By Greg Ehrbar | Animation Scoop March 6, 2014 at 2:30PM
If all Ted Key had done in his career were to create the characters and format that became Mr. Peabody and Sherman, it would be impressive enough. But the cartoonist/writer was also behind the creation of the long-running one-panel gag cartoon icon Hazel (also a classic TV sitcom), three hit Disney comedy/fantasies, the children's comic feature Diz and Liz - and even the concepts for several of Norman Rockwell's' Saturday Evening Post covers.
"I'm not sure my father ever actually met Rockwell," said Key’s son, writer/journalist Peter Key. "My father sold cover ideas for The Post after he was already established there with Hazel. They would farm ideas out to their various artists. He told me Rockwell didn't like the ideas and tried to come up with his own. But he couldn't always do it, so when The Post art editor would call to ask what he was working on, if Rockwell was very vague, the editor would suggest a couple of ideas. Rockwell would pooh-pooh them but a few weeks later he'd call back and say, "I had this great idea” and it was often one of those very ideas."
Ted Key was a cartoonist almost from birth. He studied art and writing at Cal [Berkeley] At one point he was hired by Disney to be an animator "but he only lasted a week," said Peter. "He thought it was because he didn't draw well enough at the time, but years later he learned that the guy who let him go just liked to fire people. Eventually Walt Disney found out what was going on and fired the man."
That was long before Ted was off to other pursuits, several of which did not pan out, including a script based on the comic strip "Our Boarding House" that was to star W.C. Fields. He did, however, do well as a radio writer, but never stopped cartooning. He married the sister of a fellow cartoonist, Fritz Wilkinson, whom she represented as an agent (she would also represent Ted as well).
Ted Key literally dreamed up the crusty-but-benign character, Hazel. “He had a dream, and in it he saw a cartoon with this maid talking to her employers—a dowager and her rich husband—about a phone message,” Peter explained. “She tells them something like, 'A Mr. Harmon or Marmon called at about 7 or maybe it was 8, and he said to meet him at this address or that address, and it was very important!"
He drew up the cartoon and it sold. Soon he was selling cartoons with this maid character to The Post and Colliers, until the Post editor said they would buy no further cartoons from him unless he drew these maid cartoons exclusively for their magazine. Hazel replaced Little Lulu, after The Post objected to Marge using Lulu for Kleenex ads and they also realized that they didn’t own the rights.
"The maid evolved into her brash, bossy but warmhearted self," said Peter. "He came up with the name 'Hazel' out of the blue, but an editor at The Post had a sister named Hazel who assumed the character was named for her, so she didn’t speak to the editor for a couple of years."
Ted drew the cartoons at night while he was still in the army (for which he also wrote and produced a play designed to encourage women to become WACS). By the time he was discharged, Hazel was a smash. The first book of Hazel cartoons sold 400,000 copies. More collections, as well as original children’s books, followed.
"One of the things I discovered in my Dad’s collection is an ad the Post placed in the New York Times in the late 1940s with the results of a poll about how many people could identify Hazel and how many people could identify Norman Rockwell," said Peter. "In Hazel's case it came to about 50%."
"My father was starting to get heavily involved in pitching Hazel for television when he was approached by my Uncle Lenny, who was a kind of a deal maker type, to do something for Jay Ward. Lenny had known Jay, and his partner Alex Anderson, since junior high school. Alex Anderson was the nephew of Paul Terry of Terrytoons."
"After the war Alex and Jay teamed up to do Crusader Rabbit, then Alex came up with the Rocky and Bullwinkle characters for something called "The Frostbite Falls Review," that they were never able to get off the ground. They ended up losing the rights to Crusader Rabbit, Alex got sick of the whole thing and went back into advertising. He gave Jay the go ahead to try to market Rocky and Bullwinkle so my uncle got involved and ended up striking this deal that required Ward to produce a half hour show.
"After Ward found out he was producing a half hour show, Lenny asked my father to come up with something for it. So he created this storyboard of a cartoon that was to feature this boy, "Johnny Daydream" and his dog, "Beware the Dog," who travelled through time. Johnny had a time travel machine on his belt and Beware had one in his collar. Beware was a snooty talking dog but he wasn’t a beagle, he was kind of a mutt.
"At some point, the concept went from a boy and his dog to a dog scientist and his boy. Al Shean, who was working for Ward at the time, did the model sheets of what became Mr. Peabody and Sherman. By the time the cartoon aired, Peabody had his bow tie where the time collar had been. Sherman's time travel belt, though, was in both the model sheet and the a few early episodes of the show. I think it was gone by episode seven.”
Ted Key watched both Hazel and the Rocky and Bullwinkle shows at his Pennsylvania home with his family. "Peabody and Sherman was interesting to me, so was just the whole concept of Rocky and Bullwinkle," Peter said. "But I was too young, to get the whole concept of puns and I remember my parents explaining to me what a pun was."
"At the time when Rocky and his Friends became The Bullwinkle Show, Jay Ward made trips across the country to promote it and he stopped at our house one night. He showed up in this pink van with this orange Moosylvania seal on it and pink sweatshirts with the Moosylvania seal on them in orange. Ward was very outgoing at that time and very witty and pretty much crazy. My father told Keith Scott in The Moose that Roared that Jay was great that day and he was. He was tremendous. He made a great impression."
Peter believes his dad would like the fact that his dog and boy characters have reached the big screen. "He'd be thrilled. I've been thrilled from the get go. When I last went out to L.A., I went to a book signing with Darrell Van Citters for his book, The Art of Jay Ward Productions. I also went to that book signing because June Foray was there. What an amazing lady, so talented. So is Darrell."
Peter is making his way through mountains of Ted Key treasures in order to keep his father’s name and work alive and delighting new fans. There are hundreds of cartoons, positive thinking posters, commercial illustrations and even a cache of unreleased Hazel comics. And of course, Ted Key's three Disney movies are still on DVD: The Million Dollar Duck, Gus and The Cat from Outer Space. A full-scale stage musical version of Hazel is already in the works with a complete score and, according to Peter, a spot-on cast.
"My father was always a positive person, always glass half-full. He was always going on to the next big idea. So many ideas that now, the volume of what he has created, written and drawn is almost overwhelming," said Peter. "For around 35 years, he was a major creative force in the country and one of the most famous cartoonists of his day. But more than anything else, I have never met anyone who disliked him - ever - in his entire life."