It is about 7:45 on a Saturday morning, sometime late in 1980, or perhaps early in 1981…
We have gained a new president, lost a Beatle, and the whole country has just learned who shot J.R…
None of this matters to me, of course. I am six. The sun peeks in through the cracks in my Empire Strikes Back curtains. I am tucked under my Empire Strikes Back comforter. I hear the furnace kick on in the basement. I hear the back door in the kitchen open and close as my dad leaves for work. He runs an auto body shop, and his sole employee is himself, so six-day work weeks are a necessity. Mom works the graveyard shift as a police dispatcher, and arrives home not long before I wake up. She will remain sleeping until noon or so. My sister will also remain sleeping until noon or so, by virtue of the fact she is a fourteen-year-old girl.
The house is mine, and it is the best time of the week — it is Saturday Morning.
As warmth fills the house via the heating grates, I slip out of bed. I am clad solely in my briefs. I’ve always hated the sweaty, tangled mess of pajamas, twisting around my torso and riding up my shins. I usually only wear them on Christmas Eve, so I can appear decent in Christmas morning photos. There’s still enough chill in the air to raise goosebumps, so I make sure I wrap my security blanket tight around me, like a chrysalis or vampire’s cape. This blanket has been with me since the crib, and has seen better days. It is basic, thermal-style cloth (like long underwear) and was once vivid yellow, but has faded to hue best described as “old buttermilk.” The satin edging it was manufactured with is not even a memory at this point. I already feel a little too old for such nonsense, but I confess it stays within reach for at least another few years.
If I’m lucky, one of my three pairs of Underoos briefs would be among the laundered options in my top drawer. Not only did they come in bold superhero colors, they were much softer than my standard tighty-whiteys, mellowing their cotton with a little polyester. I barely considered Underoos underwear — they were a costume, and, on a warm day, perfectly acceptable as outerwear, at least as far as the yard.
Scantily-clad and wrapped in my shawl, I creep downstairs. There is one possible obstacle on the landing between the two sets of stairs. Ninety percent of the time, our housecat Tom Kitty is an amenable, purring charmer, on the hunt for a lap to knead and a hand to lick. But every once in awhile, he would get in a “mood.” Sprawled on his side, tail twitching, pupils dilated to the max, he would park himself in some family pathway and challenge everyone to dare try and pass fifteen pounds of feline moodiness. Everyone else stepped over him with little consequence. I was his favorite victim. He would literally nod at me, raising his furry chin in a menacing “‘sup, bro?” gesture. I could either sprint past him and hope to outrun him (he would give chase), or try to cause a diversion, frequently by sacrificing my blanket — tossing it over his head would buy me a few seconds. The downside was that I would sooner or later have to retrieve the blanket, and also the fact that Tom had a long memory for slights. “Payback’s A Bitch” might as well have been embroidered on his collar.
The old Zenith…
Happily, most of the time he either wasn’t on the landing, or was in an agreeable temper, so my journey to the couch and TV was unimpeded. The TV was a Zenith cabinet model, half home entertainment, half furniture, with its controls hidden on the right-hand side by a little louvered door, and fake drawers under the screen. I pull the on-off knob. If I’m a little too early, it’s still showing “Farm Report,” but usually I’m right on time. I feather my couch nest with yet another blanket — a much bigger blue tartan number with fringed edges that lives under our end table. There is no remote. Channel changing must be done on the dial. (Just like my descent from the bedroom, this process can also be complicated by the presence of a moody feline.) If it’s warm enough, I might not bundle myself on the couch, but rather drape myself over a barrel-like hassock footstool that I’ve turned on its side, and rock back and forth like a patient in an experimental chiropractic treatment.
What draws me out of bed so early on a non-school day? The same lure that is reeling in millions of children across the country at this precise moment – Saturday-morning cartoons.
Long ago, cartoons were denizens of the cinema screen, and the major studios had massive animation departments creating the shorts that would run ahead of the feature films. Each studio had its stable of characters — MGM had Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, and Chilly-Willy, Paramount had Popeye, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Baby Huey, and Little Audrey, and the twin kings of cinematic animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had the most iconic characters of all, of whose names I’m sure I need not remind you.
