History of Hanna-Barbera: The Flintstones
September 30, 1960 - April 1, 1966
The year was 1960. Hanna-Barbera had done it again the year before with Quick Draw McGraw, their third hit series in a row. Their first, Ruff & Reddy, was winding down in production, while their second, the Huckleberry Hound Show, remained strong with both an Emmy Award and the prospects of spinning off supporting character Yogi Bear into his own series. The studio, in a short span of time, had already become a potential rival to the big league animation studios.
John Mitchell, president of Screen Gems, had been helping the duo from the start, and continued to do so when one day he called up Joe Barbera, pitching the idea about Hanna-Barbera producing a cartoon for primetime television. This was a virtually unheard of concept, cartoons had aired exclusively either in the morning or the afternoon. The only occurrences up till then of animated programs in primetime were package shows such as “CBS Cartoon Theatre”, a compilation program of theatrical Terrytoons shorts hosted by a then-unknown Dick Van Dyke which aired on Wednesday nights during the summer of 1956.
But that was simply a program created to fill in a gap left by the cancellation of the short-lived western “Brave Eagle”, Mitchell wanted a brand new original program. Not to mention, this would be a full half-hour show; cartoons up to that point rarely exceeded roughly 7 minutes, even their own two half-hour shows were made up of smaller segments.
There was also the tricky situation of that animation was largely considered kids territory, while primetime was mainly for adults. The duo agreed that, if this new program they would create was to survive in the primetime landscape, it had to incorporate the adult feel of other primetime series while being toned down enough that the whole family could enjoy. At the time, with such shows as “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver”, the most popular programs on primetime were sitcoms about suburban families, so they decided that would be the direction they’d go.
Meet the..."Flagstones" and the "Gladstones"?
The Hanna-Barbera writing staff, who at the same time were hard at work on Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw, struggled for several weeks to come up with a unique twist they could put on the sitcom formula to make it interesting. Many different ideas were thrown around, like a sitcom about gypsies or a sitcom about pilgrims, but none of them caught on. It wasn’t until, in the midst of a heated conference as tensions were running high to find a workable concept, that animator Dan Gordon sketched out a small drawing; It was of two cavemen wearing animal skins alongside a primitive record player whose needle was the beak of a live bird. The idea of cavemen living a modern lifestyle wasn’t entirely an original idea, it had been attempted two decades earlier with Fleicher Studios’ “Stone Age Cartoons”, but it had such potential left in it that the writers jumped on board.
Soon enough, they had a concept all worked out. The series would focus on Fred Flagstone, an arrogant blue-collar worker for a stone quarry, and his wife Wilma, a woman who is tender hearted but also sharp tongued. Together, they live in the town of Bedrock, located in Cobblestone County with an elevation of 250 feet below sea level. A strong inspiration for the banter which would occur between Fred and Wilma was “The Honeymooners”, a popular 1950’s sitcom starring Jackie Gleason, which happened to be the only sitcom that Bill Hanna enjoyed at the time. He enjoyed how the laughs came from how the main characters were in a constant war of the sexes, while also presenting a much more realistic and relatable marriage rather than the perfect, seemingly flawless marriages that most other sitcoms tried to work with. The similarities were so striking that Jackie Gleason’s lawyers suggested he sue Hanna-Barbera, before friends talked him out of it.
Hanna-Barbera produced a 2 minute test short for The Flagstones, which featured Fred and his friend, a short statured man named Barney Rubble, interacting at his backyard pool. The short featured Daws Butler as Fred and Barney, Jean Vander Pyl as Wilma, and June Foray as Barney’s wife Betty (for the final product, only Vander Pyl would remain a permanent cast member).
A slight snag initially haulted development of the series, when copyright lawyers pointed out that the name “Flagstone” was dangerously close to “Flagston”, the last name of the characters from the comic strip “Hi and Lois”. For a brief time, the series was changed to “The Gladstones”, but no one at Hanna-Barbera particularly liked that name; Eventually, it morphed into “The Flintstones”.
