The television executives listen, hidden behind a double-glass window, tapping their feet as a studio orchestra plays an ominous melody. A scene unfolds in their minds: A figure moves furtively past a darkened warehouse.
Suddenly, one of the executives stands up and shakes his head.
“I need more danger,” he says. “More bad-guy stuff.”
The music in the Burbank recording studio stops. An engineer on the soundboard relays the message to the musicians in the studio. Hoyt Curtin, the session leader, nods his head patiently.
Curtin turns back to the 12-man orchestra and, after giving a few instructions, signals for the music to begin again.
What follows could easily accompany a tense scene from “Aliens.” Instead, it will serve as background scoring for next season’s episodes of the children’s cartoon “Jonny Quest.”
At age 60, Curtin is the Mike Post of animation sound tracks, the John Williams of the Smurf set. Over the past 30 years, the Westlake Village man has composed and arranged hundreds of cartoon scores, including such themes as “The Jetsons,” “The Flintstones” and “Yogi Bear.”
Theme on Pop Charts
As a writer of cartoon music, Curtin hasn’t gotten the serious attention he thinks he deserves. But that is starting to change. The quirky, jazzy “Jetsons” theme has suddenly re-emerged as a pop hit.
Meet George Jetson . . .
His boy Elroy . . .
Daughter Judy . . .
Jane, his wife!
On a given day, the 1962 tune might play between Twisted Sister and Genesis on any one of several rock ‘n’ roll radio stations in Los Angeles. George and the family have an animated video on MTV. And “The Jetsons” theme, re-recorded in stereo, recently reached No. 9 on Billboard magazine’s retail sales charts.
The song’s popularity comes at a time when there is a mania among youth for the fashion and music of the ‘60s. Tony clothing stores are filled with the bright colors and styles of the era. Bands like the Monkees and Herman’s Hermits have reunited and are touring the country. One trendy Valley salon offers a Jane Jetson haircut.
Curtin himself is a living reminder of that past. Dressed in a “University of Bedrock” sweater bearing Fred Flintstone’s face, he looks like a red-headed Captain Kangaroo. He speaks in youthful musician’s lingo: “I can dig it.” “Just one second, cats.” “Shoot me a loop.”
The recent popularity of “The Jetsons” theme brings a smile to its composer’s face.
“Every time I hear that damn thing I’m amazed. Man, that tune swings,” Curtin said. “If it doesn’t swing, the heck with it. The music has to have some excitement, some reason.”
Faithful Cartoon Viewer
Curtin watches Saturday and Sunday morning cartoons religiously. He videotapes the ones he can’t see at air time. “Some of those darn things start at 6:30 in the morning. I can’t get up that early.” He works seven days a week composing.
Music is serious business at Hanna-Barbera Studios, which bills itself as the world’s largest producer of animated entertainment. Over the past 28 years, Curtin has written the music to almost every one of Hanna-Barbera’s 250 cartoon series. His eight-man company of composers, Soundtrack Music Inc., has had an exclusive contract to score Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons since the studio opened.
The list of Curtin’s theme songs evokes a Who’s Who of cartoon history: “Huckleberry Hound,” “Quick Draw McGraw,” “Wally Gator,” “Scooby Doo,” “Magilla Gorilla,” “Top Cat” and “The Smurfs.”
“All the heavies,” says one Hanna-Barbera official.
Although a musical score may account for only several minutes of a live-action show, on a cartoon it plays almost continuously, even beneath dialogue. Music is vital to animation, explained Joe Sandusky, the executive who called for more danger during the studio recording.
“The music just brings the whole thing to life,” said Sandusky, who oversees all music for Hanna-Barbera shows. “If you were to play any cartoon without music, it would just lay there. Try turning the sound down on your TV some time.”
Curtin began putting music to cartoons in 1953 when, after graduating from USC with a degree in music, he landed a job scoring “Mr. Magoo” theater shorts. The money, he recalled, wasn’t much in those days.
“Man, you couldn’t buy a clean shirt and the gas to get there.”
Several years later, he was scoring a Schlitz beer commercial when he met William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the men famous for bringing “Tom & Jerry” to theater screens. Hanna and Barbera were looking for someone to put music to cartoons for a different screen, the television. Curtin signed on.
In the early days, Hanna and Barbera would telephone Curtin and read him lyrics. Curtin would call back several minutes later and sing a freshly written song to them. “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons” were composed that way.
“We’d go back and forth like that. We’d all have a good time, and I think the music shows it,” recalled Barbera, 75. “He’s a brilliant musician. These are tunes that have been around for 25 years, and people are still humming them and singing them.”
These days, Curtin writes at the home he shares with his wife, Elizabeth, and his duck, Clyde. He matches the scores to videotapes or artists’ story boards of the cartoons. The music must accentuate each physical movement and mood on the screen, he said. It takes about a week to score a show. Curtin divides the work among himself and his seven composers.
“Some of the music that is being done in cartoons now could easily be used in any movie of the week,” said Don James, one of Curtin’s songwriters. “It’s different from the days of Looney Tunes. It’s much more contemporary today.”
Still, much of what Curtin and his writers do has gone unnoticed by anyone over the age of 12.
In September, 1985, syndicated reruns of “The Jetsons” began airing on television stations across the country. At about the same time, Taft Entertainment Co., which owns Hanna-Barbera, went shopping for a record company to release the theme music. TeeVee Tunes included the song on its successful “Television’s Greatest Hits, Vol. I” album, then released “The Jetsons” single in April.
Karyn Ulman, vice president of music at Taft, said she was certain “The Jetsons” theme would be a hit, even though 20 years had passed since it made its debut.
“Over the years jazz artists have played it live. We’ve had requests from pop and new-wave bands to use ‘The Jetsons,’ ” Ulman said. “We’ve had so many requests from radio stations and individuals across the nation, we knew it was going to be a hit.”
Early next year, Ulman hopes to have a new version of the “Jonny Quest” theme playing on the radio.
“Naturally, it’s great to get a little more recognition,” Curtin said. “A lot of people don’t have the faintest idea what I do.”
Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.