Excavating Bedrock: Reminiscences of “The Flintstones”
John Province talks to some of the key architects of the modern Stone Age family. When you’re with the Flintstones, you’ll have a yabba-dabba-doo time!
Note: This article originally appeared in Hogan’s Alley #9.
The dawn of a new century marks the arrival of middle age for The Flintstones, one of television’s most enduring families. Making their debut on a Friday night prime-time series on ABC in September 1960, the celluloid citizens of Bedrock circa 1000,000 B.C. have since sunk roots that reach deeply into the popular culture. And those roots grew fast: The program was an immediate—and to many, a surprise—hit with its target audience: adults. (Right away, it made itself at home in the rarefied air of the Nielsen top 20.) The Flintstones were the Simpsons of their era; though its satire of suburbia seems gentle by today’s standards, it was cutting-edge then. Though animation had long been associated with children’s entertainment, The Flintstones audaciously insisted otherwise. Fred and Wilma hold the distinction of being television’s first couple shown sharing a bed, a television taboo not even Lucy and Ricky Ricardo at their stratospheric peak of popularity dared break. Undoubtedly, being animated offered advantages. Bedrock’s best began receiving award nominations and helped establish prime-time animation as a viable vehicle for entertaining adult audiences, a reliable assumption that continues to benefit network programmers.
The Flintstones remained the most financially successful network animated franchise for three decades, until the appearance of The Simpsons. The Flintstones engendered a global merchandising phenomenon. Cartooning from its inception had been used as a means of moving merchandise (no less an august figure than Richard Outcault himself set up shop at the World’s Fair to hawk Buster Brown licenses). The Flintstones presaged today’s marketing strategies by being the first cartoon series to originate characters solely for the purpose of selling licensed products. It’s an eye-rollingly ubiquitous method today but was a radical concept in an era when popularity preceded merchandising rather than today’s inverted approach.
Establishing a trend still flourishing in later programs such as The Muppets, The Simpsons and King of the Hill, the era’s top Hollywood celebrities, such as Tony Curtis and Ann-Margret, guest-starred and provided voices for animated versions of themselves. ABC even pioneered some programming cross-pollination, pressing The Flintstones into service to promote the fledgling series Bewitched, with Stone Age versions of Darrin and Samantha Stephens guest-starring (perhaps coincidentally, Darrin and Samantha were television’s first live-action couple shown sharing a marital bed). In 1964, a nationwide poll of newspaper readers placed the comic-strip version of the animated series at number three, fending off stiff competition from the likes of Blondie, Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon and Li’l Abner.
Some animation historians speculate that without The Flintstones there may have been no animated Peanuts specials, no How the Grinch Stole Christmas and certainly no Simpsons. The effect of The Flintstones on viewers’ evolving attitudes toward animation as entertainment was subtle but important. Their immense popularity not only made it acceptable for grown-ups to watch a cartoon—they made it cool.
To salute this pop-culture juggernaut, durable through both good times and lean, Hogan’s Alley contacted some of the original creators and their artistic heirs to hear their reminiscences. What emerged were personal reflections that provide unique insights into the development and existence of Hanna-Barbera’s most popular franchise. Though The Flintstones’ bloom has long been off the rose, the inimitable power of yabba dabba doo remains robust despite two critically disappointing forays into live-action films and a latter-day comic strip that quickly lost circulation once deprived of studio guidance. A Broadway adaptation that has been kicking around for years holds open the possibility that prehistory may conquer yet another entertainment form. The long-lived appeal of the Bedrock bunch, suffice to say, long ago surpassed the imaginings of the people who birthed them. The Flintstones are passing into the hands of the third generation of creators who will escort the modern Stone Age family into the new millennium with a new feature film that the Cartoon Network will release later this year. Soon, just as when we first met on that autumn night so long ago, we’ll once again be invited to come and ride with the family down the street through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet. I’m calling shotgun, and make my bronto-burger medium rare.—John Province
Benedict was a Hanna-Barbera character designer and layout artist from 1957 into the 1970s and was one of the original Flintstones character designers.
“I don’t remember much; it was a very long time ago and I don’t understand why people are interested in this kind of thing. It’s a lonely profession, sitting at a table drawing all day, and there’s often not much to relate of any interest because nothing happens. When I was told the studio was coming out with these new characters set in the Stone Age, I thought about it for a while and tried to imagine what the family and the neighbors would look like, maybe like Mutt and Jeff or Alley Oop. They were cave people, so I sketched up some characters carrying clubs and wearing long beards, with scraggly, unkempt hair and in slightly distorted, hunched-over shapes; UPA-like is what I had in mind. Joe [Barbera] didn’t like that much, so I tried another approach, which was much more similar to the way we see them today. I straightened them up, took off the beards and make them look more neat and clean-cut. I worked on the the loincloths so they would hang properly. Barney as originally designed had a strap over one shoulder, and when he turned he had a bare shoulder. It just didn’t look right, so we had to correct that. I was told they had a pet, so a dinosaur seemed appropriate, and that’s all Dino is: a small dinosaur.
