The Moose That Roared
The Story of Jay Ward, Bill Scott, A Flying Squirrell, and a Talking Moose
By Keith Scott
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Keith Scott
All rights reserved.
WATCH ME PULL A RABBIT OUTTA MY HAT, or Here's Lookin' Up Your Ancestors
He was a guerrilla fighter armed with humor and art, leading the fight against boredom.
— Luther Nichols, on his lifelong friend Jay Ward
For one brief decade, 1959–68, the funniest, all-stops-out zaniest cartoons ever made for television emerged from a tiny building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. This was the home of Jay Ward Productions, undoubtedly the most eccentric animation house in the movie capital. Visitors were greeted by a sign on the door proclaiming, "The only animation studio certified by the Pure Food and Drug Administration." But eccentricity aside, Jay Ward Productions, while never a household name on the Disney scale or even the Hanna-Barbera scale, became a Hollywood success story boasting some of animation's all-time beloved characters. Most satisfyingly, Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Bullwinkle J. Moose, and the other great toon stars from this studio represent the all-too-rare triumph of comic integrity over TV expediency.
When Rocky and His Friends burst onto America's home screens at 5:30 P.M., November 19, 1959, it was seemingly just one more in a mushrooming number of TV cartoons. But it soon became apparent that this show, starring the unlikely combination of a moose and squirrel hero-team, had something totally different about it. It was off-center: funny, very sharp, and, in the opinion of several television people, almost "too good" — i.e., too hip, too sophisticated, and certainly too fast-paced for the majority of TV watchers.
They were partly right: hip and fast it was. Yet somehow this wickedly witty animated potpourri proved accessible to all manner of viewers, from toddlers to grandparents. Still, during "Rocky and Bullwinkle's" first two seasons, the corporate powers — sponsor and network — kept asking, "How is this possible?" They kept interfering too, to no avail.
After all, this was unheard-of. Satire was normally frowned upon as a dicey prospect in the world of mass entertainment; but in a children's cartoon series? Predictably, the "suits" regarded it as axiomatic that a TV show boasting such perception and wit would only appeal to a so-called elite. But the nervous pundits had missed the point. Producers Jay Ward and Bill Scott weren't concerned with being clever. They simply wanted two things: a high-quality show and one that was consistently funny. This was a tall order in the fiercely competitive rat race of network television, yet they did the show they wanted year after year. In 1961 Ward told an interviewer, "We aim at neither adults nor children. Our goal is to achieve the ultimate in comedy, including subtleties which escape the youngsters but which evoke response from adults."
Speak to anyone who worked with Jay Ward and you get the same fact over and over: he simply went about his creative way quietly and determinedly, remaining steadfast in his one abiding conviction — no one would interfere with his artistic control. Essentially, Ward was a gentle maverick with an enormous sense of fun, although he could be tough. His many admirers labeled him a visionary.
Not that talk of grand visions took place at Ward's studio; as writer Allan Burns hastens to explain, "Jay would have punctured that balloon very quickly." Actress June Foray, famous as the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, noted, "Jay was a very perspicacious man who always knew precisely what he wanted." Invariably what Ward wanted was something funny, which is what the viewers got: the shows were funny all right. But beyond this they felt oddly different from any competing cartoons. Each element within the Rocky show was informed by a mind-set and comic sensibility then unique to TV. The writers didn't talk "down" to the audience, yet they didn't talk "up" either. Although brilliantly satirical, there was nothing self-conscious or highbrow about the shows. Indeed, a salutary self-deprecation was always lurking in the scripts.
In a nutshell, then, Messrs. Ward and Scott were two producers who cared not a jot for statistics showing what the viewers might accept. Not for them the cold, by-the-numbers findings of market research; rather, they flattered their audiences by presuming that people who watched television actually had brains. The audience, in turn, recognized a truly rare bird among TV shows — one that didn't insult their intelligence.
And so it remains today: Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show are regarded as the most hilarious cartoons from television's golden age. International animation journals still place the moose and squirrel at the top of polls listing the hundred best TV cartoons of all time. While there have been other sharp satirical cartoons (like Roger Ramjet, one of Bill Scott's all-time favorites), no one quite brought off animated satire with the aplomb of Ward and Scott, who laced it with subtlety and a quirky charm. George Atkins, a writer of the "Fractured Fairy Tales" segment, opined, "The show was always the very special province of the brighter, more aware young viewer who cherished Bullwinkle's irreverence; the range of its satire, the presumption of the viewer's higher intelligence, the urgency and seriousness of subject matter — ever thickly encased in utter ridiculousness, and the always convincing high quality of its voice -work."
The sheer breadth of subject matter in one of Jay Ward's TV offerings was also unique. Consider the format of most half-hour cartoon shows; They're either sitcom oriented, from The Flintstones all the way through The Simpsons, or they're in the adventure genre, from Jonny Quest through Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (imagine the latter satirized by the Ward crew). And if they were anthologies they featured endless variations on one theme.
