Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bullwinkled

A quick sketch I did for a pitch that was never presented.

It was in early August 1989  and I had recently finished up with Little Mermaid when I once again returned to Walt Disney TV. It was a different animal entirely by then. The once tiny staff had ballooned enormously and had taken over much of the once almost empty address on Cahuenga. I eventually found my  all official looking name tag formally spelling out  Michael Perazza instead of Michael Peraza, posted on a nice room with a balcony view. I figured with a room like this, the spelling was close enough. I was just moving in when I got a call to come to a meeting. I was immediately asked to help kick off a new series idea that Gary Krisel, President of Walt Disney Television Animation, was putting together for a pitch.  Gary was an unusual executive in that he was approachable with suggestions and took time to listen to any valid opinions. He had taken a wildly diverse background in finance and marketing and progressed from producing hit records as president of Disney's Worldwide Music Publishing to overseeing some very successful animated creations for Disney TV. .Like most of us, Gary was also a fan of the old classic Jay Ward show "Rocky and His Friends" later to be know as its more famous moniker "The Bullwinkle Show". Tad  was the point person on this and he was likewise excited over the possibilities. I remember all too distinctly though, my first question to both of them. "So does Disney actually OWN the rights to these guys?" I went on to explain that I had been to Universal Studios only the day before and watched the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" live show right next to the "Duddley-Do-Right" Emporium, so how could Disney have the rights? Gary answered quickly that we (Disney) did in fact own, "all the video rights." That answer didn't quite settle my questioning little mind but I assumed we wouldn't be going forward into development without the rights all sewed up. Boy was I ever wrong.

A few of the sketches I made for the pitch
Jay Ward created many iconic characters for his shows  including Crusader Rabbit, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right, Peabody and Sherman, Hoppity Hooper, George of the Jungle, Tom Slick and Super Chicken. Those of use who like to start out our mornings right will never forget his other creations like Cap'n Crunch, Quisp and Quake breakfast cereals. His Bullwinkle show however was most likely his most fondly remembered cast. He had segments within the show such as "Fractured Fairy Tales" and "Aesop and Sons" that were a hilarious send up of childhood stories told with a wry satiric wit. The announcer, "William Conrad) might be out of breath prompting another onscreen character to question his huffing and puffing while very often "breaking the forth wall" and addressing the TV audience at home. Just a few of the terrific voice talents used on the show included Bill Scott (Bullwinkle,George,Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody), June Foray (Rock,Natasha, Nell Fenwicky), Paul Frees, Hans Conried, Charlie Riggles, Edward Everett Horton (Narrator for Fractured), and Daws Butler. Subjects from current events to politics and famous celebrities were often the genesis of these satirically entertaining shows. An inside joke around the Jay Ward studio was to add a "J" throughout the shows for middle initials or store front signs in homage to "Jay". Examples are Bullwinkle,  J Moose, Rocky J Squirrel and so on.

Gary assigned Tad Stones to help flesh out the writing for the pitch. I had known Tad back when he was briefly at Disney Features Animation and his excitement over this project easily matched mine which was bordering manic. Tad was a speed demon on the typewriter, yeah, no laptops in those days. Gary asked if I could have a full presentation ready by the following Monday morning. As it would give me a week plus the weekend, I said most definitely yes, no problem. Tad and I went back to his room to kick around ideas. Tad came up with a butter and popcorn caper  cooked up by Boris and Natasha that Bullwinkle and Rocky would foil of course by the end of the episode. I came up with "Fractured Scary Tales", a spin on Jay's famous series within a series. The basis of this would be to lampoon the then never ending slate of horror films the way the fairy tales had been targeted for an earlier generation. It wasn't easy gathering the reference for the Ward characters back then but luckily the studio was able to scrounge up a few video tapes of the old shows that I could study. As I viewed the old episodes I quickly realized that although some references-  like the cold war, was dated it all still had such a sharp freshness about it that was a joy to watch and listen to. The limited animation Jay had used was well planned and designed to work exactly in that format and the overall art direction was wonderfully reminiscent of the UPA styling so prevalent of the 1950s.

