ANIMATION ANECDOTES
August 9, 2019 posted by Jim Korkis

Pogo Special Birthday Special

SUSPENDED ANIMATION #227

Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip was first nationally syndicated beginning May 1949 so 1969 was considered its official 20th anniversary even though the characters had previously appeared in Dell Comics and briefly in The New York Star newspaper.

Proctor and Gamble took notice and decided to sponsor a half hour television special featuring the characters.

Because of his success with the animated special How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) that had proven itself an annual reissue, Chuck Jones was selected as director (with Ben Washam co-directing) and co-producer (with Walt Kelly) in the hopes that the Pogo special would perhaps start an animated franchise like the one with the Peanuts characters.

In fact, as Selby Kelly stated in a 1985 interview with Bill Crouch, “I believe they had originally planned a series, because one of the guys at the studio was collecting information from Kelly books, ideas that Chuck Jones thought would make a good picture. And Kelly did two or three more storyboards also.”

Jones also supplied the voices for the characters of Porkypine, Bun Rab and Basil the butterfly. June Foray did the voices of Pogo, Mam’selle Hepzibah and Miz Weevil while Les Tremayne performed as Churchy La Femme and Beauregard Hound.

Animators included Hal Ambro, Carl Bell, George Nicholas, Tom Ray, Phil Roman, Richard Thompson, Lloyd Vaughan and Ben Washam. Bob Inman did the backgrounds from Don Morgan’s layouts.

To help promote the show, Proctor and Gamble produced six vinyl figures of the characters. These measure between four to five inches tall each and were given away with boxes of Proctor and Gamble soap products (like Biz, Spic and Span, Downy and Top Job). They are often referred to as the Oxydol figures.

The actual prototypes were done by creator Walt Kelly in plasticine clay when he was unhappy with the first versions that were done. Reportedly, he was so infuriated he punched the Pogo figure in the nose, flattening its face. Kelly did original “point-of-purchase” art for the toys as well.

Kelly wrote the special, did the storyboard, designed some layouts, did some animation and supplied the voices for the characters of Albert, P.T. Bridgeport and Howland Owl as well as being the co-producer.

“It was pretty damned inconvenient commuting to the (west) coast on alternate weeks and the picture itself was a lot of trouble,” Kelly told Editor & Publisher magazine for its April 19, 1969 issue.

Kelly might come out for a two week period and then go back to New York for a week or two and then back. The production was done in Chuck Jones’ Tower 12 studio and Kelly had a room on the twelfth floor there where he worked on his syndicated strips when not involved with the show. Whenever he returned to New York, some of his original drawings would be stolen out of his room.

The half hour special premiered on NBC on May 18,1969 and received strong ratings but mediocre reviews. The Nielson ratings estimated that approximately fifteen million people watched the show that night.

According to the press release, “Porkypine, who doesn’t have any family gets the surprise of his life when Pogo invents a holiday for him, The Family Birthday, and the folk of the Okefenokee join in the celebration. This all comes about while the others are trying to decide on their favorite holidays, and it is discovered that Porkypine doesn’t celebrate any because he doesn’t have anyone to celebrate with (because he is a ‘norphan’).” In addition, the bashful Porkypine tries to woo Mam’selle Hepzibah throughout the special while upset that all his friends are planning some sort of party but he is not invited.

However, as much as he respected director and co-producer Chuck Jones and his work, Kelly was unhappy at how Jones was handling his beloved characters. In general, he felt that Jones kept hijacking his story when Kelly went back to New York and cut out all the gags and shifted the story to a more sentimental tone.

At one point Kelly and Jones stopped talking directly to each other and used animator Ben Washam as their go-between. Washam said he was uncomfortable being put in that position because he had great respect for both men.

Kelly found a sympathetic ear several nights from layout artist Don Morgan over drinks at the famous Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where Kelly was staying in Hollywood. In fact, in late 1969, Kelly introduced a new cat into the Sunday Pogo comic strip modeled after a cat belonging to the executive manager of the hotel and Kelly later asked Morgan to “ghost” the strip when Kelly became ill.

In addition, working on the special, Kelly met Selby Daley who later became his third wife.

