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May 24 marked the 50th anniversary of Humphrey B. Bear‘s first television appearance, on the Channel Nine’s children’s program, Here’s Humphrey in 1965. I cannot say it was Humphrey’s birthday, because he is eternally four years old, and can never age.
He was originally named Bear Bear, but feeling that this perhaps lacked some imagination, the makers of the show ran a competition, and he was renamed Humphrey B. Bear, with his middle initial standing for Bear. I’m not sure whether the contest winner had ever heard of Walt Disney’s Humphrey Bear (who debuted in 1950), but the coincidence is remarkable.
In the show, the honey-loving Humphrey lives in a tree-house in the middle of the magic forest, and loves to explore, play, dance, spend time with friends, and use his imagination. Humphrey is prone to accidents and often makes mistakes – as the theme song says, He’s a funny old fellow who gets in all manner of strife. Humphrey never speaks, but has a companion and assistant who serves as narrator.
Here’s Humphrey is one of the most successful programs for preschoolers in Australia, and is second only to Playschool for longevity. It won Logies for Best Children’s Series, and Humphrey himself has won a number of awards, including Citizen of the Year in 1994. He still makes frequent public appearances, including to sick children in hospitals, and to promote road safety.
Humphrey made generations of children smile, but there was an inner sadness to the outwardly happy bear. The first performer to play Humphrey, often considered the best of all time, was a talented actor, dancer and playwright named Edwin Duryea – aptly nicknamed “Teddy”.
Constrained by the anonymity of the role, he came to resent it, and led a lonely life. Teddy died a few years ago, and with no known family, was given a pauper’s funeral (Channel Nine wouldn’t pay to bury the actor who had made Humphrey a star). There are no photos of Edwin as Humphrey, as it is considered sacrilege to dispel the illusion that Humphrey isn’t “real”.
There is no doubt that playing Humphrey could be challenging: the bear suit is very hot, just for a start. That may not be a problem in Humphrey’s future, as discussions are underway to turn Humphrey B. Bear into an animated series – and if it goes ahead, he will have a voice at last!
Humphrey is derived from the ancient Germanic name Hunfrid, which probably means “to grant peace”, but is often translated as “peaceful warrior”.
There is a 9th century French saint called St Hunfrid, and because of him the name Humphrey was introduced to England by the Normans, where it quickly overtook the Old English form, Hunfrith. In Ireland, it was used to Anglicise Amhlaoibh, which is the Irish form of Olaf.
The name Humphrey was a common one amongst the Norman aristocracy, and one of the first bearers to come to England was the strikingly named Humphrey with the Beard, who fought at the Battle of Hastings. His nickname came about because it was unusual for Normans to have a beard at that time – the fashion was for a clean-shaven look. Bearded Humphrey was the founder of the noble de Bohun family, and his name became traditional amongst the Bohuns.
One of their line was Humphrey of Lancaster, called the “son, brother, and uncle of kings”. He was the son of King Henry IV by his wife Mary de Bohun, the brother of Henry V, and the uncle of Henry VI. Romantic and chivalrous, he was a successful military strategist and diplomat, and a scholarly patron of the arts. Popular with the public, he was disgraced when his second wife was found guilty of witchcraft (she consulted an astrologer and sought herbal fertility treatment). He appears as a character in Shakespeare’s Henry VI – one of the few historical people to be shown in an almost completely positive light.
A famous namesake of modern times is American film star Humphrey Bogart, an iconic leading man of the 1940s who appeared in such classics as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He usually played a cynical tough-guy character, who would prove in the end to have his heart generally in the right place. A true screen legend, he is often regarded as the greatest Hollywood actor of all time. Humphrey Bogart was named for his mother’s maiden name – he was the son of artist Maud Humphrey.
The name Humphrey is a favourite for all kinds of animals, both in real life and in fiction. One example is the cat Humphrey, who was chief mouser at Number 10 Downing Street for many years, until apparently ousted by the Blairs. Cat Humphrey was named after Sir Humphrey Appleby, the urbanely Machiavellian bureaucrat from Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. The name has also been given to a real life humpback whale, and a camel on The Simpsons, because the name starts with the word hump.
Although never going out of use, the name Humphrey peaked in the 19th century, and isn’t very common. It has never charted in Australia, and is rarely seen today, although there are many examples in historical records. In England/Wales, Humphrey peaked in the 1860s in the mid-100s; in 2013, 20 baby boys were named Humphrey. In the US, Humphrey peaked in 1893 at #650, leaving the Top 1000 a year or two later. Last year less than 5 babies received the name Humphrey in the US.
Humphrey is a rare vintage name, and one that seems rather cuddly and lovable – which is probably why it’s often been chosen for animals, such as friendly bears! It’s an interesting, upper class, and somehow quite a sweet name, but I’m not sure if Humphrey B. Bear is much help to it. Apart from the familiar song about the “funny old fellow”, there has been a rather mean tendency to poke fun at the iconic bear, and even to make lewd jokes at his expense. With the possibility of Humphrey returning in animated form, will this help give the name more publicity, or make it less appealing?