America is bullish on Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel of Frostbite Falls, Minn. The two are the beloved heroes of the classic animated TV series “The Bullwinkle Show,” which aired on ABC and NBC from 1959 to ’82.
The series was “The Simpsons” of its time, an adult satire masquerading as a kids show.
“The Bullwinkle Show” (still seen in reruns but not in the Los Angeles area right now) is filled with social commentary, silliness and painfully funny puns. It chronicles the adventures of the all-American moose and squirrel and their arch enemies, those no-goodnik bungling spies from Pottsylvania, Natasha Fatale and Boris Badenov.
Other segments of the series include “The Adventures of Dudley Do-Right,” featuring the noble Mountie who battles the evil Snidley Whiplash; “Peabody’s Improbable History,” in which a wealthy hound named Mr. Peabody travels through history with his adopted son Sherman; and the wacky “Fractured Fairy Tales,” narrated by the late Edward Everett Horton.
Buena Vista Home video has just released six 45-minute videocassettes, at $12.95 each, from the series. And PBS pays tribute to the show this week in a new special, Of Moose and Men: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Story, narrated by the series’ original announcer, William Conrad of “Jake and the Fatman”.
The one-hour documentary features clips from the series, interviews with writers and actors who provided the voices and profiles of the creative force behind the series, the late producer Jay Ward and animator/writer Bill Scott (who also was the voice of Bullwinkle, Dudley and Mr. Peabody).
Ben Magliano, who produced the special for PBS, fell in love with Rocky and Bullwinkle when he was 9. “It was so off the wall,” he said.
June Foray, the voice of Rocky and Natasha, believes the series is still popular after three decades because “it was witty and it was sophisticated. Children enjoyed it, but it was directed mostly to adults. Now baby boomers have grown up and can comprehend all the jokes and innuendoes.”
Ward, who died at age 69 in 1989, created the classic animated “Crusader Rabbit” for television in 1949. “His idea was that animation could be done in a limited form for a much lower cost directly for television,” Magliano said. “Then he decided to take a slightly different slant with something more ambitious and that is when ‘Rocky and His Friends’ came into being in 1959 on ABC.”
The series aired daily in the late afternoon for two years. In 1961, NBC lured Ward and his partner Scott to do the series for prime-time. It was renamed “The Bullwinkle Show.”
Ward’s publicity stunts for the series were as wacky as the show itself. In 1961, he unveiled a 15-foot fiberglass statue of Rocky and Bullwinkle that still stands today on Sunset Boulevard. “They roped off Sunset Strip for four blocks and had an 80-piece band and all kinds of entertainment,” Magliano said. “They gave out straw hats with antlers. Jayne Mansfield did the unveiling.”
In 1962, Ward bought an island off the coast of Minnesota and renamed it Moosesylvania and campaigned to make it the 51st state.
“He got this Ford van with a calliope and he and his publicist, Howard Brandy, rode around the country and had rallies,” Magliano said. “Ward was dressed as Napoleon and Howard was dressed like Dudley Do-Right.”
The recording sessions, Foray said, were great fun. “Everybody laughed,” she said. “We would explode into laughter because the scripts (Allan Burns of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was one of the writers) were so funny. Anything we found funny, Jay found funny. He was a cordial, affable, wonderful man to get along with.”
And a very shy one. “Jay was a complicated individual,” Magliano said. “He was a world-class recluse. The last 10 years of his life he rarely spoke to anyone outside of his close friends and family.”
“Of Moose and Men: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Story” airs Monday at 9 p.m. on KVCR; Thursday at 8 p.m. on KOCE; and March 12 at 8:45 p.m. on KCET.