Showing posts with label Popeye. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Popeye. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A quick chat with Gary Lucas on reviving the Fleischer Brothers cartoon music

by Mike Rhode

Gary Lucas, a New York musician, will be in town this weekend with his tribute to the Fleischer animation studio music heard in Popeye and Betty Boop shorts. His band Gary Lucas Fleischerei has just released a new album Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons from Silver Spring's Cuneiform Records. I've been given a copy of the album and it's a lively, fun interpretation of cartoon music that's not been revived nearly as often as either Disney's or Warner Brothers'.

I'm on jury duty this week, so I'm going to lift a couple of paragraphs from Cuneiform's press release. Original ComicsDC material resumes with a short interview after the italicized text. 

Gary Lucas is one of the great spelunkers of contemporary culture, a fearless explorer who delves into forgotten and overlooked crevices and returns bearing exquisite treasures. His latest project Music from Max Fleischer Cartoons is a particularly spectacular find, a gleaming confection from a hurly-burly era when the Jazz Age crashed into the Great Depression and Tin Pan Alley borrowed shamelessly from Harlem. A 2016 Cuneiform release, the album features songs from Fleischer Studios cartoons originally delivered by actress Mae Questel, who provided the voice and vocals for two beloved but very different characters: the eternally sexy Betty Boop and Popeye’s sometime ‘goilfriend’ Olive Oyl. Finding a singer who could capture the insouciant spirit of Mae Questel while comfortably inhabiting the material proved far more difficult. Lucas turned to his wife Caroline Sinclair, a New York City casting director, who said, “why don’t you let me cast this one?” “That was a good idea,” Lucas says. “Sarah Stiles is really a bundle of fire who can do it all. It was crucial to find a singer who wouldn’t try to hijack the idea and make it about her. We conceived this as a tribute to Mae Questel and the Fleischers. This is about trying to spread Fleischermania.” Part of what makes Stiles such a perfect fit for the material is the way she captures the spirit of the characters. It’s immediately obvious when she’s singing a song associated with the effervescent Ms. Boop and when she’s donning the slippery guise of Ms. Oyl. The album opens and closes with bits lifted from Fleischer productions.

“Fleischer’s animation has a gritty, funky urban sensibility that feeds right into R. Crumb,” Lucas says. “His cartoons had that Jewish and urban wiseguy sensibility. There’s a dark, black humor associated with Eastern European immigrants, and even though I’m from upstate, those are my roots. Betty Boop in particular embodies a knowing sophistication emanating out of Times Square, which was a node of melting pot culture where Broadway, Yiddish theater, and jazz all converged.”

Did you have to have the music transcribed from cartoons, or does written music for the cartoons still exist?

I transcribed and arranged the guitar parts by ear off the soundtracks; I'm not sure how Joe Fiedler who arranged the group parts did it that way, but he could have-- we both have very good ears. I really don't know if any of the cartoon music exists in their original arrangements as written music. It is possible it's filed somewhere, at for the stuff that the assembled studio bands cut in front of the cartoons being projected, photos exist of one of the main composers Sammy Timberg conducting one of these ensembles in a Fleischer cartoons recording session. Some of the music came from actual records of the day that the Fleischer's edited right onto their cartoon soundtracks--such as the "jungle jazz" instrumental tag on "Betty Boop's Penthouse" which FLEISCHEREI perform, which I recently learned comes off a 78 recording of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band entitled "Heat Waves." Perhaps the group re-cut it for the cartoon because it sounds slightly faster on the soundtrack, but, if so, they stuck to the identical arrangement. The connection with current Harlem recording acts is a natural as Mills Blue Rhythm Band were one of the regular ensembles at the Cotton Club uptown.  Paramount was the distributor of the cartoons - and as part of its arrangements with Fleischer Studios, the studio lent some of the artists in their catalog such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong to make cameo appearances in the Fleischer cartoons, which were filmed at Paramount Studios in Astoria, Queens. Sometimes these artists toured nationally in the same Paramount theaters that the Fleischer cartoons were screened in, with the cartoons themselves serving as advance publicity for the artist's live appearances.

