Animation fans often refer to Crusader Rabbit, Rocky and Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle as the Jay Ward cartoons. While Jay Ward’s contribution is important, he often gets sole credit as the creator of these cartoons and as a pioneer of television animation but it’s worth pointing out that he has no animation experience and was not a cartoonist. He was mainly a producer and a promoter. But that didn’t make the man’s career any less interesting.
Born in San Francisco, California in 1920 and raised in Berkeley where he was an undergraduate at University of Berkeley, California (UCB) before graduating Harvard and using his degree to pursue a real estate career, Jay Ward instead found the television medium a more exciting path to take (although he used real estate as a fallback plan just in case).
In the late forties all television production was live-action but Jay Ward decided to help bring animation production to television for the first time, all thanks to his friendship with cartoonist and fellow UCB student Alex Anderson.
Unlike Ward, Alex Anderson had experience in animation. He was the nephew of Mighty Mouse producer Paul Terry and he worked for his uncle at the Terrytoons animation studio while attending college. Anderson had actually pitched ideas for animated television shows to Paul Terry before but Terrytoons distributor 20th Century Fox saw TV as a threat to the film industry so it never went anywhere, until Anderson decided to team up with his friend Jay Ward to pitch cartoon ideas to television studios using their own production company which they founded in 1948.
While Anderson was the cartoonist who created Crusader Rabbit, Rocky, Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and others, he did not have direct involvement in the development of most of the shows made at Jay Ward Productions which helped keep him largely unknown to everyone but historians.
The first pilot Ward and Anderson pitched to NBC and pioneering distributor Jerry Fairbanks (who left the film business to work exclusively in television after an ultimatum with Paramount), was a show called The Comic Strips of Television which featured Crusader Rabbit, Dudley Do-Right the bumbling mountie and Sherlock Holmes parody Hamhock Bones.
The only character NBC and Fairbanks liked was Crusader Rabbit and in 1950 the character was given his own television show which aired in syndication for many NBC affiliates and has an important place in history as the first animated series produced specifically for television.
The adventure series was narrated by
Roy Whaley and starred Lucille Bliss (Cinderella, The Smurfs) as the title character. Others in the cast included Crusader Rabbit’s companion Ragland T. Tiger (“Rags”) who was voiced by Vern Louden and their frequent nemesis Dudley Nightshade voiced by Russ Coughlin.
The series established many of the elements that Rocky and Bullwinkle would later be famous for, including the multi-episode serial format, the cliffhangers, and the clever wordplay and satirical bite present in the writing.
As you would expect from an animated series with a late 1940s TV budget, the animation itself was practically non-existent, often so limited that it felt like a storyboard with narration, but the funny writing compensated for that limitation well.
The origin of Rocky and Bullwinkle began when businessman Shull Bonsall acquired the assets of Crusader Rabbit producer Jerry Fairbanks after Fairbanks went bankrupt, causing Ward and Anderson to lose the rights to the cartoon, which Ward stopped producing in 1952 while it continued running until the end of the decade.
This caused Ward to pursue one of his unsold series ideas, this time a series called The Frostbite Falls Revue, which took place in a television studio in the North Woods and featured an eccentric cast of animal characters working in the studio, including a squirrel named Rocky and a moose named Bullwinkle.
While Alex Anderson created Rocky and Bullwinkle in addition to Oski Bear, Sylvester Fox, Blackstone Crow and Floral Fauna for the show, it never got past the concept phase, although Jay Ward continued developing it even after Anderson left the project when he didn’t want to relocate production from San Francisco, eventually being replaced by UPA alum Bill Scott who served as head writer and co-producer of the show that would eventually become the Saturday morning cartoon Rocky and His Friends in 1959.
Side note: Rocky and His Friends actually came to prime time in the sixties under the name The Bullwinkle Show and in later iterations has been called The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, so for the sake of clarity, I am going to refer to the whole series by what I have always called it: Rocky and Bullwinkle.
