Saturday 27 July 2013

The Woolworth's of Animation

An awful lot of cartoons over the years have been neglected and even ridiculed. There was a time a few decades ago that the feeling was if it wasn’t Disney, it was junk. Then came the rise of animation historians who rightfully pointed out the funny characters and dialogue of the Warner Bros. cartoons, the genius of Tex Avery, the fluidity and expert pantomime of MGM’s Tom and Jerry and the off-beat sense of humour employed in the Fleischer cartoons. But everything else? Well, that left something to be desired.

Take Terrytoons, for example. Leonard Maltin, in Of Mice and Magic, dismissed them as repetitious, artistically stunted and cheap. Frankly, he has a point. Even the studio’s founder dismissed them as inexpensive theatre time-filler before the feature film. But that doesn’t mean there was a complete lack of entertainment value in the studio’s output and, after all, entertainment is what animated cartoons are ultimately supposed to be (something UPA, with its “Look at our Art-with-a-capital-A” attitude didn’t understand a whole lot).

The Terry cartoons have their champions today, who enjoy the taffy-pulling animation of Jim Tyer or the well-planned movement of Carlo Vinciguerra (later Vinci). And there are the early sound cartoons with inanimate objects springing to life for the sake of a gag. Among the champions when the Terry cartoons were still unappreciated by some animation critics were former Terry employees themselves. They took part in an exhibit in 1982 sponsored by the Council on the Arts in New Rochelle, New York, where the cartoons were made. The local paper gave space to a feature article on the history of the studio. It appeared February 1, 1982.

Terry’s works remain in tune

Mighty Mouse was born in New Rochelle. So were Heckle and Jeckle, Tom Terrific, Deputy Dawg, Dinky Duck and Hector Heathcote. They were born on the drawing boards of Paul Terry's Terrytoons animation studio located in this Westchester city for more than 40 years. This fact will be proclaimed for all to examine when the New Rochelle Council on the Arts holds a Terrytoons retrospective with an exhibition, reunion dinner, animated film showings, and other events, from Wednesday, Feb. 10 to Sunday, Feb. 28.
Whether seen in a “trailer” after a movie or as the main attraction on early morning television, these cartoon stars and others, including Billy Bear, Farmer Al Falfa, Little Roquefort and Sidney the Elephant, remain nostalgic memories for children of all ages.
Dwarfed by the impact of Disney, the work of Terry and his studios has not been given its due, said Eli Bauer, a former Terrytoons employee, and others who are planning this event. Which is the reason behind the celebration.
Doug Crane of New Rochelle, a former Terrytoons animator, agreed. “If we don’t do it now, the history of Terrytoons will be lost and people will forget it was ever in New Rochelle,” he said, just as they have forgotten that the West Side of New Rochelle was a movie production area in the ‘20s.
Descriptions of the days at Terrytoons are a series of name-dropping sessions. Comedian Dayton Allen was the voice of Heckle and Jeckle, as well as Deputy Dawg, and Dick Van Dyke did Barker Bill. There are remembrances by Bauer of visits to the studio by Jonathan Winters and Carl Reiner , who brainstormed gag ideas and also did voice-overs.
Bauer and Jules Feiffer worked desk to desk. Feiffer “knew that he would go on,” said Bauer. His time at Terrytoons “was part of his growth period” during which he was doing “Sick, Sick. Sick” for the Village Voice and working on a book of the same title.
Bill Tytla, who animated a “Night on Bald Mountain” for Disney’s “Fantasia,” started at Terry. As did Ralph Bakshi (creator of “Fritz the Cat,” “Heavy Traffic” and “Lord of the Rings) when he was just a “young kid.”
Bauer’s wife, Dianne, remembered studio employees working closely together. “This one would say ‘How about a wartime character?’ and somebody else would say ‘Right, he could be a Minute Man,’ with a third saying ‘How about a Minute-and-a-half Man because he’s always late.’ And as they pitched the story they would use different voices. The head of the story department was Tommy Morrison, now deceased, who was the voice of Mighty Mouse,” she said.
Everyone connected with Terrytoons depicted it as a spawning ground for talent throughout the animation industry with alumni going off to Disney, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation and other studios.
Crane, an animator, recalled Terry as “a tough old codger. A businessman, not an artist, who was smart enough to hire the right guys. The right guys, according to Crane, were Connie Rasinski and Artie Bartsch, both deceased, plus Johnny “Gent” Gentilella and Larry Silverman. “When I walked in there I was fascinated by the smell of the paint... I could see Connie from my desk and I thought he was cracking up. He would do a little action, look in the mirror and sit down and animate,” said Crane.
On Thursday nights Rasinski would teach animation to fledgling artists at Terrytoons and that was how a whole generation of animators learned its craft. “It’s a tough business trying to make these things move right,” Crane said. “Disney wasn't the only one who did animation,” he emphasized.
“I think that Terry gave to the world a lot of smiles in bad times and he was there for a long time. If a man does nothing but lift your spirits when you're down he’s done a great thing.”
For while Terry was the first to acknowledge that Disney was the “Tiffany's in this business” and he “the Woolworth’s,” Terrytoons was a pioneer in the field of animation and created characters that are still popular today.
With a background in newspaper art, the California-native came East in 1911, worked for the New York Press and also drew a comic strip called Alonzo. On the side, using a secondhand camera, Terry began developing techniques for animation.
“At one time he devised an early matte system in which the background would be photographed separately and then the characters and action sandwiched together to make a print. His first film was animated on paper with the background overlaid on a cel (clear acetate sheet),” said Leonard Maltin in his book “Of Mice and Magic.”
Terry sold his first animated film “Little Herman” to Thanhouser, a New Rochelle-based film company, but not before screening it for some neighbourhood youngsters in the company’s projection room. There he learned a valuable lesson.
He learned that cartoons were for “kids.”
According to Maltin, Terry said, “When they ran the picture, these kids began to squeal. And that tipped me off to the idea to draw things that would appeal to kids; because if they laughed at it, the adults wouldn’t have to know if it was funny, or whether it wasn’t, because kids’ laughter is so infectious. I decided right then and there, you make pictures for kids.”
Which he did. First as the creator of Farmer Al Falfa as a staff animator for John R. Bray and then as initiator of a series of animated cartoons based on Aesop’s Fables for Howard Estabrook. After an interruption for Army service in 1917, Terry was associated with Fables Studio, Van Beuren Productions and in various partnerships.
Terry and the late Frank H. Moser formed a partnership in 1929 with $500 in capital. They worked together until 1935, when following the studio’s move from New York City to 271 North Ave., New Rochelle, Terry bought out Moser for $24,200. A year later Moser initiated a lawsuit against Terry claiming “fraud,” but lost. The remaining firm, known as Terrytoons, moved to 38 Centre Ave. in 1949.
Terry, who lived in Larchmont until his death in 1971, headed the firm until 1956 when the studio was sold to CBS. Terrytoons closed its doors for good in the early ‘70s and its film library remains in the hands of Viacom.
“We knew we were part of a mass market,” said Bauer, who was with the studio from 1957-62 during its CBS era. In those days the studio produced 12 new cartoons a year and re-released 12 from their film library, generating a considerable output annually.
“We considered ourselves visual writers,” said Bauer, who worked as a story layout and design staffer. “We started a cartoon with a series of gags and then added the dialogue, unless the gag itself had to do with the dialogue. There’d generally be a conflict (between the characters) and that would involve a series of gags.”
The early days attracted many young and eager artists, writers and aspiring animators to the studio’s doorstep. They included the late Tommy Morrison, whose mother worked at the studio and is now celebrating her 102nd birthday in New Rochelle, and the late Philip A. Scheib; as well as Jack Zander and Joe Barbera. William Weiss was in charge of the business end as executive producer and was assisted for many years by Nicholas Alberti.
When CBS took over, Gene Deitch brought in a new crew of young talent which featured Bauer, Doug Crane, Al Kouzel, Ernest Pintoff, Howard Beckerman, Paul Terry still at work years later and Tod Dockstader. The outfit also included future super-stars Feiffer and Bakshi. Looking back, Crane recently asked, “Wasn’t it a thrill when you watched those films when Mighty Mouse came to the rescue? We thrilled and cheered. We knew he’d come through.”
And now this retrospective is coming through to ensure Terrytoons’ place in history.
JACQUELINE PERELSON is Lifestyles Editor of The Standard-Star, New Rochelle.

