By Luck, a Treasured Moment With Jay Ward
The one disappointment for me in tonight’s PBS special “Of Moose and Men: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Story” is that the producers weren’t able to include any archival interview footage of the show’s creator, Jay Ward.
Such material might have made the mysterious Ward a little more real to the legions of us baby-boomers who grew up with the moose and squirrel. So it’s disappointing. But surprising? Not at all. Ward, who died in 1989, was notoriously reclusive. Where his cohorts from the show--partner and writer Bill Scott (also the voice of Bullwinkle) and June Foray (the voices of Rocky, Natasha Fatale, Nell Fenwick, ad infinitum)--were regulars on the college circuit and at animation festivals, Ward shied away.
After such post “Rocky” productions as “George of the Jungle” and “Super Chicken” were canceled in the late ‘60s, Ward reportedly retreated to his home and barely was heard from except for the occasional Cap’n Crunch commercials he made through the years.
That’s why I’ll always treasure my one brief, unexpected meeting with him the year before he died.
Ward had left one door open to the public: his Dudley Do-Right Emporium in Hollywood, a memorabilia shop run by his wife, Billie. For about two years, I worked about two miles down Sunset Boulevard from the Emporium, but I never got around to stopping in. It was only a few years ago, while shopping for a Christmas present for a fellow Bullwinkle fan, that I made it to the shop during business hours.
Thumbing through the Ward Productions animation cels in a small basket, I saw the woman behind the sales counter--I assumed she was Billie--walk into the back room. And then, out came a short, older man with a gentle smile. It was Jay Ward.
Having picked out a “Whatsamatta U” sweat shirt for my friend, I made an exception to a personal rule of not pestering my childhood heroes, should I encounter them in person. “Would you mind signing this sweat shirt?,” I asked. “It’s for a friend.” It was, but it still sounded hokey, even to me.
He smiled, then fumbled a bit. “Well, I don’t think the pen will work well on this material,” said the man whose moose and squirrel had battled nefarious villains so amoral that they stooped to passing counterfeit cereal box tops. “I’ll be happy to sign a piece of paper or something else,” he continued, scouring the counter for a blank scrap of anything. “I don’t want to make you have to buy a card just for me to sign.”
I bought a card anyway. When I presented it to my friend, along with the autograph and the sweat shirt, he laughed slightly. Then a look of astonishment came over his face as it hit him: “Is this real ?”
It was. And for me, if only for those few moments, so had been the elusive Jay Ward.