June 1st is Children’s Day in Poland. Kids take, sometimes drag, us to places we have previously neglected. My kid has sure taken me to new grounds. For example, this year, I speed-and-crash-learnt in order to help him with his German homework. Thankfully, not everything he has brought into my life involved der, die and das. Discovering Polish and Eastern European cartoons was one of the pleasure spots he took me to. Below is an old (and longish) piece I wrote for the Warsaw Insider about cartoons. I was quite chuffed to come with with the title as at that time “Good Night and Good Luck” was just recently running at the cinema.
Good Night and Good Show (June 2006, Warsaw Insider)
At dusk, the kids from Ewa’s neighborhood abandoned play. With palpable excitement, they gathered in the front yard. “The TV was carted out from the house. We all sat on a bench and waited for the show to start,” Ewa fondly recalled her childhood in the southeast of Poland. “There weren’t any other cartoon programs. We’d waited all day for Dobranocka.”
The scene in Ewa’s patch was in the late 70s. Dobranocki (a word derived from ‘good night’, plural of Dobranocka) were animation programs for children. They lasted a mere 10 minutes on weekdays. At weekends, Wieczorynka (from ‘wieczór’ meaning ‘evening’), the longer version of the weekday shows, stayed on air for about 30 minutes. Since 1992, the weekday programs were extended to half an hour. And since then, these goodnight shows, on weekdays and weekends, are called Wieczorynka.
Fast forward to present day and children are now spoilt for choice. Cartoons are available round the clock. Wieczorynka on TVP1 at 7 p.m. remains a rallying point for kids around the country despite the competition from other channels. It still sets the day-end rituals. Some kids have their supper, bathe and don on pajamas for the goodnight shows. Others watch the cartoons first, then get ready for bedtime reading and lights-out. Whichever way, Wieczorynka signals to the kids nationwide, then as well as now, that it is time to wind down and call it the day.
During this segment, the programs are carefully chosen to be non-violent, not (too) scary and sometimes contain moral or educational nuggets.
“Wieczorynka is for pre-school kids, older children and adults,” said Mr. Krysztof Mielańczuk, the Children’s Program Buyer for Wieczorynka. Since it is such a wide audience, it’s not easy to please everyone. “We can’t [isolate] the children from new cartoons,” he said. So there is a mix of new and old productions. “We try to broadcast a good proportion of international and Polish cartoons,” he added.
The current run has an international flavour with Smurfs, Winnie the Pooh and Noddy topping the bill.
But the generation of young parents, like Ewa, grew up watching a different repertoire. Surprisingly, in the days when cartoon air time was scarce, a prolific amount of animation was produced. Speak to any adults about cartoons from their childhood and they bubble happily about a host of animated protagonists. These cartoon heroes and heroines from the past are on a par with Mickey, Donald and friends. Reksio, Maja the Bee, Bolek and Lolek and many more continue to bring twinkles to the eyes of their adult fans and squeals of laughter to a new generation.
Here’s a look at a few of the characters from the classic cartoons hall of fame. Not all are Polish-made. Some of the local favorites were imported from Eastern European neighbors.
A Dog’s Life
No language barrier will get between you and Reksio, an adorable little doggie. There were only woofs, meows, cuckoos and other pet sounds. Its production started in 1967 and continued for more than 20 years.
Some of Reksio’s adventures captured life during the communism era. The episode where Reksio renovated his dog-house (Reksio Remontuje) depicted the challenges in getting building material. Then he had to lean on an influential poodle-friend to locate his builder who disappeared after some initial work. Though Reksio paid for the service, he found himself doing the work.
In most episodes, Reksio was the champion the underdogs by helping the beleaguered ones to get back on their feet. With his animal pals and his boy-owner, Reksio climbed mountains, played life-guard but often, he lived the country life. Once I came across a “Reksio-farm” on the foothills in the south of Kraków. There in the yard of a farm house, two stray dogs, a few hens, a rooster, a goose and some chicks were running loose and hobnobbing. Just like a scene out from Reksio helping out in the grange.
Oh My Goat!
One of earliest Polish cartoons for children was a much-loved character called Koziołek Matołek (Matołek the Goat). It was created by Kornel Makuszyński in 1933. Koziołek’s adventures were told in rhymes. In the stories, there was a mythical town called Pacanów where goats were shoed (in the same way horses are fitted with horseshoes). Koziołek went on a journey to search for the well-heeled goats. Along this journey, he had many an adventure.
It turned out that Pacanów is quite real and exists on the map. What’s more, there’s two of them. In 2003, on the 70th anniversary of Koziołek’s birth, the Pacanów in Swiętokrzyskie took the opportunity to give the wandering goat a home. Pacanów transformed itself into an educational and recreational “theme-town”. Koziołek Matołek European Tale Center (ETC), a cultural institute, was officially formed in 2005.
