Seventy-five years ago, Alex Anderson and Jay Ward collaborated to form Television Arts Productions, a company with the unique goal of creating original animated series for the nascent television medium. While it took a few years before their work reached the airwaves, Anderson and Ward were responsible for launching what would become one of the most lucrative sectors in the entertainment industry.
In view of the 75th anniversary of the Anderson-Ward partnership, and with a shout out to Berkeley Breathed for becoming the latest entry to the sector with a Fox FOX development deal on his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip “Bloom County,” here is Benzinga’s celebration of the 10 most groundbreaking animated TV series of all time.
1. “Crusader Rabbit”: The initial Anderson-Ward concept, “The Comic Strips of Television,” consisted of three segments: a Sherlock Holmes parody featuring inept detective Hamhock Bones, a riff on the Canadian Mountie melodramas starring Dudley Do-Right, and an adventure serial with a diminutive hero called Crusader Rabbit.
NBC was only interested in Crusader Rabbit, but was reluctant to broadcast an animated series on its national transmissions. The network allowed Anderson and Ward to sell the series to NBC affiliates on a syndicated basis. Thus, “Crusader Rabbit” became the first animated television series, running from 1950 through 1952 and then again from 1956 through 1959. “Crusader Rabbit” popped up on television as late as the 1970s.
Walt Disney Co. DIS owns the rights to “Crusader Rabbit,” but to date, there have been no plans to reboot the groundbreaking character.
2. “The Gumby Show”: Art Clokey was a college student when he made his first stop-motion animation film in 1953 with “Gumbasia,” a three-minute avant-garde experimental work. Film producer Sam Engel encouraged him to use the medium for creating children’s films, which resulted in the birth of Gumby.
“Gumby” might have been the first animated series to achieve spinoff success. Clokely’s first films using the plucky green character were broadcast on “Howdy Doody,” and the positive feedback encouraged NBC to order a standalone show. “The Gumby Show” was originally broadcast from 1957 through 1969 and was later syndicated in reruns. The success of the series encouraged more stop-motion animated series and television specials.
The Gumby character would enjoy an unexpected revival in the 1980s with Eddie Murphy’s raucously disagreeable Gumby on “Saturday Night Live,” which spurred a home video reissue of the old films and the production of new Gumby episodes.
3. “Colonel Bleep”: This comic sci-fi production is notable as the first color cartoon series produced for television. Created by Robert D. Buchanan and Jack Schleh and was animated by Miami-based Soundac Inc., “Colonel Bleep” consisted of 100 episodes ranging three to six minutes in length.
“Colonel Bleep” was syndicated to television stations beginning in 1957 and was still being broadcast into the early 1970s. Unfortunately, most of the series is now considered lost. Schleh had stored much of the series’ material in a van when Soundac went out of business, but car thieves took off with the van and the films have never resurfaced. Only 44 episodes are known to survive.
4. “The Flintstones”: This Hanna-Barbera production made history in 1960 as the first animated series to be broadcast in prime time — at 8:30 p.m. ET, to be precise.
The series was also distinctive for being aimed at an adult audience — the first two seasons were co-sponsored by Winston cigarettes and the third season had Fred and Wilma Flinstone becoming parents, which made Wilma the first animated character in TV history to become pregnant and give birth.
5. “Astro Boy”: This anime production was not the first cartoon series made for Japanese television — 1961’s “Instant History” snagged that honor — but it was the first to find worldwide audiences.
In the U.S., “Astro Boy” was syndicated by NBC Enterprises and was seen on local stations beginning in 1963. The series continued on U.S. television into the mid-1970s, when local stations began to take down black-and-white animation series under the belief they no longer had the same level of appeal as color cartoons.
6. “The Beatles”: In 1965, Liverpool’s most celebrated exports received cartoon treatment, marking the first time that living people were the subject of an animated series. (The Beatles themselves had nothing to do with the series except to license their music.) The 39 episodes in the series also included the Beatles’ recordings, which introduced rock music to television animation.
ABC aired the series as a Saturday morning presentation from 1965 through 1967 and then re-ran them through 1969. “The Beatles” continued in syndication through the late 1970s, popping up again on MTV and The Disney Channel in the late 1980s. To date, there has been no commercial home entertainment release of the series, although bootlegged episodes can easily be found on the Internet.
7. “The Archie Show”: Whereas “The Beatles” incorporated the Fab Four’s songs into its cartoon adventures, this production — based on the Archie comic book series — went the other route and brought new songs into its episodes.
While most of the musical interludes were pleasantly forgettable, the series’ band — The Archies — managed to make music history in 1969 when one of the show’s tunes, “Sugar, Sugar” written by Jeff Barry and Andy Kim, was released as a single and zoomed to the top of the charts, ultimately becoming the top-selling song of the year. This marked the first — and, so far, the only — time that an animated TV series had a chart-topping tune.
8. “The Simpsons”: Matt Groening’s yellow-hued dysfunctional family first appeared as segments on “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987 before getting a spinoff as a series in 1989, when it became the first series on the Fox network to crack the Top 30 ratings.
The series is still going strong and has earned the honors of being the longest-running U.S. animated series, as well as the longest-running U.S. sitcom and the longest-running U.S. scripted primetime television series.
9. “Space Ghost Coast to Coast”: This subversive recycling of the half-forgotten Hanna-Barbera 1960s series “Space Ghost” was the groundbreaking series that established Cartoon Network as a go-to channel for adult viewers.
The series used the animation from the original show with new dialogue that imagined the eponymous hero as a talk show host, with his vanquished foes serving as sidekicks. Live-action footage with B-list celebrities as guests on Space Ghost’s talk show added to the mayhem.
“Space Ghost Coast to Coast” first ran from 1994 through 1999, and was revived from 2001 to 2004 for the Adult Swim late-night block on Cartoon Network. New episodes aired on GameTap, an online gaming and entertainment service, from 2006 to 2008.
10. “Pokémon”: One of the most popular anime series of all time, this Japanese import first appeared in 1997 and is now in its 24th season on Netflix NFLX.
“Pokémon” brought video gaming and television animation together, creating a franchise that has yet to wear out its welcome. It also generated spinoff series, movies, and even a Japanese variety show.
Photo: “TheFlinstones” cartoon series, courtesy of Hanna-Barbera.
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