Uncle Dave was hands-down the most talented of my relatives. He was also one of the wealthiest, at least when he was young. Taxes and bad investments ate up a lot of his inheritance, and then he blew most of the remainder on some ill-starred animation and chili dog ventures.
That all began in the early 60s. A few years earlier Dave had worked for the Hubleys at UPA, working mostly on TV commercials and mastering the art of “limited animation,” where you rejoice in the two-dimensionality of the frame, often only having a character’s mouth move. Some of the commercials had Mr. Magoo, for whom Dave invented a little wheel with four legs and feet radiating out from the center, something like a swastika. You could hide half of this under Mr. Magoo’s coat, and turn the wheel, take photographs as you turned it, and voila!, Mr. Magoo was walking. The Mr. Magoo Walk-Wheel, they called it.
Later on, Dave freelanced for Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna a while. They had taken simplified animation a step further. They got rid of all the fancy forced-perspective Stuart Davis-type backgrounds that UPA liked, and substituted flat drawings of simple landscapes and interiors. Boring, yes, but it meant Hanna-Barbera could now crank out animated cartoons like nobody’s business. Ruff ‘n’ Reddy. Huckleberry Hound. Quick Draw McGraw. One of the Huckleberry Hound supporting cast was so appealing, they spun him off and gave him his own program (Yogi Bear).
By 1962 they were riding high on the success of The Flintstones, notable because it was supposed to be the first television cartoon designed for adults. First season,1960-61, they were sponsored by Winston Cigarettes. That shocks people today, because people don’t remember that The Flintstones was aimed at grownups. The Flintstones and their neighbors the Rubbles were supposed to be prehistoric “cave people,” of course, but the real inspiration for The Flintstones was The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason. Fred Flintstone even talked a bit like Jackie Gleason, and his wife Wilma had an Audrey Meadows twang to her voice, and Barney Rubble talked something like Art Carney, though I believe he was actually voiced by Mel Blanc.
And they brought on a strange assortment of live personalities to appear as cartoon versions of themselves. For some reason Hanna-Barbera had a thing for Hoagy Carmichael. And once they did Ann-Margret as Ann Marg-rock. All of this was conceived with adults in mind, since little kids wouldn’t appreciate these adult celebrities. (Who in the 1960s was even thinking about Hoagy Carmichael?) And kids wouldn’t get the appeal of a prime-time cartoon based on The Honeymooners, a sitcom about two childless married couples living in severely under-furnished flats in Brooklyn.
There were so many subsidiary characters in the Hanna-Barbera stable, Dave had the idea of taking one and building a whole feature film around him. I don’t know why Joe and Bill suggested Snagglepuss. Possibly they thought Snagglepuss had limited breakout potential. If you don’t remember Snagglepuss, he was a fey pink puma who talked something like Bert Lahr and was always going “Exit—stage left!” and “Heavens to Murgatroyd” I think he appeared in a back-segment of Quick Draw McGraw, the way Yogi Bear had started out on Huckleberry Hound. But there was no way Hanna-Barbera were going to build a whole show around Snagglepuss. Anyway, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera gave Uncle Dave the go-ahead to make a Snagglepuss feature. Dave got the rights for free, that is, he was licensed to use him for five years, with Bill and Joe sharing in the profits of any film that got made.
I don’t think Dave really knew the Snagglepuss character well. He knew about making animated commercials but didn’t actually watch TV. So he didn’t know how bad a character Snagglepuss was—tiresome enough for seven minutes, unimaginable for seventy-seven. All Dave knew was that Hanna and Barbera knew their business, and a Hanna-Barbera character was money in the bank. Joe and Bill were already storyboarding a feature film for Yogi Bear, and Dave figured a movie based on another Hanna-Barbera character was a guaranteed money-spinner.
After six or eight months Dave brought Joe and Bill the completed storyboards. He’d had the vague impression that he’d get to borrow some of Joe and Bill’s staff for the Snagglepuss movie, but Joe and Bill never agreed to that in writing. Back at his own studio, Dave busied himself with a big new series of beer commercials. After six or eight months he checked back with Hanna-Barbera and found his storyboards just collecting dust. Joe and Bill were apologetic, but said there was just too much work and too few hands. They also said they thought Dave was going to use his own talent. “My people are busy doing Hamm’s commercials. You know, bears drinking beer,” said Dave.
Finally Bill suggested sending Snagglepuss off to a low-cost animation shop in Mexico. Dave did not like that idea at all, because he’d heard bad things about their work. This Mexican shop had done an Amos ‘n’ Andy-style primetime cartoon with animal characters, although with Freeman Godsen and Charles Correll themselves doing the voices. The scripts were easy enough, since they were mostly based on Godsen and Correll’s old radio programs. But even using stripped-down limited animation, with only eyes and mouths moving most of the time, the Mexicans couldn’t keep up to schedule. About ten shows into the season the cupboard was bare, and NBC programming had to start rerunning episodes. They decided to axe the program shortly afterwards.
Nevertheless Dave decided to at least try the Mexicans, and then if they screwed up, he would show the pathetic results to Joe and Bill, and Joe and Bill would maybe put their top studio animators on the Snagglepuss project.
