Of Mountain Lions and Murgatroyd: The Snagglepuss Story

According to at least one source I’ve come across, in addition to being National Dog Day, August 26 is National Mountain Lion Day.

The American Mountain Lion goes by many names: cougar, puma, panther, and my absolute favorite by many car lengths, catamount. In the U.S. this creature once roamed the entire lower 48, but over the centuries its American habitat has been pushed steadily west — which makes it logical that Hanna-Barbera’s beloved cartoon cougar character Snagglepuss made his 1959 debut on The Quick Draw McGraw Show (for you young ‘uns, Quick Draw McGraw was a cowboy horse hero in the Old West). Back when westerns were still one of the most vital genres in film and television, and when live theatre was a much more cherished American institution, at least among older people, there would have been much less to explain about Snagglepuss to audiences than there must be now.

But there is a particular lot for readers of this blog to relish about this character. Essentially, Snagglepuss was a ham Shakespearean actor, voiced by Daws Butler to sound like Bert Lahr in his prissy mode (“I’m just a DANDY lion” he sings in The Wizard of Oz with the flip of a limp wrist). Snagglepuss’s bowknot tie, formal collar and cuffs and pink coloring emphasize the “dandy” effect. (By the way, The Pink Panther debuted two years later. I bet you never thought of it, but Snagglepuss is ALSO a “pink panther”).

Snagglepuss’s catchphrases are much cherished by his fans: “Heavens to Murgatroyd!” is one of the more hilarious ones, a kind of spin on “Heavens to Betsy” that Lahr first uttered in the 1944 movie Meet the People, but remained pretty obscure until the Snagglepuss writers revived it. Murgatroyd is a real English name; whether or not Lahr was thinking of anybody in particular when he came up with it is unknown to this correspondent. “What’s the idea, what’s the idea?” was also a Lahrism, first popularized in the comedian’s old cop sketch with his partner Mercedes Delpino. Snagglepuss also has a habit of ending sentences with the word “even” for emphasis, sometimes in an escalating manner not unlike Maxwell Smart’s “Would you believe-?” And also, there’s his habit of announcing his departures as a stage direction: “Exit, stage left!” and most gloriously, combined, as in “Exit, stage left! Stage right, even!”

What’s an actor doing roaming the old west, you may wonder? Well, that was a THING. Of COURSE that was a thing! That was the entertainment in that time and place. Yes, we’re more accustomed to seeing dance hall girls on saloon stages in cinematic depictions, but audiences also enjoyed plays in that much more literate and literary time. Bowery toughs attended Shakespeare and melodrama plays in the city, and cowboys went to such shows in western burgs, whenever they came to town. So, anyway, that’s the original premise. Later the character was used in a variety of settings, including contemporary ones, making the whole thing even more inexplicable. Snagglepuss was originally a supporting character in various other series, then got his own cartoon segments on The Yogi Bear Show starting in 1961, making those classics just about 60 years old now.

Snagglepuss has continued to be revived on this or that occasion across the decades. His most significant resurrection however has to be the 2018 DC comics 6-issue series Exit, Stage Left!: The Snagglepuss Chronicles written by Mark Russell (yet a third Mark Russell beyond the two we wrote about here just a couple of days ago). In this revisionist take, the creators explore the character’s obvious gay stereotype (inherited, it has to be admitted from Lahr). To play Devil’s Advocate, the flamboyance and perceived pretensions of actors had always relegated them to the broader and no less pejorative category of “sissies”, with no necessary connotation of homosexuality. The world has known many macho queers and straight dandies. If pressed, I’m certain that Lahr and Butler would have clamed their “nance” characters to have been of the latter type, the moral codes of vaudeville and 20th century broadcasting being what they were. And truth to tell, thespians, sissies and queers can all embrace Snagglepuss as a member of their tribe. I know, I do! Be that as it may, Russell’s comic re-envisions the Hanna-Barbera character as a Tennessee Williams-like gay playwright who frequents the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village during the 1950s! To which I think our hero can only reply, “What’s the idea, what’s the idea?

For more on the history of show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous