Bullwinkle is back

Times Staff Writer

When we last saw the intrepid Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle the talking moose, the two most famous residents of Frostbite Falls, they had faded into a pinkish-purple hue and were in dire need of restoration. Enter Tiffany Ward, the daughter of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" creator Jay Ward, who spent the last six years restoring her father's beloved cartoon series.

As they might've said on the show: Hokey smokes! Moose and squirrel are back and better than ever (or) you can't keep a good squirrel -- or moose, for that matter -- down!

But it was neither cheap -- "It cost $3 million in restoration," the younger Ward says -- nor easy. As she notes, "It took a long time to get the core materials, and the masters weren't in good shape. And we had to wait for the original license to expire with Buena Vista [the company had released the series on video] and then waited for the right time. And this seemed liked the right time."

Last week, Bullwinkle Studios and Classic Media unveiled the four-disc DVD set "Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends Complete Season 1" ($40) featuring all 26 digitally remastered episodes from the first season.

And here's something fans of the show will really like: 30 minutes of extras featuring never-before-seen Bullwinkle puppet segments in which the moose offers advice, promotion spots, the rarely seen "U.S. Savings Stamp Club" episode and a short specially created for the collection, "Many Faces of Boris Badenov." The DVDs also feature the second-season opening of the show, which was Jay Ward's favorite.

Rocky and Bullwinkle (the characters were created by Ward's cartoonist friend Alex Anderson in 1950), made their TV debut as "Rocky and His Friends," which aired from Sept. 29, 1959, to Sept. 3, 1961, Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. on ABC. The main plot line revolved around Rocky and Bullwinkle, the evil small person Mr. Big and his two accomplices from Pottsylvania, Boris and Natasha.

Breaking up the Rocky and Bullwinkle serials were other cartoon segments, including the beloved "Fractured Fairy Tales," which parodies children's fairy tales, "Aesop's Fables," in which a philosopher father teachers his son the way of the world, "Peabody's Improbable History," featuring an intelligent dog and his "pet boy" Sherman as they travel through history, and "Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties," the adventures of a goofy Canadian Mountie, his girl, Nell Fenwick, and the bad guy, Snidely Whiplash.

June Foray was the voice of Rocky, Natasha and Nell; Bill Scott (who was also writer and producer on the series) was the voice of Bullwinkle, Mr. Peabody and Dudley; Paul Frees was Boris; Hans Conried was Snidely; Walter Tetley was Sherman; Charlie Ruggles supplied the voice of Aesop; William Conrad was the narrator and Edward Everett Horton was the "Fractured Fairy Tales" narrator and received top billing among the stellar voice talent.

In 1961, the series moved to NBC and was retitled "The Bullwinkle Show," where it stayed until 1964. It then returned to ABC, where it was in repeats for nine more years. It has been in syndication ever since, even surviving a disastrous 2000 feature film starring Robert De Niro and Rene Russo.

Ward says her father, who died in 1989, was "truly a real character. He was a very strict father. He was a real chauvinist. I was the middle of two brothers, so there were always girl rules and boy rules, but there were a lot of fun perks."

Ward and Anderson first came to fame in 1949 with TV's first original cartoon, "Crusader Rabbit," about a little fluffy hero rabbit and his big dumb sidekick, Ragland T. Tiger. The series left the airwaves two years later.

"They eventually had legal problems with it," Ward says. "They got discouraged and went back to Berkeley where they both were from and my dad had a real estate office. But my dad had the urge to go back to television.... The genesis [of "Rocky & Bullwinkle"] is much the same as 'Crusader Rabbit' in that Rocky is the little plucky hero and the big, dumber sidekick was Bullwinkle the moose"

But unlike "Crusader Rabbit," "Rocky & Bullwinkle" appealed to viewers of all ages.

Ward, in her early 50s, recalls that her father "used to say I am writing for adults. The very young kids would like the funny-looking characters and the great voices. The middle-age kids would get a few of the jokes and would really work hard to get the jokes their parents were laughing at. But he really wrote for adults."

The veteran voice actress Foray remembers receiving a call from her voice agent in 1958 telling her that Ward and Scott wanted to have lunch with her about a new cartoon series.

"Lunch in Hollywood is a very nice thing, especially a free one," she says. "I met them at the Tail O' the Cock and Jay Ward told me about the moose and the squirrel. I had no idea what they would look like. A week later, we did a pilot. I said to Jay, what voice do you want for the squirrel and he just said, an all-American boy."

The cast recorded the episodes in an ensemble. "We had so much fun," Foray says. But the cast would never change a line of the script -- "They were written so brilliant, we wouldn't dare. The only time I changed anything is when I put a 'hokey smokes' in."

Australian voice actor Keith Scott has been the voice of Bullwinkle since 1992. Bill Scott, the original voice, died in 1985. The two men are unrelated.

"Ever since childhood I was the biggest buff of those cartoons in the world," says Keith Scott, who wrote "The Moose That Roared" about Jay Ward and his creations in 2000.

"They were a cut above the other cartoons. They were smart, and they had a lot more going for them." As a little boy, he used to write long, detailed letters to Bill Scott and the other voice talent. And they would answer his letters.

Despite its seemingly ageless and endless appeal, the series wasn't a huge hit when it first aired. "I think it was kind of ahead of its time," Scott says. "I think if it was being made now, it would be a big hit. Back then, essentially it was appreciated by a small group of people. Bill Scott used to say there were special people who get Bullwinkle. It sort of became a secret society."

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