The obituaries generated by the recent death of comic actor Don Adams focused almost exclusively on his role as the inept secret agent on the TV series “Get Smart.” But what was ignored or barely acknowledged in most of the obituaries was Adams’ true role-of-a-lifetime: as the voice of scheming penguin in the animated TV program “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales,” which ran from 1963 through 1966 and then appeared in syndication for more than two decades.
Believe it or not, “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales” was the first attempt by America’s television networks to offer Saturday morning cartoons with an educational value. While some scholastic lessons sneaked into the episodes, the bulk of the cartoons was devoted to zany slapstick in which the characters fell out of windows and bounced off flagpoles, ran headfirst through television sets, created electrical explosions, attacked aching teeth with pliers and destroyed pianos. This might be educational if one’s career goal is to grow up and become Shemp Howard, but for most kids “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales” did not exactly replace primary schooling.
This series takes place in a weird parallel universe unique to cartoons, where anthropomorphic animals wear clothing, speak English and engage with humans in daily experiences. The idea of a six-foot-tall talking penguin wearing a fedora and bow-tie doesn’t seem odd here, nor does the fact that said penguin belligerently and continually tries to go in search of employment.
Any way, Tennessee Tuxedo lives in the Megapolis Zoo with his best friend Chumley, an easy-going walrus who wears an undersized hat and an oversized necktie. Chumley tags along with Tennessee on the latter’s endless attempts to find a new career. Chumley, in his laid-back manner and childlike sing-song voice (performed by Bradley Bolke), may give the impression of being dumb, but Tennessee Tuxedo is the real idiot. With his overbearing, inanely optimistic can-do attitude (brilliantly voiced by Don Adams in his Maxwell Smart-worthy tones), Tennessee would like to imagine he knows everything but ultimately knows nothing. Unafraid of danger, the penguin is blissfully ignorant of his shortcomings – when trying his hand at chemical engineering, his cheery can-do statement “Let’s see what’ll happen when I mix these two chemicals together!” is a surefire tipoff to all (but him) that chaos is nanoseconds away.
Not surprisingly, Tennessee is unhappy with what his job is supposed to be: the resident penguin at the
Megapolis Zoo. The zoo’s curator is a whining, epicene hothead named Stanley Livingston (voiced by Mort Marshall), and he inevitably throws hissy fits whenever he discovers Tennessee and Chumley have escaped and are running amok. The fact that Livingstone or his dim assistant Flunky never actually keep them under lock and key in a secure cage is never brought up, but if they did then obviously there would be no cartoon series.
In the 60 episodes of “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales,” the penguin and the walrus try and fail at numerous professions, ranging from television repairmen to detectives to folk singers. Unable to grasp the complexities of their hastily adapted careers, they inevitably consult one Phineas J. Whoopie, an elderly know-it-all who explains how things work via his Three-Dimensional Blackboard (or the 3DBB, as he calls it). Mr. Whoopie (voiced by Larry Storch in a mix of Ed Wynn and Alistair Cooke) uses the 3DBB to animate various technologies, theories and mechanical operations to Tennessee and Chumley. Being a blackboard, the imagery is (naturally) black-and-white. Yet the stick figure animation used is charming and it is all boiled down into bite-sized nuggets which may not be the equivalent of a Master’s Degree, but at least it plants the seed of working knowledge.
But even with this new knowledge, Tennessee and Chumley almost always fail at their endeavors and wind up back at the Megapolis Zoo. Chumley is usually amused at their constant shortcomings, but Tennessee is either angry at his failure or wistful that his attempts missed again.
“Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales” debuted on Saturday, September 28, 1963, on CBS. It was produced by Total Television, which had one hit show (now long forgotten) called “King Leonardo & His Short Subjects” – in fact, the company changed its name to Leonardo Productions in honor of that early triumph. The most famous cartoon show produced by this company was not “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales,” but instead it was “Underdog.”
Each episode of “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales” featured two cartoons with the eponymous penguin plus two segments with other Leonardo characters. The most famous of these were Klondike Kat, a RCMP feline who was inevitably harassed by the Quebecois rodent Savoir-Faire, the Old English exaggerating adventurer Commander McBragg, and the politically incorrect Go-Go Gophers, who were two wacky Indians disrupting the land outside of a 19th century Army post. There were also wraparounds with Tennessee and Chumley posing riddles for Mr. Whoopie (typical riddle: What has one horn, is white and gives milk? A milk truck!”).
As educational programming goes, “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales” did not produce a smarter generation of kids. But the young ones who found the show loved its silly mix of comic knockabout and its pauses for a bit of quickie instruction. Admittedly, some of the lessons which Mr. Whoopie taught have little value today (such as how to operate a telegraph and how to produce an LP album). But for its day, it was quite fun – and Don Adams as Tennessee (“Get Smart” debuted two years after the cartoons first launched) gave one of the best voice performances in cartoon history. Hearing Adams declare “Tennessee Tuxedo will not fail!” inevitably raises a grin, since Tennessee Tuxedo inevitably gets his feathers badly ruffled.
“Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales” ran on CBS until 1966. ABC picked it up briefly, but then it was dropped from the Saturday morning roster. The series became a staple of syndicated programming for many years, either in its original form or in weird slice-and-dice combinations (a New York TV station used to run the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoons along with Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairytales” in a single wobbly show in the late 1980s). The Nickelodeon Channel briefly ran the cartoons in the 1990s, and then they disappeared from the airwaves.
Some of the Tennessee Tuxedo episodes were released on VHS video in the early 1990s and a few turned up in a truncated form on recent “Underdog” DVD releases (the cartoon’s Sousa-esque opening and closing theme music was cut from the DVD). To date, there has never been a complete collection of all 60 “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales” episodes on DVD, although two online resources are offering bootleg editions (obviously taken from the now-defunct VHS version and from older TV videotaping). Why the series is absent from DVD is not known.
After Adams’ death, blogger Kip Esquire appraised Tennessee Tuxedo in his online “A Stitch in Haste” as being a very unusual pioneer. “Tennessee Tuxedo was the original gay penguin,” writes Esquire. “A bachelor whose ‘roommate’ was a large furry walrus named Chumley and who enjoyed repeated secret rendezvous with an eccentric old dandy named Phineas J. Whoopee – you just know he lived an alternative penguin lifestyle! Tennessee was also, like so many enlightened gays, an equal rights activist. They were constantly scheming against zookeeper Stanley Livingston and his assistant Flunky in an attempt to raise the quality of zoo-life. A true role model for generations of gay penguins and their admirers.”
Well, I don’t know if there was any lavender-hued codes in “Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.” But there was plenty of entertainment and a dab of education. And plenty of Don Adams on the soundtrack. You can’t beat that!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on October 7, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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