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Hoyt Curtain, A Tribute

A final conversation with one of animation's all-time greatest composers.

By Steve Fritz     December 25, 2000

I got the sad news that one of animation's all-time great creators, Hoyt Curtain, passed away sometime during the second week of December of natural causes. Obits are vague on the exact date of his passing away, but they all do say he was 78 years old.

Curtain wasn't your typical creator in the world of animation. He wasn't known for his penciling, backgrounds, scripts, or putting a deal or studio together. On the other hand, you probably know his work as well as you know the Beatles.

I'm not joking about the Fab Four, as Curtain was the main composer for the original Hanna-Barbera Studio. He, along with Hanna-Barbera themselves, wrote all the major theme music for their shows from the studio's inception in 1955 until 1990, when H-B was sold to Turner Broadcasting to become the animation arm of what is now the Cartoon Network.

Curtain's first piece for H-B was the Ruff'n Reddy theme. From there he went on to organize the circus-blast theme for The Huckleberry Hound show, the jazzy Yogi Bear and Top Cat, the horn-dominated swing of Jonny Quest and the galactic sweep of the original Space Ghost. Hey, Curtain even wrote the opening piece for The Smurfs. And, of course, he wrote the opening theme of The Flintstones. You would be hard pressed to find anyone over the age of 25 who can't recite those lyrics verbatim.

About the only major theme Curtain didn't write was the original pop rock theme for Scooby Doo, Where Are You?. He was so busy doing so many shows for H-B at the time, that the studio had to hire extra talent to fill in. Still, about the only composer to rival Curtain for out-and-out originality and audacity was the late Raymond Scott, the man behind the original scores for Looney Tunes. About the only composers who have that kind of uniqueness and diversity these days are Danny Elfman and Shirley Walker.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Curtain last summer. There was a lot to like about the guy. Like many animators of his day, he was still quite sharp and had more than his share of stories to tell. Some of them are well worth repeating.

'I was lucky,' Curtain told me about his initiation into the animation field in the mid-1950s. 'In Hollywood those days, there was very little film work unless you were Max Steiner or someone like that. I just happened to have gotten out of college at the start of TV. While there wasn't much work for me in Hollywood, I was lucky enough to start scoring themes for commercials. In fact, that's how I first met Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.

'Back around the middle 1950s, Bill and Joe were still working for MGM and they would pick up side jobs doing animated commercials. What happened was they needed someone to do a beer commercial or something like that. They were animating it. I met them and did the job.

'Then, a couple weeks later, they called me on the phone. After all those years doing Tom & Jerry they had left and formed their own company. So they called me up and said 'We got a lyric here, can you do something with it?' It was Ruff'n Reddy and they literally gave it to me over the phone. As it turned out, it was so straightforward I called them back in five minutes and gave them the full theme. I literally sang it to them. After I sang it to them, there was absolute dead silence. It was so silent I couldn't help but think that I had absolutely bombed. Then they turned around and asked if I could record that theme. As it turned out, I was going to a recording studio daily to do work on commercials anyway. That meant I had very easy access to bands and singers and all that stuff. So I said yes. I didn't even think about the process.'

Curtain-Hanna-Barbera would end up being an incredibly powerful composing combo, the animation equivalent of Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland. Curtain has nothing but praise for his musical partners-in-crime.

'I don't think people appreciate what pioneers they were,' said Curtain. 'I myself didn't even think about the fact I was writing music for original TV animation because back in those days there wasn't any. There was only reruns of theatrical shorts. Now I have to admit, I never met a finer music writer than William O. Hanna. I'll tell you a guy who doesn't get much respect in this regard, and that is William O. Hanna and his orchestra. He directed many, many, many of the shows. He usually also had a gal who would come in and write any musical idea he had down. He was some kind of a director. I also understand Chuck Jones wrote some music. Those guys could not only look at a piece of music and come in at the top and get through to the bottom, but they could draw lines on the sheets that would encompass a certain number of frames of film.'

Hanna's familiarity with music therefore made Curtain's job all the easier.

'Oh god, did it!,' exclaimed Curtain. 'A lot of times they would let you look over the [animation] exposure sheets and you could get a kind of a timeline. So you write it up and when you got to the musicians, they have an idea now. All I usually had to do with the conductors was hand them all this stuff and they knew exactly what to do. Still, Bill and Joe were so busy with the company that they turned around and gave the composing work to me and I was more than happy to take it.'

And don't think the phone method they used to get the Ruff'n Reddy theme wasn't commonplace. Curtain, who also did his share of commercial jingles, preferred to work out of his home. As such, Hanna and Barbera had to call him a lot. In fact, The Flintstones theme was created from just such a conversation.

'They called me up and gave me the basic lyrics and some rough images to work with,' recalled Curtain. 'Before you know it, I was going 'boom-boom, BOOM b-boom-boom yadda yadda yadda la de dahhh...' and they told me to run with it. By that time we already had our own musicians and singers that we liked to use, so it didn't take that long to put the whole thing together.'

Still, if you had the chance to ask Curtain what piece of music he was the proudest of, he would tell you it was the theme to Jonny Quest. It is hard to forget, what with its Gene Krupa-like drums, exotic flute solo and tons upon tons of brass.

