Whatever Happened to Total TeleVision productions?
The story behind the Total TeleVision studio—birthplace of Underdog and Tennessee Tuxedo, among many other characters—has contained more questions than answers. Mark Arnold talks to Buck Biggers, one of the studio’s founders, to set the record straight
Note: This interview was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #15. Biggers died on February 10, 2013.
The Total TeleVision productions (yes, with a capital “V” and small “p”) story is not well known and, for various reasons, has been confused over the years with Jay Ward Productions, Yet its best-known creations—Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog—are as fondly remembered as any other major animated stars. The company’s founders got their start after branching off from their account executive positions at General Mills’ advertising agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. Buck Biggers worked with Chet Stover, Tread Covington and artist Joe Harris to create animated commercials for General Mills breakfast cereals. But the men left the agency to form Total TeleVision. TTV’s first show was King Leonardo and his Short Subjects, which debuted on NBC on Oct. 15, 1960, and was the second color cartoon series on the network’s Saturday morning schedule.
The Mexican animation studio Gamma Productions animated King Leonardo and its fellow TTV travelers, and here is where the confusion sets in. Gamma also animated the various Rocky and Bullwinkle incarnations and its other segments, as well as Jay Ward’s follow-up series Hoppity Hooper. When these series went into syndication, many segments from TTV series ended up in Jay Ward series, especially Tooter the Turtle and Commander McBragg. To confuse matters further, when the Bullwinkle’s restaurant chain opened in the 1980s, Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo, Tooter, Baldy and others TTV characters where there alongside Rocky and Bullwinkle and all of the other Jay Ward characters, creating a Gamma mish-mash. And now, Classic Media owns both Jay Ward and TTV’s assets, again blurring the distinction. One could argue that if the series is funny, then it is a Jay Ward one, but TTV had a charm all its own. Whereas a Jay Ward series might stoop to cheap belly laughs from corny puns, a TTV series would compensate with good storytelling. (Granted, TTV series could be considered highly repetitious, but the same could be said about countless animated cartoon series.) Though not as bold an advertising vehicle as the forthcoming Linus the Lionhearted (not a TTV show), where the animated stars actually appeared on the boxes of Post cereals, King Leonardo had a similar segment with an elephant named Twinkles, who was the namesake of a long-gone General Mills cereal that featured a fold-out storybook adventure on the back of every box. The Leonardo segment featured good King Leonardo the lion and his faithful companion, Odie Cologne, a skunk. Leonardo’s chief nemesis was Biggy Rat, whose sidekick, Itchy Brother, was indeed Leonardo’s brother.
Other short subjects on the show included The Hunter, a dog detective pursuing a fox character, appropriately named The Fox. The Hunter worked for Officer Flim Flanagan. Tooter the Turtle was a daydreamer who consistently went to see his friend, Mr. Wizard the lizard, who placed him into a new occupation. By the end of the episode, Tooter finally accepted who he really is and asked to be changed back. (This segment was used in future TTV shows, but more on that later.) King Leonardo aired on NBC through Sept. 28, 1963, when it was syndicated in reruns under the title The King and Odie. TTV’s next series was Tennessee Tuxedo and his Tales. Veteran stand-up comic Don Adams lent his unique voice and delivery to the ever-confident penguin. This series debuted on CBS, ironically, on the same day that “King Leonardo” last ran on NBC.
New segments included The Singalong Family, Klondike Kat and The World of Commander McBragg. The Singalong Family was similar to the old bouncing ball cartoons that Fleischer and Famous/Paramount had used: a story told in song, with on-screen lyrics. Klondike Kat featured a Canadian Mountie cat (not dissimilar to Jay Ward’s Dudley Do-Right) who was always pursuing a mouse named Savoir Faire, and his faithful dog companion Malamute, who never spoke. Klondike worked for Major Minor at Fort Frazzle.
The inspiration for Commander McBragg was British actor C. Aubrey Smith (1863–1948), who specialized in playing rotund military officers. McBragg can be traced more specifically to the 1939 movie The Four Feathers. McBragg spun tall tales about his prior escapades, usually to an uninterested friend.
As for Tennessee Tuxedo, a viewer could receive a fairly decent education from the factual information presented every time Tennessee and his pal, Chumley the walrus, escaped from the zoo to visit their friend Mr. Whoopee, who discussed many a topic via the 3DBB (three-dimensional blackboard). Tennessee Tuxedo ran on CBS until Dec. 17, 1966.
TTV’s next series was definitely its high-water mark: The Underdog Show premiered on Oct. 3, 1964, and ran on NBC or CBS until Sept. 1, 1973, although production of new episodes ceased in 1967. One new backup segment the show introduced was Go Go Gophers, which featured two Native American characters, Ruffled Feathers and Running Board, who are constantly being pursued by Colonel Kit Coyote and Sergeant Okey Homa in a battle of territorial rights. So popular was this segment that the gophers received their own series in 1968. Repeat segments of Klondike Kat, Commander McBragg, Tooter the Turtle, The Hunter and even Tennessee Tuxedo were added to the gophers’ mix. (Adding to the confusion mentioned previously, sometimes Jay Ward’s Fractured Fairy Tales and Bullwinkle’s Corner segments were spliced into The Underdog Show, although this occurred after the series went into syndication. Underdog was a humble, lovable character named Shoeshine Boy, who became Underdog by eating a super-energy pill. His girlfriend was Sweet Polly Purebred, a news reporter for TTV. Many villains did their worst on Underdog, but the most recurring were Simon Bar Sinister, who used the phrase “Simon Says” when performing a dastardly deed, and Riff Raff the wolf, a typical gangster type.
