The word cartoon has many different meanings based on its different forms of visual art and illustration. The original meaning of the word comes from the Renaissance where it was referred to as a preparatory drawing for a piece of art. But the meaning of cartoon has evolved over time and is now most commonly thought of as a humorous illustration in newspapers, magazines, films and TV entertainment for children. Almost every child grew up with their faces pressed to the television screen while enjoying their favorite animated show. But what most people do not know is that many of the popular cartoon characters they grew up watching were created by Italian Americans.
Donald Duck was illustrated by Italian American Al Taliaferro, whose family was originally from northern Italy. He worked at Disney Studios and began illustrations for Donald Duck in 1938. After much success, Donald migrated to newspapers, appearing in the “Silly Symphony” Sunday comic strip drawn and inked by Taliaferro. At the height of its popularity, Taliaferro’s Donald Duck was published in 322 newspapers. He continued illustrations for Donald Duck until his death in 1969 at the age of 63.
Another Italian American cartoonist was Walter Lantz (originally Lanza), creator of Woody the Woodpecker. Lantz was born in New York to his Italian immigrant parents. He always loved animations, completing a mail order drawing class by the age twelve. When he was 16, he was working in the animation department of the New York American under director Gregory La Cava. He opened his own studio and it was here that the creation of Woody the Woodpecker came about. He retired from the business in 1982, but not before winning a special Academy Award for bringing joy and laughter to every part of the world through his unique animated motion pictures.
Joseph Oriolo was born in Union City, New Jersey, to his Italian immigrant parents. Growing up, he displayed a passion for drawing and developed his dream of becoming a cartoon animator. This came true at age 20, when he began working with Max Fleischer Studios. In 1939, Oriolo made a name for himself in the animation industry with the creation of Casper the Friendly Ghost for a children’s book. Two subsequent books followed and Casper soon became one of the studio’s most popular animated series. His next major contribution came with his collaboration on the Felix the Cat comic books, which were developed into award-winning television series.
Joseph Barbera is the most influential Italian American cartoonist. He was born at on Delancey Street in the Little Italy section of Manhattan, to Italian immigrants Vincent and Francesca (Calvacca) Barbera. He grew up speaking Italian and developed his artistic talents from a young age. While working at MGM Studios, he met the man who would become his business partner, William Hanna. The two created the animated series Tom and Jerry. When MGM dissolved its animation department, Hanna-Barbera was formed and became the most successful television animation studio in the business. They produced many popular animation series, including The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, Yogi Bear, The Smurfs and The Jetsons. In 1967, Hanna and Barbera sold their studio to Taft Broadcasting, but remained heads of the company until 1991. After a 70-year career in animation, Barbera died of natural causes in 2006 at the age of 95. He left behind a major legacy in the animation world, including seven Academy Awards, eight Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe.
The Italian American Museum of Los Angeles has opened a fun-filled exhibition called Fantasy World – Italian Americans in Animation. The world of animation was shaped in great part by the early work of Italian Americans who figure prominently in the area, having given birth to iconic series, including The Flintstones, Tom and Jerry and Woody Woodpecker. They have also served as the creative forces behind major studios and comic classics.
Spanning a century of history, Fantasy World explores the Italian American luminaries who have shaped this exciting medium and those who continue to entertain audiences today. The exhibition will be open through January 26, 2020. The museum is located at 644 North Main Street in Los Angeles, California.