Saturday 9 March 2024

Hanna-Barbera's Caricaturist

I think you know who these guys are.

Caricatures appeared periodically at Hanna-Barbera, especially on The Flintstones; we don't need to name them. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were caricatured, too. The Color It Happy pilot of the late '60s comes to mind. So does another would-be show from '70s called Duffy's Dozen, where Bill and Joe voiced their characters. They were drawn by the same man who signed the drawing above. It was an assistant animator named Ben Shenkman (the art came from the May 1970 edition of Hollywood Studio Magazine.

Shenkman was a native New Yorker, born July 3, 1913. We can thank film historian Donald Crafton for some biographical material he wrote for the January 1993 issue of Film History in an article entitled “The View From Termite Terrace: Caricature and Parody in Warner Bros Animation.”
Shenkman’s career can be seen as typical for the industry. In the late 1920s he was working as an office boy at Columbia in New York. He aspired to be a cartoonist and one of his sketches of the manager was published in the Columbia Beacon. The boss introduced Shenkman to Max Fleischer, whose animation studio was nearby, and he joined the ink-and-paint staff. He was soon laid off and returned to Columbia, but this time in Charles Mintz’s cartoon unit. Mintz moved Krazy Kat production to Hollywood in 1930 and invited 16-year old Shenkman to join as an in-betweener, a job he accepted and held for nine years. But his talent as a caricaturist was well-known, and he was in demand as a designer of greeting cards, invitations and occasional publicity drawings. Friz Freleng, recently returned to Schlesinger’s from a stint at MGM in mid-April, 1939, know about Shenkman by way of his friend at Columbia, Art Davis, and invited him to work on Malibu Beach Party.

The cartoon was released in 1940. It was a parody of the Jack Benny radio show, with Benny inviting movie stars (Gable, Garbo, Raft, Bette Davis and so on). Crafton goes on:

Schlesinger had an agreement that Benny would have the right to approve the drawings and the film and Mary Livingston[e], in fact, did insist that the caricaturist ‘do something about the nose’ before filming commenced. [Livingstone was so snout-sensitive, she had a nose job]. The stars’ studio photographs provided the basis for the sketches. Shenkman recalls that the principal’s voices were recorded by the stars themselves, but some of the others might have been impersonated. [If that was the case, the sound wasn’t used. KFWB’s Jack Lescoulie provides the voice of Benny].
The success of his caricatures led to Shenkman’s being hired by the studio in March 1940 as an animation assistant. [Tex] Avery had been working on Hollywood Steps Out well before Freleng’s film was released, and immediately engaged Shenkman to do caricatures. Avery took him and a background artist [Johnny Johnsen] to Ciro’s to make notes and sketches of the décor and guests. Schlesinger probably had obtained permission from the restaurant. Shenkman made about fifty model sheets of celebrities which the animators adapted for head size, perspective rendering and, of course, movement. Parts of the action were rotoscoped. In the scenes where Clark Gable and a mysterious lady do a Rhumba, Shenkman was filmed dancing with Mildred (Dixie) Mankemeyer, fiancée of [animator] Paul Smith.
Both these films have a bit of documentary quality about them, derived in no small part from Shenkman’s hard-edged ‘photographic’ style caricatures.
He enlisted in the army on Dec. 31, 1942 and was discharged on Dec. 16, 1944.

When Shenkman left Warners is difficult to say. Webb credits him with the Peter Lorre caricature in Birth of a Notion (1947). The page to the left comes a Los Angeles Times magazine. Shenkman painted all the art for his son’s bedroom, but the short article that goes with it only calls him an “artist” and does not say where he was working. The 1950 Census return lists his occupation as “cartoonist, movie.”

He gained a connection with Hanna and Barbera when he moved to the MGM cartoon studio. He is responsible for a drawing of a group of artists at the studio in 1956; the staff members have been identified by H-B background artist Art Lozzi. There is a grey-scale version of this drawing in Martha Sigall’s wonderful book on her career in animation, but this comes from the Cartoon Research website.

Here’s more of Shenkman’s work. This must have been done on a freelance basis as it appeared in the Sunday magazine of the Boston Globe on Oct. 22, 1961. That's a good-looking Bugs.

We’ve posted a bit about Shenkman on the Yowp blog before. He took part in the ninth annual “Operation Art for the Armed Forces” in mid-December 1961 at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Oakland. Taking part were Hanna-Barbera writers Mike Maltese and Warren Foster, who showed some cartoons from the Huckleberry Hound Show and gave away cels; Johnny Johnson, Tex Avery’s background painter dating back to the Warner Bros. days; Phil Duncan, who had his own studio called TV Cartoon Products and freelanced for Hanna-Barbera; and Fred Crippen, the UPA artist who later created Roger Ramjet.

The story gives a bit of background, though I caution that other "facts" contained in it aren't quite correct. It says Shenkman "has done portraits and caricatures for Disney and MGM and is now with UPA." I don't know about his Disney connection, but Keith Scott's essential The Moose That Roared has his name on the list of the early Rocky and Bullwinkle animation was that done in Hollywood.

This picture of Shenkman with his drawing of Bill and Joe dates from 1967, according to a commenter on this blog some years ago.

Shenkman seemed to like the volunteer gig for the armed forces. Here is a December 1966 photo from "Operation Art For the Armed Forces." Second left in the top row is Jerry Eisenberg, layout man at Hanna-Barbera. I hope you've read his interview on this blog. Jerry, as you have read, pitched series ideas to Joe Barbera and the article in The Oak Leaf mentions he was working on the Yogi Bear Sunday comics. Background artist Janet Brown is next to him. Also shown are two H-B animators, Larry Silverman and Bill Carney. Silverman's career went back to the silent days and he's better known for his work on the East Coast, mainly at Terrytoons, though his name shows up on a 1933 Harman-Ising cartoon, Wake Up the Gypsy For Me, for Warner Bros.

Shenkman was back a year later. He is at the lower left. At the top left is another well-known Hanna-Barbera artist, background painter Dick Thomas, who started at Warners in the late '30s. Murray McClelland was also employed at Hanna-Barbera at the time, and at the top far right is 84-year-old Johnny Johnsen, who seems to have retired from MGM before Hanna and Barbera set up their own studio in 1957.

We've found one other story about a Shenkman caricature event. It was in a Los Angeles suburb in 1964. Also taking part in it was Art Leonardi, the ex-Warners animator who rose through the ranks at DePatie-Freleng.

Again, it's unclear when Shenkman left Hanna-Barbera. Harvey Deneroff, a fine historian with animation in his family, spoke to Shenkman and says he later worked at Filmation, DePatie-Freleng and for Ralph Bakshi. His credits include Archie’s Funhouse, Star Trek: The Animated Series, Coonskin, Wizards and Hey Good Lookin’.

Shenkman died in Los Angeles on April 14, 1996.