Art Babbitt: A Class of His Own

How one artist/activist pioneered animation education.

When I was a budding animation geek during the Disney renaissance of the early ‘90s, I marveled at how lead animators were cast for similar-type characters in different films.  Some were adept at the villains; others portrayed the delicate female leads.  I understood that animation truly is “acting with a pencil.”

Curiosity naturally led me to the classic Disney films of the Golden Age: that magical era of the ‘30s and early '40s that not only solidified Disney as a masterful purveyor of fantasy, but also sky-rocketed the art of animation to incredible new heights.  There was Bill Tytla, whose characters were so intense they humbled you.  There was Freddy Moore, whose childlike characters bounced with appeal.  But there was one animator, Art Babbitt, who didn’t seem to fit in any category.  I learned that he was responsible for the Queen in Snow White, Geppetto in Pinocchio, and the unforgettable dancing mushrooms in Fantasia

To top it off, I read, Babbitt was single-handedly responsible for developing Goofy – not in a particular cartoon, but overall.  He wrote an analytical essay on the inner workings of Goofy’s mind, and he invented the Goof’s unique walk: knees and ankles would pop backwards, a method Babbitt called “breaking the joints.”  I acknowledged that this “father of Goofy” was an incredible talent who must have paved the way for the fabled “Nine Old Men” at Disney’s, and I filed the name “Art Babbitt” in my brain for future trivia contests.

One day I saw a unique animation picture: an old photo, angled downward at a blacktop lot where dozens of men and women carried picket signs.  The signs displayed Disney cartoon characters, and one close enough to the camera had on it Pinocchio with the words “There are NO strings on me.”  The caption below noted that this photo was taken during the “famous” 1941 Disney labor strike.

Babbitt, left, leading the Disney strike, summer 1941. All photos courtesy of Barbara Babbitt.

If it was famous, I had never heard of it. After gleaning bits from various non-Disney publications (this was pre-internet), I was able to piece the story together.  The artists, led by top-animator Babbitt, wanted Disney to recognize an independent union.  It was a long ordeal that eventually succeeded in making the Disney Studio a union shop, but Babbitt left, never again having the kind of opportunity he had under the Disney roof.

What a pity, I thought, that a brilliant artist – a groundbreaking lead animator and the father of Goofy – should be shunned by the Disney Studio.  Then the impact of his efforts hit me: this man led what surely was one of the biggest Hollywood labor strikes in history, and led it to victory, no less.  Art Babbitt indeed impacted animation in significant ways beyond the limits of the artist, or the innovator.

It wasn’t until years later that I became aware of another of Art Babbitt’s legacies.

Today, animators and artists at the Walt Disney Studios may attend in-house life-drawing classes after hours.  Nickelodeon studios has unstructured figure drawing sessions throughout the year.  Over at Pixar, classes are held twice a week in the Life Drawing Room.  Blue Sky Studios offers life-drawing sessions every Thursday.  When they return to work, the animators and CG artists point cameras at themselves.  They record and study video footage of a scene for inspiration.  All over the world, colleges teach animation classes to the future “actors with a pencil.”

Someone had to be the first to use live footage as animation reference.  Someone had to be the first to bring art classes to animators.  Someone had to be the very first master animator to teach a university-level animation curriculum.

That person, on all three counts, was Art Babbitt.  Much has been said about Babbitt as a remarkable animator and a tireless activist.  What follows is the history of Art Babbitt and his involvement with – and invention of - animation education.

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During the Great Depression, many talented artists began seeking employment at Disney’s as a means to earn their bread and butter.  New York animators like Babbitt had gainful employment and opted to move out west, usually with a pay cut, just to work on something that was pushing the limits of the medium.  Babbitt had worked at Terrytoons on Farmer Alfalfa shorts like Noah’s Outing (1932), which did little more than bank on the novelty of moving comic strips.  A lover of classical music, Babbitt had been following Disney’s Silly Symphonies ever since The Skeleton Dance (1929), and in July of 1932, at the age of 24, got a job working for Walt Disney.