'They came up to me and said 'We got this adventure thing. It's out in the jungle, there's shots of this kid in a plane, la de dah, la de dee. We want a real adventurous piece of music.'' recalled Curtain. 'I wrote it because I wanted to kill all my trombone friends. I am the worst trombone player in the world and I know a lot of great ones. I wrote the piece strictly for them, and to be as difficult as it could possibly be. Every note they play is in the sixth or seventh position and things like that.

'I used Lloyd Ullyate, Joe Howard and Dick Nash. The way I approached it was I hired that many in case one of them would crap out. If you knew these guys, the one thing that none of them would allow would be [to be] shown up by any of the others. Lloyd does not want to be left out when nobody else is ready to quit. In fact, Lloyd is still playing sessions.

'You'd be surprised by the guys who are excellent musicians, yet my music gives them trouble. There are guys who'd you think could play it and they can't. Even Harry James, who I wrote some stuff for, would look at some of my stuff and just go, 'Get away from me, man!' and he really was fantastic; very impressive.'

The quick quip about the incomparable James was another important point about Curtain. As many a moldy fig would tell you, James was one of the last great jazz big band leaders, spanning from World War II to his death in the late 1970s. Curtain also used to write charts for him as well as other jazz orchestras.

Like Raymond Scott, jazz was an important element to all of Curtain's music, more often than not overshadowing any classical or pop leanings he might have. Curtain would just say that jazz was a 'happy' music, and as such lent itself wonderfully to animation.

Not that Curtain didn't experiment, either. One of the more interesting side notes about the theme to Space Ghost is it was one of the first commercial uses of the synthesizer. In fact, Curtain employed the synth's inventor, Robert Moog, for the piece.

'He was a piece of work,' admitted Curtain. 'He would come in with all these suitcases. He also came in with this guy who's whole job was to plug in, patch up and generally take all the parts of the synthesizers out of the suitcases and put the thing together. Meanwhile Moog would stand there in a corner with his arms crossed looking like he was thinking. When it came time for Moog to do his part of the Space Ghost theme, he would just walk over majestically to the synthesizer, push one key and out would come this 'HWWWWWwhoosh.' As soon as that was done, he would fold his arms again and go back into his corner until it was time for him to do it again.

'That was 1967, and I can't remember if the first assembled synthesizers were out at that time. We used theremins and all kinds of crazy stuff for Space Ghost. What I do remember is at that time there was another guy named Jack Cookerling, who was also a very good piano player. He was also absolutely out of his mind in the electronic field. He did a lot of those really weird sounds you heard on Jonny Quest. What he used was a celeste attached to a wooden crate thing. I swear there must have been about 1,000 vacuum tubes inside that box. I don't know what he called that thing, but I swore by Cookerling.'

Probably one thing that most people don't remember was just how dominant a studio Hanna-Barbera was in the 1960s and 1970s. Those were the days of what I referred to as the 'hyphenated' studios such as DePatie-Freling and Ruby-Spears, which were generally small shops that produced most of the Saturday morning fare. Still, even with the importing of Japanese animation such as Astro Boy, Kimba, The White Lion and Speed Racer, it was H-B who produced the lion's share of the animation we saw on Saturday mornings, if not the out-and-out majority of it during certain years.

It got to the point that, in 1969, H-B finally convinced Curtain to become more-or-less the house composer for the studio, severing him from his commercial work but giving him the kind of employment security rarely enjoyed by Hollywood composers of those days. He would remain with the studio until 1990, and even then he didn't write all the material, as the workload was just too much for even one composer. Still, during that time he would compose the music for just about all of the Banana Splits variety show, the second Scooby-Doo theme (the more jazzy score, naturally) and a ton of other H-B programs.

Even after the studio was sold to Turner, the Curtain-Hanna-Barbera team stayed solid. During the time of my interview, Curtain admitted he had just finished another theme for Barbera, Hanna now being too infirm to work the way he used to. There's no news as to whether that music will ever see the light of day yet. Then again, you never know.

As it turned out, Curtain received one final hour in the spotlight before slipping this mortal coil. Last November he received the Winsor McKay Award, a lifetime achievement award from ASIFA (the animation professional's main governing body). I understand Joe Barbera was there for the presentation. Some friendships are forever.

For those who want a truly comprehensive look at Curtain's animation career, Rhino Records put out this wonderful four-CD set called 'Yogi's Pic-A-Nic Basket of Hanna-Barbera Melodies.' For those who just want the highlights, there're more than a few good samplers out there, again almost all of them from either Rhino or Warner Bros.

Further, let me just add that while it's sad to lose Curtain, it isn't just because of his musical legacy. Even at 78, Hoyt Curtain was a very happy guy who was more than glad to talk your ear off about working with his pals Bill and Joe and drop gossip on all the jazz greats that Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis are about to mummify in a ten-hour PBS special. He made you feel that if you stuck to your guns and did what you liked, life was worth living.

'I have a Website,' Curtain told me the one time I met him. 'People who get on it always want to know some darn thing. Some of the questions they asked me makes me say to myself, 'How in the world did they know that?' Other things they ask are for copies of the things like the Jonny Quest music, especially if they lead jazz bands or are in college. Usually, whenever they ask that one, I tell them they better have some good trombone players.'

Which I'm sure they have in jazz heaven or wherever it is Curtain's now writing his latest scores.

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