Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A Part of the Life of Joe Montell

It’s a nice surprise to stumble across anything that tells us something about people who worked in animation once upon a time. We’re fortunate historians managed to interview some of them before it became too late (over and over again, in Chuck Jones’ case) but many others fell through the cracks because they became out-of-sight/out-of-mind.

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 Monte, 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.


  1. I remember Art Lozzi saying in an email that he was able to make the backgrounds his "own". The layouts were real loose on some of the cartoons. Not the Flintstones, but as long as the characters would register where needed he could do what he wanted. I suppose that Joe had the same freedom too.

    I'm not familiar with the Keith Prowse library but I have those tunes from the series of CDs released by Living Era. They were on the Pink Champagne album. Not all of the tracks you have there but a good portion of them. Great stuff.

  2. Thanks, Kevin. I've tried looking at design things like clouds and trees to find clues as to the identities of background artists. But I've just ended up being confused. For example, Lozzi did a type of textured cloud that's also found in cartoons he didn't work on. Same with those flip-up fir branches in Monty's cartoons. So I'm stumped.

    Art also once said backgrounds were re-used, adding to the confusion.

  3. I would be surprised if the different background artists didn't somewhat influence and pick up techniques from each other. That would make trying to identify who did what even harder.

    The HB backgrounds are deceptively simple. As easy as some of them look, it still takes skill to set them up and keep them well balanced (even the TV in that one shot that looks like it's designed to tip over!)

    It's too bad better records weren't kept to outline who did what, but they were cranking these out too fast to keep up with the schedule that it all starts to blur together a bit.

  4. J.C., the records exist somewhere. The prints of the cartoons are clearly edited to take out the credits. Why it was done, I don't know. Most of the restored ones contain full credits.

    Art Lozzi explained on John K's blog he could pick out Monty's stuff from Bob Gentle's. I gather their technique and colour choices may not have been the same. I was hoping artists reading here might have some insight about it because I'm completely lost in that area.

  5. I would love to find one of the yarn templates created by Montell in Figure 3 above. I am making a rug that my mother started years ago but the template is missing. If anyone knows how or where I can purchase one of these, please call me. 623 261 1282. My name is Sheryl. Thank you so much. RIP Joe Montell.

  6. I just bought another copy of "The Art of Speed Tufting" because I have many fond memories of making a Rug Crafters rug. Of course, I enjoyed the cartoons with which Montel was involved years earlier. Montell was one year younger than my late father. Anyway, Rug Crafters came along when I had just entered college. It was the closest I came to making rugs until many years later in Vermont. Sad that Rug Crafters disappeared. I loved visiting that shop in our local mall. I always adored traditional hooked rugs and punch needle rugs. I designed my own rug using Rug Crafter yarns. Occasionally, one of his kits ends up for sale online. I have many fond memories of mine because I made it the first year I was married when I was 22-23. Now I'm 55, and I still have the rug. Still looks great. The yarn he sold was colorfast and strong. Sorry he's gone. Seems like he had a beautiful, accomplished life, though.