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The modern Stone Age family has its golden anniversary

'The Flintstones' broke ground as the first animated prime-time show. Fifty years on, it's a cultural touchstone.

September 11, 2010|By Stephen Cox, Special to the Los Angeles Times

It was 50 years ago this month, on the evening of Sept. 30, 1960, that America met the Flintstones, television's modern Stone Age family. That Friday night, kids couldn't wait. Parents were curious. And the ABC network executives pondered their gamble patiently. TV's first animated prime-time sitcom made history; well, they were history.

"I remember sitting and watching the premiere episode," says actor Paul Reubens, who later starred in his own popular children's show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse." "I think I was in fourth or fifth grade at the time. Just the whole idea of a cartoon in prime time was exciting and there was a lot of hype about it. I loved how they patterned some characters after real stars like Ann Margrock and Stoney Curtis."

Set in the animated suburbia of Bedrock, Fred and Wilma Flintstone (voiced by radio veterans Alan Reed and Jean Vander Pyl) along with their genial neighbors Betty and Barney Rubble ( Bea Benaderet and Mel Blanc), were meant as an amalgam of adult satire and children's amusement.

"The Flintstones" was drawn to be a slice-of-life sitcom with a prehistoric twist. The show boasted several milestones: Quite possibly, Fred and Wilma Flintstone were the first sitcom couple to be shown sleeping on the same king-size, er, slab. And definitely a cartoon first. And until 1997 when "The Simpsons" surpassed their prehistoric predecessor, "The Flintstones" held the record as the longest-running prime time animated series.

John Stephenson, 87, who carries an undeniably familiar Hanna Barbera intonation in his speaking voice, is one of the last surviving cast members of the iconic show. Most notably, Stephenson portrayed Fred's bombastic boss at the rock quarry, Mr. Slate, among multitudes of Bedrock citizenry throughout the program's original six-year run.

"I think the show was successful because it was an adult cartoon and viewers associated it with 'The Honeymooners,' " he says. "And with the Stone Age setting and some very good writing, audiences loved it. They still do."

Created by animation legends William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, "The Flintstones" (titled "The Flagstones" in early development) became the flagship property for the cartoon factory the duo created for television production. After producing an Academy Award-winning slew of Tom and Jerry cartoons at MGM, Hanna and Barbera formed their own company and created such animated characters as Emmy winner Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw and Ruff and Reddy. This time, however, they audaciously decided to redirect their efforts, wipe the slate clean, and twist their usual format: Their new TV series would extend the animation to a half hour and gamble on prime-time audiences. That was unheard of in 1960.

In the process, Hanna-Barbera reinvented the animation business, introducing a more efficient and economically feasible "limited animation" procedure that proved popular both with the network and with audiences. While many animation studios were closing in Hollywood, Hanna and Barbera were just opening their doors and enticing a pool of veterans to join them in their plunge. Some of animation's greatest talents helped polish these precious 'stones.' With caveman characters designed by artist Ed Benedict and a talented team of animators, the unique cartoon took off, and fast. "The Flintstones" ignited a following with loyal audiences young and old, setting off a groundbreaking cascade that eventually paved the way for more prime-time favorites such as "The Jetsons," "Top Cat," and such current mega-hits as "The Simpsons" and " Family Guy."

Stephenson credits Barbera's talent for directing the cast as a key to the show's charm, at least vocally. During those smoke-filled studio recording sessions (the show was sponsored by Winston cigarettes for a while), it was not uncommon to hear Barbera barking over the speaker, "I paid a lot of money for this script, so I want to hear the lines!"

The verbal gymnastics were always bold and lively. "Very seldom did he want anyone to talk in a moderate tone or conversational tone," Stephenson explains. "He wanted it up there, right in your face, punctuated, laid out and hit!"

Over decades, "The Flintstones" spawned many reincarnations, including several new series attempts (even a proposed series titled "The Blackstones") and in the 1990s Fred and Wilma became movie stars with a pair of live-action feature films for Universal Studios.

One spinoff in 1979 was a short-lived segment of "The New Fred and Barney Show" on NBC called "The Frankenstones," which mixed "The Flintstones" talent with a touch of "The Munsters." Paul Reubens, just getting started in his television career, provided a voice on the show.

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