“Koziołek is a personification of a hero aiming to reach a goal, always learning and always optimistic,” explained Mr. Stanisław Stańczyk, the manager of the ETC in Pacanów. “In all his adventures, dramatic moments are superseded by bliss, laugh comes after the fear, and satisfaction can always be found after uncertainty. Koziołek travels through the world [in the] same [way] as we travel through life. He miraculously escapes even the direst of situations, but he never loses faith in good and in people.”
The character that entertained many is now injecting new life into Pacanów. The ETC has planned many year-round events. The center, upon completion, will have a museum, library, theatre, café and playgrounds. Every June (this year on June 4th), Pacanów hosts a children’s festival (Festiwal Kultury Dziecięcej) where Koziołek is hailed as the top dog, or goat.
About A Few Boys
The tall and skinny one is Bolek. Lolek is shorter and stouter. Takes a while to figure that out because there are no dialogues. The lads were created in the 60s by the Władysław Nehrebecki and Leszek Mech team who were also the creators of several other cartoons.
Bolek and Lolek went globe-trotting, played cowboys as well as rambled the Polish country side. Real little boys dreamed of being in their shoes.
“You can watch it today with pleasure,” Mr. Wojciech Jama commented on Bolek i Lolek. “It’s popular in Germany and it was shown in Iran. It’s [a] universal film that can be shown to many different cultures.” Mr. Jama is the founder of Muzeum Dobranocek PRL-u (Museum of Dobranocka from the period of the People’s Republic of Poland). His virtual museum showcases cartoon memorabilia. Under his initiative, work is underway to establish a ‘non-virtual’ museum in Rzeszow.
Zaczarowany Ołowek (Enchanted Pencil) was about a boy who had a dwarf for a playmate. This is also a dialogue-free animation. The dwarf rewarded the boy with a pencil. The drawings made with the pencil came to life. The boy used the pencil for good causes. Real little kids and adults dreamed of owning such a nifty tool.
Prey and Predator
In Poland, the show is known as Wilk i Zając (Wolf and Hare). In its native Russia, the title is “Nu, pogodi” (Just you wait!).
“Just you wait” because that’s what the Wolf said when his plans were foiled by the Hare. Other than that, not many words were exchanged. The Hare, like the Roadrunner, did the dodging. While Coyote’s counterpart, the Wolf, did the crafty scheming. The cat and mouse games were sometimes choreographed to classical music.
The Russians are master of fluidity as seen in their ballet and figure-skating. And this fluidity was captured in the animation of Wilk i Zając.
Krecik the mole was Czechoslovakian-made. He and his pals hang out on the ground level. Among the things they dealt with were the laws of nature, environmental problems and how to live with thy neighbors. Being dialogue-free, except for squeaks from the animals, the gang won the hearts of children in many countries.
Pszczółka Maja (Maja the Bee) together with fellow anatomically-skewed bee, Gucio, and Filip, the grasshopper, face down the challenges and mayhems of living in the wild. It’s based on the book by German writer Waldemar Bonsels.
The buggy team forged liaisons with other friendly bugs. But nastier, often bigger, insects threatened to take the living daylights out of Maja and Co. Once, they had to escape the jaws of a hungry fish.
“I didn’t notice them when I was a child,” Amanda commented on the bugs’ adventures. “Now I see the social messages in them.” Amanda, a PhD student at Warsaw University, explained that Gucio was the individualist. He was usually punished in the end for his selfish ways. Maja was the team-player and ultimately saved the day.
My gripe with these winged creatures is not about team spirits. But as a mother to a boy, I object to boys being typecast as bumbling, albeit good-natured, troublemakers. While Maja is depicted as bright-eyed, Gucio has half-closed dopey eyes.
“You’re reading too much into it,” Ewa laughed. Pszczółka Maja is and was her favorite.
Where creepy-crawlies are concerned, I much prefer Przygody Błękitnego Rycerzyka (The Adventures of a Little Blue Knight). The lone-ranger knight (species undetermined) and his ‘Tonto’ horse (species possibly grasshopper) saved queen-insect-in-distress from burly and psychopathic bug-nappers. There is no dialogue. The music conveys moods such as mayhem, comedy, dispute and reconciliation. The details are imaginative and endearing. It’s another Nehrebecki and Mech endeavor.
These are but a few of the popular titles. Get to know them and you and your kids will discover the magic that enthralled the children in Ewa’s garden.
Muzeum Dobranocek PRL-u: http://www.muzeumdobranocek.pl.