On February 28, 1949, a puppet show called Time For Beany debuted on KTLA, channel 5 in Los Angeles. It was instantly one
of the best shows on television.
That is not much of a compliment, given how little was on television in 1949. KTLA only broadcast a few hours per day and most
shows looked like what you and I might throw together with a budget of twelve dollars, an empty garage and the security camera from a 7-Eleven
store. But over the next few years, TV rapidly improved and Time For Beany remained one of the best shows on television.
It was that rarest, most elusive of creatures: A kids' show that adults enjoyed watching — and not just any adults. Among
its declared fans were Groucho Marx, Albert Einstein and the kid who would grow up to be Frank Zappa. (Allegedly, Einstein once cut short a
high-level meeting on quantum molecular mechanics by announcing, "Excuse me, gentlemen, but it's Time For Beany!")
If you're going to do a show for no money and attract that kind of audience, you'd better be damned clever. Time For Beany
was damned clever. Actually, there were many clever folks involved in its production but its producer-creator and its two performers were three
of the cleverest humans ever in show business. They were, respectively, Bob Clampett, Stan Freberg and Daws Butler.
Time For Beany was my pre-natal favorite. That is almost not a joke: My mother watched it every night when she was
pregnant with me. She says she liked thinking that the kid inside her was somehow hearing or absorbing all its brilliant silliness. Not
long after I was born in 1952, I became, I'm told, an avid watcher of the show. I, of course, have no memory of this but I'll bet the sound was
a lot better outside the womb.
There's a theory that the personality of a child can be nurtured and steered by directing certain kinds of music towards the belly of
an expectant mother. I have no idea if there's even a morsel of truth to this notion. I will only note that, in all my life, I have never
felt closer to the work of any creative talents than the individual and collective outputs of Bob Clampett, Stan Freberg and Daws Butler.
Freberg was a former cartoon voice artist and radio actor who went on to become one of America's great satirists, and the master of the
funny commercial. Butler was another cartoon voice actor who later worked with Freberg on radio and records, but he remained in the cartoon
voice field and became one of its three-or-so best, the other two being Mel Blanc and June Foray. No one ever did what Stan and Daws did better
than Stan and Daws.
Nor did anyone ever top Bob Clampett in his career. Actually, Bob had three careers and he was wildly successful in all
three. First, he was a director of theatrical animation. Later, he created and produced puppet shows for television. Still later,
he produced animation for TV. Time For Beany, with its myriad early Emmy awards, was the crowning achievement of Career #2.
Robert "Bob" Clampett was born in 1913. As a youth, he developed a love of cartooning, puppetry and near-lethal punning —
three skills that would serve him well in his putative adulthood. In 1931, he went to work for the Harman-Ising animation studio, just in time
to help animate the very first Merrie Melodies cartoon. Harman-Ising soon passed the series on to what became the Warner Brothers cartoon
department and Bob went with it.
At first, Bob was an animator and a contributor of gags. In 1936, he was promoted to the director's chair from which he would
eventually supervise around 80 cartoons. The first 20 or so were good. The next 20 or so were better. And then he hit a streak and
began to make great cartoon after great cartoon. Here are just a few titles...
Porky in Wackyland. Tin Pan Alley Cats. A Tale of Two Kitties. Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid. Horton Hatches the
Egg. Kitty Kornered. A Corny Concerto. An Itch in Time. Falling Hare. Baby Bottleneck. Wabbit Twouble. Coal
Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. And my favorite, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.
If Bob had done nothing else but these films, we would still be hailing him as one of the all-time greats. I watched them on TV
as a kid and thought they were very funny. But I didn't know how very funny until I saw them with an audience.
Theatrical cartoons were made to be viewed, not alone at home on a little box, but on a big screen with lotsa people all around.
You have to see them that way to appreciate how hilarious some of them can be...and how expertly timed. That timing was perhaps the most
amazing aspect of what Clampett and his crew of storymen, animators and other artists brought forth.
The director of a live-action comedy can overshoot a little...let each scene run a bit long, perhaps shoot some alternate versions and
some "coverage" (extra shots). Then he can preview the film in front of a few live gatherings and edit according to their reactions.
Almost every live-action film undergoes renovations — some of them, serious — after audience testing.
Except on rare occasions at Disney, animation directors have never had those luxuries. A cartoon is made to pretty much its final
length. When you edit, you don't have alternate takes or the same scene shot from different angles. You can't let scenes run long and
then trim later. You have to know what you're doing from the start
Bob knew what he was doing.
The other cartoon directors at WB did too but, for the most part, later on. Clampett's "golden streak" ran from roughly 1942
until he left the studio in 1946. If you compare that work to what others were concurrently outputting, it's even more impressive. You
can also see that Bob had a lot to do with establishing what we now know as the style and standard of Warner Brothers cartoons...and a lot to do with
launching and/or developing many of their key characters, including Tweety, Daffy Duck and The Wabbit.
As I said, I began to realize how brilliant these films were when I saw them with live audiences. I recommend the experience to
those of you who've only watched them on your 19" Trinitrons.
That's a downside of the home video revolution. There used to be many more cartoon festivals, as they were just about the only
place one could see classic animation. In the late-60's/early-70's, it seemed like there was one every week somewhere. I recall some
glorious evenings, crammed into ancient theaters and auditoriums, sharing with friends and strangers, glorious laughter and a thrilling sense of
And there was another bonus: It was at one such festival around 1970 that I got to meet Bob Clampett. I don't recall what I said
to him but I guarantee you that it was gushy and filled with gratitude...and that Bob was humble, appreciative and disarmingly friendly. That
was the way he was, always and with everyone — utterly accessible, always willing to take time to answer anyone's questions about anything he'd
Wait. I hear skepticism: Okay, so the guy liked to talk about his work. Fine. Lots of people love to talk about
themselves. What's the big deal?
