Looking Back, Looking Forward

17 Jan

by Kevin Wollenweber

Well, this won’t entirely be cartoon-related, but since this idea of blogging began with our mutual interest in animation, that will be forever its centerpiece.  So let me begin by stating the obvious:  Goodbye and good riddance to 2009, a year that was not kind to grand old cartoons, the kind we cherish most.  While I’m hoping that 2010 will prove to be a much better year, I heave a heavy sigh of “alas” when I think that most of the video companies are so eager now to use the somewhat failing economy as the perfect excuse to throw water on the fire that is our collective desire to see great cartoons restored.

What does this mean?  Well, it means that, the more the respective companies dawdle and procrastinate about restoration on just about any kind of film or video, the costlier it is going to get.  As clueless as I am about what it takes to run any entertainment company, I do look back at other hard times in our entertainment history, and I realize that, if I saw piles and piles of reels and reels of film, just sitting there and not making any money at all, I’d be sifting through the pile (or hiring someone to do so) and thinking of ways to include such film in collections just so they’re represented somehow.  Nothing, to me, was more enjoyable than watching the Warner Brothers movie sets, for example, which also utilized the vast library of short subjects, both live action and animated.  These were brilliant sets and, well, I don’t see anything like that on the horizon for this year thus far.

As usual, we lost some key figures in the art of animation.  First and foremost, we just recently lost a pioneer in the art of stop motion or claymation, namely the wonderful Art Clokey.  Ironically enough, a five-disk set of “DAVEY & GOLIATH”, the series that Clokey created in conjunction with the Lutheran Church, is about to be released; but my favorite of Clokey’s body of work is his incredibly versatile “GUMBY” series.

I came to know this series standing entirely on its own as a half-hour with a bout three or four “adventures” crammed in there, but it started out as that animated diversion from live puppet shows like “HOWDY DOODY” and “PINKY LEE”.  In fact, there is a nice segment floating around out there in which Gumby is seen looking for Pinky Lee which signals the live action kiddie show host to come on and greet the kids and his own band of puppets and fun.

Gumby won out in the end, though, and his cartoons could stand nicely on their own.  The premise, for those who might not be aware, is that Gumby is a little clay figure, shaped almost like a flat stick of gum with a “lump” on his head (which Clokey said was inspired by an old photograph of his father.  The way his father wore his hair at the time looked, to young Clokey, as if he had a lump there), and Gumby’s talent was that he could actually leap into the pages of so many books and relive the adventures or learn more about the climates and inhabitants of other lands.  The series’ beginnings, though, were the best and most surreal.  One of the first episodes finds Gumby traveling into outer space and landing on the moon.  We watch as Gumby learns about temperature changes and loss of gravity way out there, but we also seem to learn, as the episode continues, that Gumby just might be dreaming as he is under anesthesia and being prepped for an operation.

The first “season” or series of these adventures had two different parts or versions.  Each “version” had footage similar to the other, but there were bits and pieces left out of the first version that were explained neatly in the second.  This was perhaps done so that, when included in the kids’ show, the host could promise the kids in the studio and at home that “Gumby will return later for more fun.”  And we wanted to return and see how things turned out.

Gumby’s dilemmas were not actually the cliffhanger types, but the first portion of the episode left the viewer with more than a few question marks.  Some even played out like inventive dream sequences, similar to what is imagined to be a child’s dream world, the kind that could either lead to sweet relief or nightmares.  One never knew just what was going to happen until that second half.  Even a problem like losing a 50 cent allowance down a manhole could lead to some other strange world that Gumby had to figure out on his own in order to retrieve his prize, and Gumby’s birthday is spent in a toy shop more elaborate and strange than anything we, as kids or adults, could possibly imagine.  Hey, if you’re a clay boy who could stretch and squash and morph into just about anything you wish, chances are, *YOU* are “your own best toy to play with”, as Grace Slick of the rock group, Jefferson Airplane, once put it in the song “Greasy Heart”, although she wasn’t describing the adventures of a clay figure with a flexible body, I can assure you!

The first film that Art Clokey had ever created, “GUMBASIA”, had its link to Disney’s “FANTASIA” in that there was a music score as we watched geometric shapes leap and bound and eventually form something straight out of animation’s dizziest universe.  The score is nothing more than some unidentified bebop music, a kind of score unfortunately never used in the golden age of theatrical animation.  Listening to this film makes me wonder what a good bebop cartoon would have been.  Animation is an art form that certainly would have nicely lent itself to beat poetry, even adding to that kind of surrealism and hint of danger.  Animation can be anything, and that is why we love Gumby.  He exemplifies all that is good and interesting about the art form of animation, all that those who think that animation is kid stuff refuse to realize.

It is unfortunate that Clokey only saw what he did as a possible teacher for kids, but in doing so, he seemed to live within the innocence of his characters and lead us through their growing pangs.

Even with its heavy religiosity, “DAVEY & GOLIATH” held my interest just watching those figures move about.  At the time, I’d never seen such a range of expression in characters such as these before, although George Pal before Clokey certainly had done wonders with the art.  Also, I admire the fact that there were soundtracks exclusive to this series of Clokey shorts, the sounds of the characters moving and walking, something that, today, seems to be handled by computer programs.  Back when Art Clokey was first devising these shows, the soundtracks were warmer, despite their use of sound effects that were also used in countless other animated series, and Gumby’s voice changed as he grew.  The first series gave him a little boy’s voice and that grew into the voice talents of Dallas McKennon.  In the character’s final years, he was voiced by Dick Beals, another small voice, but other characters were added to the mix, a lizard named Prickle and a small gumball girl named Goo who proved even more flexible and versatile than Gumby, himself.

