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Timeless ‘Tunes’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Overture! Curtain! Lights!

This is it, the night of nights .

No more rehearsing or nursing a part .

We know every part by heart . . .

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If you know every part by heart of this signature song from “The Bugs Bunny Show,” you’re not alone. Fans of “Looney Tunes” characters tune in not only every day, but nearly all day long to Bugs & Co. in some form or other. One early-morning a local news reporter recently confessed on the air that he gets dressed to “Looney Tunes” at 4:30 a.m. before hopping down to the newsroom for his daily on-air duties.

“Looney Tunes” lovers pour more than a billion dollars annually into retail products bearing the likenesses of that cwazy wabbit and his wascally pals. The “Merrie Melodies” makers may not have blanketed popular culture quite as much as Mickey and Donald, but the Looney legion of small-screen fans continues to expand.

Even though there’ve been few new “Looney Tunes” in the last quarter-century, the classic Warner Bros. animated cartoon shorts have been on television nonstop since 1955. And their smart-alecky antics, propelled by the late Mel Blanc’s ingenious voice characterizations, consistently rate high--usually No. 1 on Saturdays or as the top-faring kid show--for the stations or networks that air them.

The “Looney Tunes” have appeared on every network, in syndication and on cable, and are available on video and laser disc. And they’ve spawned a new generation called “Tiny Toon Adventures” from a new generation of animators who’ve come up with younger counterparts to Bugs, Elmer, Porky, Tweety, Sylvester et al.

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Their enduring popularity seems assured among the 32.5 million youngsters who reportedly tune in weekly to shows that charmed their parents and grandparents first.

“We’re now into the fourth generation of people becoming familiar with the characters,” observes David Stewart, a professor of marketing and specialist in consumer psychology at USC. “Parents encourage their child to become familiar and watch.” All of this means that “every five years or so you have a new generation of children who discover the shows, which have this universal appeal,” Stewart adds. “There’s always this new and developing audience.”

“Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies"--the titles have been virtually interchangeable--were originally produced as theatrical shorts in the 1930s, when cartoons were staples between double bills. Creators made sure the humor worked on two levels, so that older and younger viewers would enjoy them, notes Kathleen Helppie, vice president of production and administration of Warner Bros. animation. And that helps keep them popular today.

The five primary, and legendary, “Looney Tunes” directors--Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Bob McKimson--each helped develop the classic toons various defining characteristics during their 38 years of production.

Although Warner’s cartoons began playing in theaters in 1930, the first “Looney” star didn’t emerge until 1935, when the self-conscious stuttering Porky Pig popped up on screen. He was followed by con man Daffy Duck in 1937; “wabbit” hunter Elmer J. Fudd and the unflappable Bugs Bunny in 1940; cute little Tweety Bird in 1942; that unscrupulous cat Sylvester, egomaniacal rooster Foghorn Leghorn and suave skunk Pepe Le Pew in 1945; the Road (Beep, Beep) Runner and Wile E. Coyote in 1949, and clever mouse Speedy Gonzales in 1953.

After first appearing in 1954 and in only six of the more than 1,000 classic cartoons, that hungry whirling dervish Tazmanian Devil--Taz to those in the know--now looks like Mr. Popularity. “He’s really taken off and his merchandise is equally popular with the other characters’,” says Warner spokeswoman Cynthia Lieberman. The new “Taz-Mania” airs Saturday mornings on Fox.

Yet Bugs is still the most beloved.

“Of all the characters, Bugs Bunny is clearly No. 1,” concurs Peter Starrett, president of the Warner Bros. Studio stores. “I think he’s viewed as the leader of the ‘Looney Tunes.’ He’s the icon. He’s the character everybody would like to be. He’s smart, he’s savvy, he manages to get out of every problem situation he’s in and, above all, he’s really funny.”

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Bugs’ appeal and that of his cronies keeps audiences watching.

“They all have true human foibles,” Warner’s Helppie notes. “And they react in ways that you yourself wish you could in similar situations.”

The “Looney Tunes” populace are not just a lump of characters: Each has his own personality.

“They’re all very well defined and it’s easy for kids to figure out who’s who,” Stewart points out. “That breeds familiarity.”

It’s a comfort level, he adds. “That familiarity with personalities is simple to deal with. You sort of know the plot--that Elmer will try to get Bugs and Bugs will get away. But there’s always something different than the last time. There’s a plot for them to think up enough variations to make the next cartoon interesting.”

Kids readily confirm those observations.

“Every day I try to get home in time to watch,” says Jason Climaco, 7, of Carson. “Bugs is best. He does funny things to Elmer who tries to catch him. Bugs is smart and makes me laugh.”