TTV’s next series, The Beagles, is barely—if at all—remembered. Capitalizing on the success of The Beatles, The Beagles was actually a duo named Stringer and Tubby that more closely resembled The Smothers Brothers with a guitar and giant slap bass. The show debuted on Sept. 10, 1966, on CBS. It was repeated the following season on ABC and then quietly canceled, despite the release of a record album from the show titled Here Come the Beagles.
The next part of what happened at TTV is the sketchiest part. According to Wikipedia’s entry, “Total Television folded when General Mills dropped out as the sponsor in 1969.” Apparently, TTV had trouble selling another series after The Beagles. The next known project that TTV tackled was The Colossal Show. Prior to this interview, whether any animation was produced for The Colossal Show was unknown, although a single spin-off comic book appeared in October 1969 from Gold Key. As General Mills’ sponsorship ended, so did any prospects of continuing with this or any other series. Unfortunately, most of the materials don’t exist from this era. The operator of Toontracker, an animation history website, includes this information: “Joe Harris [the former Vice-President, Supervisor of Animation for Dancer, Fitzgerald, Sample Advertising, who left DFS in 1959 to found Total Television Productions with Treadwell Covington and writers Buck Biggers and Chet Stover] sent me the following regarding “The Beagles”: “Now there’s a sad story. The editor who worked on that series died while at work on them and apparently all the editing materials including the master negs were tossed out by his widow. I’ve tried through John Gartenberg, the former archivist at Golden Books Publishing, to find out if the trail to those masters was still traceable but he came up with nothing. He was able to locate the masters on all but a very few of the rest of the TTV productions but drew a blank on the Beagles. I not only have the characters but the storyboards, although unfortunately on stats. I have no idea where the original boards are; possibly they went out with the rest of the materials. The Beagles were entirely TTV properties which makes it doubly painful to have lost them.”
But don’t fret. You’ll find that the story has a happy ending.
TTV’s characters were licensed frequently during the 1970s as a number of items featuring Underdog, Go Go Gophers and Tennessee Tuxedo were produced. The last Underdog comic book rolled off the Gold Key/Whitman presses in 1979. During the 1980s and 1990s, further attempts were made to publish TTV comic books. According to Wikipedia, Biggers, Stover, Covington and Harris sold their creations to Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who later sold the rights to Little Golden Books. Currently, Classic Media wound up owning the TTV properties when it purchased Golden Books.
Apart from the information in Biggers and Stovers’ book How Underdog Was Born, the TTV story has been shrouded in mystery…until now. And now, here’s the rest of the story.—Mark Arnold
Mark Arnold: Who formed Total TeleVision?
Buck Biggers: I did.
Arnold: OK, because the way the book read is that it was kind of sketchy, like it was you and Chet [Stover] did it, and then it seemed like Gordon [Johnson] did it, and…
Biggers: Well, Chet was there from the start. The point, as it says in the book—actually, it doesn’t say much in the book about Cape Cod—but one of my driving forces was in 1959. I visited Cape Cod and told my late wife that we were going there to live. I didn’t know how, but when I got back to New York very shortly thereafter, Gordon called me into his office and asked me to go find a creative team so that he could help keep [Jay] Ward and [Bill] Scott on the straight and narrow, and I took that as kind of fate.
Arnold: How did that differ from Leonardo Productions? Sometimes I see on a copyright “copyright TTV-Leonardo,” so what’s the difference between the various company names?
Biggers: Leonardo was actually P.A.T., or Producers Associates for Television. That was Peter Pieche’s company and also Gordon’s company, and they were almost always co-producers with us. They handled Mexico [Gamma Productions].
Arnold: So Leonardo was P.A.T.
Biggers: Yes, it was.
Arnold: Looking through a recent Life magazine book collection about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, I saw a blueprint that showed the Underdog balloon. It said that your address was at 366 Madison Avenue in New York. Was that always the case for Total TeleVision?
Biggers: That was just a mail drop and a place where you can go up and use the conference room if you want to. It was not a real address. We finally did have an office address, but I’m not even sure where it was. That was Tread, the great guy that we brought in to front the company, because we couldn’t. He became our New York rep and our man for recording soundtracks, so he was the only one who was there, so if you think about it, our address was wherever we were.
Arnold: Speaking of Tread, you’ve confirmed in this book that Treadwell Covington is a real person…
Arnold: And the only reason I ask is because there have been rumors he’s fictitious, like Jay Ward’s “Ponsonby Britt.” He has a rather unique name.
Biggers: Yes, he does. He sounds and kind of looks like his name. He’s tall and had gray hair even then, He’s very dignified looking, and he’s from Chapel Hill, N.C., and speaks with almost a British accent. I knew he’d be very impressive to Gordon, and he was. He was a very good one to present to Gordon. We couldn’t do it ourselves, so we chose Tread, and he went in and showed the first scripts and first models.
Arnold: What did he do after you got established? What was his role?
Biggers: He recorded all of the soundtracks. He’s a very good man in the booth, and he did all the New York recording of soundtracks. You understand that a lot of the tracks were done wherever a person was. Wally Cox could go in to a studio out in Hollywood or wherever and record his part. The actors seldom worked together. They’d go in and do their parts. Don Adams would go in somewhere and then ship that tape in, and then it would be put together with others. The New York sessions, Tread supervised.
Arnold:S o, if someone would do a reading, would they do a number of episodes all at once?
