Butler Institute goes Looney Tunes

More than 160 drawings, paintings, celluloids and objects used to make the
cartoons will be displayed.



YOUNGSTOWN — If you visit the Butler Art Museum in the coming weeks, don’t be surprised when you think you see a “puddy tat.”

An exhibit featuring Sylvester, Tweety and all the other wacky characters of the Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons is coming to Youngstown.

Titled “That’s All Folks! The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons,” the exhibit opens Friday in the Butler’s second floor MacIntosh Gallery, and Butler Director Louis Zona predicts it will be loads of fun.

“Children and adults are going to love it,” Zona said. “This exhibit will have a sense of playfulness that will appeal to the kid in all of us.”

Sufferin’ succotash! Ain’t that the truth!

From Yosemite Sam’s bow-legged swagger to Porky Pig’s bumbling stutter, the Looney Tunes cartoon characters have conquered the solemnest of funny bones and earned a beloved place in American pop culture.

Now area residents can get a closer look at the artistic process that went into creating these unforgettable cartoon personalities.

“That’s All Folks! The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons” features more than 160 original drawings, paintings, celluloids and objects used to make the classic cartoons from 1930 through 1969.

The exhibit runs through May 18, and Zona said it has a special significance for the Mahoning Valley.

“It will be wonderful for the community, especially since the Warner brothers have ties to Youngstown and New Castle,” he said.

The legendary Warner brothers — Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack — were the sons of Polish-Jewish immigrants and lived in Youngstown during the early 1900s.

They worked a variety of odd jobs here before acquiring a movie camera and getting into the theater business.

The brothers were big-time, Hollywood showbusinessmen by the time Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes were born around 1930.

The cartoons originated when Disney produced a series of musical cartoons for Leon Schlesinger, who sold the shorts to Warner Bros.

(Shorts were six- to seven-minute cartoons played in theaters after the feature film.)

When Disney broke away from Schlesinger in 1933, Schlesinger started his own studio with Warner Bros. and hired talented animators including Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and Fritz Freleng.

The rest is history.

These ingenious fellows took cartoons to a new level with biting wit, outrageous zaniness and adult satire.

“Disney was making cartoons that were all about fairy tales and happy endings, but these guys were making edgy, in-your-face cartoons with humor that adults could appreciate,” Zona explained.

Kathy Earnhart, director of public relations at the Butler, said Jones, Clampett, Avery and Freleng had reputations as being wildly creative and just plain crazy.

“These guys had an animation studio on the Warner back lot nicknamed ‘Termite Terrace,’ and they were just completely nuts,” Earnhart said. “They were always playing pranks and doing crazy things, but they were also immensely talented. You can get an idea of what terrific draftsmen they were just by looking at some of the original sketches included in this exhibit. The lines are so precise and effortless.”

The cartoon sketches do indeed spring to life on the page.

A simple series of pencil drawings of Daffy Duck, for example, conveys movement and personality.

In the margins are notes about color specification and character catch phrases.

An observer gets the sense that here, in simple black and white, is the clever birth of an American icon.

One also gets the sense that cartoon creation was a rather lengthy process.

“This exhibit gives you an idea of how time consuming it was to create a cartoon before modern computer animation,” Zona said. “As many as 200 people might work on a single feature, and it could take months or a year to produce one. [Jones, Clampett, Avery and Freleng] created these original characters, but they had hundreds of artists working for them doing drawing and coloring in. In our digital world, cartoons just aren’t made like this anymore.”

Some of the items most unique to the time period are the exhibit’s celluloids, also known as “cels.”

To superimpose the animated characters on the backgrounds, drawings were copied onto transparent sheets of celluloid or plastic. To achieve completely even colors when viewed from the front, the lines were traced in ink, and the colors were filled in on the reverse side.

“Cels were seen in the finished films, and people love the brilliant colors,” Zona explained. “They are highly collectible and valuable.”

Perhaps the most priceless thing about the exhibit, however, is the childhood memory it will stir for Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes fans.

“Many people will recall cartoons they haven’t thought about in a while,” said Earnhart. “People of all ages grew up watching these.”

Fans will be happy to know that nearly every Merrie Melodie and Looney Tune personality seems to be represented in the exhibit.

There’s the loudmouthed Southern Rooster, Foghorn Leghorn; the amorous French skunk, Pepe Le Pew; the lightning-fast Mexican mouse, Speedy Gonzales; and of course, the eternal adversaries, Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.

They’re all here in brash, brilliant color just a few steps away from the Butler’s most sophisticated pieces of fine art.

But this exhibit, of course, is art in its own right, and it has the track record to prove it.

“That’s All Folks! The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons” was originally seen at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1985 and has been traveling across the United States and Europe for about 20 years.

Steve Schneider, curator and owner of one of the world’s largest private collections of Warner Brothers cartoon art, said he obtained the exhibit from other collectors, dealers, galleries and auctions.

“This has been a labor of love for nearly 30 years,” Schneider said, “with the goal of trying to build some kind of archive or repository where artifacts from the great Warner cartoons could be preserved and made available to future scholars, fans and other Looney Tunesmiths.” 

Schneider, who also authored the book “That’s All Folks! The Art of Warner Bros. Animation,” said he is “tickled” to see the exhibit in Youngstown.

“Bugs will get a chance to visit his great-great-grandparents,” he joked.

Zona and Earnhart are also tickled.

“It took a lot of persistence to get this exhibit here,” Zona said. “The brilliant style of drawing displayed here set a standard of excellence that inspires animation artists to this day.”

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