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Book Review: 'Living Life Inside the Lines'

The Animation Pimp sets the record straight with sensitive artist doofs who get upset when their films dont make a festival competition, but still make a special screening section.

Get Martha Sigall started telling stories from her long career in animation and youll spend hours laughing at the antics of the animators from the golden years of animation. Getting her to talk is no problem; just say something like did you work with so and so, and shell be off and running with stories of that person, the studios she knew him or her from and all the others that were around them at that time. And those stories are exactly what youll find in this book.

Dont expect this book to be an exposé Martha has never had a bad thing to say about anyone. This book was written by a woman who loved the work she did, and felt privileged to be working in the animation industry. She genuinely liked the people she worked with and was honored to be accepted into the boys club that early animation developed. She states in the book, What I have written is my own recollection of what happened on a day-to-day basis and she tells stories that she feels shouldnt be forgotten of the zany people who make up the animation business. She knew personally most of the extraordinarily talented men and women who comprised the small group of people who created the commercial arm of one of the most original and expressive of all the art forms.

This is a book that is really fun to read if you are in the animation biz, or if you just love this whacky community.

First, a word about Martha. This small effervescent woman is one of the nicest people I know. She and her husband Sol met at a Passover dinner during WWII and have one of the most happily enduring relationships ever. They both have more energy than a cheerleading team. Both are docents at the Warner Bros. Museum, which is on the main lot, and either one can tell you tales of Warner Bros. because Sol has heard so many over the years from Martha. Martha is in demand for speaking engagements and loves to talk to classes and animation groups.

The Beginning

Half biography and half history, Living Between the Lines: Tales from the Golden Age of Animation is arranged more or less chronologically. Martha starts with her Le Conte Junior High School days when her family moved into a house directly behind the Pacific Title and Art Studio, where Leon Schlesinger was producing Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes for Warner Bros. (People tend to run those two together, but actually they were separate production units). There she ran errands and learned to paint cels, and got in trouble for doing it.

She later went to work for Schlesinger and her original employee card is reproduced in the book, with the date 7/13/36. She was paid the grand salary of $12.75 per week. She worked more or less continuously until 1989 when she finally retired, after 52 years in the animation business. In 2004 she was presented with the June Foray Award from ASIFA Hollywood at that years Annie Awards. When Warner Bros. produced a DVD set of 56 classic cartoons, Martha was asked to contribute to the commentaries to be included.

Most of Marthas career was in ink & paint, although she also was a cameraman during the war, and has a thorough understanding of nearly every job in the industry. No one has ever done a history of the ink & paint side of animation before that I know of, and here Martha lays out the details of how inking and painting are done and the circumstances that the I & P people had to put up with in the early days.

She describes accurately the equipment, conditions and attitudes that the I & P people (mostly women) worked in. From the consistency of the paint to the origin of ebony scrapers (read the book and find out what they are), and compensation (it has nothing to do with money), she talks about her experiences in the studios. After three months she was making $14 an week, so she must have been good! Studios werent air conditioned then and many days they painted in 100º temperatures. Safe working conditions were non-existent. Martha didnt care, she was having fun.

The Story of Ink & Paint

Many of the shorts she worked on are lovingly described in detail, along with the problems peculiar to inking and painting those shorts. She tells of some of the people that no one has bothered to talk about before, because I & P was and still is at the bottom of the totem pole. Sadly, this is an instance where the entire job category has been outsourced, and not recently either! The end of ink and paint in this country began with Hanna-Barbera sending some of those functions to Asia in the 1960s. Small independent studios were able to stay in business, though, and Martha was able to find freelance work enough to get in her union hours. She worked at Celine Miles Ink and Paint, C & D Studios, and with Auril Thompson. She knew Raynelle Day, Mary Lane, Betty Bronson and many other women from the early days of animation.

Martha was very active in The Union, and her book tells stories of how the strikes affected her and her friends. Art Goble talked her into coming to her first union meeting. Martha tells of how everyone was locked out of the Schlesinger studio on the eve of their calling a strike. Schlesinger had made all the animators take a cut in pay, and predictably they joined the union people in their threat to walk out. Wages were very low for everyone, but particularly for the ink-and-paint workers, and, in 1941, this was still the depression a very scary time to strike.

