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, Leo.
|Jan, Mike, Leo and Stan Berenstain.|
In the 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. 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.|
The 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.|
The 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 2004.