A vinyl-sided look at the enduring legend of a beneficent bear whose paths crossed with James Cagney, Walt Disney, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson—even Bullwinkle J. Moose!
“ANYONE CAN MOVE A MOUNTAIN”
and “BALLAD OF SMOKEY THE BEAR”
From the Videocraft TV Musical Spectacular “Ballad of Smokey the Bear”
The Harry Simeone Chorale
Columbia Records (7” 45 rpm single)
Released in 1980. Music and Lyrics: Johnny Marks. Running Time: 5 minutes.
Walt Disney and Bambi were partially responsible for the creation of Smokey Bear. The U.S. Forest Service was ramping up public participation in fire prevention the same year Bambi was released and Disney granted the service one year’s use of the characters from the feature as mascots for the program. Obviously, it worked, because after the contract ended, they had to come up with a new character. In 1944, a fictional bear was dubbed “Smokey” after New York City fireman “Smokey” Joe Martin, a victim of severe burns (one wonders if Pablo, “The Penguin Who Hated the Cold” in The Three Caballeros, named his stove “Smokey Joe” after the same person).
As the Smokey Bear website timeline chronicles, the character has remained a robust and powerful example of “cause marketing.” There is a walk-around Smokey that visits kids. He’s been honored on a postage stamp. NASA sent him into space. Disney did not cease its support of fire prevention programs and created public service announcements that combined Smokey and Bambi, like this one from 1964.
The reason his name often has “the” added into the middle is because of things like the popular song introduced by country star Eddy Arnold written by Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, who also wrote “Frosty the Snowman” and “Peter Cottontail.” Musically, it just works better. The song was recorded many times, especially by children’s record labels like Golden and Peter Pan. The singer of the Peter Pan version is listed as “Johnny Jones.”
Golden Books also added “the” for its never-out-of-print 1955 storybook originally titled The True Story of Smokey the Bear. The story was called “true” because a real-life bear was actually rescued from a tall tree in the midst of a 1950 forest fire. This living symbol was a celebrity, getting thousands of letters every week, until he passed away in 1976.
Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass had enjoyed a successful partnership with General Electric with their first two animated specials, Return to Oz and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Both aired under the umbrella title of the “GE Fantasy Hour” in 1964 and were rerun in 1965. Rudolph in particular was such a success that GE ordered a third “Fantasy Hour” from what was then called Videocraft International (but soon to be Rankin/Bass Productions).
All three specials were born from astute marketing and programming strategy on the part of NBC, GE, Rankin (who was previously an art director at ABC) and Bass (who was an advertising copywriter). Return to Oz was a good choice since MGM’s The Wizard of Oz had already been an annual TV event since 1956 and Videocraft could draw elements and resources from its previous syndicated Tales of the Wizard of Oz cartoon series.
Rudolph made sense because the holiday special market had not really been tapped except for Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol in 1962.
On Thanksgiving Day morning in 1966, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade introduced the new Smokey Bear balloon. While other networks would not have mentioned it, NBC—which traditionally still offers the widest Macy’s broadcast coverage—took advantage of its deliberate presence to tie it into the brand-new animated musical spectacular airing later that same day: Ballad of Smokey the Bear, told by James Cagney.
GE and NBC were clearly looking to capture lightning in another bottle, as the character of Smokey the cub displays so much of Rudolph the buck’s insecurity and solitude. But rather than a quest, this story stays in one place and allows the family of animals to come up with various solutions, while children at home are given gentle lessons on conservation.
Conservation helped drive the making of the special. According to Arthur Rankin’s own recollections in the book, The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass by Rick Goldschmidt, the producer/director knew that conservation was important to Cagney as well as the Lyndon Johnson White House. The “Keep America Beautiful” campaign had enlisted the support of Lady Bird Johnson the previous year.
Cagney turned Rankin down, so Rankin contacted the Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, who suggested that LBJ appear in live-action during the special. Rankin described his meeting with the President this way:
“He said, ‘Well, we’re really excited about the Smokey the Bear idea. I’d like to help in any way I can. I’ve seen your work and I like it. Who’s going to play Smokey the Bear?’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve been talking to James Cagney.’ President Johnson said, ‘James Cagney! I love James Cagney! I love James Cagney! You give him my very best regards!’”