“Joe continued to make minor changes on my designs, removing a curl here and or line there, making continuous, tiny but meaningful changes and tightening them up. I suspect he was thinking in terms of removing unneeded detail and making them easier to animate. I had six spots on Fred’s loincloth and remember exactly that it was reduced to four [laughter]. I continued to add little things, like the necktie on Fred and the stone necklace that Wilma wears. Joe just continued making very small changes, bit by bit. Joe was going more for a neat, cute look, but not cute for its own sake.
“I’d like to say for the record that he was right in that respect and that he was way ahead of me. He was thinking about the look of the characters in terms of the stories we could put them into. My characters might have lasted two generations. His will last ten.”
Hazelton worked on The Flintstones newspaper strip from 1961–1984. Since 1988 he has produced Flintstones serigraphs and studio concept pieces.
“The Flintstones, you ask? Yes, I know ’em! I worked for Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera for years at MGM doing layouts and designing and styling characters for theatrical cartoons. In 1955, when MGM thought they had enough cartoons to shut down the animation department, I was kicked out along with some tremendous creative talents, like a fella I also worked with named Tex Avery. By 1961 I had been in advertising for some time producing TV commercials with two former MGM colleagues and was working nights on the Yogi Bear syndicated daily and Sunday feature for the McNaught Syndicate, when they proposed a strip based on The Flintstones television show. I brought the syndicate together with Bill and Joe and it took about a year to make the deal. Under full-time pressure to leave advertising and come aboard as director of the comic-strip department, with a bonus and complete control, I was back with Hanna-Barbera and never felt so needed. They felt I could devote part of my time to the syndicated features as well as animated commercials, and this made my workload quite heavy.
“It was quite a job to take The Flintstones from television and put them into print. I was taking the designs and adapting them to another medium. Newspapers editors were hesitant to run a Flintstones comic strip. They were from television; TV was hurting newspapers and they were very worried about competition. It was on my shoulders because Bill and Joe were up to their necks producing more animation per week than any other studio in town. They had no interest whatsoever in the comic strips and were not experienced with newspaper syndicates: the time involved, gags, inking, deadlines, shipping, etc. They were in the animation business and that’s where their attention was. I never took work to them for their judgment. It was my responsibility and I felt duty-bound to produce what they expected of me when I signed on.
“The strip really took off. We had a worldwide syndication, despite the fact we were distributed by McNaught, which was one of the worst outfits in the business. At one time The Flintstones was voted one of the top five comic strips in the country, and I’ve always been very proud of that.
“In the early days, some of the secretaries at the studio thought Wilma was plain and actually a little homely. For the strip, I put a ribbon in her hair and gave her more of a shape and perked her up a bit. All the characters changed over the years and became more lovable and cute. I recall the Ideal Toy Co. coming to Hanna-Barbera saying there was great potential if Wilma had a baby girl and they could make a lot of money selling dolls. I worked with them and came up with a good number of models. The Pebbles with the little bone in her hair was chosen as the winner. Ideal made dolls for many years with that.
“I’m happy they had Dick Bickenbach draw the model sheet for the animators. Bick was not only a neat guy, but in my mind much of the character styling at H-B showed Bick’s ability to keep them in the Hanna-Barbera format, just as he kept Pebbles in the style that I designed her. A couple of years later when Barney and Betty adopted a little boy, I did the character designs for Bamm Bamm, who was modeled after my son Wes. The sketch I’ve provided was one of my very first concepts, but with a few additional treatments we had a nice-looking little kid. Again, Bick drew the animators’ model sheet, adding as he did that star quality to little Bamm Bamm.
“I had very definite ideas about how concepts could best be worked out and I checked and rewrote most of the material before it was put to Strathmore. The Flint-stones had to be squeaky-clean. I could sometimes take topical subjects and place them in prehistory, but any time I did a gag that smacked of something children shouldn’t know, the roof fell in on me. It had its limitations as to the kinds of stories I could do. A lot of gags took place around the house, and Wilma and Fred needed someone else, so I created Fred’s grandfather, ‘Pops.’ He was a jivey little guy and made a valuable addition. In the TV show, Pebbles only said ‘goo goo da da’ which would have bombed in print. I developed her into more of a character and worked her more by giving her thought balloons, and she improved 99 percent. Complicated subjects coming from the mouth of a baby quickly shot her into a starring role. I did the same with Dino: Bark bark bark would have reduced the family pet to a sleeping dog, but with thought balloons he became a very [central] member of the family and no situation was beyond him. Fred, Wilma, Barney and Betty became even stronger characters with Pebbles and Dino giving them input.