At Disney’s, Babbitt shared an animation room with seven other animators, including wunderkind Freddy Moore.  Men like Wilfred Jackson, Babbitt’s most frequent director, would begin tackling a short by posting a sheet on the animation floor’s bulletin board.  It was a one-page summary of the proposed short with the cast of characters and pointed requests for gag ideas.  Eventually, each conceived cartoon short would be discussed in the story room, a high-ceilinged foyer perfect to display storyboards as needed.  Story meetings were open to all involved, and Babbitt joined Walt and the writing team many times as they perched atop a desk or in wicker chairs.

Freddy Moore and Babbitt, at Disney's Hyperion studio, circa 1933.

Babbitt took his work seriously enough to do what no artist did at the time – he studied live footage.  With a 16mm camera he bought himself, he logged walks, runs, jumps and volleyball games on the Disney lot.  In an age before a slow-motion button on a home video player, Babbitt, like Eadweard Muybridge, was analyzing how muscles moved.  Disney legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston write, “It put him ahead of the others immediately, since he was able to create new actions beyond our understanding.”[1]

However, the use of the camera was for more than simply analyzing movement, and Babbitt understood this.  He appreciated it as a tool towards bettering the art of animation.  Frank Thomas tells a story in which Herb Lamb, the manager of production under businessman Roy O. Disney, cornered Babbitt and Thomas.  In his spiffy suit, Lamb smirked and asked, “Why do you need people to draw pictures, when you have a camera?”  Art-school-educated Thomas began to respond with a stuffy treatise on the value of art in society.  The next moment Babbitt said, “Wait a minute, Frank, let me tell him:

“When you look at me, Herb,” he said, “you see something more than glasses, a nose and a mouth.  You see something that says stubborn, you see something that says aggressive, you see something that says I fight for the things I believe in, no matter what.”[2]

Babbitt knew that rendering pure feeling was key to Disney animation – and he was able to communicate that to a left-brained suit.

At the time, Babbitt had created a reputation for himself after taking a merchant to court over a sales tax dispute of three cents.  Like Walt, he had an assertive personality; unlike Walt, Babbitt was known as a swinging bachelor around the studio.  His methods of flirtation included sharing eye-strengthening techniques to the bespectacled female staff –  before inviting them to his home for further practice.[3]  One day in 1932, Walt found out that his artists were hanging around Babbitt’s living room after work, and in the company of naked women!  In actuality, Babbitt had started a life-drawing class.

It began as Babbitt’s brainchild.  On occasions past, Walt had himself driven a few artists at a time to nearby Chouinard’s Art Institute Clearly, Walt understood the benefits of higher art, but Babbitt had his own idea.  He consulted his fellow animator, Texas-born and Chouinard’s-educated Hardie Gramatky, as to how to go about hiring a model on a freelance basis.  Gramatky helped Babbitt connect with Chouinard’s, and the school recommended a model. 

At the time, Babbitt was living alone in a sprawling villa in an area called Tuxedo Terrace.  The place had three bedrooms, two fireplaces, and, bachelor-fashion, was furnished with more cushions than actual furniture.  Thinking there would be little interest, Babbitt casually invited only a couple of the guys from his animation room to come to his place for an evening drawing session.  That night, all seven artists in his animation room turned up. Class was to be held the next week, as well, and Babbitt was then surprised to find fourteen Disney animators showing up at his door.  The week after that it was twenty.  Word of mouth had done its part, and the artists, ready to better their skill, were willing to sit in a crowded living room atop orange crates just to get some good drawing in.  Babbitt didn’t presume to play teacher, but as monitor he kept role, collected 60-cents- an-hour for the model and made sure all the virile young animators behaved themselves.[4]

The Disney Studio life drawing class.

One morning, Walt called Babbitt to his office and they had a conversation something like what follows:

Walt:   Art, I understand you’ve been conducting nude drawing in your home.

Art:     That’s right, Walt.  The boys are really getting a lot out of it. 

Walt:   Uh huh…  ya know, if the newspapers find out about a bunch of Mickey Mouse artists grouping together around a naked woman in a private house, the studio would be up a creek.

Art:     But it’s for the benefit of the studio, Walt.  We’re all learning and drawing 100% better as a result, you see.  Some of the guys, like Freddy, have never even had formal art training.

Walt:   Well, then we should hold these sessions here at the studio.  I’ll pay for it.  The fellas can use the sound stage after work hours.  How much do models get, anyway?

