Thursday, September 30, 2010

Happy 50th Fred & Wilma!

'The Flintstones' broke ground as the first animated prime-time show. Fifty years on, it's a cultural touchstone.

By Stephen Cox, Special to the Los Angeles Times

It was 50 years ago [today] on the evening of Sept. 30, 1960, that America met the Flintstones, television's modern Stone Age family. That Friday night, kids couldn't wait. Parents were curious. And the ABC network executives pondered their gamble patiently. TV's first animated prime-time sitcom made history; well, they were history.

"I remember sitting and watching the premiere episode," says actor Paul Reubens, who later starred in his own popular children's show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse." "I think I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time. Just the whole idea of a cartoon in prime time was exciting and there was a lot of hype about it. I loved how they patterned some characters after real stars like Ann Margrock and Stoney Curtis."

Set in the animated suburbia of Bedrock, Fred and Wilma Flintstone (voiced by radio veterans Alan Reed and Jean Vander Pyl) along with their genial neighbors Betty and Barney Rubble (Bea Benaderet and Mel Blanc), were meant as an amalgam of adult satire and children's amusement.

"The Flintstones" was drawn to be a slice-of-life sitcom with a prehistoric twist. The show boasted several milestones: Quite possibly, Fred and Wilma Flintstone were the first sitcom couple to be shown sleeping on the same king-size, er, slab. And definitely a cartoon first. And until 1997 when "The Simpsons" surpassed their prehistoric predecessor, "The Flintstones" held the record as the longest-running prime time animated series.

John Stephenson, 87, who carries an undeniably familiar Hanna Barbera intonation in his speaking voice, is one of the last surviving cast members of the iconic show. Most notably, Stephenson portrayed Fred's bombastic boss at the rock quarry, Mr. Slate, among multitudes of Bedrock citizenry throughout the program's original six-year run.

"I think the show was successful because it was an adult cartoon and viewers associated it with 'The Honeymooners,' " he says. "And with the Stone Age setting and some very good writing, audiences loved it. They still do."

Created by animation legends William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, "The Flintstones" (titled "The Flagstones" in early development) became the flagship property for the cartoon factory the duo created for television production. After producing an Academy Award-winning slew of Tom and Jerry cartoons at MGM, Hanna and Barbera formed their own company and created such animated characters as Emmy winner Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and Ruff and Reddy. This time, however, they audaciously decided to redirect their efforts, wipe the slate clean, and twist their usual format: Their new TV series would extend the animation to a half hour and gamble on prime-time audiences. That was unheard of in 1960.

In the process, Hanna-Barbera reinvented the animation business, introducing a more efficient and economically feasible "limited animation" procedure that proved popular both with the network and with audiences. While many animation studios were closing in Hollywood, Hanna and Barbera were just opening their doors and enticing a pool of veterans to join them in their plunge. Some of animation's greatest talents helped polish these precious 'stones.' With caveman characters designed by artist Ed Benedict and a talented team of animators, the unique cartoon took off, and fast. "The Flintstones" ignited a following with loyal audiences young and old, setting off a groundbreaking cascade that eventually paved the way for more prime-time favorites such as "The Jetsons," "Top Cat," and such current mega-hits as "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy."

Stephenson credits Barbera's talent for directing the cast as a key to the show's charm, at least vocally. During those smoke-filled studio recording sessions (the show was sponsored by Winston cigarettes for a while), it was not uncommon to hear Barbera barking over the speaker, "I paid a lot of money for this script, so I want to hear the lines!"

The verbal gymnastics were always bold and lively. "Very seldom did he want anyone to talk in a moderate tone or conversational tone," Stephenson explains. "He wanted it up there, right in your face, punctuated, laid out and hit!"

Over decades, "The Flintstones" spawned many reincarnations, including several new series attempts (even a proposed series titled "The Blackstones") and in the 1990s Fred and Wilma became movie stars with a pair of live-action feature films for Universal Studios.

One spinoff in 1979 was a short-lived segment of "The New Fred and Barney Show" on NBC called "The Frankenstones," which mixed "The Flintstones" talent with a touch of "The Munsters." Paul Reubens, just getting started in his television career, provided a voice on the show.

"I'm a big fan of 'The Flintstones,' so when I worked on 'The Frankenstones,' it was really exciting," he recalls. "The whole idea of going to a recording studio with Fred and Wilma Flintstone was unbelievable and a little intimidating. I worked with Mel Blanc and that was unforgettable. The first time I went in there, it was so amazing to hear those famous voices come out of real people's mouths; and these grown people were taking their work so seriously. It amazed me and I couldn't' wait to go to work."

The classic series, for now, is at home on Cartoon Network's Boomerang channel and it continues to be a viable worldwide franchise for Warner Bros. Animation, the characters' current owner. Just look on any grocer's store shelves and you'll see "yabba-dabba-delicious" Fruity Pebbles cereal and other sugary flavors plus colorful Flintstones vitamins within reach for all the kiddies.

Marking the show's golden anniversary, Boomerang will air the first episode of "The Flintstones" on Sept. 30 at 8:30 p.m., 50 years exactly to the date and hour of its premiere. A 24-hour marathon of classic episodes will air on Boomerang beginning Oct. 2 at 6 a.m.

Arguably, "The Flintstones" was the best thing created by cartoon moguls Hanna and Barbera. The show may be five decades older, but fans of classic TV will attest: It's still a gem.

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times


Anonymous said...

Correction: The Flintstones was not the first primetime animated show: the Huckleberry Hound show has that honor. The article correctly states that Flintstones was the first primetime animated sitcom, but the headline writer created an error by substituting "show" for "sitcom." Not to take anything away from The Flintstones, though: it was truly groundbreaking. I was there when it captured the nation's imagination. But by that time I was already hooked on the novelty of nighttime cartoon-watching, with Huckleberry Hound & his friends. It was all too exciting for us little kids to forget!

Ed South said...

Thank you for noteing that I didn't write this post, I only lifted it from another source. However, The Huckleberry Hound Show was not the first prime time cartoon. Ol' Huck was actually produced for syndication, which meant it aired at different days and times all over the country. True, many cities did air the cartoon at night but other cities also broadcast the show at other times of the day. The Flintstones was only seen in the evening on Network Television.

amy said...

The Flinstones has been on Fios On Demand this month and my kids have been LOVING it! I think the first episodes are way more geared for adult audiences than the later shows. And, when did they start the famous intro song? The episodes On Demand don't play it.

Ed South said...

Amy, you bring such spirited discussion to the table! The first two seasons of The Flintstones were written for adults. As the show became more and more popular with kids the writting started to be geared towards them in the following four seasons. The classic "Meet The Flintstones" song wasn't used until season 3. The song proved to be so popular that it was edited onto all the episodes for syndication...which is where you and I and millions others grew up watching it. It wasn't until Ted Turner remastered the episodes for Cartoon Network & Boomerang that they put the original opening instrumental song "Rise & Shine" back onto the season 1 and 2 episodes.

Yowp said...

Ed, the latest I've found Huck airing in some markets was 7 pm, which isn't prime time (for which syndicators that took advantage of the Prime Time Access Rule years ago are happy).

The later Flintstones are a mixed bag for me; there are some episodes I can't stand and some I like. But that's the same with any show, I suppose.

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