When Michael Eisner took over The Walt Disney Company in late 1984, he compared the studio with one of its most famous movies. Disney was a Sleeping Beauty, having lain dormant, virtually suspended in time, for more than a decade. Eisner, who came from Paramount Pictures by way of ABC TV, was quick to show off his Disney bona fides, because he was coming in to take over what was until that point a family-run company, including the years after founder Walt Disney passed away in 1966.
The studio was producing flop after flop at the box office, had no consistent TV output, and relied heavily on theme parks that were showing their age. Disney had, in short, fallen behind in a new Hollywood order driven by ‘80s capitalist culture and strict new corporate regimes. Eisner, with his trademark energy and ability to mint hits, had big plans to revive Disney, in part by using its past and legacy to fuel big expansions.
At Paramount, Eisner oversaw both the film and TV units and developed plenty of prime-time hits. His plan for Disney leaned heavily on TV to produce new characters and a generation of new, young fans. To get the ball rolling, he asked assistants to summon several creatives already working at the company to meet at his home a few days after he began his reign at Disney.
The small brain trust at that initial meeting included Tad Stones, who was with feature animation, and Jymn Magon and Gary Kriesel, who worked in the company’s music division.
SYFY WIRE spoke with several of that day’s participants and over half a dozen artists and actors who worked directly on the many shows that made up what would become known as The Disney Afternoon, headlined by the shows Adventures of the Gummi Bears, DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, and Goof Troop. This is the story of how a DIY outfit working with Mickey’s leftovers turned into a sprawling empire of its own, embodying Eisner's time at the company, with all the major successes and challenges that Disney itself faced.
Tad Stones (artist/producer): It was very important to Michael. It was the end of his first official week at Disney, it was a Sunday at his house.
Jymn Magon (writer/producer): He said, "I want to pull together the most creative people I can get my hands on and talk to them about a new department." He got hold of Gary Krisel’s name, I suppose because of our success at the music company. I produced a Mickey Mouse Disco, which had sold 3 million copies.
Tad Stones: It was basically his feeling that Disney was the top name in animation and it should be everywhere that animation is. So that doesn't mean that television animation has to look like feature animation, but it should be the best television animation.
Rob LaDuca (artist/producer): He said that Disney animation is not being shown anywhere anymore. It was hoarded away in the archives. Back then they weren't even showing the old Mickey shorts or anything. It was treated like these were holy relics. Eisner came in and said we're a company and we need to capitalize on our character and our innovation and our style. And that's when the floodgates opened.
Stones: He said, "We have this huge side of the company called licensing, and currently we're doing pictures at the rate of one every four or five years. Licensing and merchandising come from television.”
In a New York Times story that outlined his ambitions, Eisner promised to take major characters out of the vault. “You could finance a new Disney World by the unused value of our film and television library,” he told the newspaper, suggesting that classic characters would be used liberally. That wasn’t immediately the case.
Stones: In that very first meeting at his house, I pitched Mickey and the Space Pirates. It was a project I had already in color boards and things like that. They loved it, but Michael said, "No, he's the symbol of the company, we can't touch him until we know we can do him right."
I was in that initial meeting and then I went back to features, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. And then about eight or nine months later I switched to TV animation.
So the new division, which did not exist yet, had to come up with all brand-new ideas… or at least ideas that didn’t risk cheapening some of the most iconic characters in pop culture history. Luckily, one was already in development, even before Disney TV Animation was established.
Magon: Eisner said that they had this idea called "Jumble Isle," which actually turned out to conflict with a Hasbro project. So we made a deal that combined the two and put out the TV show The Wuzzles.
David Wiemers (writer/producer): Mark Evanier had done the very first pilot episode for The Wuzzles, but Disney didn't have a television department. They had nobody to actually do the series. So Ken Koonce, my writing partner at the time, the two of us were one of like 200 writer/producers who were called in to pitch the second episode.
We heard CBS pitch their version of The Wuzzles, and then we heard Disney pitch their version of The Wuzzles, and we walked out of there saying, "I don't really think CBS or Disney knows what The Wuzzles is, so why don't we just come up with what we think The Wuzzles could be, and we'll pitch that when we're called back?"
And that's exactly what we did, and CBS turned to Disney and said, "See, that's what we think The Wuzzles is." And Disney looked at them and said, "No, that's what we think The Wuzzles is." And we got episode number two.
*Their version of The Wuzzles was a show about cartoonish animal crossbreeds, two different species stacked together, with names like Butterbear (half butterfly, half bear) and Hoppopotamus (a rabbit and a hippopotamus).
The Wuzzles premiered on CBS in September 1985. Wiemers and Koonce’s episode two had so impressed Disney that the company gave them the third episode — which meant yanking it from another writer — and then ultimately made the duo the show’s story editors, the equivalent of showrunners.
Wiemers: We were cranking out a show a week. They were literally building the television department and even the building as we were trying to put this together. They were building our office, and they put us in a room that was actually completed, and it was going to become a conference room, but it was jam-packed with other desks and drawers and equipment.
Ken and I were trying to write the show in this kind of environment. It was craziness. And this was also the time when computers were just coming out, so we were not only trying to write the show, but we were trying to learn how to use a computer at the same time. My secretary always screamed at me, "Save on a floppy disk!"
The chaotic production still brought in impressive names for the voice cast — including some of Wiemers and Koonce’s childhood heroes.
Wiemers: We thought, "Oh, wouldn't it be fun to bring back the old Laugh-In gang?” Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In had been such a big hit in the '60s. So we had Jo Anne Worley (who voiced Hoppopotamus), Henry Gibson (Eleroo and Girafbra), and Ruth Buzzi as voices. Those were people who I watched when I was growing up, so it was a thrill to be working with them.
The creative staff on Disney’s next show, Adventures of the Gummi Bears, also dealt with threadbare conditions at first.
Jymn Magon: They brought in a guy a who had worked on a movie called Galavant, Art Vitello. I remember Michael Webster [the head of the TV division] bringing Art into my office and saying, “Jim, this is Art; Art, this is Jim. You two are married now.” And he walked out of the room.
