While people are surprised to learn of America's forgotten ad studios, they might be even more surprised to learn who worked for them! Michael Mallory explains.
Pop quiz time: name the animation studio of the 1920s that was reputed to be the world's largest. Here's a hint: it wasn't Disney's or Fleischer's. If you guessed the Denver, Colorado-based Alexander Film Company, you are absolutely correct. You are also one of the few people who has ever heard of the Alexander Film Company, a pioneering company whose obscurity has remained constant in large part because it dealt exclusively in the field of commercials.
Alexander Was Ads
It may come as a surprise to some to learn that decades before the advent of television and its reliance on product sponsorship, commercials and public service announcements were a common sight in movie theaters, even in the silent days. Among the first to realize the possibilities of using the then-fledgling motion picture industry as an advertising tool were two entrepreneurial brothers named Julian Donald Alexander and Donald Miller Alexander -- known to associates as J. Don and Don M. As early as the first decade of the century they were creating advertising slides for exhibition in nickelodeons, and by 1922 they had built a self-contained studio in Denver. After a devastating fire destroyed the Denver facility, the company relocated to Colorado Springs in 1928 and constructed a new studio, complete with a soundstage and film processing lab. From there Alexander turned out literally thousands of animated spots (as well as some live-action ones) over the next four decades. Many were national campaigns for clients such as Pepsi, Borden (whose trademark character Elsie the Cow was featured in animated spots), Colgate and Chevrolet, but equally as many for small local advertisers. The company even produced spots for other countries. "These played in theaters throughout the world," says Linn Winstead Trochim who, along with her husband Bob, owns the Alexander Studio's artwork archives. "We have stuff in different languages. A lot of it was done for South America."
At its peak in 1951, Alexander claimed to have 24,000 accounts, with its ads showing in 10,000 theaters. "The theaters showed a lot of animation for commercial products," Bob Trochim says. "In the town I was from we used to have cartoon days on Saturdays, when they'd show cartoons all day, and there'd be commercials in between from local products and nearby towns, and I did not realize they were not done by the major [studios]."
There was a good reason the work done by Alexander looked like Hollywood-quality cartooning: in addition to the regular animation staff that Alexander employed in Colorado, a work force of some 750 people by the early 1950s, it also turned to the majors in Hollywood for freelance talent. Some of that talent was the best in the industry, including animator Volus Jones, who freelanced for Alexander while working for Disney's (as did Trochim himself, who was then Jones' assistant), Jack Hannah, who at one point directed for Alexander, and even the great Tex Avery. Another Disney talent, T. Hee, designed characters for the studio.
One of Alexander's specialties was creating what it called "playlets," animated situations that would change each week, giving the client an option of having its product seen in fifty-two different "playlets" each year. By keeping the playlets nonspecific to the product, the company could reuse them for different clients. "Pretty much everything was so generic that you could sell dog food and screen doors with the same commercial," notes Trochim. "The content was the dialogue."
Ironically, the company that was built on the foresight of its founders ultimately failed because of lack of foresight. Believing television to be a flash-in-the-pan, the studio never geared up for television production, continuing to rely on theatrical contracts, and even though it turned out some black-and-white spots for TV, its refusal to take the new medium seriously resulted in its closure by the late 1960s. (For the record, animation was not the sole interest of the Alexander brothers: they were also the designers and creators of the Alexander "Eagle Rock" airplane in the 1920s.)
Similar studios flourished throughout the United States, notably the Jam Handy Company based in Michigan, which created animated commercials and industrial films. Mainstream Hollywood even tried to get into the act for a while in the early 1940s through a company called Cartoons, Ltd., which was built on the remnants of Ub Iwerks' Beverly Hills studio by a former Schlesinger and Disney animator named Paul Fennell. Two of Fennell's young staffers, Jerry Brewer and Ed Benedict, began developing outside advertising ideas with the boss' blessing.
