Mother’s Day with It’s All in the Family

For Mother’s Day we are revisiting Stan & Jan’s cartoon, All in the Family that ran for decades in McCall‘s and Good Housekeeping. These classic cartoons illustrate the ups and downs of Motherhood. We hope you give a big bear hug of appreciation to all of the Moms in your life this Mother’s Day!

Mothers Day Blog - 2Mothers Day Blog - 4Mothers Day Blog - 5Mothers Day Blog - 6Mothers Day Blog - 3Mothers Day Blog - 7Mothers Day Blog - 1


Tree House Trivia

About Our Name

People are often curious about the spelling of “Berenstain,” a phenomenon that’s much older than the Bears themselves. As Stan Berenstain recalled in Down a Sunny Dirty Road, the 2002 autobiography he co-wrote with wife Jan, even his fourth grade teacher had questions:

“On the very first morning, when [Miss McKinney] called the roll, she took exception to my name. She said there was no such name as Berenstain. The name, as everyone knew, was Bernstein—and that was what my name would be, at least in her room. When I raised my hand and protested that Berenstain had always been my name, she silenced me with an icy stare and said she didn’t approve of people who changed their names” (26).

no such name “Berenstain,” it seems, is less common than other, similar variants. But there’s a simple explanation. According to family lore, the spelling results from an immigration officer’s attempt to record phonetically an accented version of the traditional Jewish name “Bernstein” as pronounced by Stan Berenstain’s grandfather. He had come to America from Ukraine, where the name would have sounded something like “Ber’nsheytn.” Since then, the family has always spelled it Berenstain, as it was originally documented.

On the Road & Down A Sunny Dirt Road
Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

When Stan and Jan Berenstain decided to look for a an agent to assist them in getting their first children’s book published, they chose Sterling Lord, who was recommended to them by a number of different editors. Lord is perhaps most famous for jump-starting the career of one of America’s most iconic trouble-making writers: Jack Kerouac. As Vanity Fair‘s John Heilpern wrote in a 2013 profile of Lord, “Without [this] literary agent and gentleman of the old school…chances are we would never have heard of the mythic Kerouac.” Kerouac’s signature, jazz-influenced style—something he referred to as “spontaneous bop prosody”—represented a radical break with literary tradition, and not many agents were willing to take a chance on this young rebel. Lord did, getting On the Road published in 1957, and the rest is history. Other notable writers represented by his agency include Ken Kesey, Howard Fast, John Irving, and, of course, the Berenstains!

DIY Bride

In 1943, Jan Berenstain–then Janice Grant–took a year off from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art to contribute to the United States’ war efforts. After completing a two-week training at the Bok Vocational School in South Philadelphia, Jan began working as an aircraft riveter at Brill’s trolley car factory, which had a Navy contract to assemble center wing sections for PBY flying boats. But wing assembly wasn’t the only example of Jan’s metalworking during the war. When she and Stan married in 1946, they wore wedding rings she herself had fashioned out of airplane aluminum.

Riveting class

Jan’s riveting class celebrates graduation

What’s It Like to Play a Berenstain Bear?


Maura McColgan (pictured left with fellow castmate Joey Anchondo), an actress and rising senior at West Chester University, is a member of the Greater Ocean City Theatre Company for the 2014 Season. She recently played Sister Bear in the OCTC production of The Berenstain Bears on Stage.


What was your immediate thought upon finding that out you had been cast as Sister Bear?

I was so excited. I thought that Sister Bear would be a perfect role for me to play! She’s sassy, smart, and a very developed character. I had no problem getting myself into character because I was a lot like Sister Bear when I was a child.


How is playing an animal on stage—even a singing and dancing one—different than playing a human?

Playing an animal was probably the biggest struggle of the whole experience. To be honest, I kind of forgot that she wasn’t human because she is so personified! I did however try to add animalistic qualities to Sister Bear, like having her sniff the toy box that Papa Bear makes for her and Brother Bear in The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room [laughs].  I also growled when she was angry. Yes, playing a bear who is so much human was a little bit of a challenge! [Ed. Note: “They’re kind of furry around the torso / They’re a lot like people, only more so”]


How did acting in The Berenstain Bears on Stage compare to some of your past theater experiences?