More drawings of mine that never saw the light of day
I dove into staging the setups to illustrate Tad's funny ideas for the popcorn caper building upon his suggestions. One nice thing about working with Tad is that he listened to your ideas. You could bounce things back and forth, improving the storyline  together instead of a producer just ordering a single inflexible direction with no opportunity to improve.  After I did Tad's "popcorn" segment, I then did some drawings for the horror spoofs I had concocted including "Pie-Day the 13th"  and "Nitey Nite on Elf Street".  The first would take that mask motif and turn it into a pie tin as helpless victims were soon eating custard pie without aid of knife or fork. I also made fun of the Freddy Krueger character by making him an elf with cooking utensils instead of razor blades on his glove. He would visit chubby kids on diets during their dreams and stuff their gullet full of junk food. I came up with some snappy writing to back up the visuals along with the never ending puns.  I also added a "Mr Know-It-All" segment that would pay homage to Jay's original segment. I wanted to have Mr Know_It_All (Bullwinkle) show the folks at home how to set up their home tape recorder. Yes this was many years before Goofy would find himself in a similar situation. He would also help get rid of that annoying "flashing red clock" for good. I had Bullwinkle's voice down and a so-so version of Rocky to hep with the presentation. I showed Tad my assembled setups on Wednesday morning and he almost choked laughing which I took as a good sign. For the rest of that day and til the end of the week I had plenty of time to  complete the entire pitch in color. Tad meanwhile worked away writing up a hilarious verbal storyline that would be narrated during the pitch while I just kept my nose to the grind ... er...  animation desk. Our offices were literally side by side so we could constantly check in on what the other was doing and add some suggestion or remark or just bug each other. I could hardly wait to see this show get into production.

Happy Landings Bullwinkle.
I came in early Friday morning around 7:30, my usual time and turned on the coffee maker in the kitchen to make a little wake up juice. While I waited for the caffeine brew to drip, I sat down to finish up a couple of minor color details on the Bullwinkle presentation.   I'll never forget what happened next. Gary Krisel came running down the hall shouting, "We don't have the rights! Put down your pencil! We don't have the rights!" Gary was a tad upset. When Tad got in a little while later, he too would be a tad upset. I was a tad upset and I wasn't even related to him! Gary had unfortuantely been given the go-ahead by the Disney legal staff telling him that we indeed had all the necessary rights when we in fact only had rights to the "video distribution" of the old Bullwinkle show. In other words he was up Frostbite Falls without a paddle. It wasn't his fault nor mine or Tads. Placing blame was pointless anyway as we were all in panic mode now as the presentation was only days away.  We had to get a replacement pitch and fast! Luckily at about  the same time Tad had also been hard at work in development with a possible spinoff series coming out of an old "DuckTales" episode I had worked on that had paired Launchpad with a superhero of sorts called "Double-O_Duck". He secret identity was Drake Mallard but we woiuld eventually know him as "Darkwing Duck".

7 comments:

  1. Sounds like the "Disney legal staff" dropped the ball on this one. A shame too because it would have been a great show. I still can't imagine you doing the voice of Bullwinkle!! I hope it was better than your British accent!! lol Just kidding Mike. Keep these cool stories coming. great stuff!!

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  2. Hi Steve. I agree. I really think with the updates while staying true to the biting satire and not "Disney-fying" the art direction it would have been very popular with today's audiences. Maybe in a prime time slot like Simpsons to avoid the censorship of saturday mornings. My doing Bullwinkle voice would have only been for the pitch. Well pip-pip and tally-ho old bean.

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  3. Ya know, I once heard that Matt Groening (of Simpsons fame) almost got the chance to produce a new Bullwinkle series, but he had to choose between Moose and Squirrel and his own invention, Futurama, and Futurama won out in the end. And as much as I adore Futurama, it's a shame we never got to see Groening's take on Bullwinkle and co., or your own. I think both could quite easily have been better than the Jay Ward revival productions that HAVE gotten off the ground.

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  4. This would have been fantastic - it's a pity you never got to do it. :-(

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    1. Thanks David, it would have been a blast.
      And who know, maybe some day we'll get to do it... when Frostbite Falls thaws.

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  5. It's a pity you never got to do that show - I'm sure it would have been fantastic.

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  6. Hopefully the next time they attempt to resurrect the Bullwinkle franchise it will be an animated version and not another live action stinkeroo.

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