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Interview: Peter Key - Son of Ted Key, Creator of "Mr. Peabody and Sherman"

Interviews
by Greg Ehrbar
March 6, 2014 2:30 PM
3 Comments
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Peabody model sheet

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 book
© The Estate of Ted Key, All Rights Reserved

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."

Hazel panel
© The Estate of Ted Key, All Rights Reserved

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."

Ted Key and Shirley Booth on the set of TV's "Hazel"
© The Estate of Ted Key, All Rights Reserved Ted Key and Shirley Booth on the set of TV's "Hazel"

"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."

Animation Scoop editor Jerry Beck (author, The Art of Dreamworks Mr. Peabody and Sherman), poses with animator Darrell VanCitters (author, The Art of Jay Ward Productions)
Animation Scoop editor Jerry Beck (author, The Art of Dreamworks Mr. Peabody and Sherman), poses with animator Darrell VanCitters (author, The Art of Jay Ward Productions)

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.

Ted Key at the Disney studio during the production of "The Million Dollar Duck" (1971)
© The Estate of Ted Key, All Rights Reserved Ted Key at the Disney studio during the production of "The Million Dollar Duck" (1971)

"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."

Peabody Image 680
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3 Comments

  • jimjones | March 6, 2014 7:56 PMReply

    The Peabody and Sherman image at the top makes me laugh. The one at the bottom makes me cry.

  • Nic Kramer | March 6, 2014 5:15 PMReply

    I'm going off topic, but speaking of "$1,000,000 Duck", this has been bugging me a long time: why was the chase scene near the end of the film 15 minutes or more long? I know it was a comedy, but you can only do a chase scene for so long before the audience wants the film to move on. Now that I think about it, these lengthly chase scenes was sorta of a habit for these Disney films at the time.

  • Greg Ehrbar | March 6, 2014 6:20 PM

    Wacky Disney comedy car chases go back, not counting cartoon shorts, to the very first Disney comedy fantasy, The Shaggy Dog. In that case, the novelty was that a dog appeared to be driving a car.

    When The Love Bug became the top-grossing film of 1969, pretty much every Disney film comedy, in theaters and TV, had some sort of car chase. Even non-comedies like "Escape to Witch Mountain" had them at times. I used to look forward to the two police cars crashing into an "A" shape.

    "Million Dollar Duck" was released only a year after "Love Bug," so it follows that it would continue the car chase climax. I can vividly recall not only that the lines for these movies would often go around the block, once we kids were seated in the theater, there were hoops, hollers and screams for every crazy gag, with a gigantic cheer when the bad guys were usually defeated in a silly, humiliating way.

    Even by 1977, when "Freaky Friday" was among the films that reached a little higher with an ever-so-slight edge, there usually was still a chase. If the movie took place in the west, it was a stagecoach chase or a runaway mine.

    These Disney movies started as an economical adjunct to the more expensive "prestige" Disney movies. An "Absent Minded Professor" might offset the higher budget "Pollyanna." The comedies were shot with TV equipment (much like Hitchcock did with "Psycho"). It was a carryover from the "A" and "B" movie days of the big studios.

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