Forgotten Disney Character: Scoopy Bee

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Over the years, and under the direction of Walt Disney himself, the Disney Company created mascots for a variety of commercial companies, including Fresh Up Freddie for the soft drink 7-Up (7-Up was one of the sponsors of the "Zorro" television show and there are pictures of Freddie attired as the masked vigilante), and Tommy Mohawk for Mohawk Carpets. They appeared in television and radio commercials, print advertisements and on promotional merchandise often utilizing artwork by Disney artists. Later creations like the Florida Orange Bird still spark fond memories today, although some Disney collectors debate whether these are "real" Disney characters.

Probably the first mascot created by Walt Disney is still popular more than 60 years since he first appeared, but is relatively unknown outside of his little Northern California home.

In December 2009, Scoopy Bee visited Disneyland and posted photos (link). For the buzzy mascot of the three Northern California Bee newspapers, it was considered a visit home with his family, the other Disney characters.

The Sacramento Bee is a daily newspaper published in Sacramento, Calif., and is the largest newspaper in the State's capitol and the fifth-largest newspaper in California. Founded in 1857, The Sacramento Bee is the crown jewel of the McClatchy Company that oversees 30 daily and almost 50 non-daily newspapers.

It was 1857 when James McClatchy founded the paper. An editorial on the first day of publication said: "The name of The Bee has been adopted as being emblematic of the industry which is to prevail in its every department."

Basically, everyone at the newspaper was to be as busy as a bee. McClatchy used a picture of a bee on his business stationery. When his son, C.K., took over, he ordered an image of a bee depicted in mosaic title in the lobby of the old Bee office in 1901. That mosaic now is on permanent display at the Sacramento History Museum.

Not long before his death in 1936, C.K. asked his youngest daughter Eleanor, an aspiring playwright, to take over the company. Eleanor would lead the company for the next 42 years. Her love for the arts and knowledge that Walt Disney was actively supplying artwork for many military-related activities prompted her to contact the Disney Studios and make an unusual offer.

In 1943, Eleanor McClatchy, who was anxious "to lend personality and a familiar identity to all the products" of the company from newspapers to radio stations, offered to donate $1,500 to the Army Relief Fund if Walt would created a definitive cartoon bee mascot for the company. Although not normally accepting outside commercial work at the time and swamped with war related work at the studio, Walt agreed.

Formed a year earlier in 1942, the fund was dedicated to "helping the Army take care of its own" to provide emergency financial assistance to soldiers—active and retired—and their dependents when there is a valid need. Hollywood got on the band wagon and productions like "This Is the Army" raised huge amounts of money for the fund.

The September 4, 1943, front-page headline in The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee and the Modesto Bee newspapers declared, "Two Busy Bees, Straight From the Pen of Walt Disney Make Appearance!"

Underneath the large headline was a picture of one bee waving a newspaper with a huge letter "B" on it high over his head with his right hand while a stack of newspapers were cradled under his left arm. This was Scoopy, named after the popular newspaper expression "scoop" to get the important story first. On the other side was a bee talking into a radio microphone:  Scoopy's twin brother Gaby—after the ability to "gab" or talk. In between was a photo of the world famous Walt Disney.

Scoopy adorned the front page mastheads of all three Bee papers and Gaby was used on radio station promotional material. In more than 60 years, there was merchandise ranging from buttons to stuffed dolls.

Over the years, Bee newspaper staff artists added, supposedly with Disney's approval, Flutey (for the company's FM stations) and Teevy (for its television stations). Teevy ended each broadcast day on Channel 24 with a cartoon of him tucking himself into bed and bidding the audience "good night". Eventually, Gaby assumed the role of mascot for television, as well as radio. At least eight other variations of the original bee character have appeared periodically over the years.

In 2000, it was announced by the Bee newspapers that Gaby, Scoopy's "twin brother who was the mascot for all of the McClatchy-owned television stations including what is now KSEE-24 in Fresno but was then KMJ, retired a few years back. He lives a quiet life in Northern California, tending to his flower farm and buzzing the occasional picnic goer."

The night of September 4, 1943, during primetime, which tied-in with the newspaper front page story, was a 15-minute radio interview with Walt from Hollywood that was broadcast on KFBK. The broadcast on the Blue Network detailed the flight of the two bees up the California coast from the Burbank Studios to Sacramento. Pretty good flying time for two tiny bees to make that trip in 30 minutes.

With the sound of airplane motors winding up in the background, the program announcer who had just finished an interview with Walt Disney said, "The two bees have reached the end of the runway, Now, they have turned their noses into the wind and here they come right past our microphone. They are gathering speed....Their tails are off the ground...their wings are lifting and there they go!"

The bees flew through all of the cities that McClatchy had properties in, including Bakersfield, Reno, Fresno, Modesto and Sacramento. When they arrived in Sacramento, they were greeted by Eleanor McClatchy and the mayor.

All sorts of drawings were created for all sorts of different promotions and events featuring Scoopy, and the newspaper takes great pride and is fiercely protective that the artwork was from the pen of Walt Disney himself.

Actually, the bees were the work of  talented and underappreciated Disney artist Hank Porter, another candidate for a future Disney Legends award.

