Tales of Jay Ward and the Bullwinkle Gang : How the Subversive Silliness of Rocky and Bullwinkle Sprang Into Our Living Rooms

There was this squirrel. He had a boyish voice and wore an old-time aviator cap with goggles. He had a tall friend, this moose, who had the voice of a galoot.

Together they escaped extraordinary mishaps en route to making the world safe for democracy, usually by thwarting the sinister plans of a couple of Slavic schemers, a squat fellow named Boris and a slinky woman named Natasha.

The heroes were Rocky and Bullwinkle. No one who has seen them seems able to forget them. Mention their names to Rocky and Bullwinkle cognoscenti and you get this smile of inward recognition.

It will be 30 years next year since the inception of the Bullwinkle gang (originally titled "Rocky and His Friends") and though their career was relatively brief (through the mid-1960s), the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" shows still careen through the boundless galaxies of syndication. Their fans' affection towards them hasn't diminished; indeed, it's likely to explode anew:

A salute to the Bullwinkle days is planned for Jan. 20-29 at the United States Film Festival at the Sundance Institute in Park City, Utah.

The feature film "Boris and Natasha," starring Sally Kellerman and Dave Thomas, is now in production around town.

Walt Disney's home-video division has bought the videocassette rights to the whole catalogue of 150 Bullwinkled shows, for release next year. (There's an irony here. On the next page see the storyboards and scenario of a 1960 episode of "Fractured Fairy Tales," in which the hero looks suspiciously like Walt himself.)

An Accident of Birth

The Bullwinkle canon reflects the eccentricity of its fearless leader and first among equals, the elusive Jay Ward. Over the years his general inaccessibility--the product of his shyness--has grown to a legendary reclusiveness (putting a strain on this attempt to reconstruct the era).

Ward's phobias now stand sentry between him and the public. Wife Billie plays captain of the invisible guard. Questions for Ward were funnelled through her before the voice of authority was echoed back. (A mutual friend said, "I saw Jay in a supermarket and wanted to say hello, but was afraid he'd drop his groceries and run out and never go to the market again!")

Reports have it that he sits around his office much of the day reading, having lunch with a crony or two, doing a little business and eating jelly beans ordered from far-flung beaneries around the world.

The Bullwinkle oeuvre began literally by accident. In the late 1940s, young Ward finished post-graduate chores at Harvard Business School and returned with wife and child to the Berkeley of his childhood, where he planned to open a real estate business.

One afternoon, stepping out for the mail, he caught the force of a wayward lumber truck's plummeting descent down Claremont Avenue. Hauled out of the ensuing carnage, it looked as though Ward would be blinded and crippled for life.

He was neither. In the painful convalescence that followed, his weighty thoughts turned not to philosophical matters or dreams of a magnum opus that would ennoble his existence and enrich the world. They turned instead to cartoons.

Ward was only intermittently a writer and he knew virtually nothing about animation. But he was a bit of a visionary. He had a conception and an eye for spotting talent. He teamed up with boyhood friend Alex Anderson--nephew of Terrytoons artist Paul Terry--to devise "Crusader Rabbit," the first cartoon character ever created specifically for TV.

His first success was enough to set in motion a stable of characters that would far outstrip their chuckling progenitor, and whose continuing life and adventures drew on the talents of a group of young writers and performers destined for major successes of their own:

Bill Scott, who died in 1985, is conceded as the resident genius who gave the Bullwinkle gang the touch of irony that drew parents into looking over their children's little shoulders at whatever escapade Rocky & Co. were up to next. Scott also portrayed Bullwinkle, who sounded so much like Klem Kadiddlehopper that Red Skelton registered a protest (which proved ultimately futile).

Writer Chris Hayward would go on to "Barney Miller." Writer-producer Allan Burns would emerge as a creator of the heralded original "Mary Tyler Moore" series and others. Lloyd Turner was a writer and story editor on a number of top sit-comedies. Hans Conreid and June Foray did voices (she did Rocky and all the females). Edward Everett Horton and William Conrad executed narration.

The shows enjoyed a peculiar appeal bordering the subversive. Like a cultist's password, they penetrated the shared secret of hours spent deliciously watching the antics of the perky squirrel and his clumsy sidekick, as well as the klutzy Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right, Peabody (the dog who was so smart that he had his own boy) and George of the Jungle, among others.

