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Rowland B. Wilson by John Culhane

John Culhane, author of many definitive books on Walt Disney animation, including Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 and Aladdin, The Making of an Animated Film, was a long-time friend of Rowland B. Wilson and sent this memoir to Rowland’s wife, Suzanne.

Rowland Wilson

DEAR SKEEZIX:
I opened the New York Times this Sunday morning and immediately recognized the laughter-provoking distinction of a Rowland B. Wilson cartoon! A Rowlie B. tiger is wrestling a Great White Hunter for his gun, and another Great White Hunter is saying, “You’ll not get a proper trophy that way, Bassington!” My first thought was that the Times was trying to lighten the loss told about in the obit above the cartoon: “CLAUDE SIMON, CHAMPION OF NEW NOVEL AND NOBEL LAUREATE, DIES AT 91″ – then suddenly I feared to see what I would find beneath the paper’s fold. Oh, there it was: “ROWLAND B. WILSON, 74, CREATOR OF WRY CARTOONS.”

I felt loss like that when Tex Avery died. Remember when Roland and I were working for Richard Williams Animation in London, and you and he and I went to the British Film Institute to see an evening of that otherTexan’s cartoons? Rowlie B. had one of the most distinctive laughs in the animation industry, right up there with John Hubley’s. When Tex died at 73 in 1980, a year’s laughter less than Rowland, I thought of all those Averys we saw together, and how I knew when Tex had hit the bulls-eye, because Rowland’s laugh enveloped us both. He laughedat the horny wolf in “The Shooting of Dan Magoo,” or Drag-Along Droopy saying “That makes me mad,” or King Size Canary growing to the size of planet earth, or Bad Luck Blackie getting hit by the kitchen sink. In fact, Rowland’s famous cartoon of Santa’s reindeer playing poker and saying to him, “Care to join in a reindeer game?” is funnier to me than all the literal stuff in Tex’s “Symphony in Slang” except maybe “raining cats and dogs.” Moreover, Rowland’s rescued damsel in Playboy who says to her exhausted knight in shining armor, “You think I’m obligated to come across now, don’t you, you male chauvinist pig!” is Red Hot Riding Hood’s sister under the skin.

Olympus2

What Rowland gave to John Musker and Ron Clements for their Disney Renaissance masterpieces, “The Little Mermaid” and “Hercules” is unforgettable. I spent a week touring America with John when I was
Mousetro of Ceremonies for “Disney on Film: A Forum on Animation and Fantasy Filmmaking” in 1981, and I knew that he was a collector of drawings by Scarfe and Wilson. Later, I found that he loved the statue’s head that Rowlie B. designed for Eric Goldberg’s Philoctetes to live in. Musker said, “Rowland Wilson’s conception of Phil’s Place provided a sense of fantasy and scale. It gave a sense of history to Phil that he wouldn’t have had otherwise-Phil, trainer of heroes, has fallen on hard times and literally lives in a run-down head of a statue that used to be grand and has sort of fallen on hard times and gone to seed. Yet, inside it, he has his shrine – this treasure trove of
artifacts.”

I wrote about the making of “Hercules” for the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, and I was most interested in the personality of Phil because of all the comic thinking that went into him. The first time I heard Danny DeVito’s voice issuing from the head of that old, broken down statue where Phil lived, I laughed harder than Hubley and Wilson combined.

PhilsPlace

I started out as a lover of Rowland’s non-moving cartoons -for the Saturday EveningPost, The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy: then I got to know you two in the 70s when we were working at Richard Williams Animation where Rowland was making Dick’s prize-winning vodka commercial that shows a train running into Russia through the snow and I was working on story development for “The Thief and the Cobbler.” Remember us going to hear Dick Williams play like Bix on his cornet at a jazz club, and Rowlie B making caricatures of me listening raptly while Dick was playing, his eyes bulging out like hardboiled eggs with irises? Then we corresponded when you two were in Ireland making those features for Don Bluth – Thumbelina and the others; then I would talk to him on the phone when you guys came to California and Disney’s. As you know, I have been trying to get Disney to publish that deliciously funny graphic novel that Rowland wrote and illustrated and you, Suzanne Lemieux Wilson, painted. Made me laugh my old Averyesque-quality laugh, that graphic novel! I wonder how long he is going to be too far ahead of them?

