Al Kilgore and Bullwinkle

The late cartoonist Al Kilgore is perhaps best remembered for being a founding member and guiding spirit of The Sons of the Desert, the Laurel and Hardy appreciation society. (He named the group and designed its delightful escutcheon.) But from 1962 to 1965 or thereabouts, he did something at least as interesting–he drew the unsuccessful, little-remembered Bullwinkle newspaper strip.

From what I’ve seen of the strip–which isn’t all that much–it deserves to have been successful and well-remembered. Kilgore’s work was simultaneously very true to the Ward sensibility and had its own distinctive personality; Mark Kausler has said that his drawings of the Bullwinkle characters were the best ones ever done, and I tend to agree.

Kilgore didn’t live to a ripe old age, and most of the non-Bullwinkle work he did that I know of is even more obscure, and less worthy of his skills. Which is a shame, since he was clearly a very talented guy.

Anyhow, I’m tickled to report that I recently bought something I’d never seen for sale before–a Kilgore Bullwinkle original. And one that shows Bullwinkle lounging about with Liz Taylor, no less. Here it is for your enjoyment–in both small, horizontal form and an oversized vertical one that shows off Kilgore’s penwork to better advantage. Amazingly enough, I haven’t located a single other example of Kilgore Bullwinkle on the Web.

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RIP, Thurl Ravenscroft

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I’ve never been a big fan of shills, but I loved Tony the Tiger even though I also didn’t care for the cereal he hawked. And I was probably responding mostly to Thurl Ravenscroft’s voice–so deep, so kind, so trustworthy-sounding. He not only sang with a group called the Mellomen; he was, himself, a mellow man. Or so he always sounded.

Over the past thirty years, I’ve kept discovering that voice in new places–on TV, in movies, on records, and even in amusement parks. And since it showed up so often, over something like seventy years, I expect to keep being pleasantly surprised by it for a long time to come.

Side note: Is Thurl Ravenscroft the single best name of all time? And does anyone know if his given name was, in fact, Thurl Ravenscroft?

The Parrot Dresser

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In the very, very early days of David Letterman’s NBC Late Night show, I watched it nearly every night. Letterman’s choices of guests were far more ideosyncratic than they’d later become, and he repeatedly had on a middle-aged woman named Alba Ballad, who dressed her pet parrots in themed, hand-made costumes. Alba was charming, the parrots didn’t seem to mind, and it was, all in all, one of the most peculiar things I’d ever seen.

I haven’t spent all that much time thinking about Alba Ballard and her parrots in the last two decades, but they’ve always been in lodged in my consciousness somewhere. And today, I was unexpectly reunited with them–thanks to Arne Svenson’s new book Mrs. Ballard and Her Parrots, which collects Mr. Ballard’s vintage photographs of his wife’s pets. (Just to make this strange tale a little stranger still, the photos were discovered in Elizabeth Taylor’s Swiss home.)

Mrs. Ballard (who also contributed garbed birds to a memorable Saturday Night Live film) liked to dress the parrots as celebrities and place them in pop-culture tableaus–the book includes tributes to Dean Martin (with Barbie-type dolls serving as the Golddiggers), Red Skelton (as Freddie the Freeloader), Easy Rider, and numerorous other entertainments circa the late 1960s/early 1970s. You can get a free online taste of all this courtesy of this New York Times slideshow.

Until now, you could have convinced me that I was the only one who found Alba Ballard’s work fascinating, and I felt a little guilty that I did, since I suspected it had something to do with the fact that birds creep me out; if dressing them was a form of cruelty to animals, I could live with it. (Conversely, I like dogs but dislike William Wegman’s vaguely Ballardesque staged photos of them.) It’s nice to know that someone else remembers her (she died in 1994),and that her work will live on…at least as long as this book is in print.

Scrappyland Recap

Well, what can I say? Jerry Beck’s ASIFA-Hollywood Scrappyland event at the AFI in Hollywood, which took place last Saturday afternoon, was a joy. We may not have had a full house, but the attendees (which included animation-history notables such as Mark Kausler, Milton Gray, Will Ryan, David Gerstein, Ray Poynter, Jere Guildin, Earl Kress, Art Binninger, Larry Loc, and others) packed the room with cartoon knowledge. Dr. Richard Huemer was there to give a warm and funny talk about his dad, Scrappy, George Winkler, and other matters. Our costume contest had only one entrant, but she was a doozy (see below). And after a few words about Scrappy animator Ed Friedman, who had died the day before, Jerry showed us a historic program of Scrappy cartoons.