Rankin knew an executive order when he heard it. Even though Cagney had given him a firm and final “No,” Rankin contacted him again. Cagney asked Rankin to have Johnson sent him a letter asking him to do the special. Orville Freeman took care of it and the deal was made. When Rankin met Cagney at his farm in upstate New York to record the dialogue, Rankin was stunned by the reception:
“He says to me as I walk in, ‘I knew your grandfather. I knew your father and I knew your Aunt Doris.’ He knew them from his days in Vaudeville, but never told me this on the phone.”
Cagney did not play Smokey as President Johnson expected, but instead narrates and takes part in the story as Big Bear, Smokey’s older brother. He is the one who rescues Smokey from the tall tree instead of a human ranger.
Cagney may be the only narrator of a Rankin/Bass musical special who did not sing any songs. The other voices are top New York session singers, stage and commercial actors. Of particular note are William (Bill) Marine, who plays Mr. Turtle. He and musical director Maury Laws went back many years into the Cricket children’s record days when he sang and/or narrated on discs like “Peter Cottontail and the Search for Flopsy’s Tail,” which we mentioned in an earlier Animation Spin.
Also of note are the two actors playing the Beaver couple. Herb Duncan and Rose Marie Jun also played the “New York Cast” version of another animated couple, George and Jane Jetson, on the 1962 Golden Records LP that we explored in this Spin. Rose Marie Jun belted out the immortal “Push Button Blues.”
Ballad of Smokey the Bear remains of one the most obscure of Rankin/Bass films. It has never been released on home video, cable or streaming services. Unless the rights are still tied up in the Cagney estate or something, this low-key production has a year-round play value with virtually no competition from rival Smokey Bear animated properties.
The title song for Ballad of Smokey the Bear was the featured song on this 1969 RCA Camden release, followed by other animal character-related tunes. Richard Wolfe also conducted many albums for the “Do-Re-Mi Children’s Chorus” for Kapp Records, which were very popular in the ‘60s. We featured their Mary Poppins LP here.
Smokey the Bear was an ideal subject for several children’s records. The 1976 Disney read-along featured Lucille Bliss (Cinderella, Crusader Rabbit, Smurfs) reading the entire book with no additional cast, which was unusual for the Jymn Magon-produced read-alongs of the era. In this case, there was very little dialogue. It was adapted from the 1955 Golden Book “true story.” An earlier version was released by Golden Records. New York TV and recording personality Kay Lande (Birthday House) read the text by Jane Werner.
Several actors did the voice of Smokey Bear, including Jack Angel (who voiced him in the 1966 special), Dal McKennon, Roger C. Carmel, Jim Cummings, Gene Moss, George Walsh and presently, Sam Elliott. His original and longest-running voice (though some of these other actors played Smokey as needed along the way), was announcer and radio personality Jackson Weaver.
Weaver was a fixture of the Washington, D.C. airwaves for sixty years on WMAL-AM radio. For 32 of those years, he teamed with Frank Harden for one of the most popular morning drive programs of the era, The Harden and Weaver Show. His voice, familiarity and renown in Washignton made Weaver a natural for the voice of Smokey, beginning in 1947.
When Donald Duck tangled with Humphrey the Bear in the 1956 short In the Bag, there’s a cameo by Smokey and Weaver provides the voice of Smokey for the big screen.
SMOKEY BEAR AND HIS FRIENDS
“KEEP AMERICA BEAUTIFUL”
MGM Leo the Lion Records CH-1014 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Mono)
Released in 1966. Producer: Herb Galewitz. Liner Notes: Lady Bird Johnson. Writer: Feather Schwartz. Musical Director: Frank Metis. Engineer: Bill Syzmczyk. Engineering Director: Val Valentine. Recorded at Regent Sound, New York. Voices: Jackson Weaver, Ron Marshall, Madeline Lee and Ruth Franklin. Running Time: 33 minutes.
Songs: “Go to the People,” “Let’s Keep America Beautiful,” “Love That Eel,” “Remember Me,” “Keep the Highways Clean,” “A Balance of Nature,” “Why Blame Us?” “They’re Spoiling City Air,” “Save Some Water” by Feather Schwartz.
