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Interview: Peter Key – Son of Ted Key, Creator of “Mr. Peabody and Sherman”

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

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.”

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Comments

jimjones

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

Nic Kramer

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.

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