What Ward and his hardy band of iconoclasts offered was essentially an animated variety show: the mock adventures of "Rocky and Bullwinkle," in which public and private institutions were lampooned gently but soundly, sat cheek by jowl with fairy tales and fables, history and poetry, melodrama, and even the TV format itself. And all in a breathless thirty minutes. It was enjoyed by older viewers who discussed the show's witty cultural allusions the next day over coffee breaks. Meantime their kids had eagerly lapped up the adventure angle and were recounting the cartoons in the playground. Two audiences in one; it would be thirty years before The Simpsons repeated this phenomenon.
As well as being years ahead of their time, it was their ability to appeal to both age groups — albeit on different levels — that truly set the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" shows apart. The vast majority of TV cartoons are too childish for parents to sit through, and the genre has acquired a deservedly low reputation. Of the hundreds of animated series aired since 1959, most have proved unimaginative and predictably repetitious. How many times can a cat outwit a dog, or a bunch of one -dimensional teenagers outrun a ghost? Leonard Maltin, in 1975, aptly described them as "assembly line shorts grudgingly executed by animation veterans who hate what they're doing." "Rocky and Bullwinkle" stood out as a welcome oasis in a mostly mirthless desert.
Without intending to, Jay Ward and company gave comedy fans a cult series boasting the twin stamps of intelligence and plain silliness from the first episode to the last. This is a pretty rare achievement in the advertising-and-ratings-driven world of TV: a show which generates the feeling of a fun-filled secret ("This is ours and nobody else gets it") for aficionados while being thoroughly enjoyed by the mainstream audience.
As Bill Scott saw it, "All smart people loved Bullwinkle. The Bullwinkle Show has the most loyal and the most intelligent audience, but it was never number one. It's a special show for special people and it's long-lived and always funny, but never the number one [ratings] grabber."
A few weeks before his death in 1992, Lloyd Turner, one of Ward's top writers, reflected, "You know, when our little gang of misfits were running amok pissing out all that uninhibited, unsupervised, completely unique unsalable piffle (unsalable to anybody but Jay that is), we had no idea we were making thunder. Out of the lack of good sense to know any better we were idea alchemists making magic. It was a time of enchantment. We created Saint Elmo's fire that is burning as brightly today as it did thirty-three years ago."
* * *
So just who was the elusive Jay Ward, besides being prime perpetrator of all the animated nuttiness? He was born J Troplong Ward in San Francisco on September 20, 1920. The unusual middle name was French in origin, being his mother's maiden name; the J had no period after it, so that he could choose a name he wanted later (it was originally to be Joseph, his father's name). A gifted student, Ward grew up to become a kind of kooky David O. Selznick of animation, and an enigma to all but his closest associates and friends. Of all the legendary names in the labyrinth of cartoon history, Ward is the least chronicled. He is also the one whom animation buffs most want to know about.
Veteran cartoon director Lew Keller lunched with Jay Ward for years, even after the studio ceased activity. He spoke of Ward's childhood: "Jay's parents separated when he was young. His father was in real estate and he lost a lot of money in the depression; then he moved to New York and became a wine wholesaler. Jay was an only child and was brought up by his mother, Juanita — they were very close. She had a rooming house on College Avenue, and she was a well-known singer-dancer who loved to travel. [Her professional performing name was Juanita Holmes.] It was only years later, after Jay was married, that he finally met up with his father again."
One of Ward's closest friends from the age of six was Luther Nichols. As next-door neighbors, they went from grammar school through high school and on to college at the University of California, at Berkeley. He recalls, "Jay and his mother were not well off. The rest of us were comfortably middle class, but Jay had a mainly improvident childhood. And it affected him. This and the lack of a father figure were really what imbued in him that extreme independence. Jay was very proud, and he had a strong sense of needing to make it on his own, and on his terms alone. The estrangement with his father was a major — the major — influence in his life."
During his college years, Jay Ward, in collusion with pals Nichols and Alex Anderson, was a principal founder of a mythical institution called the Meadowbrook Athletic Club. Nichols explains, "Meadowbrook was dedicated to the proposition that inferior athletes could, on a given day, beat superior athletes if they had a certain amount of luck, guile, and Jay on their side. We played baseball and basketball for endless hours at Emerson and other playgrounds in the city, and when we weren't playing we were betting on our favorite big-league teams. Jay had a gambler's instinct even then; in fact I was his prime source of income in those early days." Anderson adds, "The perpetual trophy of the UC gym still bears the Meadowbrook name, attesting to Jay's success." Ward's loyalty to UC Berkeley remained throughout his life. He made regular donations to the Bancroft Library, and was a chairman of the Robert C. Sproul Club and an honorary member of the Cal marching band.
Nichols recalled some early examples of Ward's lifelong fun-oriented nature. "Jay was noted for his prodigious consumption of ice-cream sodas. Never vanilla, that wouldn't be Jay: as you would expect, he went for the offbeat flavors like pistachio and rainbow specials. I remember when Jay got one of his first sports cars; it was a real pretty MG with a right-hand drive. At the time Jay owned this huge Saint Bernard dog named Brandy, and he'd place the dog in the left-hand side of his car. Then he'd slide down the seat as far as he could while he drove, so it looked like the dog was driving! People would see this big dog with its huge tongue hanging out and brown hair flying about. Wherever they went people were startled and Jay would get these double-take reactions that he just loved. This was an early indication that Jay was going to be creatively different — one of the great gag men of our time."
