“Living Cartoons” and “The Electric Company” on Records

When Epcot or Disney California Adventure Park guests go to the “Turtle Talk with Crush” attraction, it seems as if the CG Pixar dude from Finding Nemo is talking to people right there in the theater. 

Turns out the basic idea of animated characters appearing to interact in real time has been around since 1960, albeit done in a much more humble way.  Instead of high-definition imaging, and multi-million-dollar digital audio and video capabilities, this technique used rods, glue, a few lengths of polyurethane, and local TV station-level chroma-key facilities. Either way, it still took people, as Walt Disney said, to make it happen. Take away the tech and it still comes down to humans communicating creatively with each other through the art of animation. 

“Aniforms” was a patented live (or live-on-tape) television animation technique invented by Morey Bunin, brother of Lou Bunin (director of the stop-motion Alice in Wonderland feature starring Carol Marsh). Both were puppeteers in New York TV, theater, and parades. (Read more about the Bunin brothers here).

Morey Bunin enjoyed several years of success on CBS children’s television, competing with The Howdy Doody Show on NBC with The Adventures of Lucky Puppy, featuring a magician puppet named The Great Foodini, who recorded a couple of 78 rpm records and developed a following.

In 1963, Bunin described Aniforms in the patent application (click below to enlarge) and subsequent publicity as an alternative to cartoons that were produced with filmed drawings or stop-motion. Aniforms used the television graphic capabilities of the day to transmit a two-dimensional figure, similar to the way that titles were superimposed from a credit roll or art cards. 

The figures were made of a pliable polyurethane foam material allowing them to bounce and twist. They were placed in front of a background of a designated color to disappear on camera like the green-screen process works today. Small rods and wires, positioned far enough away from the figures so they would fade out of focus, manipulated the figures. The resulting “cartoon characters” looked like typically limited animation images of early TV. 

Aniforms could not move around very much, but the novelty was still a delight for short appearances. The biggest initial success was “Fred,” voiced by master puppeteer Cosmo Allegretti for CBS’ Captain Kangaroo. (Allegretti was also responsible for Bunny Rabbit, Grandfather Clock, Mister Moose, Dancing Bear, and the human character of Dennis. He was married to Carol Lawrence, Broadway’s original Maria in West Side Story.)

Kids knew the drill when the Captain adjusted the magical Treasure House TV set for Channel One. Fred would appear, he was funny and blobby, and somehow he could speak directly to the Captain. Other cartoons—even Tom Terrific and Manfred the Wonder Dog, could not, though they were able to move around a little more than Fred.

Fred’s success led to New York’s WPIX Channel 11 building a local TV show around Bunin’s “living cartoons.” The Surprise Show was hosted by actor/cartoonist Hank Stohl with Aniforms operated by Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles); Wayland Flowers (Wayland and Madame) and actor/impressionist Jimmy Boyd (no relation to the singer of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”).

According to Kevin Butler’s fascinating article on tvparty.com, Boyd did the voices for all the Aniforms characters, whom Butler lists as “‘Dangerous Dwain’ (a bragging Cowpoke), ‘The Inspector’ (a con man), a lion (who was very gentle and only occasional roared), ‘Lorelei J. Loverly’ (a Chicken who never got Mr. Stohl’s name right), ‘Peaches La Creame’ (a hip, partying old lady), and ‘Bullwinkle J. Moose’, believe it or not!” Even though Aniforms were less expensive than traditional animation, it was still too costly for a local show, so the technology was eventually replaced by conventional puppets.

Those who remember The Electric Company may have guessed that Lorelei the chicken was the only Surprise Show character who hit “the big time” on The Electric Company, the highly entertaining PBS educational series from The Children’s Television Workshop, now Sesame Workshop. Along with Lorelei came Jimmy Boyd, again doing the Carol Channing-like voice (the name comes from Lorelei Lee, the character Channing played in the Broadway show, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). A song was written for Lorelei that made its way to the Grammy-winning Electric Company Cast Album on Warner Bros. Records. It’s called “My Street.”

In the 1970s Bunin appeared along with two “impostors” as the creator of “live cartoons” on the long-running panel show To Tell the Truth. A smart-mouthed Brookynese Aniforms character (presumably played by Boyd in his “J. Arthur Crank” persona) took over the hosting duties and told each panelist when they could ask questions. When he got to Peggy “Crass” there was a big laugh at his rib at Peggy Cass, who feigned petulance and said, “Hey! I thought you were so cute before but now I’m not so sure!”

