Amidst the doom ‘n’ gloom headlines of Putin’s paramilitary football army goose-stepping around Marseilles and revelations of a gay Muslim so in denial of his predilections that he had to execute forty-nine of those who could accept their sexuality free from shame, I thought it opportune to take time out and pay tribute to a passing that probably won’t be added to the ever-expanding roll-call of iconic deaths in 2016.
You may not know the name of Janet Waldo, whose death at the age of 96 was announced today; but if you’re of a certain age, you may remember her voice. It was she who spoke the words that emanated from the exquisite painted lips of that delicious damsel of the immortal Hanna Barbera stable that graced our TV screens in the 70s, Penelope Pitstop. Originally belonging to the ensemble cast of the 1968 series ‘Wacky Races’, sharing the spotlight with Dick Dastardly & Muttley, the Anthill Mob, the Gruesome Twosome, and the unfortunately-named Slag Brothers (amongst others), Penelope was the sexy Southern Belle blonde bombshell in the Edwardian driving gear who steered a sleek pink vehicle that went by the name of the Compact Pussycat.
Although the epitome of femininity guaranteed to induce chivalry in her all-male competitors during the endless races that constituted the series, with constant attention to her appearance (donning ‘lippy’ midway through another gruelling motorised marathon before resuming the race), Penelope Pitstop had a distinct tomboy-ish feel to her that placed her in a slightly different league to other cartoon girls of the era. As many little boy’s hearts as Daphne from ‘Scooby Doo’ caused to flutter in her memorable purple mini-dress, it was impossible to imagine Daphne ever taking the wheel of the Mystery Machine; that was strictly a man’s job – in this particular case, annoyingly white bread Freddie, the sort of guy who always got the girl. Penelope Pitstop, on the other hand, could look drop-dread gorgeous and drive a car in a high-speed contest, taking on the men at their own game.
There was clearly mileage in the character, as she was soon promoted from ‘Wacky Races’ to her own series, ‘The Perils of Penelope Pitstop’, a canny parody of the early silent cliff-hanging melodramas featuring heroines being tied to railway lines by moustache-twirling cads. Penelope’s nemesis was The Hooded Claw, the villainous alter-ego of her guardian Sylvester Sneekly, who donned a mask to disguise his nefarious intentions to rob her of an inheritance. She received assistance from fellow ‘Wacky Races’ regulars, the Anthill Mob, a bunch of unshaven Chicago gangster-types from the 20s who were clearly not as wicked as The Hooded Claw.
‘The Perils of Penelope Pitstop’ was, along with ‘Scooby Doo, Where Are You?’ and ‘Josie and the Pussycats’, symptomatic of the second phase of Hanna Barbera from the late 60s onwards, when the company progressed from talking animal shorts ala Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and Pixie & Dixie onto extended adventures mixing a human cast with the odd vocal non-human as part of the team. The simpler system of animation William Hanna and Joe Barbera had developed when they left MGM (where they had created Tom & Jerry for the big screen) and set up on their own for exclusively TV production in the 50s enabled the company they founded to produce a phenomenal run of cartoon classics with a rapid work-rate that seems remarkable in retrospect. In the same year that ‘The Perils of Penelope Pitstop’ debuted on US TV, series still receiving their first screenings included ‘The Banana Splits’, ‘Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines’, ‘Motormouse and Autocat’, ‘It’s the Wolf’, and the first series of ‘Scooby Doo’.
Actress Janet Waldo was chosen to voice Penelope Pitstop following her earlier stint doing vocal duties for Judy, the teenage daughter of The Jetsons, Hanna Barbera’s futuristic answer to The Flintstones. She was supposed to resume the voice of Judy Jetson when the cartoon received an ill-advised cinematic revival in 1990, but was ‘jettisoned’ from the soundtrack in favour of mall-music pop siren Tiffany before release; justice was done when the film flopped quicker than Tiffany’s career thereafter.
Waldo’s death at the ripe old age of 96 will naturally be marked by her family and friends; but for those of us whose formative years were illuminated by the enormous cast of characters to spring forth from the marvellous imaginations let loose upon the small screen by Hanna Barbera – not to mention those of us whose nascent attraction to beautiful people was provoked by the likes of Penelope Pitstop – a glass should be raised to honour the contribution of Janet Waldo and her fellow artists at all levels of the creative process that gifted us with heroes, heroines and talking animals for which we retain a special place in our personal archive.
© The Editor