Weaver also voiced Smokey on two children’s albums that were available nationwide for several years. The first one was released the same year as the television special on the MGM Leo the Lion label, called Smokey the Bear and His Friends: Keep America Beautiful. The album’s writer, Feather Schwartz, also authored Casper the Friendly Ghost: A Trip Through Ghostland for Golden Records (see this Spin). Lady Bird Johnson provided a lengthy message to listeners for the liner notes. The script and songs focus on a number of important conservation and safety issues.
One of the voices is singer/actor Ron Marshall, of the Rankin/Bass specials The Year Without a Santa Claus and The Easter Bunny is Comin’ To Town.
SMOKEY BEAR WITH RANGER HAL
Golden Records LP-203 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Mono)
Released in 1967. Producer/Musical Director: Ralph Stein. Running Time: 29 minutes.
Voices: Jackson Weaver (Smokey Bear, Honker); Hal Shaw (Ranger Hal, Oxxie, Dr. Fox); Jere Hathaway Wright (Aunt B.); Ronald E. Nicodemus (Sammy Skunk, Additional Voices); Rosemary Shaw (Additional Voices).
Songs: “We’re Going to Have a Picnic,” “What Do Want To Know About the U.S.A.?” “Smokey and Skunk,” “Poison Ivy,” “The Rules of Smokey Bear,” “Keep America Green,” “Litter, Litter Everywhere,” “My Friend is Ranger Hal,” “Here is America” by Jere Hathaway Wright and Judy Kretsinger.
Golden Records’ album takes a slightly lighter approach with its messaging than the MGM album, adding in some musical emphasis on the animal characters as well. (Interesting vocal note: Hal Shaw coincidentally uses an intellectual “Richard Haydn/Clyde Crashcup” voice for Dr. Fox just as William Marine does for Mr. Turtle in the Rankin/Bass special.)
Jackson Weaver returns as Smokey, with “Ranger Hal” Shaw, a local Washington, D.C. children’s TV host of the sixties (who co-wrote the script with Jere Hathaway Wright). Like most of the Smokey stories, the adventures of his friends in the forest (and the occasional human) tie into important issues of pollution, fire prevention, using a litter bag, etc.
Musical director Ralph Stein brings his specific brand of laid-back easy jazz to the music, much like those on his many other Golden and Pickwick records—for which he made over a hundred different titles. Nashville and New York music Producer Dennis Scott, who is in the running for his third Grammy for the star-driven Thank You Mister Rogers: Music and Memories, started his career at the dawn of Golden Records (which had become Wonderland):
“As experienced as he was, Ralph was just as humble,” Dennis told me. “I never saw him stress out about anything. He was an easy-going guy with a very ‘cool’ vibe about him. I recall him wearing a turtle neck shirt with a gold medallion on a chain around his neck. Ralph understood that the secret to a successful recording session was to hire great players and just get out of the way, so he gave me a free hand in selecting the musicians for the session. Due to budgetary restraints, there were no overdubs and not too many retakes on my very first album, Songs That Tickle Your Funny Bone, Volume Three. He was always encouraging and his calming personality made him one of the finest people I’ve worked within the industry.”
Rankin/Bass starred Weaver in Smokey’s first TV series on ABC in 1969, this time in cel animation by Mushi Studios. The Smokey the Bear Show had its roots in comic books, lifting characters and stories for many of the episodes, none of which came from the 1966 special or any of the records. Johnny Marks’ theme was replaced by an original theme song by Maury Laws and co-producer Jules Bass.
Animation legend Shamus Culhane and famed lyricist Hal Hackady (Snoopy the Musical, which we discussed in this Spin) are given writing credit, but that may or may not be because of the comic book sources. Each half-hour contained two Smokey cartoons with Weaver’s voice and one about cub Smokey played by Billie Mae Richards, the voice of Rudolph. The series was later syndicated.
Smokey really got around, from Rankin/Bass to Disney and even to Jay Ward Productions, where his image appeared in this memorable (and frequently aired) PSA for fire prevention.
Smokey continues keeping us alert for wildfires. A single smoldering ember can exist beneath the brush and when stirred by the wind, that is all it takes for acres or lives and property lost. Even the home of Charles M. Schulz was destroyed by wildfire in 2017.
Your author has had to leave home as wildfires filled the sky with red and black and police bullhorns ordered immediate evacuation. We take Smokey’s warning sign seriously. Quite a “relevant” character for a 76-year-old.