “Hot Wheels (Theme),” “Come Back Baby,” “Dance Little Girl,” “Where The Nicest People Meet,” “Words And Music.” (Music and lyric writers are uncredited.)
The 1969 animated series Hot Wheels is singularly remembered for being canceled and little else. That’s understandable in light of all the controversy surrounding children’s television as it matured in the late 1960’s and became a hot potato among the business, political and private sector. Hot Wheels, along with its sister series, Sky Hawks, was the perfect example for finger pointers because there was no denying that these were Mattel toys that had been adapted into a series format, the premise being the “Hot Wheels” were a race team of rule-following good guys who exemplified fair play and safety as they faced off with other teams who might not always do the same.
Hot Wheels Episodes “Ardeth the Demon” and “Tough Cop”
Hot Wheels Episodes “The Winner” and “Hot Head”
The most vocal critic of the Hot Wheels cartoon series was not a parent group–though they certainly could not have been pleased. It was actually Topper Toys, makers of Sixfinger, Johnny Lightning, Suzy Homemaker–and other toys that started with “Johnny” and “Suzy”–as well as the Barbie knockoff “Dawn” doll (whom parents assumed was “just as good,” much to the chagrin of kids like this author’s sister who couldn’t use her with the ubiquitous Barbie accessories).
Topper was a popular contender for Matty Mattel’s crown and complained that the Hot Wheels series was 30 minutes of free advertising for the Mattel toy line, which had been launched in 1967. According to some sources, some stations were ruled to log half the show as commercial time, but both shows must have done well enough to survive for two seasons using the original batch of episodes (as many Saturday Morning series did back then, only adding a few episodes in a second or third year).
An interesting sidenote to this story is a bit of conjecture: when the Rankin/Bass special Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town premiered, the penguin character was named “Topper.” This was on ABC on a Sunday night in 1970, when Hot Wheels and Sky Hawks were still being broadcast on Saturday morning. A few years later, when the Santa Claus special was syndicated, the name was changed to “Waddles” by having Paul Frees loop Mickey Rooney’s dialogue every time he said the name. The subsequent video and cable issues returned to “Topper.” Perhaps there was some sponsor-based cause for this to have been done, as it would not have been done with no reason.
All the fuss about the intent of the Hot Wheels cartoon aside, it is not often discussed for other, arguably more important reasons—the program itself. Those who might take a cursory look and dismiss its limited animation without looking closer could be making a mistake.
Narratively, Hot Wheels and Sky Hawks are played completely without guile or wink. They are the equivalent of the era’s prime time dramas, geared (sorry) for kids, but without comic relief or cute animals. Despite the obvious commercialization in the concept, there are some very early attempts here at diversity and feminist issues rarely if ever presented on Saturday morning TV.
Notable among the voice cast is Casey Kasem in one of his first voice roles for animation, as a sneering louse named Dexter, who led a rival racing team. Hot Wheels premiered the same year as Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? in which he also introduced the role of Shaggy, followed by a succession of mostly good-guy characters that tended to overshadow his dramatic range. Hot Wheels also provided one of the first TV acting jobs for a young Albert Brooks.
The Hot Wheels soundtrack album is very much akin to the soundtrack LP for Hanna-Barbera’s Cattanooga Cats series (which we talked about here) because the same people—Mike Curb and Michael Lloyd—were involved on their same label, Forward Records. One can literally mix the songs from Hot Wheels and Cattanooga Cats and not notice much difference between them except that the Cats used a female vocalist (for the character of Chessie). They’re uniformly high in quality however, as were most songs created for Saturday morning cartoons—rich in nice hooks, catchy melodies and solid production values—all in hopes of grabbing for the gold rings of The Archies or The Monkees, which was never to be no matter how good the music. Lightning was not in every bottle, but it’s still nice to be able to enjoy the attempts.
This LP also includes a album-length version of the Sky Hawks theme. It is not the xylophone-laden version heard on the TV soundtrack, but instead a faster paced pop version that is somewhat superior to the repetitious Hot Wheels theme (which is an extended soundtrack). As an interestingly link to children’s TV history, the background score for the for Hot Wheels and Sky Hawks, although not represented on this album, was composed by Jack Fascinato, who did all the music for the pioneering series Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Sky Hawks Episodes “The Snooper” and “The Message”
Unlike Cattanooga Cats, Hot Wheels was not a song-driven show with a band and no evidence currently suggests a “video segment” for each half hour show, thus the songs are in the “inspired by” category—a song about the signature car, the “Jack Rabbit Special,” another about the favorite dining hang out, “Mother’s,” etc. Michael Lloyd would continue to contribute songs and themes to Saturday morning TV shows, particularly to Krofft shows like Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Land of the Lost.Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Hot Wheels and Sky Hawks series are the stories behind the scenes. The shows were produced by a very unlikely studio for such an ambitious, high-profile project: Pantomime Pictures in Los Angeles. Founded in 1959 by former UPA animator Fred Crippen (who passed away on March 22), Pantomime was a boutique studio that specialized in quirky animation for commercials and shorts, best known for the off-the-wall syndicated satire Roger Ramjet and His American Eagles, which we explored on Animation Spin here.
Crippen was known for breaking the rules of form and format. His cartoons reveled in their simplicity, whimsical humor and loose design. the idea of Pantomime being asked to take on two 16-episode half-hour network animated adventure series seemed more than slightly insane, but 1969 was a highly competitive year for the three networks on Saturday morning. Virtually every other company was cranking out new product—in addition to Hanna-Barbera and Filmation, there was Rankin/Bass, De-Patie-Freleng in animation and newcomers Sid & Marty Krofft in live action.
Enter future Disney Legend Floyd Norman, who only a short time earlier was working on scenes with Kaa the snake in The Jungle Book. Norman had come to Pantomime because he wanted to animate segments for the new Sesame Street series that also made its debut in 1969.
“The famous toy maker deal seemed to come out of nowhere and suddenly, Fred Crippen found himself with two television shows,” Floyd told me. “I honestly don’t think Fred was all that thrilled about getting into Saturday morning television. Pantomime was a quiet, creative little animation facility. Now, it suddenly exploded in size when these two animated shows were dropped into Fred’s lap.
“Since Fred suddenly had a need for animators, I jumped onto both shows. I confess doing television animation was a grind and nowhere near as much fun as the Sesame Street stuff. In spite of this, we dove in and did our best to help. With Fred’s help and encouragement, I even produced two Hot Wheels shows myself as an independent producer.”
“The studio that had been so quiet was suddenly jammed with staffers and everything seemed to be sheer madness. It was mainly because of this, I quit my studio job at Pantomime and became an independent animation producer.”
One mystery may have perplexed viewers since Hot Wheels and Sky Hawks aired on ABC, if they happened to notice something curious in the end credits: “Introducing PERSPECTAMATION!” But unless something very subtle was at work, no special process seemed evident anywhere in the production.
“There is one wacky story and it might explain the term, “Perspectamation,” he said. “During the production of Hot Wheels, a couple of computer nerds were trying to come up with a digital solution to creating automobiles for the series. The cars would be based on the toys and generated by a computer. It was a brilliant idea that simply never worked. Sadly, the technology was simply not mature enough to make something like this possible back then. Using computer technology was exciting but we neither had the software or hardware necessary to move forward. It would be over a decade before computers could even begin to aid the production process.”
Look for more about Fred Crippen as well as a wealth of other treasures at Floyd Norman’s wonderful blog.