Following the release of an animated feature film based on Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the American Cinematheque pays tribute to creator Jay Ward

By Michael Aushenker

Peabody&Sherman
The birth of television cartoons started not with a big bang but with a runaway truck.

As legend has it, Jay Ward was miserable working at a Berkeley real estate agency when, one day, an ill-parked truck came barreling down the hill, crashing into Ward’s office and smashing his legs. Ward soon used money compensating him from the incident to pursue his true passion: animated cartoons.

Last week DreamWorks Animation released “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” a CGI feature film based on two of Ward’s greatest characters, time-traveling canine genius Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman.

Meanwhile, Ward’s original characters— which also include George of the Jungle, Super Chicken, and, of course, Rocky & Bullwinkle — will be honored with an American Cinematheque program on Sunday at Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre.

Prior to screenings, authors Darrell Van Citters (“The Art of Jay Ward Productions”) and Jerry Beck (“The Art of Mr. Peabody & Sherman”) will be on hand to sign their books.

“Jay Ward’s cartoons didn’t take themselves so seriously,” Beck said. “The verbal humor was ramped up. The point of view was to parody fairy tales, spy dramas, history, and current events. The drawings were stylized and intentionally funny-looking.”

“They soared on the wit, keeping it short and sweet because they didn’t have the time or the money,” said Van Citters.

During the event, Van Citters will moderate a panel featuring 96-year-old June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha Fatale; Ward cartoon writer Allan Burns, later of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”; and Ward’s main background and publicity artist, Sam Clayberger.

Until Ward’s arrival, animated shorts had served as warm-up acts in movie theaters.

Beginning with 1949’s “Crusader Rabbit Show,” Ward, who worked out of a cramped animation studio on the Sunset Strip, created cartoons expressly made for the emerging television medium, pre-dating larger animation houses such as Hanna-Barbera.

With writer Bill Scott (also the voice of Bullwinkle J. Moose) and vocal talent including Foray, Edward Everett Horton and Paul Frees, Ward overcompensated for limited (translation: cheap) animation with double entendres simultaneously appealing  to children and tickling adults.

The Aero is screening a smorgasbord of shorts, including “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show,” “Fractured Fairy Tales,” “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties,” “Aesop & Son” and “Peabody’s Improbable History” —  all boasting Ward’s madcap formula of pop culture spoofing, groan-inducing puns and inside jokes.

Clayberger, 83, recalled working for Ward three days a week from his Mount Washington home.

“I just cut out shapes for the backgrounds,” Clayberger recalled. “I’d paint on the back of some of them. Just real fast because he wanted it done quick. I’d take a sponge and sponge in a great big shape and go back into painting, add a line drawing with colored pencil.”

Occasionally, he would lunch with Ward and his team at Greenblatt’s Deli on Sunset.

“[Ward] loved a good laugh,” Clayberger said. “He was a very warm guy, very pleasant to be around.”

Van Citters, supervising director at Renegade Animation in Glendale, spent 18 months working on his 352-page “Art of Jay Ward Productions,” a labor of love giving back to one of the entities inspiring his own career in animation.

“Jay had an infallible sense of what was funny,” Van Citters said.

While Ward did not write or draw, he had an eye for talent, his role akin to that of the conductor of a master chorale.

“That was the uniqueness of the Jay Ward style, which emphasized the writing, the most important aspect of a Jay Ward production. It’s more important than good animation,” said animation historian Mark Arnold.

Through General Mills, lead sponsor of “Rocky & His Friends” (1959-1964), the bulk of Jay Ward cartoons were created in Mexico while Ward crafted supporting animation work and cereal commercial ads for Cap’n Crunch out of L.A. The Sunset studio shut down in 1984, but its Rocky and Bullwinkle statue, later renovated by Clayberger and his son, still stands today.

Big-budget Hollywood adaptations of Ward’s economical work have historically been more miss (“The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Dudley Do-Right”) than hit (“George of the Jungle”), said Arnold.

“The difficult part with any of the new films based on Jay Ward properties is that they have such a high standard to live up to,” Arnold said. “Unfortunately, most of the films have failed to hit the mark, because the emphasis of these newer projects has been to make the films look slick rather than write funny material.”

Beck also believes Hollywood could learn from Ward’s approach.

“They need to trust the cartoonists and writers a little more,” Beck said. “There were no focus groups back in the Jay Ward era. It was just a group of funny guys and gals dedicated to making these funny shows. We could use more of that these days.”

The book signings begin at 5:30 p.m., followed by the panel and screenings at 6:30 p.m., on Sunday at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. $11. Call (323) 466-3456 or visit aerotheatre.com.

michael(at)argonautnews.com

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