Friday 21 October 2011

Johnny Johnsen’s a Riot

Anyone who’s seen the panorama opening of ‘Of Fox and Hounds’ (1940) or the suburban houses and cityscape of ‘King Sized Canary’ (1947) is acquainted with the work of background artist John Didrik Johnsen.

Johnny Johnsen arrived at the Leon Schlesinger cartoon studio some time in the late ‘30s and worked alongside Tex Avery. I’d love to know if Johnny was responsible for the unique coloured-pencil backgrounds in Avery’s ‘Little Red Walking Hood’ (1937). Avery left for MGM, and Johnsen soon joined him there (he remained briefly with the unit in 1942 when Bob Clampett took it over, as his draft card to the right attests). Johnny retired in the early 1950s. It was only later in life his name started appearing on cartoon credits and, certainly, never at Warners, where Avery said he was among the first to use watercolours in backgrounds.

While Johnny’s name wasn’t splashed on the screen, it did appear in the papers. And not for a reason you’d suspect.

Johnsen was born in Denver on July 23, 1885. His parents were Didrik and Karen A. Johnsen who arrived in the U.S. from Norway in 1893. His older and younger sisters were both born in Norway, so it’s a matter of speculation for now about why he was born in the U.S. His father was a blacksmith. The family was in Los Angeles by 1909, where Johnny was employed as an artist on the Los Angeles Express. He later had an office where he worked as a commercial artist before being hired at Warners.

But Johnny’s infamous publicity came during a riot outside the Warner Bros. studio on October 5, 1945. He wasn’t at Warner Bros. at the time, nor did the riot involve the cartoon studio. The Los Angeles Times gave it front page play the next day, and explained:

Interunion enmities, kindled seven months ago by a strike over control of 77 set decorators, yesterday flared into a full-fledged riot at the gates of Warner Bros. studio in which participants were knifed, clubbed and gassed before police reserves from three cities and the county could restore order.

Johnsen was there and among the people arrested. Tom Sito’s interesting book ‘Drawing the Line,’ outlining the history of trade unionism in animation, goes into detail. You can read the chapter about it on-line HERE. The case went to court on May 14, 1946 and the Times reported on it the following day:

Sorrell and Seven Aides Fined in Strike Riot Case
A fine of $50, or five days in jail, was meted out yesterday to Herbert K. Sorrell, Anthony V. Schiavone and six others, all of whom were the first group of persons arrested in connection with the film strike rioting at Warner Bros. last October.
They were found guilty by a jury of refusing to disperse when ordered. Schiavone was found guilty also of disturbing the peace and he drew a $25 fine, or two days in jail, on this account. The other six penalized are Charles R. Barker, Joseph R. Daniels, John D. Henderson, Howard R. Howe, John D. Johnsen and Richard L. Morley.
Sorrell, film strike leader, was not in court. He was said to be in the Washington (DC) AFL headquarters regarding Hollywood studio union matters. The maximum penalty for failure to disperse is $500 fine and six months in jail. The maximum for disturbing the peace is $200 fine plus three months in jail.
Judge Raymond L. Reid of Burbank Police Court, where the eight were tried, said in sentencing the accused that he had taken into consideration the fact that they had nearly all been in court for about a month because of their trial.
Atty. William B. Esterman requested and received a 48-hour stay of execution and announced that he will appeal the case. [Those charged] with the rioting are to go before Judge Reid for the fixing of dates to begin trial.

The Times reported on May 22 they paid their fines and the appeal didn’t go ahead.

Even more interesting than Johnsen’s name on the list is Richard Morley’s. I’m assuming it’s the same Richard Morley who was responsible for backgrounds in a handful of Chuck Jones’ cartoons like ‘A Pest in the House’ (1947). Even less is known about his career in animation, partly because a number of the Jones unit’s cartoons from that period became Blue Ribbon re-releases with no credits. Morley was involved later involved with Primrose Productions, and was the first secretary of the Alliance of Television Film Producers in 1951. In the USC archival photo above, Morley is on the far left while Johnsen is the grey-haired chap, third from right. He was a few months shy of 60.

Johnny was also an inventor. He filed a patent on July 25, 1916 for producing colour printing plates. If you want to see the intricacies, you can go HERE.

He died in Los Angeles on February 7, 1974, age 88


  1. I have three portraits of my mother's family (mom, dad, family dog!) done in pencil by J. D. Johnsen in 1931. I was told they were done at the Johnsen cabin in Crestline CA.
    My stepmother, born a Mathews, has a lovely oil painting done by Johnsen.

    There were three families that vacationed together at that time. Johnsen's, my mother's family, Johnson, and the Mathews.

    All of Johnny's works are treasures. He was tops at his work.

    1. Hi! I would love to see your portraits! I have one as well of my father as a Korean War Veteran. It is signed, "To Dick, From John D. Johnsen. It is a pencil drawing.
      Does anyone else have pencil drawings of Korean War Veterans? These would make a wonderful collection of history.

  2. Hi! I have a pencil drawing of my father in uniform. He was in the Navy from 1941 until his retirement in 1961. I don't know when it was done. It is signed, "To Joe, From John Didrik Johnsen"