Dr. Toon relives the history of animation with a 105-year-old who still loves cartoons.
On Jan. 4, 1904, just three days after New Year's Eve was first celebrated in Times Square, Bessie Irene Myrick was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. During that same year Theodore Roosevelt was president, work began on the Panama Canal and aged veterans of the Civil War were still walking the streets. The short generally acknowledged to be the world's first animated production, J. Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, would not be filmed for another two years. Walt Disney was a three -year-old living up the road in Chicago. Walt Disney passed away in 1966. Bessie Irene, now one month from her 106th birthday, is still here. She is likely the oldest living woman in Indiana, and perhaps one of the oldest in the country. Within her lively lifespan, the entire history of animation began, evolved and grew from a minor theater entertainment and children's medium to the CGI-powered spectacle that it is today.
I have had the good fortune to meet Bessie Irene. Her faculties remain amazingly unencumbered; she remembers virtually everything she has seen during her era of history. And if you consider yourself to be a longtime animation fan, well…she still loves cartoons! I am proud to bring you her story, which is sure to interest you.
Terre Haute, on the banks of the fabled Wabash River, was once a fairly sizeable and important city in Indiana. Besides several breweries and distilleries (which took a major blow during Prohibition) there were large glass factories, coal mining and a five-star hotel, the Terre Haute House, which was reportedly a favorite destination of Al Capone. Terre Haute also boasted some fine theaters, which were decked out in the grand style of the day. Young Bessie Irene remembers going to the fancy movie houses such as the showy Hippodrome, the Swan, the swank Liberty and the Cacano (Bessie is unsure of the spelling), where she saw some of the silent films that were accompanied by a pianist. Even the high-class Hippodrome, it seems, usually had no more than a four-piece orchestra.
Bessie and I sat down in front of a big-screen plasma TV while I arranged stacks of DVDs that I had selected for our interview. What would someone who had lived through the entire history of animation remember? I began with the films of Winsor McCay, since Bessie would have been at least 10- years-old by the time Gertie the Dinosaur premiered (I figured in at least another year before a print made its way to Terre Haute, if at all). To my chagrin, Bessie never recalled seeing Gertie in the theater, but when I showed her The Pet (1921), she furrowed her wrinkled brow in what seemed to be recognition. I asked her if she had seen that film, and she replied that she was not sure, but she had seen at least something much like it. Bessie enjoyed reading the caption cards aloud as the film progressed, and she asked me to let the short finish out so that she could see what happened to the giant beastie in the end. She told me that people used to read the caption cards aloud during the films just like she was doing, but that "other people didn't like that and told them to be quiet."
I went on to the earliest films featuring Felix the Cat. To my surprise, Bessie said that she had never seen Felix before, but when I began to show her the later films made after 1921 or so (when Felix began to look less like a dog and more like a cat), she made a definite identification of the character and recalled seeing at least a couple of silent Felix cartoons at the Swan. She then told me that she remembered Felix best from the Trans-Lux version made in the 1950's under Joe Oriolo because "The kids used to put it on TV. He looked like he did in this (1920s DVD short) except that they made him in color."
Bessie could not identify or recall Van Buren's version of Tom and Jerry, but thought that "they are a silly kind of funny." Bessie was next shown some of the Walt Disney Alice comedies and mistook Julius the Cat for Felix. She had, however, not seen them in the theaters. What really delighted Bessie, though, was a DVD filled with Betty Boop cartoons. "Oh, that's Betty Boop!" she exclaimed, with a giggle. "She was always so cute, but some people thought that she was a little bit naughty. I liked her when she used to sing with that funny voice." I had to run five Betty Boop cartoons before Bessie agreed to move on to the next set of DVDs.
It turned out that Bessie was an exuberant Popeye fan, and recalled seeing many of his black-and-white Fleischer cartoons at theaters along with newsreels and promotions. She remembered that there were Popeye fan clubs for kids that came to the movies and that the members used to cheer loudly for Popeye whenever his cartoons started. It seems that, given Bessie's familiarity with Fleischer cartoons, that Paramount (the Fleischer's distributor) may have had block booking arrangements with certain Midwestern theaters.