Did you consider showing the cartoons behind you while you play, as is so popular with symphony orchestras?

Yes we do this, in a roughly synchronized way. As we improvise a lot unlike symphony orchestras it's not easy to always have the right clip on the screen behind us, but I don't think it matters much. It's more about capturing a flavor. We show the intact cartoons also as part of our show.

What did singer Sara Stiles really think when someone asked her to channel Betty Boop's voice?

That someone was I, and Sarah loves Betty Boop's voice. She has no problem channeling it. That is one reason I selected her as the singer.

How has the reception been so far for the tour/album?

We haven't really begun touring this yet. Reaction to the album has been extremely positive.
Do you know who the original composers are?

Yes, and they are duly noted in the booklet credits.

(And so they are. There's a variety of names with Sammy Timberg being credited the most with five songs)

Did you have a hard time convincing the other musicians to join you in this project, or is everyone just seeing it as a fun way to spend a few months?

Everyone in the group loves playing this music. They wouldn't be part of this otherwise.

How does the live audience react?

The reaction has been phenomenal - people love this project, they get off on hearing the music and they adore the cartoons.

Why do you think that Disney and Warner Bros. cartoon music has survived, and relatively prospered, while the Fleischers' was forgotten?

I don't think it was forgotten, I mean, come on - people all over the world know Sammy Lerner's "Popeye the Sailor Man" theme for instance. I just don't' think the music has been effectively  curated (until now!). 

What's your favorite Fleischer cartoon?

1930's "Swing You Singers"  - a surrealist classic.

Favorite animation overall?


I note Robert Crumb is mentioned in your press release; are you a Crumb fan? Have you seen him and his Cheap Suit Serenaders? Have you ever met him and talked music or cartoons?

Yes I love Crumb's work. I never did see his ensemble, although I did see his guitarist, the late Bob Brozman in action, I have never met Crumb alas - but I feel a kindred spirit there. I know he was a HUGE  fan of Max Fleischer!

We now go back to Mr. Lucas' website to round out this post.

Next up, the full swinging FLEISCHEREI 6-piece band will appear along with many classic Max Fleischer cartoons as a special event night at the Washington Jewish Film Festival on Sat. March 5th 8pm at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring Maryland.

Preview the tracks "The Broken Record" and "Ain'tcha" from the new FLEISCHEREI album—
and order the album now!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sunday Post has comics articles

I think the Post picked a censored cartoon - Betty Boop showing her breasts as she shows Popeye how to hula - to illustrate this article - "Hey, Sailor! 'Popeye' Is Back in Port: DVD Release of Classic 1930s Cartoons Spotlights an Animation Studio That Packed a Punch", By Matt Hurwitz, Special to The Washington Post, Sunday, July 29, 2007; N02.

and there's a sidebar on the voices - "Utter Genius: Voices That Call Out Still", Washington Post, Sunday, July 29, 2007; Page N02.

and, of all things, an appreciation of Isis, the superheroine that started on TV and migrated to a DC comic book: "Fly Like an Egyptian (Goddess): Superheroine From Mid-'70s TV Gets an Afterlife on DVD," by Jonathan Padget, Washington Post Staff Writer, Sunday, July 29, 2007; N03.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Wish You Were There #1 - Comics exhibit reviews 2000-2001

The following are reviews for DC exhibits from 2000-2001. They were originally published in the International Journal of Comic Art 3:1.

Blondie Gets Married! Comic Strip Drawings by Chic Young. Harry Katz and Sara Duke. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, June 22-September 16, 2000.

Herblock's History: Political Cartoons from the Crash to the Millennium. Harry Katz, Sara Duke, and Lucia Rather. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, October 17, 2000--February 17, 2001.

Al Hirschfeld, Beyond Broadway. David Leopold. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, November 9, 2000--March 31, 2001.

