When Chuck Jones went over to MGM, he many relied on characters created by others. Some like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Dot and the Line were masterpieces. Others, like his Tom and Jerry shorts, were not among his best work. The Pogo Birthday Special disappointed many fans of the strip and never captured the charm or appeal of Kelly’s characters. It was one of the most disappointing things Jones ever did. The special didn’t satisfy anyone, particularly Walt Kelly, which you can read about in Jim Korkis’s Cartoon Research article about the special. However, the history and publicity of the special are fascinating. Many newspapers across the country devoted whole pages to the special. Chuck Jones, Walt Kelly, and June Foray were interviewed about the special. In this Cartoon Research post, I am going to share a few of these articles. One of which for the Birmingham News, I actually found at a local bookstore. There are a few typical reporter-type mistakes, such as that Chuck was the first to get to animate Dr. Seuss’s characters. The genesis for the special partially came from Chuck’s grandson Todd Kausen. More about that will be discussed in my next post for Cartoon Research (next week!).
This first article was seen in many newspapers across the country. The article includes quotes from both Walt Kelly and Chuck Jones. Here is its reprint in the Birmingham News Friday Punch (May 9th, 1969) combined with additional sections from the Herald-Mail (May 17, 1969). In some ways, his discussion about adapting materials from other creators is why this special didn’t work. Chuck was able to capture the charm of Suess. But he missed on this one by straying away from what made Pogo such a wonderful character.
Animation: The Art of the Impossible
“We engrave the Gettysburg address on the head of a pin, but on a production line basis.”
This is the way Chuck Jones, head of MGM’s animation-visual arts department and three-time Oscar winner, describes his calling. “It is,” Jones says, “the art of the impossible,” but he says he loves it. He must; he’s been doing it for more than 25 years.
That he loves his work is apparent, not only to audiences, but also to people like “Pogo’s” creator, Walt Kelly, and famed children’s book author, Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss wouldn’t let anyone touch his characters until Jones asked to do an animated special, and now “Pogo” will come to life on television screens for the first time because Walt Kelly has implicit faith in Jones’ taste and creative talents in animation.
As Kelly puts it, “Jones is a man who really knows what he’s doing. That’s why I said ‘yes’ when he approached me about doing a special with “Pogo.”
On Sunday, May 18, On NBC-TV, “The Pogo Birthday Special,” starring the world famous possum and 10 other characters from the Okefenokee Swamp, will have its premiere airing at 8 p.m. on Channel 42. The 30-minute program will be a culmination of nearly two years work for MGM’s animation-visual arts department and cartoonist Kelly.
Why does Jones call animation the art of the impossible? As he explains it, “It’s taking something that doesn’t exist and making it real, making it believable, bringing it to life on the screen.”
During the past quarter of a century, Jones has not only made something real of things that didn’t exist before, but some of his characters have become worldwide film stars. Besides Pepe Le Pew and the Road Runner, both of which he originated, he collaborated on “Daffy Duck”, “Porky Pig”, “Henry Hawk”, “Elmer Fudd” and possibly the most successful and enduring character ever drawn, “Bugs Bunny”.
More recently, Jones is noted for his collaboration with Dr. Seuss on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” which has already become a Yuletide television tradition in only three years. Another book, “The Dot and the Line” by Norton Juster, became an animated short under Jones’ direction winning him his third Academy Award.
“In some ways, these recent projects have been more difficult,” says Jones. “At least they’ve required more discipline, because we’re taking characters that already have identity, and bringing them to life. People know what they look like in a still form, so when they get up and move and talk, they must be logical extensions of what has gone before.”
Believability is not easy to come by when animating for motion pictures or television. There are short cuts, which some producers use, sacrificing believability, but Jones will have none of that. “The Pogo Special Birthday Special” for example, will require from 12-16 drawings per foot of film, and there are close to 2,500 feet of film in the half-hour show, making a total of approximately 40,000 finished drawings, which have to be inked and painted as well, before they are filmed in full color.
“The average animator can do about three seconds of film a day in drawings,” says Jones, “so you see what I mean about the head of a pin. And of course, I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds and even thousands of preliminary sketches that we do in laying out a show. Those are all discarded as we do the finish drawings for film.”
Nor did he mention the background paintings t h a t must be done for every scene, just as a live action film must have sets. But the details of getting an animated special on the air are so infinite that Jones hesitates to try to describe everything. One of his favorite answers to people who ask him what he does is, “I produce whimsy by the yard.”
The next interview was with June Foray. A few mistakes still are in the article which is typical of newspapers writing about cartoons during this time (she is credited as the voice of Alvin and Depatie-Freleng is spelled wrong). Also, the reporter includes himself in the interview, making it a bit sporadic. In the special, she voices Pogo, Mam’selle Hepzibah, and Miz Weevil.
Pogo’s New Picture (The Honolulu Advertiser May 16, 1969) By Vernon Scott
“Pogo,” the precious little opossum of the comic strip, comes to animated life this month in a television special featuring the inhabitants of the Okefenokee swamp.
Illusion shattering though it may be, the public is entitled to know that the voice of Pogo belongs to June Foray, a voice specialist who has provided vocal cords for virtually thousands of animated cartoon characters as well as live actors.
A tiny woman with huge eyes, Miss Foray’s voice ranges from bass to soprano. She provides the voice for Rocky and Natasha in the “Bullwinkle” show; Jerry in “Tom and Jerry” and Alvin the chipmunk. Her versatile epiglottis also gives voice to assorted woodpeckers, bears, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens and skunks. Give June an animal and she will give it a voice.
“When I was hired to play Pogo, the director said he wanted a straight young southern boy voice about 12 years old,” June said, giving a brief sample of Pogo’s drawl.
“We decided against a hokey cartoon character for him.”
Titled “Pogo Special Birthday Special,” the redundantly named show will be beamed in Hawaii via KHON Saturday night at 6 o’clock, but it is not Pogo’s birthday. It is Porky Pine’s birthday.
And how does that grab you?
In addition to doing Pogo’s voice, June will speak for six other characters in the show, including Miss Mamselle Hepzibah, a skunk with a French accent.
“I can do every accent and dialect in the world,” June said without fear of contradiction.
“What about upper Mongolian?”
June has worked for every major cartoon studio in Hollywood Disney, Hanna-Barbera, MGM, DePatie-Freling, Walter Lantz and Jay Ward.
Often she will dash to three different studios in a single day to record a variety of voices. Not infrequently she plays multiple roles and finds that she is talking to herself in the course of the dialogue for cartoon characters.
In the process, June Foray has become a wealthy woman. Like Mamie Nixon, who sings for tone-deaf stars, June is heard more often than seen, although she has appeared with Red Skelton and others.
“It’s a very specialized field,” June concluded.
“There are about 100 people in the business, but only six or seven of us work regularly.”
They are stars in their own rights, but only people who work behind the scenes in Hollywood know them.
Source Credits and thanks to Kurtis Findley, Jim Korkis, the Levitows (Jon, Judy, and Roberta), Linda Jones Clough, Todd Kausen, Mark Evanier, and the Van Eaton Galleries