Is Professor Balthazar gay?
Close reading of the cult Yugoslav animation series reveals a rich subtext of homoerotic innuendo and gender non-conformism
Generations of people in many countries have enjoyed watching the quirky “famous inventor” Professor Balthazar help friends and save the day through his discoveries in the imagined Balthazartown.
There is a rich subtext of gender non-conformism and variety of homoerotic innuendos that all lead to the so far unexplored possibility that Professor Balthazar was, in fact, gay, as were a lot of his friends in the series.
This could mean that the cult 1960s cartoon character from a Croatian animation series played a role in mainstreaming alternative lifestyles in Eastern Europe and beyond, at a time when they were only starting to become mainstream in the Western world.
If you’re open to the possibility, it’s hard to avoid this conclusion.
Balthazar is a clean-cut, well-dressed gentleman who lives alone and spends lots of time travelling with and visiting his friends, who are almost all men, and usually also single.
They dance and laugh, ride down slides, exchange flowers and presents, sit in cafes sipping drinks through straws, go on moonlit boat rides on the lake, and enjoy a glass of wine while wearing rainbow-coloured suits.
Balthazar even invents a rainbow-making machine to impress the townsfolk in a beauty contest, and at one point physically merges with another man, “a soulmate”, in a passionate embrace during an ecstatic scene in which the men enter another universe where they can enjoy their “transgressions” without being judged.
Balthazar’s queerness is established early on. His first-ever discovery is an extraordinary pair of men’s purple high-heeled shoes that dance and fly: when he receives these shoes as a gift, Leopold the athlete picks Balthazar up and kisses him.
Later in the series, Balthazar’s clothing and interior design choices reveal a love of the colours pink and red, flowers, and hearts. Many of his personal effects are pink, including a telescope, helicopter, armchair, nightie, chamber pot, house walls and exterior. He sleeps in a red bed, has a pink floral chandelier, and a heart shape on his cuckoo clock and bedroom curtains.
One of Balthazar’s favourite meals appears to be sausages, served by a dancing waiter named Willy.
The series is packed with events that show Balthazar to be a non-conformist when it comes to questions of taste. In the Grave Little Taylor episode, for example, Professor Balthazar is trying on what appears to be a woman’s dress, although most of Sylvester the tailor’s clothes are in traditionally masculine styles. Balthazar appears content as he walks out of the shop with the dress wrapped up under his arm, in spite of the tailor’s amazement.
A rainbow machine and a pink triangle kite
In the ‘Somewhat Over the Rainbow?’ episode, Balthazar invents a rainbow-making machine to enter into the city’s beauty competition and wins the first prize, which he is very happy with. “It was the most beautiful thing presented,” we are told. “Professor Balthazar was declared the winner.”
But his happiness is short-lived as the rainbow soon melts in the rain and makes a mess all over the city leaving the professor “ashamed” that he (perhaps in his excitement at entering the beauty competition with a project close to his heart) “hadn’t foreseen the possibility of rain.”
He eventually fixes the situation by converting his machine into one that makes fabric, to help out his friend William the weaver, who loves making red dresses for dolls but lacks the fabric to do so. William uses the fabric to make two rainbow suits, wrapping one up as a present for Balthazar. The two men are next seen wearing their new suits and drinking wine at the professor’s house, winking at us. “Professor Balthazar and William were happy and thankful for the good fortune that had come to them and to Balthazartown,” the episode concludes.
The episode not only has Balthazar physically creating rainbows, an LGBTQ symbol, but also embodying it by wearing a rainbow suit.
The rainbow flag as a symbol of LGBTQ Pride dates from 1978, which could mean that it did not have the same connotations a few years prior to that when this episode was made.
But interestingly, another symbol of the gay community, which preceded the rainbow flag in the early 1970s, the pink triangle, is seen in The Windy Story from 1970. In that episode, at a big international kite-flying competition we hear that “out of the 100 gay and brightly-coloured kites, one soared far above the others: it was Professor Balthazar’s kite”: a pink triangle-shaped kite with Balthazar’s face on it, again physically associating the professor with a symbol of gay rights.
Whether these are just coincidences that are easy to misinterpret some 50 years later, or whether some of the series’ creators were clued in to early gay rights symbolism, is ripe for further study. What we can say is that most of the characters, including ‘extras’ we see in background, are men, and most people Balthazar socializes with and helps are men. This perhaps reflects the mostly-male team behind the animation: the credits of the first two series show that of a creative team of about 15 people, just one or two (at most) were women. This rose to a handful of women in later series, but still less than 20% of all credited creatives working on the series.
