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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ads That Sold Cartoons --- Part Two

I submit that we all grew up spoiled rotten on cartoons. For theatre-goers, they were a treat, and usually came one at a time as treats should. Multiple helpings were for special occasions, like a School's Out party or Saturday morning feed while Mom was down blocks shopping. I remember specific cartoons in theatres, but am far less able to call back ones ladled out daily, and to excess, on TV. Asheville's Channel 13 ran two hours of the things every morning, overkill I never could process beyond recognizing logos and music seen/heard ad nauseum. Parental concern was not misplaced for offspring parked before such bottomless pit of molasses. Our generation bitches over video games played incessantly. What were cartoons on a loop other than same hypnosis minus hand controls? It usually took me thirty or so minutes to go numb on them, an hour short of (Winston-Salem) Channel 12's ninety-minute Saturday dollop (the ad here came after they'd reduced that by half). Had I seen those cartoons at the Liberty, and in proper moderation, there'd be specific memories still, like most features experienced there. Imagine if you will a reasoned diet of Donald, Daffy, and Popeye in 35mm, each on and off big screens well short of viewer fatigue. Even now, I won't watch beyond four at a single sitting. To indulge more does neither me nor them proper service.

This time, I wanted to sample ads where theatres laid cartoons on thickest. Were so many animated shorts able to keep a young crowd's undivided attention? I'll bet shows like this one at Bluefield's State Theatre were thoroughgoing madhouses, what with a Tom and Jerry Carnival, Bugs Bunny's Revue, the Three Stooges, and a Bowery Boys leading into Tension at Table Rock. Tension indeed for house staff trying to keep order among patronage so over-stimulated. Are there places today the equivalent of these weekend matinees for letting off steam (other than public school systems)? Vegetating in front of DVD Bugs Bunny revues could not approach this. It just dawns on me that I've never seen Bugs or Tom and Jerry with a large audience, nor more than a handful of cartoons which appeal I presume to understand. What would that have been like? Laughter is contagious enough in a majority of adults. Theatre kids already hopped up on sugar bars and sodie pop must have all but wrenched chair bolts out of floors. More than one exhibitor has told me how vital it was to maintain order during these hyper-thons. Usher help needed, at the least, whips and chairs. Knowing what sweets do to one child, imagine hundreds chasing the same high of concessions plus cartoons. Could an emerging drug culture have been thwarted by simply giving youth continued access to shared euphoria like this? Too much joy of animation was lost when TV swallowed it whole. DVD providers can restore picture and sound, but not tribal rites of discovering cartoons in the company of excited peers.

Something else showmen told me ... it didn't matter if cartoons they booked were old or new. One veteran reported he never had a customer cry foul over animated repeats. You couldn't spot age of a cartoon short of eagle eyes for fleeting copyright notices, and Warners' slapping a Blue Ribbon on their oldies might convey many things other than fact you were watching a reissue. Color had stopped being a novelty by the mid-thirties, so inventories swelled quickly and enabled done shorts to cycle through the marketplace time and again. It was hard enough recalling two hour features you'd seen ten years before, but seven minute drawings? --- unless it was a Three Little Pigs or some such, you could go back in before leaves changed and swear cartoons you saw were brand new. What singled out animateds was also what revitalized features ... namely things new and novel. Audiences woke up when Popeye went 3-D and became an Ace Of Space. Then there was Cinemascope and Tom and Jerry chasing each other to accompaniment of Perspecta sound. Ads like one shown here celebrated new frontiers of Kartoonascope --- Cartoons Seen Thru The Eyes of Cinemascope. These spikes were short-lived but effective for letting customers know their favorites were keeping up with times, but what was difference otherwise between T&J or Bugs in their youth and adventures they'd relive years down the line?

Exhibitors didn't mind new cartoons, so long as they paid old prices. The biggest problem distribution had after the war was theatres reluctant to kick in higher rentals for supporting product. It was bad enough being gouged for features. Why give more for shorts their public took for granted? I gandered as before at Liberty account books from the late 30's. They paid $5.00 for Don Donald in August, 1937 and again that amount for Disney's Woodland Cafe during the same month. Betty Boop in The Foxy Hunter cost $4.80 for a single day's run in February, 1938. Next I moved into war years and a Murphy, NC venue similar in size and seating to our Liberty. This was March 1945 and they paid $3.00 for MGM's Bear Raid Warden. An October 1945 booking of Der Fuhrer's Face enriched RKO/Disney by $3.00. Well after the war, in May 1948, the Murphy house was using a 1940 MGM, Fishing Bear, again at $3.00. In fact, every Metro cartoon they booked that year, new and old, cost the same --- $3.00. The Liberty was meanwhile paying more to MGM, $8.00 in fact for Red Hot Rangers in June, 1947, but only $2.00 to Paramount for Jasper In A Jam, booked the same month. Tom and Jerry's 1945 Academy Award winner, Quiet Please, came to the Liberty in July 1947 at a bargain --- $2.00. Costs to produce cartoons were up across studio boards after WWII, but for at least these two theatres, rates remained stable, if not below prices paid during the late 30's. I realize companies got most of their return out of metropolitan and first-run houses, but modest yields like these from small situations provide insight as to why studios struggled with continued cartoon production, higher costs attendant to that, and diminishing profit new animation realized.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