I was left there working on Gummi Bears with Art, and he said we gotta get some artists in here. He brought in some people he had worked with. They didn't have offices, so they stuck them way on the backlot over by the tea room. There were no tables for them, no light boards or anything like that.
Ken Anderson, now enshrined as a Disney Legend, was an art director for years at the company. He recommended a young artist named Michael Peraza, who worked in the feature film division, to do some work for the nascent TV division.
Peraza: When I was dropping stuff off for Gummi Bears, I would walk across the street and there was a little hole-in-a-wall little office that they had taken. Some really little offices just right across the street from the employee's exit. They weren't even on the lot. And we would drop things off and, at one point, we finally got our own little building. There was maybe, oh, I'd say just 20 of us or something.
We could actually get the entire studio together in our little kitchen for birthdays. And you don't do that these days.
Ed Wexler was one of the first artists hired by Vitello; they knew one another from working on the Lord of the Rings cartoon in the late ‘70s. Wexler also happened to be old friends with LaDuca from back when they lived in New York.
Wexler: I may have been the last person to draw a picture in that building. They were moving out the desks and chairs, and they were emptying out the building to renovate it, for executives. They set me up in a room in there to draw, alone. I didn't have a light table. I just had a regular table, I didn't even have a drawing table, so I taped things up on a window.
In 1987 Disney and Hasbro were sued over the provenance of The Wuzzles. Turns out someone else had also come up with the idea of mixing animals together, a coincidence that produced this very entertaining decision and no legal consequences.
Wiemers: We were working on the second season of it, and then CBS decided not to renew it; later ABC picked it up instead. But in the meantime, Ken and I were on staff there, and Disney said, "We need more shows. Keep coming up with shows."
Even with the success of The Wuzzles, Disney was still cautious about using its iconic characters in new TV shows, which were made on fast timelines and smaller budgets. At that first meeting at Eisner’s house, the new CEO gave an early taste of his desire to marry marketing, merchandising, and creative development.
Magon: The one show that came completely out of thin air was the Gummi Bears. I remember Michael saying that his kids had just come back from camp and all they could talk about was this new candy called gummy bears, which is the German for “rubber bears.” And I'm always kind of amazed by this, because he didn't know who I was or anything, but he turned to me and he said, "Make me a show called Gummy Bears."
I thought, this guy's wacko. And we thought if we ignore him, he'll just go away.
LaDuca: Michael Eisner's kid loved the candy. He just threw the idea out there and they thought he was joking. But he was serious.
Wexler: Michael Eisner's sons were always involved. I spent a lot of time at Disney as a creative director in Special Projects. There was a period of time where Eisner was into the Mighty Ducks and we did animation for the jumbotron, and every time we went down there to meet the players or the people there, one of Eisner's boys was on the ice practicing his shot.
The TV animation crew learned their lesson about Eisner's sons' influence early on.
Magon: He called me about two weeks later and said, "Where's my show?" And I said, "Oh God, I'm working on it. It's great!”
So I quickly typed up something that was just really terrible. It was horrible because it was like a knee-jerk, sixth-grader reaction to "Let's do a show about candy." We had a villain named Licorice Whip and we had Scummi Gummi and it was horrible. But at least it got written up and got copyrighted. And we started development from there.
Peraza: When they were doing Gummi Bears, the first thing I thought of was, “Oh my god, you got to be kidding me. You're basing this on the candy?” I couldn't believe it. And so then we heard Michael Eisner’s son loved gummy bears. Which, you know, I enjoy them too, but I'm not sure I would make a TV show called Butterfingers or Mars bars or Snickers.
Wexler: The only thing we got from Disney corporate to develop the show was these preliminary color sketches of the main characters and the title Gummi Bears. So Magon and Art Vitello put together the bible of the show, and what the show was going to be, and while they were doing that I was developing visuals. The characters existed in a very preliminary sort of way, done through the Consumer Products division.
Peraza was brought in to work on those characters.
Peraza: Some of the real preliminary character designs were done by Thom Enriquez. He did some really good stuff. I just wasn't real crazy about some of the characterizations. It didn't really have a lot of what I was looking for in some of the shapes. But you don't want to change everything around, because you're trying to make a cohesive pitch. They ended up using the pieces I did, and they're still using them decades later, which is scary.
Wexler, meanwhile, focused on everything else, from the world of Gummi Glen to their vehicles.
LaDuca: They were the kind of Bavarian bears depicted on the gummy bear package. They thought that's the style of Pinocchio and Snow White, so they went looking at archives at Pinocchio and took that heavy timbered kind of Bavarian look.
Wexler: In the animation building there's a long hallway that goes through the first floor, and it's always been set up for people to show their friends and family the animation process. They have rough story sketches, rough animation, clean animation, examples of background layouts. And they had these long, full-size, reproduction of Pinocchio backgrounds.
There was a famous pan, it must be a four- or five-field pan of Geppetto's workshop, with the table he makes Pinocchio on, and it had all these gnarly beams and posts, and the furniture was all rounded. You know, there were no 90-degree angles anywhere, it was very organic.
Disney TV Animation wouldn’t have the budget of the feature film division, obviously, and so copying the style of old movies became symbolic of the discrepancy.
Peraza: We knew we weren't going to be doing the animation locally, we were going to be sending it overseas. So there were a lot of things that, once they started taking things out of your hands, you get a little bit nervous. I had friends come by and say, "Mike, don't do it. Don't work more. Don't do it." They weren't saying, "You're a traitor," but it almost felt like that, because the TV division was considered kind of this little cheap knockoff. But I thought, well, it could be fun.
To combat that sense of inferiority, TV animation’s first employees still sought to create animation of a higher quality than the simple Hanna-Barbera cartoons that had dominated the prior decade.
LaDuca: That's why we picked Tokyo Movie Shinsha, a Japanese animation company that was doing some really beautiful animation. I went over and supervised the first season of animation of Gummi Bears.
