In Memory of the Saturday Morning Cartoon

I originally ran this piece in 2014 at an old blog of mine when my son was a lot younger and Spongebob Squarepants ruled the household t.v. once we got him past that painful, say-it-with-me building block schlock on Nick, Jr. Seven years ago since that post, sheesh, and the demise of Saturday morning cartooning had already become a sore spot with me. Yeah, I still miss ’em. The first time this ran was my number one hit-getter, so I figure a little dusting off and slight revision is in order…

Let’s face the facts; Saturday morning t.v. sucks these days. Hell, it’s nonexistent. Cartoona-persona non grata…

From as far back as the Fabulous Fifties, Saturday morning airwaves were ruled by kids.  While I never grew up with Captain Video, Captain Midnight, Howdy Doody, Kit Carson and Hopalong Cassidy, I was seldom not near the boob tube from 7:00 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings from the 1970s through the Nineties.  Only until Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network made ‘toons a 24-7 anytime fix as network sold out could I be broken of my Saturday morning animation habit.  These days, I’m on the go fairly early with TJ on Saturday mornings, though we often muse together how much we miss those goofy ‘toons of yesteryear.

During the Eighties after my parents had divorced, I would still get control of the t.v. when my dad picked me up for visitations and we stopped at my grandparents’ house.  It’s to my father and my late grandparents’ credit they stomached the morning onslaught of cartoons all those years, but my Saturday morning chemical dependency carried well into the first five or six years of my former married life.  I can remember refusing to budge from the living room on Saturdays until the WB and Fox cartoons were finished before moving on with our weekend plans.  It was no different than when I grew up during the Seventies, only leaving the house to go out and play with my friends once Fat Albert had concluded.  I wasn’t alone in that.  Just ask anyone from my generation.

Most of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons were superhero-related. If you know me, you’re probably saying, well duh.  As early as the syndicated re-runs of the 1960’s Spiderman show that carried throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, I was afflicted by the Saturday morning cartoon bug.  I knew the lyrics to the Spiderman show as did most young American boys my age.  Don’t ask us to sing “Little Drummer Boy,” though, as we were bound to screw that up, even with the gimme repeat words. 

Yet it’s not just superheroes which captivated me all those years, since Star Wars and Orioles baseball also dominated my life as a youngster.  I blew my weekly allowance on comic books and trading cards as far back as I can remember, yet no matter how bad a lot of the Saturday cartoons could be (and there were thrice the amount of turkeys as there were winners), those 4 to 5 hour blocks of time became my weekly drug.  That was, until I was introduced to kung-fu flicks and Ghost Host on late Saturday nights; then my world really opened up.  Of course, I’d loved Hong Kong Phooey first…

To reiterate, there are a ton of stinkers from Saturday morning lineups of the past. I could tee off a hundred excruciating, crappy cartoons like Shirt Tales, Snorks, Gilligan’s Planet, Super Mario World, Pokémon, Pac-Man, Digimon and Dink the Little Dinosaur.   But why go there? As we all know, the primary function of cartoons is to peddle toys.  Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling was inexcusable trash, but I watched it anyway since I inexplicably liked the WWF (now WWE, of course) back then as well, and lo, those bendable action figures came trailing to toy stores right behind the show. I had a Rowdy Roddy Piper figure. Junkyard Dog, too. No shame then. That came later, when echoes of Hulk Hogan’s corn-drag entrance theme “I am a Real American” gave me shudders instead of a pump-up.  

The Nineties represent the final threshold of goodness for Saturday morning cartoons.  Not everything the WB and Fox ushered out from the mid-Nineties to the early 2000s was spot-on, but there was a lot of good stuff that came and went without long of a chance to flourish, Silver Surfer, The Magician, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Jackie Chan Adventures, The Spectacular Spiderman, X-Men:  Evolution, What’s New, Scooby-Doo and Freakazoid! being some that come to mind. 