Well, with Bob, the big deal was that he didn't just love to talk about his work. He even more enjoyed talking about your
Bob would gladly spend an hour answering your questions, no matter how geeky. He'd discourse on Warner Brothers cartoons or
Time For Beany or Thunderbolt the Wondercolt (that was another of his puppet shows) or anything else he'd seen or done. But you had
to be prepared to spend an hour answering his questions about what you were up to.
He was genuinely fascinated by what his fans were doing, what they were accomplishing. He'd give you an autograph but, if you'd
done anything you could sign, you had to give one to him. He'd give you all the wisdom and info he had to give — which was considerable
— but you had to share yours, however little there may have been of either.
I didn't have a lot to offer. The only time I ever felt I was telling Bob anything he didn't know was once when we sat together,
whispering back and forth, throughout a screening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I was explaining obscure cinema "in" jokes and even
murkier sexual imagery, while Bob kept looking at me like Russ Meyer, Roger Ebert and I had all conspired to drive him mad, simply mad.
Still, away from that movie, he was a wonderful fount of information and inspiration. If you ever got to meet Bob — we lost
him, sadly, back in '84 — you know all this. And if you never got that opportunity...well, I'm sorry you never had that pleasure, because
it was one. I can, however, suggest the next best thing...
All of this has been leading up to an unabashed plug for what's easily the best thing I've seen released on DVD — and it's only
on DVD, not videotape. If you don't have a DVD player yet, Bob Clampett's Beany and Cecil — The Special Edition is reason enough
to purchase one.
It's a new release from Image that, at first glance, appears to feature just cartoons from the 1962 Beany and Cecil cartoon
series. And it does — a dozen of the best, splendidly transferred anew from the 35mm negatives.
That alone would be worth the $29.99 retail price (Amazon-dot-com has it for $23.99) but that's just the beginning. The disc is a
loving and thorough overview of the incredible careers of Bob Clampett.
There are also four full episodes of the Time for Beany puppet show, samples of Bob's other TV shows. There's also a
gallery with hundreds of still images of Beany and Cecil merchandise, publicity photos and backstage glimpse, plus hours of audio interviews with
Clampett, Freberg and another performer on the puppet show, Walker Edmiston. You even get an audio recording of an actual Beany and
Cecil story session.
(Another of the great things about Bob was that he saved everything! A bunch of us were up at his house one night,
watching his old cartoons. Following Russian Rhapsody, which he'd made in 1944, one of them asked Bob how a certain effect had been
accomplished. Bob said, "Just a second," disappeared into the next room and returned with the actual cels and background paintings for that
scene, so he could explain in full.)
So doesn't this new DVD release sound that terrific? Doesn't all that make it a must-have? Well, as they say on the
infomercials: Wait! There's more!
Also included are a dozen-or-so samplings of Bob's "lost work" — pilots, test films and/or audio tracks from projects that, 'til
now, never saw the light of day. If that doesn't sell you on your purchase, nothing will, so I'll just shut up,
— That is, after I mention that it was all lovingly assembled by Robert Clampett, Jr., doubtlessly with an assist from the lovely
and charming Sody Clampett, who was the spouse of Bob, Senior. Fine job, Clampetts!
To those who are DVD-less and pondering the purchase of a player, this is a splendid example of how DVD is better than plain ol'
videotape or even Laserdisc. It's not just the video quality; it's all the extras and the interactive menu that allows one to access them
directly. You get almost four hours of goodies on this disc and everything is a goody.
If they could figure a way to include a big, raucous live audience in the package, it would be perfect.
The plugging completed, I'll close with one of my favorite memories of Bob...
It was at one of those animation festivals I mentioned earlier — one I'd help program — held in a big conference room (not
an auditorium). This was after I'd gotten to know Bob and we were standing together in the back as a packed house was roaring at A
Tale of Two Kitties, which was the first Tweety cartoon, made during World War II.
During those fun years, many cities staged Blackout Drills, during which everyone had to extinguish every bulb or candle in their
home. Air Raid Wardens would prowl the street and issue warnings if they saw the slightest flicker of luminosity. It became a
catch-phrase of sorts to yell, "Turn out that light!"
At the end of A Tale of Two Kitties, Tweety is presiding over a blackout and the last line of the cartoon is him screaming,
"Turn out those lights!" Just before we got to it, Bob motioned to the light switch near me and whispered, "We could do a funny gag here.
Turn on the lights in the room just before Tweety yells, 'Turn out those lights!'"
If Bob had asked me to leap out the window, I might have done so...but this request seemed wrong somehow. I whispered back, "This
cartoon is too funny as it is. It doesn't need any extra jokes."
Bob smiled, "You're right," so I didn't do it.
At the end of the film, there was huge applause for it and all the Clampett masterworks that had preceded it that evening. Bob
was mobbed by admirers but later, when we were alone, I tried to explain to him why I'd overruled his suggestion: "See, I wanted the audience to
experience the film the way you made it and — "
He interrupted. "No, you were right. That's a problem I have some time. I'm always looking for that extra gag."
Get this: Here's a man, hailed as one of the all-time greats in his field, watching people convulsed in laughter at his work. And
he's still trying to improve on a cartoon he made in 1942.
I think that was the secret of Bob's success. He was always looking for that extra gag. "Too funny" was never enough.