At any rate, we could never, ever say that these shorts were boring!  Here’s to Art Clokey’s deepest, darkest and brightest fantasies.  I sure hope that these never rot away to the point where we’ll never see them again.

*******************

Beatles publicity shot

This past year, 2009, was also the year of the return of the Beatles for one more hoorah, and it was, to this listener, about time!  Sure, the music of the Fab Four had been issued in other teasing formats with the rollout of the entire catalog in 1987, around the same time as the CD format was first being introduced, then came  other collections like greatest hits packages, anthologies of outtakes and alternate versions, or  as mash-ups, but we’ve never seen something as extensive as *TWO* box sets chronicling their complete recorded output, one in stereo and one in monophonic sound, giving the listener an idea of how many different versions of great rock albums were released.  I’ve not the history behind me to know why there were two different versions, but I would hazard a guess that stereo recordings were still new and some albums were still being pressed in their initial runs in mono.  So it is said that the monophonic recordings were what the Beatles and George Martin, producer, originally heard as the final product, with stereo being an after-thought.  In many cases, the mono recordings sound simply like what one would hear if you turned off the stereo button on those older receivers, but there are other points where you hear a marked difference.  These can be found in SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and the self-titled “white” album, aptly named because of its bright white cover with nothing more than the band name printed in raised lettering on its front.

Hearing this catalog again really brought back a lot of strange memories.  I’d said it once, and I’ll restate it—the first half of the Fab Four’s career was the soundtrack to so many dance programs, watching those dancing girls and guys up there undulating and writhing about to the great British Invasion (Mersey) beat, with mixtures of their influences here in America, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and all the rest.  The young girls on “AMERICAN BANDSTAND” and shows of that type wore the wildest outfits, and we got rich close-ups of these, from head to toe, as they danced.  Now, I can’t compare this to the current reality “dance” shows, but I found that I couldn’t even hear these songs on the radio without thinking about the visual that was going along with it!  Now, however, the music does stand on its own, and we get the chance to really hear the gradual growth of the four as composers.  It wasn’t until that second half, beginning with the RUBBER SOUL album, the reflective years, where we heard the boys continue to record while stopping the live concerts altogether, save for an occasional live music video that was aired here in America on “THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW” or elsewhere.  The musicians, themselves, may have drifted apart, but we were not privy to the conflicts.  Out of those conflicts came some of the most breathtakingly elaborate and beautiful music these ears had ever heard, and it was soon apparent that the four lads were each sprouting their own separate identities, easing us into realizing that the group’s days were indeed numbered.

At the same time, I had also left the hormone growth of those “AMERICAN BANDSTAND” years behind and discovered FM radio, progressive radio, another kind of radio apart from the teen crazes of the moment—a kind of media that invited change and invited the listener, no matter what his or her attitude or disability, in for a shared experience.  I truly felt as if I belonged again, just as I did when I was engrossed in “COURAGEOUS CAT & MINUTE MOUSE” with MGM cartoons, all the airings of the classic animated “BEANY & CECIL” cartoons by Robert Clampett, the TERRYTOONS/LOONEY TUNES CIRCUS or SOUPY SALES during those adolescent years.  I remained hidden in it until it, too, grew stale because, after all, the marketplace has to win out all the time and sour anyone’s taste for the inventive and impossible and improbable.  Here, on FM radio, I shared the enjoyment of the Beatles’ final years as a band, beginning with those months just before Christmas Day, 1969, when we’d all have a copy or two of the self-titled “white” album in our collections, on that fashionable Apple record label, such a beautiful work of art.  Along with Beatles music, I was discovering groups like Spirit, the Moody Blues, Soft Machine and so many strange and wonderful artists who don’t get heard at all anymore because their music has disappeared in dusty vaults, either waiting to be rediscovered or rotting beyond repair, like the cartoons that we cherish so much now.  It is time again, now, to rediscover the Beatles music and this is the best way to do it.  Of course, I’m not ignorant of the fact that this was all done to promote a video game around the Beatles’ music, but I wanted only to discover the music again and to be able to collect in a way I could not do when this music first became available to our ears here in these United States.

So here we are, just about finishing up another decade.  I don’t feel as in touch with the present day as I once did, and that’s a shame.  I never wanted to be a person who merely looks back all the time, and there are times when I feel as if I’m being forced to suffer another 50 years on a world that really doesn’t care much for my kind.  I’m told that there are many, many ways on a computer to communicate, but for every communications tool, there is a neat little tool to help the public ignore your insipid dronings, longings and wishes.  Not very progressive, is it?

So I approach 2010 with dimming hopes, as I approach all New Years, and I hope that my yammerings here are read more often and even responded to.  We have limited resources for entertaining, but our major hope is that you go out and seek the stuff about which we talk and enjoy it good ‘n’ loud for yourselves.  Let it drown out that world that you don’t want to communicate with.  We’d do the same for you, right?

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