Ruth Bass: Fred Flintstone can still draw a wide audience

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RICHMOND — When the Hanna-Barbera team took Saturday morning television by storm, they gave dozens of memorable characters to several generations of children. They gave us something special, too - a chance to sleep in. Our kids were safely in the hands of Fred Flintstone and his pal Barney Rubble. And now the stone-agers are bringing several generations of people to Stockbridge.

Gathering the many pieces for the Norman Rockwell show titled "Hanna-Barbera: The Architects of Saturday Morning" was no small feat. But curator Jesse Kowalski quickly discovered that once the word was out, his goal was in sight. It was his suggestion that the Rockwell consider a Hanna-Barbera exhibit in line with their expanding mission of devoting space to American illustrators other than Rockwell.

It took 18 months to bring together the 300 toys and 254 pieces of original artwork, and anyone who reads the little cards next to paintings, drawings and other kinds of art at a museum quickly realizes that this show has a lot of owners. Kowalski's concern about getting enough pieces vanished not long after he started to ask. About half of the artwork came from the Warner Brothers archives, and an early contact with animation historian Jerry Beck provided Kowalski with leads to other sources, which led to even more.

"People kept calling," he said last week, "to tell me things like, `I have this rare storyboard.' The material was out there, and the lenders were willing. One of the exciting things was that "most of the pieces have not been seen by the public before."

He's also pleased to report that attendance for this time of year is up about 30 percent. Apparently Fred Flintstone still carries a lot of weight.

Once the pieces were chosen, it was up to Martin Mahoney, director of curatorial operations, to coordinate shipments, take care of insurance and make sure everything would arrive safely. That part, Kowalski said, "is quite a task." But so was framing some 200 pieces after they reached Stockbridge. "They were loose sheets that collectors stored in drawers," Kowalski said. To round out the exhibit, Kowalski interviewed many people involved with animation, including historians like Beck, and did research on popular culture.

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The partnership of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera dates back to the days when going to the movies included a B film, newsreel — remember Paramount's Eyes and Ears of the World? — an A film and cartoons. A Supreme Court decision in 1948 changed all that when the justices ruled that the major movie studios could no longer own the theaters and thus dictate what would be shown. The fallout not only ended a monopoly, but also the cartoons.

Tom and Jerry were big in the theaters, and their creators, Hanna and Barbera, quickly looked for a new venue. They persuaded NBC television to try a Saturday morning cartoon fest, which took off. The history is on the walls in Stockbridge now and until May 29.

Yabba-dabba-doo became part of the American lexicon, and we called our teen-agers Barney Rubble when their rooms went out of control. Our Huckleberry Hound beach towel was a treasure until it was in shreds. We even had a friend who sometimes answered his phone with a cheerful "Scooby-Doo!"

Now Jesse Kowalski is negotiating to send Fred, Barney, Wilma, the Jetsons and all the other Hanna-Barbera creations on the road, hoping the show will go to several venues. And he's working on an exhibit around the Spiderwick Chronicles, creation of best-selling author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi.

Kowalski came to Stockbridge from The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh charged with developing "exciting shows that will bring in families that might not otherwise come." Lots of families were there when we visited, with the smallest people enjoying the glass cabinets of Hanna-Barbera toys in the center of each room. Some 300 are on display, most of them loaned by collector David Nimitz, who owns a total of 4,000 Hanna-Barbera figures. Kowalski says a whole wall of the Nimitz house in California is devoted to Fred Flintstone alone. Fred would no doubt shout "yabba " — well, you know.

Ruth Bass is author of three historical novels. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.


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