As Selby remembered in an interview with animator Nancy Beiman in 1984 that appeared in Cartoonist PROfiles magazine, “Frank Braxton asked me to work as his assistant at MGM because I wanted a steady income. He had cancer and had to go back into the hospital so I was at MGM without any particular person to work with. Kelly and I met and he asked that I be his assistant.

“My duty was to check on all the people who were drawing the characters for the Pogo TV special and to make sure that they were all drawing them the same because we didn’t have model sheets. Kelly didn’t want the characters pinned down. I got the essence of what Kelly wanted from him and I was the liaison between him and the staff.”

Selby remembered in the 1985 interview with Crouch, “As a production person I looked for model sheets, and when I discovered there weren’t any, I asked Kelly’s permission to do them. Of course, I didn’t do the drawing myself. I took a bunch of Kelly’s drawings including some Pogo books, photocopied them, cut them out and made the model sheets that way.”

As Don Morgan who did the layouts for the special recalled, “It was done in honor of the strip’s 20th anniversary and got good ratings. Chuck wanted to ‘Jones-ize the Kelly stuff.

“Walt (Kelly) respected Chuck’s expertise and pretty much deferred to him. Walt didn’t think his comic strip would work in animation. On the printed page you could see the play on words and you could take your time and discover that what the characters were saying could be taken in many ways. But the special still turned out to be a pretty looking thing.”

Ward Kimball in a 1981 interview with Thomas Andrae and Geoffrey Blum recalled that the last time he saw Kelly was”right after the Pogo half-hour TV show that Chuck Jones directed. When I had lunch with him at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood, I asked him, ‘How did you ever okay Chuck’s Pogo story?’ Oh, that made him mad.

“He said, ‘That’s not the way I wrote it. He took all the sharpness out of it and put in that sweet saccharine stuff that Chuck Jones always thinks is Disney, but isn’t.’ He said that when he left that final storyboard, it was the way it should have been on TV; he had gone over every little detail. I don’t know how Chuck had the temerity to change it, but he did. That was the last time I saw Kelly—in a towering rage!”

41 Comments

  • I love the work of both Walt Kelly and Charles M. Jones, but I think that Mr. Jones really should have deferred to Mr. Kelly for that animated special. After all, they _were_ Kelly’s characters. As I understand it, Kelly wanted to sue Jones if not kill him.

  • This special was a very big deal when it aired. It made the Pogo characters accessible to kids like me who didn’t comprehend much of the political satire of the comic strip. Once I had seen this special and understood the characters, I became a big fan of the comic strip and started reading it regularly. If Walt Kelly had realized how many new readers he would gain from the special, he might have been less dissatisfied. The plastic Pogo figures were well-crafted and durable. I collected every one of them, and some of them twice. My mother bought so much Biz bleach it lasted for about a year. And thanks to this special, Pogo became popular with my friends as well. You could mention Pogo anywhere. People knew what you were talking about. “We have met the enemy and he is us” became a catchphrase.

    • I don’t think Kelly was dissatisfied because Jones took out political satire; there wasn’t any to take out, even in Kelly’s original intended version.

      Kelly was dissatisfied because Jones created room to add extended sentimental sequences—extending Porkypine’s story arc, and voiced by Jones himself—by slashing out comedy business and stronger roles for other characters.

      I do enjoy the show, but it’s rather transparently The Porkypine Show with supporting roles for everybody else, and as such inevitably disappointing.

    • I think the special was as well done as was possible in 1969. Chuck Jones had the best studio and the best reputation. His own art style was as close as any studio could get to Walt Kelly during that era. Both Walt Kelly and Chuck Jones used a lot of dialogue. And both kept their work very gentle. The networks were hearing complaints about violence in cartoons and I think Chuck Jones was sensitive to this. I would have preferred more Albert but I don’t think smoking characters would go over in the late 60’s. I also wonder if more visual comedy would have caused the film to go over-budget.