Biggers: Yes. Usually, though, we were doing two a week.
Arnold: Reading through your book, it seemed that everything was done with a lot of martinis? Was that a joke or was that true?
Biggers: [laughter] Nancy [Biggers’ wife] said that to me! I just spoke to a writer’s conference on Tuesday and they were a wonderful audience. When I got off the podium and we were driving home ,Nancy said to me, “Maybe you ought to go a little softer on that martini business.”
Arnold: [laughter] Well, the impression I got is that everything was created in a drunken haze and that’s how the creative juices flowed.
Biggers: [laughter] Probably was! We’d get there about nine o’clock and work till about 12:30, touching up the writing we had done during the week individually and then plotting the two new or four new episodes: couple Hunters, couple Tennessee Tuxedos. We’d plot those, and then our work was really done, and so then we’d go to lunch. Then we’d come up with all sorts of ideas, some of them very good. We kept notes on our lunch. We had to, because a lot of times we’d change opinions. But they were always three-martini lunches. Always the same thing: double shrimp cocktail and three martinis!
Arnold: [laughter] It just all seems so foreign today.
Biggers: Oh God, yes! Very outdated! And that was it. We only met once a week, it wasn’t like something we did every day. It was a fun time. We laughed like hell! When I say we should have paid people to let us do the work, I mean we really had fun!
Arnold: What about Joe Harris? I saw him recently on the Underdog DVDs that Classic Media put out. Are you still in communication with him?
Biggers: Oh, yes. Joe is a fine, fine storyboard man. Excellent!
Arnold: Did he design all of the TTV characters?
Biggers: On our first series, Chet did the models. Chet is more of a painter than a cartoonist, and then Joe took those models and made them more “cartoony.” Then Chet would work with him on each of the model sheets. In truth, we would say, “We want a penguin. Don Adams is a penguin, because we thought he looked like a penguin or we want Wally Cox as a dog,” and so forth. So, he would do initial models and send them in, and Chet and I would look at them. He originally thought that Underdog got larger muscles when he made his change from Shoeshine Boy, but we explained that the 98-pound weakling remained a 98-pound weakling.
Arnold: Riff Raff’s henchman, Mooch, looked a lot like Walter Matthau. Was that a conscious design decision or just a fluke?
Biggers: No, it wasn’t [a fluke]. Actually, Riff Raff started out with a last name that was originally R-A-F-T, after George Raft, the old gangster character in Hollywood. It was from him that we started, and then we had worked on super characters and had a wolf in there, and Joe drew that. And Riff Raff just kind of grew out of that.
Arnold: You came from an advertising background and were working at Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample for a time.
Biggers: Yeah, that’s no longer in existence. It’s now Saatchi and Saatchi.
Arnold: At the time you were still with DFS, did you have a hand in creating some of their popular cereal characters like the Trix Rabbit and Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, or was that after you left?
Biggers: Trix Rabbit was not after we left, but we didn’t have anything to do with it.
Arnold: Originally the character had the same voice by Delo States, who did Stanley Livingston, so I thought maybe you had some sort of hand in those things.
Biggers: I wish we had. I was an account executive and one of my brands was “Twinkles”, a cereal that no longer exists, and Chet was the creative director on all of the cereals, but we didn’t have anything to do with the development of the characters.
Arnold: So that was completely separate, and you never did the animation for those either?
Arnold: Who did? Was that the TV Spots Company?
Biggers: It was just different people, different guys. That stuff was mostly farmed out by General Mills.
Arnold:I see similarities, and it seemed like everything happened at the same time.
Biggers: What happened was, cartoons were mushrooming on TV at that time, so all of that did happen all at the same time.
Arnold: Your book goes into great detail about King Leonardo, Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog and their related segments. One segment you missed was The Sing-a-Long Family. How did that come about? Were those original tunes?
Biggers: Yeah. I wrote the music and the words. It’s just that we had a need for some more 1:30s [cartoon segments of one minute, 30 seconds in length], and you remember from the book that we created Commander McBragg as a 1:30 element because all we had at that time was Bullwinkle as “Mr. Know-it-All.” They needed more, so we did Commander McBragg, and then at some point they wanted 13 more. I don’t know if we did the whole order or not, but however many Sing-a-Longs were done, we did them.
Arnold: You raised a question about the 1:30 spots, and this is a source of confusion because some people just seem to clump all the Jay Ward and TTV material together. Was that always an issue? Did you always have episodes of “Bullwinkle’s Corner” or “Mr. Know-it-All” in your shows at the same time?
Biggers: Not originally, but later on in years since then, they did just about anything they wanted to. I don’t remember seeing any combined, but I’ve heard people say that they were. And you know, General Mills owned them outright, and they could do any damn thing they wanted.
Arnold: To the best of your knowledge, Commander McBragg was originally only in TTV shows?
Biggers: That’s right. I don’t think any of our shows would have had Jay Ward material in them as much as their shows might have had ours because more of our shows were ordered than theirs.
Arnold: Your work used so many catchphrases like “I’ll make mincemeat out of that mouse!” and “Confound it!” and “Tennessee Tuxedo will not fail.” Is this due to your advertising background, or did you feel catchphrases would be more memorable?
