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Tales of Jay Ward and the Bullwinkle Gang : How the Subversive Silliness of Rocky and Bullwinkle Sprang Into Our Living Rooms

November 13, 1988|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

There was this squirrel. He had a boyish voice and wore an old-time aviator cap with goggles. He had a tall friend, this moose, who had the voice of a galoot.

Together they escaped extraordinary mishaps en route to making the world safe for democracy, usually by thwarting the sinister plans of a couple of Slavic schemers, a squat fellow named Boris and a slinky woman named Natasha.

The heroes were Rocky and Bullwinkle. No one who has seen them seems able to forget them. Mention their names to Rocky and Bullwinkle cognoscenti and you get this smile of inward recognition.

It will be 30 years next year since the inception of the Bullwinkle gang (originally titled "Rocky and His Friends") and though their career was relatively brief (through the mid-1960s), the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" shows still careen through the boundless galaxies of syndication. Their fans' affection towards them hasn't diminished; indeed, it's likely to explode anew:

A salute to the Bullwinkle days is planned for Jan. 20-29 at the United States Film Festival at the Sundance Institute in Park City, Utah.

The feature film "Boris and Natasha," starring Sally Kellerman and Dave Thomas, is now in production around town.

Walt Disney's home-video division has bought the videocassette rights to the whole catalogue of 150 Bullwinkled shows, for release next year. (There's an irony here. On the next page see the storyboards and scenario of a 1960 episode of "Fractured Fairy Tales," in which the hero looks suspiciously like Walt himself.)

An Accident of Birth

The Bullwinkle canon reflects the eccentricity of its fearless leader and first among equals, the elusive Jay Ward. Over the years his general inaccessibility--the product of his shyness--has grown to a legendary reclusiveness (putting a strain on this attempt to reconstruct the era).

Ward's phobias now stand sentry between him and the public. Wife Billie plays captain of the invisible guard. Questions for Ward were funnelled through her before the voice of authority was echoed back. (A mutual friend said, "I saw Jay in a supermarket and wanted to say hello, but was afraid he'd drop his groceries and run out and never go to the market again!")

Reports have it that he sits around his office much of the day reading, having lunch with a crony or two, doing a little business and eating jelly beans ordered from far-flung beaneries around the world.

The Bullwinkle oeuvre began literally by accident. In the late 1940s, young Ward finished post-graduate chores at Harvard Business School and returned with wife and child to the Berkeley of his childhood, where he planned to open a real estate business.

One afternoon, stepping out for the mail, he caught the force of a wayward lumber truck's plummeting descent down Claremont Avenue. Hauled out of the ensuing carnage, it looked as though Ward would be blinded and crippled for life.

He was neither. In the painful convalescence that followed, his weighty thoughts turned not to philosophical matters or dreams of a magnum opus that would ennoble his existence and enrich the world. They turned instead to cartoons.

Ward was only intermittently a writer and he knew virtually nothing about animation. But he was a bit of a visionary. He had a conception and an eye for spotting talent. He teamed up with boyhood friend Alex Anderson--nephew of Terrytoons artist Paul Terry--to devise "Crusader Rabbit," the first cartoon character ever created specifically for TV.

His first success was enough to set in motion a stable of characters that would far outstrip their chuckling progenitor, and whose continuing life and adventures drew on the talents of a group of young writers and performers destined for major successes of their own:

Bill Scott, who died in 1985, is conceded as the resident genius who gave the Bullwinkle gang the touch of irony that drew parents into looking over their children's little shoulders at whatever escapade Rocky & Co. were up to next. Scott also portrayed Bullwinkle, who sounded so much like Klem Kadiddlehopper that Red Skelton registered a protest (which proved ultimately futile).

Writer Chris Hayward would go on to "Barney Miller." Writer-producer Allan Burns would emerge as a creator of the heralded original "Mary Tyler Moore" series and others. Lloyd Turner was a writer and story editor on a number of top sit-comedies. Hans Conreid and June Foray did voices (she did Rocky and all the females). Edward Everett Horton and William Conrad executed narration.

The shows enjoyed a peculiar appeal bordering the subversive. Like a cultist's password, they penetrated the shared secret of hours spent deliciously watching the antics of the perky squirrel and his clumsy sidekick, as well as the klutzy Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right, Peabody (the dog who was so smart that he had his own boy) and George of the Jungle, among others.

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