  • A longtime Pogo fan(late ’50s). Still amazed thinking of the behind the scenes thinking with P&G on making the show. Kelly’s dailies were so political left leaning-how was that going to sell detergent,especially in the era of Vietnam,Tricky Dick and the murders of MLK Jr. & RFK? The Sunday strips,made for kids,had potential but even there Jones softened the ideas. Some of those Sunday strips hearkened back to the Marx Bros.or Mad Magazine(RIP). Kelly loved both the political jabs and the nonsense. Oh,how her loved the nonsense and fooling around with words. Besides the figures, P&G had a series of plastic mugs with a character decal. The mug was a standard oft-used mold with a pointed handle-I’ve never seen one in the wild without the end snapped off a bit. And that was it. A shame Pogo & friends never made it to become Soaky toys. Soaky was a bubble bath that came in a three-dimensional.bottle shaped like cartoon characters of the day. When emptied,the bottle was a toy.
    So much to discuss about the show. As Jones ruined Tom & Jerry,so ,too,he screwed up Pogo. I have a bootleg VHS(an unintentional buy,my last on Ebay,but the dealer knew it was fraud and refunded). and it’s not that the show didn’t age well,there were problems after seeing it on TV 50 years ago. You gotta know the background of the critters,especially Ma’m’sell Hepzibah-a romance between a possum and a skunk?Jones invented Pepe Le Pew,but this is beyond Jones’ reach. Just reading how Wiki tries to describe the swamp folk-how could anyone ever see the beauty and fun by reading those descriptions. Walt was a pretty complex guy-a newspaper guy hiding behind cartooning-no wonder he was a drunk,too. But I love everything he did. I’m still catching up. He left the world just weeks before my first kid was born,but I made sure the kid knew about Pogo.

    • Thanks Mac for putting the Soaky jingle (“Soaky gets you clean with oceans full of fun”) in my head!

    • That’s, “Soaky soaks you clean…”

    • Recall June Foray telling an interviewer that Jones and/or Kelly directed her to do Pogo as a preteen Southern boy. In the strip, Pogo, Porky and Beauregard would periodically “court” her like shy youths of another era, wearing straw hats and bringing musical instruments to serenade her. The presence of supposed rivals never seemed to be a problem. They didn’t evidence any interest in going beyond that, and in fact panicked if Hepzibah said something flirtatious. So the TV special did get that aspect mostly right.

      Read elsewhere that one of Kelly’s frustrations with Jones is that the latter redesigned Hepzibah’s face to be sexy human instead of cute animal.

    • Ruined Tom and Jerry? I think that going a bit too far. I thought some of them were way better than the Rembrandt films to be honest.
      As for the special, I have the MGM clamshell tape form the mid-80’s and found it to be a bit over my head just like the comic strip.

  • Michael Maltese told the story in Mike Barrier’s book that even during Chuck’s best years at Warners, he and others on the staff had to pull him back from time to time from being both too cute and too in love with his own sophistication. That’s probably what the story here needed — a little more cynicism of the kind Maltese brought to Jones’ stories, to where Mike’s loss become obvious almost immediately after he left the studio (and Chuck on The Grinch not only worked with Ted Guisel, but also with Irv Spector, who had been the most cynical, Maltese-like storyman on the east coast in the 1950s and early 60s. Jones needed an anchor to keep him away from ODing on coyness, and he didn’t have one on the Pogo special).

    • If that’s the case, then how come the poignant and cynical (but not cute) “The Dot and the Line” was successful? Neither Irv or Mike were involved with this adaptation of Juster’s book.

    • Not everything Jones did on his own was a failure, and in the case of his Oscar at MGM, the source material prevented Jones from getting caught in one of his worst habits, of excessively cute/coy facial expressions just for the sake of cute poses. Dots, lines and squiggles don’t lend themselves to that in the same way Chuck went overboard on some of the facial expressions in his concurrent Tom & Jerry efforts (which were still better than the ones Abe Levitow did, FWIW).

    • FWIW, it’s almost unanimously agreed that Maurice Noble was the real director of “The Dot and the Line” and that Chuck had to take the screen credit for contractural purposes.

    • Maurice was certainly proud of THE DOT AND THE LINE and his work on it. But in my numerous conversations with him about his relationship with Chuck Jones (which, at the time, was still ongoing, as Maurice did some consulting on the cartoons Jones was making), I never heard him complain about being denied proper credit for it.