The lineup of cartoons wadn’t a truly definitive Scrappy retrospective–which would have to include shorts like Let’s Ring Doorbells and The Puppet Murder Case–but it was a splendid selection that included some astonishingly rare examples. I’d only seen two of them before myself. And most of the 35mm restored prints were razor-sharp. (Surprised to hear that Columbia has been restoring Scrappy cartoons? So were we–we have David Gerstein to thank for discovering this fact.)

Here’s what we saw, courtesy of Columbia Pictures (thanks, Mike Schlesinger!) and UCLA:

Sunday Clothes (1931–the third Scrappy cartoon): Scrappy, in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, tries to get to Sunday school. A gag involving a bully building a battering ram by gluing small children together seems weird and disturbing until it’s outdone by a later sequence involving dogs forming themselves into a daisychained canine bridge by sucking on each others’ tails.

The Dog Snatcher (1931): Scrappy, in trying to spring Yippy from prison, kills a dog and dons his skin as a disguise.

Showing Off (1931): Most notable–as far as I’m concerned, anyhow–as the film that David Gerstein analyzed on his pop music page, this short is one of the relatively few in the series to feature Margie. She snubs Scrappy, and eventually pays the price by having her panties set accidentally on fire.

Railroad Wretch (1932): Some misguided soul has allowed Scrappy and Oopy to operate a railroad train. This film’s Peckinpah-like violence–Scrappy spends much of it punching Oopy in the face–provoked audible gasps from the audience.

Fare-Play (1932): An Oopy solo short, unseen in 73 years! Oopy sells lemonade at a fair; when a drunk spikes it, everyone gets sozzled–including Oopy.

The Flop House (1932): One of the most 1930s-ish films to come out of the 1930s. Scrappy operates a home for transient animals. Appalling and funny.

Scrappy’s Party (1933): Scrappy and Oopy throw a party for Scrappy’s birthday. After setting the table and lighting the cake, they invite their friends–including seemingly every 1930s celebrity from Gandhi to Garbo.

The Beer Parade (1933): Unseen in 72 years! Scrappy and Oopy get elves drunk and battle Old Man Prohibition. Probably the greatest cartoon ever made about beer and children.

Scrappy’s Puppet Theater (1936): A short animated/live-action promotional film for the Scrappy Puppet Theater giveaway, which must have been the best-promoted giveaway of its time. Scrappy, in creepily limited and exaggerated animation, introduces child star Edith Fellows (who couldn’t attend Scrappyland, but sent her regards). Edith shows how the puppet Scrappy can fight with the puppet Chinaman. This short was preserved thanks to a donation by Jerry Beck himself.

In My Gondola (1936): A sumptuous but not-very-entertaining Color Rhapsody. The better the production values in a Scrappy cartoon, the less entertaining it tends to be.

Merry Mutineers (1936): Another so-so Color Rhapsody with an inexplicable conceit: Scrappy and Oopy operate toy pirate ships manned by Lilliputian versions of 1930s celebrities.

Is Scrappy funny? Are his films worth rediscovering? The crowd at the show may have been biased, but they seemed to think so: Laughter was plentiful, and I got the feeling that the crowd was frequently surprised by the sheer visual imagination of these cartoons. And they seemed to want more–I heard more than one attendee ask Jerry about a Scrappyland II event.

Finally, some photos from the bash…

This way to Scrappyland:

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I’d say that the array of Scrappy items on display was impressive, except most of it came from my collection, so that would be bragging. I was startled to find not one but two Scrappy lamps in operation (one of mine, one belonging to David Bastian); I’d never had the courage to plug mine in.

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Dr. Richard Huemer:

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Jerry Beck interviews Dr. Huemer:

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The crowd for the panel was an impressive assemblage of animation notables, brought together by their love (or at least grudging tolerance) of Scrappy. From left, Larry Loc, Ray Pointer, Raven Loc (who won multiple prizes for her amazing monochromatic Margie costume), Milton Gray, and David Gerstein.

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Me and a Scrappy movie strip, drawn by Dick Huemer and beautifully colored by a former owner:

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Dr. Huemer with animator/historian Mark Kausler:

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