Kids loved the quirky bluntness of their animation. Parents picked up on their adult slyness, which found its way into such pun-ishing lines as "One nation in dirigible" or "newt descending a staircase."

The majority of episodes, punctuated by the wry voice of Horton narrating one of the "Fractured Fairy Tales," put our heroes in dire straits of one sort or another. Their suspense was based on predicament and rescue--the storyteller's universal device. What made Rocky and Bullwinkle unique, aside from the surprising unguardedness of its Cold War sentiment, was its underlying tone, the inaudible suspicion of writers laughing up their sleeves.

Plot demands were always fulfilled, but you never knew when you were going to be hit by the overripe tomato of a bad pun. "The worse the better," recalls Hayward. "We always wrote for ourselves."

Addicts involuntary began cringing towards the end of the chapters, when the authoritarian rumbles of Conrad would intone, with a rush of excitement, groaners like: "As a heavy safe hurtled down towards our heroes, don't miss our next episode . . . 'Squeeze Play' . . . or 'Invitation to a Trance.' "

If the upcoming segment featured, say, our heroes marooned on an island, Conrad might pronounce, "Be sure to see our next episode, 'Three on an Island,' or 'Tell It to the Maroons.' "

Other episodes: "The Whale: Maybe Dick," "The Guns of Abalone" and "On the Shores of Veronica Lake There Sails the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayam."

A Sculpted Rocky

By the time she joined the gang, June Foray already had had a career doing variety shows for Danny Thomas, Phil Harris and Johnny Carson's "Carson's Cellar," as well as enacting the females for Warner Bros. cartoons.

A perky, straight-ahead kind of woman who was to become essential to the Ward corps, Foray recalls the initial meeting with Jay: "He took me to lunch at the Tail of the Cock and by the end of the afternoon I thought his idea of a moose and a squirrel was fantastic. He wanted Rocky the squirrel to be like an all-American boy with a derring-do voice. Rocky was an idealist. Jay and Bullwinkle were like two musketeers always out to do good. He didn't want to place Natasha in Russia, but in a place called Pottsylvania.

"I saw later that that didn't go over with the Russians. When Jay tried to sell the series in Moscow, they said, 'Ve know all about dis Boolvinkle. You are tryingk to start var.'

"I had completely forgotten about the meeting and the pilot when my agent called about a year later and said, 'You remember about Jay Ward and the moose and the squirrel? Well it's a go.' ABC had bought it. We were on the air from '59 to '61. Then NBC picked it up and ran it from '61 to '64.

"I still think about the characters and sketches, 'George of the Jungle,' 'Tom Slick and Marigold' and how many times I had to say 'rubber baby buggy bumpers.'

"We just broke up while recording. Bill Conrad said he could do all the voices, but he could only do Bill Conrad. In all we did over 700 episodes of Boris, Dudley, Mr. Peabody, 'Fractured Fairy Tales' and 'Aesop & Son.' We did over 370 Bullwinkle episodes.

"I'm so used to being a cult figure now. I get calls from all over. I've had to grow accustomed to people genuflecting." She laughed. "I even have the Rocky and Bullwinkle symbol on my checks."

She remembered the silliness of the recording sessions: "Paul Frees and Bill Conrad would rag each other all the time. Edward Everett Horton at 85 would have his chauffeur waiting to take him to tennis."

"Jay goes on the Carson show dressed in a Napoleon outfit and carrying a huge bologna," recalls Chris Hayward. "A dear, sweet, tentative human being with a wry sense of humor. But petrified. He lasted all of five minutes. The producers and everyone off-camera were gesturing frantically to cut to a commercial. He was on the elevator out of there before the commercial was over."

Hayward, 62, a silver-haired, distinguished-looking fellow, leaned back ruminatively at his Beverly Hills office. "It was certainly different," he said. "Lloyd Turner had one arm and liked to alarm people by sticking pins in his prosthesis.

"Jay gave useless-gift parties. There were the mystery golf tournaments. You had to be outside your house at 6 in the morning. He wouldn't tell you where you were going. One trip turned out to be to Phoenix.

Hayward wrote for game shows, but the animation world seemed easier to crack and he wended his way to "Peabody's Improbable History."

