Rocky & Bullwinkle Retrospective: "The Birth of Moose and Squirrel" or "How Jay Ward Returned to Television"
November 19, 1959 - June 27, 1964
Jay Ward Productions
Beginning with a Pitch or Two
The idea for The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show finds its origins in two pitches that Jay Ward and Alex Anderson did back in the late 40’s and early 50’s through their first studio, Television Arts Productions. The first was in 1947, when the two pitched “The Comic Strips of Television” to NBC, the first proposal for a television-exclusive cartoon series. This pitch consisted of three ideas: One was of a private eye named Hamhock Jones, another about a rabbit named Crusader and his tiger friend Rags team who would go on adventures, and a third about a dimwitted Canadian mountie named Dudley Do-Right. NBC ended up picking up Crusader Rabbit for a full series, passing on Hamhock Jones and Dudley Do-Right.
The second pitch came in 1951 during a brief period when it wasn’t clear whether or not NBC would renew Crusader Rabbit following a strong run of 130 episodes. During the six month gap, Total Arts Productions sent another series of pitches to the executives. Among the various ideas, one of which was again a private eye series, was a pitch for a series called “The Frostbite Falls Review”. The series would be about six animals in the North Woods who had gotten their own television station, intended to be a satirical comment on the early television industry. The animals intended to star in this series were Sylvester the Fox, Oski the Bear, Blackstone the Crow, Flora Fauna, Rocky the Squirrel, and Bullwinkle the French-Canadian Moose. The name “Frostbite Falls” originated from a mixture of the city of International Falls, Minnesota, and it’s nickname “the Ice Box of America”.
NBC passed upon The Frostbite Falls Review and renewed Crusader Rabbit for one last season, bringing its total up to 195 episodes. Following this was a period of uncertainty for Jay Ward and Alex Anderson; the rights to Crusader Rabbit switched hands a few times, until it wasn’t clear who really owned the character. Jay Ward and friend Leonard Key attempted to make a revival series of Crusader Rabbit several years later (with the help of Bill Hanna), but failed as the courts ruled against them. There would be no further Crusader Rabbit shorts from Jay Ward.
Coming Back from the Brink
However, the television market was rapidly changing, and unlike those experimental days that gave birth to Crusader Rabbit, cartoons made for television were steadily gaining traction. In 1957, the same year of that court ruling, William Hanna (who took what he learned from the brief time on the failed Crusader Rabbit revival) and Joseph Barbera created Ruff & Reddy, and the following year Huckleberry Hound, both of which had cemented a place in television for animation. Networks and syndicators were now looking anywhere they could for up-and-coming animation studios to produce programs for television.
Without his original star, Jay Ward scrambled to come up with a new series as soon as possible. However, Alex Anderson was busy working his own advertising business, and was not eager to return to animation like Ward. To help bring the series further to life, Jay Ward began looking for a new partner for this new series; After speaking with Jerry Fairbanks, who had helped produce Crusader Rabbit, Ward was eventually pointed in the direction of Bill Scott, a theatrical short writer who had worked on several Looney Tunes shorts and UPA’s Gerald McBoing-Boing. Together with writer Charlie Shows, the three started developing a series that would’ve been called “Phineas T. Phox, Adventurer”, about a detective agency run by a Sam Spade-esque fox and his bumbling bear assistant. While half a dozen scripts were produced, there were initial difficulties between the men, leading to Ward walking out and the project being shut down.
This was when Jay Ward decided to rework his Frostbite Falls Review pitch into something new, something that might catch more interest. Gone were most of the cast and the television station angle, but Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle Moose were kept, albeit some minor retooling. Six months after the failure of “Phineas Phox”, Ward called up Scott, asking him if he’d be interested in writing an adventure script about a moose and a squirrel. Scott, not one to turn down a job offer, accepted. In many ways, Bill Scott is credited as the soul of Rocky and Bullwinkle; while it was Jay Ward who created the characters and designed the confident short / bumbling tall pairing which he originated from Crusader Rabbit, it was Bill Scott who really brought the series to life with his unique comedic style, mixing satire and puns in a way that hadn’t been seen in television cartoons to that point.
The Squirrel, the Moose, and the Spies
Rocky was somewhat inspired by Mighty Mouse, a series about a Superman-esque mouse which Jay Ward’s former partner Alex Anderson had worked on while at the Terrytoons Studio. Whereas Mighty Mouse shared Superman’s same style of flight without any means of propulsion, Rocky was a flying squirrel, initially intended to have artificial wings (as flying squirrels don’t actually fly). One of the major things that Ward retooled was removing these artificial wings, giving Rocky the ability to fly without assistance, just like Mighty Mouse. While fearless and intelligent, Rocky was also gullible, easily fooled by disguises.
Bullwinkle came from a dream Anderson had one night, about bringing a large goofy moose who could do card tricks to a poker party. The name Bullwinkle was borrowed from a local car salesman named Clarence Bullwinkel; Ward and Anderson agreed that “Bullwinkel” sounded like a funny name, so with the spelling slightly changed, they had their moose named. Just as his name was funny, Bullwinkle was the comic relief of the duo, often clueless and always getting himself and his friend into mishaps.