Andrew Lucero, 5, of Mar Vista, is drawn to the toons daily, too. “I love it when Sylvester tries to catch Tweety and then he does dumb things. It’s funny when Bugs and Daffy are chased by Elmer. They get away funny.”

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That chase is appealing, as morning and afternoon viewer Shelby Gonzales, 4, of Moreno Valley attests: “The Road Runner makes me laugh when the Coyote goes after him and he gets away and things go ‘Boom! Boom!’ ”

And no matter how many times they get away, the chase will begin again, and again, with the next cartoon.

The beginnings of television’s phenomenal “Looney Tunes” audience--Warner researchers estimate that 37.7 million people see a classic toon weekly--began with the characters’ first small-screen appearance in 1955, when Warner, which didn’t anticipate video, sold a portion of the cartoons to PRM Inc. (later owned by United Artists, then MGM/UA and, finally, Turner Entertainment Co.).

Those two sets of cartoons, now referred to as the “Warner Bros. package” and the “Turner package,” are what keep popping up as you click the remote. The 680-plus Warner Bros. toons are seen on ABC, Fox and Nickelodeon. Nearly all are seen in rotation. In Los Angeles, Turner’s 450 or so cartoons, all pre-1948, air on TNT, TBS, WGN, KVEA and the Cartoon Network.

In 1968, with the cost of animation spiraling, Warner Bros. Animation stopped making all but the occasional “Looney Tunes” cartoon special. But when necessary now, the studio works with networks regarding “sensitive” cartoons that, in light of contemporary sensibilities, are sometimes edited for broadcast.

“Every network has to deal with individual programming departments, and while broadcast standards are consistent among the three networks (which air the Warner package), they let us know what they feel is a little over the line,” Helppie says. That includes scenes deemed to be stereotyping, racist or exhibiting excessive gunplay or violence.

But if audiences have grown up, they haven’t grown out of their affection for “Looney Tunes.” Starrett says 80% of items purchased at the Warner Bros. Studio Stores--the first opened at the Beverly Center in September 1991--are adult apparel. The 78 Warner Bros. Studio Stores pepper the U.S. and the U.K. (there are nine in Southern California alone). By the end of the year, 30 more stores are scheduled to open. Those numbers may not yet approach Disney’s 271, but they definitely indicate there are some popular guys here. The stores, with human-sized plastic cartoon characters dominating the decor, offer everything from pewter figurines to snow shakers and leather jackets along with the ubiquitous T-shirts and sweatshirts. Cartoon cels from the early shorts, ranging from $450 up into the thousands of dollars, are among the most popular nostalgia items.

“It’s a nostalgia thing,” Starrett notes. “They like what they saw in their youth, but I’d say there are some who still watch the shows with their kids.”

“Creatures like Donald Duck and Mickey give (kids) comfort, but they’re not funny like Bugs and Daffy,” comedian Robert Klein revealed in a guest spot on “David Letterman.”

And, funny thing is, he’s got plenty of company.

WHAT’S ON, DOC?

SUNDAY

5 a.m.: Bugs Bunny’s All-Stars TNT

9 a.m. and 11 p.m.: The Bugs & Daffy Show Cartoon Network

9 and 9:30 a.m.: Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon Nickelodeon

2 p.m.: Bugs Bunny TBS

MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY

3:30 a.m.: Bugs Bunny’s All-Stars TNT

6:30 a.m.: Merrie Melodies Starring Bugs Bunny & Friends XETV

7:30 a.m.: Bugs Bunny’s All-Stars TNT

8:30 a.m.: Bugs Bunny y Daffy Duck (en Espanol) KVEA

noon: Bugs Bunny TBS

2:30 p.m.: Merrie Melodies Starring Bugs Bunny & Friends KTTV

2:30 p.m.: Steven Spielberg Presents Tiny Toons XETV; 3:30 p.m. KTTV

3 p.m.: Bugs Bunny’s All-Stars TNT

6 p.m. and midnight: Bugs & Daffy Tonight Cartoon Network

6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.: Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon Nickelodeon

SATURDAY

6 and 6:30 a.m.: The Bugs Bunny & Tweety Show KABC KGTV; 7 and 7:30 a.m. KESQ

8 a.m.: Taz-Mania Fox

9 a.m.: Steven Spielberg Presents Tiny Toons FOX

noon: Looney Tunes on Nickelodeon Nickelodeon

3 p.m.: Bugs Bunny’s All-Stars TNT

5 p.m. and 2 a.m.: Bugs and Daffy Saturday Night Cartoon Network


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