Bullwinkle's creator was just too squirrelly for the networks

March 04, 1991|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

YOU MEET A lot of famous people in this line of work, actors, producers, executives, Hollywood stars of all ilks. But, in my book, no one will ever top the shy moose of a man who happened to emerge from the back room of a store on Los Angeles' Sunset Boulevard five years ago.

The store was the Dudley Do-Right Emporium, the commercial outlet for the T-shirts, toys and trinkets associated with two of TV's most important personalities, Rocky and Bullwinkle. Those cartoon characters were the creations of Jay Ward, who turned reclusive in his later years. He died of kidney cancer two years ago.

His wife, Billie, is often behind the counter of the Emporium, which is just down the street from the huge statue of Bullwinkle that Ward erected in front of his offices years ago.

When a few TV critics came into the store one day in early 1986, she was happy to talk, especially of Bill Scott, Jay's partner on the Rocky and Bullwinkle shows -- the voice of Bullwinkle -- who had died a few months before.

Her husband, however, always turned down interview requests. Then suddenly, there he was, larger than life, his walrus mustache nearly as big as his infectious laugh. No one produced a pen or a pencil for fear of scaring him off, but his words were seared into the memory.

Ward's story came down to this -- if he had gone out to get the mail a few minutes later one day in 1948, the television memories of the baby boomer generation would have been forever altered.

Just how important Ward's show was is well-documented in "Of Moose and Men: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Story," a PBS documentary that will be shown tomorrow night at 10 o'clock on Washington's Channel 26 (WETA) and Thursday at 11 p.m. on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.

Produced by Baltimore native Ben Magliano, the hour has contributions from the two surviving voices from the show -- narrator William Conrad who narrates this, and June Foray, who was Rocky and a variety of other characters -- as well as writers Alan Burns, who went on to create "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and Chris Hayward, who later wrote for "Barney Miller."

"Of all the shows I've worked on, I've never been involved in one in which everyone exuded such warmth," Magliano said over the phone from his Washington offices. "They seemed to have nothing but good memories.

"When we wrote the narration, we thought it would take three or four hours in the studio to do it. We had to work around William Conrad's 'Jake and Fatman' schedule, so he came in one Saturday morning and did it in an hour and a half. He said once he got into the rhythm, it all came back to him. And when he finished, he just sat there. He couldn't get up. He said he was overwhelmed by all the memories that had flooded over him."

Though not a definitive documentary, "Of Moose and Men" effectively re-creates the manic hilarity of its subject, coming at you in a barrage of clips that never let up, one joke after another hammering away at your defenses until you have to break down and laugh.

It touches all the bases in the generation's collective memory, with bits from Boris and Natasha, Dudley Do-Right and Nell, Sherman and Peabody, and selections of Edward Everett Horton narrating "Fractured Fairy Tales."

As Magliano pointed out, the humor worked on three levels -- pratfalls for the kids, puns for the older youngsters and sophisticated satire for the adults. Nothing was sacred, this show took on everything, including, as one segment illustrates, an attempt by the network to censor it. Its heirs include "The Muppet Show" and, of course, "The Simpsons."

One fact that's not mentioned is Ward's fateful encounter with a runaway truck. It was 1948 and this art school graduate was back from the war in his native Berkeley, Calif., about to go into the real estate business. The first day he opened his office he went out to get the mail and met the truck.

Ward was laid up for months with a torn-up knee. "Like Bill Scott always said, 'A real estate man who can't run is hopeless.'" Ward said that day in his store. "That accident turned me into a cartoonist."

He and a friend named Alex Anderson came up with an idea for a comic strip for the nascent television medium. It was about a character named Crusader Rabbit and featured elements later seen in Rocky and Bullwinkle. Anderson eventually went into advertising and Ward teamed with Scott.

In 1959, they sold ABC "Rocky and his Friends" for its afternoon lineup. In 1961, NBC bought it, re-titled "The Bullwinkle Show," and put it in prime time, Sunday nights at 7:30 where it ran for a year, returning to Saturday morning in originals until 1964 and in repeats until 1973.

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