ObituARY: Jean Vander Pyl

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The Independent Culture
HOW MANY syllables are there in the name Fred? One? Not if you are a fan of The Flintstones. You would know there are two: "Fre-" and "- Ed". That was the way Jean Vander Pyl pronounced it and she should know. She was Wilma, the wife of Fred, head of the Caveman clan, living in the Stone Age city of Bedrock.

She also played her own Flintstone daughter Pebbles, prehistoric playmate of Bamm-Bamm, son of her next-door neighbours Barney and Betty Rubble. But unless you are a true fanatic of The Flintstones you may be forgiven for never knowing the name of Jean Vander Pyl: she was only their voices.

Although a cartoon character could not exist without a voice, voice artistes, despite a talent so individual as to virtually turn the character into a star, seldom reach star status themselves. Their names flash across the television screen in long alphabetical lists that frequently fail to link them with their character roles. Thus Jean Vander Pyl comes pretty low on most cast-lists.

Among the few whose names have reached top billing status are Mel Blanc, who voiced virtually every Warner Bros cartoon star from Bugs Bunny to Speedy Gonzales, and Billy Costello who created that gravelly voiced growler Popeye the Sailor, but who was never allowed billing. When he was refused a pay rise he bravely went on a music-hall tour topping bills around the world back in the Thirties.

But Jean Vander Pyl was used to low billing: she had started life as a radio voice woman in America where character people were seldom given even a spoken credit. She was born in Philadelphia in 1919 and after graduating from Beverly Hills High School got her start in a dramatic radio series entitled Calling All Cops, a pioneering crime show which pre-dated Dragnet. As a change from ladies in distress she played more than one girlfriend to the black- face comedians Amos and Andy, before maturing to the other end of the age scale as the mother in Father Knows Best.

"I used to play everything from the ingenue to the villainess without complaining or screwing up," she said, adding that radio acting was a notoriously anonymous profession. "It was considered a second-class art," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, "I lived without the burdens of stardom." Somewhat sad for a girl who had teenage ambitions to become a star of the stage. "When radio died," she said, "the prognosis was that we radio actors would be out of work because all we did was use our voices. But that was wrong; a few of us got lucky and got into cartoons."

The Flintstones was not only lucky for her, it was virtually the foundation of world-wide success for two brilliant animators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. They had first become known to audiences by their directorial signatures to the Tom and Jerry cartoons which they had made for MGM from 1939. Rising rapidly to the forefront of cinema animation, the partners were summarily dismissed when MGM suddenly shut down their cartoon studio in 1957. Bill and Joe, as they were known, made a brave decision and dived head-first into the big new world of television. From the launch of their series for children's television, Ruff and Reddy, they soon dominated the juvenile field. All that remained was to have a go at the adult market.

After some months of pencil experimentation using as a role model the then top sit-com series The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, The Flintstones eventually emerged, only the show was originally called The Flagstones. When they found that Flagstone was the surname of the characters in a popular comic strip called "Hi and Lois" they changed it to The Gladstones.

Finally, as The Flintstones, the concept was sold to ABC Television and went on the air on the night of 30 September 1960. The reviews were terrible - "an inked disaster", wrote Jack Gould in The New Yorker - but the viewers loved it. Especially when Fred Flintstone, the bluff, rough but not-so- tough husband let rip with his catch-call, "Yabba-dabba-doo!"

Ad-libbed originally by the comedy voice man Alan Reed, who found the scriptwriters' "Yah-hoo" boring, it became a national catchphrase in no time. In the end The Flintstones ran for seven years (from 1960 until 1966), averaging 30 half-hour episodes a year, and then went into syndication around the world, where to this day it is seen somewhere every day of the year.

Everybody got rich except the animators and the voice artistes: Jean Vander Pyl was paid $250 per episode plus a one-off payment of $15,000 instead of residuals. "If I got residuals I wouldn't live in San Clemente," she said. "I would own San Clemente."

She was, however, given third star name billing in the cinema feature version The Man Called Flintstone, made in 1966 as a burlesque of the James Bond film Thunderball mixed up with The Man From Uncle and Our Man Flint; and also made a brief appearance in the 1994 live-action film The Flintstones, as Mrs Feldspar.

Jean Vander Pyl, actress: born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 11 October 1919; married (three sons); died Dana Point, California 10 April 1999.