At the turn of the millennium, Harry Katz and Sara Duke continued to make the Library of Congress one of the premier spaces for the display of comic art. These three exhibits examined different aspects of comic art: comic strips, political cartoons, and caricature.

Blondie, beginning in 1930, has evolved with the comic strip. Early strips were large and had continuity, but by the 1972 strip in the show, the size had shrunk and Young made it a gag strip. The exhibit of 27 strips out of a donation of 150 had minimal labeling and was divided into typical tropes: naps, courtship, wedding, family, mailman, food, work, love, homemaking, and baths. Young used a delicate line in the 1930s, typical of some cartoonists of the era, that is a pleasure to see in the original. His 1931--1933 courtship and marriage strips were wildly popular during the Depression and Young's artwork conveys now a vivid sense of the time. In the 1938 Sunday dream strip, "We'll be back in a few hours," Young was playfully surrealistic while still drawing the pretty girls he was known for. While an exhibit devoted to original art, not commentary or history, needs few labels, an explanation of the blue penciling seen on many strips over the regular graphite pencil would be helpful; the blue was used to indicate where mechanical tones and shading needed to be added by the syndicate. "All quiet on the Bumstead's front!" from 1945 contained clear marginal instructions about the shading, and showed an interesting piece of comic history now that computers handle all such details. A good brochure was distributed at the show with articles by Duke and Young's daughter, and an electronic version of the exhibit can be seen at

Herbert "Herblock" Block has cartooned through nine decades, won three Pulitzer Prizes, and coined the word "McCarthyism." This exhibit was drawn from 119 cartoons that he gave to the Library. The show was mounted in a grand space on either side of the Jefferson Building's great hall on red, white, and blue panels. It was divided into roughly chronological sections except for overarching ones like "Herblock's Presidents." Herblock's masterly use of pencil, ink and crayon can be seen throughout the show, although correction overlays become more common and his latest work resembled collages. Seeing the evolution of Herblock's style and subjects over 70 years was fascinating. Although the exhibit was excellently done and displayed the breadth of his career, Block's work can be fairly easily seen in other media. He has published many collections of his work, and this exhibit has a short catalogue produced by the Library. One clever idea made this show especially interesting. The Library solicited caricatures of "Herblock by Other Cartoonists" and displayed them at the end of each panel. Fifteen colleagues like Mike Peters, Ann Telnaes, Jules Feiffer, Signe Wilkinson, and Mike Luckovich produced pointed, but obviously respectful, drawings of Block, frequently with his bete noire Richard Nixon. Katz, Duke, and Rather deserve credit for a truly fine exhibit.
The exhibit on Hirschfeld is somewhat problematic because it was designed to be. When faced with a career even longer than Herblock's, guest curator and Hirschfeld archivist David Leopold chose to focus not on Hirschfeld's well-known pen-and-ink entertainment caricatures, but rather on his other artistic pursuits. Exhibiting 24 pieces, many donated to the Library by the artist, Leopold produced a wide-ranging survey of works in all media, especially including some early art. The result was an interesting and ambitious show, but not a complete success since Hirschfeld's best work is his caricatures. Leopold included obscure material like drawings of North Africa from 1926 -- material that was reminiscent of magazine illustration of the time. Other early work like a 1923 gouache advertisement for Woman to Woman magazine recalled Szyk's work in miniatures, and his 1931 lithograph Art and Industry owed much to Daumier. Hirschfeld's color caricatures, usually for magazine covers like "Walter Lippman" for American Mercury in the 1940s, show that he could have continued doing similar work and had a full career. Recently, printing advances have made it possible for him to use color for caricatures and one from the New York Times in 2000 is in the show. The exhibit, accompanied by a well-done brochure, was an interesting example of Hirschfeld's lesser abilities, but not a major view of his career.

Politics in Black and White: Local, State, and National Cartoons and Caricatures. Dan Voss and Ellen Vartanoff. Rockville, MD: Montgomery College VCT Department Gallery, October 10--November 10, 2000.

