"Don't touch that dial! Here are some scenes from today's four-part story of 'Underdog!' Here they come now!"
But that recorded insert was NEVER followed by the promised previews. Instead, we'd get the skinny on how humble and loveable Shoeshine Boy, after ducking into a phone booth would become the heroic Underdog. Midway through the half hour, after an adventure featuring Tennessee Tuxedo, another insert swore that we'd see the entire four-part story "on today's show." Yet, only half of the story aired on any given day.
I never understood the bait-and-switches of the syndicated "Underdog" show growing up, but it was my pleasure several years ago to interview Buck Biggers, who along with Chet Stover, created Total Television, a mid-60s animation company, who created Shoeshine, Tennessee, and several other classic cartoons, and his book, "How Underdog Came to Be," spotlights how their delightful creations came to be. And Shout Factory, which has recently re-released its complete series package of "Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales," and also has a complete set of "Underdog" available, have done a serviceable job of restoring "Underdog" in particular to its original formatting.
Biggers and Stover had their first series with a program entitled "King Leonardo and His Short Subjects." It involved the titular king, a lion, and his trusted skunk aide, Odie Cologny, as they ruled the land of Bongo Bongo. Each adventure consisted of two five minute chapters, and were paired with The Hunter, a canine detective voiced by radio veteran Kenny Delmar, who brings to mind his famous Fred Allen character Senator Claghorn (made immortal by Warner Bros. as Foghorn Leghorn), and Tooter Turtle, a little guy who always asked his friend Mr. Wizard (a lizard) to transform him into an occupation to which he was particularly ill-suited.
Animation was done by Gamma Studios, a Mexican art company which was also responsible for Jay Ward's "Rocky and his Friends," and its follow-ups "Dudley Do-Right," "George of the Jungle" and "The Bullwinkle Show." Ward's company was Total Television's main competition, but while Bullwinkle and company hit the bullseye for adult satire and wit, Total's heroes were less self-indulgent, and if formulaic, were far more educational.
It's easy to guess that the most viewed educational children's program of the mid to late 60s was "Sesame Street," but that guess would be wildly inaccurate. Truth be told, "Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales," Biggers and Stovers' follow-up to "Leonardo," had much higher ratings on Saturday mornings than Big Bird was pulling during the week. Biggers told me that he and Chet were responding to Newton Minnow's argument that television was a "vast wasteland," and they decided to create a cartoon that could educate as well as entertain. Enter Tennessee, a braggadocious penguin voiced by Don Adams, and his dim-bulb sidekick Chumley the Walrus (Bradley Wolke). Each week, the pair would decide to better themselves as auto mechanics, telephone repairmen, running a newspaper, etc. They'd escape the zoo, which was about as difficult as it was for Hogan's heroes to escape Stalag 13, and visit their friend with the 3D blackboard, Phineas J. Whoopee (Larry Storch). Whoopee would then demonstrate how engines run, how newspapers are published, or any number of technical tutorials. Tennessee and Chumley would then dash out, usually over the loud protests of Whoopee, who would warn them that they were in over their heads, and the cartoon would play out to the inevitable reset. Along with their ten minute adventure, new single-episode adventures of "King Leonardo," along with a new season of "The Hunter" joined the fun. Also introduced were shorter, two-minute segments featuring Commander McBragg, who made a habit of regaling unenthusiastic fellow club members with increasingly improbably feats of dubious veracity.
"Tennessee" was a huge hit, and so was "Rocky and His Friends." Back in the 60s, the sponsors literally owned the thirty-minute blocks of Saturday morning network programming, and General Mills cereals owned real estate on first place NBC and third place ABC. They approached both Jay Ward and Total Television with a challenge. Both studios were to make a pilot for a new Saturday morning program. General Mills would buy both, scheduling their favorite on NBC and the runner-up on ABC. Ward was approached first, so when General Mills met with Chet and Buck, they were told to avoid using a frog. Ward's entry was called "Hoppity Hooper," and dealt with a talking frog, a bear with a bugle, and a conniving fox, voiced by Hans Conreid, posing as the frog's Uncle Waldo. Total Television devised their most popular vehicle of all, "Underdog." Hence, when NBC viewers would hear the unlookers spy the hero (voiced by Wally Cox) and say, "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a frog," it was Chet and Buck winking at Hoppity, the runner-up who wound up first on ABC, and then in virtual obscurity.
In contrast, "Underdog" became part of the Saturday morning landscape for six years, along with interstitial cartoons such as "Go Go Gophers," and "Klondike Kat." Underdog did battle with aliens from other worlds, as well as ne'er do-wells Simon Bar-Sinister (voiced by Allen Swift, channeling Lionel Barrymore), the town mad scientist, and gangster wolf Riff Raff (Swift again, this time doing George Raft). He frequently saved his chaste sweetheart Sweet Polly Purebred (Norma McMillan). Repeats of "The Hunter" joined the fray as well, but the "Tennessee Tuxedo" segments only joined Underdog in syndication. And here's where things get a little messy.
"Cartoon Cut-Ups" was a thirty minute syndicated offering that created the bumpers that I described at the beginning of this article. It featured Underdog, along with Tennessee, and one of the other aforementioned titles on a rotating basis. It retained some of the network bumpers as well, which is why we were promised a complete four part story of Underdog, which only happened during the NBC run. It also threw in "Fractured Fairy Tales," "Aesop and Son," "Bullwinkle's Corner" and "Mr. Know-it-All" vignettes from Jay Ward's "Rocky" show. Conversely, syndicated broadcasts of "The Dudley Do Right Show" would intermingle McBragg and other TT cartoons along with the Ward products. This is likely due to the fact that both studios used Gamma for their animation, but it does muddy the waters trying to figure out which studios were responsible for which toons. Later on, the "Cartoon Cut-Ups" name just became "The Underdog Show" in syndication, but the errant inserts remained.
I recommend all of the above, but let's give credit where credit is due. Buena Vista Studios as released complete sets of "Rocky and Bullwinkle," although sadly, the original music from "The Bullwinkle Show" has been replaced with the less recognizable theme from "Rocky and His Friends." They include the complete runs of "Aesop," "Fractured Fairy Tales" and "Dudley Do Right" as well.
Shout Factory had the taller order to fill, and they did as well as they could. Many episodes of "King Leonardo" have been lost, as well as a handful of "Tooter Turtles" and a few "Klondike Kat"s, so faithful reproductions of NBC's original "Underdog" run are impossible to truly generate. But if you purchase the complete series sets of "Underdog" and "Tennessee," you'll get just about everything that's out there. There are a handful of "Leonardo"s on YouTube that don't appear on these sets, in varying states of quality. Repackaged "Underdog" episodes are also available on Amazon Prime.
Nothing beats the ageless charm of Disney and the Warner Brothers cartoons, I admit. But there's a nostalgic vibe with these programs that's hard to shake. Want to feel young again? A visit with Tennessee Tuxedo will not fail!