There's no need to fear: Underdog is here!"
Press release written by Suzanne Muldowney
Press release written by Suzanne Muldowney
The date was October 3, 1964. On that day, the above outcry was heard for the first time on national television as Underdog, a cartoon comic equivalent of Superman.
There were many great cartoon characters that were animal in form, but far more human in behavior. Underdog was one of these. But his creator, Joe Harris, went one step further: Underdog was a superhero, possessing super strength, and expected to be a role model, excelling in rescue missions, crime-fighting, and acts of goodwill. Harris went another step further by making Underdog, like Superman, an aerial superhero. Very few fictional superheroes have the ability to fly.
The heroic and aerial elements of Underdog were what appealed most to Suzanne Muldowney. As a little girl, she sometimes watched the vintage Superman TV series starring George Reeves. She tried to fly under her own power without success. A few years later when Underdog was up and about, Suzanne discovered that theatrical dance movements created special effects within mortal limitations. Underdog's flying could be simulated with big leaps, turns on one foot, and lightweight running.
Thanksgiving Day 1965 was the debut of a giant Underdog helium balloon in the Macy's Day Parade. The balloon did not merely pass down the street, but stopped in huge middle of the square while an involved presentation was staged around its presence. The television cameras showed it all as countless viewers, including Suzanne, watched spellbound. This event was her calling to portray Underdog.
On January 8, 1966, Suzanne danced as Underdog for the first time. It was not a public performance, but a secluded one in her bedroom. She did not use a dog headpiece or mask. She had seen in photos that dancers portraying birds or animals frequently retained their human faces, hairstyles, and bodylines.
Unfortunately, the Underdog adventure stories were silly and campy. The plots were simplistic and melodramatic. The dialogue was of children's intelligence, the bad guys too easily entrapped the good guys, and the whole scenario was simply not believable. These flaws made Underdog less of by hero and role model and more of a slapstick clown. (Many of these shortcomings were also prominent in the Batman TV series starring Adam West.)
Suzanne's family was very hard with her and subjected her to a multiplicity of criticisms. Though meant for children, Underdog was worthless unless it was geared more to the mentality of teens or adults. It was not supposed to be for entertainment only. It had to be intellectually challenging, a learning experience. To concern oneself with fiction was wrong. Although they were fictitious, the characters and stories had to be realistic enough to pass for nonfiction.
Suzanne had never known the word underdog, until she became acquainted with the cartoon. She suffered more verbal battering by being force-fed the word's dictionary meaning: born loser. If that was what underdog meant, why had his creator given him that name?
Having been made to feel guilty and ashamed, Suzanne resolved that her portrayals of Underdog would be more dignified and meritorious; she reviewed the stories and made sensible changes where needed. But she was unable to carry out these reforms because she was still only a minor.
Discouraged and under pressure to be interested in only the same things other people her age were, Suzanne renounced the role of Underdog in 1968, sensing herself to be a great failure.
The Underdog character stopped running on network TV in 1969.
Some time later, the show went into syndication, rerunning in different parts of the country. Wherever Underdog reran, it perpetuated all it's problematic and character flaws. Would the show suffer further criticism and result in discouraging younger viewers?
It was not until 1976, when Suzanne was educating herself on the real life Dracula, Prince Vlad the Impaler, in order to portray him through dance, that she came across a line in In search of Dracula that grabbed her heart: "Van Helsing [Dracula's main pursuer] is the hero of the story; Dracula himself is the Underdog." Suzanne felt like she was being called back to portray Underdog.
There was no suitable venue until 1980. Then, a science fiction convention company called Creation Conventions was in Philadelphia for the weekend and had newspaper advertising a costume contest. Suzanne knew from experience that participants were encouraged to build presentations around their characters and costumes.
Suzanne had experience noting how from time to time performed were identified with he characters they portrayed. Suzanne's objectives were to impersonate Underdog through dance as often as possible with seriousness, dignity, and realism so that she would become identified with Underdog. Her first professional public appearance as Underdog was on July 27, 1980.