Like so many Disney artists, Porter was enticed by a newspaper advertisement to join the Disney Studios in mid-1936 as the it was working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and actively recruiting new artists. In fact, Porter was eventually assigned to the production of that first animated feature but the long hours staring into the light from the animator's light board strained his eyes badly. He transferred to the Merchandise and Publicity Art Department where he created the art used for covers of magazine, toy box illustrations, magazine ads, drew both the Snow White and Pinocchio Sunday newspaper comic strips, and movie publicity art including theatrical posters and lobby cards.

Porter was authorized to sign Walt's famous signature on various artwork often given to people as gifts from Walt. An accomplished piano player, he was invited to become a member of The Firehouse Five Plus Two, but declined the offer. Porter left the Disney Studio in 1950 (turning over his responsibilities to Bob Moore) and succumbed to cancer a few years later.

Probably most memorably, starting in 1942, in addition to his other responsibilities, Porter supervised the World War II insignia unit (which included artists Roy Williams, Bill Justice, Van Kaufman, Ed Parks and George Goepper) in creating more than 1,200 designs during World War II for both American and Allied military units. Designs were also created for other organizations such as civil defense and war industries. All of this work was done by the studio free-of-charge as a donation to the war effort. It has been estimated that Porter himself created at least 60 percent to 75 percent of all the designs.

In addition to the established Disney characters (Donald Duck was the most popular and appeared on more than 200 designs), the design team also created hundreds of new, original characters including cats, dogs, apes, owls, pelicans....and bees.

The design for Scoopy can be traced to Disney-created insignias like the ones featuring a bee for the 114 Infantry Company "F" at Fort Dix New Jersey, the 39th Air Depot Group San Bernardino California, 78th Naval Construction Battalion, and Air Base Detachment Gray Field Ft. Lewis Washington. The Seabees at Camp Hueneme, Calif., wrote that they wanted for their insignia "a delicious feminine queen bee, with rosebud lips, dewy bedroom eyes, and an atomizer to make her deadlier than the male" and armed with a machine gun! Porter created Phoebe the Female Seabee, who looks like she could be the long lost sister of Scoopy and Gaby.

Since Porter was already doing this type of design work so successfully, it was not unusual that Walt tossed the McClatchy assignment his way.

Scoopy artwork is here (link) and the pencil sketch in the lower right hand corner of the first page is the sketch by Hank Porter that was finally selected for Scoopy. You can see it is the "Bee Suggestion (2)" with the "newsboy angle" that was finally selected. To the left of that picture was Porter's first suggestion, which was Scoopy reading an open newspaper with his back to the audience but looking over his shoulder at the readers. He is attired in the traditional apron and hat of a printer. A third suggestion is found in the upper tier of the next page where Scoopy is scooping with a trowel and mortar to build a solid hive home celebrating that the Bee was founded in 1857. Basically, drawings 11-16 are the early Porter sketches and it is easy to see why the newspaper chose the newsboy one.

Check out David Lesjak's always-interesting Web site devoted to Disney during World War II to see some of the finished Porter artwork (link), and browse the site for even more information and artwork by Porter. (David has been in close touch with Porter's family and I hope one day will write a book about the artist.)

Each of the three Bee newspapers has their own full-sized Scoopy character costumes used for meeting people at community events, county fairs, schools and more.

In 2000, Scoopy (who is now on Facebook) stated, "Even though I am proud of my family—the reunions are a blast, last year Pluto got his head caught in a tree and Mickey and Donald Duck had a foot race that everyone watched—love working for The Bee!" Yet many Disney fans are still unaware of his existence as are probably some folks who work for the Disney Company.

Of course, there are some characters not created by Walt Disney that are fiercely believed to be from the pen of the world famous entertainer.

Arizona State has a mascot named Sparky the Sun Devil. It is a mustached man in a devil suit with a threatening pitchfork. The man with his distinctive eyebrows seems to resemble a young Walt Disney. The mascot was designed in 1946 by former Disney animator Berkley "Berk" Anthony. In the 1930s and early 1940s he worked at the Disney Studios as an assistant to the legendary Ward Kimball (long before Kimball assistants David Swift and Tom Oreb). It has been assumed that Anthony probably helped with Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, among other credits. Anthony got a story credit on the live-action film Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio/Reluctant Dragon (1941) and, in fact, can be seen briefly in the film itself, leaving art class to smoke a cigarette and share a few words with star Robert Benchley.

Anthony was drafted while working at the Disney Studios and spent some time at a training films facility in New Jersey. After the war, he did not return to the Disney Studios and not much is known about him other than he eventually committed suicide. Like many Disney artists from this time period, he is a man of mystery. How he was contacted to create the Sparky mascot in 1946 and whether it was intended as an unflattering caricature to mock his former boss is unknown.

"There are all kinds of press accounts that say Disney was involved somehow,” said Rob Spindler, the university archivist and head of archives and special collections, “but there’s no evidence to back it up.” (However, reportedly, the university was contacted by the Disney Company claiming that if they ever abandoned the mascot, it would become the property of the Disney Company.)

Sparky made his first live appearance on September 21, 1951.