He remembers: "The pay was low and the insecurity great. Jay felt the writers should pay him. His theory was 'Never show a profit or else you'll have to pay people.'

"At one Christmas, we went over to his house and he had maps on his door designating nearby unemployment offices."

"I wrote Bullwinkle for a year from Acapulco," says George Atkins. "Living in Mexico and sending the stuff on. That ain't bad duty, is it?"

Atkins is a big, bluff, balding figure who lives in a town house in Glendale. He's fit it to himself, tastefully Spartan, in no way teeming with the memorabilia of having written for many of TV's top variety shows.

To most, Ward was a relatively benevolent pasha. But not always: " 'Fractured Flickers' was just an impossible show," Atkins recalls. "We'd take miles of film and spend 10 hours on the Movieola. You'd go home with bleeding fingers from the editing. I did 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame.' Jay came in one day and said it wasn't funny, which killed me. Bill Scott said it was OK, and to leave it. It's turned out to be the most popular of the bunch."

The first time he met Jay: "He was holed up in his second-story apartment. He had that nervous giggle that I'd never heard in a human being before. But I liked him. He always had a genuine appreciation of what was funny. His checks always cashed."

Ward made history in another unlikely venue--the Plaza Hotel in New York, which is venerable enough to have earned a published volume dedicated to its illustrious times. Ward merits a small but distinctive mention for a picnic he held, not in nearby Central Park--but in the Grand Ballroom.

He trucked in plots of grass to carpet the floor. There were the usual orchestral dance bands (two) to play along while guests ate boxed lunches (plus champagne and caviar). He hired fortune tellers, pickpockets and photographers with the kind of cardboard props you stick your hands and feet through. The climax was the ceremonial delivery of flambe desserts, marched in by the catering staff after the lights were turned low.

In the spirit of authenticity, Ward brought in picnic ants. But fearing the wrath of Plaza management--or worse, a monstrous exterminator bill--he kept them safely glass-enclosed.

William Hurtz played a crucial role as director: "I joined up just after Jay formed his partnership with Bill Scott," Hurtz said. "Shortly after I went to work for him, I said to a colleague, 'These are the most glorious stories ever written for animation.' It's something I can't seem to escape. I'm in my 49th year of retirement.

"Even in the beginning, the limited animation didn't seem a handicap," he said. "We cut every two seconds to compensate for the lack of movement. It was cinematically demanding, in its own way. We put much more into 'George of the Jungle' then we could ever get out of it. I think Jay lost $100,000."

He's mindful too of Ward's kindnesses. Ward sent him work when Hurtz was laid up with hepatitis. "I was in bed for six months. I never would've survived without Jay. Peter Burness, who had won an Academy Award for his work on 'Mr. Magoo,' was our senior director for years. He would get so mad at some of Jay's opinions that he literally kicked a hole in the wall. But when he got cancer and couldn't work, Jay kept him on the payroll."

A Shake of the Head

Hurtz remembers an infinitely more elaborate (and near disastrous) prank that is still recalled by Ward loyalists with a head shake.

It seems that Ward had gotten it into his crop that Moosylvania should be accorded national statehood. That the place was only a fiction of a collective imagination was a plausible enough (though momentary) deterrent for him to dispatch a staffer up to the lake region of Minnesota to scout a suitably obscure island locale, which he subsequently purchased.

Moosylvania was a cartoon abstraction no more. He began in earnest to drum up a national referendum, by way of petition, to address the Constitution in the matter of Moosylvanian autonomy.

"Jay had a van converted into a circus wagon, complete with a calliope and a 'Whatsamatta U?' logo," Hurtz recalls. "He set out with a pal, Howard Brandy (a publicist) who dressed up in a Dudley Do-Right outfit. They traveled the country and actually got up 50,000 signatures, with Jay dressed in an Admiral Nelson outfit, right down to the epaulets and three-cornered hat."

Ward and his van, calliope merrily piping, rolled onto the White House grounds with the colorful bravado of Sir Francis Drake sailing an Old World imperial ensign into the remote bay of some primitive island redoubt. He didn't know what to make of the grim security guard swiftly advancing on them, unholstering his gun.