If I had to pick a favourite Terry series, it’s pretty easy. It’d be Heckle and Jeckle, with Tom Terrific in second spot. The two lippy con artists are very much in the Warners vein, though they’re not as creative verbally as Bugs and Daffy and the direction isn’t on par with Chuck Jones and his poses or Friz Freleng with his impeccable timing. Still, the chase formula works as it keeps the pace of the cartoon going, the action can get creatively silly and, occasionally, the stars are victimised in twist endings and come out losers. Here’s “Bulldozing the Bull” (1950). As far as I know, this is the only cartoon where the two magpies identify themselves. The animation of the pair of them walking in the stadium looks like Carlo Vinci’s work to me, if I had to guess.


  1. As Maltin noted in his book, it was the sheer repetition of the same stories -- combined with the weak one-shot characters and Terry's desire to gear the cartoons towards younger viewers -- that hurt the studio's reputation as much as the limited animation budgets. You just couldn't remember one Terrytoon from another, and there was rarely attempt at irony or even a hint at targeting the shorts towards older movie-goers until Deitch arrived.

    At least the Heckle and Jeckle efforts allowed for some bite to the gags, and really the ones done by Connie Rasinski with Jim Tyer animation have an overall silly feel to them as if the crew's not just going through the motions and actually is enjoying their work (which was a major reason for the success of the West Coast cartoons of the same period).

  2. Strangely, this article implies that Paul Terry worked for Gene Deitch! It also states that Dick Van Dyke did the voice of Barker Bill! Bill's first cartoon was "Happy Circus Days", and whoever did the narration for the Terrytoons of the early 1940s, did Bill's voice. Mark Kausler

  3. At Bajus-Jones in Minneapolis in the mid 80's, I was Al Chiarito's key assistant. He started at Terrytoons before the Korean War in 1949,first as a cel washer(where everyone started) and then up to assistant until he was drafted. When he returned from the war he enrolled in the Art Stundent's League under the GI Bill but was kicked out after three days when they found he had worked as a professional artist at Terrytoons. Without anywhere else to turn, Al went back to Terrytones and quickly moved up to animator and worked as an animator until it closed in the middle 60's. He was there when the studio closed co-directing and co-animating the final Terrtoon offering "Messed -Up Movie Makers (1966). Along with many Terrytoon animators, Al supplimented his Terrytone income with working on the Terrytoon Comic books and various TV commercials being done in New York. He moved to Minnesota in 1982 and worked at Bajus Jones until 1987. He moved back east in 1988 an freelanced on many projects including Tinytoon Adventures and Animaniacs for me while I was a Director at Startoons in the early 19990's. Al pasted away in 1997.

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