Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rollin "Ham" Hamilton's 110th Birthday!

Rollin Clare* Hamilton was born 110 years ago today in South Dakota. His parents were William Clarence Hamilton and the former Ella Stevens, both natives of Iowa.

Two years earlier his older brother, Louis had been born in Iowa, but shortly after that, the young family was on the move to South Dakota where William worked as a druggist. His work had the family on the move every few years throughout the area.

In the first two decades of the new century they lived in Edgeley, Grafton and Grand Forks, North Dakota as well as Casper, Wyoming.
In 1906 the family grew once again when they welcomed Irene Martha. By 1922 the family had made the move to Los Angeles, California.

In February, 1924, the twenty-five year old Hamilton was the first outside animator hired at the Disney Bros. Studio. He immediately began working on what would be the fifth of the Alice Comedies, Alice's Spooky Adventure. Later in 1924 Disney hired his younger sister Irene as an inker.

Rollin would remain animating with Disney throughout the remaining Alice shorts and all of the Oswald The Lucky Rabbit cartoons until early May 1928 when he was among those who exited the studio when Charles Mintz took over physical production of the Oswald cartoons.

Mintz, with the studio headed by his brother-in-law George Winkler would only produce the Oswalds for about a year. In April 1929 Universal who distributed the shorts and owned the character took over production themselves. Their new cartoon studio was on the lot and run by New York transplant, Walter Lantz.

Hamilton, who had become close with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising during the years they spent together at Disney's and the Winkler studio, joined them when they struck out on their own after earlier failed attempts. Success came when they sold the idea of a cartoon series to Warner Bros. The series, starring a new character Bosko, would be produced by Leon Schlesinger.

Rollin stayed animating for the Warner Bros. cartoons even after Harman and Ising ended their production of the shorts a few years later. Schlesinger took over and physical production was moved to a Looney Tunes studio on a corner of Warner Bros. Sunset Blvd. lot.

Hamilton's last known credits were on some Looney Tunes shorts directed by Tex Avery in 1938.

On June 1, 1952 Rollin Hamilton suffered a heart attack and passed away two days later at the age of fifty-two. He was laid to rest at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

* Most records have his middle name spelled as "Clare," but has also been found listed as "Claire."

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Tyrus Wong is 98 today!

I just wanted to point out that a major force responsible for the look of Disney's Bambi celebrates his birthday today. He was born in China and moved with his father to Southern California before he was ten years old.

An accomplished artist, he was an art director for live action films for the greater part of his career. Wong also worked designing greeting cards for a time as well.

In recent years he can be found on the beach in Santa Monica the fourth Saturday of most any month flying his amazing handmade kites. He is generally accompanied by a crowd of family and friends. The photo at right was taken two years ago on his birthday weekend kite flying trip.

He didn't seem to have made it there this weekend.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sound Finds Steamboat Willie

Eighty years ago today Walt Disney supervised the recording of the soundtrack for the Mickey Mouse short, Steamboat Willie. The recording took place in New York City under the baton of conductor Carl Edouarde.

Today is the anniversary of the successful second recording. The first had occurred two weeks earlier in a late-night session the result of which would ultimately be deemed unusable.

The recording system used was Pat Powers' Cinephone System. Cinephone was a not-so-subtle copy of the Phonofilm system that had been developed by Lee DeForest.

Steamboat Willie would premiere to the world six weeks hence at the Colony Theater in New York. This sound cartoon would go on to solidify Mickey Mouse in the popular culture and boost the fortunes of Walt Disney and his studio.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Century Birthday - Mel Blanc

The legendary Man of 1000 Voices was born 100 years ago today. Mel Blanc was born Melvin Jerome Blank to Frederick and Eva (Katz) Blank in San Francisco, California. Mel arrived four years after an older brother, Henry Charles.

By 1910 the family was living comfortably at 3332 Twenty First Street* in the Mission District of San Francisco and for at least a while there, they had a live-in servant. The two story house still stands today having survived the past 108 years, including 1906 when the Great Quake and subsequent fire leveled much of the city.