Acting in The Berenstain Bears was very different from anything I have ever done before. We had only five rehearsals, all in one week! And then we performed four shows! Two in Ocean City, one at Stockton College, and one at the Cape May Convention Center. It was extremely fast paced but it was an amazing learning experience. It gave me confidence that I can learn things very quickly and perform successfully after only a few rehearsals. Specific to The Berenstain Bears, it was also my first time playing an animal! Even if the Berenstain Bears are very much human and go through human conflict to teach lessons. All the stories are very relatable.


The Berenstain Bears on Stage is based on five different Berenstain Bears stories: The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room, The Berenstain Bears and the Double Dare, The Berenstain Bears Tell the Truth and The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright. Which one of these was your favorite and why?

My favorite story to perform… that is a hard one. If I could pick one, it would be The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room. One of the songs in this scene is actually a rap where Brother Bear and Sister Bear rap about their messy room and what toys they have. That was pretty fun for us because it seemed so random to have a rap in a musical, but the composer sure had a sense of humor! It somehow worked and was genius. Probably the most epic part of the scene though involved a closet that Brother Bear (Joey Anchondo) and I had to strategically place all of the toys into so that when Mama Bear (Chrissy Hartzell) opened the door of the closet, a lever was pulled so the toys would all fall on top of her. It caused the audience to laugh hysterically every single time! It was a lot fun.


Anything else you’d like to add?

I want to thank the Greater Ocean City Theatre Company for giving me my very first professional theatre experience this summer! It was extremely rewarding to see all of the little kids at the end of all our shows give us hugs and high fives. A few of the kids told me I was their favorite in the play, which, to be honest, means more to me than being told that my acting and singing was great for one reason: for that amount of time that I was on stage, I WAS Sister Bear to them. I was able to take them out of the real world and even after the play was over, I was still Sister Bear to them. When you are able to make a child that happy and feel that special to meet you because you inspired them, taught them a lesson, or look up to you, you did your job. I always believe that I do what I do for others, and children’s theatre is the most direct way that any actor can make a difference, in my opinion.

You Can’t Animate a Plaid Shirt

Putting book characters like the Berenstain Bears on TV is fun–
but you could call it hard fun.

This article was published in the February 27, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly.

In our travels around the country on behalf of our eponymous bear books (27 titles, all from Random House), we have fielded many questions. These range from the straightforwardly curious (“Why do you draw just bears?” Answer: “We don’t–we also draw rocks, sunny dirt roads, trees, flowers, rainbows and even, on occasion, people.”) to the curiously straightforward (“How do you get along being together all the time?” Answer: “Ours is an old-fashioned Mom and Pop operation in which both partners do whatever needs to be done–writing, illustrating, cooking, bottle washing.”).

We find our work (and our bears) tremendously stimulating and enjoyable and, while we don’t always agree on every dot and line, we have managed to harmonize successfully over 34 years of working together as cartoonists-writers and for the past 18 as author-illustrators of children’s books. We do have one rule–a sort of unilateral veto–which has helped us over the humps. If one of us strongly objects to some point, project or approach, it is dropped without argument.

Not long ago a child asked us an interesting question, as children so often do: “Is it fun to do the bear books, or is it hard?” Our answer, after pondering a moment, was that it’s both–or to coin an evasion: it’s hard fun.

One of the more persistent and intriguing questions we have been asked over the years is, “Why don’t you put the bears on television?” The answer is that we finally have. After about eight years of trying with various degrees of unsuccess, we managed to make the jump from printed page to glowing tube with an animated special called The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree, which was shown on NBC in December 1979.

The process of getting on television is very different from that of getting published. Stories abound of books which were submitted to 10, 20, even 30 publishers before finding acceptance. Not so in television. In the world of network television, it’s three strikes – NBC, ABC, CBS – and out. A curious aspect of our experience was that after we had proposed for years and had networks, producers and potential sponsors dispose, the TV situation opened up so abruptly that it was disconcerting – rather like reaching to open a door you didn’t know was automatic. In fact, our first bear special “happened” so quickly that the usual order of events – first the book, then the show based on the book – was reversed.

