In my previous Cartoon Research article, I shared two interviews with Chuck Jones and June Foray about the making of the Pogo Birthday Special. In this post, I am focusing on the perspective of Chuck Jones’s grandson Todd. The initial idea for a Pogo Birthday Special came from then seven-year-old Todd asking his mom, Linda when their family birthday was. This sparked Chuck’s idea for a birthday TV special that would involve Walt Kelly’s classic characters. Todd was given a lot of press for his idea and was pictured in newspapers nationwide (as well as in TV Guide). Below are two articles about Todd from newspapers at the time. Following that, an interview with Todd that I conducted for this article. Contrary to some articles about his involvement, Todd wasn’t truly heavily involved in the special’s production. At only seven, he was unfamiliar with the Pogo characters and was too young to understand what was even going on when he was photographed for the press.
Pogo Birthday Special Came from the Children
(The Daily News Leader, May 16, 1969)
Chuck Jones listens to children.
That’s how he got the idea for “The Pogo Special Birthday Special,” an animated musical to be colorcast on NBC Sunday.
“I was discussing birthdays and holidays with my daughter when my 7-year-old grandson, Todd Kausen, asked, ‘When is our family birthday?”
As a result, the family actually voted on a date for the official family birthday when all draw names and exchange gifts just like on Christmas.
“But more than that,” said Jones, “it became the basis for the special, in which Walt Kelly’s comic strip character “Pogo” and his Okefenokee Swamp friends throw a family birthday party for Porky Pine.”
Producer-director Jones, who is head of MGM’s Amination-Visual Arts Division, has other reasons to listen to children. He needs to know what makes them laugh.
Jones is the originator of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, Henry Hawk, and others. He directs these animated cartoons as well as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and others. He produced and directed “The Bugs Bunny Show,” “The Tom and Jerry Show” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” He is a three-time recipient of Academy awards.
“Parents expect children to be surprised,” Jones said. “They expect a child to be overwhelmed by a giraffe. But a cow is just as much to a little child standing under one. The height of a child makes him look up to the towering cow. Did you ever watch a little child walk up to a cow and reach up to pat her on the stomach? A giraffe’s neck doesn’t mean as much.
“When I talk with children, I follow three rules. I never ask how old they are, what grade they’re in, and I never comment on how much they’ve grown since I last saw them. This is comparable to talking about the weather. It is patronizing. It proves we are lost for words.
“After hearing these questions so many times, the child answers in rote. He is already conditioned to a ‘has-to-answer’ reflex, so he supplies the extra answers and leaves.”
Jones said you communicate with a child by joining his world.
“Ask a child, ‘Have you ever been bitten by a bee?’ ” he suggested.
“He can answer this with a personal experience, a recognizable peril, or with an opinion. If he has been ‘bitten’ by a bee, he’ll tell you about it. If he has not, he’ll respond with something like, ‘No, but I saw a great big worm once . . You can become a person he relates to now. You’re sharing his world, not imposing yours upon him.
“I think I communicate with children,” said Jones, “but I think it’s because I listen to them.”
A Little Child Talked… and a big producer listened
(Progress Bulletin May 18, 1969)
The show is The Pogo Birthday Special (airing Sunday at 8:30 PM on NBC). And the child is 7-year-old Todd Kausen of Newport Beach, California whose grandfather fortuitously happens to be Chuck Jones, head of the MGM’s animation and visual arts division.
Chuck had mentioned to his daughter, Linda (Todd’s mother) that he was at work on a new television show based on Walt Kelly’s comic strip, Pogo. And Linda, in turn, was telling her children, Todd. Craig, 5, and Valerie, 3 that Pogo was going to be on a TV show and in the show he would give a surprise birthday party for Porky Pine. He’d never had a birthday party because he was a “norphan.”
That’s when Todd talked himself into being perhaps the youngest consultant to a TV special in all history.
“When is our FAMILY birthday?” he asked his mother, who in turn looked perplexed.
The child pursued: “You have a birthday, and I do, we all do. But when is our FAMILY birthday?”