Intriguingly, the story of Jay Ward's outstanding career in animation — via his first star character, the legendary Crusader Rabbit — is a classic example of how showbiz immortality can often hinge on the twin intangibles of good timing and fate.
Ward completed his undergraduate work at UC Berkeley, receiving an A.B. in May 1941. Following this, he commenced postgraduate studies in business management at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. These were interrupted when, despite his poor eyesight, he was drafted. During World War II Jay Ward served in the Army Air Corps. In 1943, after two years of service, he married his wife, Ramona (or "Billie," as she had been known since childhood). They had met in Massachusetts while Jay was attending Harvard.
Ramona Ward explains, "After the war, [Jay] took his army shirt off and never put on a uniform again." Returning to Boston, he completed his remaining year at Harvard while earning some income as a floorwalker in a department store. "Even after he returned to Berkeley, he never wanted to work for anyone but himself, despite a lot of good offers. He decided on real estate."
In 1972, Ward, interviewed for the Southern California newspaper The Tattler, explained, "I was going into the real estate business in Berkeley, California. I wasn't too crazy about real estate, but I had to eat." In fact, young Realtor Ward might have continued plying this halfhearted career choice for years, but for a freak accident that was about to change everything in his life.
At the age of twenty-six, Jay Ward, recent recipient of a February 1947 master's degree, went to work. The postwar housing boom was strong, and J. T. Ward Realty and Insurance Company was soon open for business at 3049 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley, near the majestic old Claremont Hotel. He worked from a small green cabin that boasted a bright majenta door — the color magenta was to be Jay's sales gimmick. The rustic building was situated adjacent to a babbling brook.
Ramona Ward recalls, "It was only his first day in the office, and that afternoon he was stepping out the door for the mail." As Jay stood chatting with the postman, a nearby lumber truck lost brake power, went out of control, and careered crazily down steep Tunnel Avenue. With the lights against him at the Ashby Avenue intersection, the driver suddenly lurched to his right. Ward caught the full force of the truck as it crashed, full-speed, through the front window of his office, crushing him under the vehicle and pinning him against a wall.
Seconds before being hit by the runaway truck, Ward was reading a poem to his mailman. This was part of a letter he had just received from his close friends Milton and Barbara Schwartz. Barbara had composed the verse as a good-luck gesture to Jay on his first day in the new business. Jay's lifelong pal Alex Anderson recalls, "Barbara felt guilty for a long time afterward, along the lines of 'If only I hadn't written that poem.'"
As a Los Angeles Times retrospective article reported, "Hauled out of the ensuing carnage, it looked as though Ward would be blinded and crippled for life." As it turned out, the result could have been even worse. Still, the impact broke one of Ward's knees and caused much further damage, not the least of which was psychological: as Ward's animation director Bill Hurtz maintains, "That was the start of Jay's lifelong claustrophobia — it haunted him the rest of his days." Ward sustained terrible muscle injuries and was temporarily blinded by grains of the sand which bordered the nearby brook.
Ramona Ward recalls that horrific day: she was about to walk their first child when she received an ominous telephone call from the police, informing her that Jay had been rushed to nearby Alta Bates Hospital, at Ashby and Regent Street. As the facts became clear (the mailman had been thrown forty feet upon collision), one rather callous female neighbor answered Ramona's anxious question concerning her husband's whereabouts with a dismissive, "Oh, he's dead!"
The convalescence proved long and painful: Ward wore a cast for the next six months, followed by leg braces. Indeed, during the first few days a doctor seriously considered amputating one of Jay's legs. Upon his recovery Ward returned to real estate, this time at a new address, 2 Tunnel Road, Berkeley. But this stint didn't last long. Within a short time Jay would be the manager of a company pioneering cartoons for the embryonic medium of television. This rather amazing career switch teamed Jay Ward with his first partner in the animation field and his friend since childhood, Alex Anderson.
Also born in September of 1920, fifteen days before Jay, Alexander Hume Anderson, Jr., was a native of the Bay Area. He and Ward were friends from the age of nine. As Anderson recalled, "Jay was a unique individual. At school he always gave the impression he knew more than the teachers. Just before they separated, Jay's parents had taken him on a round-the-world trip for about six months; he came back very sophisticated compared with all us other kids. Jay devoted enormous time and energy to his love of sports — tennis, baseball, softball, track and field, basketball, bowling. How he managed to maintain a high grade average and combine this world of sport, I'll never know. He was always very sharp. Later in life he struck me as P. T. Barnum, the ringmaster, with the world as his circus. Jay is the most memorable character I ever knew." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Moose That Roared by Keith Scott. Copyright © 2000 Keith Scott. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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