Art:     Um, a dollar-twenty an hour.  Plus carfare, you know.

Walt:   A dollar-twenty, eh?  All right.  Tell the boys we’ll start next week.[5]

It fell upon Babbitt to secure the models.[6]  For two months, Art monitored Disney’s art class on the sound stage after the voice actors and musicians had gone home.  Sometimes wisecracks would surface and the person would not be invited back – this being the occasional model.  Babbitt asked Gramatky again for a suggestion for an instructor.  Gramatky suggested Don Graham.  On November 15, 1932, Don Graham held his first Disney class.  He would forever credit Babbitt for it.[7]

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In Graham’s class, the other artists began to shift their conception of the limits of animation.  In the opinion of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, “Don was an exceptionally fine teacher.  Instead of criticizing your drawing, he made you think about why you were drawing it that way, stimulating a whole new way of thinking about art.”[8]

Remember, animated film up to that time was little more than illustrated comic strips.  Disney’s were better than most, but in mid-1932, Mickey Mouse’s enduring popularity wasn’t any more guaranteed than Felix the Cat’s.  All these cartoons had characters moving across left to right. Their body movements were rubbery and banal, simply moving a joint from point A to point B.  The gags were based on empty slapstick.  The transition to personality-based humor, and the envisioning of three-dimensional space within the animation frame, happened with Don Graham.  About this, Shamus Culhane said, “After Walt, Don Graham has probably made the greatest impact of the philosophy of the medium.”[9]

Graham would arrive at the studio once a week at first.  Young, balding and dapper, he would stand by the model’s stage, pinching the stub of a smoking cigarette between his fingertips, and lecture about drawing as specifically applicable to the studious animators.  Graham presented films to the animators, much like Babbitt had done on his own, and dissected them frame-by-frame.  They found, for instance, that weight shifted and form changed when things were in motion. 

“An animation drawing showing a figure in a fast walk may fail to achieve a true sense of action,” said Graham, perhaps in a darkened room beside a small cloth movie screen, cigarette smoke wafting up his blazer sleeve, “because of the incorporation of minor details, exact delineation of local shapes, exact projection of the principal parts.  In a more truthful action drawing, many of these details would be blurred, many of the shapes modified.”  At this point, Graham may have pointed to the screen displaying a galloping horse at quarter-speed, his words spoken over the steady rattle of a projector.  “A series of carefully related drawings projected correctly in time may not give a convincing sensation of action … Only if the drawings utilized are true action drawings, drawings that convey the idea of action, can convincing action be realized ….”[10]

Walt Disney had the forethought of a genius ready to break new ground in the creative medium. By November 1933, Babbitt writes, “We’re definitely going ahead with a feature length cartoon in color – they’re planning the building for it now and the money has been appropriated.”[11]  As the years progressed, Walt sent brilliantly detailed memos to Graham suggesting ways to run the class to get even better, faster results.  Classes were now held several times a week, and including trips to the zoo, and the artists were instructed to draw with no shading whatsoever; they had to limit their rendering with pure line.[12]  Graham had models walk around the room and then leave, and instructed the artists to sketch from memory; rather than rendering stilted realism, it was more important to caricature the impression of form and movement.[13]

A further example of Walt’s support came out in cash.  In 1937, Willis Pyle was a young employee working his way up from his go-fer position.  “One time,” says Pyle, “Walt called me up to his office to tell me that I held the record for attending the most art classes of everyone at the studio, which helped me.”  Pyle’s commitment to maintain his record earned him a $2-a-week raise.[14]

Babbitt, of course, was a frequent student as well.  In one class, Graham mentioned that Peter Paul Rubens used distortion in his art.  When a student protested, Graham silently reached into his portfolio and pulled out a Rubens print of a figure.  When asked to copy the pose, the student could not without dislocating his arm[15].  Graham was a teacher able to show that fine art involves “breaking the joints,” without compromising believability.  No doubt Babbitt connected with this idea, filing it away for his groundbreaking animation on the Goof.