For her musical backup, Suzanne used recorded classical music not already used for other themes or ideas. She still wore her hair loose to crate the hound-dog ears illusion, and used no dog-face makeup.
Creation Conventions mounted sci-fi conventions all over the country, including a full-scale event during Thanksgiving weekend in New York. The timing and the location were natural for Suzanne's Underdog impersonations.
Beginning in 1981, Suzanne hunted for sci-fi convention appearance opportunities I'm different parts of the country. Some events were staged by Creation Conventions, while others were staged by local companies. Suzanne fostered a variety of characters and self-made costumes.
In 1982, she read a book on the history of Saturday Morning TV and relearned the date of Underdog's birth: October 3, 1964.
During this time, there was no mention in the news of any other celebrated Underdog impersonators. When Suzanne did Underdog, it was solely in sci-fi conventions. In the costume contests, there were no other Underdog entries. No magazines or newspapers wrote about Suzanne.
Since Underdog had been "born" in 1964, 1984 would be the 20th anniversary. Suzanne was determined to make the most of the occasion. She began making an additional cape decorated with stars, lace, and fringe, based on the old-time animation in which Underdog left a trail of stars in his wake while launching himself skyward or flying at high speeds. When Underdog stood proudly erect with his biceps flexed, he emanated light rays from his body. Suzanne ushered in the 20th anniversary at Creation Conventions in New York on January 8,1984.
Throughout 1984, Suzanne tried unsuccessfully to get TV networks, newspapers, and magazines to celebrate Underdog's 20th anniversary. On the actual anniversary date, October 3rd, Suzanne led the children in a hometown Montessori school to write Underdog adventures and act them out to music. Suzanne kept drawings and stories in a keepsake book and made copies for the students who had participated.
At the 1984 Thanksgiving weekend convention, Suzanne had a 20th anniversary feature spot by modeling the costume with the special decorated cape. A showing of one of the original cartoons followed it, the story that had been her favorite. In the costume contest, she won Best Presentation.
Suzanne had trouble the next several years. This was the time of First Lady Nancy Reagan's anti-drug campaign, with its slogan, "Just Say No." Joe Harris, Underdog's creator, had decided he should be subject to tiring and weakening, like any mortal, when exerting himself. Some stories had shown Underdog sapped of his strength in mid-crisis. To regain his strength in a hurry, he had to consume a super-energy pill, which he concealed in his ring. Now with the anti-drug campaign going, the claim was that Underdog's use of the pill was tantamount to substance abuse/dependency. Word also had it that Underdog was being rerun in the Washington DC area and that the footage of his consuming the pill was being deleted. Such cutting might have helped the campaign, but it left a gap in continuity. When Suzanne appeared as Underdog, modeling her costume and providing written commentary, the emcee digressed from the script after mentioning the ring and pill, and made editorial comments about Underdog's alleged substance abuse / dependency. Insulted, Suzanne discontinued mention of those costume accessories.
In 1986, Suzanne came upon another venue, which treated her with more respect than the conventions did. A New York based variety show, Beyond Vaudeville, had an annual live show and a periodic local TV show. Suzanne debuted as Underdog on April 30, 1986 and was interviewed by celebrity emcee Danny Bonaduce.
In 1988, Suzanne started on another venue, which was to become her most frequent performance mode: parades. She was in 6 or 7 parades in 1988, but instead of underdog she did Supergirl, Superman's equally powered but rarely spotlighted cousin, since 1988 was Superman's Fiftieth (Golden) anniversary.
Also in 1988, Suzanne set about asking a better quality decorated camps for Underdog. When modeling the costume, she always opened the cape like wings at mention of light and radiance emanating from the body. The new cape had casings and rods, like the ribs in an umbrella at the edges. She lavishly decorated the inside lining to create the illusion of rays. She first wore the new cape at the Thanksgiving convention. Both the emcee and spectators marveled when she opened her cape. Alas, she won no prize!
Suzanne was keenly aware that 1989 was Underdog's Twenty-Fifth (Silver) Anniversary. Silver and golden anniversaries were considered extra important by human kind. There just had to be a grand scale acknowledgement of Underdog by the media in 1989!