I know we all have to grow up sometime, but it’s been years since I’ve woken up on a Saturday, switched on the t.v., filled a bowl with cereal that’s terrible for you and only gotten up from the couch to visit the bathroom during commercial breaks.  Since adopting my son, cartoons have changed and I’ve long missed the opportunity to delegate that specific block of time of mindless animation consumption.  I can put on a DVD, sure, but it’s nowhere near the same.  Poor child, what fun he missed, but then again, he’s now hit the age where he’s sleeping off Grand Theft Auto hangovers on the weekends. He looks at me in complete stupefaction when I say we used to enjoy watching The Jetsons and Johnny Bravo re-runs. He thinks I’m lying when I say he used to get me to roll out “Ohhhhhh, mama” impersonations. It breaks my heart he doesn’t remember watching Jonny Quest with me. I think we watched the Frogmen episode an easy 30 times at his request.

Truly, a road lesser traveled if there ever was one, the sad death of Saturday morning cartoons. We might as well call it a road closure at this point.

That being said, here’s a little run through some of my all-time favorite Saturday morning cartoons through the ages. Wish I could include Ahhh! Real Monsters, Ren & Stimpy, Samurai Jack, Gargoyles, Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, but those ran on all sorts of unpredictable days–and evenings–on Nick and Cartoon Network. Saturday brunch if you were lucky.

What kid doesn’t like Scooby Doo?  Along with The Simpsons and Looney Tunes, Scoob and the gang have filled decades with animated material and they just won’t quit.  We’ll forgive Hanna Barbera for the abominations that were Scrappy Doo and A Pup Named Scooby Doo. 

The greatest cartoons ever.  In my day, we were fed an hour and a half of these classics by CBS under The Bugs Bunny and Road Runner Show.  Overture…hit the lights…this is it… you know the rest if you were born before 1983.  Big raspberries go to ABC, who bought the rights to the Looney Tunes during the Nineties and then butchered the snot out of them in response to censorship pressure groups.  The cringe-worthiest of times.

What I like to think of the best cartoon to eat your cereal by, Boo Berry being my sugar-du-jour.  Superfriends is naïve and tame by today’s standards, and whoever did the coloring work should’ve been fired, since there’s at least one miscue per episode.  Still, we kids of the Seventies were young, we weren’t allowed to see anything truly explosive until Star Wars and this was the right way to come up in establishing good versus evil.  Considering what kids are raised on today, I almost weep where our well-intended (if silly in this show’s case) values have gone.

One thing I cherish about our Saturday morning programming is that we had cool stuff to watch in-between shows.  CBS had “In the News,” a modified, family-friendly look at world events back in the day that were more often than not, positive and full of inspiration.  ABC could have us zipping back from whatever station we might be on to catch Schoolhouse Rock to hopefully sing along to “Conjunction Junction,” “I’m Just a Bill,” “Interjections” or to count off by fives to “Ready Or Not, Here I Come.”  Schoolhouse Rock, like The Electric Company, defines my generation and together, I think the two are the best educational programs that have ever been conceived.

Hey hey hey…  Fat Albert broke the racial lines faster than the freedom fighters of the Sixties.  Despite his shocking shortcomings later in life, Bill Cosby managed to find a nonviolent way to cross over between races. It was to the point none of us white kids ever thought of Fat Albert and his friends as anything but teenaged boys coming up in a tough, Philly neighborhood.  They were learning life’s lessons that had nothing to do with disseminating skin pigmentation and we all learned them together.  We lived vicariously in that junkyard and thus, Fat Albert was for everyone. Nobody ever rocked tin cans and bedsprings harder.

Yeah, I admit it, don’t judge me.  I was a Smurf freak.  I suppose the equivalent nowadays is the Bronie (i.e. male fans of My Little Pony) but Smurfs somehow became transitory where it was cool for boys and girls to enjoy them, even if girls were the dominant target audience.  I didn’t care.  I thought the art was always magical and I wanted to know what it would be like to actually live in a house with a mushroom cap.  I still do, especially with the world of fae TJ has introduced me to. Those live action Smurf films, though?  As uttered sardonically in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I fart in their general direction.

