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Obituaries

Hoyt Curtin; Composer of Cartoon Music

December 11, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you can hum a few bars from the theme song for "The Flintstones," "The Jetsons" or one of the more than 250 other cartoons made by Hanna-Barbera since the late 1950s, you have Hoyt Curtin to thank.

As longtime music director for the Burbank-based animation giant, Curtin devoted his composing talents to the under-12 set, writing the tunes that helped set the mood for most of Hanna-Barbera's classic cartoons, from "Ruff and Reddy" to "The Smurfs."

His scores are hard-wired into the brains of several generations of former and current Saturday morning television addicts. You cannot think of the lyrics to the cartoon about the Bedrock clan, for instance, without hearing Curtin's punchy, jazz-infused music ring in your head.

Flintstones, meet the Flintstones

They're the modern Stone Age fa-mi-ly

From the town of Bedrock

They're a page right out of his-tor-y. . . .

Curtin, whose credits cover a who's who of cartoon history, died Dec. 3 at a Thousand Oaks hospital. A longtime resident of Westlake Village, he was 78.

Like Carl Stalling, the melody-meister of such Warner Bros. classics as Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny who died in 1972, Curtin is considered one of the giants of cartoon music.

"Hoyt was the king of jingle-making," said Jean MacCurdy, the president of Warner Bros. Animation. "His strong suit was coming up with the themes that almost anyone on the street could sing at the drop of a hat. He was really quite remarkable."

Curtin's small company of composers, Soundtrack Music, had an exclusive contract to score Hanna-Barbera cartoons since the studio opened in the late 1950s, producing the music for "Huckleberry Hound," "Quick Draw McGraw," "Yogi Bear," "Scooby Doo," "Magilla Gorilla," "Top Cat," "Jonny Quest" and many other shows.

Syndication and nostalgia have kept many of his tunes in play. Pop and New Wave bands have performed the vintage 1962 "Jetsons" song, which resurfaced as a hit in 1986, when it reached No. 9 on Billboard magazine's retail sales charts. The "Flintstones" theme, written in 1960, was used in the 1994 movie starring John Goodman as the Stone Age patriarch. Out of jazz aficionado Curtin's hundreds of cartoon compositions, "The Flintstones" was his favorite.

"It's a catchy little tune, just a simple thing arranged for jazz and singers," he once said. "I like it, not because it's popular, but it's jammed on in clubs in every country because the chord changes are fun to play."

Pitching Jingles for Commercials

Curtin was born in Downey and grew up in San Bernardino, the son of a rancher who later turned to the insurance business and became the deputy assessor for San Bernardino County.

He began playing piano at the age of 5 and won a singing contest sponsored by a movie theater when he was 11 or 12. By the ninth grade, he had his own orchestra and played in jazz bands throughout high school. Deciding to become a composer, he majored in music at USC, obtaining his master's degree after serving aboard a destroyer in the Pacific during World War II.

He wanted to compose for the movies but wound up pitching jingles for commercials. He was scoring a Schlitz beer spot in the late 1950s that was being produced at MGM by two men named William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. A few weeks after completing the ad, they called Curtin and asked if he would be interested in collaborating on the music for a cartoon series they were creating for television. Curtin, who had scored music for "Mr. Magoo" theater shorts in 1953, agreed to help.

His mode of collaboration with Hanna and Barbera was uncomplicated.

"They would call me and read me a lyric and say, 'Go write a tune and send it to us as fast as you can,' " he said.

They called him with the lyrics for a show called "Ruff and Reddy." Within five minutes, Curtin had a score and called them back to sing it to them.

When his performance was met with silence, he thought, "Uh-oh, I bombed out." Then he heard Hanna and Barbera offer him a deal to record the tune.

The year was 1957. Hanna and Barbera quit MGM to start their own company, taking Curtin along for what would be a rollicking ride into cartoon history.

Curtin wrote the songs for "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons" the same way he did with "Ruff and Reddy"--back and forth on the telephone. Later he would match the scores to videotapes or artists' storyboards of the cartoons, watching to ensure that his music accentuated the characters' every physical movement and mood.

"We'd all have a good time, and I think the music shows it," Barbera recalled in a 1986 interview. He called Curtin "a true genius" who he hoped was "still writing sweet music wherever he is."

Curtin is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; a son, Christopher, of Simi Valley; a brother, John, of Carlsbad; and three grandchildren.

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