MEMORIES OF JOE BARBERA
It’s been a while since I last worked at Hanna-Barbera, but I wake up every morning to my kids watching cartoons (quite often, the Smurfs) and I’m taken back. It’s a trigger. Like eating a grilled cheese sandwich. Or listening to Hall and Oates. For me, anytime I see a cartoon, it sparks some sort of memory from my time working (and playing) at 3400 Cahuenga Boulevard.
Above, is a publicity photo taken in front of Hanna Barbera Studios from the “What A Cartoon!” days. I’m guessing that it was never circulated because the lighting and composition weren’t the greatest. For me, the picture marks the first time I ever got my picture taken with Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
Back Row: Pat Ventura (Director, George and Junior), Larry Huber (Executive Producer), Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, Bob Onorato (Supervising Producer), Eddie Fitzgerald (Director, The Worm)
Front Row: Me, Craig McCracken (Director, Powerpuff Girls), Geno Mattos (Director, Shake and Flick)
Anyways, for today’s post, I had a Joe Barbera trigger as I was watching the tail end of “The Purple Smurf.” Or maybe it was the cereal I was eating. Either way, I was inspired to post something, so without further ado… allow me to paint a picture…with words…words… words… and punctuation…
From the beginning, I just felt like I was living a dream. I had my own office, full access to the model sheet and stock animation archives, plus an open door policy to visit with Mr. Hanna and Mr. Barbera any time I felt like it. In fact, all the directors were encouraged to visit with the two to try and learn something from them. So believe you me, I took full advantage of that! I got along with both of them, but Mr. B was so encouraging to the point that, I tried to see him a few times a month just to talk. A lot of times, our conversations would go past an hour, sometimes even two or three. When I got approved to do a short called “Jungleboy,” I met with Mr. B and, as we discussed my storyboard, he did the following sketches of my character.
(Notice the before and after pose of Jungleboy at the bottom of the page and how he suggested that I draw him with a little more attitude.)
A lot of times, I would just swing by because I had a guest visiting and he was the grand finale of my personal tour of the studio. Of course, I would always ask his assistant Maggie if and when I could come by, and she would always oblige. I must’ve made Mr. Barbera give a tour of his office at least twenty some-odd times. It got so that it became a routine.
It went a little something like this… (Cue the Flintstones theme song!)
First I would introduce my guests to Mr. Barbera and they would exchange pleasantries. Then he would ask them who their favorite character was and he’d share an anecdote about said character. The Flintstones movie was big at the time so he usually had some sort of promotional trinket lying about that he’d share. He’d talk about how surprised he was that their popularity had lasted so long. Then he’d open up his trophy case and ask his guests if they’d ever held an Emmy before. Most likely they hadn’t, so he usually took one out, handed it to them, and had them deliver a speech. From there, he would walk them back to his couch where he had a bunch of H-B toys and he’d give an anecdote about one of them. There was a time when he would usually direct his guest’s attention to a Muttley alarm clock from Japan that spoke Japanese and, like a proud father, brag about his popularity. From there, he would show off his picture from the TV Hall of Fame and name off the people in the picture starting with Oprah Winfrey. Finally, he would show off the thing he was most proud of: his picture with Pope John Paul II. He was very Italian and very Catholic, which is one of the reasons why we bonded because I went to a Jesuit university. He sent all his kids to Catholic School, so it wore well on me. If he was in a frisky mood, he would end the tour by showing you his shower where he once scared a little Japanese woman. Not in a Psycho-I’m-going-to-kill-you kind of way though, Interestingly enough, he kept a six foot tall giant stuffed pink flamingo inside. One time, he opened it and the thing fell on this lady and scared her half to death, I was surprised by how much Joe got a kick out of re-enacting that scene. Now that I think about it, he mainly did it when I brought in a female to tour his office…
There were also a few incidents of note on a number of tours…
One time, I brought Cynthia MacIntosh (now a colorist on Fish Hooks) and her brother (who played keyboard for Tom Waits) to visit. Upon hearing this, Mr. Barbera plugged in his keyboard and asked him to play something. As Cynthia’s brother began busting out a tune, Cynthia began dancing around the room, got Mr. Barbera to kind of shimmy a little, and then all of a sudden, she butt bumped him. Pretty hard. So much so that he almost lost his balance. He wasn’t seriously injured, but for a moment there, I thought she might have busted his hip. We quickly made a gracious exit after that.
Mr. Barbera also had an autographed poster of Michael Jackson on his wall, As Michael got into trouble, I noticed that the poster slowly moved from being prominently displayed in the entrance, to behind the keyboard, to finally disappearing from sight.
One time, I entered his office to find him with a collection of glass Flintstones movie mugs from McDonalds. Maggie (his assistant) and him were complaining because they had to purchase them from the McDonald’s down the street because the corporate office wouldn’t send him complimentary ones.
A lot of my visits, he’d tell the same stories he’s told thousands of times before. But I found out that if you asked him specifics, he would give you specifics rather than pontificate about the past. All I have to say is that he lived a really interesting life.
After so many encounters with Mr. Barbera, I thought it only natural that he be part of the Johnny Bravo staff when I got the green light to do the show. I was elated to hear from our CEO that he agreed to be a part of the writer’s room. So, once a week, we would get a visit from Mr. B, pick his brain, and come up with jokes. He seemed to enjoy the goofy banter we had in the room. So much so, that whenever Maggie would come to get him, he would pretend to hide.
My favorite gag that he ever threw out went as follows…
We were trying to come up with evil things for a villain to do. We started naming evil deeds. Mind you, they were all pretty cartoony. So, I stopped all the ideas being thrown out and asked Mr. Barbera what he thought would be an evil deed.
“Well…” he started out. “He could start blowing up buildings…or stealing money from banks…or he could take a baby and put in the middle of the freeway.”
Babies in the middle of the freeway.
Not a gag I would expect to come out of his mouth, but then who was I to know his creative process. It wasn’t until later that I found out that it was a gag from Tom and Jerry. Still, it was fun having Mr. B in the room because he was always quick with an interesting anecdote, a pun, or a sight gag whenever called upon. After seventy billion shows, you can imagine how many gags were stuck in his head just waiting for an opportune moment. And at the time, he was always doing a Kramer (from Seinfeld) impression. Jeff Holder from development told me, if Mr. Barbera were still in charge, there would be a Seinfeld rip-off in the works. It was definitely a pleasure having him grace our unit, as it was always an honor spending time with him.
One time, Mr. Barbera playfully threatened one of our writers, Steve Marmel, after he insinuated that Snagglepuss was gay.
“He was modeled after Bert Lahr. He was anything but gay. He beat his wife.” Mr. Barbera retorted.
After that, Butch Hartman started egging Mr. Barbera on saying, “Are you gonna take that from Steve? He’s calling one of your character’s gay!”
Mr. Barbera calmly said, “Don’t be surprised if you wake up one morning and… (Mr. Barbera makes a slitting of the throat gesture) Remember. A Sicilian never forgets.”
I’d say that he sat in the writer’s room about four or five times before we had to cut him loose. Apparently, we had to pay him for his time and it was causing us to go over budget. I’m sure he would’ve sat in with us for free, but “his people” were really looking out for him.
Those are just a few of the memories that stand out.
I was fortunate enough to have started in the animation business at a time when they were saddling fresh new talent alongside industry veterans for educational and experimental purposes. I grew up on ‘70’s Hanna-Barbera and I feel blessed to have been able to learn from the people who inspired me to enter the world of animation in the first place.
Man, I love triggers. I think I’ll go make myself a grilled cheese sandwich.