Like Smurfs, Spiderman and His Amazing Friends was a big deal during the Eighties.  Both shows could often make you wince and groan at their stupidity, this one especially.  Yet, this unlikely alliance of Spiderman, Firestar and Iceman was progressive thinking for the early Eighties and with a number of other Marvel hero cameos later in the series, this was more often than not worth watching. Miss Lion was a sickeningly sweet ragamuffin mutt and Angelica Jones was subliminally hotter than her costumed alter ego.  Swarm and Video Man, though…oh, my sweet Lord…

I only played D&D for about a year on Fridays with some old friends of mine when it all came to a halt in favor of emptying bourbon bottles with pizza, Farscape, Lexx and hilarious drunken commentary thrown at Beastmaster.  Dungeons and Dragons, the Eighties cartoon, was that sleeper Saturday show many kids bailed on as the last program of the day.  It was a slow cooker, but the animation was phenomenal for its time and the action could erupt sometimes.  In its own class.

The always bodacious Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I’m still today fascinated how the first show from the Eighties became a pop culture sensation, considering Eastman and Laird’s original comic books were hardly for kids.  Looking at the Eighties show today, well, it bites the big one more often than not.  The Fox redux during the Nineties was spectacular until they marooned the Turtles in space.  The later Nickelodeon show was decent and nothing else since really matters. For nostalgic purposes and nothing else, I still dig the first series a lot.  I was working in a comic shop during this one’s long run and would read my employee-discounted funny books with this show on…after eating my cereal, of course.  This in my early 20s, just sayin’. I’d also dated a girl who had to put on a Raphael costume for a promotion at another job from yesteryear when this show was red-hot.  She once offered to do improper things to me with the costume on, and I’m hardly a prude, but yick.

Along with The Simpsons and Batman:  The Animated Series, Animaniacs was one of the greatest ‘toons of the Nineties and of all-time, in my opinion.  Nobody has the guts or patience to hurl a hundred one-liners in eight minute skits anymore, but Animaniacs did, and they could leave your sides throbbing from the relentless flurry of comedy.  The Great Wakkarotti.  Need I say more?  Also worth mentioning, spinoff Pinky and the Brain was genius on all sorts of levels and indirect spinoff Freakazoid! was the little engine that could, but got stalled by the powers that be…dubba dubba…

I’m lumping these together, since there was a Batman and Superman team-up show that merged after the successful run of Batman:  The Animated Series and Superman.  Individually, both heroes prospered in the Nineties with fantastic, hard-hitting shows.  Batman:  The Animated Series first started out on Sunday nights, then flocked to Saturdays and weekday afternoons.  I still have yet to see a superhero series that effectively merges noir with traditional heroing like Batman:  The Animated Series.  Superman’s show was almost as brilliant, never short on energy.  Together, they outclassed even X-Men, which did for well itself during the Nineties in its regular show and X-Men:  Evolution.  Let’s not forget Batman Beyond, which surpassed all expectations by putting an elderly Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon in the future to keep a rein over the young new Batdude, who wasn’t too shabby in his far-flung cyber adventures.

One of the first CGI animated shows to crop up, Reboot was exceptional with its fantastic imagery and it was shrewder than even Tron at bringing the computer world to life by using allegory and characterizations of central processing lingo.  I’m old school and prefer traditional animation, but Reboot captivated me and sold me on CGI (now the norm instead of the exception) along with Beast Wars, Action Man, Max Steel and Cybersix. 

The Transformers franchise can thank the electrifying Beast Wars and Beast Machines for holding the fort until the recent return to the classic robots in disguise format.  Both series were also testing grounds for the Transformers movie series in terms of seeing how far CGI could be fluidly morphed and pushed.  Frankly, I prefer the “Beast” shows, outmoded as they already appear in light of technological advances.  There was always a striving for purity between conflicting machina and the organic worlds they battled over.  These two series were hitting the green campaign trail long before that Gore guy.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

The Forgotten Fortune Lady in Ocean City, Maryland

Clairvoyance is a touch-and-go phenomenon that requires an unspoken commitment between two parties, the central force summoned between them being called “belief.” Many of us have faith, or at least show a curiosity in the forecasting skills of mediums, oracles, seers, palm readers or those highly attuned with their magickal third eye. Nostradamus being one of the most revered visionaries in the history of humankind, we still find fascination and criticism in his ancient quatrains. On the flipside, the famous 16th Century witch, Ursula Southeil, aka Mother Shipton, and the more derogatory tag, “Hag Face,” was so feared and so accurate with her prophecies in England, she was thought to be the daughter of Satan himself.

