By Thomas Sellers Jr.
June is here and summer vacation has officially started for millions of children across the United States.
The last time I had a summer vacation was June 1998. A lot has changed in 21 years when a child or teenager embarks on the extra time at home. One thing that is still the same is Memorial Day being the unofficial kickoff of summer with family, barbecue and playing in the water. Then before we know it, Labor Day will be upon us, officially ending our beloved summertime.
So what does a school-age child have to look forward to throughout June, July and a small portion of August? There will be trips out of town, more family gatherings and plenty of time for pools, Slip ’N Slides and the trusty water hose.
But most children today elect to stay inside to operate their phones. You might see a few playing with tablets and others going old school by playing video games.
Back in the day, our two main options were going outside or watching television. Remember the TV, folks? It was the source of information and entertainment prior to the personal computer, laptop or phone.
During the peak of my childhood from 1985 to 1989, I could be found in the backyard playing football or baseball. Then late in the evening I would migrate over to the driveway for some hoops.
But before I stepped foot outside into the Memphis heat about 4:30 p.m., I was in front of the TV soaking in as much entertainment as possible. I was watching cartoons first thing in the morning. It was like Saturday morning on steroids.
Which cartoons from the 1980s were the best of the best? Excluding Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry and PBS programming, I’m going to rank the top animated series from the 1980s.
Before we jump into the top 10, here are the best of the rest: “Thundercats,” “G.I. Joe,” “The Real Ghostbusters,” “Inspector Gadget,” “Pound Puppies,” “The Transformers,” “Adventures of the Gummi Bears,” “She-Ra: Princess of Power,” “It’s Punky Brewster,” “The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin,” “Garfield and Friends,” “Voltron,” “Rainbow Brite,” “My Little Pony,” “ALF: The Animated Series” and “The Care Bears.”
10. “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling”
I love wrestling. So when it came to animation form on CBS one September Saturday in 1985, my dream had finally come true. All that stood in my way was an older sister. Her three-year age advantage led to me using some of those wresting skills I learned from Classic Memphis Wrestling, the NWA and the then WWF. Once I gained control of the remote, I flipped the TV to “Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling.”
I was a little disappointed because the voices were different and the show was really a vehicle to launch music. But the high note was seeing Hulk Hogan, Junkyard Dog, Captain Lou Albano, André the Giant, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and even Mean “Gene” Okerlund.
9. “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe”
Have you ever seen a two-year toy commercial? Well from 1983 to 1985, I fell under the control of Filmation’s “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.” This show was a sneaky way to get kids to desire each action figure, setting and accessory involved with He-Man. Thanks to my parents, I owned most of the collection. When I look back on it, the show wasn’t even that great. But the 23 minutes of animation served as a how-to-guide on playing with my new toys.
The series takes place on the fictional planet of Eternia, a planet of magic, myth and fantasy. Prince Adam, aka He-Man, would hold up the Sword of Power aloft and proclaim, “By the Power of Grayskull!” Then he would become He-Man with Battlecat by his side. The main villain was Skeletor. Of course he has a crew of bad guys (had to collect them all). Although He-Man is the most powerful man in the universe, he needed some help to fight Skeletor. We bought all of them, too.
8. “Muppet Babies”
Go right ahead, start singing that iconic theme song. That tune first came into our ears and hearts on Sept. 15, 1984, on CBS. Jim Henson’s Muppet Babies ran until Nov. 2, 1991. I was still a 10-year-old watching Kermit, Miss Piggy, Scooter, Gonzo, Animal and Fozzie Bear.
It was great seeing the crew on a routine basis and not having to wait on a primetime TV special. Now I can see how the Muppets grew up. And the babies used their imagination on a weekly basis to keep me entertained and dreaming.
The Muppet Babies live in a large nursery watched over by Nanny, who is seen only from the shoulders down. The babies’ imaginary games transition from the nursery into scenes that become “real” to the babies.
7. “The Smurfs”
Feeling blue has never felt so awesome. Like me, “The Smurfs” were born in September 1981. And the arrival of my baby brother Carlos in 1989 coincided with the departure of the cartoon series.
Fast forward 30 years later, and my brother is still going strong, like the Smurfs’ impact on society. Thanks to the movie that came out a few years ago, Carlos and his generation are familiar with Papa Smurf and the colony of little blue things.
Such a unique word — of course, Smurf is not U.S. American. The Smurfs in French are Les Schtroumpfs. In Dutch it translates to De Smurfen. The Belgian comic franchise centered on a fictional colony of small, blue, human-like creatures who live in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest. Belgian comic book artist Peyo created a franchise that inspired video games, theme parks, dolls and Smurf berries. Any type of berry I eat today still gives me energy and helps me overcome my enemy like Gargamel.
6. “Alvin & the Chipmunks”
Since 1958, Alvin, Simon and Theodore have been a part of Americana. I was introduced to the chubby Theodore, brainy Simon and mischievous Alvin through the cartoon TV series that debuted on NBC in 1983. The chipmunks were crucial to my television viewing on Saturday morning. They helped me learned classic songs, and they put a high-pitch twist on the hits of the 1980s.
The Seville brothers served as indirect role models for me. While I was soaking in the entertainment, some life lessons crept into my soul. Before I knew it, by 1989, I had two brothers with Cordarous and Carlos. When Cordarous arrived in 1988, I was still selfish and focused on my joy. But when Carlos arrived, I knew we had to bond together like Alvin, Simon and Theodore.
Those three were all different but had a bond through music and brotherly love. Art brings Thomas, Cordarous and Carlos together. And our love makes us a cohesive unit like Thomas & his Chipmunks.