Shortly after Mel turned six, the family had moved to Portland, Oregon. For a few years the family made their home at 225-1/2 Sherman Street. By 1920 they has moved to another home at 543 SW Fifth Avenue. A decade later April of 1930 they would be listed next door at 541
. While growing up Mel developed a good singing voice and he also learned the violin. After he graduated from Lincoln High school he found work at the local radio station KGW as whatever was needed; singer, announcer, musician. He would eventually become part of the station's orchestra, though at this point playing the tuba. He moved for a brief time back to San Francisco when he found work with the much larger KPO radio orchestra. In 1930 he was offered the job of pit conductor at the Orpheum Theater back in Portland. Mel jumped at the opportunity.

During this period however, the vaudeville circuit was beginning to cool down with most of the major acts migrating to radio. Mel would soon find himself working in radio, and again back in San Francisco at station KGO. He was emcee of "The Road Show," a variety program, but the position also afforded him the chance to do a fair amount of acting -- often using his growing library of different dialects. In 1932 he succumbed to his urge to seek his fortunes in Hollywood and he soon packed his car and headed south.


I have several sources that confirm the family at this address from 1910 through late 1914. Mel specifically noted in his wonderful 1988 autobiography, That's Not All Folks! that they lived at Bush and Divisadero streets; where they may have been prior to 1910.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Century Birthday - Joe Grant

Disney artist Joe Grant was born a century ago today in New York City. His parents Eva and George Albert Grant made their home at at 611 W. 136th Street in Manhattan, where George worked as an art director at the New York Journal. Eva was a native New Yorker whose parents immigrated from Russia and George arrived with his parents from Poland (or Russia) at the age of five and settled in Philadelphia.

Joseph Clarence Grant* was born in the spring of 1908 and before he was three years old, the family had relocated to Los Angeles when his father was hired as art director on the Los Angeles Examiner. After a couple years they had returned to New York and soon Joe was joined by a sister, Geraldine.

For Eva and the children the bounce from Los Angeles and back to New York would be repeated over the years as George had issues with alcohol and frequently lived apart from his wife and children, even when they were in the same city.

When he was ten, Joe, Geraldine and their mother were back in Los Angeles living with her father, Abe Green. Two years later they had returned to New York, but lived with aunt Sophia, (his mother's sister) at 105 113th Street. His father was a short walk away on 110th Street. By the time he was in high school in 1924 they had returned to Los Angeles where they lived at #28 Avenue 24 in Venice, just a few doors from the beach.

Following high school, Joe would further his art studies at Chouinard near downtown Los Angeles, where a decade later he would return as an instructor. He soon after got a job as an artist for the Los Angeles Record (with a little help from his father) and in a short time he was asked to create caricatures for the paper's Drama section. His illustrations here would eventually catch the eye of Walt Disney. The newspaper clipping at left is an example of Joe's caricature work for the L.A. Record in August, 1932.
(click for a larger view)

In 1929 Joe had married and was living at 1224 S. Norton Avenue. A year later they had moved up the street to 1337½ S. Norton Avenue.

He was hired at the Disney Studio in 1933 based partly on his ability to caricature celebrities -- a talent needed for Mickey's Gala Premiere, a short being made at the time. Pictured here is an early gag drawing he drew later that year for the Silly Symphonies short, Funny Little Bunnies. In time he would come to head the Character Model Department at the studio.

By the mid 1930s Grant had moved to 4930 La Roda Avenue** near Eagle Rock, a much shorter drive to the Hyperion Avenue studio.

By 1938 Jennie and Joe had settled in the Verdugo Woodlands neighborhood above Glendale. The house at 1346 Opechee Way would be home they would share for more than half a century. They would raise their two daughters, Carol and Joann in this house.

Grant's first association with the Disney Studio ended in 1949 when the Character Model Department was broken up. He would return to work at the studio in the late 1980s. In the four decades in between Joe continued his artwork and formed Castle Ltd. (for the creation of greeting cards) and along with his wife, Opechee Designs a ceramics studio. Some of the tiles he created are shown below***.
Sadly, his wife Jennie passed away in June, 1991

Joe passed away on May 6, 2005 in his studio doing what he loved. He was a few days shy of his 97th birthday.

* When I asked Joe what the "C" in his name stood for he laughed and said Clarence, and he added that it was the kind of name that could get you beat up when you're a kid!

** In the 1935 city directory he is listed at 3950 La Roda -- an address that today doesn't exist. The addresses may have been re-numbered that year, in which case it is probably the same house.

*** The artwork for the tiles is owned by the estate of Joe Grant [Jennifer Grant-Castrup]
Tiles shown are from the collection of the author.