She tells some wonderful stories of the work done in animation during World War II, when she had to get a security clearance. She couldnt leave her job to go to a better one without permission because it was defense work, and leaving was denied. She tells about how she managed it anyway. Quite a few of the men who went in the armed services were stationed at Fort Roach, the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City. Lots of people worked for free on patriotic cartoons in after-hours work. Martha was a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen, and worked along side many big stars of the day.

Stories About Her Friends

But mostly, this book is about people. There are stories about Frank Tashlin, Bugs Hardaway, Virgil Ross, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Preston Blair she knew them all. Many were life long personal friends. Not only animators, but other artists in this interdependent industry. Paul Julian, the great background painter who came up with the beep beep of the roadrunner, Mel Blanc, that versatile voice actor, and Treg Brown, the soundman are featured. She includes studios like Kurtz and Friends, Film Fair, MGM, Graphic Films, Bill Melendez Productions and of course, Schlesinger (The Termite Terrace).

Martha worked on 200 of the 250 shorts produced at Schlesinger; she counted them. She also has every one of them in her collection of 1,027 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. She even worked at Disney, albeit as a freelance.

Martha doesnt stop with just the things that went on at work; she also talks about how hard they played. The gang at Schlesinger put on evenings of skits, called The Sketch Pad Varieties, for which Martha wrote more than one song. She was on the bowling team, and the baseball team. As she says we were always having parties of one type or another.

Animators are notorious practical jokers, and she tells of some of the outrageous pranks played at the studios where she worked. Martha includes some of the romances she observed, but not the details, just who; she stays nice to the end. She tells about the day the Schlesinger daily poker game got raided, the time Gil Turners clothes got stolen and how Murray Hudson doubled his salary. Frank Tashlin got fired twice at Schlesinger. Mike Maltese had a couch in the writers room where he could take naps. She talks about the blacklist and its effect on her friends and the Hays office censorship, which incredibly in this day and age, forbid Porky & Petunia kissing on the lips! Of course everybody already knows about poor Clarabelle Cows troubles.

How Porky Got His Stutter

One of the delights of this personal memoir is the description of various cartoon characters Martha worked on and how they came to be. She starts with Bosko, Buddy, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny. Elmer Fudd was originally called Egghead, created by Tex Avery. Sniffles the cat became Sniffles the mouse. Inki is, of course, very politically incorrect now. Conrad Cat, Tweety, and the famous Acme Company (an insiders joke) are all discussed.

Did you know that the reason Porky stutters is that the original voice, Ted Dougherty had a stutter he could hardly control? Mel Blanc came along later and made the stutter understandable. She tells how Bugs got his name from Bugs Hardaway. The Hays office wouldnt let them paint the original Tweety a flesh color as a baby bird, so he became yellow. She also worked on the dancing shoes in MGMs The Barkleys of Broadway, and explains how the rotoscoping was done.

Included in the book illustrations are cartoons and sketches by many animation greats. Ted Parmalee contributed several WWII cartoons. Lobby cards, model sheets, and stills were provided by Warner Bros. and by animation author/historian Jerry Beck, who writes the introduction. Two drawings are caricatures of whole staffs of different studios, and finding people you recognize is really fun. That plus many photographs will have you looking at the caption to see if thats who you think it is. Her last section of the book is called, If These Walls Could Talk, and she describes several places where she worked and their locations, and accompanies this with photographs of several early studios.

Marthas tales of animation people are wonderful, and if you cant get to sit down and talk with her, this book is the next best thing. Her enthusiasm for the work is contagious and her affection for the people she has met is genuine. Her satisfaction with her career in the world of moving cartoons is so obvious that you can feel how happy these years have made her. This is an enjoyable read for those who care about the history of the animation industry.

Living Life Inside the Lines: Tales from the Golden Age of Animation by Martha Sigall; foreword by Jerry Beck; University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, MS, 2005; ISBN: 1-57806-748-0, unjacketed cloth, $50.00; ISBN: 1-57806-749-9, paper, $20.00; 224 pages (approx); 74 b&w illustrations; 6-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches.

Libby Reed, started out at Walt Disney Studios in the 50s on Sleeping Beautyas a painter. She has worked at numerous commercial studios, spent 16 years as a fashion illustrator and wound up at Film Roman as a color designer under Phyllis Craig. Libby has two children, (one is Alex Reed, animation producer at Electronic Arts) and four grandchildren. She currently has her own studio where she does animal portraits.