January 11, 2014 posted by

Ethel and Albert, Hank Saperstein, and the Phone Company


Greenfield. Murray Hill. Sycamore. Tyler. Kingswood. What do these words have in common? Once upon a time they were all telephone exchanges. You know, like PEnnsylvania 6-500. The words were excised from our telephone numbers when AT&T phased in the new all-digit-dialing system back when they were still a literal monopoly. But just where does the infamous Henry G. Saperstein fit into all this?

In the early days of the UPA cartoon studio in the mid 1940’s, industrial films were the company’s main focus. Even after entertainment films and commercials joined the roister, industrial films were still important to their operation. When Hank Saperstein took over the studio in 1960, industrial films were no longer as important. Hank’s background was in character licensing, and he bought the studio largely because he felt that Mister Magoo was an “underexploited” property.

But it seems that they made at least one more industrial film. “Mr. Digit and the Battle of Bubbling Brook” was produced in 1961 for the Bell System. The film was a persuasive pitch to the American public designed to soften the sting of having their Murray Hills removed. It featured Peg Lynch and Alan Bunce, stars of the radio and television show “Ethel and Albert”. The animation department for this one had some pretty high-powered talent, all working under the direction of veteran animator and storyman Chuck Couch.

Despite the fact the greater demand for new phone numbers in the future turned out to be true, and not by half, there were those who were not entirely sold on the idea…


There were those who felt that all-digit-dialing was a step in the slippery slope of human de-personalization. Some people were even suggesting that human beings would soon have their own names replaced by numbers. This personal paranoia figured into the plot of Theodore J. Flicker’s epic 1967 comedy “The President’s Analyst” starring James Coburn. In the sequence below a man from the phone company (played brilliantly by comedian and sometimes cartoon voice actor Pat Harrington) has kidnapped Coburn and attempts to enlist his aid by showing him a cartoon! The animation was produced by DePatie-Freleng, and appears to be a parody of the Bell Science films.

As a bonus we have a pair of pertinent pieces from Playhouse Pictures. The first is the opening for the Ethel and Albert television show, produced in 1953.

For the next bit we have one of the Mr. Bumble spots produced for the phone company between 1960 and 1963. Daws Butler and Shep Menkin star as Mr. Bumble and Smythe. Animation looks to be the work of Jim Hiltz.

There is a family resemblance between Mr. Digit and Mr. Bumble as you can see from this 1960 model sheet…



  • Is Howard McNear voicing Mr. Digit?

    • I’m pretty sure it is. McNear did occasional voicework for UPA on the TV Magoo Cartoons.

    • Absolutely, Don! Unmistakable.

  • Chuck Couch seemingly had connections with the Bell Systems. He did another film for them called “Talking of Tomorrow”, and years later he produced and directed a special at DePatie-Freleng called “The Tiny Tree”, which was sponsored by Bell.

    I recall one of the animators telling me that Couch pitched the special to Bell, and they in turn hired DFE to make it.

    • Couch made another short for AT & T that I remember seeing as a kid; “TASI, The Time Machine;” about some then-new Bell System switching apparatus. It was pronounced “Tassie,” and stood for (I hadda look it up) Time Assignment Speech Interpolation. These shorts were apparently shown in some theatres as well as on the classroom-and-clubroom circuit; there was a 35mm print of TASI for sale on ebay a while back.

      (I wonder if Apple or Microsoft know about that “C.C.” device in the Coburn clip…for Pete’s sake, DON’T TELL THEM!!)

  • That Mr. Bumble spot looks like Rod Scribner’s work to me. I love that Ethel and Albert opening, I thought they were only on radio! Thanks Mike!

  • Nice to see this film again Mike, AT&T on their own also uploaded a copy of the same film a couple years before, though their print isn’t quite as perfect transfer-wise, it was still nice to see it up at all.

    I recall my phone number prefix use to be “GReenwood” in my area.

  • Very informative little short. I was surprised there were push-button dials, car phones and pagers back in 1961, and some of those futuristic designs look remarkably like modern cell phones. Refering to the animation, I recognized Ed Love’s animation before seeing it in the credits.

    • You can thank Ma Bell for thinking big, even if the rest of the country didn’t. That took decades to root itself into our lives.

  • There’s a FLINTSTONES episode where Fred places a call and dials a ridiculously complicated series of numbers, then comments about how wonderful direct dialing is.

  • There were those who felt that all-digit-dialing was a step in the slippery slope of human de-personalization. Some people were even suggesting that human beings would soon have their own names replaced by numbers.

    And once more, Sparky Schulz proves to be ahead of his time-

  • Nice final gag over the end credits, with the animated numerical prefix kicking out the letter version of UPA’s 1961 phone number.

    • Oh poor UPA, but it’s the future! (wonder if they ever had a TELEX number?)

  • Peg Lynch (creator/writer) and Alan Bunce did numerous versions of “Ethel and Albert” across all three major networks on radio and TV. (As far as I can find, E & A did not appear on Mutual radio or Dumont TV.) The last incarnation of the series, “The Couple Next Door” on CBS radio, had to use a different title because she had either sold the rights to E & A, or was unsure whether she had or not. “The Couple” never referred to themselves by their names… but everyone listening already knew who they were.

    • The opening credits identify “Ethel and Albert” as Peg Lynch and Alan Bunce. Howard McNear is uncredited.

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