“Making animated movies is not a mechanical process,” said Andy Gaskill, the wonderfully creative art director of “Hercules.” “It’s not something you can program into a computer which spits out a hard copy. It’s a process that involves a whole network of relationships, people working with each other, bumping into each other, scratching each other’s eyes out – I mean, hugging each other. Moviemaking involves a whole gamut of human behavior. I hope, after all we’ve done, we can all look at the movie and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

I’d never seen anything like Phil’s Place before. I hope to see it again, when architecture and comics catch up. Rowland worked for the future, though I remember from London how much he loved the past. He
and I had both done graduate work at Columbia – me in journalism; Rowland in art history. We could talk Viennese paintings with Grim Natwick – Schiele and Klimt – and Grim had been there when those guys were painting! (Of course, that kiss by Grim – prince and Snow White – is much better known than “The Kiss” by Klimt.)

Rowland’s concept art for Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” evoked for me medieval life in the reign of Louis XI such as I found as an American Cold Warrior in Paris in the 1950′s, celebrating the Feast of St. Hubert the Hunter with High Mass at Notre Dame. Rowland’s drawings of Esmeralda, Frollo, and, particularly, Quasimodo, were people I could have met there in The Age of Faith. Rowland’s big painting of soldiers taking away Esmeralda and her goat while gray-hooded scribes take names and red-hooded figures impassively look on has the chilling feeling of the authoritarianism of Frollo’s Paris. The gypsies of the time, persecuted by Frollo and his men, hide away in old Roman ruins that, in Rowland Wilson’s version, have been gypsy-humanized with a lavender and yellow tapestry that calls it The Court of Miracles. Quasimodo’s crowning as King of Fools and his first meeting with Esmeralda would fit right in to the Feast of Fools that Rowland painted, particularly with the sausage seller, the big-bosomed fast-food consumer, the playing musicians, the running children. The life in the art of Rowland B. Wilson lives on after his death! And when Frollo is prevented from burning Esmeralda to death by her rescue, and that evil man is willing to avenge himself on Paris itself by setting loose hellfire on the cathedral and the whole city (is Paris burning?), Rowland gives us a ribbon of wavering fire streaking down the faade of
Notre Dame de Paris!

Esmeralda

How fitting, darling Skeezix (Rowland’s shorthand for your maiden name of Suzanne Lemieux!), that he should have evolved to make that artistic tribute to the French spirit of our ancestors. My mother’s Robidoux forebears, like your father’s Lemieux clan, knew that Paris; and Mount Robidoux in Riverside bears testimony to their presence in the California world of missions where the goodly friar commemorated Rowland. And I’ll bet you that Rowley B. is up there laughing with Rabelais now.

John

Sincerely, John Culhane, model for Mr. Snoops in Disney’s “The Rescuers” and Flying John in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Roy E. Disney’s “Fantasia 2000″; model (with Rowland) for two submachine-gun firing gangsters in a Richard Williams commercial.

Posted by admin at 3.17 PM | 5 Comments
Labels: Visual Development Artists

Comments

  1. Suzanne Wilson (September 5th, 2005, 10.14 pm)

    From Robert Benton, Film Director

    I first met Rowland Wilson in 1947 in an art class at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. I was a sophomore in High School, Rowland a junior. The first time I saw his work I thought it was the most astonishing thing I had ever seen. At the age of sixteen he already had the skill and authority of someone twice his age. I would sit next to Rowland in art class and study everything he did and then go home and spend the week trying my best to copy it. Rowland became not only my friend, but my first real art teacher and an extraordinary influence on my life.

    Rowland went to the University of Texas. I went to the University of Texas. He introduced me to animated cartoons, Dixieland jazz and all things British. He was, at least for a while, an Anglophile. While the rest of us were sitting around the University of Texas reading the ?New Yorker? and dreaming of going to New York. Rowland, was probably the only person in Austin Texas who subscribed to ?Punch? the British humor magazine that flourished in the fifties, and for him New York was a pit stop on the way to London. It is no wonder that his four daughters all have British accents.

    After graduating from Texas Rowland moved to New York. And a year later, after I graduated, I followed suit. Ostensibly we were going to Columbia to get a Masters Degree and, more importantly avoid the draft (which neither of us managed to do), but, in fact we spent most of our time playing ruthless games of ping-pong in the Student Union. Unfortunately, we ran out of money for tuition and had to abandon our dreams of becoming world champion ping-pong players.

