It was the Fall of 1960, and some of the most radical changes in the history of the U.S were right around the corner. The country would elect a brash young senator from Massachusetts President, replacing an elderly former World War II general. In his farewell speech, that soon-to-be former Commander-in-Chief Dwight Eisenhower, warned the world about the coming military-industrial complex. Musically, Elvis was in the Army, and four young punks from Liverpool were working in Hamburg, Germany on a sound that would unseat the King of Rock’n Roll (and don’t forget another young punk from Minnesota moving to New York).
Meanwhile, the struggling TV network ABC was about to air something very different during prime time Friday nights. They were about to replace a dud of a cowboy show, The Man From Blackhawk, with something that previously was only thought of as strictly for kids. In a year that was dominated by shows such as Father Knows Best, The Danny Thomas Show and Gunsmoke, ABC had committed to air 26 episodes of something that only recently got its official name, The Flintstones.
Remember, this was the end of an era where complacency was the norm. The last real threat to the public order, Rock’n Roll, had effectively been squashed with the arrests of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, the religious conversion of Little Richard, and the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. Bobby-soxers were running to the ice cream parlor while their parents would unwind with a beer or martini and watch I Love Lucy. The Yankees were constantly winning the World Series and we could avoid a nuclear bomb if we only “ducked and covered.”
The concept of a half-hour of an animated half-hour sitcom on prime time? That was as radical as things got in the latter half of 1960.
Then again, series creators William Hanna and Joe Barbera were used to upsetting the apple cart.
Way back in 1939, the duo bonded for the first time while being animators for MGM. In those days they upended the dominance of Disney when one of their shorts, featuring a cat and mouse named Tom & Jerry, took an Oscar for Best Animated Short, the first one not handed to the Mouse Factory, ever. When MGM closed down its studio in the mid-50s, they formed their own studio and soon won an Emmy for their second series, The Huckleberry Hound Show. They also had several other hits with Top Cat, Yogi Bear and the Michael Maltese-created Quickdraw McGraw. They developed a radically different animation style based on UPA’s limited animation techniques that was ideal for the small screen. To them, the idea of doing something prime time was a natural. To top it, Barbera had a reputation of being a superlative salesman, and he saw a perfect mark in the struggling former NBC Red Network.
You can now see all this for yourself in the just released DVD series, The Flintstones: The Complete Series. Encased in a Stone Age TV set with a lenticular tube, it compiles all six seasons of the show. It also comes with a ton of historical goodies sure to keep animation fans fascinated for days, if not weeks.
Not that The Flintstones seems like too radical a move by today’s standards. As many historians note, the show was based on a super popular Jackie Gleason sketch, The Honeymooners. In fact, the voice of the primary character, Fred Flintstones, was done by a hard working actor named Alan Reed. A big man whose physique as also incorporated into Fred’s design, what many don’t realize is Reed used to sub for Gleason when voice looping on some of his films was required. The king of voice acting himself, Mel Blanc, was cast to voice Fred’s best friend and neighbor, Barney Rubble, who was supposed to be Art Carney. The only hitch was, as explained in a recent videography on the Looney Tunes Spotlight Collection #6 Blanc didn’t want to sound like Carney, so he came up with his own voice. Rounding out the cast were Fred’s wife Wilma, voiced by esteemed radio veteran Jean Vander Pyl. Barney’s wife Betty was voiced by Bea Benaderet, an actor that then resident Queen of Voice Acting, June Foray, considered her one only true rival back in the day. Side voices were done by an equally esteemed cast of Daws Butler, Foray, and Frank Welker.
As any fan knows, the show was supposedly based in “One Million B.C.” Hanna-Barbera didn’t have their “Stone Age family” living in caves. Instead, they set them in prehistoric Levittowns. Fred didn’t have to worry about gas crises. He and Barney drove to work courtesy of Fred’s two feet. Their house was stocked with all the most “modern” of conveniences, including elephant-powered vacuum cleaners and dishwasher, bird-controlled stereos, and TV remote controls and other such anthropomorphic devices. Fred, a quarryman, even drove a brontosaurus to help mine whatever dig he was on.
Otherwise, they lived what many considered the ideal life for the turn of the decade. They worried about their mortgage, utility, and, considering Fred’s size, grocery bills. At night, when they weren’t glued to the tube, Barney and Fred would go to their local men’s club and otherwise bowl. They bar-b-cued and shared a swimming pool. The biggest trouble Betty and Wilma would usually get in is if they decided they needed some shopping therapy. Not only did they smoke in the early episodes, they also promoted cigarettes in ad plugs as well as Welch’s Grape Juice, Alka-Seltzer, and other sundry products of the day.
