Dr. Toon: A Living Timeline
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 Incredibles and 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.