Excerpt from ABC reel promoting The Flintstones to affiliates
A Modern Stone Age Family
In early 1960, Joe Barbera took the Flagstones short, as well as two storyboards which would later be made into the first and third episodes respectively, to New York City and pitched the show for eight straight weeks to as many sponsors and networks that would listen. On the very last day, exhausted and discouraged (and threatening to toss the concept into the archives never to be seen again), he pitched the show to executives at ABC. ABC, eager to take on risks and experimentation, signed on to the show only fifteen minutes into his 90 minute presentation. They picked the show up for a 28 episode first season, and The Flintstones began airing September 30th, 1960 at 8:30pm as part of ABC’s Friday night line-up (alongside long-running detective series “77 Sunset Strip” and a package show of Famous Studios cartoons entitled “Matty’s Funday Funnies”).
While all of Hanna-Barbera’s shows up to this point were critical successes right from the start, The Flintstones was actually not, as hard as that is to believe today. Critics outright hated the show, with New York Times critic Jack Gould calling it “an inked disaster” and Associated Press writer Bob Thomas trashing on the laugh track that had been added in (which would become, for better or worse, a staple of most H-B shows for the next two decades). It seemed as though their gamble on a primetime animated series was doomed to crash without ever taking off.
Luckily, however, it gained traction with audiences, who felt it was a refreshing change of pace in the primetime landscape. They enjoyed the humor of the setting, with all of the sight gags that stone age interpretations of modern luxuries created (such as all vehicles being foot powered), as well as the humorous situations that the characters often found themselves in while remaining deadpan, unaware of just how humorous the situation was. By the show’s third season, even the critics who once dismissed the show as “nondescript” were enjoying it.
The Modern Stone Age Families (and Friends)
As mentioned before, from the Flagstones to the Flintstones, Jean Vander Pyl (who was on the radio/TV sitcom Father Knows Best) remained the only permanent voice as Wilma.
Betty had initially been voiced by June Foray, but for the series was replaced with Bea Benaderet; Ironically, this was a reversal of what happened several years earlier at Warner Bros, where Benaderet was replaced by Foray for the role of Granny in their Looney Tunes shorts. Benaderet stayed on the show for its first four seasons before leaving to work on the series “Petticoat Junction”, and was replaced for the last two seasons by Gerry Johnson (who didn’t really do much outside of The Flintstones).
For the voices of Fred and Barney, a more extensive search was made to try to find the perfect permanent voices. Fred was voiced by TV actor Alan Reed, who some often said resembled a real-life Fred Flintstone. Fred’s iconic catchphrase was an improvisation by Reed during a script reading early in season 1; the script called for Fred to shout “yahoo”, but Reed didn’t feel this gave enough emphasis on the joy Fred was feeling. He ran his alternative idea by Joe Barbera, and the phrase “Yabba-Dabba-Doo” was born.
Barney Rubble’s finalized voice was provided by the famous “man of a thousand voices” himself, Mel Blanc. Blanc had already had an extensive portfolio in animation, voicing many iconic Looney Tunes characters (such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) and for Universal as Woody Woodpecker. With the theatrical animated short business drying up (though Warner Bros held in longer than most animation studios), The Flintstones marked Mel Blanc’s transition to television.
Mel Blanc was so dedicated to voicing Barney, in fact, that following a near-fatal car accident in early 1961 which left Blanc in a coma for two weeks and in a full-body cast for months, a number of second season Flintstones episodes were recorded in his bedroom with a microphone dangling above him (though for a few of the initial episodes that were recorded around the time of the accident, Daws Butler, who voiced Barney in the pilot, briefly stepped in).
Mel Blanc also voiced the Flintstones pet Dino, a pinkish-red dog-like dinosaur who uttered unintelligible barking-ish noises. In an odd contrast, Dino’s first appearance, the episode where Fred got him, presented Dino as a purple dinosaur voiced by Jerry Mann who spoke complete sentences. What caused the change was never explained, except perhaps to add more comedic elements of a dinosaur acting like the family dog.
Rounding out the cast was Mr. Slate, Fred Flintstone’s boss at the quarry voiced by John Stephenson. Mr. Slate had a low tolerance of Fred’s antics and would often fire him, but always rehired him by the end of the episode.
Lastly, a late addition to the series came in the form of a small green alien with a large head who called himself “The Great Gazoo”, voiced by actor Harvey Korman. This character arrived in the final season of the show and has often been cited as the cause of the show’s eventual downfall, due to bringing science fiction elements to a series that started out as a down-to-earth sitcom set in the stone age. Through him, several later plots involved time travel (as far as the 21st century, where the Slate Rock and Gravel Company is still in business!), cloning, advanced formulas, and various magic-like powers.