There’s a book called The Illusion of Life, which was written by two of the Nine Old Men animators at Disney. They described what made Disney animation, and it's like a bible to animators now.
There was an animation director over there, Shigeru Yamamoto, who was charged with the task of putting together a crew. He gathered this group of animators who weren't necessarily anime animators, they were more Disney fans, and he translated that entire book before it was even translated for public use. He handed out Xerox copies to all his animators to study.
Adventures of the Gummi Bears told the story of the descendants of a once-proud race of gummy bears who were driven from society by humans who were jealous of their magic powers. It aired on Saturday mornings on NBC, from 1985-89, then moved on for another season to ABC.
Mark Seidenberg (writer/producer): There was a bit of a story arc in the sense that the gummies were discovering more gummy bears. They didn't just live in their little community; there were actually gummy bears across the sea and every once in a while we would meet a new gummy bear who had been traveling around the world, so there was a constant stage of discovery.
Magon: I don't think NBC was ever happy with Disney, especially me, and I think they made it clear to Gary that the show would probably run better if Jymn wasn't involved. And they gave me what is known as the lateral arabesque, where you slipped this side and suddenly you're not working there anymore.
I was devastated, because I'd created this show and it was a number one show in its time slot. And Art Vitello at the same time said, “I gotta move on.” I had already gotten two or three stories approved, but they wanted me gone and they turned it over to Tad Stones. I was devastated. It's like, oh crap, I had this hit show, now I'm fired. I was worried I’d never work again.
Tad Stones: In the early days it was often Jymn Magon and I switching off on each other's show. I took over Gummi Bears for the third season. Then when they decided to come up with Disney Afternoons, they said, "Hey, we already have all these Gummi Bears episodes, let's flesh those out and make 65 of those" so that they could build that two-hour block.
There were ultimately 67 episodes of the show, which ended in 1990 before going into syndication on afternoon TV.
Seidenberg: If we could have done a Season 7, we would have gone across the sea to meet a whole new population of gummy bears, which would have been fascinating.
Next up was to be a series called Fluppy Dogs (there’s a reason you don’t remember it).
Peraza: I got a call from a person who became a really good friend of mine, Brad Landreth. And Brad was pretty much the art director for Disney TV and they were doing a show called Fluppy Dogs. These little dogs weren’t really dogs, they just happened to look like dogs. They appeared on Earth through this time portal, they had little tiny — remember the Care Bears had little hearts and stuff? These guys had little jewels or something that would light up.
I went ahead and I did this whole presentation on it, all in charcoal, on boards. The same methods that I had learned from Bill Peet, Ken Anderson, and Ken O'Connor. I put every bit as much time, and every bit as much care and passion as I would do for anything else. And I turned it in and they were crazy about it.
An hourlong Fluppy Dogs special aired on ABC on Thanksgiving 1986. It was supposed to be a pilot for a full series, but it was a ratings bust and the Fluppy Dogs were sent to a farm upstate, so to speak.
Even with the Fluppy flop, the success of Gummi Bears gave Disney the confidence to begin to use its own characters in TV shows, though they proceeded with caution. The next show to go into development would turn out to be perhaps the era’s most successful.
Wiemers: When Ken and I were working just as freelance writers, I had drawn this character and I had it up on my bulletin board. We were having lunch with Gary Kriesel and Ken said, "Why don't you tell him about your duck?" And so I did. And that became Launchpad McQuack — Gary loved the idea. The rest is history.
DuckTales went into production in the summer of 1986, with Tokyo Movie Shinsha again providing the bulk of the animation.
Wiemers: Ken and I were busy working on it, and then we got called back to do The Wuzzles. They brought in Tedd Anasti and Patsy Cameron and they were going to take over from Ken and myself. Then The Wuzzles got canceled, so we ended up back on DuckTales working with Ted and Patsy. They [produced] the first 65 episodes with Ken and myself writing many of those, and then they left, and then Ken and I were in charge of the second set.
That’s jumping a bit ahead. The first big task was actually pitching the show.
Wiemers: Launchpad McQuack was kind of the starting point for DuckTales even though it ended up starring Huey, Dewey, Louie, and Scrooge. We pitched him as the world's worst pilot, who was so proud that any crash that he could walk away from was a good crash. And Gary loved that, and we were off and running.
Launchpad played a role in the show, but DuckTales ultimately became a very loose adaptation of the Carl Barks comic series Scrooge, which focused on the miserly mallard Scrooge McDuck and his three troublemaking nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie.
Peraza, who had known Barks from way back during his time at CalArts, helped cement the pitch with some concept art.
Peraza: It was a pitch of action pictures of them jumping over a cliff with a volcano erupting in the back. I had a bunch of them hanging onto the helicopter. It was just like action photos with Donald Duck, and the nephews, and Uncle Scrooge, basically.
Barks’ version of Scrooge’s home was a traditional columned mansion, but Peraza went more cartoonish with it.
Peraza: I had the gate up there and, of course, the dollar sign imbued into everything. I even had it on the weather vanes, on the plates, the swimming pool in the back that was in a dollar sign shape. I had a helicopter pad, there was a huge dollar sign on the thing. And even the fountain out front, it had a dollar sign. So all these little things I had put in there.
I remember I was going to show it to Carl. I was like, "Oh boy. This could be the beginning of a really bad evening." People ask me what are my favorite memories of my entire life. One of my favorite moments I will never, ever forget, is Carl looked at it and he said, "I wish I had thought of that."
We had a couple of really outstanding character designers we had on the show. Toby Shelton and Ed Gombert, they did great stuff, really helped out a lot.
Jymn Magon: Ken Koonce and David Wiemers called me up and said they wanted to start off with a movie that will introduce all the characters in prime time to our audience. The plan was to write five episodes that could then be cut together into a motion picture, a two-hour event.
We frantically started working on this five-part miniseries called “The Treasure of the Golden Suns.” We were writing very fast.
