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Timeless 'Tunes'


Overture! Curtain! Lights!

This is it, the night of nights .

No more rehearsing or nursing a part .

We know every part by heart . . .

If you know every part by heart of this signature song from "The Bugs Bunny Show," you're not alone. Fans of "Looney Tunes" characters tune in not only every day, but nearly all day long to Bugs & Co. in some form or other. One early-morning a local news reporter recently confessed on the air that he gets dressed to "Looney Tunes" at 4:30 a.m. before hopping down to the newsroom for his daily on-air duties.

"Looney Tunes" lovers pour more than a billion dollars annually into retail products bearing the likenesses of that cwazy wabbit and his wascally pals. The "Merrie Melodies" makers may not have blanketed popular culture quite as much as Mickey and Donald, but the Looney legion of small-screen fans continues to expand.

Even though there've been few new "Looney Tunes" in the last quarter-century, the classic Warner Bros. animated cartoon shorts have been on television nonstop since 1955. And their smart-alecky antics, propelled by the late Mel Blanc's ingenious voice characterizations, consistently rate high--usually No. 1 on Saturdays or as the top-faring kid show--for the stations or networks that air them.

The "Looney Tunes" have appeared on every network, in syndication and on cable, and are available on video and laser disc. And they've spawned a new generation called "Tiny Toon Adventures" from a new generation of animators who've come up with younger counterparts to Bugs, Elmer, Porky, Tweety, Sylvester et al.

Their enduring popularity seems assured among the 32.5 million youngsters who reportedly tune in weekly to shows that charmed their parents and grandparents first.

"We're now into the fourth generation of people becoming familiar with the characters," observes David Stewart, a professor of marketing and specialist in consumer psychology at USC. "Parents encourage their child to become familiar and watch." All of this means that "every five years or so you have a new generation of children who discover the shows, which have this universal appeal," Stewart adds. "There's always this new and developing audience."

"Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies"--the titles have been virtually interchangeable--were originally produced as theatrical shorts in the 1930s, when cartoons were staples between double bills. Creators made sure the humor worked on two levels, so that older and younger viewers would enjoy them, notes Kathleen Helppie, vice president of production and administration of Warner Bros. animation. And that helps keep them popular today.

The five primary, and legendary, "Looney Tunes" directors--Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Bob McKimson--each helped develop the classic toons various defining characteristics during their 38 years of production.

Although Warner's cartoons began playing in theaters in 1930, the first "Looney" star didn't emerge until 1935, when the self-conscious stuttering Porky Pig popped up on screen. He was followed by con man Daffy Duck in 1937; "wabbit" hunter Elmer J. Fudd and the unflappable Bugs Bunny in 1940; cute little Tweety Bird in 1942; that unscrupulous cat Sylvester, egomaniacal rooster Foghorn Leghorn and suave skunk Pepe Le Pew in 1945; the Road (Beep, Beep) Runner and Wile E. Coyote in 1949, and clever mouse Speedy Gonzales in 1953.

After first appearing in 1954 and in only six of the more than 1,000 classic cartoons, that hungry whirling dervish Tazmanian Devil--Taz to those in the know--now looks like Mr. Popularity. "He's really taken off and his merchandise is equally popular with the other characters'," says Warner spokeswoman Cynthia Lieberman. The new "Taz-Mania" airs Saturday mornings on Fox.

Yet Bugs is still the most beloved.

"Of all the characters, Bugs Bunny is clearly No. 1," concurs Peter Starrett, president of the Warner Bros. Studio stores. "I think he's viewed as the leader of the 'Looney Tunes.' He's the icon. He's the character everybody would like to be. He's smart, he's savvy, he manages to get out of every problem situation he's in and, above all, he's really funny."

Bugs' appeal and that of his cronies keeps audiences watching.

"They all have true human foibles," Warner's Helppie notes. "And they react in ways that you yourself wish you could in similar situations."

The "Looney Tunes" populace are not just a lump of characters: Each has his own personality.

"They're all very well defined and it's easy for kids to figure out who's who," Stewart points out. "That breeds familiarity."

It's a comfort level, he adds. "That familiarity with personalities is simple to deal with. You sort of know the plot--that Elmer will try to get Bugs and Bugs will get away. But there's always something different than the last time. There's a plot for them to think up enough variations to make the next cartoon interesting."

Kids readily confirm those observations.

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