The true essence of witchcraft actually rejects the idea of the devil, but try telling that to the insidious Court of Oyer and the Terminer in Salem, 1692. Before I delve too far into the maudlin or arcane, I am a believer in fate, much less clairvoyance. I am spiritually aligned to a belief system grounded not only in nature but lofted into the all-encompassing universe, ushered to by the God and Goddess–which is to speak collectively, not singularly. Soothsaying, or ESP, in more contemporary jargon, comes part and parcel. Thus I openly receive messages from the Lord and Lady, which are sent to me through my personal pantheon, and through communing with mortal followers bearing their gifts of second sighting.

Still being new to the path and merely a dabbler with my Thoth Tarot deck, I recently had a spot-on Tarot reading from a new friend, a more seasoned reader. Her card laying matched exactly what TJ had drawn for me a month ago. Rookie I may be, I even pulled similar cards in a draw-three session of my own. The Chariot card being the common denominator in all of these readings on my behalf, I take comfort knowing I am in firm control of my own destiny.

Which leads me into the realm of novelty and coin-operated fortune telling machines. If you’ve watched the movie Big with Tom Hanks, you’re already muttering the name of Zoltar as you read this. We’ve all, at one time or another, dropped the coin and half-excitedly, half-nervously waited to see what lies in wake for us after all the proverbial bells and whistles of the whimsical fortune telling machines have spun their would-be sorcery.

A fortune telling machine, especially a Zoltar, is a momentary diversion, offering a somewhat right, mostly off-center calling of one’s future. Often you read your fortune card, you laugh at what it got wrong, call what it got right mere coincidence, and toss it into the nearest trash can before moving on to whatever your immediate path calls to you to do.

Then again, sometimes you have to wonder… Can a set of grinding gears, surrounded by blaring arcade noise, actually be spot-on with what it’s trying to tell you?

Swallowed in a deep, dark spot near a cramped set of air hockey tables at Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, Maryland, is a relatively hidden gem most people never see. I quietly call her Esmeralda, but my mother, who introduced me to her years ago, simply calls her “THE Fortune Lady.” Emphasis on “THE,” like NFL players do when introducing themselves and their college alma maters. As in, the only one that matters.

My video game-addicted son has soured my long-ago love of arcades, but anytime I’m at the inlet in Ocean City, I’m usually compelled to take a walk into Marty’s Playland and visit my old, beat-up gypsy soothsayer. It’s as mandatory a stop as Thrasher’s Fries. If you’re been to Ocean City, Maryland, you know full-well what I mean.

Of course, the line of for Thrasher’s is always at a constant, while Esmeralda is always waiting for a nostalgic sap like me to come put into her action. In the way of arcade amusements, she is a refined relic of her time from the 1940s, though you see the maintenance done to restore her broken ceramic hand. She stares in silence at her card spread amongst other vintage Skeeball, Pokerino, Crane Digger and pinball machines, but once you feed the quarter, she elegantly glides her weathered hand in the same silence a few times until your fortune card drops. Backing up a moment, what actually costs a quarter to play in an arcade anymore?

Over the years, Esmeralda has been scary good in matching her “visions” to my life to the point I’ve exercised full, continuous suspension of disbelief. This is no novelty to me. Nor has it been to my mother, who has visited Esmeralda since she was a teenager herself generations ago.

Last year, I visited Ocean City by myself on an errand for my late father. Naturally, I ate my Thrasher’s before hitting Esmeralda. The fortune I drew that day predicted my exact path and chain of events leading to my reunion with TJ, who has since become my girlfriend. TJ, being a Wiccan priestess and a solid oracle reader in her own right, later obliged me with a visit to Esmeralda for fun, though I sensed her skepticism. Fair enough, however, you be the judge in the result of our trip to see THE Fortune Lady…

TJ drew the exact same fortune I did prior to us getting together. Now you can take the low road and say those fortune cards are a dime a dozen, printed up and stuffed into Esmeralda’s mechanical guts with zero cosmic power to it. I, personally, take the higher road…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.