Suspended Animation #399
Producer Joe Barbera said in 1982, “Even though they’re a happy little group of Smurfs, they have problems too. That’s what life is all about. The days of showing little elves playing around a mushroom are gone forever.
“Our job as adaptors has been to preserve the qualities that make Peyo’s Smurfs so special, while also using our abilities and experience to allow the animated Smurfs to stand on their own as cartoon stars. For a long time you couldn’t give fantasy away. I had to fight to get them to give us an hour.”
It may seem that the animated versions of The Smurfs have been around forever and they certainly seem unable to die with new efforts continually being pumped out although now using CGI. A new animated television series produced in Belgium debuted in 2021.
However, when the Belgian comic book characters debuted on American television in 1981 they were not considered a “sure thing” although they eventually lasted for eight years with seven prime time television specials.
Created in 1957 by the Belgium cartoonist Peyo (Pierre Culliford) in a children’s book, the Schtroumpf (the Flemish word for “watchamacallit”) quickly became one of Europe’s most popular comic characters.
“Schtroumpf” became the more familiar “Smurf” when the strips were translated into English. Each Smurf is blue and named after his personality or trade. These Smurfs work together, play together and have any number of wild adventures. They were hugely popular in Europe with many comic albums as well as heavily merchandised.
It wasn’t until 1979 that these characters began coming over to the U.S. via the Wallace Beerie Company. Fred Silverman, then president of NBC, bought his daughter Melissa one of the dolls in a toy shop in Aspen, Colorado. He commissioned Hanna-Barbera to develop a series, even though NBC had earlier rejected a proposal for a Smurf series.
For the United States though some changes had to be made. The biggest change was the addition of a new character, Smurfette. Peyo’s creation was a totally male universe. There were no females with the exception of some humans. To explain the presence of a single woman, the story crew devised a story where the Smurfs main nemesis, a generally inept sorcerer named Gargamel, creates a female Smurf to trap the blue creatures.
However Papa Smurf uses his magic and turns the scheming vixen into the ever friendly and helpful, Smurfette. (Actually, Peyo used a similar story to introduce a Smurfette in one of his comic adventures, but she did not remain as a regular character.)
This change, along with all the writing and drawing, was under the continual supervision of Peyo. Hanna-Barbera had regular meetings with the creator in Europe where they would show sketches and talk over story ideas.
Peyo also visited the studio several times a year. He had veto power over any storyline, character design, or drawing he didn’t like. In fact, this became somewhat of a problem during the first few shows. Peyo would look at a frame of film and state the drawing was wrong and out of proportion.
The studio had to explain that in animation, the characters would stretch and squash in single drawings, but that it was necessary for the movement to look natural. Peyo had to use an interpreter to communicate with the U.S. studio.
Hanna-Barbera put a special staff in charge of the production headed up by Gerard Baldwin. In the initial years of the show, Baldwin was both producer and story editor. In 1985 Baldwin left the series and several other hands then took over the reins.
Key writers in the first years were Peyo, Baldwin, Yvan Delporte, Len Janson and Chuck Menville. Al Gmuir was in charge of creating the background styles while Phyllis Craig was key colorist.
To voice the head Smurf (Papa Smurf), Hanna-Barbera brought in one of their most reliable veterans, Don Messick. For the continuing villain Gargamel (and others such as Nosey and Baby), Paul Winchell (Jerry Mahoney and Disney’s Tigger) loaned his tones.
Master voice man Frank Welker (Dynomutt, Slimer, Foofur, etc.) spoke for Hefty, Poet, Peewit, Clockwork and others. Other animation greats included Lucille Bliss (the original Crusader Rabbit) as Smurfette and June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel) as Jokey, Mother Nature, etc. Others who supplied voices for Smurfs over the years include Arte Johnson (LAUGH-IN), Alan Young (Disney’s Scrooge McDuck), Avery Schrieber, Janet Waldo (Judy Jetson) and Ed Begley, Jr.
The series debuted as a one hour show September 12, 1981 and quickly became the top rated show on Saturday morning. Though some critics cringed at the soft cuteness in the show, kids couldn’t get enough of these little blue friends.
The show was getting a 44 share, meaning 44 out of every 100 TVs turned on were tuned into the Smurfs. It took NBC from the number three spot to the top rated network for the year. This promptly cancelled NBC’s plans to replace animated shows on Saturdays with a new weekend edition of the TODAY show. NBC retained the top spot for almost the rest of the decade, thanks to the continuing strength of the Smurfs.
Hanna-Barbera gained a new prominence in the animation community due to the quality of the series. Though aimed at young children, the series was well done with generally strong stories, good graphics, a distinctive, classical music score and competent animation.
The year 1981 also saw the Smurfs in their first prime time special. The hour show aired on Sunday night and was really only one of the Saturday morning shows broadcast in prime time. However the added exposure helped boost the ratings on Saturdays. NBC advertised the Smurfs as “The ‘biggest’ little sensations since Charlie Brown!”
The year 1982 saw the Smurfs expand to 90 minutes. To help fill the time, two new characters were introduced, Pee Wee and Johan, the humans whose comic series had spawned the Smurfs. The year also had the series win its first Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Entertainment Series.
To keep the Smurfs fresh, the studio made sure each new season had something new to offer. 1983’s offering was Baby Smurf. Such an event, according to Smurf legend, occurs only once in a blue moon. The third season also won Smurfs their second Emmy.
The 1985-86 season introduced the Smurflings. This group of young Smurfs included Nat, Slouch, and Snappy. They were adult Smurfs reverted to childhood when they fell into a backwards clock in Father Time’s cave.
The Smurflings felt sorry for Smurfette, being the only female, and created Sassette using Gargamel’s original formula. However, they didn’t use enough blue clay so Sassette was adolescent tomboy. Also added was Puppy, a full sized puppy who easily towered over the tiny Smurfs.
Grandpa Smurf (voiced by Jonathan Winters), who is around 1,000 years old, debuted in the 1986-87 season. Gargarmel also received some help that year in the form of wizard school dropout, Scruple. 1987 had Wild Smurf, who was raised by forest animals, arrive.
In 1988 four new characters arrived. One was a Smurf (Nanny Smurf), one was her pet (Smoogle), one was an evil wizard (Nemesis) and the other was a wizard’s human niece (Denisa).
1989 found the first major change in the direction of the series as the little blue folk began extensive travels through time probably inspired by the current success of another NBC show at the time Quantum Leap. The season contained the 200th episode aired! This was also the last season for the Smurfs on NBC’s Saturday morning schedule. They were not renewed for the Fall of 1990. Along with the Saturday morning show reruns, The Smurfs continued appearing in prime time via more specials.