This small exhibit was aimed at students in the College's graphic arts department. According to Voss, the "idea was to be topical and to bring in a little bit more local connection than you would expect." With eight artists (Joe Azar, Chip Beck, Steve Brodner, Chris Curtis, Kevin "Kal" Kallaugher, Marcia Klioze-Hughes, and Lucinda Levine) and 55 pieces in the exhibit, students and other visitors saw a wide range of comic art. The only label in the exhibit was a short introductory panel with brief biographical information. Azar (a conservative political cartoonist for the Legal Times and the Washington Times), Kal, and Curtis (cartoonist for the Gazette chain of local newspapers) all produce standard "modern" political cartoons; while competent, no cartoon displayed was particularly memorable. Caricaturists were well represented. Levine's work looked like that of unrelated David Levine. Klioze-Hughes' color work caricatured historical figures like George Washington. Beck's pieces were unfortunately reminiscent of the cartoonists working in chalk in shopping malls. Brodner works for national publications like the New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek and his distinctive style was well represented. "We hope to bring [the students] the real thing," Voss stated, and the exhibit succeeded in being an engaging look at the styles and ability of a small range of working professional cartoonists.

Cartoons and Campaigns. Arlington, VA: The Newseum, October 7--November 12, 2000.

Pens and Needles: The Editorial Cartoons of Joel Pett. Arlington, VA: The Newseum, November 10, 2000--January 7, 2001.

"Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus." Arlington, VA: The Newseum, December, 2000.

Cartoons and Campaigns added political cartoons to Every Four Years, an exhibit on press coverage of the Presidential campaign. The cartoons, a mixture of originals and reproductions, totaled approximately 40 pieces of art. Included in the show were originals by Luckovich (who still uses tone shading), Breen, Conrad, Wilkinson, Horsey, Borgman, Peters, and reproductions by Marlette, Toles, Handelsman, Chip Beck, Morin, Higgins, Kal, Pett, Gorrell, Gerner, Telnaes, Bok, Benson, Herblock, and Szep. The show presented a snapshot of election cartoons, and was enjoyable in a casual sense, but did not add anything significant to the study of comic art.

Pins and Needles was a significantly better exhibit in terms of learning. Ten original cartoons with commentary by Pett were displayed, unfortunately in a hallway leading to a movie theater. Seven reproductions from the twenty cartoons that Pett submitted to win the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning were also included. Pett's commentary on his process of cartooning included exhibiting three drafts and the final cartoon. This was a minor, but interesting show.

"Yes, Virginia..." is the Newseum's annual show of Thomas Nast's Harper's Weekly engravings of Santa Claus. The exhibit included artwork from 1863, 1865, 1866, 1871, 1879, 1884, and 1885 and showed how Nast's artwork and concept of Santa progressed through a twenty-year period. According to Nast, by 1884 Santa was answering telephone requests. Since Santa Claus is so deeply embedded in American culture, an annual show devoted to the cartoonist who created him helps keep Nast's work alive.

The Art of John Cederquist: Reality of Illusion. Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art's Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, March 31--August 20, 2000.

John Cederquist stretches the definition of comic art. He creates artistic wooden furniture. Cederquist is influenced by Popeye cartoons and he has copied two-dimensional furniture from the cartoons to produce three-dimensional pieces. Although this show, organized by the Oakland Museum of California, did not include any of his Popeye works among its thirteen pieces, the influence of cartoons could still be seen. "Tubular" (1990) appeared to be a bookcase made of shipping crates but had a Hokusai-style wave rolling out of the top. "Steamer Chest III" (1995) looked as though it was a coiled pipe, supported by stacked wood, with puffs of Crumb-like smoke emerging from each end of the pipe. Cederquist's titles were puns that helped define the piece -- words and pictures working together -- leading to the beginning of the definition of a cartoon. The exhibit provoked thought on what comic art really is.