The opening mini-series featured a villain, El Capitan, who was amongst the show’s most menacing. He was voiced by Jim Cummings early on in his career.
Jim Cummings (voice actor): I want to say he was a 400-year-old guy or something, a 400-year-old Spaniard. And he was searching for his old wooden ship, and I couldn't remember the plot line with a gun to my head, but it was a ball.
Cummings has voiced hundreds of characters on an endless number of shows, but give him a moment, and he truly can recall any detail.
Cummings: He was putting up a front to get to his pirate ship, which was a small wooden ship but it was secretly a map and had a token and it was something sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish. He sounded like he was very, very old, with scraggly sounds like he'd been living in a cave for a few hundred years.
I may have given him a cough, like he was barely able to speak. I just took it from there, made those two choices, and they said okay, that's it, there's our 400-year-old Spaniard.
El Capitan would never appear again in the original DuckTales TV run, but Cummings would later voice another prominent duck. But back to DuckTales...
Magon: I wasn't positive that everyone was getting the flavor of the comic books, which the series was based on. I was a big Carl Barks fan.
Barks was alive during the entire run of DuckTales — he passed in 2000 — but Wiemers says he never consulted with the famed comics writer.
Wiemers: We created a universe outside, really, to expand upon Carl Barks and the book.
Magon was crucial to injecting the show with the spirit of Barks’ work.
Magon: The question was how would we take the essence of the comic and get that implanted in the audience's brain? When they watched the rest of the episodes, they’d carry with them the idea that Scrooge is this man who spent his whole life working for cold hard cash and now he’s stuck with warm fuzzy family stuff.
So we had to show how the kids got dumped on him. That’s why we had to go to Eisner and say look, we know you don’t want him in the series, but we need to have a scene where Donald goes off to the Navy and says goodbye and leaves his nephews with Scrooge.
He said, “Yeah, okay. I get it. Just as long as the show is not about him.” So we got him in that episode and we also put him in the third episode of that series, where they visited him in the Navy.
Wiemers: The reason that we really did not want Donald in the half-hour animated series was because nobody could understand him, and it just wasn't gonna fit with our audience at all. We only wanted to use him for something special.
Cummings: The problem with Donald is you can't tell what he's saying half the time. You can't give him a lead. He has to be a sound effect, he has to come in and say a phrase that you hope you can understand. In fact, whenever Pete and Donald Duck did a recording [in Goof Troop, a later Disney Afternoon show] I would always end up saying, "I don't know what the heck you just said."
Donald appeared occasionally throughout DuckTales’ 101 episodes. But he was rarely even needed, as Scrooge became the quasi-patriarch of the family.
Wiemers: Alan Young was the voice of Scrooge McDuck in the hour-long animated Disney take on the Dickens' A Christmas Tale. We just continued on with him as the voice, and Alan was just terrific. He was such a great guy to work with. We just lost him two summers ago. He was 96 years old, and I stayed in touch with him after all these years. I really miss him.
Scrooge’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, were all voiced by Russi Taylor.
Wiemers: Our intention was Huey, Dewey, and Louie were three individuals but one character. We never separated them. They were just one personality. And so we wanted the voice to reflect that as well. People always would come back and forth and they'd say, "Oh, Huey, Dewey, and Louie have very distinct personalities."
The show was on the cover of the Los Angeles Times. People were writing in, and they were arguing about, saying they've got very distinct personalities. And I can remember writing an article for the Los Angeles Times saying, "Hey, I'm the writer and director of this show, and I'm telling you, we go out of our way to make sure that they're just one personality."
They were joined by plenty of totally new characters, including Webbigail, the plucky young female duck who moves in with the nephews and becomes part of the gang.
Wiemers: I came up with that name. Disney loved the names that we came up with, and even after I left Disney, Disney would hire me and give me a special contract just to come up with names for them.
The show featured Scrooge and his nephews going on new adventures every week, roaming the globe in search of treasure, ancient artifacts, and lessons on morality. Instead of airing on Saturdays, it became the first Disney animated show offered in afternoon syndication at the beginning of its run, and was aired in 93 percent of the country in its first season.
It was the highest-rated animated TV program in 1987. The catchy theme song didn't hurt.
Magon: DuckTales was so popular that instead of doing 65 episodes, they ended up doing 100. We got to the point where we had so many shows going that they said we can't keep everybody in this building, so they moved a bunch of us over to another building. That's where I worked on Goof Troop.
It just was this thing that just kept growing and at a certain point, it's like, oh crap, I've got a tiger by the tail. I don't know what to do with it other than just hang on.
The show cost $275,000 per episode to produce. But the investment proved worthwhile, as the show became a marketing behemoth and helped earn Eisner the cover of Time magazine in 1988.
Stones: In some ways, things were treated like a live-action TV show in terms of development. In animation, you don't necessarily have to do this, but in our minds, it was like, it's the second season, we need something new to hype it, we can't just say we're doing more. They wanted like a new character or characters, and so I pitched an alien duck, which Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg passed on.
Then I did RoboDuck, because RoboCop had come out the year before. I actually named him Fenton Crackshell, but his development as a personality was I think Ken Koonce, David Wiemers, and the other story editors and writers on DuckTales. And then somewhere along the line he changed to Gizmoduck, although evidently no one told the art department because, for the original DuckTales, he still has an R on his chest for RoboDuck.
The third character I pitched was Bubba Duck. All I pitched was the concept of a caveman kid, basically, and they picked those two.
Peraza: Carl [Barks] liked the first season of the show. He didn't like some of the story directions they were going into after that… You have to realize, he carefully constructed this world over years and years. He would sit there and keep track of the different things and the canon that he had created. So we were changing bits and elements around over the year, over the seasons. And I think he felt we were kind of straying from what he had set up.
They were pulling all the right strings, because DuckTales was a hit. So much so that during a Christmas party early during its run, Michael Webster, the executive who oversaw the TV Animation unit, delivered some very good holiday cheer.
