By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, July 23, 2005
Michigan J. Frog, the 1950s Warner Bros. contract player best known for his top hat, cane and ragtime songs, is dead, killed by the WB network for whom he had been working as a mascot, The TV Column has learned.
We take you now to Beverly Hills, Calif., for the latest on this breaking story:
In the biggest news yet to come out of the action-packed Summer TV Press Tour 2005, WB suits, after being grilled during a midday news conference with the Reporters Who Cover Television, confessed yesterday to killing off their beloved mascot, Michigan J. Frog.
Mr. Frog would have turned 50 in December.
WB targets 12- to 34-year-olds. You do the math.
But WB suits, onstage to discuss their new prime-time shows starring Sara Gilbert, Jay Baruchel, Rebecca Romijn and even Don Johnson, insisted Mr. Frog's demise had not been the work of ageists.
In fact, they had the crust to suggest that Mr. Frog got snuffed because he skewed too young.
Back in the mid-'90s, when the WB was launched with programming specifically targeting teens and young adults, it decided not to employ a serious network TV logo -- such as an eyeball or a peacock -- but instead to dust off from the Warner Bros. vault an animated frog (created by the same guy who'd given us Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Pepe Le Pew) that, they reasoned, would appeal to younger viewers.
Unfortunately, it worked too well, and coupled with the fact that so many stars of WB's prime-time hits were in high school, the network once known as the WB, or the Frog, became known as That Teen Network, not friendly to anyone over 20. This limited the network's growth among the young adult set, which did not sit well with the Old Men of Time Warner.
In retrospect, industry experts said yesterday, it was inevitable that Don Johnson would be added to the WB schedule and Michigan J. Frog would get whacked.
"Is the frog dead?" asked one critic after noticing that Michigan was missing from all the WB signage in the Beverly Hilton ballroom where the network's day at the press tour was taking place.
"The frog is dead and buried," WB Chairman Garth Ancier said defiantly.
"And buried, yeah," chimed in programming chief David Janollari.
Gasps could be heard in the room.
"And that gets a really negative reaction -- okay!" said Ancier.
"Wait, wait -- we should talk about that," Janollari said. "That was a symbol that was -- especially in extensive testing that we did -- that perpetuated the young teen feel of the network, and that is not the image we want to put out to our audience."
"Do you know what day the frog died?"
"Services will be held," Janollari said apologetically.
"The frog was on life support for a long time, and then we got permission from a federal court to disconnect the feeding tube," Ancier said. He has been with the network since its launch in '95 and has always had it in for Mr. Frog, according to well-placed sources who wished to remain anonymous because it's a short hop from killing a frog to knocking off a snitch.
One particularly strong-stomached critic wondered whether Ancier, when he ran the entertainment division at NBC, had tried to whack the peacock.
"Well, no," Ancier said. "The peacock was a true American icon based on the advent of color television and is one of the most recognizable symbols, like the Apple logo, in corporate America. I don't think you would look at the frog and say that's one of the most recognized [corporate] symbols, like McDonald's arches, in corporate iconography, if that's the right word."
"Is that the remains of the frog?" asked another hardboiled critic, pointing to the new Ralph Steadman-ish signs, with the words "The WB" scrawled across splotches of yellow, green, blue and black.
"I'd say yes," Janollari said.
"Yeah, why not," snapped Ancier, clearly the ring leader.
Mr. Frog, with his trademark top hat and cane, made his debut Dec. 31, 1955, in the Looney Tunes cartoon "One Froggy Evening," written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones.
In the cartoon, a construction worker finds a box in the cornerstone of a building that's being razed and opens it. Out pops Michigan J. Frog in top hat and cane, singing "Hello, My Baby." The construction worker takes the amphibian to the Acme Theatrical Agency, but he will not perform for anyone except the construction worker, who finally gives up and dumps him into a box in the cornerstone of a new building, where years later a construction worker finds the box, opens it and out pops Michigan J. Frog, who begins to sing and dance -- but only for him.
Over the course of his career, Mr. Frog performed "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and a song written by Jones and Maltese called "The Michigan Rag."
But yesterday, fans remembered Mr. Frog for his Al Jolsonesque rendition of his favorite tune, "Hello, My Baby":
Hello, my baby,
Hello, my honey,
Hello, my ragtime gal.
Send me a kiss by wire,
Baby, my heart's on fire!
If you refuse me,
Honey, you'll lose me,
Then you'll be left alone;
Oh, baby, telephone,
And tell me I'm your own.
Hello! Hello! Hello there!