Babbitt and Graham fostered a mutual amity.  In 1935, Walt bought a new building across the street with space used exclusively for art classes.  Above the entry to the studio space, a sign read, with typical animators’ wit, “Don Graham Memorial Institute;” underneath that:  “Semper Gluteus Maximus.”  Babbitt captured the dedication with his 16mm camera.  Graham invited Babbitt, as well as Tytla, to his home in Malibu Canyon.  They sat, savoring red wine, Gorgonzola cheese and Syrian bread, and joined Babbitt “verbally correct[ing] all the wrongs in this cockeyed world.”[16]

In 1941 Graham left the Studio, but remained in touch on a consulting basis.  Babbitt led the strike against the Walt Disney Studio, and eventually focused his career elsewhere.

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“In 1957, eighteen years ago, I was teaching at USC,” said Babbitt.  By 1975 one of his ex-students had students of her own. They wrote to him and “they asked if those guys who did Fantasia, were they on drugs?  I wrote back and said, ‘Yes, I personally was addicted to Pepto Bismol and Feen-A-Mint.’”[17]

Before Babbitt joined the staff of the University of Southern California, a single animation class was taught by ex-Disney inbetweener Lester Novros.  For the 1961 academic year, the USC animation program and department of cinema issued a progress report:

It’s been about one year since members of the animation industry and the department of cinema put their collective heads together to try and develop a sequence of courses in animation for the purpose of upgrading present industry people and developing new talent for the industry.[18]

The report ushered in a new 5-course curriculum, with Babbitt helming “448: Animation Art.”  This course discussed the basic principle of animation and its use in entertainment, industrial and educational films.  It consisted of a one-hour lecture with a three-hour lab. 

One of those students was Carl Bell, who, after studying at the Ontario College of Art with fellow student Richard Williams, traveled all the way to southern California to study animation.  “There were no animation schools,” he says.  “There were art schools around, but nobody was teaching animation.  And when you got into the industry, hardly anyone was passing along information.” [19]

According to Bell, there were only two books about the craft of animation in publication: Preston Blair’s guides from the Walter Foster art book collection, and E. G. Lutz’s famously outdated tome from 1920. Babbitt had not lost his passion by the time Bell was enrolled in his class in the fall of 1960.  “You left his class absolutely inspired, on top of the world,” says Bell. “He was such an exuberant teacher.  I would say he was like a nightclub performer, he had that kind of charisma with the students, teaching.”

Babbitt circa 1960.

Another of Babbitt’s students was Chouinard Institute alum Maggie Julian Wisdom.  Chouinard had a lasting relationship with Disney animation and would later be absorbed by the Disney-funded California Institute of the Arts in 1969.  Nevertheless, opportunity to learn the skills at Chouinard was all but absent.  “T. Hee – Thorton Hee – taught a kind of animation storyboarding class,” says Wisdom, “but that was it.  Nobody taught animation when I was there.  That did not happen until after it became Cal Arts – until Disney took it over.”  In 1959, Wisdom eagerly became part of Babbitt’s roster, but only after impressing him with her portfolio. “It was kind of an honor to be in his class,” she adds.[20]

Whether conscious of it or not, Babbitt was blazing new territory as an instructor of a previously uninstructed craft.  He brought a briefcase of original teaching material every day to class and used his own illustrations for his lectures.  “Arthur assigned animation tests every week, then the next week there would be a critique of these ‘loops,’ of film on the 16 mm projector,” recalls Carl Bell.  “The first thing we learned was breaking the joint, a solid box falling over, overlapping action.  That was his basic start.  And then it was all just stick figures, because you could tell everything about weight and follow-through in storytelling drawings just with a stick figure. But once you got that going, then it was assigning the model sheet.  You had to stick to the model.  The animation became a little more lively each class.”[21]

Today, Carl has served 18 years as a Governor for the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and he has animated for Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Abe Levitow, Ralph Bakshi, and was at Walt Disney Feature Animation during its renaissance.  Like his friendship with Richard Williams, Bell valued his notes from Babbitt’s class -- but there was a fellow student whose notes were even better.  “Ruth ‘Casey’ Kissane had done much neater, structured notes,” says Bell.  “Every page was beautiful, because she was a designer.  So rather than send Dick Williams my rough notes over in England, I sent Ruth Kissane’s.  And I think that’s the point at which Dick got interested in having Arthur come over and teach his employees at his Soho studios.”

