Disney Goes Commercial Part One

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Recently, I was talking about relatively unknown characters created by the Disney Studios (link) and I ran across a model sheet for one of those forgotten characters. He is a delightful character that I believe was designed in the mid-1950s by the legendary Disney artist Tom Oreb who had been an assistant to animator Ward Kimball, but is probably best known for his distinctive styling on the award winning Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. Oreb was considered a peer of Eyvind Earle who did the design of Sleeping Beauty (1959).

The character is an energetic gray seal with expressive eyes and whiskers, wearing a black tuxedo jacket, a black bowtie, and a dapper little top hat. On the left lapel of the jacket is a round button that says “Gold Seal” with a ribbon tail hanging beneath it. Can’t quite recall this Disney character? He was created to appear in television commercials for the Canadian Fishing Company’s premium national brand of canned salmon, tuna and seafood projects.

Then, I guess I should assume you don’t remember the 1950s Disney character of a little bee who was two heads high with a huge head and eyes almost as large as his head whose engaging smile promoted Johnson's Wax.

In the 1950s, almost all television advertisements were live performers extolling the virtues of the products sponsoring the television show. In fact, sometimes the actors in the show would do the actual advertisement themselves with Desi Arnaz not only loving Lucy but Phillip Morris cigarettes, as well; and George “Superman/Clark Kent” Reeves chowing down on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

At that time, animation was expensive and time consuming to produce, but advertisers soon discovered it was also highly effective and many of the best-liked ads were animated.

Former Disney artists, including David Hilberman, Zack Schwartz, Shamus Culhane, Grim Natwick and Art Babbit, did television animated commercial work starting in the 1940s. Preston Blair told animation historian Karl Cohen that he felt “like a race horse tied to a milk wagon. I wasn’t exercising my full potential at all.”

In the early 1950s, the Disney Studio was struggling financially. It was still recovering from the monetary hardships of the war years. While Cinderella had been a success, Walt was desperately in need of money to help maintain the studio and to finance his latest project, the world’s first theme park to be called Disneyland. Walt was also under great pressure from bankers because of the studio debt to find addition sources of income.

While it is hard to imagine it today, at the time Walt drew the anger of other movie studios by agreeing to produce original programming for television that was considered the deadly enemy stealing audiences from theater seats. The only thing lower in status for a major movie studio was to make television commercials. However, Walt had a clever plan in mind.

Phyllis Bounds was the niece of Walt Disney’s wife, Lillian. Her husband at the time was George Hurrell, famous for his glamour photography of movie stars in the 1940s. He and Phyllis started their own television production studio in 1952, located on the Disney Studio lot, to produce advertising, utilizing some of the Disney staff who didn’t have enough work on the theatrical shorts and some freelance animators.

Hurrell left the Burbank studio and returned to New York in 1954 leaving Phyllis as the TV commercial co-coordinator from 1954-1957. Officially, the Disney Studio was not producing the commercials, but this independent studio that happened to be on the Disney lot in the fabled Animation building was bringing in the income.

Disney veteran Harry Tytle, who worked at the studio for more than 40 years in a variety of capacities including producing the weekly television program, stated in his autobiography: “Commercial work answered our prayers, as it supplied badly needed capital. Advertising work clearly helped keep the studio intact. But while the studio made money with this type of product (and I mean big money) it was not a field either Walt or Roy were happy to be in. Their reasoning was sound. We didn’t own the characters we produced for other companies; there was absolutely no residual value. Worse, we were at the whim of the client; at each stage of production we had to twiddle our thumbs and await approval before we could venture on to the next step.”

Animator Paul Carlson remembered in an interview with Didier Ghez in 2008 that “during 1956-58, I worked for Phyllis Hurrell, Walt’s niece. She was in charge of the Disney Commercial Division. Phyllis’s assistant was her cousin, Sharon Disney, Walt Disney’s daughter. Sharon was about four years my junior and I shared an office with her adjoining Phyllis’ office. Those offices were all in the H-wing of the Animation building. This H-wing was being used at the time by Herb Ryman and Claude Coats and other artists who were working on the design of Walt Disney’s Disneyland in Anaheim."

”Phyllis was the head of the commercial division that was responsible for all of the commercials for the three television shows that Walt was producing for ABC," he said. "Disneyland was an hour show that ran weekly. Zorro was another half-hour show, and, of course The Mickey Mouse Club, which was on every weekday. We had those three shows to monitor the commercials that were placed in all three of them.”

Sharon loved working with Phyllis and Walt loved having Sharon on the studio lot.

