Yogi Bear was one of the first of the iconic Hanna Barbera characters from early television cartoon history, and has starred in almost a dozen TV series since his debut in 1958. And of course, a staple in early cartoon history is the TV Special – one-shot episodes or mini-movies, a genre that would later become a hallmark of TV cartoon history.

But for Yogi Bear, there was one movie that got away – A Jellystone Christmas, a special that was developed, pitched, rejected, and was beset by problem after problem, until eventually succeeding, only to fade into obscurity. And Tony Benedict, the creator of that Yogi Bear Christmas special will tell us what happened, how he got it made, and you’ll also find out how you can actually watch this lost movie today.

Tony Benedict has had an amazing career – after a stint in military, he got his start in the mailroom at the Walt Disney studio, and was eventually allowed to submit an art test for the animation department, which hired him on, putting him to work on the already in-production film Sleeping Beauty. After leaving Disney, he found himself at Hanna Barbera, writing for the classic Flintstones cartoon.

Tony Benedict: “At Hanna Barbera, I was hired because of my writing & drawing at UPA (United Productions of America). The man who hired me was Alan Dinehart, the producer of the Flintstones, a new show that had just come on – [I mean] hadn’t even aired yet, and Alan introduced me to Joe Barbera. He said ‘Tony, I want you to mean Joe Barbera. I’ve known him for 20 years, and now you know him as well as I do.’ Joe and I got along fabulously, I was like 23 years old… so Joe and I got along very well. On my first Flintstones effort, Joe took me out to his fabulous home up in Bel Aire, overlooking the entire San Fernando Valley. And we sat around a pool in the warm sunshine writing and drawing my first Flintstones, which was called ‘Operation Barney’. The story about Fred and Barney wanted to go see a big football game (actually a baseball tame).”

Fred Flintstone: “Mr. Slate, this is Fred Flintstone Mr. Slate. (coughing and hacking). I was calling to… no, Flintstone, F-L-I-N-T, yeah Fred Flintstone, that’s me. I came down with a bad cold this morning, Mr. Slate (coughing)”

Tony Benedict: “But Barney had to call in sick and had to back that up, go into a hospital and be verified by a physician. So that led to a series of Flintstone episodes, and the Jetsons and Top Cat, and that was a wonderful six years at Hanna Barbera.”

These cartoon series drove Hanna Barbera’s success, and soon they were expanding into TV specials and theatrical releases. At this time in the late 60s, Benedict developed an idea for a Yogi Bear Christmas special. It would’ve been Hanna Barbera’s first TV special based off of its famous stable of cartoon characters; previously, their only special to include their famous creations was Alice and Wonderland, in which Fred and Barney appeared, but just for a brief cameo.

Fred and Barney: (singing) “They’ll never split us, apaaaaaaart!”

Titled A Jellystone Christmas, it would’ve been the first holiday-themed special from Hanna Barbera as well, which wouldn’t happen until years later with 1977’s A Flintstones Christmas. By the early 80s, the holiday-themed special would be a staple of Hanna Barbera production, as well as for seasonal programming on network TV in general.

Benedict’s idea was certainly ahead of the curve, and could’ve established a successful show format for Hanna Barbera, years before they eventually discovered it. He developed his idea into a complete story, and then pitched it to Joe Barbera.

Tony Benedict: “I had told Joe I had an idea for a wonderful Christmas show, and I’d like to pitch it to him. Well, he passed on it. He said ‘there was no villain in it’ and there wasn’t, and I didn’t think it needed one. So I had to say goodbye to Hanna Barbera for the first time, because I had some backers who were willing to speculate on what I could do. I had to make a little film to assure them, and I got a hold of Jonathan Winters, and we made a film together called Early Birds, it was eleven minutes long. They were very happy with that film, it had a brief theatrical release.”

Barbera rejected Benedict’s pitch, and you’d think the story ends there, and it would have, except for a karmic twist of fate. Benedict’s brother was a commercial pilot, and while flying a wealthy executive, he told him the story of Benedict’s rejected special.

Tony Benedict: “The man’s name was Marvin Judd, and my brother Frank told him the story about how I had done this, submitted it, and had been rejected, and was broken hearted about it. Marvin liked the story, and asked me to come up to his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was in December, he took me to his home, in to meet his family and two young children. It was winter, the snow was falling, the fireplace was lit, and he said ‘Tell them a story’, and the end of that story is I walked out of there with a check to begin on what I was [now] calling A Yellowstone Christmas.”

So, by that amazing twist of fate, Benedict was able to secure independent financing to make his special, no doubt a rarity in that era, but he also needed to sell it to a network to get it on the air.

Tony Benedict: “I made that film without selling it. I had taken it to all the networks, everybody, everybody rejected it. So I had to look elsewhere, I finally wound up at Warner Bros., where they said ‘ok, we can make a release of this story, you’ll have to retitle it and bring it to feature length,’ that means adding more material to it, more than it needed, and it didn’t help the quality. It worked well as a half hour special, but it was padded with music and live action. But, those were the rules of the game.”

“So, once again, I was set to get it finis- and, released. However, when I finished the film and brought it back to Warners, they told me that the studio had been sold and the new owners didn’t wanna have anything to do with this project. So I’m out on the street again, trying to find a produ- I mean, a distributor.”

With Warner Brothers backing out of his deal, once again the project was faced with doom. And before we move on, if you’ve watched this far, please consider subscribing and giving it a thumbs up. Now, despite another setback, Benedict wasn’t about to give up at this late stage, and was able to persevere and find a distributor for the film in Hollywood – just not the Hollywood you’re thinking of.

Tony Benedict: “After many tries, I wound up with a studio in Hollywood, Florida, of all places. And the fella there named Shelley Sherman said “well, we can do this using the Warner Bros. formula for weekend matinee release.” So Shelley gave me the money to pay off Warner Bros., for the money they had put into it, and he printed up a hundred and five 35mm prints, and the film ran in Thanksgiving of 1970 in a hundred or so theaters across the nation at Saturday and Sunday matinees, and at 50 cents and 75 cents a ticket. In the first week, it brought in a half a million dollars. I couldn’t have been happier, until I said to Shelley, ‘where’s the money?’ He told me he had to spend so much money on prints, etc., etc., and that went on for about four years.

In the end, I got enough money to pay off my backers, but what the film was a mess, it was filled with ‘commercial’ additions, front and back. And even though it went on well for many years, it wound up being pirated for TV- or, I should say home video, and that’s pretty much where it ended.”

It was a winding journey from Yogi Bear TV special pitch to theatrical release as Santa and the Three Bears. It was incredible throughout all of this that Benedict was able to do this film, and to achieve a moderate financial success. Of course, Benedict lamented the need to expand the material, diluting his tighter shorter version, but you can easily identify the Yogi Bear elements in the final product.

There’s a stand-in for Ranger Smith, and the father Bear was clearly adapted from Yogi’s role, with Boo-boo’s material adapted to and split among the bear children, and the mother bear was probably originally Cindy Bear. It can be kind of fun to watch the film and spot the similarities, and you can watch it yourself on YouTube. If you like this obscure history of cartoons and pop culture, be sure to visit the site again, and subscribe to www.YouTube.com/HeroJournalism.