Suzanne ushered in the Silver Anniversary on January 8, 1989, in Boston. She had some silver decorations on her suit and used the new decorated cape. Her commentary for the emcee made sure to say that this was the start of the 25th Anniversary. She won Third Prize in the Costume Contest. This was in a half-page photo with the other participants in the next day's Boston Herald.
Shortly afterward, Suzanne bought silver metallic cloth to make herself a spectacular 25th anniversary cape. It was maxi-length either wooden rods, and lavishly decorated with white stars, white lace, star shaped crystal jewels, and silver sequins. She also added more silver decorations to the suit. She first wore the festive Silver Anniversary costume on April 1, 1989 at the annual Beyond Vaudeville live show in New York.
Since she now had experience in parades, Suzanne’s next goal was to do Underdog in them. On April 15th, 1989, Suzanne accomplished her mission ad the Doodah Parade in Ocean City, NJ.
Suzanne was determined to go on a nationwide 25th anniversary tour. She sent away for literature, which listed events in various states and cities, hoping to find performance opportunities in distant locales. She succeeded in visiting Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; Wilmington, DE; Atlantic City, NJ; El Cajon, CA; Jacksonville, FL; Tampa, FL; and Providence, RI. She participated in carnivals, block parties, and especially parades. Crowds admired her costume and were especially thrilled to see the outspread cape.
But none of the events was dedicated specifically to the 25th Anniversary of Underdog. As often as she could, Suzanne had newspaper photographers take pictures of her and print that she was Underdog. Very few parade spectators realized that she was Underdog until they asked her.
Shamefully, the media gave Underdog and his 25th Anniversary no publicity blitz. Instead they glorified Batman, whose 50th (golden) Anniversary was also in 1989. Although the anniversary was not mentioned, Batman was made to be a false god in conjunction with the movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. With Batman being put on top of the world, Underdog was hopelessly overshadowed. On October 3, 1989, Underdog’s 25th anniversary date, went complete unacknowledged. Suzanne was not scheduled for a performance that day.
When the time came for the costume contest at the Thanksgiving convention, Suzanne felt that Underdog deserved a prize. The Thanksgiving convention was the biggest scale of Creation’s year; winning in its costume contest meant honor and glory. This was the 25th anniversary! Suzanne wore the silver cape; the emcee said, “Wow, That’s magnificent!” when she opened it, the crowds cheered. But Suzanne won nothing! In tears, she had an interview with some Beyond Vaudeville staff. Not winning in such a significant contest during this year or all years around makes Underdog and her less appreciated.
Her last Silver Anniversary appearance was on the last day of 1989 in Providence, RI. She was outside, wandering around craft booths, in the cold rain. She had no head covering, and until the rain ceased at 8 PM, no one bothered to speak to her. A pathetically forgotten character, ignored by the media, not interviewed by newspapers, magazines, or TV, receiving no award for her deeds, and never finding out if anyone else had being doing similar, Suzanne ended Underdog’s Silver Anniversary year with a sense of total failure.
During the next two years, Suzanne was more diverse with her costume and themes. Although she stuck with Underdog for Christmas parades, it was during this time, at a Beyond Vaudeville performance, that she met Philippe DeJean, who was a remarkable artist and nicknamed himself “Boy Genius”.
At the beginning of 1992 came an association, which proved the blackest in Suzanne’s career and life. She revived a call to be on the Howard Stern TV show, which she had never heard of. The caller said that Howard Stern was well known on radio, but when Suzanne listened to radio, it was strictly classical music. Howard Stern was a total stranger, what kind of TV host was he? The caller said he was comical. Suzanne bridled at the aspect of a comic host because she had been on local TV in different parts of the country. Those hosts had been courteous to her. The caller went on to say that Stern’s show was national and very high rated; he had heard of Suzanne through Beyond Vaudeville, but first Suzanne had to pass an audition, set for two days later.