“I penciled and wrote the strips and with my assistants was turning out a lot of work: 14 pieces per week—six dailies each of Yogi and The Flintstones and a Sunday page each. It was suggested that I send the strips upstairs for the secretaries to ink, but I never did that. I felt the type of inking I wanted to make the strip look good had to be more professional, and working at the studio I had access to some very talented people who knew the characters well after years of writing and animating the TV shows. I would tightly storyboard the pages, so complete and detailed that they almost became miniature Sunday pages themselves. My help appreciated this and it was a load off of them with their regular TV work to produce as well, but it was also my assurance of a good final product. My Disney training came in handy. I could never just draw a simple straight line for a background like some strips do today. If you’re going to do it you should make it look like you put something into it, so I’d always draw a few trees, some birds or a squirrel, maybe some rocks and flowers and a maybe a cloud or two; I’d dress it up and make it look nice. I really put a great deal of myself into it and we did a careful job.
“Who were these cartooners? Harvey Eisenberg and his son, Jerry, Dick Bickenbach, Iwao Takamoto, all top guys in the business. Then there was me doing what I thought both Hanna-Barbera and the syndicate wanted. Writers Dale Hale, Mike Maltese, Warren Foster and other studio people worked closely with me to make sure the characters were maintained as they appeared on the highly successful TV show. For years I worked at the studio, but after a while I was able to make a deal with Bill and Joe where they allowed me to work at home. By 1984 I’d kind of had it and wanted to retire, and McNaught took it back and passed it on to their contacts; how good or bad I don’t know. Tons of my originals never came back and I’m sure they were used as an example for others of how to do the strip.
“In the late ’80s through the early ’90s, I was occasionally called upon by the studio to produce original concept pieces for development and release as limited-edition serigraphs that were signed by Bill and Joe and sold in galleries all over the world. Some of these were tremendous jobs, such as “Circus of the Stars,” involving as many as 45 characters. Just as I did with the strips, I put a great deal of work into them. Several sold out quickly and are now collectors items, such as ‘Paws Applause,’ featuring the Hanna-Barbera dogs. ‘First Kiss’ with Pebbles and Bamm Bamm seems to be the most popular, though. Women particularly respond to Pebbles, for some reason.
“Some time ago I began to realize that the Flintstones are part of American culture, along with Mickey Mouse and the Peanuts characters. The other day I saw a cartoon in the newspaper of two stone bowling balls. One had ‘Fred’ chiseled in it and the other had ‘Barney.’ The Flintstones are a permanent part of American culture, and it was a yabba-dabba-dooooo long ride. My many thanks to those who helped make it a happy trip.”
Armstrong worked on The Flintstones newspaper strip and comic book.
“My experience with The Flintstones comic strip was a very thin slice of my career, which included years drawing syndicated features such as Napoleon, Ella Cinders, Bugs Bunny, Little Lulu and the 10 years I spent on the Scamp strip, but I drew the first two or three weeks of The Flintstones comic strip. At that particular time, though, I was looking for work and got a call from my ex-assistant, Joe Messerli. He was at Hanna Barbera and told me there was a new comic strip they were working on called The Flintstones and that I should go over and show them some of my samples.
“I went over and the guy I interviewed with was a fella named Gene Hazelton. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, but we talked and I submitted my stuff and he said fine, he liked it. I was given some model sheets to work from and Gene sent some strips to me to letter and ink. I took a lot of liberties and took it a step beyond and put a lot of myself into it rather than just slavishly following the pencils. Like so much art by people who worked in animation, it was penciled very roughly, and I did what could be called an approximation of Fred Flintstone; the gags every once in a while reminding the audience that they were reading a comic strip. A feature called Sam’s Strip is what I actually had in mind at the time, and I thought I had a job.
“I had to go back to New York for two weeks for some reason, and when I came back expecting to go on with the strip I was told they had decided to go with someone else. There were a lot of fellows who followed me on it over the years—Dick Bickenbach, who did the Sunday pages and who just passed away recently, and Harvey Eisenberg, a great cartoonist. Dale Hale worked on it and Gene did it for quite a while. The comic-book work came a couple of years later. I got a call from Chase Craig. He said Western Publishing Company, for which he was the West Coast Comic Editor, had the contract to do the Flintstones comic book and he thought I’d like to do it. I worked on that from the inception, then Hanna-Barbera took back the contract and went with Marvel, and I was called back to do it for them.
“As for The Flintstones’ continuing appeal, I understand it about as much as I understand the continuing appeal of Mickey Mouse. Mickey is an icon but without a doubt one of the least interesting characters to ever come out of animation. Like The Flintstones, he has ceased to be any kind character and has become a corporate trademark and a cultural symbol rather than a vehicle for entertainment or any kind of redeeming value. I think it has mostly to do with their longevity more than anything else.”