Toonarific Interview – Bill Jackson

Originally posted: 4-4-2001

The creator of the classics “Gigglesnort Hotel”, “Cartoon Town”, and “BJ and the Dirty Dragon”

Bill Jackson!! The creator of BJ and the Dirty Dragon, Cartoon Town, and Gigglesnort Hotel. Talk about luck! I’ve wanted to interview Bill for a while, so this was great!

What was your childhood like; family, friends, etc? Did any of these later influence your career decisions or even characters in your productions?
I had a great childhood in a much more innocent atmosphere than children have today. It is no accident that I made Cartoon Town a simple little village – in many ways it mirrored my home town. And, yes, many of my puppet characters took on some of the more eccentric characteristics of people I knew there.
What was your favorite cartoons and cartoon characters, and did any of them influence your creations?
I loved newspaper comic strips and comic books. My favorite comic strip was Al Capps’ ” Lil’ Abner ” , and my favorite comic books were from Disney. When I was nine years old I use to copy ( not trace ) the covers of the Donald Duck comics. Many years later I became a close friend of Jack Hannah, the director of the Donald Duck film shorts. Among the many influences on the development of my characters, both Al Capp and Walt Disney, very different in style and substance, rank quite high on the list.
Where did you go to school and/or how did you learn your skills?
I graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism with a major in tv production. Tv was in its beginning phases when I was in college, and I switched from advertising to this incredible new wonderment that appeared in a box in your living room. The journalism school helped me develop writing skills, and I had been enjoying cartooning from a very young age. My interest in puppetry, however, came much later.
What have been the highlights of your long and incredible career?
Highlights? More than space allows, but included would be graduating from college; serving my army stint as a writer, director, and staff artist for the Armed Forces Radio & Television Service in Hollywood; eventually coming to the big city of Chicago; twice winning the National Association of Television Program Executives’ award for the best locally produced children’s television show in America; Gigglesnort going into national and international syndication; and being overwhelmed by the ” Evening with Bill Jackson ” presented at the Chicago Museum of Broadcast Communications.
The shows I get asked about all the time are “Gigglesnort Hotel”, “BJ and the Dirty Dragon”, and “Cartoon Town”. Could you tell us a little bit about each show, what inspired you to make them, and what your experiences working on the shows were like?
Cartoon Town came first. For it I added some new characters to my cadre ( Mother Plumtree, The Old Professor, Wally & Weird, etc. ) and, as mentioned above, created a little town reminiscent of the little towns from my childhood. The puppet characters were combinations of people I had known and to some degree aspects of my own personality. Weird was based on someone I knew in Chicago. Dirty Dragon was based on a good friend I had in Indianapolis. Into the Cartoon Town setting, I poured as much creative fun as I could: Whozit, Drawing to Music, The Blob, The Lemon Joke Kid, the serials, Faces in Clouds, Hokey Theatre Players, The Thumptwangers, and other efforts. When the station changed my time slot, I changed Cartoon Town to The B.J. & Dirty Dragon Show and made it a live audience show patterned after the stage shows I had done. It was not successful, and after a short period The B.J. & Dirty Dragon Show kept its name, but returned to the Cartoon Town format, this time with two puppeteers in tow who added immensely to the production of show. The Gigglesnort Hotel was influenced by John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers show, and was my effort at the ” worthwhile ” programming demanded by the F.C.C. Each show had a character-building theme, and I tried to present that theme in the most fun way possible, using many of the characters I had developed for Cartoon Town. Doing these shows was the most demanding challenge I’ve ever had – and the most fun I ever had in my professional life.
Where exactly did you get your ideas from for these shows?
My imagination is the cornerstone of everything I create, and I’ve had a vivid imagination since childhood – one of God’s blessings.
Of all of your productions, what was the one you enjoyed working on the most?
I immensely enjoyed working on Gigglesnort, but the answer is Cartoon Town, because for Gigglesnort to qualify for F.C.C. approval as worthwhile programming, I had to stick to one theme, but for Cartoon Town I could allow my imagination to present a variety of things.
Was there anyone that you have enjoyed working with the most during your career? Who were they and why was it such a great experience?
I’ve enjoyed working with a great many people: directors, puppeteers, engineers, stagehands, you name it. Certain people stand out, but to name them might imply disparagement of others, and I don’t want to do that.
Your shows have developed a huge cult following, with not only people who originally watched the shows, but new generations who are seeing them for the first time. Did you ever think they would get so popular?
No. I am very touched and appreciative that there are people who harbor such fond memories of my efforts and I’m delighted when I hear that parents are now introducing my shows to their children. Think about that. How many parents introduce shows to their kids?
Have you thought about doing new projects, or do you have any in the making?
I pitched my last children’s show presentation in the mid 1980’s. The era of locally produced children’s shows was over and the networks were not and are not interested in children’s television. I am not “teachy ” enough for PBS and am not considered worthy enough for Nickelodeon. I am not working on anything for commercial consumption, but I have a heck of a lot of fun creating ” stuff ” for myself, my family, and my friends.
What is your outlook on children’s television today, and how it compares to the shows you grew up with and the shows you created?
I’m not up on today’s television for children, because it’s mostly cartoons that don’t seem to interest me. I do regret that some programs portray parents as buffoons, and what used to be considered smart-aleck talk is thought to be humorous. In that regard, there’s a huge difference between my shows and today’s offerings.
Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently, or added to your long list of accomplishments?
I would not have done much differently, but I would have loved to have done everything better. The truth is, I think I was just getting warmed up when the era ended.
Based on everything you’ve seen and done in the business, what sort of advice could you give those who aspire to also become successful in children’s programming?
I have no idea how to become successful in children’s tv programming today other than to say that whereever you find that rare animal being pursued, insert yourself into its environment; get in the door in any position and work from within. And pursue it only if you thoroughly enjoy it. To be successful at any creative effort, it must not be a job, it must be a passion.
Absolutely perfect! I can’t express what a privilege it was being able to do this interview with Bill. He has made a lasting impression, not only in children’s television, but in the lives of the people who grew up watching him. He is an amazing person who will always be remembered. Thank you for this.