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.
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!”