I’m making a departure for this Super Saturday, as I will be showcasing a series that didn’t air on Saturdays at all. Rather the ‘USA Cartoon Express’ aired on weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings. This was the first block of animated programming to air on a cable network, as opposed to the traditional “Saturday Morning” cartoons on the three networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) and other blocks of syndicated programming (basically, all those toy-based shows) on local channels.
The ‘USA Cartoon Express’ began airing in 1982. At this point, Nickelodeon was light on animations, airing mainly live-action educational shows. Cartoon Network didn’t even exist. It launched in 1992.
There isn’t a ton of information about ‘Cartoon Express’ out there, so a lot of this is going to come from my own memories, as foggy as they might be.
The series aired late in the afternoon on weekdays, about 6 pm EST, after the other afternoon shows like ‘Scooby-Doo’ reruns and all the toy cartoons went off. If I recall correctly, the one cartoon that aired every weekday was Filmation’s ‘Sport Billy’, a series that originally aired in Germany in 1980. Sport Billy was a popular comic strip character in Germany and would become a mascot for FIFA soccer. The series eventually aired throughout Europe and other countries. Once again, IIRC, ‘Cartoon Express’ was the first time it aired in the US.
The series followed a boy named Sport Billy, his female friend, Sport Lily, and the dog, Sport Willy, who traveled through space and time to thwart the efforts of the evil Queen Vanda, who wanted to destroy sports, because she hated the concepts of fair play and sportsmanship.
Billy had a tiny duffle bag that he kept in his pocket that would enlarge when he held it up. He could pull any piece of sporting equipment from inside, which also started off shrunken down, but would expand once he removed it.
Once again, my memory is foggy, but ‘Sport Billy’ was paired with a different show each day. These other shows were created by Hanna-Barbera and I believe that originally, they were ‘Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch’, ‘The Space Kid-Ettes’, ‘Young Samson & Goliath’, ‘The Roman Holidays’, and ‘Inch High Private Eye’, not necessarily in that order.
Later, ‘Cartoon Express’ began airing on Sunday mornings as well, in a longer block including all of these shows, plus a live-action caveman series ‘Korg: 70,000 B.C.’, produced by HB, and originally aired on ABC in 1974. Eventually, the Sunday segments dropped ‘Korg’ and switched the cartoons to a bunch of other Hanna-Barbera shows. Specifically, I remember ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids’, ‘Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels’, ‘Clue Club’, ‘Devlin’, ‘Dynomutt, Dog Wonder’, ‘The Great Grape Ape Show’, ‘Help!… It’s the Hair Bear Bunch!’, ‘Hong Kong Phooey’, ‘Jabberjaw’, ‘Jana of the Jungle’, ‘The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show’, ‘Space Stars’ (the ‘Space Ghost’, ‘Herculoids’, and ‘Teen Force’ segments), and ‘Speed Buggy’. According to Wikipedia, it aired a lot more shows, but I don’t remember seeing them.
I believe the weekday episodes switched from the original lineup to episodes of various funny animal programs like ‘Yogi Bear’, ‘Huckleberry Hound’, ‘Quick Draw McGraw’, and the like.
It also states on Wikipedia that ‘Cartoon Express’ aired the original ’60s versions of ‘Space Ghost’ and ‘The Herculoids’, but from my memories, that isn’t true. I believe it only shows the segments from 1980’s ‘Space Stars’ revival series. (You can tell the difference, because on ‘Space Stars’, Space Ghost didn’t wear white gloves.) I do recall them occasionally airing the original ‘Space Ghost’ opening credits by accident, which may be why some think ‘Cartoon Express’ aired that cartoon. (Then again, maybe they did air the original ‘Space Ghost’ at some point, and I just never saw it.)
When ‘Space Stars’ originally aired on NBC, two new segments were created, ‘Teen Force’– a trio of superheroes, Elektra, Kid Comet, and Moleculad, plus two Astromite sidekicks, Plutem and Glax– and ‘Astro and the Space Mutts’– starring The Jetson’s dog, now a space K9 cop, joined by two other dogs and their hapless human partner, Space Ace. The characters from all four segments would cross over into each other’s shows and ‘Space Stars’ ended each episode with a team-up short. On ‘Cartoon Express’, only the ‘Space Ghost’, ‘Herculoids’, and ‘Teen Force’ shorts aired, but the characters from ‘Astro and the Space Mutts’ popped up in cameos. FUN FACT: Kid Comet was the boyfriend of Space Ghost’s sidekick Jan.
What was great about the long Sunday episodes is that it introduced ’80s kids to cartoons they may never have seen or even heard of before. It was also an excuse for Hanna-Barbera to reair a lot of shows that were somewhat obscure and maybe hadn’t lasted for very long.
But some of them hold interesting places in HB history. ‘The Roman Holidays’ was an attempt to recreate ‘The Flintstones’ and ‘Jetsons’ formula of a “modern” nuclear family in an alternate time. ‘Clue Club’ was a series HB created for CBS to replace ‘Scooby-Doo’ when it moved to ABC. ‘Young Samson’ was a great ’60s action series, which had been paired with ‘Space Kid-Ettes’ in syndication. But because ‘Space Kid-Ettes’ had fewer episodes, the extra episodes of ‘Young Samson’ were DESTROYED never seen again! (I believe this was before ‘Cartoon Express’, so don’t hold them responsible!)
I stopped watching ‘Cartoon Express’ before the ’90s. During that time, the series dropped the all-Hanna-Barbera format and swapped in other, more recent cartoons including ’80s hits like ‘GI Joe’ (both the original Sunbow series and the later DIC run), ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’, ‘Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors’, ‘Jem’, ‘Maxie’s World’, ‘Mister T’, ‘Pole Position’, ‘The Real Ghostbusters’, ‘She-Ra: Princess of Power’, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’, and ‘Voltron’. Later still, the series added even more recent shows like ‘Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog’, ‘The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3’, and ‘Sailor Moon’.
Do you remember watching the ‘USA Cartoon Express’? If so, do my memories match yours? Or did you jump on board later? Feel free to leave a comment below!