5. “Chip ’n’ Dale Rescue Rangers”
This short-lived cartoon series was syndication in perfection. First airing in May of 1989 from The Disney Channel, Chip and Dale came into my living room courtesy of Channel 30 each afternoon. Toss in Monterey Jack, Gadget Hackwrench and Zipper, and I was thoroughly entertained for 23 minutes.
Chip ’n’ Dale was the first cartoon I remember doing a “To be continued” premise. You had to tune in everyday because Chip ’n’ Dale was presented like a children’s soap opera.
My sister Sha’s countdown of the best cartoons of the 1980s might look different. I’m sure “Care Bears,” “My Little Pony” and few other girly animated series would pop on her list. But the one show we would have in common is “Jem.” It’s because she’s “truly, truly, truly outrageous.”
As a typical pigheaded boy, I didn’t want to watch anything with pink in it or had a girl as the main character. Then Jem became a guilty pleasure.
“Sha, change the channel off this crap.”
“No! Sit your big head down.”
Without much effort … “OK, I guess I’ll watch this crap.”
Jem was Hasbro’s way of selling some toys. Now girls had a toy line to rival The Transformers and G.I. Joe. Meanwhile we got a pretty good show that came on the USA Network.
The series revolves around Jerrica Benton, the owner and manager of Starlight Music and, as Jem, lead singer of the rock group Jem and the Holograms. Jerrica adopts the persona of Jem with the help of a holographic computer, known as Synergy, which was built by Jerrica’s father to be “the ultimate audio-visual entertainment synthesizer” and is bequeathed to her after his death. Jerrica is able to command Synergy to project the hologram of Jem over herself by means of the remote micro-projectors in her earrings, thus disguising her features and clothing, enabling her to assume the Jem persona. Jem, through the use of her earrings, is also able to project holograms around her and uses this ability throughout the series to avoid danger and provide special effects for the performances of her group.
Jem’s group, the Holograms, consisted of Kimber Benton, Jerrica’s younger sister, keyboardist, and main songwriter for the band. Also a part of the Holograms were Aja Leith on guitar and Shana Elmsford, who played the synth drums.
The Holograms have two rival bands with the Misfits and the Stingers. Episodes of the show revolved around Jerrica’s efforts to keep her two identities separate and protect Synergy. Synergy was the technology support system with a face that looked out for Jerrica/Jem. I found myself right next to my sister, rooting for Jem/Jerrica each episode.
By the show’s end in the late 1980s, I was the one in the living room tuned in before my sister could say, “Hey, give me the remote.”
Another classic theme song that will give any child of the 1980s an earworm. I was pleasantly surprised this show found a special place in my heart. I grew up hating Disney cartoons. We were a pro-Looney Tunes home. Disney was for wimps. The only Disney character that was cool to me was Donald Duck.
So I thought “DuckTales” was Donald getting a syndicated show. But I quickly learned Donald was going off to the U.S. Navy, leaving his three nephews with the just-as-entertaining uncle Scrooge McDuck. Huey, Dewey and Louie were the comic foundation of the show. Uncle Scrooge provided the bricks, windows, wood, air conditioning and all the other necessaries for laughter.
The daily adventures centered around Scrooge and the boys overcoming villains like Flintheart Glomgold.
The two most endearing things from the show is the theme, of course, and in the opener Scrooge wearing a 1950s man’s bathing suit. He jumps off a diving board into a vault full of money and gold coins. For some reason the coins take on a liquid feel.
2. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”
In this case I had the toy before I saw the show. It wasn’t until 1989 I discovered that TMNT was on TV. I knew about the comic books and had the action figures by 1988.
The show was in Saturday morning syndication from Oct. 1, 1988, to Sept. 9, 1989. The show was expanded to five days a week and aired weekday afternoons in syndication from 1989 to 1993.
TMNT are still a hit today with new shows, movies and other pop-culture items. The show helped launched the four turtles — Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo — into the mainstream. Several people either own a shirt or plush toy or have eaten the cereals with the turtles on it.
By 1990, the cartoon series was being shown daily on more than 125 television stations, and the comic books sold 125,000 copies a month. But the impact started in the late 1980s. And of course the star of the show was Michelangelo. The one with the orange bandana really loved pizza and delivering classic lines like “Cowabunga Dude!”
Too mature for school-age children? Heathcliff pushed the line back in the ’80s. Airing on Nickelodeon, the show, also known as “Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats,” had some racy situations involving love triangles, jealousy, get-rich schemes and dirty politics.
These are the reasons this was my favorite cartoon series of the 1980s. I can still watch “Heathcliff” today. While the other shows are a part of my past and give me sweet memories of my childhood, I frequently type “Heathcliff” into a search on YouTube for hours of laughter.
The show debuted in September 1984, created by Jean Chalopin and Bruno Bianchi. It became an underground hit. It was never the mainstream flavor of an “Alvin & the Chipmunks” or “Smurfs.”
The creative style of drawing, the characters didn’t look like anything else on TV at the time thanks to the animation being outsourced to many Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean studios, including TMS, Studio Korumi, Wang Film, Cuckoo’s Nest, Mushi and others.
Comedy icon Mel Blanc provided the voice for the title character, Heathcliff. Heathcliff seemed to take on some of Blanc’s personality. The best orange cat on TV was street smart, funny and ready to fight. The tabby cat was lovable because he was a trickster who was willing to lie, cheat or steal to get food, love or beat the bad guys.
THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for West 10 Media/Magic Valley Publishing. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to email@example.com.