Before SpongeBob worked at the Krusty Krab, flipping Krabby Patties for the tenaciously tight-fisted Eugene Krabs; before Yo Gabba Gabba’s DJ Lance Rock in his apricot-orange drum major-like ensemble teamed up with Biz Markie; before Dora the Explorer commanded Swiper, “No Swiping;” there was Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, and a host of other memorable, loveable characters, better known as Looney Tunes. On Saturday mornings at 11:30am, my brother and I would dash into the living room after hearing the familiar Looney Tunes anthem, announcing the start of the show. Back then, we only had 5 channels: NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS (Mom and Dad watched that channel most of the time. Us boys only watched it eons ago when Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were cool. Later, Kid ‘n Play had a cartoon show and so did Pee-Wee Herman.), and a relatively new channel called Fox. Looney Tunes aired on CBS and, for an entire hour, we would laugh ourselves silly watching these characters act, well, for a lack of a better word, loony.
What’s funny is that Looney Tunes were not even created for our generation. My parents had grown up watching those same cartoons. Don’t get me wrong, my brother and I cracked up watching our fair share of Shirt Tales, Captain Caveman and Space Ghost Coast to Coast. But nothing tickled our funny bones quite like seeing Wile E. Coyote blow himself up repeatedly with the latest ACME rocket, hopelessly trying to catch up with the Road Runner.
This was a day before cartoons were politically correct. Today, parents would be in an uproar if the Backyardigans blasted each other in the face with a double barreled shotgun the way Elmer Fud discharged hunting ammunition into Daffy Duck’s bill. Even I cringe now as an adult when I see Slowpoke Rodriguez, the cousin of Speedy Gonzales, trudging toward the refrigerator to get himself something to eat. In one episode titled Mexican Boarders, due to his lethargic pace, Speedy intervenes by rapidly bringing him a handful of cheese, only to be met by Slowpoke’s slightly ungrateful observation that he’s forgotten the Tabasco sauce, spoken in broken English. (Thank goodness the Black Mammy from Tom and Jerry never made her way into a Looney Tunes episode. At least not to my recollection anyway?)
Nevertheless, despite the overt violence and subtle racism, the Looney cast kept us in stitches. One of the things we loved most about the cartoons was the musical score that accompanied them. Songs that were written in the early 20th century provided the melodies that filled our household with light hearted singing and jolly, playful dancing while we watched these shows. In the episode titled Tree for Two Sylvester the Cat finds himself in a panicky situation. Spike the Bulldog, the meanest, toughest, gruffly dog on the block and Chester the Terrier, Spike’s pint-sized fellow canine loyalist, encounter Sylvester in their search of a cat to beat up. Sylvester is minding his own business and singing the lyrics from the song Charleston when he rounds the corner of a fence to find Spike and Chester waiting for him. Sylvester is so seized with fear that he does an immediate about-face, backtracks around the fence, still chanting the lyrics to the song in intermittent, unintelligible groans; “Ch-ch-ch-charleston, Charleston….”
We loved that cartoon and we loved that song! We would sing it around the house in a silly mood, strutting like Sylvester, “Charleston, Charleston, Made in Carolina, Some dance, Some prance, I’ll say, There’s nothing finer than the Charleston, Charleston, Lord how you can shuffle…” What I didn’t know until recently, was that this song Charleston was written by Cecil Mack and James P. Johnson, both African- Americans.
Interestingly enough, in 1921 another team of African-American artists, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle teamed up to write, direct, and star in the first musical produced by African-Americans. The show was titled Shuffle Along, and featured a tune they co-wrote called I’m Just Wild About Harry, a number which made its way into the famous Looney Tunes cartoon staring the renowned singing frog, and incidentally, a tune which was revised and subsequently used in the campaign to elect Harry Truman as President of the United States. Go figure!
So parents, the next time your children go skipping down the halls of your home, humming some song they learned from a cartoon on a Saturday morning (Well actually, it could be any old day of the week now a days), don’t just write them off as mindlessly being hypnotized by anime. It could be that they’re getting a history lesson in a time capsule, to be opened, understood, and treasured decades from now.