Wexler: We were called to meet in this big room and we all sat around in a big circle with Michael. He gave us these little Christmas tree decorations he had for everyone, and he wrote what he thought was a funny little blurb about each of us for when he called us up one at a time to get our Christmas tree decorations. Then he made the announcement to everyone that “We're gonna be here for a while” and “You kids can buy your houses now.” That's what he said to us. And that felt pretty good, because I'd just bought my house.
Stones: I came to Disney in 1984 after surviving the training program. I was on the original Rescuers as an in-betweener, and moved up to finally assistant animator. We did pitch Rescuers for TV at a certain point. And Jeffrey said, "No we're doing a sequel of that, this can be your Rescuers."
Interestingly, the New York Times reported that a show based on The Rescuers came out of that initial meeting in 1984.
Stones: It was “Let’s not combine them, that's features, so let's keep it features.” You don't want to do a lower-budget series while you're trying to sell another high-budget feature film.
Ken Koonce and David Wiemers came up with the pitch for Miami Mice. And the guys loved the title immediately, but we changed it to Metro Mice. I don't know if we were directed to or if we just said: "Let's dodge this bullet before somebody fires it." That was a kind of gritty, basically Hill Street Blues, a little police station but run by rodents. And the villain of the piece was a fat cat, who showed up in Rescue Rangers exactly the same.
It got that far and then it was like, the police station is just too gritty, let's find a way to make it more broad. We came up with the idea of Rescue Rangers, and the head was Kit Colby.
Magon: Perhaps you've seen some of the early sketches, but there was an eagle, there was a cricket, there were all these odd characters that we had in the original cast, and they slowly went by the wayside.
Magon: Executives didn't want to hang their hat on the big three, which is Mickey, Donald, Goofy. And so we said, "Okay, well I guess we're going to have to create all new characters." It wasn't until later when we were developing Rescue Rangers, which started with two mice, Kit Colby and Colt Cheddarson, that we were told that nobody knows who these people are, so let's get someone that they might know.
Stones: Basically they loved the show but didn't feel anything for the lead. Because DuckTales was such a huge hit, we were going down the list of other classic characters, and who we couldn't touch and who we shouldn't touch.
Seidenberg: Every year we would try to develop something with Mickey. But those ideas were constantly getting rejected because I think the network was waiting for the right time where they felt that Mickey could be on TV shows. But I remember developing — at one point they wanted, "What would Mickey and the gang be like if they were teenagers?" So we did a pass at that. "What about babies?" So we did them as babies.
But each time it would come up for a pitch, the answer would be no, we're not quite ready for it.
Stones: After Mickey, you go to Donald. They said, "Well, Donald's kind of in DuckTales and he's really hard to animate, so we kinda limit him in DuckTales. Plus, he has a voice that's very hard to tell stories with.” And then Goofy, it's, "Well, yeah, Goofy's always been an everyman character, we should definitely come up with stuff for Goofy." And they did, they came up with a detective agency, and because he was an everyman they just went back and forth with a lot of high-concept ideas.
But as they continued down the list, it was, "No, we're not gonna do Pluto." And when they got to Chip 'n Dale, it was Michael Eisner who said, "Put those guys in the show,” and Jeffrey said, "Home run." So that shows you how much they were involved and then in the same way they loved tricky titles.
Chip and Dale hadn’t really spoken in any discernible way before, which provided an opportunity for a blank slate for the producers despite the characters’ long history.
Stones: There's always a fascination with speeded-up voices. Alvin and the Chipmunks, they were novelty songs by David Seville. Chip 'n' Dale before that, they sped them up even faster. I'm told that some of those early cartoons, if you slow down their voices, they're reading off laundry lists or grocery lists, because they just needed sounds to get that nonsense talk. We knew we wanted to keep 'em in dialogue. And I think that the magic number was 17 percent they speeded up.
We cast voice actors that we trusted and really knew. Because once you speed up somebody's voice, it's very forgiving, but if you hire a voice actor who does a million voices, he can do the villains and the second line characters.
Corey Burton is one of those people who does a million voices. And he was Dale. And Tress MacNeille, who also does a million voices, she was Chip. And then Jim Cummings, he was the third person of our cast who could also do a million voices.
Cummings: Peter Cullen started as Monterey Jack. I ended up taking over about halfway through. And it was weird, because he was still on the show doing other characters, and that was really awkward. I didn't think this, but apparently the powers that be were like, "I can't even tell what this guy's saying." I was already on the show and they played my audition, and between Peter and I, we sounded very similar.
I said, "Man, this is really weird, Peter." And he goes, "Oh well, what are you gonna do?" I was talking to Tress about it too. And I said, "What am I supposed to do? I can't do it, I feel so weird doing that with Peter in the room." And she says, “You know what you're gonna do? You're just gonna do it. You just do Monterey Jack."
The rodent detective squad was rounded out by Gadget, the mechanical whiz who has no time for boy rodents.
Stones: Gadget was roughly based on a character from the movie "Real Genius," and she was a great character. She's cute, but she doesn't know it. She's brilliant, and thinks that's normal, and two guys are crazy about her, and she never notices.
It was the first episode we were storyboarding, we had a gag where she's walking across the ceiling with plunger-things that she had created. And the guys put two and two together, and they rush out, and she says, "Wait for me!" And she unbuckles her boots, forgetting she's on the ceiling, and then falls out of them.
My partner Alan Zaslove, who had been in animation for a couple of decades already, said, "Well, she wouldn't really do that, would she?" I said, "Alan, I'm creating the character. Pretty much, if I say she does something, it's her character." And he went, "Oh, that's right." And again, it was like, "Yes, she's female, but she gets to be funny too."
Rescue Rangers was slated for the 1988-89 season, meaning that production had to be a churn.
Stones: Rescue Rangers was hellish. In fact, I was ultimately taken off the show, and then went on to develop things in general. I was the story editor and I hired one other guy, Bryce Malek. And, that's just two story editors to cover three production teams. And that's just stupid.