My friend Ted Okuda attended a "cartoon carnival" marathon some years ago, and he was expecting some "classic" animated subjects from the '40s and '50s: Warners, M-G-M, maybe Paramount. In what may be the all-time champ of bad short-subject bookings, Ted was dumbfounded by a program of 1960s Walter Lantz... thirteen Beary Family cartoons.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I had a weekend job during college at a movie theatre in Boston; the largest in town, in fact, and part of a New England chain. One evening the projectionist ran a pristine,35mm Bug Bunny cartoon instead of the previews. The audience loved it. Unfortunately, it was the night that some of the theatre chain executives showed up. He was fired on the spot. Nice try, though.

11:34 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

There can be too much of a good thing. I never saw a "cartoon carnival" in a theater, but about a year before he passed away, Chuck Jones did a Q&A at George Eastman House, followed by a "selection" of his best work.

I forgot how many they showed, but it was too many--after about the fifth, you could feel the audience slump when the next one started and everyone realized it wasn't "What's Opera Doc?" yet. By the end, at least a third of the audience had taken off and the rest were in a stupor.

On the other hand, when they showed a more limited program--four Tex Averys interspersed with three 3 Stooges shorts, the audience laughed throughout and left wanting more.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Love today's banner. That bare-chested hero is BOLT UPRIGHT, correct?

As for cartoons, my hard-top watering hole, the PLAYHOUSE THEATRE, offered one Saturday a cartoon carnival of 20 WB "Blue Ribbon" favorites (whose, I'm not sure). Sounded great in theory, but about half-way through the program, I was sick of the WB theme (I'm not anymore). I can't remember if I sat through the entire program or not. Years later, when I went to work at the PLAYHOUSE, I asked the long-time projectionist if he remembered having run that Saturday afternoon program. "Hell yeah," he recalled. "Spliced three cartoons together per reel so I could make the usual twenty-minute change-overs. Otherwise, trying to keep up making change-overs and rewinding every seven-to-eight minutes would have given me a stroke."

And to top it off, several of the cartoons I did sit through that afternoon I had seen on the very WSJS-TV cartoon show you write about that same morning (at least they were in color at the PLAYHOUSE).

Growing up at my family's drive-in theatre during the fifties, I remember seeing Paramount cartoons (specifically Popeye, Casper and Herman & Katnip), Mister Magoo, MGM's Tom & Jerry and Droopy and some WB's (especially Roadrunner).

By the time I became an exhibitor in 1971, the only cartoons available out of the Charlotte exchange were the later Universal's (Woody, Chilly Willy and the Beary Family). We paid $7.00 per week for these (and Universal got the better of the bargain).

12:56 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Sounds like too much of a good thing can quickly turn into a bad thing ...

So just what is everyone's cartoon limit?

Loving these comments, by the way. Thirteen Beary Family cartoons!! Must have been a real death march ...

1:15 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Interesting comments about cartoon limits. I thought the major problem with "Looney Tunes Back In Action" was having those hyper cartoon characters in a film that was longer than 7 minutes, it just got to be exhausting watching all that frantic behavior after a while.

2:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson recalls a near-matinee riot! ...

Familiarity didn't necessarily breed contempt. In those pre-VHS days, there
was a certain thrill when a recognizable favorite -- the one where Yosemite
Sam is a pirate, for example -- appeared. These days, parents are tortured
by kids (smaller kids, usually) demanding the same videos over and over. My
niece was driven to distraction when her little sister kept replaying
Pollyanna -- and she ALWAYS freaked when Hayley Mills fell out of that tree.

Also: Recall a news story from the 60's or so about a kiddie matinee
featuring a Bowery Boys-type monster comedy. Some teenaged usher was
costumed as a mummy and sent out to give the kiddies a final thrill. The
sugar-and-animation-addled audience rose up and charged. The terrified mummy
barely made it to the front office, besieged until police arrived to break
up the riot.

3:59 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I well remember kiddie matinees at the Stamm Theatre in Antioch, CA in the '50s: usually four or five cartoons, a Three Stooges, and a feature. Every now and then the house lights would come up, a sausage microphone would rise from a hole in the middle of the stage, and Mr. Stamm would stalk out and -- holding his mouth about one milimeter from the mike, so he sounded like the Voice of God in The Ten Commandments -- tell us all to settle down and behave or he'd turn off the show and make everybody go home. We never understood what the heck he was talking about; we were just watching the movie. No doubt he and his ushers (and certainly those poor harried girls behind the concession counter) had a different perspective on the day's goings-on.

