King of Saturday Morning TV Animation
    Lou Scheimer

    Lou Scheimer

    Most people know of Pittsburgh’s rich heritage in all fields of creativity and endeavor, from industry, sports, and medicine to science, invention, and all aspects of the arts. This last field in particular is represented by many of the area’s notables, with names like Gene Kelly, August Wilson, Rachel Carson, Michael Chabon, Perry Como, Stephen Foster, Andy Warhol, Earl Hines, George Benson, Jeff Goldblum, Oscar Levant, Michael Keaton, Burton Morris, Fred Rogers, George Romero, David O. Selznick, Jimmy Stewart, and Billy Strayhorn springing easily to mind.

    If you were attending Carnegie Tech (today, Carnegie Mellon University) in the late 1940s, you might be sharing classes with future art superstars Andy Warhol and Philip Pearlstein—and Lou Scheimer. Though perhaps not a household name, Scheimer merits our admiration due to his iconic pop-culture creations—animated programs that entered our homes in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s via his groundbreaking studio, Filmation. Scheimer’s contribution to comic/cartoon art was so significant that he was honored with a gallery bearing his name at Pittsburgh’s Toonseum in 2011, and with a major memorial celebration there after his passing in 2013.

    He-Man

    Filmation’s animated He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, mid-1980s (©/™ Mattel, Inc.).

    In his autobiographical book (Lou Scheimer: Creating the Filmation Generation; TwoMorrows, 2012), Scheimer offers a fascinating picture of one of his Carnegie Tech classmates: “I went to school with Andy Warhol. His name was Warhola then…. He was really a nice guy, but the oddest guy I’d ever met in my life. You’d be talking about the sun, and he’d be talking about the moon, but you wouldn’t know…. He used to walk to school, and I walked with him sometimes. He’d come up those terrible hills from where he lived down in the steel mill sections of Pittsburgh.”

    After stints in the army and studying art at Carnegie Tech, Scheimer moved from Pennsylvania to California with his wife Jay in September 1955 with the promise of work at Kling Film Productions, a small studio specializing in commercial/industrial animation. In his autobiography, Scheimer relates: “When we called back to Pittsburgh and told our families that we bought a house, they thought we were crazy.”

    Star Trek

    Opening starship sequence for Filmation’s groundbreaking Star Trek: The Animated Adventures, early 1970s (©/™ CBS Television Studios).

    After his sojourn at Kling, Scheimer found freelance work at Walter Lantz Productions (Woody Woodpecker, et al.), at Larry Harmon Pictures (Bozo and Popeye), and for other small studios, mostly doing cartoon backgrounds. When Harmon closed in 1961, Scheimer and new associate Hal Sutherland made plans for their own studio. In 1962-63 Scheimer, Sutherland, and Norm Prescott founded Filmation Associates. They worked on the syndicated show Rod Rocket, then the postponed feature Journey Back to Oz, and some television commercials. Yet by 1965, the fledgling, struggling studio appeared ready to close its doors.

    It seemed, however, that—just as in the comics—it would be Superman who would save the day for Filmation. In 1965 the story editor for National Periodical Publications (DC Comics), Mort Weisinger, placed a call to Norm Prescott about the possibility of a Superman animated TV series, with the backing of Fred Silverman at CBS for its Saturday morning schedule. Whitney Ellsworth, who had been in charge of the successful George Reeves Adventures of Superman TV show then in syndication, flew to California to visit the Filmation offices, and got National/DC to agree to use Scheimer and company for the project—their first network show.

    DC, obviously pleased with the results, contacted Filmation to develop more of their superheroes for Saturday morning television, starting with Aquaman and Batman for fall 1967. By the 1968 season Filmation was producing a steady and ever-increasing program list for CBS, creating new Batman, Superman, Superboy, and Archie half hours (and Fantastic Voyage for ABC).

    Scheimer wrote in his book of The Archie Show: “CBS liked it immediately because the air was polluted with adventure shows, and there was nothing like Archie on the air. And then we got the idea to make music an integral part of the show. That was not being done for children’s shows; it became the first time that a children’s show had a group created for them!” By fall 1969 Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, became an Archie Comedy Hour character, and animated segments with The Archies “band” were playing hit songs on The Ed Sullivan Show.

    Enthusiasm was high for a similar music-group animated series, and for ABC Filmation next came up with a Scooby-Doo-type series whose teen characters solved mysteries—with music! Notes Scheimer in his autobiography: “For Hardy Boys we created the band’s characters, including among them Saturday morning television’s first-ever regular African-American character.”

