Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Famous Bouncing Ball

Audiences have always loved a rousing group sing-along. Before 1900 magic lanterns projected glass song slides of lyrics, as charmingly depicted in the vaudeville scene in Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934). Everyone sings “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” as poor Mrs. Wiggs forgets her troubles. Even villain Charles Middleton joins right in. The shared singing formed an emotional bond in communities through the 1940s that is fondly remembered.

Magic lantern slides moved into picture palaces in the teens, but it remained for cartoon innovator Max Fleischer to reinvent the sing-along on film. Max had made training films during World War I in which he used a pointer to identify equipment. This gave him the “Bouncing Ball” idea. A white ball on the end of a black, hand-held pointer bounces from one word to the next onscreen to help the audience sing in unison.

In 1924 the first “Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune” was a big hit at New York’s Circle Theatre. Ko-Ko the Clown jumped out of the inkwell and ran through a few hijinks before the Bouncing Ball led the song Oh Mabel. Audiences caught on fast and loved it. The theater re-ran the film while Max and Dave ran to make more.

The Fleischers teamed up with sound pioneer Lee DeForest to make the first talking cartoons that even pre-dated Steamboat Willie. In My Old Kentucky Home (1926) Bimbo says to the audience: “Follow the ball and join in everybody.” The Metropolitan Quartet sings while the Ball leads off. Soon the ball is replaced by a cartoon character who dances across the words. In later cartoons the animated words take on a surreal life of their own. For example, the word “watch” might turn into a pocket watch or “faraway” would morph into a chugging train.

The deForest Phonofilms were mostly seen in the chain of 36 theaters owned by The Red Seal Film Corporation, which was partnered with Hugo Riesenfeld, Edwin Miles Fadiman, Dr. Lee deForest, and Max Fleischer. While a few large theaters in major cities had deForest sound equipment as well, these milestones of animation were regarded as a mere novelty. The Song Car-Tunes went out to the rest of the country in separate silent versions to be accompanied by the house organ.

From 1924 to 1927 the Fleischers made 36 Song Car-Tunes with 12 produced in the actual deForest sound on film process. The songs ranged from contemporary tunes such as "Margie," and "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam', to old-time favorites like "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?," "Comin' Thro the Rye," "My Old Kentucky Home," “Sweet Adeline,” "Come Take a Trip in My Airship," "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In the Morning," “ By the Light of the Silvery Moon," and “Dixie.” (Many excerpts appear in Ray Pointer's fine documentary Max Fleischer's Famous Ko-Ko Song Car-Tunes.

When DeForest went bankrupt, the Fleischers forged ahead with a new series of “Screen Songs with the Famous Bouncing Ball,” turning out 109 between 1929 and 1937. Ko-ko no longer starred, but Betty Boop made guest appearances in six. Popular singers like The Mills Brothers, Rudy Vallee, Ethel Merman, Lillian Roth and the Boswell Sisters appeared in live-action to start the songs.

Jean Shepherd expressed the unique emotional appeal in his collection of stories "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" (1966): "The white ball bounced from word to word as the audience, conditioned by countless hours of Kate Smith, Harry Horlich and the A & P Gypsies, Jessica Dragonette and the Silver Masked Tenor, belted it out. A Depression audience did not mess around. When that bouncing ball bounced, they belted! The empty coal bin and next month's rent forgotten... The only time I ever heard my Old Man sing was when the mighty Wurlitzer, like some demonic pipe of Pan, drove him on."

The Fleischer imagination dimmed by 1935 and the Screen Songs turned routine. Many were set in a theater with rather lame spot gags appearing on the movie screen inside the cartoon. The annoying Wiffle-Piffle character starred in too many. Lesser bands of Shep Field, Henry King and Jack Denny were given more screen time, which was cheaper than animation, and playing with words in the songs was abandoned.

The Bouncing Ball was called into service during World War-II for many live-action Sing-Alongs made just for soldiers fighting overseas. “G.I. Weekly” shorts featured a scantily clad young lady, songs and the Bouncing Ball. The group singing proved to be quite a morale booster. Also the girl. After the war Famous Studios, who had taken over Fleischer, revived the Screen Songs series in color with When G.I. Johnny Comes Home, released Feb. 2, 1945. 39 more were made through 1951. Live-action bands and singers were gone but the delightful animation of words in the last verse returned.

The one-sheet movie poster shown here, courtesy of Cartoon Research attests to the popularity of the Screen Song after the war. The emotional experience had deep roots in our psyche. In sorrow or triumph, America had sung together for decades, but times were changing. Because of the advent of television, America stopped going to the movies weekly by the mid-50s.
Sing Along with Mitch" carried the tradition to television from 1961-1966. Family and neighbors often gathered for the show, but it wasn’t quite the same. The group Sing-Along barely survives today in music videos, in Rocky Horror Picture Show revivals and in sing-along versions of The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz, which are from a simpler era when audiences loved singing together. If only an animated Toto would scamper across the words “Over the Rainbow” to bring back memories of the Fleischer heyday!

Matinee At The Bijou will always have a song on its lips and a “Famous Bouncing Ball” in its back pocket.

Here you can enjoy a delightful Fleischer Screen Song called Love Thy Neighbor (1934) that spoofs the movie-going experience featuring a live-action Mary Small "the little girl with the big voice."


  1. Regarding the KO-KO SONG CAR-TUNES,
    I own the negatives to several of these, and released them in the Platinum Award Winning documentary,
    MAX FLEISCHER'S FAMOUS KO-KO SONG CAR-TUNES (With the Famous Bouncing Ball).

    It would appear that an awareness exists of this program since much of the posted text seems based on the information contained in my documentary. It should be noted that of the 36 song films produced between 1924 and 1927, 12 were released with soundtracks. The remaining 24 were standard silent releases without the stock animated "chalk" drawing of the "Ko-Ko Kuartette." References to this documentary can be found on the Internet and on my web site, as well.

    For the past 10 years, I have been engaged in the crusade to rescue these and many other film treasure of the past, with acknowledgments from Jerry Beck and Leonard Maltin. I am sure you would want to include my web site among your recommended links as well.

  2. Your blog is entertaining. I've RSSed it. I enjoyed the original show on PBS way back when. However, the dark text on a dark background is frying my eyeballs. Maybe think about more contrast?

  3. Anonymous2:17 PM

    I show the Bouncing Ball cartoons from time to time for my FNF crowd; they're a lot of fun and amongst my fave cartoons simply for the joy of belting out "Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" in the original Karaoke. The French Betty Boop massive set (100+ cartoons) includes one I've never seen elsewhere, "Down Among the Sugarcane".

  4. Anonymous5:22 AM

    Thanks, Ray. We are aware of your excellent documentary and have revised the blog post to mention it. We've also added a link to your site.

  5. Hi Frank,

    Thanks for your comment. You’re the first to mention having a problem with the color scheme, but we’ll take your suggestion under advisement.In the meantime, try not to think of it as “dark text on a dark background”, but as subtle Mojave Sandstone type on a rich background of Sonoma Firebrick.

  6. Interesting use for the Magic Lantern slides. Back in the 70s at the local TV station (Bellingham, WA) we produced 13 half-hour shows on local history using magic lantern slides as the only video source. Well, except for the host Galen Biery and his actual magic lantern...They were projected onto a type of screen that could be seen from its backside, and the back image is what the B&W TV camera picked up, with the camera image switched left-to-right. It was all haywire and Rube Goldberg in those days, and a lot of fun to invent systems like that.