Suzanne had to skip work to go to Secaucus, NJ, where the TV studio and the audition were. There she met the show’s producer and the booking agent who had phoned her. She passed her (Underdog) audition, but then tried to talk with two of the staff members about being treated courteously. Howard Stern himself was NOT there. Unless he as there, how was he supposed to find out that Suzanne was serious and not comic? The producer and booking agent did not make any satisfactory answers. Suzanne was told to return two days later to tape her episode.
Suzanne had received the first call on a Monday. She had auditioned two days later, on a Wednesday, and now she had to make the show on Friday! This was so much within one week, without Suzanne seeing an episode first, at home! What kind of show was this? Suzanne was worried and suspicious when she returned to the studio.
At the security gate, Suzanne questioned several guests-to-be. They only said that Stern was “unpredictable”. She questioned one of his assistants, named Gary (BaBaBooey). “You can never tell what he’s going to do,” Gary said. These vague remarks offered no reassurance.
Suzanne was directed to an upper room with a big window overlooking the studio, revealing audience seats and Stern’s dais. But there was also a sign with houser rules, one of which said “GUESTS ARE NOT TO TOUCH THEIR GENITALS.” Genitals? What kind of rule was that?
Was this a program for mature viewers only? When she laid eyes on Stern for the first time, his long disarrays hair and dark glasses proved all wrong for a talk show host. All other hosts Suzanne had faced had been well dressed and groomed.
There was one guest set before it would be Suzanne’s turn. Her heart sank as she heard Stern make dirty jokes, vulgar questions, and statements. Suzanne could not get word to any of the staff or technicians that Stern should be respectful with her! Suzanne was very apprehensive when her turn came. Stern makes unflattering remarks about Underdog, adhering to the unfavorable meaning in the dictionary. Suzanne insisted that her dancing made Underdog a hero again, dignified and believable. But Stern only made another vulgar remark, “ If Underdog is supposed to be believable and realistic, he has to be involved in adult matters and adult vices.” Stern had shown no respect toward Suzanne, and had ruined both Suzanne’s and Underdog’s good names!
The next day was Saturday, the day Stern’s show aired. Suzanne was alarmed when the show opened with “The Following program contains mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.” As the show progressed, Suzanne was shocked at the almost-naked women minions, the obscene jokes, the profane language, and Stern’s distortion of subject matter into sexuality or battle of wits.
Suzanne was deeply shaken that she had been on such a vile program master minded by a profane, vulgar, and sexually explicit man. She had been told that the show was one of the highest-rated in the country. But the staff she had questioned had been evasive and had not told her the whole truth about Stern and his program. They had pushed her into making an episode without giving her the time and opportunity to watch an episode at home. The program content was sheer pollution. Suzanne was too ashamed and afraid to tell her family.
Once Suzanne’s episode aired, the storm broke. Her family complained of receiving strange phone calls from strange men trying to reach Suzanne. Since her phone number was unlisted, these callers had been contacting every Muldowney in the phone book until they came upon her family. In the days that followed, Suzanne’s family castigated her for using her own name, being on an adult show, and casting a bad reflection on the whole family. “You haven’t become famous; you’ve become notorious.” They refused to believe that she had known anything about Stern or his program. They accused her of resorting to any means possible to become famous. In their eyes and in light of her religious upbringing, Suzanne had committed a grave sin.
Neither did the public leave her alone. Both adults and children who had never before acknowledged her presence now taunted her by calling her names or by repeating obscene questions of statements uttered originally by either Stern or and assistant. Some fanatics called her evil or a bad influence. Some perverts even said that Stern was her boyfriend, or that she had sex with him and was now pregnant.
Even Howard Stern would not leave her alone. The booking agent called to say that Stern was having a Hollywood Square episode and wanted Suzanne as part of the giant tic-tac-toe grid. Suzanne was suspicious, but the booking agent insisted that the other panelists would be celebrities and morally straight.
When Suzanne arrived on set, she had been taken again! The other panelists exemplified the worst of human vices. Stern and the other panelists exchanged vulgar talk and obscene questions. Suzanne was not spared the verbal filth when Stern asked her about Underdog dancing or asked a question. She was stuck with hearing the immoral conversations among Stern, the contestants, and other panelists. She wanted to walk out, but she had been put in the top row and a rollaway staircase promptly removed so that she could not run away!