Biggers: We did it on purpose from the very start. For example, King Leonardo used to say, “That’s the most unheard-of thing I’ve ever heard of.” We did those things from the beginning because kids love repetition. That’s one reason why we could get by with doing only 17 shows and repeating them three times in a year, because kids love repetition. They almost love the repetition more than the original time because they almost like to know what’s going to happen and even talk with it and almost say the lines. So when you have repeat lines like that it also helps when they play make-believe and they pretend that they are your character. If they don’t have anything to say like, “There’s no need to fear, Underdog is here!” it’s very hard for them to imitate the character. We wanted that because that’s the stuff that will help build your show’s ratings. So we purposefully went after that.
Arnold: Did you ever meet Jay Ward?
Biggers: Oh, yes. Only met him in person once, talked to him two or three times on the phone. He was a very gracious and a very nice guy and a terribly creative guy.
Arnold: Did you ever sense that you had a real rivalry or creative differences, or was it, “We’re all in the same boat. We’re making some great shows”?
Biggers: I don’t think I felt either of those things. I don’t think for a long time he knew who we were or wanted to know who we were.
Arnold: He was just interested in his own stuff.
Biggers: That’s right. He kind of kept himself apart in a way. Very creative guy.
Arnold: Your book ends with the creation of Underdog. I was curious about what happened beyond the creation of Underdog. It was kind of sad that you didn’t have quite the same success after that. The next project was The Beagles. What was the story behind that series, and why don’t you see it today?
Biggers: Well, that was a huge ratings success. I have somewhere a telegram from Fred Silverman congratulating us as the initial ratings came in for the show and how great it was doing. But this was the first show that we had not sold to General Mills. It’s the only show that we still own. The only show we ever owned. We sold all the others outright to General Mills, and this show we leased to Deluxe Toys, which was also a client of Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. They bought what amounts to nine half hours, but those nine half-hours were combined with stuff from General Mills: “King Leonardo,” anything like that, to make a full 18 minutes. That’s all the half-hour shows were. The rest was filled up with titles and bridges and stuff like that and six minutes of commercials. So we only did the nine half-hours in the first year, and the CEO of Deluxe Toys absconded with all the company’s money, nine or ten million dollars or something. And that was it; we had no sponsor.
Biggers: We had nothing, and I don’t know whether that association spoiled The Beagles, but the point was unless someone was going to buy more, you can’t do a hell of a lot with nine half-hours. As much as kids like things repeated, nine half-hours is just not enough. So we had no real place to place them.
Arnold: But do they exist?
Biggers: Oh, yeah.
Arnold: Could they come out on DVD?
Biggers: They’re supposed to, but they aren’t out yet. In fact, we were in the process of trying to make a deal with the company that bought Underdog to see if we can do something with them.
Arnold: You’re quoted on the Toontracker website saying that the materials for The Beagles were all thrown out. Is that true?
Biggers: I thought they were, but P.A.T. had them. They were the ones that handled all of the shows for General Mills. They had everything. When it came time for us to sell the shows—not The Beagles, but all the others—to Broadway [Video], we figured we go into the lab and give them The Beagles. Well, we couldn’t find them; they were gone. But Joe Harris found them at Golden Books. Unfortunately, they are not in combination; they are all separate pictures and tracks, and it costs money just to put them together. A lot, so nobody’s anxious to do that unless they’re going to use them for something. We’re still dickering around. I don’t know if anything will come of it.
Arnold: You mentioned Producers Associates. What’s their basic history? Do they still exist?
Biggers: When we sold all our properties, it was a co-deal with them when they sold all their properties to Broadway Video, and parts of them we were selling together because we were both producers. It’s kind of like Total TeleVision productions: It’s out there, but it doesn’t do anything.
Arnold:I have a Gold Key comic book titled The Colossal Show, and on the cover it says, “copyright by Total TeleVision productions.” How did that end up being just a comic book and not a show?
Biggers: We had an agent named Jack Sobol, a very good agent, and he was the agent for some top comedians. He became our agent after the General Mills thing stopped and we were still trying to keep in the cartoon business. Now, you had to sell shows to the network. That’s what changed. No longer could a company like General Mills buy a show and then put it on and now, thanks to Fred Silverman, primarily. The networks were buying their own shows, and we didn’t have the contacts there. And we also didn’t have a factory. They wanted their people to have a factory like Filmation instead of being people like us, hat in hand, where we had to go Mexico or Australia or someplace to get the animation done. They wanted someone primarily with their own animation house. We took Fred to 21 [a New York restaurant], and he loved our presentation, loved our shows, but he never bought any. One of the pitches we made was to NBC, Bud Grant I think it was, and someone who was over him named Larry White. Anyway, we pitched _The Colossal Show_, which had a lead character that had the voice of Phil Silvers—an imitation of Phil Silvers as Bilko—and each show there would be a different guest character doing a celebrity voice impersonation each week. On the pilot it was an imitation of Jack Benny. It was our typical stuff, a comedy with Roman people, and we took it to them and they loved it. They laughed. And the plan was they wanted to buy it. We had another meeting and a handshake, and they bought the series. With that handshake, Jack Sobol went to his friends at the comic-book company and told them to quickly get a comic book out to take advantage of the debut. Then, when the comic book was already in the works, NBC backed out of the handshake. We never knew quite why that happened. It was nothing to do with the show, because nothing had changed.
Arnold: Does anything survive of that show? Was anything even shot?
Biggers: There was a pilot, but I don’t know where the hell it is.
Arnold: And that was animated at Gamma as well?
Biggers: No. I think we did that at Terrytoons. I’m not sure.
Arnold: Would it have had a different look to it, or would it have looked about the same as your other series?
Biggers: I don’t think it looked quite the same, but it was close.
Arnold: The comic book looked a bit different. I don’t know if it was one of your regular artists who was handling the comic book.
