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Saturday morning superhero

‘Yellow Submarine’ animator’s classic cartoon art show comes to Tulsa

Legendary animator Ron Campbell with his artwork from “The Yellow Submarine” and the Beatles Saturday morning cartoon.

Rob Shanahan

Legendary animator Ron Campbell devoted his 50-year career to making Saturday morning cartoons, tapping out the moment the industry moved away from pen-and-paper in favor of more advanced technologies.

He was working on Cartoon Network’s “Ed, Edd, and Eddy” in 2008 when he completed his very last scene of animation. “I knew that was it for me because everything from that point on was going to be done by computers,” Campbell said.

The writing on the proverbial wall was clearly laid out in digital font. But for Campbell—who had a hand in bringing to life some of the most iconic animated characters in cartoon history—computer-generated moving images, however sophisticated, lacked the spark of life at the root of the word “animation.”

“To me, the fascination was being able to do drawings that come alive. Manipulating images on a computer screen would not have had the same charm for me,” Campbell explained.

Campbell’s career began in Australia. A young man fascinated with Saturday morning cartoons at the movie theatre, he knew little about animation when he got his big break in TV. “Nineteen fifty-eight was the year I did my very first commercial, pretending I knew how to do cartoons,” Campbell said. “A centipede being sprayed by bug spray. The centipede had to collapse in every drawing, 100 legs in every drawing. Today it would be the most dreary thing to do, but at the time I remember thinking, ‘I would pay them to let me do this.’”

Campbell’s resume reads like an all-time greatest hits list of Saturday morning cartoons. Starting with his earliest shows “Beetle Bailey,” “Krazy Kat,” and “Cool McCool,” he made a splash with the success of The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon in the 60s, which led to the opportunity to be a part of the cultural landmark film “The Yellow Submarine.”

Campbell acknowledged the massive impact of “The Yellow Submarine” on popular culture, but his memory is grounded. “It was just fortuitous events in my life, you know. It just happened that the studio that was making ‘The Yellow Submarine’ in London needed extra help. They had animation they couldn’t get done, and the producer Al Brodax had a lot of confidence in me, I presume.”

Campbell and his colleague Duane Crowther animated 12 minutes of the film, which took them eight months with several assistants. “It required a different type of animation,” Campbell said. “It was all two-dimensional, so it was kind of flat animation, as if the drawings were cut out instead of round characters like Donald Duck.”

At the same time he was working on scenes for “The Yellow Submarine,” Campbell was doing the “George of the Jungle” series and spending about two days a week animating “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” “I was a very busy boy in 1968, I guess you could say,” Campbell said.

Campbell also played a role in creating other iconic Hanna-Barbera cartoons such as “Yogi Bear,” “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons,” and “Harlem Globetrotters.” In the 80s, he storyboarded the immensely successful series “The Smurfs,” and its spinoff “Snorks.” His later work included “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Darkwing Duck,” “Goof Troop,” and “Rugrats,” just to name a few hits.

During the time he was actively animating, Campbell’s only sense of his audience was through ratings. “The audience was always, ‘Hey Harry, how’d we do last Saturday?’ And we’d get numbers on a page, and that’s what the audience was. We got 20-share or 10-share or 15-share,” he said, pointing out that “The Yellow Submarine” got a staggering 67-share, meaning 67 out of every 100 televisions were tuned into the program when it debuted.

Since retiring in 2008, Ron has been painting and traveling, sharing his stories from behind the scenes of his career in animation. Jan. 20–23, he’ll be in Tulsa showing his paintings at a pop-up art show at Grant’s Frames (8007 S. Sheridan Ave.). The paintings will all contain images based on Campbell’s career in animation.

The works range in price from less than $300 to approximately $10,000 and will include a certificate of authenticity made out by Campbell on the spot along with a spontaneous original drawing. Posters will also be available for purchase for around $40. Campbell invites people to come out and visit, whether they have money to spend or not.

“Now in my retirement, I’m traveling all over America. You can hardly name a city I haven’t been to. And in all those cities, I’m meeting the audience, that is, the adults who were the audience years ago, of all ages. People watched the cartoons in the 50s, or that I made through the 2000s, and that has been one of the greatest pleasures of my old age. Actually meeting the audience live and listening to what they say to me.”

And after getting to finally interact with his audience, Campbell saw what his career meant to others.

“If their childhood was horrible, the one thing, invariably, is that they had happy memories of Saturday mornings. And if their childhood was perfect in every way, they still have happy, happy memories of Saturday mornings. So Saturday morning cartoons did a great service for children’s growth, you know?”

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