Even this travesty of an appearance was onto the end. The booking agent called Suzanne for a third time. Stern was having an end-of-the-season awards episode like the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and etc. Various outstanding guests had been nominated for different awards. Suzanne had been nominated for Best Choreography! However, Suzanne promptly refused. Stern had made a fool of her on two counts; she now had many enemies. She would not come. Instead of leaving it at that, the booking agent put Suzanne on hold. When the agent came back, she said that Suzanne was compelled to come; all award nominees were compelled to attend. Suzanne had said no, but the agent had not taken no for an answer. Suzanne was trapped into coming two days later.
At the studio, Suzanne was taken to an empty room and told to wait. There was a TV set there; Suzanne sat down to watch. Ultimately, there was a commercial for the episode she was to make. Suzanne jumped to her feet. The statues to be given, as awards were pornographic! She ran out of the room and tried to escape from the building. She was overtaken by two staff members and forced to return.
Finally she was taken to the awards room. The pornographic statues were indeed for real. This was one award she was better off losing! But she won an award for Best Choreography. Grimly, she mounted the lectern. With fire in her eyes, she be can an equally fiery speech. She was not accepting the award; being on Stern’s show had proved a nightmare. She had now known the first thing about Stern’s maneuvering all discussions into vulgar talk, his profanity and sexual explicitness, the immodestly dressed women, and the overall degeneracy. Next, she emphasized that by this time, “The Underdog cartoon series hasn’t been shown in about 9 years.” Millions of unsuspecting children [who had somehow tuned into Howard Stern] were hearing of him for the first time. Because of Howard, his assistants, the other guests, and their assorted antics constituting what Howard, his assistants, the other guests, and their assorted antics constituting what Howard termed ‘a sea of debauchery’, these impressionable youngsters were also hearing terms like ‘orgasm,’ ‘Ku-Klux-Klan,’ ‘homosexuality,’ and ‘lesbianism,’ for the first time. Now, the think Underdog is Howard’s invention, and that the character and I are [R - or X-rated] lustful cads! Suzanne had suffered many insults, teasings, and snubbings from both acquaintances and strangers. She had been reprimanded at work and had received a cut in pay. She had not been appreciated for being on Stern’s show; she had been castigated. Stern was responsible for the nature and content of the program, as well as the after effects on its guests. It was an evil program. She vowed never to return, flung the statue to the floor and stormed out of the room. Outside, she screamed and wailed in agony. She had been forced to make this episode against her will; her suspicions and dreads had been justified.
Some weeks later, Stern’s TV show was cancelled. Suzanne wondered if her fire-and-brimstone speech influenced the decision. If she was in any way responsible for the cancellation, she was never noticed or officially credited.
Suzanne also suffered a heartbreaking loss. An Underdog Fan Club, headquartered within a 10-mile radius of Atlantic City, wrote her to say it was disbanding. The members had seen the awards episode and were offended that she had been on it. They asked, “How could you possibly have accepted?” They scolded her for not having known better that the event and especially the awards had been rigged so that Stern’s henchmen could trap her and set her up again. The club left no return addresses so that Suzanne could contact the members and explain. Ironically, they had not organized their club and informed her o its existence until after her first Stern appearance. Now she was no longer worthy of their support. She wept bitterly and sent a copy of the letter to Stern. Other scoldings and denunciations had been strictly verbal. Now, here was written document. Stern’s minions expressed only a flippant regret. Stern himself remained aloof.
Suzanne continued to be scolded by people who insisted that her mandatory appearance and the awards episode had been a setup for more exploitation. They gave her no credit for refusing the award. They refused to believe that she and said no only to be forced into coming. They also bore down that as long as she had not been taken by force from her home, she had willingly made the appearance.