The experience of moving our bears from the relatively controllable world of print, where there are only two of us involved in the creative process, to the multitudinous world of animation was also somewhat disconcerting. The production of a half-hour animated special (a little more than 23 minutes of air time, actually) involves not only producer, director, composer and their associates, but phalanxes of animators, background artists, designers and such graphically named practical operatives as in-betweeners, inkers and filler-inners.

The first order of business after writing the show was casting the voices. To cast the four actors who would portray our Bear Family – overbearing Papa, forbearing Mama and Brother and Sister, the two bright little cubs who bear (ouch!) with both of them – we auditioned a grand total of 28 voices. One difficulty with casting voices is that there are people attached to them – most of them talented and appealing (the kids were especially delightful: composed, professional, with not a stage mother in sight) – and with more candidates than roles, there is a large rejection factor built into the audition equation. One of the things that made casting tricky was that our show was a kind of minimusical requiring actor-singers in all roles. The decisions, as it turned out, practically made themselves. There was a positively outstanding candidate for each role, and the show was cast.

Adding to our bemusement was the fact that all the kids who auditioned knew the Berenstain Bears books and in some cases brought – along with their tapes, photos and resumes – old battered books to be signed. Eight-year-old Gabriela Glatzer, who became Sister Bear and who is nothing if not frank, explained to us in a charmingly condescending manner that while she read at the fifth-grade level, some of her little friends were familiar with our books. When Ron McLarty, our Papa Bear-narrator and a real-life papa, informed us that our books were family favorites at his house, it restored our confidence just a bit.

One of the things that had gotten in the way of our earlier efforts to put our bears on TV was our determination that, for good or ill, success or failure, we were going to retain what in the entertainment world is called “creative control.” Our earlier discussions with a succession of tanned and powerful animation moguls left us with the clear impression that, while they were interested in the Berenstain Bears and their potential for attracting a TV audience, they were not very interested in having the bears’ overprotective parents looking over their shoulders.

Not so the talented experts of Perpetual Motion Pictures, the studio which is animating the bear specials. They seemed to understand our concern lest our bears not put their best face forward on TV and worked very closely with us in interpreting our characters for animation. Some minor changes were necessary – Papa’s yellow plaid shirt presented a problem; animating a plaid apparently presents horrendous technical problems and likewise the polka dots on Mama’s dress (though we did save the dots on her hat).

While the storyboard (a sequential picture version of the script showing all the principal scenes and actions) was being done by director Mordicai Gerstein, composer-musical director Elliot Lawrence was writing the music for the show’s three songs. Hearing our lyrics sung for the first time – in the stereotypical show biz scene in which the hoarse-voiced composer rasps out the song while pounding on a battered out-of-tune piano – was at least as big a kick as seeing the bears “come to life” on the Moviola machine.

Having operated as a Mom and Pop store for so long, it took us a little while to get used to the collaborative complexities of what is essentially a film enterprise. There were meetings, story conferences, character drawings, color tests, network approvals and – yes – artistic differences. In the case of the latter, all we can remember is one occasion when we overreacted to a suggestion that Papa wear a bow tie and suit at the Christmas dinner which closes the show. (The very idea of Papa even owning anything so effete as a bow tie!)

After about nine months (surely an appropriate gestation period for our bouncy new animated baby), 15,000 drawings and prodigious applications of TLC by all the collaborators, The Berenstain Bears’ Christmas Tree aired on NBC December 3, 1979. The show “won its slot” by a substantial margin, The New York Times said, and NBC said: “Let’s have three more shows.” And we and our partners are especially pleased and gratified that our first show has received two prizes: an international award from the Milan film and television festival, and a silver medal from the 23rd annual International Film and Television Festival of New York.

Our second special, a Thanksgiving story called The Berenstain Bears Meet Bigpaw, aired last November 20, again with gratifying results. Easter and Valentine’s specials are in production. Though our experience in helping to turn our printed page bears into talking, singing and dancing animated bears has been fun (hard fun), books remain our first love. With four new titles scheduled for fall publication and more being planned, we are absolutely married to the Berenstain Bears book series.

Television does make an interesting mistress, though.