I just worked way too much on that show. I always think of Darkwing Duck as my favorite show, it feels like the most of my taste. But just because of the hours I spent on Rescue Rangers, there's probably subconscious connections that I'm unaware of with that show. My day off was Sunday, where I only worked four hours at the office.
Like DuckTales, the show was also animated by studios in Asia.
Stones: We probably used at least five overseas studios at different points in the production. We didn't have much say in the studios. It was our production team that was in charge of working with studios overseas. It was purely about how fast we were turning those out. We didn't break up Rescue Rangers into separate seasons per se. 65 episodes was always the order. You had to have that for syndication.
In the fall of 1989, Disney began offering up DuckTales and Rescue Rangers as an hour-long block to local networks to show on weekday afternoons, selling directly to the stations instead of broadcast networks. There were 18 new episodes of DuckTales in the mix, as well as another five-part movie, “Super DuckTales,” which projected Disney’s growing confidence in its offerings.
The next year, Disney expanded its animated offerings to local markets, packaging four shows in a block it called The Disney Afternoon. The lineup consisted of Gummi Bears, DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, and TaleSpin.
TaleSpin was created in a hurry during a period of frenzied development. A lot of ideas died in development. In 1989, Disney went into early development on a remake of Rocky & Bullwinkle until they realized they didn’t have the rights. Another idea posed no rights problems, but was just plain bizarre.
Peraza: This is when I went back to Features Animation to help out with some stuff. They were telling me before I left — I was going back to work on The Little Mermaid — they said, "We have these new shows, Mike, would you work on them? We're doing Winnie the Pooh, he's going to be living in New York City now and they're all wearing clothes and he actually goes to work, he's got a job. And they're solving mysteries and stuff." And I was like, "Does he have a Scooby van or something to go with it?"
Obviously, Winnie the Doo never happened. And the idea that did get picked up next was pretty altered during development, too.
Magon: We were working on a series at the time for development called The B-Players, and it was about all the characters on the backlot who hadn't worked in years. This was taken almost directly from Roger Rabbit. There's the saxophone, Clara Cowbell, all these characters that hadn't worked in years, but they were still hanging around the studio. The world was half human and half cartoon characters.
The B-Players were led by Baloo, who had been in a few movies. The sidekick was a guy named Ricky Rat, who was actually a cousin to Mickey Mouse. He couldn't understand why he couldn't get his break. And it's like, well, because you're a rat and people don't want to watch a rat. Anyway, we pitched it and pitched it, and it just got turned down every single time until finally Jeff Katzenberg told me that if I said the words “B-Players,” he would throw me out a window.
Gary and Michael Webster had to go to a big corporate meeting in Florida in January. And we had nothing to sell; we had spent all this time developing this show and it was the next big 65-episode thing and we had nothing. And Webster poked his head into my office and said, “You better come up with something fast.”
Wiemers: They had a commitment to do the Disney Afternoon, and the only problem was we didn't have time to come up with anything new. We were so busy working on the episodes for the shows we had in production. Gary would come back and he'd say, "Oh, I need a new show. I need to pitch something." And it was like, "We don't have time. We don't have time for this."
Magon and his colleagues wanted to keep Baloo, the friendly carefree bear from The Jungle Book, but knew they had to build a whole new world around him. And so, for the second (but definitely not the last) time at the Disney Animation building, Launchpad McQuack became a central figure in a show’s development.
Magon: We had this idea for DuckTales where Launchpad McQuack was a freelance pilot. He didn't work for Scrooge, he was just hired by Scrooge every so often; he really had a little cargo service. And that got killed, but I still thought it was a clever idea. So I called Mark Zaslov into my office and I said, "What if we put Baloo in the pilot's role and we'll give him a kid kind of like Mowgli, an orphan?"
Zaslove was into the idea; the orphan would be a 12-year-old bear cub with adventurous, daredevil tendencies.
Magon: We ended up with this picture of a kid who we called Kit Cloudkicker hanging off the back of a plane on his little airfoil. (Kit, of course, is the name taken from Kit Colby, from Rescue Rangers.) So we had this picture of Kit hanging off the back of a plane and we took it to the powers that be and said, “This is it. It’s called TaleSpin.”
Weimers: We sold the series just on that particular image.
TaleSpin was set around the 1930s or ‘40s, mixing the adventurous spirit of the Indiana Jones movies with an aesthetic and vibe that was something like an anthropomorphized Casablanca in Asia.
Magon: I remember saying that we live in a world today where you can blow up the world by pushing a single button on your computer. There's nothing dramatic about pushing a button on a computer, but when you look at the old cartoons, the bad guys always had these huge laboratories and if you want to blow something up, you had to pull this gigantic lever down, and it really felt like they were doing something.
We said Indiana Jones is popular, that's of a good time period, so we’ll create an alternate universe between the wars and we'll stick them out there in Southeast Asia.
It also had a plotline stolen from Cheers. Baloo was the Sam, a charming former bar owner who worked for the bar’s new owner, who just so happened to be his love interest. They even named the shrewd business-bear Rebecca, after Kirstie Alley’s character on the classic NBC sitcom.
TaleSpin aired first on the Disney Channel from May to July 1990, then hit syndication that fall, after The Jungle Book was re-released in theaters. It would not be the only show to take serious inspiration from Launchpad McQuack.
Wiemers: When we wrote the DuckTales episode "Double-O-Duck," Gary Krisel just went crazy. Because no one was hitting Launchpad the way that Ken and I did. And I can remember him just coming back to us and saying, "Wow, absolutely love that episode. This is who Launchpad is."
Stones: "Double-O-Duck," which was a secret agent spoof and Jeffrey told me to create a show called Double-O-Duck. But the character can no longer be Launchpad, who was featured as that character, it has to be a new character.
I just felt it was a parody, so when I came up with a pitch, Jeffrey said, "It's just a parody pitch, there's no warmth to it.” And he told me to do it over. And that's when I did what I should have done, which was taken it seriously throughout. At that point, he was in a white tuxedo and cape and a hat. And it was one of our brainstorming group, Duane Casisi, who said, "I look at that and I think of the Green Hornet."