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Richard Williams was making some of London’s finest animation when he first made contact with Babbitt via the telephone in 1973.  His studio was working on a commercial for a New York company.  As he describes it,

"We didn’t make any money on it, either, and the only good thing that came out of it was the producer woman said, 'Oh, you must meet Art Babbitt, I work with him all the time on commercials,' …  Anyway, she got him on the phone and we met and he had seen some of our work and he said, 'Well, you don’t know what you’re doing, obviously, but you’re doing an honest job.'  And I said, “Well, how would you like to come in and show us so we know what we’re doing.  I mean, teach us please.”[22]

For four weeks from July 2 to July 26, Babbitt, at Williams’ expense, gave daily lectures to the artists at the London studio.  “He revealed the Hollywood secrets of animation with outstanding clarity and precision,” wrote Williams.  “This was like water in the desert for us. … He had, in his own words, ‘the low blood pressure of a teacher,’ and his patience was extraordinary, balanced with a crusty ‘don’t think you know it all, kid.’” [23]

Babbitt with the hand-crafted certificate from the Richard Williams Studio, summer 1973.

Richard Williams’ pencil was furiously at work to capture a shorthand of Babbitt’s words.  According to animator Tom Sito, these pages of notes “have been xeroxed and rexeroxed and passed from hand to hand and have become the most widely read unpublished samizdat how-to book in animation history.  I don't know an animator from the 70's who doesn't have a copy somewhere.”[24]

But Babbitt was not just preaching the mechanics of “full animation.”  As a living piece of the Golden Age, he was an embodiment of the ideals of that time.  In 1936 he had lectured to the Disney staff: “We want to raise animation above the level of a trick – a novelty – a filler on a double feature bill.  We want to create genuine, substantial, understandable, rich artistic entertainment.”[25]  Now, in the age of poorly-made Saturday morning tripe, he was bringing back the dignity of the medium.  “An animator must possess a curiosity about everything that exists or moves,” he was now saying.  “He should be well read… he must be acquainted with music … he must have traveled … he must inhabit the theater … he should attend the ballet … he should absorb the artistry of great pantomimists… he should study motion pictures … he must possess at least a cursory knowledge and an appreciation of all kinds of art.”[26]

For the production of Williams’ film Raggedy Ann and Andy in 1975, he hired Babbitt not only to animate, but to continue his animation seminars as well.  When Babbitt demonstrated the mechanics of animation to young interviewer John Canemaker on June 4, 1975, his skills as a communicator came alive.  “Hay is made up of little strands of straw overlapping each other,” said Babbitt, miming a man pitching a bale.  “If you get some resistance in the thrust of the pitchfork, and maybe make it bend a little as you pull upwards, then the release as the hay goes over the shoulder – that give you the feeling of weight!”[27]

Babbitt talks animation with Richard Williams to a "Sight and Sound Magazine" critic.

Williams adds, “Art had an unusual lucidity, a surgeon’s mind.  Most animators aren’t known for their coherence – they have trouble talking about what they’re doing.  This is because it is not a language of tongue.  But Art had no difficulty in explaining how to construct an action, a walk, where the weight is, or how to accent a gesture.  And he had the whole thing arranged in a logical teaching order and system.”[28]

“I had the temerity to teach a class at Dublin University,” said master Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones, “and there were a few people who had been to Art Babbitt’s class, and asked me why I didn’t teach the way Art Babbitt did.  And I said I didn’t know how.”[29]

Ken Harris, Grim Natwick, Babbitt and Richard Williams outside the London studio.

Richard Williams’ London studio hired living animation legends like Ken Harris, Grim Natwick and Shamus Culhane to pass on the magic of the Golden Age to the next generation.  After all, the greybeards wouldn’t be around forever, and it was up to younger folks like those at the London studio to carry the torch.  Babbitt was the only master animator under Williams’ roof to relish the art of teaching.  Incidentally, a decade later, it was Williams’ studio that produced the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit – one of the electric jolts that brought the public’s love of classic animation back to life.

