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(by Noell Wolfgram Evans) Ask any child, and almost any adult, why television exists and you'll get the same answer: cartoons. They are not just part of our own personal histories, they are part of the larger collective national (and worldwide) fabric. TV cartoons are a rite of passage. Generations have enjoyed the certain indescribable feeling of curling up with a bowl of cereal on a Saturday morning and watching the antics of multicolored characters. One would hope that the story of how cartoons came to TV would be as innocent and joyful as a Smurf. The truth, however, is quite the opposite.
It started with Paul Terry, the man behind Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle. At his Terrytoons studio worked Alex Anderson, his nephew. In 1941 Anderson saw the Disney film called The Reluctant Dragon. The film had a sharp impact on him, particularly the sequence featuring the story of Baby Weems. The tale was not shown with 'full' animation but rather as a series of storyboards. Anderson was immediately intrigued by the idea of animation with 'non-fluid' images being led by a powerful story.
Anderson spent a lot of time mulling over this idea, he talked it out, worked it over and refined it, eventually coming up with a concept. Parallel to this, television started to emerge. One day he put the two together and realized that television would be the perfect vehicle for his new concept. He took this to his uncle but Terry, like most Hollywood producers, had a deep aversion to television and quickly passed. However, Terry did give Anderson his blessing to take his idea elsewhere.
At this point, Jay Ward entered the picture. Ward, who would go on to produce Rocky and Bullwinkle (among other cartoons) as well as a series of popular commercials, was at this time a real estate salesman. He also happened to be an old friend of Alex Anderson's. While in California, Anderson paid a visit to Ward. They discussed Anderson's idea and Ward jumped at the chance to be a part. In 1948 they formed Television Arts Productions, Inc (T.A.P.) together. Before long, they had a demo reel of three separate stories: Dudley DoRight of the Mounties, Hemhock Jones and Crusader Rabbit.
In the Fall of 1948, after acquiring the services of veteran producer Jerry Fairbanks (to add some 'experience'), they signed a deal with NBC for 130, 5 minute episodes of Crusader Rabbit. The adventures of Plucky Crusader (who was voiced by Lucille Bliss) and Rags the Tiger (voiced by Vern Louden) were on their way to becoming the first cartoon in television history.
The large order prompted a need for a growth in staff and Ward hired an eclectic, but talented group, that included people as diverse as newspaper writer Ted Martine and veteran animator Grim Natwick. The series was produced following Anderson's original idea of 'limited' animation; it was lively and unique but what really drove this series was the talented voice cast delivering smartly comic stories. The scripts were written by Anderson and others, guided along by Ward. Ward hovered over all aspects of the show; by all accounts as an encouraging enabler. The stories, which played out over 15, 20 or 25 episodes, dealt with Crusader and Rags in any number of situations including: fighting for tigers in India who are having their stripes stolen to make India Ink, fighting a leprechaun hating giant and helping Texas jackrabbits fight deportation to the North Pole.
After two years of work, on August 1, 1950 at 6pm on KNBH in Los Angeles Crusader Rabbit made television history as the first cartoon to be broadcast. The show continued on a high path for two years.
But then things started to shake.
As 1952 started, T.A.P. started to feel that NBC wasn't really promoting the show anymore. In an effort to grow, Fairbanks decided that he would buy back all of the programs from NBC for $170,000. The idea was that he would then repackage them and sell them to the growing number of independent stations as 'starter' material. Besides being a smart business move, this would have also been a great way to spread the series. The problem was that Fairbanks didn't have this kind of money and so in lieu of one big payment, he set up a deal with NBC where they would give him the cartoons for $8,000 a month with the films acting as collateral.
Only a few months had passed when NBC realized that Fairbanks would never be able to make the payments properly so they called in their marker and again gained control of the series. They promptly turned around and sold the entire run to Consolidated Television Sales (who had been the company Fairbanks was setting up his distribution system with). It wasn't long though before they folded and in 1954 Crusader Rabbit landed in the hands of Shull Bonsall.
The fact that Crusader and Rags were under the control of a 'stranger' didn't sit well with Ward and Anderson. In an effort to regain control of their creations, they sued Fairbanks, NBC and Bonsall. During this time, to keep T.A.P. afloat, they moved into advertising, producing some highly regarded animated commercials.
As the trial dragged on, Anderson moved further into the advertising world and Ward drifted back to real estate, waiting for his chance to get back into television. He would get that opportunity in 1956.
Len Key was another childhood friend of Ward. Key felt that the time was right for a Crusader Rabbit revival. Ward enthusiastically agreed but with his time tied up in legal battles, they had to look elsewhere for someone to handle the production of the new series. One of the first people Ward ran into was William Hanna who was intrigued by the opportunity television presented. Having been a fan of the original series, Hanna jumped at the opportunity to bring it back. He teamed up with Mike Lah and formed Shield Productions to make a new, color Crusader Rabbit series.
Anderson, tired of the legal hurdles, decided to sit this one out, so Ward and Hannah set about putting the show together while Key quickly signed a distribution deal with RCA. Just as the deal was to be signed, it came to light that the ownership of the characters was actually a big question mark.
It turns out that while Ward was having a resurgence, so was Shull Bonsall who was prepping his own studio 'TV Spots' for the production of a new color Crusader Rabbit series. Bonsall, who still claimed ownership rights to the original series, saw a huge opportunity in reviving the characters. He had power and wealth and soon he had used both to wear Ward and Anderson down (they had at this point lost their court battles). With no other choice, they signed over the rights to Crusader Rabbit for $50,000.
While all this was going on, Hanna and his Shield staff were productively working on the series. When Ward lost control of the characters, Hanna found himself out of a job. The time he spent developing the series and learning the medium was well spent though. With the loss of Crusader Rabbit, Hanna closed Shield and set up a new studio with his old partner Joe Barbera. Using much of the Shield staff, in 1957 they produced 'Ruff and Reddy', their first in a long line of animated shows.
TV Spots went on to make 260 new Crusader Rabbit adventures and while they were not as good as the originals, by all accounts they are rather entertaining. Anderson went to advertising for good and Ward spent his time working in real estate. He always knew though that he would be back. For while Bonsall may have gotten control of Crusader Rabbit, he had no claim to any of Ward's other creations, including a certain moose and his flying squirrel friend.
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