Biggers: Oh, they did all their own stuff.
Arnold: Were there any other projects then or before that never made it? I know you mentioned one in your book.
Biggers: Parrot Playhouse was the one that was mentioned; that was the one where we did a pilot called “Spoofs and Saddles,” which was a takeoff on Gunsmoke.
Arnold: Were there any other projects like that, even later on?
Biggers: We did a fun pilot, which was really a sales presentation, where we introduced the characters and showed little bits of episodes. This was called Noah’s Lark. It was a billionaire who built a spaceship and set out for planets and had all these people on board.
Arnold: Was that animated or live action?
Biggers: No, it was animated. Different kind of animation totally from anything we’d done.
Arnold: And why didn’t that go anywhere?
Biggers: We were kind of in a vacuum. We hadn’t been out there. We should have been out there doing something, developing contacts, but we had no reason really to expect things to change like they did and we weren’t worried about anything and then all of sudden—wham! Then we tried to get out there, and then when word gets around that you’re not getting any sales, you really don’t get any sales.
Arnold: Oh, yeah. I know how that is. I have a sales background myself. What events led to the closure of TTV? It wasn’t really a closure, because you kept Total TeleVision going as a company until you sold it. Is that correct?
Biggers: Sure, we kept open. In fact, we had a bit of trouble with the IRS because they claimed that we couldn’t file as chapter S, I think it was, and we had to file as a corporation, and it was going to cost us an arm and a leg because we hadn’t done something. Well anyway, we managed to get that all right. We sold the stuff, and since selling the stuff about the only thing we’ve done is taken some option contracts of DVDs for The Beagles, something that we’d all sign.
Arnold: What really happened to Gamma, then? You’re saying Colossal Show wasn’t done by Gamma, and I know Jay Ward didn’t do George of the Jungle through Gamma. Did it just kind of fall apart after The Beagles?
Biggers: As far as I know. I can’t really speak for it, but that’s my general thoughts. They tried to do commercial work and so forth, and I think it just collapsed.
Arnold: So by the time you did Colossal Show, it was collapsed already?
Biggers: No, I don’t think so. Not by that time. It took a while.
Arnold: Did you read the Jay Ward book by Keith Scott [The Moose that Roared]?
Biggers: I’m going to be honest with you. I liked the book and I read it, but I never got past the middle. Not because of the book; it was business things that took me away.
Arnold: He said Jay Ward was really disappointed with the animation that came out of Gamma. Were you as disappointed with Gamma’s animation?
Biggers: There were a couple of major occasions where we were, but I think the difference is that Jay Ward had had hit series before he ever got to Bullwinkle, before he had ever got to Gamma, so he had done all different kinds of animation. He knew what he wanted and he knew what he liked. We only knew Gamma animation. I had been the one responsible for getting the Rocky and Bullwinkle shows ready for the network. That’s the kind of animation I looked at and realized that’s the kind of animation we would have to work with if we were to do anything, so we got what we expected.
Arnold: Why did you go with Gamma? Why didn’t you go to say, Hanna-Barbera, as they were already established?
Biggers: We didn’t have any choice. We came up with the series to sell to General Mills, and that meant you had to use Gamma.
Arnold: So they had the connections?
Biggers: They had put them in business. That was what we were created for. In other words, Ward and Scott were giving General Mills trouble, or Gamma trouble, and so we actually came into being because we could be somebody to keep Ward and Scott from doing so many dirty jokes for kids.
Arnold: [laughter] You mentioned that it was hard getting another sponsor after Silverman. Did General Mills drop you? Wouldn’t it have been easy to find another sponsor due to the success you had?
Biggers: No. We made some pitches to some other companies. They were all very nice, but not a lot of them wanted to get into the business. They didn’t want to get into the business of having somebody create shows. It’s another business. General Mills got in there quite by accident at a time when there was nobody doing it, so they were willing to do it. Later, companies just weren’t interested.
Arnold: So were the last shows you made The Beagles or Go Go Gophers?
Biggers: I think they were The Beagles.
Arnold: After you arguably “closed your doors,” since you didn’t really close your doors, what did you and Chet and Treadwell and Joe do next? Did you just go your separate ways and just have this company around or what?
Biggers: Chet and I stayed together. We had a two-year contract with CBS Enterprises to develop shows for them and developed one at Terrytoons. We developed a series called The Hatfields and the McCoys and developed it for Fred with his blessing, but he never would commit at the last minute.
Arnold: And that was also animated?
Arnold: There was a lot of merchandising during the ’70s and the ’80s with Underdog. Did you handle all that?
Biggers: We didn’t handle any of that. We got half the rights. Even now, somebody just put out a new set of glasses for Underdog and a new statue of Underdog, but you go to those companies and you sign with them and they just take off. You don’t do anything.
Arnold: So you didn’t handle merchandising or licensing?
Biggers: No. P.A.T. was handling it. They were called Leonardo at times. I don’t know which ones, but the offices were called P.A.T. and Peter Pieche, and we got half the money.
Arnold: There was resurgence in popularity of Underdog in the ’70s. Did you ever think, “Maybe we should do some new episodes”?
Biggers: Well, in the book, it talks about when Peter came to us and wanted to see if we could sell a new Underdog series. In there is a write-up for that, with new plots and stuff like that. I don’t know what year that was. It didn’t sell, but we came close.
Arnold: How did you feel about the censoring in the ’80s and early ’90s of Underdog episodes where they removed the scenes where he eats the Super Energy Pill for fear of teaching kids about drugs?
