Local inspiration for Mr. Peabody, Sherman and the WABAC machine

Ted Key, a cartoonist from Valley Forge, is the creator of the characters that became “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.”

“Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” the new 3D animated film by DreamWorks, is based on a recurring pair of characters from the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” They traveled through time via the WABAC machine, correcting historical events.

That original TV show, called “Peabody’s Improbable History,” was educational only in the broadest sense. The adventures the bowtie-wearing beagle with crisp, academic diction and his redheaded, somewhat dimwitted, adopted boy scored low on historical accuracy, and high on puns.

In the 1950s, TV producer Jay Ward was trying to convince General Mills to sponsor his concept of a lunkheaded moose and a flying squirrel. They liked Rocky and Bullwinkle, but wanted a half-hour show, not a five-minute segment. So Ward looked to Ted Key, a cartoonist living in Valley Forge, to come up with more characters to fill out the show.

Key invented a tousled-hair boy with glasses named Johnny Daydream, and his snobbish dog, Beware the Dog. They would glide through history via a time-traveling belt for the boy and matching collar for the dog.

“Jay liked the idea, but decided to flip it,” said Ted Key’s son, Peter. “Beware was a talking dog, Jay thought it would be funnier if the dog was the main character, and had the dog adopt a boy.”

Key has the original black and white storyboard his father drew, introducing the characters that would become Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Beware the Dog originally appeared to be some kind of small, highly intelligent terrier. The first half of the storyboard is exposition about the pair’s ability to engage themselves in different historical periods.

“The rest of the storyboard is a cartoon about them going to a planetarium,” said Key, spreading the pages on his father’s well-worn drawing table. “The Foofelface Planetarium, named after Professor Foofelface.”

Ted Key, who died in 2008, never worked on the production of “Peabody,” so he was never credited. In the 1960s, he was busy launching his own TV show based on his popular newspaper cartoon, “Hazel.”

He is named on the legal copyright as the co-creator of the characters Peabody the Dog and Sherman the Boy, and the new movie prominently credits Ted Key as the creator of the title characters.

“Toward the end of the movie I was thinking, ‘I can’t walk out on these credits,'” said Peter Key. “I stayed there and I saw my father’s name up there on the screen and I just about cried. I couldn’t believe how much it affected me.”

Peter Key, a Philadelphia journalist, has stepped away from business reporting to focus on tending his father’s cartooning legacy. “Mr Peabody and Sherman” was the second-most popular film over the weekend, behind “300: Rise of an Empire,” netting more than $32 million.

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story Professor Foofelface and The Foofelface Planetarium were misnamed.

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