The Berenstain Bears is
a series of illustrated children’s books that was very much a family effort. Stanley
Berenstain and Janice Grant met in 1941 while attending the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art.
After the interruption of World
War II, they were married in 1946 and worked as art teachers while also
pursuing a career in cartooning; providing humorous sketches and cover art for
various publications. In 1951, they began a series of humorous how-to books
described by Stan as “cartoon essays” with The
Berenstain’s Baby Book, inspired by the raising of their son,
|Jan, Mike, Leo and Stan Berenstain.
1960s, the Berenstains wanted to make books for young children. They decided to
make their main characters a family of bears as the animal held wide appeal and
were easy to draw, plus it was fun to dress them in silly clothing. Initially
they came up with three characters: a wise Mama Bear who wore a blue dress with
polka dots; an overenthusiastic Papa Bear in bib overalls who was a bumbling
carpenter; and a bright, lively cub named Small Bear (later becoming Brother
Bear when he gained siblings Sister and Honey).
|The original book.
The manuscript, titled Freddy Bear’s Spanking, found its way into the hands of Random House editor
Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Geisel challenged the Berenstains to look deeper at their characters,
their relationships and their motivations while also improving the writing and
structure. After two years, Geisel was satisfied enough to send the book to
print in 1962 as The Big Honey Hunt. With
no plans for a sequel, Geisel advised the Berenstains to look into a different
animal for their next book as bears were plentiful in fiction. However, that
notion soon came to an end when Geisel called and told them “We’re selling the
hell out of that bear book.” A sequel came in 1964, titled The Bike Lesson. Without consulting them
and for “marketing reasons”, Geisel had renamed the authors as Stan and Jan and
added The Berenstain Bears title to all subsequent books.
|Papa, Mama, Brother and Sister Bear.
As described by the Berenstains, their books usually followed a basic
formula: Small Bear would present a problem to Papa Bear who would proceed to
make it worse at his own expense, until Mama came in and straightened
everything out. The books usually dealt with real life issues drawn from their
own life experiences such as bullying, lying, being scared of the dark,
sportsmanship, safety, physical health and more. Sister Bear was introduced in
1974’s The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby in
response to requests from female readers, and Honey’s arrival was announced in
2000’s The Birds, the Bees and the Berenstain Bears along
with a contest to name her.
|The latest 2019 release of the series.
Despite frequent criticisms that the books are overly syrupy and sappy
lectures disguised as stories and for perpetuating outdated gender roles, The Berenstain Bears have sold over 260 million copies and
received multiple awards. Their sons, Leo and Mike, began working
on the “Big Chapter Book” series under their parents’ names. Following Stan’s
death in 2005, Mike collaborated with Jan on new installments while Leo took
over the business side of the franchise. Jan would pass away in 2012, leaving
Mike to continue to create new books in the series.
|The Bears settling down for Christmas...fish?....in the first animated special.
On their way to becoming a media franchise, The Berenstain Bears have
had board games, card games, toys and video games made about them. And, of course, cartoons.
Beginning in 1979, a series of five annual specials were made by Perpetual
Motion Pictures and The Cates
Brothers Company and aired on NBC. With the success of those specials, it was decided to turn the
concept in a full-fledged television series produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions.
Joe Cates and Buzz Potamkin
remained as producers and Elliot Lawrence continued to score the music; taking cues
from his pieces in the specials but at a faster pace; including the series’
theme which incorporated parts of John Philip Sousa’s
“The Stars and Stripes Forever”.
|The Bears showing off their home.
Berenstain Bears Show debuted on CBS on September 14, 1985. Like the books, the
series focused on the daily lives of Papa (Brian Cummings), Mama (Ruth Buzzi),
Brother (David Mendenhall) and Sister (Christina Lange) in their woodland home
of Bear Country. Brother and Sister often deal with the trials and tribulations
of growing up and turned to their Papa for help, who then promptly managed to
screw things up spectacularly leaving Mama to clean up the mess. Occasionally,
the Bear family had to deal with the machinations of local con artist Raffish
Ralph (Frank Welker, using a W.C. Fields
impression) and the schemes of Weasel McGreed (an original creation for the
show, also Welker) who wanted to take over Bear Country any way possible. Other
characters included the cubs’ cousin Freddy (Welker) and his dog, Snuff (also
Welker); Too-Tall Grizzly (Cummings), the tallest cub in school and frequent
bully; Professor Actual Factual (Welker), the community intellectual and owner
of the Bearsonian Institution museum; Mayor Horace J. Honeypot (Cummings), who
often mixed up letters in words as he spoke; Bigpaw (Cummings), a giant
throwback to prehistoric cave bears; Queen Nectar (Buzzi), a bee in charge of
making “Wild Wild Honey” that Papa was always after; and Papa’s parents Gramps
(Welker, Cummings in 1 episode), who liked to build ships in bottles and
complain about government, and Gran (Buzzi), who enjoyed telling people their
fortunes, amongst others.
|Series villains Weasel McGreed and Raffish Ralph.
The series was mostly written by the Berenstains along with Martin Pasko, Rebecca Parr, Rowby Goren, Earl Kress, Bill Shinkai and Linda Woolverton,
with Goren serving as the story editor. It ran for two seasons, airing 13
episodes per season comprised of two segments each. Half of the featured
stories were adapted straight from the books. Animation duties were moved to Southern Star/Hanna-Barbera
Australia, where the character designs were refined to be more in line with the
books’ updated style as well as simplified for weekly animation. The series was
nominated for a 1987 Daytime Emmy Award
and a Humanitas Prize.
|Professor Actual Factual.
Berenstain Bears Show remained on
the network until the 1987 fall schedule. It was rerun on TLC as part of their Ready Set Learn programming block in 1998 until a contract
dispute forced them to take it off. The show ended up being acquired by DiC Entertainment
and was run in the early 2000s as part of the DiC Kids Network programming block with some editing and
time compression. Random House Home Video began releasing collections onto VHS in 1985 collecting three segments apiece. The opening title was
altered, removing the introductions showing highlights from the episode,
flipping a shot and changing the on-screen title. The episode title cards,
which featured a portrait of the Bears on a green background, were replaced
with a shot from the opening title. The end credits were also changed to scroll
up the screen and the music sped up. In 1995, Sony Wonder took
over distribution of the VHS collections after signing a deal with Random House, doing so until