The Mexicans were even worse than Dave expected. They took the money (about $50,000, I believe) and produced nothing. Dave ran up thousands of dollars’ worth of phone calls to Guadelajara, demanding of the one person there who could speak English why the work hadn’t been done, or hadn’t been sent, or whatever had gone wrong. Finally the Mexican shop moved or went out of business. Dave complained to Joe and Bill.
“That’s really awful,” said Joe Barbera. “They came highly recommended.”
By now Dave had almost as little interest in the Snagglepuss movie as Joe and Bill, but he had invested a great deal of his own time and money and wanted something to show for it. Joe and Bill were sympathetic, and suggested Dave use the character to advertise breakfast cereal, doughnuts, children’s vitamins, whatever. Dave wasn’t overjoyed at this payoff, but he took it, figuring that he would resell the rights quickly and get Snagglepuss out of his life.
He leased the character to a chain of southern fast-food drive-ins specializing in chili dogs. For a year or two, travelers from Florida to the Carolinas grew used to seeing a 20-foot pink cat advertising ten-cent chili dogs. Then the chili-dog chain was acquired by one of the Bob’s Big Boy groups, and the Snagglepuss signs were no more. The Big Boy consortium said they weren’t obligated to pay the remainder of the lease.
Meantime Dave had acquired a deep fascination with the chili dog business. Bob’s Big Boy wanted the chili dog chain mainly for its locations, and they didn’t really intend to push this signature product on their Big Boy menu. But Dave had discovered a new way to slice up a hot dog so you could serve it on a hamburger bun. You scored it lengthwise, going about 2/3rds of the way through, then made a series of diagonal cuts across that lengthwise cut. Now, when you cooked it on a grill or in a skillet, the hot dog curled up like a wreath. The “doughnut hole” in the center was ideal for chili or cheese or whatever filling you wanted.
To make the whole process more efficient, Dave invented and patented a hot dog-scoring machine, about the size of a desktop electric pencil sharpener. You fed the hot dog into a hole at one end, and it came out properly scored at the other. With a half-dozen machines like this, you could get a hundred hot dogs ready in an hour, and store them in the fridge. Later on Dave discovered that Jacques Pepin, head chef at the Howard Johnson’s commissary in New York, sometimes used the same technique, but fortunately not for Howard Johnson’s. And Jacques Pepin didn’t have a patented hot dog-scoring machine, either.
Dave found an old storefront near Atlanta that used to be a Toddle House, and set up shop with one of his 20-foot Snagglepuss signs. “Snagglepuss RoundDogs” he called the establishment. Meanwhile, down the road a piece, a Dobbs Tiki House had licensed the Pink Panther character from movies and was calling itself the Pink Panther Tiki House. A huge electronic Pink Panther sign stood on the curved roof of the Tiki House, with white lights blinking around the Panther. The Panther was even bigger than Dave’s Snagglepuss, and where the road was flat and straight you could see it a mile-and-a-half down the road.
“I hear they paid an arm and a leg for the rights to use the Pink Panther character,” said the barkeep at the Shipwreck Lounge, across from the Tiki House.
“Not me,” said Dave. “The cartoon character I’m using I own the rights to, free and clear. At least I sort of own them. When I get my Snagglepuss RoundDog chili-dog eatery open, it’ll be the only one of its kind.”
“So what’s a Snagglepuss, anyway?” asked the barman, and Dave told him and showed him a picture of one of the old chili dog places with the big Snagglepuss sign.
“Seems to me that’s a little obscure ,” said the barman, “I mean if you have to explain it and all. What you should do is, rename it to something people understand. I mean, we got the Pink Panther over here, why can’t you have the Pink Puma?”
So that’s what Dave did. He got one of those 30-foot poles, like the kind some Bob’s Big Boy restaurants stand their character on, and put up a sign for The Pink Puma RoundDog and Chili Dog Station. Driving down from Dunwoody, Georgia, just past the Greasy Spoon Diner, and before you got to the Pink Panther Tiki House, it was a sight to see. You couldn’t miss it, especially at night. People made postcards of it and the Tiki House and occasionally even came into the Pink Puma, just to find out what the hell a RoundDog was.
Dave sent a postcard to Bill and Joe in New York, and a couple of months later heard back from their lawyer. It seems it was trademark violation to put up a statue of Snagglepuss and call it something else. Ironically, the Dobbs Tiki House people were accusing Dave of copyright infringement, because they thought Snagglepuss was an imitation of the Pink Panther.
“But Snagglepuss is older! Snagglepuss is the original pink cat!,” Dave told the Dobbs people. But they refused to listen.
“What a lousy break,” said the bartender at the Shipwreck Lounge. “Tell you what, though, I’ve got a friend who’s a signmaker. He can paint you the neatest pink mountain lion you ever did see.”
So Dave and the signmaker cut a new sign out of pieces of plywood, with a leaping puma, painted bright pink, and put it up on the pole. It was pretty cheesy, compared to the Snagglepuss character, but at least Dave wouldn’t have to explain to people what a Snagglepuss was anymore. For a while sold souvenir t-shirts with a pink puma, but the Puma sports shoe people made him stop.