As is normal in democratic families, the clan gathered when father Robert, a chemical engineer, got home from work and arbitrarily decided on their Family Birthday. It turned out to be June 10, their parents’ anniversary which grandfather Chuck surmises was picked only because it was far away from everyone else’s natal day in the family.
And what of Todd, now that he came up with his idea of the year? is he lionized at school? besieged for autographs from his peers? ready to become a dropout and go into showbiz fulltime?
Don’t you believe it! No one would accept his story until his mother brought him up to Hollywood to pose for pictures with his grandfather and Walt Kelly at work at their drawing boards. And only grudgingly did the neighborhood kids then stop challenging the idea that a 7-year-old could actually say something that some grownups would take seriously.
Could be that Family Birthdays might become the next darling of the merchants after Mother’s and Father’s Days. Beats Arbor Day all hollow—unless you’re a dog. That’s for sure.
An Interview with Todd Kausen…
KS: From your point of view, how did the Pogo Birthday Special come about?
TK: Well, I can certainly speak to what occurred to me as a seven-year-old back then. And it was that I remember very specifically driving in the car and being in the back seat of an old station wagon with the family. While on the road, I remember just sort of thinking about the family itself and how everybody had a birthday. My mom had a birthday, my dad had a birthday, my brother, and so on. So I was thinking in the car about our family unit, and it just sort of occurred to me as a seven-year-old to ask when’s our family birthday. I don’t know why but it just seemed like another unit to me at the time. When I asked Linda, she said, “I don’t know, I think it would be our anniversary.” By this meaning between her and my dad. But I thought that an anniversary wasn’t a birthday. It’s an anniversary. I was looking for something a little more specific. I guess it was such an interesting and unique question that Linda told Chuck about it. After that, I don’t know what specifically happened other than that idea was incorporated into the special.
KS: Were you a fan of Pogo growing up? I’m just wondering why Walt Kelly’s characters were chosen.
TK: I never really read comic strips growing up. I wasn’t familiar with those characters. I can only suppose, though, that they had already been in talks with Walt Kelly about doing a special when all of this happened. I don’t think this would’ve generated a b-line for Walt Kelly. I think Walt and Chuck must’ve known each other or had an interaction about maybe doing something. Or maybe Walt was looking for somebody to do his animation to bring something to a TV special, and somehow Chuck and Walt knew each other. I don’t know anything about their professional or personal relationship though, so I don’t know whether any of this was the case. It may have already been well underway before a family birthday was even discussed. I don’t really know.
KS: What did you think when you finally saw the special?
TK: I haven’t seen the special in probably fifty years. But I remember seeing it at the time but not really thinking anything about it. In hindsight, it was interesting to be part of the publicity of the show. They took pictures of me, and they had to buy me a little Brooks Brothers suit. That was all new to me as well.
KS: Did you enjoy all of the attention? When I was seven, I would’ve hated the idea of having to wear a suit and take pictures.
TK: Yes, I was definitely not comfortable. I had never done anything like that before. But I didn’t hate it. It was just weird. It was beyond dressing up for church or a wedding which I hadn’t ever done at that point in my life either. But I also really wasn’t understanding at that age why they had me there. They just briefly told me, “Oh, well, you thought of this family birthday idea,” And all I could think was just okay, whatever. But as a little kid, it was just cool to be in a Hollywood office and to meet Walt Kelly, who just was another old man to me. I don’t know how old he was in 1968. He just seemed like another old man to me, just like Chuck did, even though he wasn’t. He was only around 56 at the time.
KS: When your seven, that makes a difference though.
TK: Yeah, anybody over 20 is an old person. But it was fun to dress up in a suit. Even though I probably never wore it again. I probably grew out of it in six months without another occasion to put it on. I kind of felt special being treated like this. I also think I got a new haircut for this.
KS: Were there a lot of pictures taken?
