As Br’er Rabbit tries to escape from Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, he finally finds his “laughing place” in the inside of an American Motors car with “all season air conditioning.” Tinker Bell rescues Captain Hook from being eaten by the crocodile by flying in the nick of time with “Peter Pan Peanut Butter; it certainly is true is the favorite of people and crocodiles too.” Pretty Alice in Wonderland with the voice of Kathryn Beaumont informs folks that, “for energy, for color or just playing games, there is nothing quite like Jell-O.”
Is this an alternate animated Disney reality or a sinister synergy scheme by modern Disney executives? Actually, it is a fascinating story of Walt Disney himself and the world of television commercials in the 1950s.
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, almost all television ads were presented live, and were often just “talking heads” describing products. Animation was expensive but advertisers soon discovered it was also highly effective and many of the best-liked ads were animated.
Former Disney artists, including David Hilberman, Zack Schwartz, Shamus Culhane, Grim Natwick and Art Babbit, did television animated commercial work starting in the ‘40s. Preston Blair told animation historian Karl Cohen that he felt “like a race horse tied to a milk wagon. I wasn’t exercising my full potential at all.”
The ‘50s were a peak period for classic television animated commercials with the creation of memorable animated stars from Speedy Alka Seltzer to the Hamms Beer Bear. The ‘50s were also a time of renaissance at the Disney Studio that was still recovering from the financial hardships of World War II. While Cinderella had been a success, Walt was desperately in need of money to help maintain the studio and to finance his latest project, the world’s first theme park to be called Disneyland. Walt’s Secret Producer
Walt had already drawn the ire of other movie studios for his agreeing to produce original programming for the enemy of television that was stealing audiences from theaters. To produce television commercials was considered so beneath the status of a major movie studio that it was unthinkable. However, Walt had a plan to tap into that lucrative area and it included the use of someone he knew he could trust: a close relative.
Phyllis Bounds was the wealthy niece of Walt Disney’s wife, Lillian. According to animation historian John Canemaker, she was hard-drinking, hard-smoking, artistic, stubborn and opinionated. She was married five times.
Her third husband was George Hurrell, famous for his glamour photography of movie stars in the ‘40s. Hurrell’s style of photography had fallen out of fashion by the ‘50s and he and Phyllis started their own television production studio, located on the Disney Studio lot, to produce advertising utilizing the Disney staff. Started in 1952, Hurrell left the studio and returned to New York two years later leaving Phyllis as the “TV commercial co-coordinator” from 1954-1957. Officially, the Disney Studio was not producing the commercials, but this independent studio that happened to be on the Disney lot was.