Friday, 4 November 2011

Forgotten Animator Carl Lederer

There was commercial television before Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle debuted on it in 1948, radio networks were regularly operating before NBC started in 1927 and there were animated cartoons in theatres before Felix the Cat became popular in the early ‘20s. In all cases, little is known about the pioneering eras and many people involved in them are long forgotten because of the overshadowing events that came later.

I know next to nothing about animation in the 1910s so every little discovery is something new. Newspapers of the era around World War One speak mostly of Bray Pictographs or Mutt and Jeff but there were other cartoons that only few today must know about.

You see an ad for one of them to the right. It is from 1915 and the cartoon is ‘Bunny in Bunnyland.’ What’s baffling is in my limited research, the only reference I can find is to a touring stage show with that name by early screen comedian John Bunny. In ‘Personality Comedians as Genre’, author Wes D. Gehring explains:

Bunny in Funnyland was a compendium of the comedian’s entertainment career. Supported by a cast of 50, from midgets to a chorus of beautiful girls, Bunny was always a prominent feature in this sprawling three-hour musical comedy. It showcased a singing and dancing Bunny little known to his film fans. A key segment of Funnyland was a minstrel show that critics said showed “the strength of the entire company.”

The tour ended when the precarious state of Bunny’s kidneys killed him but the cartoon lived on after him. It was copyright on May 1, 1915 by Carl Lederer and released through Vitagraph, which also released Bunny’s comedy shorts. One review called the cartoon “a side-splitting concocton [sic] of fun and imaginary doings of the well known and celebrated apostle of mirth.”

So just who was Carl Francis Lederer? The same review above calls him a “noted cartoonist.” Web pages keep regurgitating (word for word) the same two pieces of information about him: he worked at the Raoul Barré studio and got into a copyright flap with J.R. Bray; in fact, he seems to have been more interested in the technical side of animation than drawing. He copyrighted only a handful of cartoons. The others were ‘When They Were Twenty-One’ (Vitagraph, May 27, 1915), ‘Ping Pong Woo’ (Lubin, June 26, 1915) and ‘Wandering Bill’ (Lubin, Sept. 7, 1915).

Census records show he was born in April 1893 to Ludwig and Mary F. Lederer, who settled in Rochester, New York after arriving from Germany in 1886. Internet sources that claim he was born in 1894 and died in 1980 have a different Carl Lederer who was born in Slovakia. He married Frances Sullivan in December 1916. The late Dick Huemer worked with him at the Barré studio and suggests he died young:

Carl Lederer also had the dream of making a serious, well-drawn semi-feature cartoon about Cinderella. I can still picture this nice-looking earnest young artist hunched over his animation board, plugging away, eternally puffing on an old pipe, never skylarking or kidding around the way the rest of us did. But pneumonia cut short his dreams of something a little better in the animation game.

Huemer also mentions Lederer managed to simulate a multi-plane effect in films with backgrounds moving at different speeds; you see a similar depth effect in some of Tex Avery’s Warner cartoons where something in the foreground moves at a different speed than the panned background. Lederer applied for the patent in 1918 and it was granted three years later. You can read the patent application (which always makes for an entertaining afternoon) here.

Much is forgotten about the pioneers of television, radio and motion pictures but we can remember a little bit about one of them in this post.


  1. Someone has claimed he is a great great uncle of mine; news to our family. His mother may have been my great grandfather's sister. Will keep this in mind. She emigrated same time we did; 1850s. Her father was a tailor in Rochester; my great grandfather was a wood carver in the furniture factories.

  2. Died November 20, 1918; spanish influenza victim; aged 25 years. That was the entry in the 1919 Rochester City Directory. His mother died the year before, and we are trying to find out where they all went after his death. Cleared out of town.