For many years afterward, Suzanne suffered. Two children’s programs near her home were enthusiastic about her dancing but now slammed the door in her face. People continued to tease her by repeating vulgar questions or statements originally said by Stern or an assistant. People would come to her after a performance pretending to be appreciating but would end by teasing her. Once a British couple accosted her to say that they had seen her on Stern’s TV show and that the broadcast had been at home in the UK! Visitors to her home knocked on her door and when she opened it, yelled “We were right! You are the one!” and ran away. In 1994, she went to Atlanta as part of a 30th anniversary tour, and a local magazine printed one of Stern’s profane questions without her consent. Whole groups of people would yell, “HOWARD STERN!” with all their strength as Suzanne passed. Children’s parade entries would be instructed by the adults in charge to yell Stern’s name when she came near. Groups of adults and children mixed, obviously families, would harass Suzanne during parades. She would be stalked along parade routes by hecklers who would strive to taunt her repeatedly. Some extremists would throw stones or even explosive caps at her! Even when her themes were not Underdog, she would still be harassed. Five sites, which had previously welcomed her, now banished her; two sites denied her the chance to debut. Three other sites she left of her own accord. These discourtesies were just not at performances; these everyday encounters persist even today.
Philippe DeJean, who had met Suzanne in New York, learned about the unfaithful fan club and formed another Underdog Fan Club, which featured an occasional newsletter, with some of his friends in 1993.
On June 15th, 1992, the original cartoon series began rerunning on cable TV Nickelodeon. The next generation of children were being exposed to him, but they h ad been misled by Stern and had trouble adjusting to a different impression of the character. They were being exposed to the ancient character and programmatic camp and buffoonery. Would their families scold the children, like the way Suzanne had been for supposedly admiring a slapstick clown? There was a Nickelodeon program in which children discussed, among other things, TV shows with a Ms. Linda Ellerbee, Suzanne wrote to Ms. Ellerbee so that she could appear as Underdog and show the panel how her portrayals made Underdog a better role-model. Her letter went unanswered.
Phillippe starred in a Manhattan based TV show called The Checkerboard Kids. He has had Suzanne appear on it from time to time, with assorted topics. Suzanne toured wherever she could for Underdog’s 35th, 40th, and 45th anniversaries. Still, however, Underdog was not made a target of media hype. It was not until the 35th anniversary that Suzanne learned about Joe Harris He was scheduled to come to Ocean City, NJ where Suzanne was doing Underdog in the Doodah Parade, but he cancelled at the last minute.
In 2005, a movie was made about Suzanne’s artistry and life, My Life as an Underdog. This documentary is not available to the public due to copyright issues.
On May 22, 2006, Suzanne was on the late-night Jimmy Kimmel Live. Richard Brown of Beyond Vaudeville had relocated to the West Coast and told Kimmel about Suzanne. Kimmel had Suzanne perform her own invention, figure jogging, that made jogging and running into a show sport; but he also requested she dress as Underdog. Unlike Stern, Kimmel treated her with respect and created a family friendly scenario!
In 2007, Underdog was made into a live-action movie starring a voiced over live dog. The movie did not do the original character justice. It was set in the present, not the 1960’s. The central hero was still clumsy, campy, and childish. It pained Suzanne to watch it. The moviemakers had not contacted her to be an advisor, let alone the star.
This year is Underdog’s fiftieth (Golden) anniversary. Friday, October 3, 2014 marks 50 years to the day.
Suzanne Muldowney ushered in the 50th anniversary at the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, PA on New Year’s Day 2014. She finished fourth in the category of Most Original Character.
Every Underdog appearance she makes this year is in a special gold decorated costume with a golden maxi-cape. Suzanne always does Underdog twice a year at a Fourth of July Parade in Haddenfield, NJ and any parades scheduled during Thanksgiving weekend.
It remains to be seen whether the media will build a publicity blitz, in conjunction with the Underdog’s Golden Anniversary before 2014 is over. Television might interview viewers who were children in the 1960’s, and viewers who were exposed to Underdog later through reruns or packaged tapes. Suzanne would benefit doing Underdog in a family-friendly setting, on national television. There should be an all-out campaign to make Underdog the cartoon superhero into a more dignified, meritorious role model than he was when he originally premiered. These improvements would ameliorate Suzanne Muldowney’s identity with Underdog.