Biggers: At the book signing on Tuesday, a guy who asked us to sign a book for him said, “I probably shouldn’t have loved Underdog as much as I did. It made me very sick. I had to have my stomach pumped because I ate a whole bottle of aspirin.” He used them to put in his ring. Mothers wrote in about that, and I suppose all things considered we probably wouldn’t have put that in. But it was a great gimmick because we were looking for an Achilles’ heel. Underdog was too damn perfect! And just like Superman has his Kryptonite. No, it didn’t bother us.
Arnold: I have to admit when I was growing up, I used these little candies called Smarties. Those were what I considered my “Underdog Super Energy Pills.”
Biggers: You were pretty safe! And you probably got energy from the sugar! [laughter]
Arnold: [Laughter] Yeah, I probably just wanted to admit that it did have an influence on me, but not in a negative way! Did you know that there was a Bullwinkle’s Restaurant during the ’80s and early ’90s?
Arnold: They had little robot characters, like at the Disney parks, with Bullwinkle on stage. They had Underdog playing a saxophone.
Biggers: I’ve heard about stuff like that, but it was all P.A.T. Somebody just sent me a menu from a small restaurant in New Jersey that has an “Under Dog on Sweet Polly Pure Bread”! [laughter]
Arnold: [Laughter] That’s pretty good!
Biggers: We didn’t sanction any of that stuff.
Arnold: You sold your properties to Broadway, then Broadway purchased Golden Books, then Broadway sold everything to Classic Media. So now, Classic Media is making a live-action Underdog film with Jason Lee.
Biggers: Right. It’s in Providence, Rhode Island. I think they’re wrapping. Nancy and my daughter visited the set. I was invited, but I didn’t go with them. They went to the set a couple of times, and I don’t have any idea what kind of movie it’ll be or whether it will be a success, but I hope it is a success. At least we get the rights from music, so…
Arnold: That was my next question. Do you still get a piece of the action?
Biggers: Just the music from ASCAP.
Arnold: There’s a Tennessee Tuxedo and a Go Go Gophers DVD out, and they don’t put the theme songs in. On the Tennessee Tuxedo one, they put in a demo version of the theme song. Is that because of paying royalties?Biggers: That’s all it is. Yeah.
Arnold: I found that disappointing and even told them so.
Biggers: That was pretty shortsighted of them.
Arnold: The theme songs are almost the best part. They were very well written.
Biggers: I appreciate that. I had an enjoyable time writing them.
Arnold: Did you write anything musically before doing all of these shows? Like, did you write any jingles for commercials or anything?
Biggers: I did some jingles for commercials.
Arnold: Which ones?
Biggers: They never got on! I had written a musical and all kinds of stuff, but nothing that had been performed or published, so one of the reasons I enjoyed doing the company is so that I could do the music. I had a lot of ulterior motives in forming the company!
Arnold: Is there a complete listing of all the TTV shows of what aired originally and when?
Biggers: It doesn’t exist as far as I know. If it does, it would have to be General Mills that would have it. They scheduled any way that they wanted to, and they did it station by station any way they wanted to. Underdog was the one on the network longest. Nine years on the network. That set a record for kids’ shows on Saturday morning. Most of it was syndicated. So I doubt you’d find schedules. If you found them, you wouldn’t be able to read ’em.
Arnold: Underdog was usually a four-part story, but I’ve seen some single episodes. Why was that?
Biggers: I don’t remember any single-part episodes, but there were some two-part episodes. That was so that you could end at a certain place, so that they could end when they wanted to so you could get out in two episodes.
Arnold: Are you still in contact with all the people you worked with who are still around? Obviously you are with Chet. Is Treadwell still around?
Biggers: Yes. I don’t talk to him much anymore since he moved to Long Island. He’s in real estate, and I think he wanted to get out of the hubbub. I’ve talked to him I guess once in the last year, and I’ve talked to Joe a couple of times.
Arnold: Are you in touch with some of the voice actors who are still alive?
Biggers: No, because Tread handled the voice tracks. We would decide who we wanted and either have preselected them or have Tread do some auditions and also tape some selections. But we practically never went in there. We talked to the voice people, but they didn’t know us from a hole in the wall. Allen Swift was our first voice selection. We always used him. He was always great. He did Itchy Brother and Odie Cologne on our first show.
Arnold: Do you think he was the longest-lasting, most consistent voice you used for all the series?
Biggers: Absolutely. We were so used to using imitators that when we dreamed up the Hunter, we were going to use a Kenny Delmar impersonator. It was Tread who said, “Why don’t we call Kenny Delmar?” And we called him and he leaped at it. In the movies, they always did a chicken of him [Foghorn Leghorn] and always had some imitator’s voice [Mel Blanc]. He always got sick of that. So, we used Kenny Delmar, and he became a voice of other characters as well.
Arnold: Yes, I know he did McBragg.
Arnold: You tried to always tie in to a celebrity even if you didn’t have the actual celebrity. Are you an old-movie buff?
Biggers: No. There are two things there that go together. One is that when we did our shows, there were mostly one-TV homes. You didn’t think of five TV sets in the house, you thought of one. And you thought we’ve got to do something here that not only appeals to little kids, but also to bigger kids, or they’ll take the TV away from the little kids. And you’ve got to do something if you can that has some appeal for adults. And also, we had to sell to adults. You might not think that’s important, but if they don’t laugh, they don’t think it’s funny, you understand? You can say to them, “Kids will love this!” and if they don’t laugh themselves, they don’t think it’s funny. So, in dealing with those things, we found out that it’s wonderful if you use voices that mothers or fathers had seen in the movies. In other words, not the person but their voice, it gives them a feeling of familiarity and they kind of enjoy it. So we found that was true. It was also easier with older kids, so we developed that and used it, whether they’d seen it on TV or seen it in movies or whatever.
