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Rocky and Bullwinkle and the statue that spun

Many L.A. landmarks have fallen, but the 15-foot fiberglass likeness of the moose and squirrel stands sentinel to cartoon mischief and edgy animated humor.

May 15, 2011|Steve Harvey | Only in L.A
  • The 1961 statue heralded the debut of the edgily comic cartoon, in which the heroes battled Cold War villains Natasha Fatale and Boris Badenov.
The 1961 statue heralded the debut of the edgily comic cartoon, in which… (Steve Harvey / For The Times )

It wasn't the type of celebration commonly held for a naive flying rodent and a not-so-smart antlered creature.

Yet there was Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter Pitchess on that September day in 1961, presiding with actress Jayne Mansfield over the unveiling of a 15-foot-tall fiberglass statue of cartoon characters Rocket J. ("Rocky") Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose on the Sunset Strip.

TV Guide reported that the publicity stunt, heralding the debut of "The Bullwinkle Show" on NBC, drew "5,000 milling, screaming, caterwauling celebrants" outside the offices of the critters' creator, Jay Ward Productions.

Ward had obtained permits to have all but one lane of Sunset Boulevard blocked off and mischievously posted a sign to motorists that said: "Don't complain or we'll block this lane too."

The invitees received "pairs of tickets to widely separated seats to accommodate Hollywood couples who weren't on speaking terms," author Keith Scott noted in "The Moose That Roared: The Story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, a Flying Squirrel, and a Talking Moose," his history of the company.

Ward, dressed as Napoleon, parodied the poem on the Statue of Liberty in his speech, alluding to "your huddled mooses yearning to breathe free."

Finally the covering was lifted, and spectators cheered at the sight of Bullwinkle holding Rocky in his uplifted hand. Thus was born one of Southern California's most unusual pieces of statuary.

Alert partiers might have noticed that it was a parody of an ad on the other side of Sunset hawking a Las Vegas hotel — a statue of a bikini-clad showgirl holding a cowboy hat in the same manner that Bullwinkle was holding Rocky. Ward even had his statue move on a rotating base like the cowgirl did. The toon duo wore the same colors as she.

In another spoof, of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, several of the show's writers placed their elbow prints in the cement near the statue, leaving their hands free, Ward explained in the Scott book, so "they won't spill their martinis."

The statue was, of course, a fitting honor for the brave toon duo, citizens of Frostbite Falls, Minn., engaged in a never-ending battle against Cold War villains Natasha Fatale and USC grad Boris Badenov (this USC being the Ukrainian Safecracking College).

Ward and his partner, Alex Anderson, owed the creation of Bullwinkle to a strange dream — and a used car dealer.

Anderson had dreamt he attended a poker party with a "stupid moose who was doing card tricks," he told author Scott. "I woke up feeling embarrassed. I thought, 'You've been working too hard.'"

But he and Ward realized this could be a rich comical character. What to call it, though? They simply adapted the name of a car dealer — Clarence Bullwinkel — that they found humorous.

The show's edgy humor, writers Ward and Bill Scott (no relation to Keith Scott) noted, was aimed at adults as much as at children. A typical moment would have Rocky asking his companion, "Do you know what an A-bomb is?" and Bullwinkle answering, "A bomb is what some people call our show."

But the duo became a part of American culture, along with such Ward characters as Dudley Do-Right, Snidely Whiplash and Crusader Rabbit. Several pieces of memorabilia from the shows are in the Smithsonian Institution.

As for the statue, it drew mentions in the guidebooks "Roadside America" ("beautifully tasteless and wonderfully weird") and "L.A. Bizarro," as well as "Hollywood Impressions," a memoir by Melanie Onofrio Haug.

But landmarks have a habit of disappearing in Los Angeles, where, as the saying goes, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

Over the last half-century, numerous local sites rich in history have vanished, including the Ambassador Hotel (and its Cocoanut Grove nightclub), the Brown Derby restaurants, the Pan Pacific Auditorium and Schwab's drugstore (where actress Lana Turner was said to have been discovered).

The statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle, approaching its 50th birthday, has survived them all.

It's at the same address, 8218 Sunset Blvd., but now sits in front of Hollywood Hounds, which offers grooming and day care for dogs (but not for moose or squirrels).

Ward's daughter, Tiffany, who runs Ward Productions, sold the property and moved the company's offices to Costa Mesa. But she retains rights to the statue and said the current property owner has assured her that Rocky and Bullwinkle can stay until, and if, he decides to build on the site.

In that case, she said she would donate the work to the Academy of Televisions Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood.

Like the customers of Hollywood Hounds, the sculpture has occasionally required grooming.

A few years ago Burbank sculptor Ric Scozzari was summoned and discovered that "Bullwinkle's right hand had fallen off." A transplant was in order.

Ward plans to send Scozzari over again soon to repair some unsightly chipping on Bullwinkle's body.

One wonders if the moose would be embarrassed by the attention. After all, as he once said, "Humble, that's me. When it comes to humility, I'm the greatest."

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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