Television arrived for most households in the early 1950s, and immediately began cutting into the movie studios’ profits as more people got their entertainment at home. One by one, the studios shut down their animation departments as a cost-cutting measure. At the same time, animation was still pretty scarce on early television. Kids’ shows tended to be live-action (eg. Howdy Doody, or The Mickey Mouse Club.) What was a cartoon-loving kid to do?
Luckily, along came two former MGM animators — Joseph Hanna and William Barbera. Out of a job when MGM closed their animation department, they formed their own production house with the revolutionary idea of producing quick, low-cost animation directly for television. After a few false starts, Hanna-Barbera hit it big with The Huckleberry Hound Show in 1958, and pioneered the use of “limited animation.” Limited animation uses less-detailed backgrounds, fewer “in-between” drawings between key frames, recycles many elements, and has a lot more “holds,” where characters don’t move at all. Huckleberry Hound and his ancillary characters and spin-offs (Yogi Bear, etc.) were originally developed as packages for weekday syndication on independent local stations, and usually aired sometime after the evening news and before prime-time. Hanna-Barbera’s rival, Jay Ward Productions, actually scored a network deal with ABC for Rocky & Bullwinkle in 1959. There was even a brief period when a flurry of animated shows were developed for prime-time evening viewing, culminating in six seasons of The Flintstones.
Then around 1960, it dawned on the networks and station owners that Saturday morning was a programming wasteland — the perfect place to air a block of kid-centric shows, and much more importantly, kid-centric advertising. The post-WWII economy reveled in conspicuous consumption, and for the first time, the average joe could afford to buy useless crap for his kids. All manner of snacks, candy, toys, and games were hawked to eager young eyeballs. But mostly cereal. Cereal commercials followed each other like a sugar-coated freight train hour after hour. Saturday Morning basically created the brightly-colored, pre-sweetened substance that us kids knew as “cereal,” a development which would certainly send old John Harvey Kellogg into quite a grave-spin. As we’ll see, the commercials were just as big a part of the Saturday Morning experience as the programs.
And the programs were for the most part cartoons. Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward blazed the trail, and other low-cost animation studios followed suit. DePatie-Freleng and Filmation were both churning out material by 1963. (Think Hanna-Barbera animation was low-rent? Compare it to the dirt-cheap house style of Filmation. I recall an old Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin’s dad lambasted the quality of the cartoons Calvin was watching. “They don’t move! They just stand there and blink!” — he was almost certainly watching a Filmation production.) The major movie studios probably believed their old animated shorts were fated to collect dust in the archives, and were delighted to squeeze a few more bucks out of them by selling them to TV at bargain basement prices. (Except Disney — Disney guarded its vaults like a she-bear, which is why you would see nary a feather on Donald’s ass on Saturday mornings.) The fad for prime-time animation died out (at least until The Simpsons), making those shows ripe for plundering. All in all, tons of animated material, new and old, was now available to fill hours of airtime at a much lower cost than live action. Pixie, Dixie, and Mr. Jinks were never going to demand a salary increase or a contract re-negotiation.
Animation in other time slots of the broadcast week dried up, giving Saturday Morning its special cachet. For much of the 70s, Saturday morning was about the only place you could see a decent amount of cartoons on TV. By the time I reached TV-viewing age, things had loosened up. Thanks to a greater number of independent channels on the dial, and the birth of cable, by 1980 there were after-school cartoons, before-school cartoons, and hell, for an hour or two there were even Sunday-morning cartoons. (There was some Dutch/Canadian monstrosity called Dr. Snuggles, and the Pink Panther always seemed to turn up on Sunday mornings on Channel 31.)
But all of that was bush league compared to the hold Saturday Morning held over the average pre-teen viewer. Something about the melange of old Warner Brothers animation, new “limited animation” works by H-B and Filmation, the bright, loud commercials, and the token attempts to educate between all of it held a special kind of magic. Continue reading