Fewer people attended picture shows at theaters after the 1940s, and the decline in attendance devastated the market for short animated cartoons. The new medium of television drew people away from the movies, and fewer ticket sales meant less money for film distributors to financially support their animation studios. Movie ticket prices for shows with cartoons were the same as those without cartoons, and theater managers balked at rising rental costs for cartoons. As theaters discontinued booking cartoons, animation studios struggled in vain to stay open amid rising production costs and declining revenue.
On the other hand, by the mid-1960s television was not the only cause of dwindling movie audiences. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public and private businesses. The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board had already prohibited segregation of public schools ten years earlier, but many communities still refused to comply as of July 2, 1964. As a result, the new civil rights law forced theaters to allow children of different colors to sit together in a dark auditorium to watch films in many communities that still resisted sending children to well-lit, desegregated schools. Parents immediately stopped sending their children to the theaters on Saturday mornings.
Before 1964, some movie houses foreshadowed the exodus of European American children from the matinees. The Forest Theater opened as a “whites only” venue in South Dallas, Texas in 1949 and held weekend matinees and holiday-themed cartoon marathons. African Americans moved into the suburb, and “white flight” led Forest’s management to convert the place into a “colored only” theater in 1956. In so doing, it stopped offering special cartoon shows and largely played second-run movies. Richmond, Virginia voluntarily desegregated its theaters in 1963, and an immediate backlash ensued. One teenager wrote to the local newspaper to vent her frustration. “If the management wants the colored business more than the white business, let them have it,” she declared in the Richmond Times Dispatch of June 19, 1963.
And then there was Greensboro, North Carolina. The city’s Carolina Theater had hosted a weekend matinee and talent show for children called Circle K. The Carolina was a segregated facility until 1964, and African American children were restricted to the balcony. Manager Neil McGill later told “Greensboro Voices/ Greensboro Public Library Oral History Project” that “the attendance fell off” after integration. He blamed desegregation for the decline in European American attendance, and he cited “misbehavior on the part of blacks” at the Circle K for driving European Americans away from the Carolina. The theater discontinued the Circle K in 1967.
That same year the Loew’s theater chain ended its Saturday morning matinees, and the shorts market continued to evaporate. As a result, the closings of cartoon-short studios accelerated in the late 1960s, with Paramount/Famous in 1967, Warner Brothers in 1969, and finally both Terrytoons and Walter Lantz in 1972. Moreover, the cancellation of matinees in the South because of “white flight” suggested that managers considered cartoons as films for only European Americans to enjoy. Perhaps distributors did, too. Warner Brothers refused to release any new cartoons with the flagship character Bugs Bunny after 1964; in fact, the final episode False Hare was released exactly two weeks after the Civil Rights Act went into effect.
Meanwhile, DePatie-Freleng’s Pink Panther was the only animated-short star with considerable longevity to have emerged after the Civil Rights Act, albeit by only a few months (December 1964). So, ironically, African Americans became a larger demographic in Saturday matinee attendance when a character defined by his color was the major draw.