Just as every good adventure needs heroes, it also needs villains. To oppose their stars, Ward and Scott created Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, two incompetent spies from the nation of Pottsylvania who reported to a dictator only known as Fearless Leader (and sometimes to his superior, Mr. Big, who contrary to his name, was as short as Rocky). Between their Russian accents, spy occupations, and the Eastern European feel of Pottsylvania, they had been designed as a satire on the Cold War era which the world was currently in the midst of. In fact, the Russian government took this satire so personally that Rocky & Bullwinkle was banned in Russia for being “anti-Soviet propaganda”!
Producing the Pilot
Each story, which ranged from as short as four segments (two episodes) to as long as twenty segments (ten episodes), saw Rocky and Bullwinkle on a different adventure in the style of a film serial or a radio play. Many adventures were the result of Rocky and Bullwinkle being in the wrong place at the wrong time, getting thrown into one situation after another due to various mishaps. On each adventure, Boris and Natasha would try to derail them in their own goal of stealing something valuable for Fearless Leader, but ultimately end up failing, often because of their own incompetence.
In the pilot, Bullwinkle accidentally creates a new type of rocket fuel in his kitchen using his grandmother’s recipe for cake mix and, following a trip to the moon to get back his stove which flew away, Bullwinkle is commissioned by the US government to recreate the rocket fuel, leading Boris and Natasha to try to steal the recipe. Eventually they encounter aliens Gidney and Cloyd, who also want the formula.
This pilot, as well as the first few episodes, included a laugh track. The series would eventually ditch this by the end of the first season.
Finding the Voices
With the script in the can, it came time to record the audio. For the voice of the narrator, they hired Paul Frees, a long-time voice in the radio business known best at the time for announcer and narrator roles; Frees would eventually be replaced as the announcer by actor William Conrad, but Frees was also cast in the role of Boris.
For Rocky and Natasha, Ward and Scott sought out June Foray, well known in the animation business for roles such as Granny and Witch Hazel in the Looney Tunes shorts, as well as Lucifer the Cat in Cinderella. They met with Foray, and after some drinks, she accepted the role saying “Sure, I’ll do it. What the hell!”
This just left Bullwinkle, and as the recording date neared, Scott began to ask Ward who they were getting for the moose. Ward said that he figured Scott would be Bullwinkle, and with the prospect of being paid an extra $50 per episode (the session fee for voice actors at the time), Bill Scott was cast as Bullwinkle (as well as Fearless Leader and Mr. Big).
The three initial voice actors, Frees, Foray, and Scott, recorded the pilot at Universal Studios, and a period of waiting began while the show was shopped around.
General Mills and Gamma Productions
In order to get on television at that time, they would need a sponsor right out the door. Kellogg’s had hit it big with their sponsorship of Huckleberry Hound the previous year, so their rival General Mills was open to hearing Ward and Scott’s pitch. Bill Scott met with the General Mills board members in the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood (Jay Ward was unable to attend due to being briefly hospitalized for a nervous breakdown), and negotiations began. The contract was signed after an agreement was made that the show would be animated in Mexico, where animation costs could be greatly reduced.
Unfortunately, this led to production errors for the early episodes of Rocky & Bullwinkle. The Mexican studio where the show would be animated, Gamma Productions, was subpar even compared to other television animation studios at the time. The animators were clearly not up to the task of animating a weekly television series, leading to issues such as disappearing body parts, miscolored costumes, and major issues with the audio synching (which was also handled by the animation studio). Even worse, the episodes always went from Mexico straight to television, with no quality control step inbetween! In some ways though, this encouraged the quality of the scripts to flourish; Since they couldn’t rely on the animation to look good, Ward and Scott had to make sure the dialogue, humor, and voice acting more than made up for the visual short-comings. As the show went on, they tried to pull back production away from Mexico as much as possible and give the show to more competent artists, until the final season, which was made almost entirely in the United States.
Rocky & Friends
The series, finally titled “Rocky & His Friends”, was picked up by ABC and made its debut on Thursday, November 19, 1959 at 6:30pm, airing twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays between American Bandstand and the pre-primetime local news. Twenty-six episodes were produced for the first season, consisting of two Rocky & Bullwinkle shorts at the beginning and end of each half hour episode. The show was a big hit; children loved the witty humor, while adults were amused by the satire and social commentary, all of which Bill Scott’s writing had provided. ABC quickly ordered another batch of episodes, and Jay Ward was propelled once more into that spotlight he had once enjoyed ten years earlier during Crusader Rabbit, but this time on an even larger scale.
However, this isn’t the whole story. After all, Rocky & Bullwinkle’s segments of the show only made up a total of seven minutes per half-hour episode. What would they do to fill in the remainder of the runtime? And what of that Canadian mountie Dudley Do-Right that Jay Ward had pitched alongside Crusader Rabbit?
Tune in next time for “Fractured History” or “Don’t Take Advice from a Moose Puppet”!
Scott, Keith. "The Moose That Roared: The Story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, a Flying Squirrel, and a Talking Moose" Macmillan, 2014. Print.
© 2015 Josh Measimer