A “wonderful time” with “a gay chap” and a “giant turbo jet sucking machine”
The idea that Balthazar may prefer men features early, in the very first episode of season one. When Balthazar visits the Alps, Johann welcomes him “heartily” with a flower, standing outside his house decorated with red hearts and yodeling with happiness. Next, we hear that “Johann was a gay chap” as the two men are literally at the top of the world sipping beer together, then sliding down the mountain on the same sled.
Next, Balthazar visits his friend Hannibal, who lives on a small island with a pink palm tree and a candy-striped lighthouse. We’re told that the two “had a wonderful time”, which included an “exciting” ride on the back of a friend of Hannibal’s, Otto the whale.
Hannibal wears purple clothes and sits in a pink chair, and cries when his ice cream melts, so Balthazar must caress and console him. Balthazar later invents a “turbo jet sucking machine” to help Hannibal with his fog problem. Johann and a ship’s captain join the two men, as does the whale, who somehow squeezes inside for a big, loud party that shakes up the phallic lighthouse, before they wave goodbye with their handkerchiefs. The imagery of a phallic and/or rocking house hosting partying men returns in some other episodes, too.
Men “tormented by a secret urge”
As mentioned above, many of the characters are men living on their own, dedicating themselves to their work, and having fun with other men—or anthropomorphized male animals—in their spare time. The only female friends Balthazar has are two “aunts” from his neighborhood whom he helps with their knitting: he even invents a machine, the Knit-O-Mobile, which is “so much fun that even professor Balthazar himself couldn’t resist mounting the Knit-O-Mobile from time to time”.
Take Hubert the “virtuoso” of a traffic policeman, for example, who in his private life is “tormented by a secret urge, a terrible urge. For many years he fought it bravely” until one day he cracks and does it repeatedly: to blow on a pink party horn instead of his yellow police whistle. He had to summon “all of his courage” to do “what he always wanted to do”, we’re told.
A world in which “harmlessly irrational transgressions” are “perfectly permissible”
Professor Balthazar gets to thinking and after a while, we’re told, “He concluded that this world unjustly punishes anyone who gives in to an urge which is harmlessly irrational, and he concluded further that this being so, there might be another kind of world where such urges would be perfectly permissible. He calculated scientifically and he found the proof that such a world existed.”
However, the professor ascertains, it takes two to enter such a world, so he asks Hubert, the policeman with the passion for blowing a pink horn, if he has a soulmate. Hubert finds one in the chief of police, who also has a passion: drawing moustaches on posters. The two men climb onto a table and dance and clap wildly in order to gain access to this parallel world where harmless urges are allowed.
Seeing how happy the two men are, and being left on his own, “The professor realized that he too felt the urge to visit the new world.” Balthazar walks down the street, sucking on his finger, and approaches another man who is also sucking on his own finger. “Quickly, he found a soulmate,” we’re told: “a stationmaster who deep down in his heart had always wanted to be a locomotive.”
They chat briefly, then start clapping and dancing together before they take off, flying into the sky. They circle around each other then, in a kind of colourful ecstasy, embrace and momentarily merge into one being. Then they fall apart into bits, are multiplied into several copies of each man, then they blissfully fly and rotate some more. “This was true happiness,” we are told. “Everyone was having fun, just doing his thing.” The episode is called “Happiness for two”.
Relocation to a pink planet after “the public’s rejection was complete and painful”
The theme of single adult men doing unusual or (at the time) unseemly things that the public rejects, but wanting to explore these activities nevertheless, returns in the Starlight Serenades episode, when three men secretly play an improvised instrument at work. Fate having brought them together, the men move into the same house and live for their music, playing it day in and day out. But when they play their music outside the house, “the public’s rejection was complete and painful” and they are literally thrown outside the city under cover of darkness.
Balthazar ends up taking them to another, pink, planet to meet a “lonely thing” that sings, so that they can form a quartet and make “sweet music”. Only then, and in that place, are they accepted by the public, who come to watch and listen to them on spaceships invented by Balthazar.
Once again, the professor rescues men rejected by the public and arranges for them to be accepted for who they are, though this time not in an alternate universe but on another planet. In communist Yugoslavia and catholic Croatia of the time, this might have been as close as was deemed acceptable to subvert traditional views about sexuality and individuality.
So, is there any specific evidence that Balthazar is not gay?
The only such evidence comes from the Heart on Fire episode in season 4, where he seemingly falls in love twice, with two different women, but only after sniffing a flower, and rather belatedly realising he’s in love. The extravagant red suit he wears to impress the women gave him the look of a dandy.
The episode is an exception to the rule, however, and season 4 was filmed after a few years’ delay and is not typical of the series as a whole.
