‘Bugs Bunny at the Symphony’ Turns 30

The show, which will be presented by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra later this month, proves the enduring appeal of a pesky rabbit who knocked the highbrow down a peg
bugs bunny at the symphony - dso
Image courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

From the time I started preschool to the day I left for college (and even beyond that), I had a standing 11 a.m. Saturday morning date with Bugs Bunny. Other cartoons came and went (Captain Caveman, anyone?) — as did friends, ruffle shirts, and Ace of Base. But this one thing in my life remained constant, to the point where I could (and often still can) recite the lines to each animated short by heart.

So, when I heard that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra will present a 30th-anniversary performance of Bugs Bunny at the Symphony this month — with conductor George Daugherty leading the DSO in timeless favorites including “What’s Opera, Doc?” “The Rabbit of Seville,” and others while the original cartoons play on the big screen — I started reflecting on why a Bronx-y wiseacre of a rabbit struck such a chord with me.

Like kids everywhere, I identified hard with a creature who had no real power but invariably found a way to gain the upper hand nonetheless.That was the Bugs blueprint from the start. Though an unnamed rabbit character (behaviorally and vocally more akin to Woody Woodpecker) began appearing in Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies animated shorts in the late ’30s, the version that hewed closest to the Bugs we know today debuted in 1940’s “A Wild Hare.” In that cartoon, Elmer Fudd hunts Bugs, and not only does the unarmed prey not panic or try to escape but, using only his wit, manages to turn the tables on his pursuer.

This upending of conventional power structures is an overarching theme in classic Warner Bros. cartoons: A coyote also gets foiled, again and again, by a speedy, elusive Road Runner, and a talented song-and-dance frog drives a man nuts by performing for him — but only when no one else is looking. And because I didn’t, as a kid, get to choose what I ate, or where I went, or when I went to bed and got up in the morning, the appeal of a bottom-of-the-food-chain character who refuses to accept his predetermined role of impotence felt downright irresistible.

On top of that, Bugs regularly thumbed his nose at pretentiousness (a purely adult trait), which also likely spoke to me. In “Baton Bunny” (1959), he appears as an orchestra conductor, physically dictating the music being performed to an absurd degree. The performance goes off the rails completely as Bugs struggles with his cuffs, does an impromptu pantomime of a Western’s chase sequence, and engages in an epic battle with a fly.

bugs bunny at the symphony - dso
Expect all the classics as the DSO celebrates the 30th anniversary of Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. // Photograph courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Similarly, in the cartoon we fans have come to think of as “the Leopold one” (“Long-Haired Hare,” 1949), a rehearsing opera singer whom Bugs keeps distracting with more upbeat songs silences Bugs, causing the rabbit to declare, famously, “Of course you know, this means war.” Bugs then torments the tenor with extreme pranks at that evening’s performance, but in the end, it’s the rabbit’s dramatic entrance as the esteemed conductor Leopold that we remember.

To this day, 70-plus years later, when a director takes the podium at a symphony concert, you’re likely to hear someone in the crowd whisper, “Leopold!” That’s staying power.

What’s perhaps most impressive, though, is the way these cartoons lovingly punctured the puffery of “high art.” while also still making the music feel accessible to old and young alike. Aesthetes may shudder knowing that most of us can’t hear the bold, ascending swirls of Wagner’s The Valkyrie without singing, “Kill the wab-bit,” thanks to “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957), or listen to music from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville without remembering Bugs rhythmically flapping his ears on Elmer Fudd’s bald head and singing, “Don’t look so perplexed / Why must you be next / Can’t you see you’re next? / Yes, you’re next! / Yoooooou’re so next!”

But despite their goofiness, these cartoon forays into classical music provided space for a fun kids’ table at high culture’s party. Plus, watching what Warner Bros.’ animators imagined as they translated orchestral music into cartoon farce was like being given permission to do the same, thus being freed to see where both the pieces and my thoughts could take me.

I went on to play trombone in concert, symphony, and marching bands for decades, getting a more formalized view of all those notes on the page while never forgetting one of the most important things Bugs Bunny taught me: Music can be the soundtrack for just about anything you can dream up. 

Performances run Oct. 22-24. See dso.org for more information.

This story is featured in the October 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.