Arnold: For me, it became like a history lesson after a while. I’d have to say that I saw the original Four Feathers a couple of years ago. I said, “There’s Commander McBragg!”
Biggers: [Laughter] C. Aubrey Smith! The other thing was, I did the original presentations for the account executives who were handling the shows for Gordon. I didn’t do them like I was with the company. It was mine. So, I did the presentations, and we had to use voices that I could imitate reasonably, so that was the reason for Ronald Coleman and Eugene Pallette, guys like that, who I could actually imitate. So the first person we got who I can’t imitate was Wally Cox. But it didn’t matter, because everybody knew Wally Cox’s voice so well that it didn’t make any difference.
Arnold: When I was a kid Wally Cox was on Hollywood Squares, and I said, “It’s Underdog! [laughter]
Biggers: He’s been Mr. Peepers and Hiram Holiday, so he’d been on TV a lot. His voice was well known to a lot of people. The other thing was, in that same vein, how we chose names. We had a series called The Hunter. We found that when kids read about a hunter, they thought about The Hunter! That’s where Tennessee Tuxedo got his name. Every time they saw Tennessee in the books or in school or heard about it on the radio, they thought about our character. That’s called “top spin,” and that’s how Underdog got his name. America loves an underdog. It’s hard to read a sports section of a newspaper without seeing the word “underdog”. You hear it on the news all the time.
Arnold:I t worked! When I was a kid, I thought that the reason he was called Underdog was that he was wearing his underwear [laughter]. In fact, my brother even called him Underwear Dog!
Biggers: [Laughter] I never heard that one before! That’s even better!
Arnold: Before I knew what it meant, I wondered why he was “Underdog”…why isn’t he “Superdog”? I understood the “dog,” but where does this “under” part come from?
Biggers: Champion of the underdogs of the world!
Mark Arnold notes that author royalties fromHow Underdog Was Borngo to the nonprofit organization Victory Over Violence.
Also Over Underdog
An Interview With Chet Stover, TTV Writer
Mark Arnold: Your book covered everything up to and including the creation of Underdog, but it didn’t talk about later creations like The Beagles or The Colossal Show. What was your participation in everything?
Chet Stover: Well, we were equals. Buck did the music.
Arnold: I know that you’re an artist because you included your artwork in the book, but did you do any of the character design, or did you leave that up to Joe Harris?
Stover: The way that worked was, I talked to Joe Harris. I brought him into the company, and he and I worked together. I would tell Joe exactly what we wanted. For instance, sketching Underdog. And then Joe would do a whole bunch of sketches, and since we worked so far apart, he would mail them. Then Buck and I would go over them and make any corrections. I remember sometimes putting some of his drawings up on a window in a hotel we used to work in, and we’d trace on them, making changes, and then we’d send them back to Joe.
Arnold: Where was Joe located?
Stover: Long Island.
Arnold: When you worked for DFS, did you work for any of the other cereal characters, like Trix Rabbit?
Stover: Well, the Trix Rabbit was a commercial, and I was the creative director on that. Joe designed the Trix Rabbit, too.
Arnold: What animation house did you use?
Stover: I’m not sure. Maybe we used somebody in New York.
Arnold: I remember reading somewhere that the earliest King Leonardo episodes were done through a company called TV Spots. Does that sound familiar?
Stover: No, it doesn’t. I’m not familiar with that at all. On King Leonardo, I did the original drawings, but they’re very crude [laughter]!
Arnold: [Laughter] Aw, they’re not that bad! Did you have a hand with any of the later cereal characters for DFS, or by the time you got Total TeleVision were you totally split from that end of it?
Stover: Yes, yes. I had left the agency, and Joe did too.
Arnold: In a book from Life magazine about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, there was a picture of the Underdog balloon with a blueprint, and it lists Total TeleVision at 366 Madison Avenue. Was that a real address or just a mailstop?
Stover: Well, when we were still working at the agency, you could rent office space for just a day, or you could have it as a mail drop, so that’s what we did a number of times.
Arnold: It seemed like all of the shows were created in sort of a drunken haze. Buck and I had a laugh about this. What is your take on that?
Stover: You sound like my son! They read the book and said, “My God, you did everything with martinis!” [laughter] That was an era in the industry when Madison Avenue lived on martinis.
Arnold: Nothing wrong with it. It’s just foreign today.
Stover: Yes, it’s incredible. I know for a fact that there were times in the agency when there was no use to talk to some guys after lunch because they were out.
Arnold: Did you guys equally create the characters, as you say in the book, or did one person say, “I’ve got this great idea for a show” and everyone just agreed?
Stover: We worked as a team. We created the shows, created the characters.
Arnold: Even the secondary segments like Go Go Gophers?
Stover: Yes, it was all done by us.
Arnold: When I was a kid, I got a comic book called The Colossal Show. On the cover it was copyrighted by Total TeleVision productions. What are your thoughts about that show?
Stover: Actually, I’ve never heard of a comic book about it, but we did present a show to NBC. Mr. Colossal was “Sgt. Bilko”. It was a Phil Silvers type voice.
Arnold: There was one issue of a comic book published through Gold Key or Western Publishing, and it says “Brand New” on the cover.
