In the 1980s and 90s, waking up too early for your favourite cartoon lineup was a surreal experience. Local stations signed on the air around 5:00am then played time-killers which both counted towards their Cancon requirements and kept the seats warm until they began broadcasting the proper blue chip stuff like The Littles, The Smurfs, or Muppet Babies during the coveted 8:00am slot.
This dawn zone of programming is how many kids first stumbled upon anarchic oddity The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, or The 20 Minute Workout, or the most boring cartoon in the history of the medium, The Wonderful Stories of Professor Kitzel. One show that remained a cornerstone of interstitial filling throughout the decade, and beyond, was The Toothbrush Family – created by an Australian, paid for by Americans, and animated and voiced in Toronto.
The Toothbrush Family started life as a series of spoken word LPs created by Australian children’s author Marcia Hatfield, who came up with the concept as a way to make the mundane act of brushing more palatable to her then 5-year old son, who had recently thrown away his toothbrush out of sheer boredom. “I wrote a story about a magic moonbeam that came into our bathroom at night when our family was asleep. When it touched our toothbrush holder our toothbrushes came alive, climbed down to the floor and played with whatever toys my three children had left there after bath time” explains Hatfield. This fantasy story re-engaged her children with their toothbrushes as it suddenly became a fun activity, instead of the daily dull chore it had once been. Hatfield knew she was on to something.
In 1974, an illustrated book of The Toothbrush Family was published in Australia by legendary animators Hanna-Barbera, which later afforded Hatfield the opportunity to meet Bill Hanna in LA, who in turn introduced her to the executive producer for children’s programming at CBS (LA – what a place!). Fortuitously, the morning he was to meet Hatfield, the unnamed executive had argued with his young son about the importance of brushing, and was very open to the idea of a program which exalted the virtue of toothbrushes. At the time, CBS’ flagship morning children’s show was Captain Kangaroo, a variety program not unlike Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, in which animated shorts played a crucial role.
At the time, Canada was very well known and respected globally in the field of cartoon animation, thanks to a large crop of local talent including the husband and wife team of Al Guest and Jean Mathieson, who had risen to fame in the 1960s with their work on that unforgettable mash up of tripped-out Sci-Fi psychedelia, Rocket Robin Hood, yet another scary filler known well to early risers.
Guest and Mathieson had formed Rainbow Animation studios in Toronto, and had several early successes including the creation of animated sequences for The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, native Inuit cartoon Ukaliq, and The Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo which had established their relationship with CBS. When The Toothbrush Family was commissioned, Rainbow was charged with bringing them to life, with original creator Marcia Hatfield on board to pen the scripts.
Probably the most lasting memory of The Toothbrush Family was the Toothbrush song. Hatfield had become concerned while writing the Toothbrush Family scripts that no technical information had been included, and so she paid a visit to the Dental Health Education and Research Foundation in Sydney, Australia, who not only Ok’d the scripts but also gave her permission to use their newly composed Toothbrush song in every episode, sung to the tune of “Three Blind Mice:”
“Brush your teeth, round and round,
Circles small: Gums and all.
A small soft toothbrush the round and round way.
Will keep your gums healthy and stop tooth decay.
So clean very carefully two times a day.
Go round and round… round and round”
The stories told in The Toothbrush family ran roughly 4 minutes and featured star toothbrushes Tess, father Tom, the kids – Tina and Toby, and Gramps. Other bathroom items appeared – Flash Fluoride, the toothpaste, Hot Rod Harry the electric toothbrush, Cecily Comb, Bertie Brush, Nev Nailbrush, Susie Sponge, and Shaggy Dog who represented the scruff of worn and out-dated toothbrushes. Their adventures were usually contained in the bathroom, however on a rare occasion they ventured into the outside world.
Sharp-eared viewers might recognize two very familiar local talents giving voices to the characters: Billie Mae Richards and Len Carlson. Richards is best remembered as the vox of Rudolph in the Rankin-Bass Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, that stop motion classic which gets trotted out every season, and also Tender-Heart Bear from Nelvana’s The Care Bears.
Carlson was an industry veteran who voice-acted in 1000s of cartoon episodes, sometime voicing multiple characters per show in things like The Racoons (where he was loveable Bert Racoon) to Rocket Robin Hood, Spider-Man, Garbage Pail Kids, Swamp Thing, Droids, C.O.P.S and Beetlejuice, Cyberchase, and Beyblade to name but a few. He was also the voice of Kraft Foods and provided the unforgettable “Ho Ho Ho” of the Green Giant.
While The Toothbrush Family won acclaim as a segment on Captain Kangaroo in the US (Kangaroo Producer Joel Kosofsky claimed “the Toothbrush Family segment was probably the most significant part of the program in terms of viewer recognition and response”), in Canada it was equally beloved, airing daily on the CBC, then Global, then YTV before finally falling out of syndication sometime in the 1990s. Because the episodes were only 4 minutes, they would often run between shows and so you might have caught between 5 and 10 per day, every day, for almost 15 years, accounting for some very vivid memories.
Could the Family be priming for a return in 2013? According to Hatfield, The Toothbrush Family’s global popularity exists because “no matter what the country, no matter what the culture, all children grow teeth and frequently don’t understand the importance of why they have to brush their teeth twice daily. It becomes a boring daily chore, so anything that makes that chore interesting is a good thing. I’m sure the new Toothbrush Family will work the same way.” You can visit Hatfield’s Toothbrush Family Facebook page to support their return here. And don’t forget to “Brush your teeth… round and round”
Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.