Man, a little explosion went off in my mind and that got me into Green Hornet and the Shadow and Doc Savage, who had a team of guys who were each experts. That got me away from just the standard secret agent stuff. This'll feel more like this tiny team that gets put together. And then that didn't sell so we came up with the idea of a daughter for him to raise, complicating his life. That was Goslyn.
Launchpad McQuack wasn’t the lead but remained on the show, taking his terrible aviator skills from DuckTales to what would become known as Darkwing Duck.
The transfer caused some behind-the-scenes acrimony.
Wiemers: Disney had written a memo saying, "If any character that you have come up with ends up being a spinoff show, we will pay you this bonus for this." And years later, we all of a sudden get word that Darkwing Duck is going to have Launchpad. Ken and I got this memo and we said, "Okay, we'd like our bonus, please."
And our contract was just about up with Disney, and so Disney came back to our agent and said, "Well, Ken and Dave's contract is about up, so if you will sign a new contract with us, we'll pay you the bonus." And our agent said, "No, pay them the bonus, and then we'll talk about a new contract."
We had multiple offers at other studios, so we went with Universal Studios instead, and Disney did not pay us our bonus. The Screen Cartoonist's Guild then came to Ken and myself, and they said, "You know what? This is really a violation against the union, so the Screen Cartoonist's Guild will pay for your attorneys."
More on that case later… Stones notes, incidentally, that the Launchpad of Darkwing Duck was much different than the one shown on DuckTales.
Stones: Launchpad thinks he should be the hero and not the sidekick on DuckTales, but to me, that's very un-Launchpad-like, because that's not how we played him at all. For a while, Darkwing's sidekick was actually a shorter guy with a derby. We went through a lot of permutations. And then, ultimately, it just winnowed down to "Hey, we need a pilot, let's redesign Launchpad, change his character." I insist, to fans’ delight everywhere, that it's a separate universe.
There was still a lot of work to do to even put the show together, which went through many iterations.
Stones: We went out and sold it as Double-O-Duck at first, and everyone was taking to it, and then they said, "You can't use that name." Double-O is not a thing, it was a creation of Ian Fleming that was owned at the time by Cubby Broccoli, who did all the James Bond films. So we needed a new name and Alan Burnett came up with the name Darkwing.
I instantly loved it, and I attached Duck so to combine the dramatic and the silly, and Darkwing Duck was born. That change freed me up to really infuse the show with my love of Silver Age comics, which were the comics that I grew up with.
The titular lead character was created in tandem by Stones and Cummings, the latter providing the voice — the first original character voice of his career.
Cummings: You see a picture of him and he wasn't super big, he wasn't super small, but they wanted him to be crafty and sort of conniving and [have] a big ego. They wanted him cartoony but also kind of believable as a viable person, so to speak. He wasn't gonna be Goofy.
Darkwing exercises a few brain cells here and there, and he wasn't Goofy, so he wasn't a Donald Duck, he had to be semi-lucid. You just add all that up together and he was very self-satisfied. Conceited as he could be. His voice was kind of in the mask, it's just a little bit nasal. He rolls or curves his R’s. He's in good shape. He's in command.
A young orphan girl duck named Gosalyn, meanwhile, became the Robin to his Batman. And like Batman, they had some pretty sweet rides.
Stones: Nobody asked me to create vehicles for them. I was having fun with the intricacy of the Batmobile, and the Bat-plane, the Batcopter, and all of those things, which in the early days had a sweet, giant bat head on the front. And that's why all Darkwing stuff has a giant duckbill on it, which is pretty goofy when you think about it. It's one thing to have a symbol of a bat. The other thing is putting your nose on the front of your car.
The show premiered as the final half-hour of The Disney Afternoon in the fall of 1991.
Stones: They always had an executive in charge of your show, basically someone who would know the show but wasn't a part of the team, I mean the writing and the art team, to be able to give kind of an objective look at things. Well, we lucked out in that our guy was Greg Wiseman, who was fairly new to the department, and Greg had been an editor at DC Comics. Although uncredited, he did a bunch of Captain Atom comics. So he knew every Silver Age reference and could actually bring up other ones that we could play with.
After the initial 65 episodes, ABC said they wanted to pick up the show, complete with new episodes. So the network — which would soon enough be owned by Disney — chose some episodes already in the works and then got some entirely fresh ones, resulting in 91 episodes produced.
Stones: Greg was very good about notes. Once we started selling to ABC, they weren't allowed to give us notes in that first season, because they got the luxury of choosing from finished episodes, finished scripts, sometimes storyboards. We wouldn't send them everything.
There are episodes that are great in that second season, including one that's only been shown once because it had Gosalyn making a deal with the devil. The studio said you can't put that on television. And it was a great episode. It was kind of like using the devil as a part of literary history. We weren't talking about a religious thing. It was like "The Devil and Daniel Webster."
The studio interaction would become less easy as new executives were brought in. Peraza remembers a gargantuan struggle with one young "creative executive" during the development of the next show.
Peraza: He had never created anything for Disney, but he was a creative executive instantly. And so he was working with a writer or something and they came up with the idea “Goof Troop,” because it had Goofy in it. It was going to be a scout troop leader, so I went ahead and sketched all these things out with him as a scout leader with all these little kids.
It was weird because this person who was in charge, unlike the old days at Disney where almost everybody was some kind of artist at one point, but this person was just talking. He wanted drawings of everything that would come into his head. He would sit there and say, "Why don't you draw Goofy with a bunch of little dog and cat characters and they're his scout troop?" And "You know what? Maybe make a flying lizard. Oh, and I want you to, I know! I know! Put a gorilla in there."
The ideas, Peraza says, continued to cascade. Goofy as police chief. Goofy as detective. The list went on and on.
Peraza: I'd worked on Roger Rabbit, on Toontown. Roger Rabbit had come out in theaters, and this fella had seen it. And so he goes, "You know what? We're going to do Goofy and he's going to be in Toontown." That was when it kind of hit the fan. And I said, "You know, it's just not going to work."