"They were elaborate theatrical commercials, among the first in Technicolor with original music recorded live for the specific project," recalled Benedict, who would later achieve renown as the designer of practically all of Hanna-Barbera's early television characters. "The Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company had 'the smoke that satisfies,' so we were going to do 'The Music That Satisfies.' The American Tobacco Company owned Lucky Strike and they had the Hit Parade, so we were going to have 'The Hit of the Month.' We had Esso Gas Corporation and Sunkist Corporation, we never got turned down once!"
Not by the advertisers, anyway. The rejection, according to Benedict, came from the exhibitors. "We never found anybody to release the pictures," he explained. "None of the studio theaters would do it. There were independent theaters, and they would have, but there were not enough of them. The clients were willing to spend the money, but they wanted a lot of theaters." Except for an unreleased ad produced on spec for Richfield Oil and a Technicolor one-minute commercial for a pension plan called "Thirty Dollars Every Tuesday" -- a spot Benedict described as "successful as hell" when it was shown at Hollywood's Pantages Theater -- the Benedict and Brewer commercial collaboration soon fell through.
During the 1950s, major animation companies began dabbling in animated television commercials (in fact, for most of the decade, commercials constituted the only original animation on television). In the late 1940s, in fact, UPA had beat every other studio to the punch by turning out a TV commercial for Southern California Ford dealerships, directed by Bobe Cannon, which utilized Dr. Seuss characters! At Disney's, veteran animator and director Charles A. "Nick" Nichols was in charge of the studio's TV commercial unit, developing such original characters as "Bucky Beaver" for Ipana Toothpaste and "Fresh-Up Freddie" (who was a bird) for 7-Up. Commercials quickly proved to be lucrative propositions. "They [7-Up] spent two-and-a-half million dollars on their TV commercials," remembered Paul Carlson, who was Nichols' assistant in the unit. "I think they did 26 one-minute commercials at $100,000 apiece. And we usually handed out the animation to the staff artists at Disney, but they would do the work at home."
Meanwhile at MGM, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were producing spots for such clients as General Mills, Schlitz Beer, Proctor and Gamble and Pall Mall cigarettes, all done on the sly, without the approval, or even the knowledge, of the studio's then-division head Fred Quimby. Elsewhere, animator Bill Melendez got his first taste of working for Peanuts by animating Charlie Brown introducing the 1956 Ford Falcon.
Much of the most memorable cartoon commercial work of the 1950s and '60s, however, was created by a small, independent company called Cascade Studios. Like Alexander, Cascade had a knack for attracting major studio artists who were in between jobs or simply trying to supplement their incomes. Looney Tunes director Robert McKimson went to the studio for six-months in 1953 after Warner Bros. had shut down its cartoon unit while waiting to see if 3D filmmaking was going to become the wave of the future. (When it became clear that it wasn't, the studio reopened in January 1954 and continued turning out cartoons in glorious 2D.) In 1955, Cascade got a major creative boost when Tex Avery joined its ranks, having just left the Walter Lantz studio. Avery went to work on some of the most memorable cartoon campaigns in history, including "The Frito Bandito" and the disaster-prone cockroaches that put Raid insect spray on the map. Avery remained at the commercial shop for the next two decades.
In addition to the legendary veterans that passed through its halls, Cascade can boast of another legacy: in the 1970s it was the starting place for three young special effects animators named Ken Ralston, Denis Muren and Phil Tippett. "When I was at Cascade, Denis Muren had a script, and just looking at this script, it was the movie we always wanted to make, but no studio would make a movie like this because it was just too hard," Ralston recalled recently. "But it was made, and we got to work with the guy who made it." The script was a little thing called Star Wars, "the guy" was George Lucas, and Ralston, Muren and Tippett went on to become part of the key creative core of Industrial Light & Magic.
Until recently, animated spots have tended to be overlooked by those in the animation industry and cartoon fans alike. But commercials have long been a major part of the animation landscape, and even though such one-time powerhouses as Alexander Film Studios and Cascade Studios are gone, neither they nor the artists who worked for them deserve to be forgotten.
Michael Mallory has written over 100 articles about animation, past and present, for such publications as Comics Scene, Animation, In Toon, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Millimeter. He is also the author of the book Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.