We do also see, in the pilot episode, someone briefly drop a mermaid into Balthazar’s lap, which makes him obviously uncomfortable. And we see him dance briefly with Hans’s wife during the village celebrations in Some Like it Cold—but he’s arguably much more into Hans than his wife.
For example, Hans is described as an “old school chum” and the two have “a wonderful time”, sharing a sled, then going to the seaside, where they sunbathe shoulder-to-shoulder in their pink bathing suits, playing badminton in their underwear and having “great fun swimming”.
Balthazartown’s gay scene
It’s not just that Balthazar himself might be gay: the evidence suggests that lots of his friends could be, too, and that Balthazartown hence has an unappreciated gay scene.
Some references may seem a bit far-fetched, but they are there; for example, men who drill holes for a living and whose activity, alongside Balthazar’s invention, eventually leads to the emergence of the devil himself, who appears playful rather than harmful. It is a brief scene that could easily be missed, but which plays with the idea of the professor somehow being devilish or unleashing the devil, which is an offensive trope often used by anti-gay rights campaigners.
More obvious references abound, too.
The series features lots of single, middle-aged men who live on their own or with other male characters, such as Fabian the streetcar driver and Ernest the sparrow, who is a stay-at-home bird that cooks dinner for Fabian, and snuggles up with him in front of the fireplace to read newspapers in the evenings. “This was true friendship” we’re told, even though it looks more like a traditional marriage. Later on, Fabian’s head is up in the clouds, literally, as the sparrow teaches him how to fly.
This theme of male characters living together and having a great time recurs often, for example when Martin (whom everyone in town ignores) goes to live with Arthur the eagle in his nest on top of a mountain, where the two have a great time playing and laughing.
And in the Street Musicians episode, a male dancer is living with a male bear musician: he tucks the bear in at night and serves him breakfast in the morning, and the two sleep in the same bed. Coincidentally, bears, which have a long history of use as gay slang for hairy, masculine men, are integrated in society throughout season 4, appearing at dinner parties and the theatre. In The Great Snoring episode, bears literally sleep in Balthazar’s closet. (In one of the episodes, an undressed professor looks inside his closet and then appears to come out of it, which could be interpreted, at a stretch, as his implicit outing).
In Abraham the Busy Shoemaker, a woodpecker and a crocodile live together, not unlike a married couple, as do a male penguin and a postman in the Axel the Penguin episode: a common theme, which could be a subtle way of normalizing male-male relationships.
And in Episode 4, Maestro Koko (who happens to be an elephant) visits his “best friend” Phillip and he serenades him with his trumpet music, while Phillip makes fresh ice-cream for him in exchange. One day, we see the whole house rocking and jumping around as the two dance inside until they’re exhausted. When Koko catches a cold, he stays in Phillip’s house, where Phillip spends two weeks nursing him back to health.
In the Clown Daniel episode, we see two men living in a pink house, wearing pink trousers, and working together as two halves of one clown. They lick each other’s fingers to flip the pages of a book while sitting snugly under a blanket, they feed each other, etc.
Another example is Leo the painter, who lives in a pink house with a floral design and paints pictures of the same flowers, in an “original and very personal style”. We are told that he is “rather lonesome: his one and only friend is Professor Balthazar”, who also the only person who likes his paintings.
Balthazar buys Leo’s work and puts his on his wall. He wants to give Leo “a very special present” for his birthday, which turns out to be a flower pot, a fun day out climbing cherry trees, and a worry-free visit to an amusement park, all of which constitute “the happiest birthday of Leo’s life”.
When Balthazar receives a colorful, wrapped present from Leo in return, “the professor is all excited”, and dances as he opens it.
Some of the men have curious problems. In episode 2, Balthazar’s childhood school friend’s trousers keep falling down, revealing his colorful underpants. This happens twice in front of the professor, including in his house, and costs the man his job as conductor of an orchestra. Balthazar invents a pair of super braces to help him out.
And in Stumble Bumps, Bumble, the clumsy man shunned by other people, befriends three dancing bears in the forest “and so a new friendship is born”. He later introduces them to Balthazar, and they all have fun while Bumble plays his horn.
In Hat on Flier, we see a couple of arguably cheeky/risque homoerotic sequences of zoo animals being cleaned, and in Mike on the Bike the policeman is arguably having a romantic relationship with his “best friend, Ferdinand”.
In Cloud with Brawlstorms, Balthazar restores “harmony and joy” to his town using his new invention: a helicopter-powered laughter sprinkler. We see men exchanging and licking pink ice creams and pink lollipops, as well as two women kissing on the mouth—the only overt reference to lesbianism.
Mićo Tatalović, independent researcher