Cartoon characters Yogi Bear and Boo Boo visit the The Empire State Building on December 16, 2010 in New York City. Source: (Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
Remember Hanna-Barbera’s favorite picnic basket-stealing, park ranger-teasing, campground-dwelling cartoon bear? Did you know that Yogi Bear was supposed to be a side-kick character, but he was so popular that he got his own show? And did you know that his name was inspired by baseball player Yogi Berra, who threatened to sue Hanna-Barbera? Yogi Bear claimed that he was smarter than your average bear, and he has an interesting backstory to boot, with links to baseball, Civil Rights, and Vaudeville. Here is the story of Yogi Bear.
Yogi started as a sidekick to Huckleberry Hound. Source: (flickr.com)
Yogi and Huckleberry Hound
Yogi Bear debuted in 1958. Initially, Hanna-Barbera planned to use the character as a sidekick to their well-loved Huckleberry Hound character on The Huckleberry Hound Show. Audiences loved Yogi Bear and his crazy antics in the fictional Jellystone National Park. In fact, Yogi grew more popular than Huckleberry Hound so he became Hanna-Barbera’s first breakout character to get his own spin-off. The Yogi Bear Show debuted in 1961.
Yogi Berra, not to be confused with Yogi Bear. Source: (abcnews.go.com)
Yogi Bear and Yogi Berra
By the time Hanna-Barbera created their Yogi Bear character, there was another Yogi who was a household name in the United States, baseball player turned coach, Yogi Berra. When the Yogi Bear cartoon debuted, Berra filed a lawsuit against Hanna-Barbera for defamation of character. The production studio claimed that the similarity in names between the famous baseball player and the cartoon bear was merely coincidental. Berra eventually dropped his lawsuit but cringed every time someone called him Yogi Bear, by mistake or on purpose. Because Yogi is such an unusual first name—it is actually a nickname for Berra, whose first name was Lawrence—there is no denying that the popularity and influence of Yogi Berra inspired the cartoon creators to name their character Yogi Bear.
Art Carney as Ed Norton. Source: (pinterest.com)
Yogi Bear and Art Carney
Hanna-Barbera had a reputation for mimicking their characters after well-known celebrities or television characters. Yogi Bear was patterned after Ed Norton, the character played by Art Carney on The Honeymooners. Carney, it has been claimed, took his inspiration for the Ed Norton character from the “Borscht Belt” comedians popular on the Vaudeville circuit.
Yogi and an Animation Trick
If you look closely at a Yogi Bear cartoon, you will notice that Yogi is wearing a collar and tie. His sidekick, BooBoo Bear, is wearing a bowtie. In fact, most of Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon characters are wearing some sort of collar. The reason for this was that the animation studio used it as a time-saving device for their cartoonists. The body of Yogi Bear, BooBoo, or other characters could remain static below the collar. The animators only needed to then redraw the head for each frame. This saved a tremendous amount of time an effort, cutting the number of drawings down from about 14,000 to 2,000 for a seven-minute long cartoon.
Yogi Bear and the Civil Rights Movement
There are some animation and television historians who view the Yogi Bear cartoons as symbolic of the social and political atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like Yogi Bear, people living in the segregated South during that time period were constantly told by white authority figures to stay confined to their designated areas. And Yogi Bear, like the African-Americans of the time, rebelled against this by attempting to integrate themselves into off-limit places. Yogi doesn’t try to upend the park ranger hierarchy but does try to make the situation as advantageous for himself as possible. Even though Yogi is a habitual thief, viewers sympathized with his plight. Many pop culture historians believe this is allegorical to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.
Voice over actor, Daws Butler, provided the voice for Yogi Bear from the time of his debut in 1958 until 1988 when Butler passed away. After this time, the character of Yogi was voiced by three different people, Greg Burson, Billy West, and Jeff Bergman.