This is a brief history of Animated cartoons as televised programming in the United States 1946-1981. From small beginnings in Uncle Willie’s Cartoon Show to the big dollar earners of the six hour Saturday morning cartoon shows featuring monsters and mayhem, then the action pressure groups step in. George W. Woolery looks at what went on.
As part of televisions infinite kaleidoscopic panorama, animated cartoons have been around far longer than most people realize, probably because their evolution was a collateral development of children’s programming. Yet, the first known to have been broadcast appeared in a variety presentation when there were only 200 television sets in New York City. On May 3, 1939, NBC presented its first full-scale evening of telecasting on experimental station W2XBS, now WNBC, New York. Helen Lewis served as mistress of ceremonies for the program, which represented just about everything in the way of entertainment, including music, songs, a film and a play, and a preview of Walt Disney’s “Donald’s Cousin Gus” (May 19, 1939), the first film cartoon shown on television. ( 1)
During the Second World War, when the New York stations offered sporadic experimental programs, WRGB, the General Electric Company station in Schenectady, New York, de ated about half its programming between 1942 and 1944 to full-length features, short subjects, and cartoons. Following the war, in the decade between 1946 and 1955, when the major Hollywood studios were still jealously guarding their well-stocked vaults from the new in-home competition, several distributors of vintage cartoons enjoyed a modest windfall.
Among the first to appear regularly were some black-and-white films made in the thirties by Van Beuren Studios (for RKO), seen in Spring 1947 on “Movies for Small Fry”, Tuesday evening on DuMont’s WABD, New York. At the January 1948 meeting of the “Small Fry Club”, a weekday evening network continuation of the show, Big Brother Bob Emery screened a film from the Van Beuren series “Cubby Bear” (1931.1933), and in 1950-1951 before the program ended, featuring early Walter Lantz films. (2)
The Van Beuren cartoons also appeared on “TV Tots Time” on WENR, Chicago, and the ABC Network between 1950 and 1952, along with the silent “Aesop’s Fables” (1921¬1929) from Fables Studios, produced by Paul Terry. Also during the period, Ub lwerks’ “Flip the Frog” (1930-1933) and “Willie Whopper” (1933-1934) were programmed locally as weekly fare. Although most of the vintage films were retired from distribution in the early sixties, replaced by more recent colour cartoons, the rudimentary theatrical films televised exceptionally well on small, low-definition black-and-white receivers.