TK: Yes. I think there is one picture that was taken of me sitting at a light board. Walt Kelly had sketched a picture of Pogo’s head, and the photographers told me to grab a pencil and fake like I had just drawn it. Even then, though, I never thought anybody would believe that. They wanted it cute for publicity. But I didn’t know what it was for or what exactly the word publicity even meant.
KS: There is one photo of you on the piano.
TK: Yes, that was obviously staged as well. I didn’t understand what was going on. But that turned out to be a cute picture.
TK: I can tell you the only other memory I have of that special as well. I can’t remember why but part of the publicity was that they sent it all to TV Guide, which was obviously the big TV publication at the time. Everybody got TV Guide at that time to see what would be on the five channels that were out there and to plan your week around that week’s printed guide of TV shows. And for some reason, I think I may have missed a day of school to shoot that. They took me up there in the middle of the day, and I think it was like on a Friday. And then when the TV Guide arrived. I can’t remember the timing, but I arrived late for school and when I walked into the classroom, everybody had already seen the TV Guide and was applauding me. The whole class cheered as if I was some sort of celebrity. The newspaper had already been clipped on the chalkboard like they’ve already talked about it. It was a very weird feeling to get a little microcosm of fame.
KS: At one time, I spoke to your brother Craig about the special. He said you got paid. I think he might have been exaggerating, but he said you got like $100 dollars.
TK: No no, I have no idea where he got that number. I actually can tell you how much I got paid. I received a seventy five dollar savings bond. At the time, I was disappointed that I was could not use the money. However, I eventually used it to buy myself a mini bike.
KS: You were credited on the special.
TK: Yes, I actually have the cels in which I was credited hanging in my living room. I can share them with you if you’d like.
KS: From my knowledge, you are the only relative of Chuck’s to be specifically named in a Chuck Jones production.
KS: Yes. You were mentioned in a Crawford strip in which Crawford beat your discus record. Do you remember that at all?
TK: Yes, I remember that well. That was the one where Crawford beat my discus record because he was throwing a frisbee. I think Chuck was a little disappointed because when he got permission to use the word frisbee, he had to call it a “frisbee disc” because that was their copyrighted name.
KS: Were you a good discus thrower?
TK: Yes. I was a league champion discus thrower in high school.
KS: Why do you think that they wanted to do a Pogo special? I have always been under the impression that MGM wanted to match the success of the Peanuts specials.
TK: That makes perfect sense to me. They saw the success of the Peanuts franchise and that TV specials were doing well with them. But, of course, the final product didn’t blow anybody’s socks off.
KS: Yes, I don’t think that Chuck matched Kelly’s style well. He worked well with Norton Juster and Dr. Seuss’s characters. But he didn’t capture that charm of Kelly’s work.
KS: Do you have any other memories you could share of Chuck?
TK: Yes. I’ve got to tell you one personal story that happened while we were at dinner one night. So, this was so cool to me, just knowing who he is. One night we were all sitting at dinner in a restaurant, probably ten of us. So it was a long table with two people sitting at the end, and I was next to Chuck on one end. He was at the head of the table. I think that we had already ordered, and we were waiting for our food. While others were engrossed in conversation, Chuck was not. He was just sitting there, and I wasn’t part of the conversation either. So, I looked at him. He had positioned a spoon and fork end to end and set it up with one overlapping the other. And then, he slapped down on the fork, and the spoon landed perfectly in his water glass. It was just like a mic drop moment. My jaw dropped, and I asked him if he could do it again. He said, “Oh no, that’s all.” To me, that was hilarious that he was able to pull something off like that on the first try.
Here as an added bonus courtesy of my friend Tim Hollis is audio of Les Tremayne talking about the Pogo birthday special for a Pogo fan club meeting. This audio hasn’t been shared to anyone since it was first recorded back in 1992. In the audio, Tremayne talks briefly about working on the special and he does a short routine recreating his Churchy and Beauregard voices. Thanks to Tim for letting me share it on Cartoon Research.
Thanks to Todd Kausen, Linda Jones Clough, Craig Kausen, Tim Hollis, Mark Arnold, Jim Korkis, and Kurtis Findley