Category Archives: Cartooning

Freberg of Arabia

One of the true greats of comedy, Stan Freberg, has left us, leaving behind a unique legacy in cartoons, radio, records and television. Mark Evanier will surely have much to say about the passing of his lifelong idol and close friend. I have only one good Stan Freberg tale to tell, as told to Evanier over ten years ago, who passed it on to Freberg and the amazing June Foray who is, thankfully, still with us.

passportIn February 1989, at the height of the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses”, I took a month-long business trip to Saudi Arabia. At right is a picture of my passport from that time, that you can click to enlarge. As you can see, the visa was valid for only that one month. Told here is but one of many stories from that brief, intense visit to The Kingdom. Although it is intended to be somewhat humorous, the events of September 11, 2001 remind me there was nothing amusing about it while it was happening. After a flight from Boston to Frankfurt, West Germany (the Berlin Wall’s collapse was months away), I caught a few hours of sleep at an airport hotel, then boarded a plane for Riyadh. During the flight, the passengers were reminded repeatedly by the flight attendants about the strict laws in Saudi Arabia. We were strongly urged to have absolutely nothing questionable, especially drugs, in our luggage or on our person when we went through Customs. We were assured that punishment would be swift and severe.

saudi-desert

frebookPacking for the trip, I had considered carefully what to take with me, especially reading material, as censorship is the norm in Saudi Arabia. For example, foreign magazines are available, but many pictures and passages are blacked-out. (They must go through a lot of indelible markers over there.) After a couple of weeks reading stories in an English-language Arab newspaper that made no mention of the death sentence issued from Iran against Salman Rushdie, I finally found an item in the European edition of Business Week the censors had missed. Anyway, after a lot of thought, the books I chose to take along on the trip were “Great Expectations”, by Charles Dickens, and “It Only Hurts When I Laugh”, the autobiography by the brilliant humorist-satirist-singer-songwriter-voice artist Stan Freberg. I took the Dickens book along because I’d put off reading it for a long time, while Freberg went to Arabia for precisely the opposite reason — I couldn’t wait to read him. (If you buy Stan’s must-have CD box set, “Tip of the Freberg”, you’ll know why I couldn’t wait.)

frecastToday I feel lucky to have my copy of “It Only Hurts When I Laugh”, because there was a minute or two at the airport in Riyadh when it seemed likely it was going to be confiscated. Click the thumbnail picture on the right to enlarge it. See how the spine of the book is broken? I didn’t do that while scanning the picture. The damage was done during Customs Inspection. Much has been made about tough airport security in Israel, but I’d be surprised if it’s any tighter than in Saudi Arabia. They go through everything, quite thoroughly. Waiting my turn in line, eventually I was called by a Customs Agent to step forward with my luggage. After going through all of my personal effects, the Customs Agent picked up the Dickens book, which had no pictures, and he flipped through the pages. Finding nothing that interested him, he turned his attention to the cover of the Freberg book. He frowned. Perhaps he was just imitating the scowl on Stan’s face? The Customs Agent started going through the book carefully, concentrating on the two sections of photographs.

foray“Who is this?” he asked firmly, pointing to the picture of lovely, petite voice artist June Foray, wearing a dress that flattered her fabulous figure and showed most of her shoulders and arms. At least her ankles were covered with stockings. “Uh, that’s June Foray. She’s an actress,” I replied nervously, sounding I suppose like Jerry Mathers as the Beaver, trying to get out of a tight spot. The time didn’t seem right to explain the distinction between ‘actress’ and ‘voice artist.’ My wife may think I’m not very good at picking up on subtle social cues, but at that moment, surrounded by apparently humorless men armed with automatic weapons, I thought I was doing all right. Then it hit me — calling June an actress might have been a bad idea. Not knowing their attitude towards American actresses, I looked around the airport and saw that every woman was completely covered from head to toe. The official motioned to another security person to come over. Now I was getting worried. The second man took hold of the book, a brand-new 2nd-printing hardcover, and opened the pages so wide the spine went cra-a-ck. He’d have made a good chiropractor. They got excited. I didn’t know exactly what kind of excited, but they spoke to each other rapidly in Arabic while pointing at the picture. I figured they were either big June Foray fans, or it was the most risqué photo of a grown woman they had come across in years.

“This is your book?” the second man asked me. That seemed obvious, but answering obvious questions is routine when going through airport security. “Yes, it is,” I replied. “What is this book about?” he persisted. Wanting to avoid words such as satirist and humorist, I answered with something along the lines of, “It’s about this man,” pointing to Freberg in the picture, “who speaks on the radio.” The Customs Agent looked at me with Mike Wallace intensity and asked, “He reads the news on the radio?” Feeling like the emcee on the old game show “What’s My Line?,” I decided to take the hint, flip all the cards and declare him the winner. “Yes! Yes! He’s a radio newsman,” I agreed, with conviction in my voice (as a matter of fact, for a couple of years after college I made my living as a radio newsman). Those ‘Joe Friday’ hats Freberg and Daws Butler wore for the picture did make them look a little like Walter Winchell. This seemed to get me off the hook. He handed my Freberg book back to me and advised me sternly to, “Keep this book with you, do not give it to anyone and take it with you back to America.” I promised to do just that, and the proof is on this Web page. Although sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if I’d left Freberg in Arabia, so he could have found a new audience — an audience that might have benefited from his unique brand of intelligent, subversive humor.

