I've had a fascination with animation history for years. I'm taking on the task of covering as much about television animation as I can.
For the first roughly ten years of Hanna-Barbera’s existence, a number of their shows followed the same general structure. The shows would consist of three segments, each starting with an animal character who’d be the headlining act, followed by two segments starring other animal characters. This was the case with The Huckleberry Hound Show, The Quick Draw McGraw Show, The Yogi Bear Show, The Hanna-Barbera New Cartoon Show, The Magilla Gorilla Show, and The Peter Potamus Show. While they would still be occasionally create shows of similar formats, the last of this “The ___ Show” line would come in 1965.
However, two changes would set these new shows apart from the rest. For one, this would be the first time Hanna-Barbera entered the realm of Saturday morning cartoons, though still at a time when cartoons funded by cereal companies dominated the landscape (which would soon be transitioned out the following year thanks to shows like Hanna-Barbera’s own Space Ghost & Dino Boy). Secondly, rather than act as separate entities, the two shows would air together side-by-side as Hanna-Barbera’s first hour-long series: The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show.
"The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show"
September 9, 1965 - September 7, 1967
Perhaps, in a way predicting the shift to superhero series which Hanna-Barbera would soon transition into, Atom Ant is technically the studio’s first superhero cartoon. An ant powered by atomic energy (as his name would imply), Atom Ant possessed incredible strength, speed, flight, and durability.
In each episode, Atom Ant, in his headquarters inside an anthill, would be tasked by the local police (consisting of only two officers and a busted up patrol car) to help take on crime. Shouting his catchphrase “Up and at’em, Atom Ant!”, he’d face off against any number of supervillains, including his most frequent of foes, evil scientist Professor Von Gimmick and the likewise insectoid Ferocious Flea.
Initially, Atom Ant was voiced by Howard Morris, who had voiced Mr. Peebles in Magilla Gorilla and Jet Screamer in The Jetsons. However, due to an alleged disagreement with Joseph Barbera, he was replaced in the later episodes with Don Messick, who also voiced Ferocious Flea.
For the second segment, Hanna-Barbera went back to the well of drawing from older cartoons, resulting in a mix of their own Tom & Jerry and Sylvester & Tweety from Warner Bros. The cartoon starred a dog named Precious, who to his owner, an old woman named Granny Sweet (voiced by Janet Waldo), is the kindest dog around. However, when she’s not looking, whether she’s distracted by her interest in motorcycles or other hobbies that play against stereotype, Precious becomes the neighborhood’s worst nightmare. Postal workers, dog catchers, even his own “friend” (another dog named Spike), none are spared from the terror of Precious Pupp. All the while, Granny is completely oblivious to everything.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this, besides its similarities to other works, is the laugh that Don Messick gives to Precious Pupp, his only vocalization. This wasn’t the first appearance of that familiar wheezing sound, with the previous year’s Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear also featuring a dog with a wheezing laugh, but Precious Pupp showed that Hanna-Barbera was tinkering with the idea of a dog character who made that sound. Ultimately, the laugh would catch on several years later in Wacky Races, with the mischievous dog Muttley.
"The Hillbilly Bears"
Much like Punkin’ Puss & Mushmouse in the previous year’s Magilla Gorilla Show, the hour’s third offering was another show about hillbilly stereotypes. The Hillbilly Bears was about a stereotypical family of bears, the Ruggs, and the antics they get into on a daily basis. Whether that be dealing with issues like a hungry gopher eating their garden, repairing a windmill, dealing with the government and city planners, being abducted by aliens, or (on multiple occasions) feuding with their neighbors, the Hoppers.
The family was led by the slobbish gun-toting father Paw Rugg, voiced by Henry Corden in his first starring role for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon (he would eventually become the second Fred Flintstone during the '70s). Paw’s voice was initially near-incomprehensible mumbling but was eventually made clearer as the series went on. There was also the more reserved Maw Rugg, voiced by Jean Vander Pyl, who’d often reign her husband in when his antics got too out of hand. Their daughter Floral, also voiced by Jean Vander Pyl, was more sophisticated and showed a romantic interest in the Hoppers’ son Claude (voiced by Paul Frees). The youngest member of the family, Shag (voiced by Don Messick), idolized Paw greatly, to the point of getting into arguments with the Hoppers youngest child over who had the toughest father.
