Thursday, March 24, 2011

Centennial of an Artist

When I was in elementary school, I had a lunchbox that was covered with illustrations from The Flintstones.

It was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a child.

In fact, it was a prime time program through the first half of the 1960s. My family didn't get a TV set until after it had been taken from the prime time lineup, but it must have been shown in nighttime syndication for awhile because I distinctly remember seeing it at night when I was in the second or third grade.

Prime time animated programming pretty much disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s, but in those years, as well as the 1960s, Hanna–Barbera Productions was the studio that was responsible for most of the cartoons being produced in America. Cartoons were seldom shown with feature films, anymore, and cartoons could mostly be found on Saturday morning TV.

I remember watching many of them — The Jetsons, Tom and Jerry, Huckleberry Hound, Jonny Quest, Scooby–Doo, Quick Draw McGraw, Top Cat, Yogi Bear — on Saturdays when I was a child.

And I was a fan of them all, but The Flintstones probably was my favorite.

The reason I'm telling you this is because today would have been the 100th birthday of Joseph Barbera, the co–founder of Hanna–Barbera. He almost made it to his centennial, too. He died at the end of 2006 at the age of 95.

(His partner wasn't too far off, either. Hanna would have turned 100 last July, but he died on March 22, 2001, at the age of 90.)

Part of what I really enjoyed about The Flintstones was the way it merged the modern world with the Stone Age world in what I always thought were clever word plays.

Names of modern people and places were altered to include "rock" or "stone" or something similar — for example, celebrity names in the fictional town of Bedrock were given Stone Age twists. Ann–Margret became Ann Margrock, Tony Curtis became Stony Curtis, Cary Grant became Cary Granite.

In the Flintstones' world, they seemed to have all the conveniences of modern life — but they were all powered in some way by dinosaurs or birds or some other prehistoric creature.

In the intro, for example, the audience saw the gang getting in Fred's "car" which was powered by his feet, not gasoline (that was funny at the time, but it doesn't sound too bad now that gas is around $3.50 a gallon, does it?) and going to the drive–in to see a movie — that's a rather quaint notion nowadays, too, wouldn't you say? I mean, how many drive–ins have you seen lately?

It was pretty much the same formula that was used on The Jetsons — only, in that program, the emphasis was on the Space Age. The names had the same futuristic theme (George Jetson's boss was named Spacely) and all the great advances of the future, whether they have come to pass or not, were born in the minds of the children of my generation.

I absolutely believe that Hanna–Barbera is the reason why some people in the 21st century wonder why they can't drive flying cars yet. (Some of them still think it will be achieved in their lifetimes, believe that or not!)

Sometimes, I guess, it really was hard to see where reality left off and fantasy picked up in a Hanna–Barbera cartoon. The line was often blurred.

It's a funny thing about The Flintstones, too. For a long time, I have heard that it was modeled after the classic TV series, The Honeymooners.

I've never really formed an opinion on that. The Honeymooners was only on the air for a single season, and it had long been gone from the prime time lineup by the time I was born. It may have been shown in reruns when we got our first TV, but my parents never watched it so I wasn't exposed to it when I was growing up.

Hanna reportedly admitted that The Honeymooners was the inspiration for The Flintstones. But Barbera disputed that.

Whatever the truth, there were, at the very least, similarities between the shows. The Honeymooners was about two married couples who were good friends, just like The Flinstones. And, although it was a cartoon, there was a strong physical resemblance between Fred Flintstone and the lead male character in The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason).

As a matter of fact, I understand that the original voice of Fred Flintstone was provided by Alan Reed, who looked and sounded a lot like Gleason.

In 1986, Gleason told Playboy that he thought about suing Hanna–Barbera but, in the end, decided to let it slide.

It may have been a primarily pragmatic decision made by a star who was reluctant to bite the hands that so generously fed him.

"Do you want to be known as the guy who yanked Fred Flintstone off the air?" he said his lawyers asked him. "The guy who took away a show that so many kids love, and so many parents love, too?"

That would have been a considerable demographic in my house.