Gary Kriesel heard and called me in. I said, "This guy wants to do this thing in Toontown." Now Goofy is goofy when he's around Mickey and Donald and everyday kind of people, because he's a klutz, and he trips and knocks things over and next thing you know all the buildings fall over like dominoes or whatever. That's funny.
But if you put him where the buildings are alive, Pluto comes out there and takes a leak on a fire hydrant, and the fire hydrant chases him down the street, the trees are alive, everything is alive… if everything is goofy, then nothing is goofy. I said, "It just isn't going to work." And he goes "I understand. I agree."
And then he says, "What would you do?" And I said, "Well, I would do just basically a father and son sitcom." I said, "This is his son, he's a preteen growing up, and his father is Goofy, not just the description, he literally is Goofy."
Peraza: I drew 15 sketches that weekend. I went in and pitched it. I said it was a day in the life of Goofy and son. I had it from the day they get up in the morning, all the way through going down the skate ramp from hell and all these things go on.
The last pose I had in there was Goofy was consoling his son Max at a baseball game. You look at the scoreboard and it was like 99-0 in the ninth inning. And it was like everyone was gone and tumbleweeds were going across there. And Goofy's got his arms around his son, who's just very dejected on the pitcher's mound. He just can't even leave he's so frozen.
And he goes, "It's okay Max. I still love you." No matter what, he had to have feelings.
Walt really had a thing against Goofy. Because what happened was, Jack Kinney was the director of the Goofy shorts, did a lot of things where he would treat him as a prop. And Walt was always into personality animation, everything should have a personality, a gag should be based on personality. And so he felt that Goofy was becoming nothing but just a prop being beat around and hit and slapped.
The father-son sitcom was the premise they wound up going with for Goof Troop, which kept the rhyming name despite the lack of any scout troop. The winding, exhausting story of its conception, with executive turmoil, was indicative of how people describe the environment of the studio at that time.
Magon: I think here was a situation where management felt like we need to have more management, we have too many creatives. We started getting notes from what we used to call the Baby Suits. “I think you should do this, I think you should do that, and this would be a really good idea.”
I was like, who are you and why am I getting notes from you? I would go to Gary and say, “Why am I getting notes from this person?” He’d say, “Oh, well, they're in charge of this and this and that.” So it just got to be very difficult.
Still, Magon was on board to work on Goof Troop, as a writer and story editor.
Magon: When I got involved with the series, they had already decided we're going to make this a suburban sitcom. I used to question all the time, why are we calling this Goof Troop, that doesn't make any sense. Well, it does make sense when you realize that the show was originally developed for Goofy to be a scoutmaster with a bunch of Boy Scouts. But all that stuff went by the wayside.
So by the time they were living in Spoonerville, which was named after Michael Spooner, the set designer for the series, we had Pete and his wife living next door to Goofy and his son. It was a wonderful father-son mirror that you saw, here's this goofy dad who's trying his best to support his son. And his son wishes he could be anyone but Goofy, it's the age-old problem of please don't let me grow up to be my parents.
But at the same time, next door you have Pete and then Pete Junior, and the dad is so domineering and so mean to his kid that Pete Junior looks at Goofy and Max and says, "I wish I had what you guys have." So that was the guts, the core of the series.
Goof Troop began airing in 1992, the same year that Fox Kids, the upstart broadcast network’s block of kids' programming, stretched to three hours, from 2-5 pm.
Fox Kids was actually started in part as revenge against Disney for breaching its contract in 1988; up until then, DuckTales had been airing on many Fox stations, but then Disney bought a local L.A. station and insisted on playing DuckTales on that affiliate instead.
In the 1992-93 season, Fox Kids introduced Batman: The Animated Series; a year later, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers swept the nation. Meanwhile, 1994-95 was the last year any of the original four shows were shown during the Disney Afternoon; after that, they were running a TV adaptation of Aladdin and a show called Bonkers alongside Gargoyles and a show that combined DuckTales characters and Goof Troop's naming convention: Quack Pack.
The company was in disarray, with the tragic death of president Frank Wells and the subsequent exit of studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, who started DreamWorks Animation. The early shows began airing predominantly on the Disney Channel, and by 1997 the block was finished, replaced by a shorter programming offering sponsored by Kellogg's.
As its initial audience has grown up, however, the power of nostalgia has brought the shows back to relevance, giving their creators a sort of fame they had never achieved during Disney Afternoon’s production (as well as a reboot of DuckTales, now in its second season on the Disney Channel; Peraza is even doing some work on it).
LaDuca and Seidenberg are still producing programs at Disney, and Wexler and Peraza do some work there; Tad Stones is on the convention circuit, while David Wiemers lectures about his time at Disney (and making sitcoms in the ‘90s) on cruise ships.
Peraza: I had never really heard much from anybody that'd seen these things, because I was sitting here just working all the time at my desk. We had heard some things, but you didn't really hear a lot the stories how DuckTales is doing, or how Goof Troop or Darkwing Duck or any of these shows were doing back in the day.
And then years go by, I was at a convention before we just started doing D23. I'd mention things on DuckTales and people would scream and I'm thinking, "My gosh, they've actually seen these shows." They would wait in line to talk to me. They'd want me to sign some stuff. And that's the first time I'd ever really seen that people were into it.
Wiemers: Fans know episodes of DuckTales much better than I do. I was busy working and going onto the next project, you know? And, oh, my God, they go out of their way to know the show and to know the ins and outs. And we would get these letters, "Oh, you reused this background. This was such-and-such a house. And then it came back in this episode." And all we were trying to do was save the artist time and effort.
Peraza: At the D23 event, one girl came over and she goes, "I just want to thank you. You really gave me my childhood… I've seen all these shows, the features you worked on like The Little Mermaid, Darkwing Duck, and DuckTales. You really gave me my childhood."
And it really almost made me tear up, really. When you can sit there and give someone good memories, especially kids, I think that's the best thing you can do. It makes it the best job in the world.