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Walt Kelly and Chuck Jones

Walt Kelly at the piano (with a copy of his book Songs of the Pogo), observed by Chuck Jones and Jones's grandson, Todd Kausen, now the chairman of the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity. There's a different photo of Kelly and Jones with Todd Kausen, along with one of Kelly and Todd, on page 290 of Chuck Amuck.

A Day in the Life: Walt Kelly, 1969

By Michael Barrier

Well, maybe not one day in the life—not unless Walt Kelly changed his shirt in the middle of a publicity shoot in Hollywood—but certainly not more than two. All five of the publicity photos on this page were taken within a short period of time and then distributed to newspapers and magazines to promote The Pogo Special Birthday Special, a half-hour animated television show based on Kelly's comic strip that was first telecast on Sunday, May 18, 1969. The three smaller photos originated with NBC, which telecast the special, and the two larger photos with MGM Television, which produced it.

There had been talk almost since the debut of the comic strip in 1949 about an animated version of Pogo, but Kelly was cool to spin-offs of all kinds. His experience making The Pogo Special Birthday Special confirmed his misgivings, as he explained in an interview with Don Maley in Editor & Publisher for April 19, 1969. The interview took place in Manhattan, near Kelly's studio.

Walt Kelly"There's a new Pogo tv special coming out in May that I've been working on in Hollywood for some time now," Kelly said. "It's called 'The Pogo Special Birthday Special' and MGM's producing it. It only means something to the people who supposedly seem to understand [what] a tv special is. It's all about holidays, including Arbor Day. It was pretty damned inconvenient commuting to the coast on alternate weeks and the picture itself was a lot of trouble. I'll have to figure out now if we want to stay with this kind of thing. Twelve or fifteen years ago one newspaper publisher said that if we went into tv he'd drop Pogo. But so far nobody's suffered very much. I do very little merchandising with Pogo. I don't believe in it. And it's more of a bother with anything else. We've been in litigation with MGM for the last two-and-one-half years and we've broken off even speaking relations with the people who've worked on it."

A striking statement, surely, since the most important of "the people who've worked on it" was Chuck Jones, the former Warner Bros. cartoon director who was then in charge of MGM's reconstituted animation studio. He directed the Pogo special and provided the voices of three of the characters, most notably Porky Pine. But Kelly spoke even more harshly about the show, and especially about Jones, when he talked about the special with his old friend Ward Kimball, the Disney animator.

Kimball was interviewed about Kelly by Thomas Andrae and Geoffrey Blum in 1981 (that date comes from Blum; the published interview, in the 1989 book called Phi Beta Pogo, is undated). He remembered that he saw Kelly for the last time in 1969, "right after the Pogo half-hour TV show that Chuck Jones directed. It was the last tragedy as far as Kelly's artwork was concerned. When I had lunch with him at Musso Frank's [the Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood], I asked him, 'How did you ever okay Chuck's Pogo story?' He said, 'I didn't, for Godsake! The son of a bitch changed it after our last meeting!' I asked: 'Who okayed giving the little skunk girl a humanized face?' Kelly's face turned red, and he bellowed, 'Waiter! Bring me another bourbon!' Oh, that made him mad."

Kimball continued: Walt Kelly"I said, 'Chuck missed the whole satire of the piece, and your work is based on satire.' He said, 'That's not the way I wrote it. He took all the sharpness out of it and put in that sweet saccharine stuff that Chuck Jones always thinks is Disney, but isn't.' He had come out to Hollywood for lots of meetings with Chuck to make sure that it would be a Walt Kelly story, and God! when he saw it, he wanted to kill—if not sue—Chuck. He said that when he left that final storyboard, it was the way it should have been on TV; he had gone over every little detail. I don't know how Chuck had the temerity to change it, but he did. That was the last time I saw Kelly—in a towering rage!"

(Frank Tashlin felt the same way about the damage Jones inflicted on The Bear That Wasn't when he made an animated version of that book, as Tashlin said when I interviewed him in 1971.)

In an interview with Nancy Beiman, published in Cartoonist PROfiles' December 1983 issue, Kelly's third wife, Selby Daley Kelly, spoke of meeting Kelly and becoming his assistant during work on the TV special. She and Kelly married after the death of Kelly's second wife, Stephanie, in 1970. Selby remembered Kelly's playing an unusually large role in the production of the cartoon. He actually animated on the picture, she said: "He did the layouts; of course he wrote the story; and he animated a lot of scenes." A surprising if plausible account, since Kelly was a Disney animator—under Fred Moore and Kimball—before he staked out a career in the comics.

Kelly was, Selby said, "very disappointed in the picture," although she cited not its saccharine sweetness but how the animators added so little to their scenes: "If you stop and juice it up a little and add a lot of extra personality bits so that it makes a nice scene, you're not getting your footage in. So most of the action in the scenes was down to the bedrock. They just did exactly what was called for."

Walt KellyWhat I've read about the Pogo special's ratings (see page 229 of Phi Beta Pogo) seems inconsistent, one report having it trail the competition on ABC and CBS between 8:30 and 9 p.m., another having it finish twelfth among all network shows in a two-week period (but behind a Peanuts special). In any case, the special was not well received by TV critics. Judith Martin wrote in the Washington Post that the show "was a moss-covered Disneyland in which Walt Kelly's furry little cynics and chiselers tried, and failed, to be cute." Cecil Smith wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "It seemed a bit sugary, a little too cute in musical numbers, a little too pretty." NBC telecast the show twice more, in 1970 and 1971, but there was never any chance that Pogo specials would become a franchise on the Peanuts model.

And yet, as you can see on page 290 of Chuck Amuck, Jones's painfully self-serving 1989 autobiography, after the show aired Kelly did Jones the honor of putting his name on one of his comic-strip swamp's flat-bottom boats. That was an honor he most often bestowed on good friends, along with the editors and publishers of newspapers in which Pogo appeared. The daily strip reproduced in the book was published on September 9, 1970 (not 1971, as Jones's text would have it), well over a year after the special first aired, and more than six months after its second telecast on February 22, 1970. With a sort of contemptuous carelessness—how hard could it have been to get such facts right?—the book gets the title of the special wrong, calling it The Pogo Family Birthday Special, and misdates it to 1971.

If Kelly was outraged by Jones's going behind his back and turning the special into treacle, why did he put Jones's name on a boat a little more than a year after the offense occurred? Was he fulfilling some promise made during work on the special? Was he trying to mend the rupture? If so, why was he doing that, especially considering that he was the injured party? Kelly fell out with other friends over the years—Joe Barnes, editor of the New York Star, comes immediately to mind—but I don't know that he ever had so justified as grievance as he had in Jones's case. Maybe there's an answer somewhere in Kelly's papers at Ohio State University.

I ran two reviews of the Pogo special in Funnyworld No. 12 (the first printed issue, in the fall of 1970), by Maggie Thompson and Mark Kausler, neither particularly enthusiastic. Maggie's mild criticicism of June Foray's vocal performance as Pogo—entirely justified criticism, I'm afraid—elicited a furiously hostile letter from Foray herself, which I published in the next issue.

The Pogo special was indeed an accursed film. It was released on a VHS tape but as far as I know has never been released on DVD. To see it for yourself—I can stand watching only a few minutes at a time—go to this page at Cartoon Brew, where it has been broken up into three YouTube segments.

As it happened, just a couple of weeks after the 1969 premiere of The Pogo Special Birthday Special I made my first visit to Los Angeles and met Chuck Jones for the first time. I don't think we discussed the Pogo special at all.

Walt Kelly

[Posted March 11, 2013]