Lorelei the Chicken

Jimmy Boyd did not appear on camera for the first season of The Electric Company, which was a sketch comedy show for adolescents that taught reading and phonics. In the second season, Crank went from a telephone voice to a visual character, and Boyd was given the name of “Andy.” Each of the “company” had a fictitious “base” cast member name: Rita Moreno was “Carmela;” Morgan Freeman was “Mark;” Lee Chamberlin was “Brenda,” Skip Hinnant was “J.J.” and so on. 

The Electric Company reissue LP on Sesame Street Records edited thirteen minutes of material related to characters and cast members that were no longer in current or new segments of the series as of 1974 (though they still might have appeared in rerun segments). Luis Avalos and Hattie Winston could only be pictured on the 1974 cover because they had not joined the show until the second season. (Another original cast member who need not be mentioned was also not included on the 1974 album.)

Aniforms was certainly not the only animation on The Electric Company. A wonderfully thirties-style retro cartoon was fashioned to accompany “Silent ‘E.” It was written and sung by one of the numerous brilliant creative minds behind The Electric Company, Harvard mathematics professor and satirical musical performer Tom Lehrer. The song was run endlessly on the show but was always welcome. It was recorded in stereo for the record album and this YouTube video matched that version to the animated film (which was originally in mono):

The record contains several tracks relating to the exquisite hand-drawn animation on the series, a lot of which was explored by Mike Kazaleh in this Cartoon Research post . Legends of animation contributed to the series like John Hubley and Chuck Jones, as well as up-and-coming studios.

In this clip from the show, the“D” song is danced and sung by Rita Moreno (whose “EGOT” Grammy was earned with this cast album) and The Short Circus — Melanie Henderson, June Angela and Irene Cara. On the album, it was bookended with commentary by Mel Brooks as the little man (animated by Cliff Roberts) who would also frequently appear in Electric Company segments. 

One of the most famous phonics teaching segments was “borrowed” years later for TV ad campaigns and Family Guy, in which two people in silhouette speak the first and last half of a word to a little melody by Joe Raposo. This music never made it to records but should have.

There was not very much Electric Company merchandise, except for an excellent magazine, a series of books, and a few games and toys. Like Sesame Street and Muppets materials, the quality was always very high. The magazine and the first record album gathered some of the finest artists for individual pages and spreads, just to make it interesting and stimulating for kids, rather than have one or two artists do the whole thing. Artists like Jack Kubert, Joe Orlando and Jack Davis were only a few.

One of the most inventive items was called “Naomi’s Magical Match-Up Machine.” Naomi was the unseen person mentioned at the end (“And… what about Naomi?”) of the wonderfully quirky soap opera spoof, Love of Chair. In reality, it was the show’s researcher Naomi Foner (mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal). 

Two of the books were produced as read-alongs by Peter Pan Records: Fargo North, Decoder, and His Coat and Hat, and Silent ‘E’s’ from Outer Space.

Narrated by Morgan Freeman and featuring Jimmy Boyd as Paul the Gorilla and Judy Graubart as Jennifer of the Jungle, the story and record do not include the Lehrer song but build the lyrics (which was also the phonics lesson) into a complete epic adventure in which the “e’s” change the same words in the story as they did in the song.

The Electric Company was a launching pad for many careers in the entertainment industry, it gave several fine animation studios work (including Chuck Jones), and it even brought Spider-Man to TV for the first time in live-action, introducing him to millions of kids which in no small way helped push him (and Marvel) forward in the competition. The catchy theme was released as a single.

As for Aniforms, they bobbed up again here and there, including on an unsold game show pilot hosted by Alex Trebek called Malcolm and on a TV special called Bill Daily’s Hocus Pocus Gang, starring either Major Healey from I Dream of Jeannie or Howard Borden from The Bob Newhart Show, whichever one chooses. Of course, the concept of a live cartoon seems quaint now… except when Pixar does it.

“What’ll I Be Today?” – Fred from Channel One

Fred recorded one musical appearance on a 1968 Peter Pan LP called Songs of the Treasure House. It featured original music and lyrics by a young Jeffrey Moss, a year before the premiere of Sesame Street, where he gave the world songs like “Rubber Duckie,” “I Love Trash” and countless others. He also wrote the Oscar-nominated score to The Muppets Take Manhattan.

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