Breaking the Mold
The Flintstones, over its groundbreaking six season run, pioneered a lot of different directions that hadn’t previously been done in animation. Besides the aforementioned firsts of being the first cartoon made for primetime and being the first TV cartoon to focus on one set of characters for a full half-hour, The Flintstones did some things that even other sitcoms of the time tended to shy away from.
One thing was the fact that Fred and Wilma slept together in the same bed. This was not the first time this had been done on television, TV’s first sitcom “Mary Kay and Johnny” had a couple who shared a bed, but many TV shows of the time portrayed married couples as sleeping in separate beds. The Flintstones was certainly the first time that a TV cartoon had done this.
Most of the firsts, however, center around a plot that lasted the majority of season 3 and even part of season 4. In the season 3 episode, “The Surprise”, Wilma announces to Fred that she’s pregnant. Over the next nine episodes, the show focuses on Wilma’s pregnancy, Fred’s worries on how he’ll be able to provide for the new baby, Wilma giving birth to a baby girl they name Pebbles, and then Fred handling being a father for the first time. This was both the first time that a pregnancy had been represented in a realistic manner in animation, as well as possibly the first ongoing story arc (lasting through several standalone installments without being strictly serialized) in a cartoon series.
The decision to give the Flintstones a child goes as far back as the conceptual stages of the series, where, for a time, they had a son named Fred Junior. Ultimately they took the child out for the first two seasons but brought the concept back for season 3, going with a girl instead because a baby girl was much more marketable than a boy. Indeed, Ideal Toy Company released a Pebbles doll in 1964, which took in $20 Million in sales in its first year.
A few episodes after the birth of Pebbles, in season 4’s episode “Little Bamm Bamm”, a point is made that Barney and Betty are unable to conceive children. The subject of infertility was almost never brought up on television, so this was a potentially controversial subject for an animated series to tackle. By the end of the episode, the Rubbles adopt an orphaned baby named Bamm Bamm (initially known as "Junior"), the "strongest baby on Earth" (called so for his unexplainable strength).
The Flintstones was one of the first cartoons to create an emphasis on guest stars appearing voicing versions of themselves, all with rock-themed names. Such guest stars were Ed Sullivan (“Ed Sullystone”), Tony Curtis (“Stony Curtis”), Rock Hudson (“Rock Hudstone”), Cary Grant (“Cary Granite”), and most famously Ann-Margret (“Ann-Margrock”). For the time, being a guest star on the Flintstones was considered a mark of prestige, similar to the effect that guest starring on the live-action Batman series later in the decade would have on celebrities.
The famous “Meet the Flintstones” theme was, actually, the second opening that the series had. For its first two seasons, the opening was an instrumental entitled “Rise and Shine”, which featured Fred driving around Bedrock and running errands before arriving at home in front of his television. Oddly, Dino was blue in this opening, but this error was likely not a concern of the time, because while The Flintstones was produced in color, those first two seasons aired in black and white.
The closing credits for those two seasons continued off the opening, showing Fred shutting off the TV and heading to bed, before being locked out of the house by Baby Puss, the Flintstones’ saber-toothed cat who rarely ever appeared in the show itself.
In the fall of 1962, a full six years after competitor NBC launched their color television campaign, ABC finally began experimenting with color broadcasting with two series: The Flintstones and The Jetsons. For the third season of the Flintstones, the show was given a new opening which showed Fred leaving work, gathering up his family and the Rubbles, and heading to a drive-in theatre. The theme song was written by Bill Hanna and composed by Hoyt Curtin, much like most Hanna-Barbera tunes.
The new closing credits show the family heading to their homes after the film in the drive-in, ultimately ending similar to the original closing with Fred getting trapped outside for the night by Baby Puss. This opening and closing were retroactively included on the first two seasons when the show was eventually reran in syndication.
Some episodes from the final season provided an alternate closing, showing Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm performing “Open Up Your Heart (And Let the Sunshine In)” live. This song, written by Stuart Hamblen, was a hit back in 1954 when it was performed by Hamblen and his family under the name “Cowboy Church Sunday School”. In the sixth season opener, “No Biz Like Show Biz”, Fred has a dream where Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm become a singing duo (singing voices provided by daughter/mother duo Rebecca and Ricky Page respectively) with that song being their headlining act; Their cover of “Open Up Your Heart…” reignited the song’s popularity.
