Joe Montell fell through the cracks. Unfortunately, Joe is amongst the many who worked in the early days at Hanna-Barbera who can’t be interviewed because he has passed away. Three years ago today, in fact, so I’m using the occasion to post a couple of notes about him.
Montell was born June 24, 1925. He apparently was a medic in the U.S Navy during World War Two and afterwards studied art in Italy on the G.I. Bill. How he got into animation is a mystery to be uncovered but his name first appears on credits at MGM in the Tex Avery unit, where Johnny Johnsen had been the long-time background artist. He worked on three cartoons, all released in late 1954: the unfortunate Farm of Tomorrow, The Flea Circus and Dixieland Droopy.
The 1950s was a flourishing time in Hollywood for industrial and commercial animation houses. One of the biggest producers of industrial films was John Sutherland Productions, where top talents like Bill Scott, George Gordon and Carl Urbano were paid to ply their trade to aid Corporate America. The Sutherland cartoons are well animated and designed and it’s a shame so few of them are available for viewing. Montell constructed the backgrounds on probably my favourite of the lot, 1956’s Destination Earth, designed by Vic Haboush and Tom Oreb. Since not all of the cartoons are in circulation, it’s difficult to say how many others he worked on, but his name is in the credits of Your Safety First (also 1956).
So, with a bit of a gap, that brings us to Montell arriving at Hanna-Barbera in 1959. The company had expanded to add The Quick Draw McGraw Show and the theatrical Loopy De Loop cartoons to its production schedule and Montell and Dick Thomas (from Warners) were hired as background artists. To the great annoyance of anyone interested in knowing who worked on what, the credits have been shorn from many of the individual cartoons in the 1959-60 season, including all the Quick Draws and almost all the ones on The Huckleberry Hound Show. However, the available credits on cartoons in the Yowp vault show Montell was the background artist for Papa Yogi, Heavens to Jinksie, Big Top Pop (Augie), Masquerader Raider, Motor Knows Best and Monkey Wrenched (all Snooper).
You’re out of luck if you expect some kind of critical analysis of his artwork at Hanna-Barbera, or a comparison of his stylistic choices to those of colleagues like Monty, Art Lozzi or even the fairly conservative Dick Thomas. That’s simply not my forte. However, I’d love to read comments from anyone knowledgeable in that realm. I noticed one thing in a couple of Montell’s cartoons, though. He placed little dots at the tops of trees or bushes in both Papa Yogi and the Augie cartoon. Whether that is something that comes from the background artist or is indicated in layout, I don’t know.
Despite the continued expansion at Hanna-Barbera, Montell left the studio that year. Both he and Gerard Baldwin went to work for Jay Ward on the Rocky and Bullwinkle series. And the two of them were among several Americans who ended up in Mexico toward the end of the year overseeing the slowly-improving output from Val-Mar/Gamma Productions. Historian Keith Scott reveals Montell became head of the layout department after a management change on August 31, 1962. Montell stayed with Gamma to oversee Ward’s Hoppity Hooper series (1964-65) and The Beagles (1966-67), an obscure product of Total Television Productions. And, with that, it appears Montell’s animation career ended and he moved back to the United States.
Art wasn’t Montell’s only talent. He was an inventor, a writer and an accomplished rug maker, and managed to combine all talents into one. The Los Angeles Times of May 19, 1968 featured an article by Felice Paramore about a product by Montell Design Enterprises. It began:
The Go-Go-Go Needle
Thanks to a new hooking needle developed by designer-painter Joe Montell of Newport Beach it is now possible to make a plain or sculptured 4-by-6-foot rug in 12 hours of hooking time. This is just a fraction of the time taken by former methods of hand hooking. Wall hangings pillows hassocks and chair coverings are some of the other decorative and useful items that can be created with the needle.
Montell wrote two books, The Art of Speed Tufting (1977) and Rug Crafters Catalog 1979 (1978) and was granted three parents for inventions involving yarn and rug making.
And so we lose sight of Montell until 2007, when this little biography appeared on a web site. Montell had moved to the retirement spot of Patagonia, Arizona, population 825. It reads:
Jude Weierman and Joseph Montell
Dog lovers both, they've got three, with a combined weight of more than 250 pounds, Jude and Joe "immigrated" to Patagonia via Laguna Beach, CA eight years ago. Jude retired from the California Parks District in 1994 and now spends his time hiking up Red Mountain and walking the three "kids." He's also active in the Santa Cruz Singers, the Friends of the Patagonia Library, and his homeowners association. Joe was an art director on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, and is a trained weaver who has lived in both Italy and Mexico. Today, he's painting and sculpting his way through retirement.
Perhaps appropriately considering Montell worked on Yogi Bear cartoons, Jude was a ranger.
Joseph John Montell died Friday, January 18, 2008, age 82.
But that’s not quite the end of the story.
Montell apparently wrote another book in 2000 under a nom-de-plume; at least, web searches turn up his name as the author. It is Lotus on a Dung Heap: Memoirs of a Gay Artist and reviews indicate it tells the story of a navy medic in World War Two who comes out, moves to Italy, returns to the U.S., is sent to Mexico by a film company that employs him, returns again to the U.S. and eventually heads to San Francisco where he volunteers at an AIDS Centre help phone then as a compassion buddy for men dying from the horrible syndrome. I can’t say whether it’s an actual autobiography or a story using parts of Montell’s life as a starting point because I haven’t seen the book. But it did get a favourable on-line review from an anonymous reader in Patagonia.
Regardless, Joe Montell was a part of early television animation history and it’s appropriate, on this date, to remember his contributions.