One of the most intriguing “could’ve-been” projects in animation history is Easy Winners. Director Gene Deitch and his protégée Jules Feiffer came up with this kids show at the CBS-Terrytoons studio in 1958, and it was a concept that was clearly ahead of its time.
Here’s what Gene Deitch recalls about the pilot:
“The 24-year-old Jules Feiffer showed up at our UPA-New York studio in about 1953. His stuff was already great. He claimed to be influenced by UPA and William Steig, same as I. He wanted a job with us. I wished I could hire him, but like so many great creators who knocked on our door, he had the impression that our New York UPA branch was there to create original projects, when in fact Steve Bosustow had planted us in New York with the express purpose of making money for the Burbank parent studio by doing TV commercials and custom productions. Such projects were controlled by our clients.
“Jules was predominantly a writer and a cartoonist with a highly personal style. He wasn’t a “studio man,” as we all were, willing to adapt to various styles of commercial production. I tried him out as a potential assistant on my then budding comic strip, “TERR’BLE THOMPSON!,” but even there, he bent it into his own style, which I (perhaps foolishly), rejected. So nothing worked for him at UPA/NY.
“However, just two years later, when I’d become the fever-pitch creative director of CBS-Terrytoons, and had an entirely different mandate: to lead an animation revolution, among my first acts was to hire Jules Feiffer! He was just the man to help me instill new life in that moribund studio. I put him in our story department, along with my other new recruits, Al Kouzel and Eli Bauer, and where the atmosphere was charged with great external creators such as R.O. Blechman, and Ernie Pintoff. Jules’ first work for me was on my story team for “Tom Terrific!”
He made great contributions to the stories and dialog of that series, and I set him off to create an entirely personal project.
“He came up with a great idea involving a group of feisty kids, with writing sharp enough to outdo the just emerging Peanuts gang. I suggested ragtime piano music for the series, naming it, “Easy Winners,” after one of my favorite Scott Joplin piano rags. That tune would be the title melody. Jules developed the stories, design, and dialog for this projected series. I found a wonderful woman actor (Norma McMillian) to record the voices, and we got as far as a pencil reel of animation for the first pilot episode. It was great pure early Feiffer; his first personal animation project!
“But it was late in my Terrytoons days. I was bounced out of there before I could get Easy Winners into production. Equally dismayed, Jules also left Terrytoons, and the potentially great Easy Winners became Hard-Losers.”
The good news is that animator Tony Eastman – son of cartoon writer and children’s book legend P.D. Eastman – was able to rescue a piece of this long lost pilot from the trash at Terrytoons, back in the 1950s when he was a kid.
Tony recalls, “I was at Kim Deitch’s house in Tarrytown when Gene Deitch brought home (from Terrytoons), a new pilot… Easy Winners, which, as I recall being told at the time, was to be on Captain Kangaroo – I’m thinking that it was meant to replace Tom Terrific when it had run it’s course. That day I saw the complete pilot, which was about 8 minutes long. I recall Gene wanting our opinion of it.
“Other than the opening and closing bumpers, the animation was more limited than Tom Terrific – I mean really more limited! Unlike “T.T.” with it’s bold brush ink line, Easy Winners utilized painted cels. Budget considerations might have dictated the very limited animation. The characters were designed by Jules Feiffer, who was on staff at T.Toons in that era. Gene took Kim and me to Terrytoons on some Saturdays. During one of those visits, I managed to pull a portion of that pilot out of the trash.”
Tony sent it to me and I’m proud to be able to post this excerpt (about a minute) of film below – to date it is all that remains of this lost TV pilot.
After seeing this bit of footage 56 years later, Gene Deitch wrote me saying:
“Even though I directed this, 60 years erased my memory that Easy Winners ever got this far! What I remember is a pencil reel of an actual story, about the kids playing a ball game. I remember Raymond as an outfielder, pleading, “Roll this way, ball! Roll this way!”
As you can sense, this “could have been a contender!” It’s just one of the things squelched by that that terrified, self-serving throwback, Bill Weiss. This piece of animation does look great, but it just seems to be either the proposed show opener or maybe a promo.”
Regardless, this project adds to the legacy of Deitch era at Terrytoons – a period that equalled or perhaps exceeded the animation revolution that UPA promised. The mind reels at the possibilities of what Deitch and Feiffer could have brought to the world of children’s TV animation. For now we have this fragment to speculate on what might have been.
(This article was originally post earlier today on my Cartoon Research blog. Thanks to Gene Deitch, Tony Eastman, Mike Kazaleh, Charles Brubaker and Bill Lorenzo for their contributions in making this post possible)