But it wasn’t just the situation that made this sitcom so great. As the series progressed, both Hanna and Barbera quickly realized they had the perfect place for some satire. The targets of their humor were rarely, if ever, offended. Like the times, The Flintstones form of humor was always on the soft side. At the same time, knowing fans quickly realized that things like the Cold War, women’s rights and raising a family were not off the menu. Yes, the escalating war in Vietnam and drugs were absolutely taboo, but that was the norm for the series entire run from 1960 to 1966.
What The Flintstones were great at though was parodies of the reigning pop stars of the time. In fact, many of said pop stars didn’t mind doing guest appearances, including then movie superstars Tony Curtis and Anne Margaret.
The series had one other secret weapon, too. It was in the form of Hanna-Barbera’s house composer and music arranger, Hoyt Stoddard Curtin. The man was as radical a composer as Bernard Herman, incorporating extreme jazz charts he first learned as an arranger for big band leaders like Harry James. In the extra content, musicians who worked for him said he would be thrilled to come up with musical signatures that tested even the best session man. The other side of the coin is he created music that was intrinsically hook-laden and immediately memorable. As the disk points out, just about every American today, no matter what their age, can sing the opening theme “Meet The Flintstones,” with high levels of lyrical accuracy to boot. You don’t have to be a fan to remember any of the other snippets of music Curtin composed for the show, either. Jaunty jingles like “Rise & Shine,” the original opening theme for the show, is usually recalled with similar ease.
What did take some effort on Warner Bros. part was going back to the vaults and restoring each and every one of the 166 episodes to their original form. After the show was cancelled in 1966, Bill Hanna went about putting together a syndication package with Screen Gems to keep that revenue stream flowing. That’s when he realized the series had nearly a half-dozen different opening credits, just for starters. There were a few years with the “Rise & Shine” theme, and others with what many now consider the standard theme. There were years when there were no signs of future children Pebbles Flintstones and Bamm Bamm Rubble, there were others that had them.
Hanna decided it would be easier to sell the package with just one opening sequence. He also thought it just plain looked better in the long run. So he cut all the original openers and standardized with the sixth season’s. That and many other changes were made to the original shows over the years. The cigarette references got yanked (still are). Episodes got cut for syndication time considerations. Warner Brothers went to the vaults and restored each and every episode to its original form. The colors (interestingly the show was ABC’s first series to switch from black and white), are also restored to their brilliant primary sharpness.
In fact, what probably killed the show more than anything is even though it would change in certain ways over the years, it still didn’t keep up with the times. By its last year, TV was starting to change to reflect the coming of psychedelia, the anti-war movement, and racial equality. Heavy subjects would have just ruined the family-friendly atmosphere. Not that this would be the last we would hear Fred’s signature “Yabba-Dabba-Doo!”
By 1971, Pebbles and Bamm Bamm grew up enough to have their own series on Saturday mornings. It would be such a hit The Flintstones Comedy Hour was developed for 1972. The first feature film, the spy parody A Man Called Flintstones hit the big screen through Columbia Pictures in 1966. In all, the modern Stone Age family would star in a dozen different regular TV series, ten different TV specials, one animated theatrical film, two live action adaptations, and five TV movies over the next near half century.
As for the set itself? One will find a true treasure trove of what ifs (like Fred and Wilma originally having a boy, not Pebbles), pilots, and other bits of trivia that will keep fans laughing their heads off. While there is no mention of any of the spin-offs and later incarnations of the show, the amount of detail spent on the original 166 is astounding.
As for the show’s final effect. As is well-known, Hanna-Barbera did try to repeat their previous success with other prime time entries ranging from The Jetsons, The Roman Holidays to Jonny Quest and beyond. The closest they got to repeating was with Martin Short with his radically different Ed Grimley series. It would be the next generation of animators to start making prime time animation on a regular network stick. Matt Groening himself says his own world-changing series, The Simpsons would not be the same, if exist at all, if it wasn’t for the work of Hanna-Barbera and this series. Now Fox devotes an entire night, Sunday, to animated programming, with each series, interestingly enough, still being at its core a family sitcom. ABC, now a division of Disney, is apparently returning to animated prime time programming soon, too.
Still, it was the then radical decision of a pair of animation titans named William Hanna and Joseph Barbera to start the whole thing off. This is a collection that should be part of any true animation library.