During its first two and a half seasons, the Flintstones, while produced for all audiences, was targeted by ABC towards adult viewers. This is made most clear by the show’s original sponsor, Winston Cigarettes. During commercial breaks, the characters would be shown sitting around discussing Winston Cigarettes and lighting up a smoke, usually ending by reciting or singing the Winston jingle (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”).
Once the story arc leading up to the birth of Pebbles began, and the show gradually aimed more towards younger viewers (an obviously inappropriate demographic to be pushing cigarettes towards), Winston pulled out of the show and the sponsorship spot was replaced by Welch’s. Welch’s went the extra mile and included the characters on their jelly jars, which were marketed as being reusable as drinking cups.
The Lasting Influence of TV's First Cartoon Sitcom Family
The Flintstones ran in prime-time on ABC for six seasons, occupying the 8:30pm Friday slot for half of its run. During its fourth season, it moved to Thursdays at 7:30pm (as its original timeslot was replaced with detective series Burke’s Law, and later The Addams Family), then halfway through its fifth season it switched back to Fridays at the earlier time of 7:30pm, flipping timeslots with fellow H-B series Jonny Quest (which also aired in primetime). It concluded on April 1, 1966, with an impressive 166 episode run.
On a side-note, following the Flintstones success in primetime, many other series during the early 60’s attempted to capture that lightning in a bottle, creating a bit of an animation boom in primetime. ABC lead the helm, airing several other series by Hanna-Barbera (The Jetsons, Top Cat, and the aforementioned Jonny Quest), along with the animated escapades of Beany & Cecil as well as the more obscure Calvin & the Colonel. Meanwhile over at CBS, The Alvin Show (starring the Chipmunks) ran on Wednesday nights during the 1961 season, while NBC played new episodes of The Bullwinkle Show prior to Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. While some of these were successes in their own right, none of them held a candle to the fame that the Flintstones had gained.
Even though the series had ended, the Flintstones continued to be a popular franchise. In the fall of 1966, not too long after cancellation, it jumped over to NBC for reruns on Saturday mornings, staying on the schedule for four years until late 1970 (10 years after it debuted!). Afterwards, it enjoyed a long healthy run in syndication, continuing to be popular with audiences.
It wasn’t long before audiences were asking for more Flintstones. While the show never returned to being called “The Flintstones” (minus a four episode attempt at returning to primetime during the early 80’s), over the next 30 years no less than six brand-new incarnations of the series aired on all three of the major networks, as well as at least 14 TV specials. In 1966, the Flintstones even gained an animated feature film entitled “The Man Called Flintstone”, and then again in 1994 and 2000 with two live-action movies. Most recently, in 2015 (a full fourteen years after their last appearance), the Flintstones characters starred in the Direct-to-DVD film “Stone Age SmackDown” alongside WWE wrestling stars.
The Flintstones have also stayed in the public eye through products using the characters. In 1968, Miles Laboratories (later Bayer) released chewable multi-colored vitamins shaped like the Flintstones characters, which have remained a widely available product even today.
Fruity Pebbles commercial from 2012
Another product still in production is Pebbles cereal, released in 1971, marking another first for the Flintstones as the first cereal based directly on a TV show (rather than the characters promoting a pre-existing cereal). The rainbow colored cereal (Fruity) and its chocolate variant (Cocoa), as well as other limited run versions, are most notable in that they’ve kept the characters in the public spotlight, with at least one new Pebbles commercial prominently featuring Fred and Barney fighting over the cereal being produced per year.
While the show has largely faded away from airwaves (it does, as of this article’s publishing, still air on Boomerang in the middle of the night), The Flintstones wasn’t just an incredibly popular cartoon, but also an iconic part of television history. Cartoons in primetime (with a handful of exceptions) largely disappeared during the 70’s and 80’s, but they came back in full force during the early 90’s with The Simpsons, which was directly influenced by The Flintstones.
While most of Hanna-Barbera’s early series mainly jumpstarted the rise of television animation, it’s the Flintstones whose legacy can still be felt to this day.