By Alex Khan
For 47 years across 321 covers, The Saturday Evening Post was defined by the artwork of Norman Rockwell.
Yet just hours earlier and transmitted into houses across the country emerged a wholly distinct cannon belonging to Americana — the Saturday morning cartoon. Pulling back the curtain on one of the studios responsible for propelling animation into the cultural zeitgeist is the latest exhibit to arrive at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Hanna-Barbera: The Architects of Saturday Morning.
The exhibit is the brainchild of Jesse M. Kowalski, the curator of exhibitions at the museum, who pitched the idea in March 2015, shortly after being hired by the Stockbridge institution.
“I tried to communicate the story of how cartoons evolved in society,” Kowalski says, “from film shorts to hosted TV programs, to 30-minute series in syndications, then to Saturday morning cartoons, and then primetime.”
Highlighting this evolution begins early on, with a television monitor playing Bill Hanna’s first short, 1936’s “To Spring”, before another monitor segues through three openings the animation house produced for the television series Bewitched.
And just like Elizabeth Montgomery’s Bewitched character Samantha Stevens, the museum exhibition contains layers of nuance that individuals must unlock over time.
These are presented to visitors through a vast assortment of materials, compiled from 14 different lenders and the Hanna-Barbera Archives at Warner Brothers — the current owner of many of the characters’ copyrights — as well as a digital database in which visitors can encounter the classic cartoon characters.
In total, 249 pieces of original artwork, 2 videos, 300 toys and collectibles, and nearly 30 individual archival objects have been spread about four galleries and 2,900 square feet.
“I wanted to remind people of the quality and vast quantity of materials produced by the studio,” says Kowalski, who also took time to catalogue what societal events were occurring in tandem with particular Hanna-Barbera productions.
Being a curator, Kowalski needed to decide what amongst the vast quantity of work represented Hanna-Barbera’s “Golden Age.” He consulted animation experts and four decades’ worth of cartoonists and artists who worked for the company from the 1960s to 1990s.
“In 1957, when MGM closed their animation unit, Hanna and Barbera began hiring the best talent — men who had worked on Betty Boop, Popeye, Fleischer’s Superman, Disney, and Looney Tunes,” Kowalski says. “When you look at the ranking of cartoons by animation experts, many of these men created the greatest cartoons of all time.”
And while it may be called the Golden Age by the exhibition, the pinpointed timeframe between 1958 and 1969 may be more easily recognized by Huckleberry Hound to Scooby Doo — a time when many animation production houses were ceasing production.
By presenting an exhibition in which Rockwell’s realism is exchanged for eccentricity, the museum envisions its hallways populated by visitors of all ages.
“I also want to bring younger audiences into the museum so they can experience the artwork of Norman Rockwell, in addition to the temporary exhibit,” Kowalski says. “Perhaps someone who liked Hanna-Barbera, but wasn’t familiar with Norman Rockwell, will leave with a different outlook.”
Building an infrastructure connecting education with entertainment also pushed the museum to expand its programming. A monthly Saturday morning cartoon program orchestrated by Kowalski is now featured as part of the museum’s offerings, and former Hanna-Barbera animator Bob Singer, known for his work on The Flintstones, Jonny Quest, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, Tom and Jerry, The Jetsons, and more, will give a talk at the museum on May 13.
“I think, to me, the richness of character design and sense of reckless abandon made me feel like cartoons had a life of their own and were somehow more than just the sum of their parts” says Scott Lincoln, a cartoonist and frequent instructor at the museum. He notes that cartoons, like jazz, are a distinctly American art form: “What better place to showcase them than the home of one of America’s most beloved artist/illustrator, Norman Rockwell?”
But at its core, the exhibit is made to elicit the feelings and memories that old and young audiences hold around the iconic characters and the themes of laughter, friendship, and family defining Hanna-Barbera.
“One woman told me she’d never been so happy to be in an art museum,” recalls Kowalski, “and another said her face hurt by the end from smiling so much.”
Hanna-Barbera: The Architects of Saturday Morning will be on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum until May 29. For more information, visit nrm.org.