Tuesday, March 27, 2012

When I was on TV

I didn't grow up watching "Romper Room" or "Captain Kangaroo" or Mr. Rogers. Instead, when I was a kid I watched a couple of guys named Harvey and Cannonball who had a local weekday morning show called "Hotel Balderdash" and showed Looney Toons cartoons. As well as I can recall, there wasn't much to it really: Harvey was tall and thin and Cannonball was short and round, there were some jokes and pranks, sometimes there was a creepy guy called Raymond (who was often the butt of the jokes), and they'd have a group of kids trying to win a bag of toys and candy by guessing a number, but mostly they showed a bunch of cartoons. It must have been pretty low-budget, but that's what I watched while eating breakfast and getting ready for school. (Yes, I can just hear some of my friends saying "oh, that explains a lot about John.")

I'm not sure how Living Life inside the Lines: Tales from the Golden Age of Animation made it onto my to-be-read list, but it sat there for several years before I finally got around to reading it. Martha Sigall spent over 50 years working for different animation companies in Los Angeles and Hollywood, mostly as an "inker" or "painter." As she explains it, the producers and directors would come up with the storylines and gags for the cartoons and the animators would draw it out. Then the "in-betweeners" would draw all the in-between frames that gave motion to the cartoons. All these drawings had to be inked onto transparent sheets of celluloid ("cels"), and finally they were colored in by the painters. These cels would typically be layered up to four thick on top of a background with each layer having different parts of the scene - maybe even just the eyes of a character while the underlying parts didn't move. When each frame was assembled it would be photographed and all the pictures would be put together into the film. It's a little more complicated than that, but more than I ever would have guessed when I was seven or eight years old!

Mrs. Sigall tells of the people she was able to work with, some names you might recognize, although you'd more likely recognize their creations: Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Speedy Gonzales, Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, Tom & Jerry, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang, etc - basically all the cartoons except Disney. It's kind of interesting and has the feel of hearing your grandmother tell stories about her life, except this is someone else’s grandmother and you just happen to have fond memories of the cartoons. It's not the kind of book I'd recommend unless you have a specific interest in the history of animation and I ended up skimming over some parts. But still - kind of interesting.

And my cub scout troop was even on "Hotel Balderdash" one morning and it's really weird to see yourself on television when you're a kid, but it makes you a minor elementary school celebrity for a day or two. I guess we shouldn't have been surprised when the kid who won the goodie bag was the den mother's son... but we were. I think I might even still carry the tiniest grudge.

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