    There are, indeed, several qualities and approaches that especially set Filmation creations apart—important innovations in the field of televised animation. Unlike other studios such as Hanna-Barbara, Filmation was dedicated to producing its cartoons in the United States rather than using overseas workers. Also, its storylines often included a life lesson—He-Man episodes ended with direct moral messages explaining some aspect of the story; the Hardy Boys offered admonitions about smoking and drug use.

    Filmation pointed to (and pioneered) future entertainment trends by spotlighting superhero characters as well as favoring science fiction series—from Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-74) and Space Sentinels (1977-78) to live-action shows such as Ark II (1976-77), Space Academy (1977-79), and Jason of Star Command (1978-81).

    Filmation also gets credit for respecting the original sources of their adaptations, often mining previous television series for voice actors. Members of the original cast of the 1966-69 Star Trek reprised their roles for the Filmation animated version. For Superman voice talent, the Adventures of Superman radio-show actors, Bud Collyer (Superman/Clark Kent) and Joan Alexander (Lois Lane), were used. From the hit 1960s Batman TV program came vocal support for Filmation’s 1977-78 New Adventures of Batman cartoons in the form of the former show’s stars, Adam West and Burt Ward. From the original Brady Bunch program, Filmation harnessed Barry Williams, Susan Olsen, Eve Plumb, Mike Lookinland, Maureen McCormick, and Christopher Knight to enliven their animated counterparts in the first season of The Brady Kids. Other prominent voice actors used by the studio were Ed Asner, Ted Knight, Larry Storch, Forrest Tucker—and Lou Scheimer himself!

    Archies

    The “musical” Archie characters by Filmation, late 1960s (©/™Archie Comic Publications).

    In addition, in utilizing actors for live series such as Space Academy and Jason of Star Command, Filmation stayed true to its science fiction preferences: Jonathan Harris of Lost in Space and James Doohan of Star Trek are a few of those whose presence graced Filmation series.

    One might also say that Filmation valued “artistic integrity”: its character designs for well-known heroes were simplified but accurate representations of the original comic-book drawings or live-action actors. Surely one will easily recognize the characters of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock as drawn versions of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. With DC’s superheroes, if one is familiar with the 1960s-70s comic-book artists who drew these characters, it is obvious that Filmation’s designers were faithfully imitating the styles of Curt Swan for Superman, Carmine Infantino for Batman, and Nick Cardy for Aquaman. The names of DC writers such as Bob Haney and George Kashdan are also credited for these superhero cartoons. For Star Trek, the live series’ writer/story editor, D. C. (Dorothy) Fontana, served in the same capacity for the animated series, and other well-known Star Trek and science-fiction writers (such as David Gerrold, Larry Niven, and even cast member Walter Koenig) produced the cartoon’s scripts during its two seasons (1973-74).

    Scheimer and Filmation creatively used music, making it an essential part of the characterization in certain shows as well as basically pioneering the music-video format. Ray Ellis created symphonic soundtracks for both animated and live-action Filmation products. The Archie Show (1968-69) and Archie Comedy Hour (1969-70) were built around The Archies musical group, with a real band playing best-selling bubblegum-pop songs like “Sugar, Sugar” and “Jingle Jangle.” The Hardy Boys (1969-71) series had a similar musical theme and output, also with pop-music recordings. And when Filmation adapted the Brady Bunch television show as The Brady Kids (1972-74), pop-group songs and recordings also were exploited.

    Filmation in the late 1970s and 1980s continued to produce and syndicate action-hero series based on Batman, Shazam (a fondly remembered live-actor show that aired 1974-76), Flash Gordon, Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro, as well as stand-alone TV specials based on their Archie and Fat Albert products.

    Yet Filmation’s most daring innovation—and the start of an unfortunate entertainment trend—came in 1983 through an agreement with Mattel, Inc., to produce a cartoon series derived from a toy line. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe aired 1983-85, followed by its spinoff She-Ra: Princess of Power (1985-86)—together with its theatrical feature He-Man and She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword (1985) and TV’s He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985).

    In the years that followed, just a few projects remained for the studio—whose doors were closed by its then-owner, Westinghouse (Group W Productions), in 1989. Filmation’s heyday of Saturday-morning television animation culminated in a futuristic “western” that combined its major themes over the previous decades—science fiction, superheroes, moral lessons, and associated action figures: the Native-American hero of BraveStarr (1987-88).

    Greg Suriano edits The Strip! magazine and writes on cultural subjects, including classic comic/cartoon art.

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