The ageless wonder Bugs Bunny amazingly turns 80 next summer, and in Boston, the celebration begins with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall for three cartoon-filled shows on December 28 and 29.
For 30 years now, George Daugherty has brought Bugs Bunny to life, explaining and conducting the scores of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes cartoons as diverse as the Hollywood Bowl, where some of the cartoons are situated, Lincoln Center, the Kremlin, China, and, of course, Boston’s famous Boston Pops performances.
Daugherty pioneered the idea of conducting symphony orchestras to play the scores of cartoons while they unfolded on the screen before live audiences.
“They thought we were crazy,” Daugherty says. “Before Bugs, you might see an orchestra accompanying a silent movie. But nobody was doing this.”
Today, orchestras outside of the Boston Pops perform the scores of movies like Star Wars or Back to the Future are staples for orchestras, not to mention mainstays of their budgets. When Daugherty first took Bugs Bunny to Broadway three decades ago, he was breaking new ground, and “people loved it.”
“Bugs is an icon. The audiences are mostly adults, and at the matinee programs, they bring their kids. People just go crazy for Bugs Bunny. And it’s easy to understand why.”
History of Bugs Bunny
Looney Tunes, of which Bugs is a staple, had a 20-year run from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, when more than 1,000 such cartoons were created, to accompany every single new Warner Brothers feature the studio released.
“Some of the people who made Looney Tunes cartoons were classically trained musicians, composers, conductors, who had escaped Europe prior to World War II,” Daugherty explains. “They infused their love of classical music into the cartoons they made. When I conduct Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, and so on, I’m actually conducting the music of Strauss, Smetana, Wagner, and a host of other great composers. It never gets old.”
Three million people have attended Daugherty’s performances over the decades, and he is kicking off a new show this winter, featuring seventeen Looney Tunes cartoons.
“People don’t realize that these cartoons were created for adults,” Daugherty points out. “They took around two months to make, and they would be released in order to entertain adult audiences prior to feature films. We think of cartoons as kid stuff. Instead, they bring out the kid in all of us.”
Meet the 17 Cartoons You’ve Never Seen Before
To celebrate Bugs’ 80th birthday, Warner Brothers is actually bringing out a new line of Looney Tunes cartoons, one of which will be previewed at Daugherty’s performances in Boston.
“They made them the old fashioned way,” Daugherty says of the new productions. “They painted the scenes by hand instead of using computer technology. And they are brilliant.”
The Looney Tunes crew was meant to be enjoyed by large audiences, and it’s an extraordinary feeling to laugh along with thousands of others in a hall at the antics of everyman Bugs, the unflappable Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the crew.
For Bostonians, it’s also the perfect solution for the problem of “The kids are out school and they’re already tired of their Christmas toys—now what?”
Daugherty credits his partner on the Looney Tunes venture, David Ka Lik Wong, a producer, for insuring that the technology is flawless at each performance.
“When we started this,” Daugherty recalls, “the technology was nothing like what it is like today. We were lugging around incredibly heavy suitcases of gear. Today, of course, things are simpler, but it’s still no small task to play and synchronize 17 cartoons along with an orchestra.”
Daugherty and his wascally wabbit, as Elmer would say, recently sold out a multi-day run at New York’s Lincoln Center and they could have sold thousands more tickets.
“The first time people saw Bugs at David Geffen Hall,” Daugherty says, “the roar was unbelievable. Bugs is beloved, and seeing him on the big screen with a great orchestra playing, along with thousands of your fellow cartoon lovers turns out to be an experience that everybody wants to have.”
And how does Daugherty feel about having spent 30 years of his life playing second fiddle to a celluloid rabbit?
“Never upstage a star,” Daugherty laughs. “It’s Bugs’ world. I just conduct in it.”