"It was their misfortune to have arrived at the White House just as the news of the Cuban Missile Crisis was breaking," Hurtz says wryly. "God only knows what those two must have appeared like to the White House staff."

Hurtz recalled Ward's interest in thoroughbred race horses, an avocation that shares with yachtsmanship an elegant means of watching one's money evaporate:

"Jay's racing silks were yellow and orange. The poor jockey'd have to wear the big head of Bullwinkle on his back."

Willie Shoemaker rode for the Ward stable. If Shoemaker ever had misgivings about wearing a moose head on his back, he never said anything about it in public.

Ward's family wasn't off-limits either. "When Jay's oldest son Ron was married, there was an understandable fear that Jay would disgrace the family," Hurtz said. But the boy got off lightly.

"Jay only provided one stunt. He wore tennis shoes, cutaways and an ascot to the ceremony. The bride's mother was a serious woman, and later painted the tennis shoes out of the wedding pictures."

Ward's daughter Pam (a.k.a. "Tiff"), wasn't as lucky. "For her wedding Jay hired a vintage Rolls-Royce limo, with chauffeur in livery, to take the bride up to the Riviera Country Club. There was a reception line, which he of course dreaded and prepared for by outfitting a life-sized dummy, which had a tape recorder inserted in its chest.

"It was dressed in a tweed coat, a sweater, knickers and tennis shoes, and as people came up in line Jay's recorded voice would say, 'How do you do? My name is Jay Ward. Thank you for coming. Please move down the line.' "

All of this of course, set a tone for practical nonsense that seeped into the work. Hurtz remembered that while Hans Conreid was reading from a script during a recording session, Paul Frees would set fire to it: "It became a matter of professional pride to read it through before being consumed in flames."

Frees didn't get off lightly. "Once Paul came in wearing a beautiful green Borsalino hat," Hurtz recalled. "While he read live, the rest of the cast cut it to pieces in front of him. He didn't break, but you could see he was heartbroken. Then they gave it back to him. They had just bought a copy, and that's what they cut up.

"When he went on vacation, he cleared the studio out, whether you liked it or not," mused writer-producer Allan Burns. "Once I happened to stay back. He called to say there were some guys coming over from Quaker Oats who had a new cereal to sell. 'Tell 'em I'm not here,' Jay said. 'That's rude,' I said. 'I don't like commercials anyway,' Jay answered. 'The hell with 'em.'

"That was the beginning of the Captain Crunch commercials. The cereal would shred your mouth, but I wrote the commercials and did the storyboard in two days. We didn't care, but it turned out to be a big account. I think it got him two race horses."

"Working for Jay was all perks and no salary," Burns said. "He'd take you to New York and put you up at the Plaza to do something silly. You got tickets to all the Broadway shows. You ate lavishly. You had wonderful times. But no money. I don't think he ever got rich. Or if he did, he didn't show it.

"The animation business is strange, but Jay's imprimatur was even stranger. Bill Scott, too, was an incredibly free spirit, and an intelligent man everyone adored. He did the voice of Bullwinkle.

"Once I was sitting at my cubicle, thinking about my future. I said, 'Jeez Bill, I'm 25 years old and writing about a moose.' He said 'Hell, I'm 50 and I am one!' "

Jim Critchfield's loyalty to Ward is as tight as that of a mollusk to a rock. After a few intermittent writing starts, Critchfield stayed on the job for 18 years until Ward retired. They still lunch together regularly.

"Jay had a penchant for hiring people who couldn't type or come up with a chapter idea for Bullwinkle which lasted more than five minutes," he remembers. "They'd hand in a piece that might be ridiculous, written on a scrap of paper. Jay'd just say, 'Let's see if Master Scott can do something with this.'

"Old Lloyd-boy (Turner) was a very steadying influence. Jay came in once and said, 'I don't feel well. I think I'll probably die.' Lloyd said, 'Don't do that. It'll ruin my day.'

Lloyd Turner started out as a cartoonist for Warner Bros., but switched over to writing when he kept hearing writers laugh at work. He met Bill Scott, then a junior writer with Warners. Eventually he met Alex Anderson and Jay, in their "Crusader Rabbit" days. He's retired now, and owns a bucolic spread in Shady Cove, Ore., that commands a view of the lake where he fishes every day. He has had by all accounts a successful TV career--"The Doris Day Show," "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons," "Mork and Mindy"--but his memories of the Jay days remain among his warmest.

"All you needed was to make Jay laugh. Once, I was facing legal problems. I didn't know who to borrow from--it was either that or jump off the Santa Monica Pier. I told Jay and he whipped out a check for the entire amount. I said, 'Don't you want a note?' He said, 'If you got hit by a truck, I'd feel so bad I wouldn't care about the money.' For a while he deducted payments from my salary to make me feel noble, and then he had the bookkeeper just write it off."

Turner remembers the bizarre working conditions at Ward Prods.: There was the office secretary, a sullen virago named Natalie, who spent a great deal of her working hours knitting. One day she marched down to the ratty Dickensian cellar that passed as a writers' workshop--where Turner and Chris Hayward were bent in their labors--to unscrew the solitary bulb that hung over their communal desk, plunging them into darkness. It was strictly an act of malice--but Turner and Hayward thought it was a Ward prank, and set up a water-filled balloon over the door to reward him for his enterprise and curiosity.

He never showed up. When they realized it wasn't a joke, they stormed up to Natalie, who was intent on her knitting, and said, "We're top writers here! We're going to the top with this complaint!" Which they did.

Much to their consternation, they asked Jay--once they'd told their story--"Will you fire her?" Says Turner: "He laughed so hard at the story that he said, 'No. In fact, I'm giving her a raise.' "

"In spite of the heartache and hard times, I was never happier than when I was with Jay. The minute people find out I was with Bullwinkle, the fact that I wrote for Bob Hope or 'Mork & Mindy' means nothing. I become a deity. It's still the grail of friendship, the squirrel and the moose. Then there's the sophistication. The show was never self-serving and never cruel. I look at us as the Algonquin Round Table. Only instead of Hemingway, we had a moose."

The pilgrimage to the Dudley Do-Right Emporium, which Billie Ward runs three days a week, continues at a steady pace. The small building at Hayvenhurst and Sunset, which has a festive, comic, mirthfully Caribbean air, is chockablock with Bullwinkle memorabilia, cups, T-shirts, clocks that run backwards, Badinov and Natasha decals, Whatsamatta U? logos, Farkling insignia . . . and the motto, "You knew this job was dangerous when you took it."

The attitude of its mostly young visitors, who come from just about everywhere (including Australia), is studied and curious. They seem like museumgoers ruminating through artifacts that bring an age to life. That age was, of course, not just a childhood of moralistic comedies played out in primary colors, but one that suggested an efficacy of loyalty and goodness, hope and cheer, where the riddles of life were expressed in jokes and references whose mysterious meanings were not a threat, but something that would eventually, and surely, be revealed to the faithful.

One afternoon, Billie alternately answered the phone and handled customers in between describing how she and Ward had met in a church group in Boston where he was a Harvard student and she was at Simmons College.

"We've been married 45 years and it's still great," she said. "He's fun to be with. Now it's slowed down. But I used to wish for boredom, a little quiet and a little peace.

"I was a clothes designer and switched in my senior year to occupational therapy. Jay was a post-graduate business manager who had done his undergraduate work at Berkeley. He got drafted, despite his bad eyes (he'd shoot his friends if he didn't have glasses) and went into the Army Air Corps.

"He was in two years before we were married. The day he was released, at Salt Lake City, he took his army shirt off and never put on a uniform again. Even after we moved to Berkeley, he never wanted to work for anyone but himself, despite a lot of good offers. He decided on real estate. It was only his first or second day at the office when that big truck came down the hill."

She interrupted to tell a phone inquirer, "A few thousand dollars for a new mirror every few months? It's getting too expensive."

She was referring to the amusement park mirror that Jay had installed outside the Emporium, which made anyone who stood before it look like a turnip-shaped humanoid with squat little legs. Of the assorted Hollywood flotsam that nightly drifts around the bend at Hayvenhurst, she said to her caller, "They get drunk and break the mirror. It's killing Jay to do something that's not a lot of fun. He put the mirror in for the neighborhood. But it's gotten too expensive to fix. We'll just have to leave it."

Times had irrevocably changed, and good sense only dictated by now that one concede the streets of Hollywood to the drunks and hooligans.

A week later, a new mirror was in place.

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