Memories of Stan and Jan

By Mike Berenstain

Stan and Jan in studio, late 1950s

Stan and Jan in their studio, late 1950s

     My parents used to watch the Sid Caesar show in their bedroom. This had started off as their studio, but when I came along, they needed another bedroom and so built a newer, bigger studio onto the house and converted their first studio into a bedroom. It was a bedroom with an enormous skylight in the roof. It also opened directly into the living room, separated from it by a large sliding door. The house was very modern, a very Fifties-Frank-Lloyd-Wrightish one-level, concrete slab house.

     My father used to sit down at the foot of the bed in front of the enormous console Motorola combined radio, hi-fi, television set and howl with laughter as he watched Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howie Morris and Carl Reiner cavort across the screen. He’d howl then rock back and forth in paroxysms of laughter, gradually losing his voice as he ran out of breath. My mother sat back on the bed and laughed more conventionally. All this noisy hilarity often woke me and my brother, Leo, up. We would come wandering out of our bedroom trailing stuffed snoozer dogs, down the hall to the living room and into their studio bedroom, blearily complaining of the noise and point out that sleep was elusive under such conditions. The problem was always solved by an invitation to sit down at the end of the bed and enjoy the show.

     I didn’t really understand the humor of Your Show of Shows, besides, I was very sleepy. But I enjoyed it none-the-less. Mr. Caesar made some very funny faces and Miss Coca was somehow raucous, suggestive and sweet all at once. I particularly enjoyed Sid’s German Professor with his garbled made-up Teutonic gibberish.

     When it was over, I was duly tucked back into bed with snoozer dog to drift into dreams of Caesarish mirth. The house I remember in vivid detail. I think I could describe every square inch and not just the house, but the yard as well – every bush and flower and tree – and much of the neighborhood beyond.

     There is an excruciating immediacy about my memories of childhood which I find difficult to account for or to deal with. It’s as if my childhood was following close behind so that when I stop short or turn around, it bangs into me. It’s right there, always.

Why Bears?

Treehouse and familyBears have been a staple of children’s books ever since Goldilocks decided to engage in a little illegal entry at an inadequately secured home in the woods.

Children’s book bears have ranged from the large and lumbering to the cute and cuddly.

The Berenstain Bears fall somewhere in-between. They are big – at least as big as people – and burly – they definitely weigh in on the “fully-packed” side. But they are friendly and funny. They have no fangs (just ask their dentist) and their claws have dwindled a little more than toenails. They walk on their hind legs, wear clothes, live in houses – albeit tree houses – and engage in wide range of human activities. They drive cars, play soccer, eat pizza, go to school and watch too much TV.

But, still, why bears?

The fact is that bears are a natural stand-in for people. They are something like people but not too much like them. They have rounded heads with eyes in front, they sometimes stand on their hind legs and they manipulate things with hand-like paws. We often say of large burly people that they are “bear-like.”

But bears are definitely animals. They have none of that unsettling mixed identity of monkeys or apes. Bears have their own distinct lineage. They are analogous to human beings without being like them.

Children are fascinated by large, powerful animals like bears. But they are threatened by them, as well. The role of bears as semi-human children’s book characters may help reassure children about their own position in the food chain.

Our contribution to the literary bear clan first appeared in the 1962 book, The Big Honey Hunt. This was an easy-to-read book devoted to slapstick comedy and rollicking adventure. The only thing on our bears’ minds, back then, was honey and their principal message was “watch out for angry bees!”

At first, they were a threesome – Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Small Bear. They received their official name, the Berenstain Bears, from editor, Ted Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss).
“It’s a vaudeville act,” he explained. “Like Murgatroyd’s Mules or Dugan’s Dogs.”

The Bears continued in this happy-go-lucky existence until 1974 when The Berenstain Bears and the New Baby appeared. The baby was Sister Bear. Small Bear graduated to Brother Bear.

In year 2000, with the birth of third cub, Honey Bear, the family group was complete. By the way, some folks assume that our bears’ last name is “Berenstain” as in “Papa Berenstain,” “Mama Berenstain,” etc. But “Berenstain” is actually our family’s last name. We always try to make it clear that they are the bears and we are the people!