The show followed the adventures of the naive Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel voiced by June Foray and his dimwitted best friend Bullwinkle J. Moose voiced by Bill Scott (the “J” in their names widely believed to be an homage to Jay Ward) who live in the fictional town of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota and frequently run into trouble with the villainous spies Boris Badenov (Paul Frees) and Natasha Fatale (June Foray), with other characters including Boris and Natasha’s boss Fearless Leader (Bill Scott), Captain “Wrongway” Peachfuzz (Paul Frees), and the aliens Gidney (Bill Scott) and Cloyd (Paul Frees).
The Rocky and Bullwinkle storylines were largely serialized but the show featured multiple one-off stories starring other recurring characters including Dudley Do-Right (Bill Scott) who battled wits with the evil Snidely Whiplash (Hans Conried) in Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties which was a parody of early 20th century melodrama. Plus there was Peabody’s Improbable History featuring the genius dog Mr. Peabody (Bill Scott) and his human companion Sherman (Walter Tetley) who travel back in time to various turning points in history each episode, fairy tale parody Fractured Fairytales narrated by Edward Everett Horton, Aesop’s Fables parody Aesop and Son starring Charles Ruggles as Aesop and Daws Butler as Aesop Junior, and the short segments Bullwinkle’s Corner and Mr. Know-It-All giving the show a variety series feel.
The talented writers who contributed to the show include Allan Burns (Get Smart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Munsters), George Atkins (The Jetsons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Three’s Company), Chris Hayward (Get Smart, The Munsters, Barney Miller), Chris Jenkins (The Carol Burnett Show, The Smurfs) and Lloyd Turner (Looney Tunes, All in the Family, The Jeffersons).
The wry humor made Rocky and Bullwinkle appealing to adults as well as kids. Like Crusader Rabbit, the clever writing made up for the poor animation quality and the show is often highly regarded by every critic and television viewer who has seen it, even serving as an influence on later animated series like The Simpsons and being a frequent choice on best-of lists for the greatest TV shows of all time.
After Rocky and Bullwinkle, Jay Ward produced the live-action comedy Fractured Flickers (1963) which overdubbed silent film footage with hilarious modern dialogue with Hans Conried as host, Ward’s production company created Quaker’s cereal mascots for Cap’n Crunch, Quisp and Quake, he produced Bill Scott and Chris Hayward’s funny animated series Hoppity Hooper (1964-67) and he co-created Tarzan parody George of the Jungle with Bill Scott in 1967. That series (which became most popular for its theme song) had the best animation quality of any of Jay Ward’s shows but it had a short run due to the production’s low budget.
As you might be able to tell after watching these shows, Jay Ward had a great sense of humor and was even an eccentric. When people asked him to write his autobiography, he created a fictional biography instead. When celebrities threatened to sue him for making fun of them in his cartoons, Ward welcomed it because he loved the publicity. He even began a publicity stunt in 1962 when he bought an island near his home in Minnesota and dubbed it “Moosylvania,” crossing the country to gather signatures for statehood and visiting Washington, D.C. in an attempt to gain an audience with JFK (Unfortunately the Cuban Missile Crisis broke that morning and Ward was ordered at gun point to keep driving).
The biggest event in his life that may have drawn him away from real estate and towards the television industry may have occured after he graduated from Harvard and opened his real-estate office in Berkeley when on the very first day he was run over by an out-of-control lumber truck that plummeted through his office and pinned him against the wall, breaking his knees and injuring his leg muscles, traumatizing him to the point of nerve damage and psychological problems for the rest of his life. If there is such a thing as a bad omen, that is definitely it.
While Jay Ward would be the first to say that the shows that made him famous were collaborative efforts with talented writers and performers like Alex Anderson and Bill Scott, many of those people would say Jay Ward’s spirit motivated and inspired them. Ward was a great producer who always laughed at the jokes being pitched to him, and a great audience is the best thing an artist can ask for. He was the ultimate champion of a television innovation that has shaped the current TV landscape: animated TV shows. As someone who grew up on those very things, I am grateful to him.