Daws Butler, June Foray, Stan Freberg

Daws Butler, June Foray, Stan Freberg

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I spent a very hectic month in Saudi Arabia, working my tail off. Taking a 13-hour non-stop flight to New York, then catching a shuttle home to Boston, it fell really, really good to be back in America, the Land of the Freberg, and the Home of the Brave.

A Walt Disney Adventure in Art

It’s my opinion that Walt Disney is, so far and by far, the greatest CEO of all time. He wasn’t perfect and, yes, I know about the strike and his testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and, no, I don’t believe the exaggerated “dark side of Disney” allegations. The breadth of Disney’s accomplishments remains unmatched, and I feel that no other entrepreneur before or since has achieved his level independence, originality, and creativity.

Disney was supposedly uncomfortable being the host of his own TV series, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him explain how artists need to each develop their own style in order to be proficient at collaborating on creating art the Disney way. It’s interesting that Marc Davis’ rendering of the tree is the most conventional of the four paintings. Davis was primarily an animator, not a background artist.

Snoop-y Dog 2015

Christmas 2014

Santa came through once again with the latest box set of “The Complete Peanuts”. It’s been ten years since Fantagraphics began publishing the collection, and they’re now up through 1994, which means the next two-volume set will leave only 1999 and the nine strips from 2000 to be done. Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the final daily “Peanuts” installment.

"Peanuts" - January 3, 2000

“Peanuts” – January 3, 2000

Next Christmas will see the premiere of the first “Peanuts” animated feature in many years. It’s spear-headed (not block-headed!) by Craig Schulz, and I think the final look of the computer animation is very appealing. Here’s hoping the movie will do well in theaters and on video, so that the Peanuts gang — a perennial favorite in TV rerun ratings — will gather new generations of fans and continue to be popular when the characters are 100 years old, in 2050.

Rudolph the catalog reindeer

Who remembers that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Montgomery Ward, the now-defunct retailer/catalog competitor of the almost defunct Sears? Here is the first animated appearance of Rudolph, directed by Max Fleischer and beautifully restored, with its original music, and presented by the Library of Congress. Santa has the barrel-chested build of Popeye’s nemesis Bluto!

P.S. The LoC took the video down a day after posting it and I don’t know why. There is no possibility of a copyright issue, so I will assume the problem is technical.

P.P.S. I asked why the video was down, and as I had assumed…

Server problems! It’s back up now.

Mike Mashon

Head, Moving Image Section
Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation

P.P.P.S. A notorious, nit-picking Internet troll going by the handle “Denro,” but who is, in fact, Dennis F. Rogers of Massachusetts, has requested — nay, demanded — that the first sentence of this post be changed as follows.

“Who remembers that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward, the now-defunct retailer/catalog competitor of the almost defunct Sears?”

American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered

Starting this coming Tuesday, the PBS series American Masters is presenting “Bing Crosby Rediscovered”. Don’t miss it!

I was 22 when Crosby suddenly collapsed after playing golf in Spain on October 14, 1977. Bing sure seemed old to me at the time, but he was only 74. To put that into perspective, Ringo Starr is 74.

The day after Bing died, Denro and I were at the Boston Newcon comic book convention, interviewing the one and only Joe Sinnott, who was, at the time, starting work on inking the Silver Surfer graphic novel by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, released in 1978. Dennis asked Joe, addressing him as Mr. Sinnott, “What do you for enjoyment? To get away from comics?” Here is what Joe said, as recorded by me on October 15, 1977.

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We knew that Bing had died, so I wasn’t completely clueless and, yet, being the callow youth that I was, stupidly I asked, “So how do you feel about it?” Duh! The next day, October 16, would be Joe’s 51st birthday and, my goodness, how young he sounds in that recording.

I don’t know yet how much the American Masters documentary will ac-cen-tu-ate the positive. Gary Crosby’s memoir damaged Bing’s reputation as a father, but the multi-talented, multi-media Crosby remains an undeniably significant and pioneering figure in entertainment history. As I have pointed out in the past, Crosby was the first to see and exploit the potential of magnetic tape recording. A few months ago, someone working on the American Masters documentary spotted my posts and requested a photo for “Bing Crosby Rediscovered”, which I gladly provided. I can’t say for certain if the picture is in the final edit, but if you see it you’ll know where it came from.

Jack Mullin, Frank Healey, Wayne Johnson, Bing Crosby

Jack Mullin, Frank Healey, Wayne Johnson, Bing Crosby