The loss last week of baseball’s Yogi Berra deprived us of a legendary athlete and a remarkable human being. His inspired mangling of the American language in itself will ensure that he never be forgotten. As he himself put it, “I never said most of the things I said." Still, you’ve got to love someone who’s at least capable of coining such phrases as “The future ain't what it used to be,” as well as “Half the lies they tell about me aren't true” and the evergreen “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.” There’s a kind of rough wisdom in Yogi Berra-isms, like “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
Beyond this, Yogi Berra inspired one of Hollywood’s most beloved characters. Yes, I’m talking about Yogi Bear. He was created by the Hanna-Barbera animation team in 1958, as a supporting player on the Huckleberry Hound TV cartoon series, but became so popular that he got his own show three years later. On his decidedly family-friendly series, Yogi hangs out in Jellystone Park with his young sidekick, Boo Boo, stealing picnic baskets, tussling with Park Ranger Smith, and frequently proclaiming himself “smarter than the av-er-age bear!" Over the years he’s appeared in scores of TV shows, animated features, and made-for-TV movies. As recently as 2010, he was featured in a 3-D film, and also starred in a Nintendo video game.
To my surprise Yogi Berra, the Yankee legend, was not thrilled by the introduction of Yogi Bear. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Berra actually sued Hanna-Barbera for defamation, but lost the case when the other side somehow convinced the judge that the similarity of the two names was pure coincidence. Hey, who wouldn’t want to be the inspiration for a lovable cartoon character? Personally, I suspect I’d be flattered. But of course, as Yogi Berra himself (maybe) said, “There are some people who, if they don't already know, you can't tell 'em.”
At the time Yogi Bear first appeared, Hanna-Barbera was a new company, founded in 1957 by two former MGM animation directors who had once created Tom and Jerry. Yogi’s success soon led to a raft of other Hanna-Barbera TV shows. The ones I remember are from the Sixties. The Flintstones, which surfaced in 1960 as a primetime series, was a sitcom with a difference: its transformation of suburban family life into pre-historic days was so cleverly realized that it amused kids and parents alike. And then, having conquered the caveman era, Hanna-Barbera took a similar nuclear family into the future with The Jetsons, another show made with real wit (but certainly not the kind of snarkiness we expect in TV animation today).
As an entertainment journalist I visited Hanna-Barbera only once, while writing an article on voice actors. It was my pleasure to watch a recording session (for something called The New Shmoo Show) during which talented adults played a fascinating game of let’s pretend. Here’s what I wrote in Performing Arts magazine about the much-admired Frank Welker, who starred as Al Capp’s lovable Shmoo character: “Like many voice people, Welker immerses himself in a character so totally that he punctuates his lines with emphatic body language. While he chortles, squeaks, and makes remarkable ‘greeble’ sounds, his hands saw the air and his face contorts into truly Shmoo’ish expressions.”
Watching Frank Welker perform was a delight. And I would have been delighted to meet Yogi Berra too. I’ll sign off with one final all-too-apt Berra-ism: “You should always go to other people's funerals; otherwise, they won't come to yours.”