“Walt would come and stand in the door frame visiting Sharon. He’d bring her in and take her home,” said Carlson who also mentioned that Walt would review the work the unit produced roughly once a month in a screening room.

From roughly 1952-1959, the studio produced some memorable characters and commercials for a variety of clients.

After a year of working on Sleeping Beauty, Tom Oreb was moved to the new commercial division at Disney. Previously, Oreb had already done some freelance work on television commercials in 1952 for Ray Patin Productions and his angular, striking designs were perfect for limited animation. Those commercials had received quite a bit of recognition and it is likely that Walt was aware of those successes.

Disney artist Vic Haboush went along as Oreb’s layout artist. As Haboush told Amid Amidi: “I was kind of Tommy’s surrogate, I did most of the physical work. Tommy would lay the stuff out and I would follow through on it.” (Make sure not only to pick up the books Amidi has written, especially Cartoon Modern (link), but visit the Web site he co-hosts with my long time friend Jerry Beck (link).)

Oreb designed Bucky Beaver for Ipana toothpaste; a crafty fox and his adversaries (two Indians named Pow and Wow) for Welch’s grape jelly; a series of Mary Blair-influenced boys and girls at play for Trix cereal, before the Trix rabbit was created; and many others—including the original Cheerios Kid.

Welch’s was one of the sponsors of the original Mickey Mouse Club and also had a colorful juice stand in Fantasyland with a mural by Eyvind Earle (link) .

Jimmy Dodd, the Big Mousekeeter on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show, not only narrated commercials for Ipana toothpaste, but his sped-up voice was used for the character of Bucky Beaver singing “Brusha Brusha Brusha. Use the new Ipana.” In fact, Dodd, a talented song writer, wrote that jingle. By the way, at present, the Ipana brand is the leading toothpaste in Turkey and a reference to Bucky and Ipana is in the movie musical, Grease, where Pink Lady Jan sings along with the jingle.

The two large “buck” teeth that was Bucky’s trademark was perfect for Ipana protection and the many exciting exploits he had to face for dental health.

In White Knight, Bucky as the white knight must face his archenemy, Decay Germ, who as the black knight has captured the fair maiden and threatens her beautiful teeth with decay germs. In Bucky Beaver, Engineer, train engineer Bucky’s train is temporarily stopped by a blockage on a train trestle placed there by Decay Germ. A cliffhanging fight ensues but, of course, a tube of Ipana toothpaste “even better than fluoride toothpaste” defeats the villain. In Bucky Beaver, Circus Star, the agile Bucky is performing on the tightrope high above the circus crowd when a wild caveman-looking Decay Germ escapes. Using a whip and chair (and a tube of Ipana), Bucky bravely herds the bad guy into a cage. In Bucky Beaver, Space Guard, Bucky’s spaceship is shot down by space ship “DK-1” piloted by Decay Germ. Stranded on a strange planet, Bucky seems helpless but before a minute is up, he turns the tables thanks to Ipana.

The primary director for all these commercials being produced at the commercial division was Charles Augustus “Nick” Nichols. Nichols, who began his Disney career as an animator on the Disney shorts, was the primary director on the Pluto cartoons from 1944-1951 and was reportedly a favorite of Walt’s.

“We handed the animation to artists outside the Studio," animator Paul Carlson remembered. "They worked on a 1099 arrangement, where they were not on staff and then we paid them as freelance artists. Phil Duncan was one of the guys we used, George Nicholas was another one and Volus Jones was another one and Mike Lah was another animator. All of these animators … were freelance animators working for our commercial division.”

Carlson worked as Nichols’ assistant on the commercials and with other Disney artists like Bob Carlson, Bill Justice, Amby Paliwoda and Bob Youngquist, who were brought in to do some of the commercial work, as well.

In the 1950s, 7-Up's advertising was being handled by The Leo Burnett Agency, but Disney designed the character and did the commercials.

"Right now, you're probably asking yourself…" as Fresh Up Freddie would say, what is the story behind this character? Fresh-Up Freddie was the mascot created by the Disney Studios for the 7-Up soft drink company. He was a cocky animated rooster who looked like a mixture of Panchito the Mexican rooster and the wacky Aracuan bird who both appeared in The Three Caballeros. Freddie demonstrated how to plan successful parties and picnics by having plenty of 7-Up on hand.

He spouted phrases like “Fresh Up with 7-Up” and “Nothing Does it Like 7-Up.”

