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PSO pairs cartoons with live soundtracks in 'Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II'

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 7:07 p.m.
A scene from Looney Tunes' 'What's Opera, Doc?'
Warner Bros.
A scene from Looney Tunes' 'What's Opera, Doc?'

Wile E. Coyote had it easy.

Sure, his obsession with trapping the elusive Roadrunner inevitably meant that he got flattened by one of his own Acme anvil booby traps or ran straight off a cliff, where he inevitably paused in midair, looked down, blinked at the viewer and — VOOOOM! — dropped like a stone.

But imagine providing the live soundtrack to that particular scene, matching every musical note to the sequence of Wile E.'s body movements, exactly as we heard it as kids on those long ago Saturday mornings. And yes, that also means keeping up with the Roadrunner.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will do just that during “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II” April 10 to 13 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. The show will feature screenings of “What's Opera, Doc?,” “The Rabbit of Seville,” “Duck Amuck” and other classic Looney Tunes cartoons, with a soundtrack provided by the likes of Wagner, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and others.

The evening will include two new Warner Bros. CGI/3-D cartoons, “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat” and “Coyote Falls.”

Guest conductor George Daugherty, who created the show, will work from original musical-score sheets used by the Warner Bros. orchestra during the original Hollywood recording sessions.

“It's exhausting,” he says. “There are no slow movements in Looney Tunes.”

The Looney Tunes music was adapted and interpolated by Carl Stalling, musical director and composer for Warner Bros., and his successor, Milt Franklyn. Stalling began his career playing organ for silent movies. He worked with Walt Disney before signing on with Warner Bros.

Stalling invented the “click track,” a timing device that enabled animators to set the tempo of cartoons so musicians could play along. His painstakingly calibrated scores, written on specially printed musical-bar sheets, often included such notations as “Coyote gets hit with rock.”

“That is one of the reasons why synchronization is so essential in this concert,” Daugherty says. “They have to be absolutely frame accurate.”

They're not skimping on the sound effects, either, Daugherty says, since the exact timbre of those bonks, splats and slaps are embedded in the brains of Baby Boomers. If a sound is off, they'll know it.

“We bring with us two soloists, a pianist and one of our percussionists who does all the specialty stuff,” he says. “When Daffy Duck tap dances, that comes from two spatulas we purchased at the Dollar Store.”

They could have relied on digital technology, but that would be cheating.

“We want to be authentic,” Daugherty says. “The easiest thing would have been to sample it from a cartoon and put it on the audio track. But we wanted to do it right.”

A conservatory-trained musician, Daugherty has conducted the American Ballet Theatre and Munich State Opera. He won an Emmy for his animated and live-action production of Sergei Prokofiev's “Peter and the Wolf,” which he created, co-wrote, conducted and directed.

Like most Baby Boomers, Daugherty enjoyed the Warner Bros. cartoons as a kid but forgot about them when he embarked on his classical-music career. In the '80s, he watched a videotape of Bugs Bunny and other cartoons at a friend's house. A lightbulb went off.

“I was trying to think of ways to bring people into the concert hall, and I rediscovered these cartoons,” he says. “Hearing it as an adult again, the music was even more incredible than it was when I was a kid. “

Classical music in the '30s and '40s had a much wider audience than today, says Daniel Goldmark, associate professor of music at Case Western Reserve University. For studios, it was cheaper than composing new music, because most of it was in the public domain.

Goldmark wrote “Tunes for 'Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon” (University of California Press 2005).

“Classical music has been a key part of cartoons since pretty much the very beginning of sound cartoons,” Goldmark says. “Warner Bros., in particular, took what you might call an irreverent view of classical music. (Director) Chuck Jones certainly liked classical music, but they really liked to poke fun at the perceived stuffiness of the classical-music world, something that had been really well crystallized by ‘Fantasia.' ”

In 1957, the Warner Bros. cartoon “What's Opera, Doc?” used Richard Wagner's ponderous opera “The Ring Cycle” as the setting for a battle of wits between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. Three words — “Kill the Wabbit” — detonated a 300-megaton whoopee cushion under the seat of highbrow culture.

“For anyone who's over the age of 30, if you sing ‘The Ride of Valkyries' to them (and) ask them, ‘What is that?,' nine out of 10 would say ‘Kill the Wabbit.' ” Goldmark says. “We were all hearing classical music whether we knew it or not.”

But Stalling and Warner Bros. treated the music with respect, which is why Daugherty thinks the “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony” series has remained popular for a quarter century. Symphony musicians don't feel like they are slumming when they play this music, he says.

“There was a huge orchestra that came to work every day at Warner Bros.,” Daugherty says. “It was part of the Hollywood system. There were more symphony orchestras (in Hollywood) in the 1930s and '40s than any other place in the world.”

Stalling may not be remembered with the likes of Beethoven or Mozart, but he composed at least one enduring piece of music, the descending three-note phrase — whomp whomp whomp — that some have dubbed “The Trombone Fail.”

It was created by using a trombone and a toilet plunger head as a mute, Daugherty says. Of course, Stalling's creation has become a musical meme, heard whenever Marsha Brady is thwarted or Colonel Klink is outsmarted on “Hogan's Heroes.”

“In the United States and Canada, all trombonists know what to do,” Daugherty says. “They've heard it all their lives.”

William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

Looney Tunes exhibit

The ToonSeum comics and cartoon gallery in the Cultural District recently opened their own Looney Tunes exhibit to coincide with “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II.” The display, which is part of the museum's monthly Pop Up series, is sponsored by Schell Games and will feature animation cels and musical-score sheets.

“It's small, but it really explores the process of creating an animated cartoon,” says Joe Wos, executive director of the cartoon museum. “You have informational panels about animators, the composers, the voiceover artists and the directors.”

He calls Warner Bros. musical director Carl Stalling “an unsung hero,” not only for his masterful blending of classical scores with silly sound effects, but for the cunning way he used a musical phrase or accent to punctuate a particular emotion or moment, be it a flummoxed Fudd or a thwarted Daffy Duck.

“The Warner Bros. cartoons were really created for an adult audience,” Wos says. “It wasn't until the advent of Saturday morning cartoons that Looney Tunes became exclusively associated with children. It's the adults who have fond memories of these cartoons. It has adult humor. It's not raunchy, but it has this biting wit that requires an adult sensibility.

“Animators and cartoonists always feel like they're getting away with something. That's part of the fun. You feel like you're in on the secret.”

The Looney Tunes Pop Up Exhibit runs through the end of the month at the ToonSeum, 945 Liberty Ave., Downtown. Hours are 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sunday; 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is $6, $3 for ages 6 to 12, and free for age 5 and under.

Details: 412-232-0199 or

— William Loeffler

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