    • Harry—I never heard Noble complaining about the credits for the cartoon, either. There is some MGM correspondence that made it clear he was the cartoon’s real auteur, whatever the credits read.

  • I loved the Special when it came out — my mom was a big fan, and she converted me — but I was always disturbed that it didn’t really have an ending. Pretty true to the characters, though.

  • I have all six Pogo figures. Porky came off a detergent box back in the day and I gradually acquired the rest cheap as they appeared in thrift shops and such over the decades. Always puzzled by the muffler on Albert. Perhaps a remnant of the special’s subplot of Albert and Beauregard as would-be Santas?

    There was a Pogo movie, which I caught most of on cable a few decades hence. That one made a number of bizarre choices, foremost among them the use of stop motion animation. The production looked good and on-model, if memory serves, but like the special it lost the hearty slapstick feel of Kelly’s drawing style.

  • I am a big fan of the incomplete animated special called “We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us”, directed and produced by Walt and Selby Kelly, and mostly drawn (and colored by them). It is a very beautiful production and has some real ideas in it, unlike the Birthday Special, about pollution in the Okefenokee Swamp; even more timely today. Sadly, Walt Kelly did not live to see the special completed, but it is well worth viewing.
    I was a frequent visitor to the Sunset and Vine tower when the Pogo special was being made. Sadly, I never did get to meet Walt Kelly, but I saw his drawing room there. It was filled with the most beautiful storyboards with large panels, rendered in colored pencil and graphite, much like the way “We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us” turned out. I remember a long sequence that looked like some of the Sunday pages, with Albert and Pogo on a see-saw, going up and down and eventually sailing through the air, catapaulted off the see-saw and splashing in a tub of water, or mud, I can’t remember now. I was very excited at the quality of Kelly’s drawings and was a little disappointed that the Birthday Special didn’t look more like them.

  • Interesting version of what actually happened.

  • Unwatchable, and it’s definitely mostly Jones’s failure, but I think the narrative that Kelly got bamboozled out of proper authorship, as purported by Ward Kimball, is too simplistic. Milt Gray’s recollection of a blind stinking drunk Kelly going up to the penthouse at the studio to consume more alcohol during the workday is most suggestive. Jones often battled with his collaborators—his with Maltese seemed to be the most fruitful to animation history (and Jones himself knew it), and he and Maurice Noble were always at each others’ throats (one of their biggest spats was in the ’90s right after Chariots of Fur, that’s why Bob Givens was brought in to do layout for those productions). Mark’s memories of beautiful storyboards say Kelly really was into “Special Birthday Special” it at one point, and since when was Walt Kelly _not_ up for a fight for his vision? Clearly alcoholism at age 65 claimed the fight needed to collaborate with Jones and his ego.

    • When I used to talk with Maurice in the CHARIOTS OF FUR era, the most heartfelt complaint I remember him making about Jones was that Jones had never invited him out for lunch, just the two of them. His increasingly poor eyesight certainly played a major role in his cutting back of work. He did do some work for Turner Animation, and consulted on Jones projects, in part as a courtesy to Chuck. But doing even a single layout drawing, as he did for some limited-edition Jones cels, was a laborious job and required the use of a magnifying device. I don’t think he would have been able to lay out a cartoon even if he’d wanted to do so.

    • Thad: Interesting perspective. One thing though, Kelly was actually *55* at the time “The Pogo Special Birthday Special” was made.

    • Guys working for Chuck have told me “something weird” happened between him and Maurice at the time (’94), which is why he went over to Turner – but as Harry says, he still did some work for Chuck on and off. Some even suggested Mike Barrier’s critique of their partnership in “Hollywood Cartoons” did real damage to their relationship (if it did, they’re thinner skinned than I’d like to believe). We may have to defer to the fact that humans are complicated, and I couldn’t imagine any artists with deserved healthy egos could have anything but a complicated relationship with each other. Also apologies for the typos in the earlier comment that resulted in aging Walt Kelly ten years older.

    • Thad — Of course, I now wish that whenever Maurice said anything relating to his career, I’d either recorded it or immediately written it down. I don’t remember anything he specifically said about the CHARIOTS OF FUR experience. A bit after that, however, he was not especially excited at the prospect of working on further Jones projects but sometimes did so, in part out of respect for Jones, who was persistent in requesting Maurice’s participation.

      In fact, on some of the ones where Maurice got a credit, he did not do much (this is by his own account) and maybe the whole deal was kind of a kabuki-like expression of mutual respect. It was a complex relationship and I’m sure that Maurice’s vision problems made it easier for him to step back from this work.

      On DOT AND THE LINE, as a work of pure design, it’s almost Maurice’s cartoon by definition. There are a lot of 1960s Jones cartoons where the vivid Noble designs overpowered Jones’ in-decline direction in a way that wasn’t helpful, but not that one.

    • All I can say is that in a visit with Maurice at his home, he showed me the letters from the MGM executives about their gratitude to him about “The Dot and the Line” and its Oscar win. It was not difficult to read between the lines that they were congratulating him as the director, which from almost all accounts he was but in name only. Maurice was not complaining, as such, but more resigned to the fact that the credit had to be assigned to another individual for bureaucratic and Hollywood reasons. He knew the truth of the matter.

  • Despite what I have read over the years, I personally like the special and would have not known the working relationship was troubled without having read about it. I don’t see it on the screen. Walt Kelly, rightfully so, was protective of his creation but on such a profound personal level that I can not see it in the final production, just like the Pogo figure he punched in face.
    Speaking of which, after almost 40 years I have almost all of them except Beauregard.

    • My complete set came from my then-fiance who paid a bit too much but knew I wouldn’t spend that kind of money on myself. After 25+ years,she is still doing stuff like that in my life and the set sits above a bunch of Donald Duck figurines. I now have 3 Pogos after finding one attached to a piece of polished granite. This one is still has vibrant colors-I’m suspecting it was in a dark place for a long time. And,like the detergent/toy set up-it was free. The record store guy who found it didn’t care about it. Years ago,my kid drew Pogo snapping his paws with a pair of Sennheiser (yellow foam) headphones,just like the kid’s old man. Framed and one of those figurines stands guard 24/7. Pogo is probably listening to Lambert,Hendricks & Ross sing “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie.”

  • When I was a little boy I found an old Pogo book somewhere in my house. I used to read it over and over, captivated by the artwork and the characters, though the jokes would have flown right over my head. But after a while my parents took it away because, they said, they didn’t want me picking up bad grammar from it.

    The newspaper to which my family subscribed didn’t carry the comic strip, so that brief encounter in early childhood was my only impression of Pogo until I viewed the Special Birthday Special just now. Thank you for posting it and telling the story behind it. For all its faults, it stirred up some long-dormant sentimental memories.

    I wonder: Is “Boston Charlie” in Albert’s version of the Christmas carol the “man who never returned” in the old song by the Kingston Trio?

    • The political satire of Pogo seems to have been a pretty big deal at the time, before you had “adult animation” on TV there was the controversial comic strip Pogo. It’s a little too bad the comic is little known amongst younger generations because yes the politiv satire is dated but the comic is beautiful and lyrical.

    • In this age of General Bonespurs adoration of Roy Cohn (chief counsel for McCarthy, thanks to J. Edgar Hoover), Kelly’s ideas are still resonating as evil is back in style.

      It is quite possible that Kelly’s daily pants pulling on McCarthy was as effective as Edward R. Murrow and Joe Welch’s “Have you left no sense of decency” condemnation of McCarthy during Senate hearings. Not on the editorial pages, but alongside Blondie & Mary Worth, for all ages and all educational levels, for daily consumption.

      In 1968, Walt had to provide inoffensive strips for offended newspapers to run instead of merely banning the political ones. These are known as the “bunny strips”, cute drawings featuring bunnies and nothing offensive, in a similar manner as Kelly’s Sunday strips that were always kid friendly, yet still filled with a decent amount of nonsense of a different kind.

  • As a kid, my mother made sure that we got all of the figurines and drinking glasses produced to promote this show.