After several great Popeye cartoons (I Wanna Be a Lifeguard), I paused to ask Bessie Irene just why it was she enjoyed animated cartoons so much for so long. Bessie thought about it for a moment and then said, "Well, it was part of the movies. Back then everybody used to go, and they laughed whenever the cartoons came on. I think they used to laugh the most at Bugs Bunny. The war was a sad time, and I think they liked to have fun. It was good for them." I asked again why the films were special to her, and she replied, "I liked seeing the kids laugh. You know, they had Popeye clubs back then and the kids loved him so much. Him and Mickey Mouse, too. But Popeye and Betty Boop were just funny."
Here one must account for the vagaries of long-term, expressive memory. Still, there was no mistaking the delight on Bessie's face as Popeye and friends made their black-and-white way across the screen. Since it was obvious that quite a few Fleischer cartoons were coming through Terre Haute in the 1930s and 1940s, I began running Max and Dave's Superman cartoons for Bessie Irene. Here the recognition was dramatic and instantaneous. She remembered several of them without difficulty. "They always looked more like the movies than the cartoons, I think that's why these kind of stand out to me. People used to like them; I think I remember that they clapped a lot after one of them. I thought that they were good!"
What she did come to love, like many others, was Bugs Bunny. As his popularity increased over the 1940s Bessie became a fan of her first character outside of the Fleischer universe. "I liked the way he talked to people and laughed at them. Oh, he could play tricks on anybody. I wish I could remember some of the cartoons, but I just really remember Bugs Bunny. It seemed like overnight he was everywhere at once, in books and in the stores." Bessie does recall seeing Tom and Jerry at the Liberty, but didn't like them very much. "They were mean. They got hurt a lot, set on fire and things like that. I didn't care for it." Somewhere around this time, Bessie met Everett Hamrick, and nights at the movies were gradually replaced by evenings of dancing at Terre Haute's premier dance hall, the Trianon. Soon afterwards, she became Mrs. Bessie Hamrick, and the movies were replaced by other activities, such as raising a daughter, a busy career at Hayes Insurance, and the eventual joy of grandchildren.
Movies became a rarity. Bessie never saw Mighty Mouse, the later Paramount Popeyes or Woody Woodpecker at the theater. Yet, animation never entirely left her life; there were those aforementioned grandchildren who were beginning to come along in the 1950s, just as theatrical animation began to fade from the silver screen. Along with the grandchildren came Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound and the Flintstones, all of who Bessie recognized immediately. "They used to come on at night, when the kids were home from school. Some of the kids didn't care much for it, but the rest of them always watched some." Best of all, Bessie remembered Felix the Cat coming back like an old, lost friend from the theater. "He talked this time, but it's still him. I don't remember that those people (Poindexter and the Professor) were in the old ones, but I know that they change things for television."
Cartoons are far different now. Style, design, and technical modes of animation are not what they were even ten years ago. I showed Bessie some clips of Ben 10, The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack and SpongeBob SquarePants, explaining that these were very popular shows watched by millions. Bessie thought that they "had a lot of color" but except for SpongeBob (which Bessie thought was a much earlier cartoon), "they just aren't as funny as the old cartoons. I don't know that people would laugh at them as much."
I put on The Incrediblesand waited for her reactions; CGI was, of course, unknown over most of her lifetime. She did not seem to realize that this animation was far different from the artistry that featured Bugs Bunny and Popeye. I informed her that nobody actually drew the pictures; computers took the artists' designs and helped to animate the film that she was watching. "Well, I couldn't tell the difference," she marveled. "How do they tell the computers what to do? Can they draw as well as people, like that?" I replied that the answer was pretty complicated, but that was how most cartoons were made these days. "Well, anyway," she smiled, "I like it. That shy little girl (Violet), she's a doll-baby!"
Bessie Irene Hamrick may not be the most incisive animation critic alive, and perhaps some of her analytic faculties have faded over nearly 106 years of life. But she can truly say that she has seen it all. A true contemporary of Emile Cohl, Winsor McKay and J. Stuart Blackton, Bessie has loved cartoons all her life and continues to enjoy them to this day. As perhaps the country's oldest animation fan, I thought I'd bring her forward to touch base with the readership; I was lucky enough to find out about her, and now you are too.
I really need to show her a screening of Up.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.