Starting the second half of the show was the other titular character, Secret Squirrel. Parodying the spy genre that was taking off at the time with James Bond, it centered around “Agent 000”, otherwise known as Secret Squirrel (voiced by Mel Blanc), a secret agent for the International Sneaky Service. Each episode he’d be given an assignment by his superior Double-Q, and, alongside his fez-wearing sidekick Morocco Mole (voiced by Paul Frees), he’d take on tasks like recovering stolen goods, taking out thieves, and capturing enemy agents.
His most frequent enemy by far was Yellow Pinkie, a Goldfinger parody villain who appeared in 11 of the 26 episodes. To take on these foes, Secret Squirrel was equipped with a seemingly endless array of weaponry and gadgets held within both his trenchcoat and the purple fedora covering half his face.
In a similar vein to Yogi Bear and Magilla Gorilla, and perhaps planting the idea for Jabberjaw years later, Squiddly Diddly (voiced by Paul Frees) is a squid who lived in an aquatic park known as Bubbletown. Squiddly’s greatest dream in life is to become a beloved musician, being able to play multiple instruments at the same time, so each episode would involve his attempts to escape Bubbletown and make his way to the outside world. These attempts would be met with resistance from the park’s administrator, Chief Winchley (voiced by John Stephenson). In the rare event he would escape, Squiddly would find the world not to be as accepting as he imagined and inevitably return to the park, only to go back to pursuing his dreams the next episode.
In the real world, Squiddly Diddly actually did receive a vinyl record, titled “Squiddly Diddly’s Surfin’ Safari.” It didn’t feature any vocal talents from Paul Frees, but the album was presented with presumably the idea that it was Squiddly playing all the instruments.
Lastly, the hour closed out with Winsome Witch, a cartoon about a witch named Winnie (voiced by Jean Vander Pyl) and her adventures traveling around by broomstick. With her magic words, “ippity pippity pow”, she’d go around helping people and animals (often based on characters from fables), both near her cottage in the woods and elsewhere in the world.
A Small and Secret Legacy
The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Hour ran for two seasons on NBC from 1965 to 1967, initially as a full hour but eventually split up into two individual shows during the winter of the second year (with reruns of The Flintstones and a then-new show, Space Kidettes, airing between). It ran for one additional year of reruns in the '67-'68 season, reduced to half an hour. After that, the show left NBC, with the exception of the Hillbilly Bears segments, which resurfaced in 1969 as part of the second season of The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. All the segments would go on to continue in syndication in various formats, whether together or separately, though eventually the rest of the segments too would become part of The Banana Splits when it entered syndication.
Several of the characters would eventually make several reappearances on various subsequent Hanna-Barbera series. Atom Ant, Secret Squirrel, Morocco Mole, Squiddly Diddly, and the Hillbilly Bears all appeared as part of the ensemble cast for Yogi’s Gang, a show which featured many of the studio’s animal characters traveling the world together. Several of them also reappeared in the subsequent Yogi’s Treasure Hunt, and made cameos in Yo Yogi!, which also had an appearance from Granny Sweet. These later appearances generally had the original voice actors reprising their roles.
In terms of actual starring appearances, 1990’s Fender Bender 500, a Wacky Races -esque cartoon centered around older Hanna-Barbera characters, featured Winnie from Winsome Witch as a recurring racer. But more notably was in 1993’s 2 Stupid Dogs, a late-era Hanna-Barbera series that had, as a segment in the middle of the show, a Secret Squirrel revival titled Super Secret Secret Squirrel. Taking on a sense of humor more in-line with cartoons of the '90s, it saw Secret Squirrel (now voiced by Jess Harnell) and Morocco Mole (Jim Cummings) with a new boss, a water buffalo simply known as Chief (Tony Jay), but still taking on new threats every week, such as Morocco’s evil twin brother Scirocco.
The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show was, in some ways, the end of the initial era of Hanna-Barbera. As mentioned before, it was the final series in their “The ___ Show” line of package shows, and while there would be a few other package series down the road (especially in the late '70s), the shows going forward would primarily focus around one central character with, at most, a secondary segment in the middle. Additionally, it was around the time of Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel that Hanna-Barbera began the process of breaking off from Screen Gems, its original distributor since Ruff and Reddy in 1957, and being purchased by Taft Broadcasting.
After being delayed with some legal snags, the acquisition was finalized by the end of 1966 for $12 million. Taft Broadcasting (and later its successor, Great American Broadcasting) would continue to be Hanna-Barbera’s distributor until the studio and its library were sold to Turner Broadcasting in 1991.