Felix, Herc, & More: The Animated History of Joe Oriolo
By John C. Alsedek:
Kids are dumb. And by "kids," I mean "me." And by "dumb," I mean "unobservant." Ten-year-old John watched a lot of television during the summer—usually late at night but also during the afternoon when the weather wasn’t conducive to outdoor shenanigans. And just as my nights were filled with black-&-white shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Honeymooners, and Thriller that seemed to belong to some ancient TV netherworld, so too were those rainy afternoons. Bland, inoffensive crap such as Super Friends and an endless stream of Scooby Doo ripoffs populated Saturday mornings and held no interest for me. But on weekdays between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., all sorts of random cartoons from the sixties aired.
And as I learned years later, two of my favorites were made by the same man: Joe Oriolo.
Joseph Oriolo was born in Union City, New Jersey, in 1913. Born to a family of Italian immigrants, Joe was fascinated by cartoon animation at a very young age and spent his teenage years honing his drawing skills. At age 20, Oriolo got his foot in the door at the famous Fleischer Studios (the chief competitor of Walt Disney during the 1930s). He started as an errand boy, but his talent and determination saw him promoted to animator within a year. He was with Fleischer Studios through the rest of the thirties, learning his craft on shorts and feature-length films such as Gulliver’s Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town. When Fleischer Studios was purchased by Paramount in 1942 and became Famous Studios, Oriolo stayed on. But he was already stretching his wings.
Three years earlier, Oriolo and author Seymour Reit had created a character that remains popular to this day: Casper the Friendly Ghost. The duo had written three children’s books starring Casper, and while they would later sell the rights to Famous Studios for a pittance due to Oriolo’s contract with the company, the experience kindled the fire in Oriolo to strike out on his own. He left Famous Studios in 1944, working as a freelance animator and teaming up with another Famous Studio alumnus, Otto Messmer, to work on the Felix the Cat comic books. This led to Oriolo being asked to take over the Felix the Cat daily comic strips (published by King Features Syndicate) and then to the partnership that would truly launch his career.
In 1958, Oriolo and William O. Sullivan, nephew of Felix the Cat copyright owner Pat Sullivan, formed Felix the Cat Productions, Inc. and created the Felix the Cat TV series that would run for 260 episodes and air in syndication for the next two decades. Riding this initial success, Oriolo got two more animated series into syndication in 1963. One was an animated version of the successful comic strip Beetle Bailey. And the other? One of the two shows I referenced at the beginning. It was The Mighty Hercules, which took the demigod hero from Greek mythology and followed his exploits over the course of 128 five-minute episodes.
Sure, I may have snickered at the lyrics of the theme song (“Softness in his eyes, iron in his thighs, virtue in his heart, fire in every part . . . of the Mighty Hercules!”), but it was sung with such earnestness by Johnny Nash (a successful musical artist who would, in 1972, release the hit single "I Can See Clearly Now") that it was hard not to like. Plus, having read Edith Hamilton’s classic Mythology, it was fun actually knowing the ancient Greek references brought up on The Mighty Hercules, such as Daedalus, Charon, and the Nemean Lion—even if the characters didn’t always match up with their mythological counterparts. (Side note: the original voice of Hercules on the show was David Hartman, who would go on to find much greater fame on ABC’s Good Morning America.)
As for the other show, that came along four years later: Johnny Cypher in Dimension Zero, which had a run of 131 six-minute episodes from 1967 until 1968. This one became a favorite of mine not necessarily based on its own merits (even as an undiscerning youngster, I found it to be pretty "not-good") but because it was a little mysterious to me—both because it was a cartoon that popped up more sporadically than some of the others and because I wasn’t entirely sure what the heck was going on when the title character (a future scientist with an unusual gift) went all tornado-y (apparently, that was the manifestation of Johnny accessing "Dimension Zero").
By the time I was discovering The Mighty Hercules and Johnny Cypher in Dimension Zero on WPHL Channel 17 during the early-to-mid seventies, Joe Oriolo had moved on to other things. On the passing of William O. Sullivan in 1971, Oriolo took full control of Felix the Cat and spent the rest of his life promoting the character, as well as producing other projects such as Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977). For his efforts over the years, Oriolo received a Golden Award from the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists’ Association in 1984, just a year before his death.
Since then, Joe’s son Don has carried on the family’s Felix tradition, being heavily involved in such projects as the 1988 film Felix the Cat: The Movie, CBS’s The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat (1995–1997), and the Japanese series Baby Felix (2000–2001). Even after Dreamworks acquired the rights to Felix the Cat in 2014, Don Oriolo has remained the frisky feline’s #1 ambassador. He even sells a variety of Felix-inspired stringed instruments via his guitar company, Oriolo Guitars!
I'm going to wrap this up with a bit of trivia: do you know what The Mighty Hercules, giant arena scoreboards, and my favorite movie theater as a kid have in common? Trans-Lux, that’s what! Next time, I’ll be looking at the story of how the electronics manufacturer was once a major player in the entertainment industry. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.