    Several decades later, when I used to visit Maurice Noble at his home often, he had the Pogo figure on a shelf of knickknacks in his kitchen. Maurice didn’t work on the Pogo special, but he told me that he was at the studio the day when a box arrived containing the figures. Kelly opened it, pulled out the Pogo, and–displeased with what he saw–flung it across the room. Maurice retrieved it and kept it.

    After telling me this story, Maurice asked me if I’d like to have the figure–which, of course, I very much would have. After making the offer, he seemed to hesitate and I let him retract it. I hope the figure still around somewhere and that there’s at least a tiny chance it’s in the possession of someone who knows the backstory.

  • Where did I read about Disney, at one point in the 1950s, talking about making a Pogo feature? (I think it was reported in at least one media outlet at the time it was supposedly in the works.) It could have been incredible–but probably only if Ward Kimball had been in charge.

    I assume it didn’t go anywhere and that’s why we’ve seen no art from it.

  • CLASSICTOONSFANS through the reprint volumes being published by Fantagraphics (and reportedly selling well) a new generation is discovering Pogo.

    • The reprints are beautiful, but as wonderful as Pogo is the political satire is so old it might as well be from another world for younger readers. I do think it can live on but I think fan art, fan animations, and so on could help. I can imagine Pogo being adapted as an animated film or a VR game. The reprints are helping but I think Pogo living on in a more popular format would definitely help people see the brilliance of the source material.

    • Yes, I love those books and purchased them all, even though I collected all the Pogo books printed while Walt Kelly was still alive and creating the strip. These are great looking and very funny comics that any fan of classic animation and comics should want to own. And this is the first time all the strips are being collected!

    • It might be a good idea to publish an annotated edition of Pogo for students of satire, as is done with Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift. The same goes for Li’l Abner.

    • Paul Groh’s comment above:

      “It might be a good idea to publish an annotated edition of Pogo for students of satire, as is done with Aristophanes and Jonathan Swift. The same goes for Li’l Abner.”

      There IS an annotated edition of Pogo – for Pogophiles, as well as others. Fantagraphics Press is right in the middle of it. (They’re the same people who published the complete Peanuts strips in chronological order from beginning to end in about 20 volumes.) Fantagraphics produced Pogo Vol. 5 (1957-8) last year, and will be producing Vol. 6 (1959-60) in a few months. Some of the commentary at the end is wrong, though.

      Pogo is more timely now than some of you might think. A recent biography of Kelly comments on that. There is certainly some similarity between Communist witch-hunts in the 1950s and some of the things that are going on now. (I don’t want to get too political about this.)

  • I had the “I Go Pogo” book when I was a kid, and I enjoyed it, although much of the satire was over my head at the time. The art, whimsy and characterization was more than enough to win over my 10-year-old self.
    Selby tried to continue the strip after her husband passed, and I remember one critic remarking it was “like ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ with Rich Little instead of Jimmy Stewart.” And I read the Larry Doyle/Neal Sternecky reboot in the ’80s; their heart was in the right place, at least. Pogo was very much Walt Kelly’s own “baby.”

    • You have a point that even without the political elements Pogo is still a wonderful and timeless work. It certainly was Walt Kelly’s work but the fact is if there would be an animated film or a video game tons of people who have never even heard of Pogo would become interested. New works based off the characters might not be as good as the source material but if it’s done properly there can still be a lot of whimsy. And a lot more recognition for Kelly’s masterpiece.

      The best comic strips immerse you into other worlds better then any medium except for VR. Pogo is one of the comic greats and it is great to see it get more recognition. Hopefully it’ll live on for decades to come.

  • Chuck Jones appeared on the “Today” show on NBC in the 8:30 to 9:00 AM Eastern time slot in the days leading up to the Pogo special being aired. It was the first time I had ever seen Chuck Jones on TV. They teased it all morning and I was getting nervous as the show wore on and it didn’t appear because I had to get to school by 9 AM. I managed to see it and then raced out the door and ran as fast as I could so as not to be late.

  • Imagine what an animated Pogo would have been like made by Kelly’s alma mater (you know the one, named for that other Walt). Move over, Pooh. With Sherman Brothers songs yet!

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