Stover: I don’t remember doing that at all. We may have had a deal with Western while at DFS. DFS had a deal with Golden Books and all that stuff. I’m very vague about all that stuff.
Arnold: Buck explained that you had a deal with NBC and that at the last moment they backed out.
Arnold: He mentioned that there was pilot actually produced through Terrytoons and not Gamma.
Stover: Yes, Terrytoons. I don’t know how they got involved with that. They operated somewhere out of Westchester County. I remember going out there to do a joint venture with somebody, and they were looking for a way to get back into television.
Arnold:Terrytoons was doing Tom Terrific for television. Did you have any involvement in that?
Stover: No, but I do know that with Tom Terrific there was this guy named Jules Feiffer. He was involved with Terrytoons also, I believe, and that was the only time I met him.
Arnold: How did you get into Terrytoons instead of Gamma? Was Gamma closing its doors at that point?
Stover: I don’t know. I don’t remember how that happened. We didn’t go looking for Terrytoons. It was a whole network sort of thing. Buck and I had an agent who somehow got involved with Terrytoons. I think that’s the way it worked.
Arnold: Buck confirmed that you and Jay Ward were separate companies, but you both shared P.A.T. [Producers Associates for Television] and the Gamma animation studio. I don’t know if you read the Bullwinkle book written by Keith Scott, but he said that Jay Ward so disliked the Gamma animation that by the time he got to George of the Jungle, he had it animated in Hollywood. It seemed like the same thing happened with TTV, but more like by default.
Stover: Gamma was put together by General Mills, and DFS had a hand in it. We had nothing to do with it.
Arnold: After this, you pretty much stopped TTV.
Stover: We had about five or six fully storyboarded presentations, and we never sold anything more.
Arnold: Was it due to not being able to get a single show sponsorship, as Buck implies?
Stover: No, I think basically the networks didn’t want to have anything to do with DFS or an advertising agency, and we had “advertising agency” stamped all over us. That was the day when the agency and the client told the networks what they would draw. The networks didn’t approach us with King Leonardo or Underdog. It worked the other way ’round. We gave the presentation to the agency, and then General Mills went to the network. With the clout they had, they could spend the money on Saturday morning TV and tell the networks what to put on and in what time slot. They worked out some kind of a deal. When Freddy [Silverman] came in, he didn’t want to have anything to do with this, so we had a tough time after that.
Arnold: You weren’t willing to budge and become more like Filmation or Hanna-Barbera?
Stover: We wouldn’t have minded being like Hanna-Barbera, however! [laughter] No, we were sort of settled in the way that we did things.
Arnold: Buck went on to work for NBC after the Total TeleVision days. What did you do?
Stover: Oh, I went on to do a number of things. I worked for a couple of years over at Milton-Bradley and did a couple of their commercials.
Arnold: Did you design any of the toys?
Stover: No. I did all of their advertising.
Arnold: Did you form your own agency?
Stover: No, they had a house agency. I also flew out to Australia and did a series called Around the World in 80 Days. It was a cartoon. I did that for General Mills directly, and it was animated down there.
Arnold: That wasn’t Total TeleVision, either?
Stover: Oh, no.
Arnold: In the ’70s, there was a lot of merchandising of Underdog. You didn’t have anything to do with it, but you received residuals?
Arnold: Were you in contact with the voices?
Stover: Occasionally. That was something Treadwell [Covington] handled. We decided on who the voices would be and got their agents to do that. We didn’t get involved with that. I went down for a couple of sessions.
Theme Main Event
A good theme song transcends its origins, and the great ones survive their host programs. As Underdog is not the only cartoon character with a swinging theme song, we recall some of our other favorites from animated shows (sorry, Batman).
Sammy Lerner, musical director at Paramount Studios, wrote the Popeye theme song for a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon titled “Popeye the Sailor,” which marked the sailor man’s film debut. Indeed strong to the finitch, generations of children know the song even if they haven’t seen the cartoons. It’s become part of our DNA.
The sly, slinky horns perfectly complemented the sly, slinky Pink Panther, whose Henry Mancini-written theme introduced the 1963 live-action movie with a title sequence directed by Friz Freleng, who then went on to direct the animated shorts.
Far from prehistoric, the Flintstones theme, with its insistent percussion and horns melding perfectly with a very modern melody, was the 1960 brainchild of composer Hoyt Curtin, who also wrote theme music for cartoons including Jonny Quest, The Jetsons and Hong Kong Phooey. The memorable lyrics were by studio honchos Hanna and Barbera.
Hands down, the best song ever with “radioactive blood” in its lyrics, the 1967 Spider-Man theme song is arguably a case where the theme music is more entertaining than the show that followed. Academy Award winner Paul Francis Webster wrote the lyrics, and Bob Harris composed the music. On their last album in 1995, the Ramones knocked their cover of the song out of the park.
In 1989, Matt Groening approached composer Danny Elfman about composing the theme to his new cartoon, The Simpsons. Groening gave Elfman some examples of the musical feel he sought, including the theme from The Jetsons and a Remington electric shaver jingle. Elfman recombined these influences and wrought an instrumental theme that has remained fresh and exuberant for nearly two decades.
Honorable mention: SpongeBob SquarePants, Gigantor, Josie and the Pussycats, Jonny Quest, Speed Racer and Care Bears (just kidding about that last one).
To purchase Hogan’s Alley #15, where this feature (and so much more, pictured at right) first appeared for only $8 postpaid, click the Paypal link below!