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I had never encountered someone like Babbitt, a person so deeply committed to the education of the animation craft.  He often talked about wanting to leave a legacy – but not a legacy of monumental animation, character innovation or labor rights.  A How-To manual would be the culmination of his life, and was what he envisioned carrying on his heritage after his death. He was a man who affected the industry of animation in different ways, all of them significant.  But in the end, Babbitt saw himself as a teacher.  To him, it was his most important contribution to animation.

Still, he never forgot that he was Art Babbitt.  “Your notes from Dick Williams’ seminar are being passed about here as if they were Galileo’s,” said Canemaker to him in 1975.  Babbitt answered wryly, “Just so they won’t burn me at the stake.”[30]

Jake Friedman is a New York-based animator, freelance writer, and the authorized biographer of Art Babbitt.

[1] Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, The Illusion of Life (New York: Disney Editions, 1981), 71.

[2] Frank Thomas, at Art Babbitt’s memorial service, March 28, 1992.

[3] Ward Kimball, interview with John Canemaker, 1975.  [Babbit, Art, Canemaker Collection, Accretions 2001, Series 1, subseries B, Box 2, Folder10, Bobst Library, New York University.]

[4] Art Babbitt, interview with John Canemaker, June 4, 1975. [Babbitt, Art, Canemaker Collection, Series I, subseries B, Box 5, Folder 3, Bobst Library, New York University.]

[5] This story has been re-told many times, including: Babbitt interview, 1975.

[6] Their third model was a woman named Doris Harman whose mother’s social activism in Kansas City inspired Babbitt.  Art Babbitt, transcript of audio letter to John Canemaker, 1979.  [Babbitt, Art, Canemaker Collection, Series I, subseries B, Box 5, Folder 3, Bobst Library, New York University.]

[7] Babbitt’s copy of Graham’s book is inscribed,  “To Art – who started me out in the Animation Business / My great appreciation – Graham 1971.”  Collection of Barbara Babbitt.

[8] Thomas and Johnston, 538-9

[9] Shamus Culhane, Talking Animals and Other People (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986) 137.

[10] Donald Graham, Composing Pictures (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1970), 375.

[11] Art Babbitt, letter to Bill Tytla, November 27, 1933. [Babbitt, Art, Canemaker Collection, Accretions 2001, Series 1, subseries B, Box 3, Folder 11, Bobst Library, New York University.]

[12] Culhane, 133.

[13] R. C. Harvey, “Only Minor Scathing: The Disney Influence,” Pogo, vol. 3 (New York:  Fantagraphics, 1995), v.

[14] Willis Pyle, interview with author,April 14, 2010.

[15] Culhane, 128. (This specific occurrence happened soon after Babbitt’s development of the Goof, but I believe Graham certainly must have discussed this prior, as well.)

[16] Art Babbitt, letter to John Canemaker, February 21, 1979.  [Babbitt, Art, Canemaker Collection, Accretions 2001, Series 1, subseries B, Box 3, Folder 11, Bobst Library, New York University.]

[17] Babbitt interview, 1975.

[18] Animation Program and Department of Cinema Progress Report, 1961. [Doheny Memorial Library 220, University of Southern California]

[19] In 1963 at Chuck Jones’ studio, Hal Ambro generously shared information with Bell, as Frank Thomas had done with Ambro.  Carl Bell, interview with author, June 29, 2010.

[20] Maggie Julian Wisdom, interview with the author, May 1, 2011.

[21] Bell interview, 2010.

[22] Imogen Sutton, Director, Animating Art, 1987.

[23] Richard Williams, fax to Barbara Babbitt, March 27, 1992.

[24] Tom Sito, Introduction, The Babbitt Notes, circa 1973. Courtesy of Barbara Babbitt. 

[25] Art Babbitt, Training Course Lecture Series, Walt Disney Studios, September 23, 1936.  [Babbitt, Art, Canemaker Collection, Accretions 2001, Series 1, subseries B, Box 3, Folder 11, Bobst Library, New York University.]

[26] Art Babbitt, Lecture to Richard Williams Studio, July 2, 1973. [Babbitt, Art, Canemaker Collection, Series I, subseries B, Box 5, Folder 4, Bobst Library, New York University.]

[27] Babbitt interview, 1975.

[28] Williams fax, 1992.

[29] Chuck Jones, at Art Babbitt’s memorial service, March 28, 1992.

[30] Babbitt interview, 1975.

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