On another note: I wonder if that "Kartoonascope" ad could possibly be for the Crest here in Sacramento? It was a Fox West Coast Theatre throughout the '50s and '60s; there's no address, but the phone number (GLadstone 3-9013) is a Sacramento exchange. (The Crest is still going, a specialty house now; recently showed the restored Metropolis.)

As for cartoon limits, can't say I ever got too many as a kid (and I remember more than one all-toon program). Now, my limit is about one disc of those Looney Toon collections -- say eight or nine at a pop.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

lol..yeah..after about only the 6th WB cartoon,I'm beginning to bang my head and flop around woohoo woohoo woohooing like daffy duck!

12:30 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

I wonder about that day after Thanksgiving show at the Gala in Stuebenville...cartoons and a Disney True-Life, followed by THE TENDER TRAP? I know that the Code meant the main feature was safe for kids, but it was still a romantic comedy and I would think somewhat beyond young audience, even (especially?) in those days.

Or the Thanksgiving Day show..."have Pop bring you while Mom cooks the turkey". I'm about a decade younger than you, and in my childhood Thanksgiving meant watching the parades (I preferred the CBS offering from several cities to NBC's all Macy's production)--and the day after was special airings of shows only seen on Saturday.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great ads! No such thing as too many cartoons for me, then or now. Yet I can't remember catching one of those all cartoon kiddie marathons in my youth (although I certainly caught all the pre-packaged cartoon festivals as a young adult in the 70's: Bugs Bunny, Betty Boop and/or Tom and Jerry). Saw plenty of kiddie matinees, and the standard format at the local theater in Northport, Long Island was five color cartoons plus a suitable feature like BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE or THE LONE RANGER AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD. Seems to me, they would front load beat up no-name Columbia cartoons first then slip in one or two Road Runners or Woody Woodpeckers before kicking in the supposed main attraction. And, yes, I remember the manager coming out and threatening to stop the show too... on at least one occasion he claimed we were throwing firecrackers at the screen (wow! how cool is that?)

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

How long was the Saturday morning Bugs Bunner Roadrunner Show back in the early 70s? The one with the catchy theme song where they all come out in straw hats dancing? An hour? That seemed about the right length. I can take about five in one sitting before my mind starts to wander. Maybe more if they're all top notch.

Before the UC Theatre in Berkeley shut its doors a while back (ten years now?) they used to show classic Warner Brothers cartoons and an old news reel fairly regularly as an intro.

And invariably, just before the feature, they showed this:

2:21 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks a lot for that link, Chris. I'd never seen that spot before. I wonder if it was it shown anywhere besides Berkeley ...

2:46 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Yes, John, that John Waters no-smoking spot used to play at the Tower in Sacramento, also a specialty/art house like the late, lamented UC in Berkeley. Always got a good laugh.

8:13 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Ditto the Nuart in Los Angeles.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Penna said...

The John Waters smoking spot was also a bonus feature on the Criterion laserdisc of "Polyester."

11:47 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Cartoon history continues in the TV arena:

10:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Some nice remembrances of cartoon bookings from a reader via e-mail:

When I entered the small town movie business in 1983 I found that Universal and UA were still making new prints of cartoons. UA did the Pink Panther films and Universal provided Chilly Willy and Woody Woodpecker. $10.00 per week for a cartoon. The exchanges in both St. Louis and Kansas City kept a wonderful supply of these cartoons. Columbia kept new prints of the Three Stooges and they were just $25.00 per week per short. In slow times we put together a week long show that was a mix of the Stooges and Woody Woodpecker.

The cartoons faded out sometime in the late 80’s but I got the Domino’s Pizza chain to sponsor “selected shorts” in front of features for two full years. We ran cartoons, Stooges and even the full run of Captain Marvel. NTA actively booked the old Republic library in 35 mm. They also provided some of the old Paramount cartoons including the first Casper and a few Betty Boop’s. I don’t care how many times I might have seen a cartoon on TV, watching it on the big screen in 35 mm was wonderful.

Once in a while Warner Brothers would allow me to book a cartoon via Kit Parker Films. Watching Bugs or the Road Runner in IB Tech was wonderful.

Columbia, in a movie that none of us could figure out, made some new prints of Lil’ Abner cartoons sometime in the late eights and sent them out for free runs to “test the market.” The cartoons were not well received when new and didn’t warrant a rerelease. We were able to run a few UPA cartoons until the rights became murky. Fox had a few old Terrytoons also.

11:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I just read Michael Hayde's "Better Living Through TV" post on 50's cartoon releases to television, and it's incredible! Many rare trade ads and buckets of info on this fascinating topic. If you haven't checked this out, by all means do so!

11:16 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

All day kiddie matinees. ....give Mum a break ie Xmas shopping,etc. ...the last one I recall going to was prob during Xmas break. As soon as the lights went down,absolute mayhem started. Pretty sure the staff were afraid to come in...don't recall any warnings and they certainly wouldn't just stop the show and clear the place as every mother in town would have lynched them for turfing the little darlings out hours the time a big chocolate ice cream was running down the screen,I recall thinking "this is banned for life"....

3:50 AM  

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