Q & A WITH FORMER HB PROGRAM ADMINISTRATOR, BARBARA SIMON DIERKS
by C.L. Murphy
If you were a youngster in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, chances are you shared in the same Saturday morning ritual that many your age once did, watching cartoons. Television used to be the main source of entertainment for kids, but their viewing habits have changed dramatically as other choices distract them away. Cable channels, along with cartoon focused networks, have altered the Saturday morning dynamic. Other entertainment, such as video games, computer technology, animated stories and apps, have also contributed to the demise of the Saturday morning lineup.
Hanna-Barbera Productions, became a household name, as it dominated American television animation during the second half of the 20th century. HB was the first animation studio to successfully produce cartoons for television. Many of their characters are cultural icons.
As my guest, please welcome, Barbara Simon Dierks. Barbara worked with William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for 12 years from 1978 to 1990. She left HB, as their program administrator, after being offered a position at Warner Brothers.
Thank you for joining us, Barbara and answering a few questions about your career at Hanna-Barbera.
What was it like to work with THE pioneers of children’s entertainment?
Joseph Barbera and Bill Hanna were wonderful. A hoot! Each man so different and, to me, both so endearing. My joke regarding Mr. Hanna is: As the “Master in charge of Production” I credit him with my child delivery on exactly the day he was due. Mr. Barbera’s door was always open, and he was charming, charming, charming.
How did the dynamic duo’s personalities compliment one another?
One made the deal. The other delivered the product. Business always. As It’s been said, they truly represented principles before personalities.
You were involved with an impressive list of popular productions including, Scooby-Doo, and The Smurfs. Is there any production that stands out as memorable and why?
The Smurfs series lasted 8 wonderful years. I met and came to know the creator, Peyo and worked with a wonderful, brilliant, clever and a huge writing staff. It was a sweet time. The writers on this show enjoyed the trips to Belgium (which happened often). It was a productive and very fun time. The meetings with Peyo, the network NBC, and the HB staff, were huge and on going. Lunch and snacks were always included. We weren’t curing cancer, but everyone was working very hard.
FYI: Pierre Culliford (25 June 1928 – 24 December 1992), known as Peyo, was a Belgian comics artist, perhaps best known for the creating The Smurfs.
On Saturday, June 22, 2013, in celebration on Peyo’s birthday, GLOBAL SMURF DAY was celebrated.
Read the review of the The Smurfs Anthology Book 1 (release date-June 25, 2013)
Working in such a creative environment with some of the best known animators and writers, in the business, must have been very rewarding. Anything you’d like to share that may surprise people about the work?
I was not responsible for the artists, Iwao Takamoto and Jayne Barbera held that honor, but I can tell you that HB had the best. They were a wonderful group. You should have seen them dress up for Halloween. Yes, Mr. Hanna liked Halloween and for quite awhile everyone was encouraged to dress up. Ah the artists!! At that time there were no computers, every storyboard was all hand drawn. Now imagine that!
I thought the writers were unique. They were clever, creative, loved animation and cartoons. They were not an arrogant group. When I was administrator, the writers were young, Friz Freleng and Tex Avery considered “The Old Guard” were revered. It was a mutual admiration society. Friz and Tex loved to work with the kids, and the young writers would love to sit and talk and talk with the older guard that were still around. Mr. Barbera loved having all the writers around. If I thought we should grab a talented writer, all I had to do was ask him, and he would make it so.
As broadcast standards changed, network executives began taking the concerns of young children’s parents seriously, and it became increasingly more difficult to produce new material under such sanitized limitations. Shows’ themes often needed to demonstrate positive or ethical values. How did this impact your work as an administrator and what challenges did you face with the limitations?
Oh my goodness! The writers had a deadline for outlines and the finished story. It would then be sent to the network for approval. The network executives had a deadline, also set in order, to keep the production on time. Then their critique would go back to the writer. Every one had to meet with the schedules. Always, the content was important. You could not write anything a kid could replicate at home to potentially harm himself. That was something Mr.Hanna and Mr. Barbera never worried about with Tom and Jerry, and the new writers grew up on those old cartoons and cherished them. Now they had to listen to people, from the networks, who did not write, but had plenty of opinions and had approval rights. That was very difficult. Think of the Road Runner! Cartoons now had to be educational, fair, not getting rough and still be funny. It was not an easy job. Cartoon writers think outside of the box and the parameters were difficult. Again, this was a different venue; Saturday morning was a different ball game. Hanna-Barbera, Friz and Tex all began their careers creating for an adult audience.
The limited budget was always a factored concern with television productions. HB was instrumental in developing what’s known as limited animation, a cost effective way to produce television animation. Did the adaption to limited animation reduce the quality of the production and if so, did the artists have a concern over loss of detail?
Sure. The quality was different, but artists were aware of the budgets. It was business. Johnny Quest, The Jetsons, Scooby Doo did not suffer. They were great cartoons and kids and grown ups “loved them”. The Smurfs quality was good. Warners Bros. Animanics was excellent and that my friend was due to computers.
William Hanna died in 2001 and Joe Barbera died in 2006, both living into their 90s. If they were alive today, do you think they would be surprised at how some of the characters have stood the test of time, in particular the Smurfs? The movie The Smurfs 2 is scheduled to be released in July 2013.
They would not be surprised. They would go on a talk show and tell marvelous stories. That’s what they would do.
A little bird told me that Friz Freleng had nicknamed you, Barbara, “The Danny Kaye of Hanna-Barbera.” (Okay, not a little bird…I saw the cartoon that Friz drew for you, of The Pink Panther doing a Flash Dance, and referring to you as such.) Danny Kaye, for some who may not know, was a beloved actor, singer, dancer, but was probably best known for his physical comedy, in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. He was a great entertainer. Friz’ nickname for you aptly fits, as you are a treasure, an entertainer in your own right!