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Ken Spears, partner in an animation powerhouse, dies at 82
From left: Sid Krofft, Marty Krofft, Joe Ruby, and Ken Spears surrounded by artwork by Jack Kirby in Los Angeles on March 17, 2010. Kevin Scanlon/The New York Times.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Ken Spears, who helped create “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!,” the series starring a gang of mystery-solving teenagers and a hapless, hungry dog that became one of the most lucrative franchises in the history of animation, died Nov. 6 in Brea, California. He was 82.

The cause was complications of Lewy body dementia, his son Kevin said. Spears died at an assisted-living facility.

Joe Ruby, “Scooby-Doo’s” co-creator and Spears’ longtime business partner, died in August.

Spears was just out of the Navy when a friend’s father, William Hanna, offered him a job in the editing studio of his new company, Hanna-Barbera. As Spears said later, he initially had no idea Hanna was in the cartoon business; he just liked the salary — $104 a week.

At Hanna-Barbera, he met Ruby, also newly sprung from the Navy, and the two began writing gags and scripts. They soon caught the attention of Fred Silverman, then head of daytime programming at CBS. He charged them with creating a cartoon series that would be a blend of “I Love a Mystery,” a radio show popular in the 1940s about three friends looking for adventure; the 1948 comedy-horror movie “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”; and “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” the popular sitcom that ran from 1959 to 1963 about a teenager looking for love and his slacker beatnik sidekick.

Silverman also wanted the show to feature a pop song in each episode, just like “The Archie Show.” That didn’t work out, but Spears and Ruby, working with artist Iwao Takamoto, created a half-hour comedy mystery with a quartet of teenagers and a goofy Great Dane with a gruff bark. After 15 or so drafts, they realized the dog was the star.

In an oral history, Silverman said he had landed on the name Scooby-Doo after hearing Frank Sinatra sing the familiar riff from his 1966 hit “Strangers in the Night”: do-be-do-be-do.

Spears and Ruby worked for Silverman at CBS and then ABC before starting their own company, Ruby-Spears Productions, in 1977. Over the next two decades, they rolled out numerous animated shows, including the postapocalyptic “Thundarr the Barbarian” and “Fangface,” which starred a gang of teenagers and an adorable werewolf (like Scooby but weirder). The company also produced “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” a reboot of the 1961-62 series “The Alvin Show.”

“Ken was half of the most important creative team in Saturday-morning animation in the ’70s and ’80s,” Mark Evanier, a television writer who at one time worked for Spears and Ruby, said in an email. “He and Joe left behind hundreds of hours of cartoons that will rerun forever, featuring characters they created that were an important part of millions of childhoods.

“It’s amazing,” he added, “that two guys who met in the editing room while cutting film could wind up writing and producing so much material that would end up on film.”

Yet the pair never felt they had received their creative due for inventing the powerhouse that was “Scooby-Doo,” which is considered the most spun-off series in the history of television, said Kevin Sandler, an associate professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University who is working on a book about the show. Animation is a collaborative business, and cartoons are considered work for hire, so it was often the studios — or the studio heads — who got the credit for the shows created under them.

Charles Kenneth Spears was born March 12, 1938, in Los Angeles and grew up in New York City and Los Angeles, where he went to high school with William Hanna’s son Dave. His mother, Edna (Graiver) Spears, died a month after his birth; his father, Harry, worked as a radio host and producer before becoming a real estate agent.

Ken Spears’ first wife, Sandra (Mathison) Spears, died in 2007. A second marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his son Kevin, Spears is survived by another son, Chris; two sisters, Sharon Holleran and Sudie Poggi; two brothers, Victor and Steven; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Over their long career together, Spears and Ruby had a habit of working on weekends, alternating between each other’s backyards, armed with yellow legal pads and a tape recorder — and cracking each other up.

“I remember them just sitting there out the back, laughing,” Kevin Spears said. “They had a lot of fun together.”

He added that he had once asked his father if he had ever wanted another partner. The answer was an emphatic no: “Why would I ever want to work with anybody else but Joe?”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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