At first, Freddie didn't have a name, but when he started receiving fan mail and became highly recognizable by audiences, he was supposedly named in honor of 7-Up bottler Fred Lutz, Jr., and followed in a long line of cartoon characters with alliterative names.

Merchandise included a Fresh-Up Freddie plastic doll, a Fresh-Up Freddie Ruler, a pinback button and a Fresh-Up Freddie stuffed doll. Many of these items pop up in eBay auctions today. Freddie also appeared in comic books, usually ads on the back covers of Dell's comics, primarily in 1957 and 1958 that appeared to be drawn by Disney artists (one ad had dogs from Lady and the Tramp).

7-Up was one of the two sponsors for the Zorro television show. The other was AC Spark Plug (remember print ads of the white horse “Sparky” dressed up as Zorro?). 7-Up had a monthly Zorro newsletter for bottlers that featured Freddie prominently (sometimes dressed up as Zorro).

“They [7-Up] spent $2.5 million on their TV commercials,” remembered Paul Carlson, when he talked with animation historian Michael Mallory. “I think they did 26 one-minute commercials at $100,000 apiece. He was an Aracuan bird that we designed for 7-Up. Dave Detiege and I designed that character. Sharon [Walt’s daughter] and I pasted up the model sheet.”

Of the 26 one-minute commercials that were made, over the decades I have seen perhaps a half dozen. In 2005, there was a special 75th anniversary celebration for 7-Up at the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas (Dr. Pepper purchased the brand in 1986) and I donated my copies of Fresh-Up Freddie television commercials because neither 7-Up nor Disney had copies they could show. Again, it was a sad reminder to me of how much of even fairly recent history has been lost because no one documented or archived the material.

One commercial has Freddie at a party, dressed in a cone-like party hat and he plays 7-Up bottles like a cello, a piano and bells as he sings the praises of the uncola. Another commercial has Freddie as a soda jerk and he dances with a live action teenage boy as smoothly as Gene Kelly danced with Jerry the Mouse. Yet another had Freddie as a sports reporter interviewing a fighter, a female swimmer and a basketball player who all look like variations of Freddie but who all obviously love 7-Up as part of their secret for winning in sports. One had Freddie dressed up in a tuxedo preparing for a party with a staff that included a confetti cutter, a horn tooter and a balloon blower (as well as a closet filled with cans of laughter…canned laughter). “7-Up gives every party a lift” and the punch line for the end of the cartoon is a house that looks like the one in the recent animated feature Up floating high in the night sky thanks to all those balloons that have been blown up.

Walt signed a contract in 1951 to produce a series of eight animated commercials for Mohawk Carpets. The contract refers to the character as “Tommy Hawk,” but was finally named “Tommy Mohawk.” He was a young Indian boy with a Mohawk haircut with a feather who carried a tomahawk. The spots themselves were all animated in 1952. 

The titles of the commercials from the Disney production files were: Tommy Tests Carpets, Tommy Supervises Weaving, Tommy Plants Carpet Seeds, Tommy Designs Carpets, Tommy Falls for Minnie, Tommy Gives Animals Sleeping Carpets, Birds Use Waterfall for Loom and Tommy Harvests Carpets.

Besides Tommy himself, the commercials featured his demure Indian maiden friend, Minnie (short for “Minnehaha”) and a mischievous squirrel known as Chatter who looked very similar to the character of Dale from Chip ‘n’ Dale, but with a smaller nose and a squirrel tail. He also wore a plain headband and a single feather and the oversized headband keeps dropping comically over his eyes. I got to see a copy of the original model sheet from the collection of Disney animator Amby Paliwoda and there is a strong Bill Justice influence in the design of the characters, especially Chatter.

There were also radio commercials featuring Tommy. One 1954 magazine ad had a Disneyesque Tommy sleeping comfortably under a tent-like structure hung on the branch of a tree while pouring rain rolls off the angled sides. The copy says: “As the rain keeps Tommy from play, he sleeps undisturbed through the day. For water can’t harm the twist of this yarn, Mohawk Evertwist won’t ravel or fray!”

As I wrote, Tom Oreb supposedly designed the original Cheerios Kid and there were some later commercials where Donald Duck had adventures with the character. In The Explorer, Donald goes into a cave and is chased up a tree by a bear but his nephews get the Cheerios Kid to help with his “Go Power.” In Sharks, Donald is out swimming at the beach and is confronted by hungry sharks. Again the nephews on the shore watch as the Cheerios Kid again comes to the rescue.

In Part Two, I will go into great detail on the Disney Characters featured in commercials in the 1950s.