    There is the family we are born with and the family we find along the way, The family we find along the way is big and rowdy and largely dysfunctional. There are people we see all the time and others we see less often than we should, but nevertheless we are part of one another’s family and the loss of one member of that family is a huge loss.

    Rowland and I were friends for close to sixty years and I can still remember vividly the first drawing of his I ever saw. It was a cartoon of Frankenstein, and it still seems to me as astounding now as it did then.

    We will miss him.I will miss him.

  2. Suzanne Wilson (September 5th, 2005, 10.16 pm)

    From Phil Kimmelman, PKA Animation Studio

    Remembering Rowland,

    If there was ever a time I was happy for not being able to say ?no?, it was when I was approached to do a animated commercial for ?Flying A? gasoline back in the early ?70s. I was shown a fantastic design of a gas eating monster that the ad agency hired Rowland to do. The problem was that it was so heavily rendered with a lot of blending colors that other top animation studios turned down as they deamed it impossible to animate. But I was so touched by Rowland?s designs that I couldn?t say no and so began one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. With Rowland?s guidance, we ended up rendering cel by cel with acrylic paints and produced a classic award winning commercial. That was just the beginning. From there we went on to produce many more award winning campaigns such as Utica Club beer, Vote toothpaste, Hi Karate after shave, Schoolhouse Rock, etc. etc.

    Working with Rowland was incredably magical as with each project he would always come up with a new approach and a different look, and as our relationship grew, he became my mentor and very close friend. His profound influence on me would change my life forever. He helped me to expand my visions and to better understand who I am, and for this I am internally grateful. It was always creatively challenging and fun to be in Rowland?s company, and some of the fun times I remember was the time I visited him in Ct. with my brand new Alfa Romeo sports car. He had a Porsche at the time and when I arrived he asked to sit in my new car to check it out. He then proceeded to challenge me to a race. The rules were when he said go, we were to jump in our cars and race on this country road which circled around back to his house. So on his command and being all of 5 ft. 5 in., I jumped into my car only to realize I could not reach the peddles or even the steering wheel and even the mirrors were out of whack.

    He returned with a sheepish smile on his face to find me still adjusting the seat and said ?what happened to you??

    But I got my revenge the time he showed up at my house the day after I threw a party that he couldn?t attend.

    We had a ping pong contest in my basement that night where I had a hot streak and wiped everybody out. When I opened the door there was Rowland standing there with a ping pong paddle in his hand saying, ?I hear you?re quite a ping pong player!? So down to the basement we went and I proceeded to beat him mainly because he was facing a window where the sun was shining in his eyes. So he said ?okay wiseguy, let?s switch sides and you face the sun!? We did and being all of 5 ft.5, the glare from the sun shot over my head and I proceeded to beat him again. Without saying a word, he picked up his paddle and left!

    And these are just some of the fond memories I recall in our relationship, but most of all it was his incredible talent and approach to creativity that sticks with me most. Artistically, he was truly a super star, and there isn?t a day that goes by when I am working on a project that I don?t ask myself, how would Rowland approach this?

    He was the best and I will miss him more than words can say.

    Phil Kimmelman

  3. Suzanne Wilson (October 5th, 2005, 8.18 pm)

    From Russell Boland (ex-production Supervisor Don Bluth Studios, founder of TerraGlyph Productions/Digital Animation Media)

    Dear Suzanne,

    It was with great sadness that I read an e-mail from Phaedra Finnegan with the news that Rowland passed away on the 28th June. I had the pleasure of working in Don Bluth Studios in Dublin when both you and Rowland were there. My memories of Rowland are those of a true gentleman and a gentle giant, someone who oozed enthusiasm for his craft and was a great ambassador for the industry. One thing that always struck me about Rowland was that he always appeared comfortable in his own ability and he knew he didn’t have to prove anything to anyone. I thought it was a lovely gift that he delighted in sharing his knowledge with anyone who was willing to ask, which I feel is a mark of a true talent – someone who didn’t feel that sharing your knowledge with others in anyway weakened your position. But also more importantly, he was always delighted to listen to and learn new ideas from others some of whom were his peers but he was also happy to listen to the comments form the novice only starting out in their career. I also remember his great sense of humour, an imposing figure with a great big smile and laugh to boot, to this day I can still see him walking through the 5th Floor of the Don Bluth Studios on the Conyngham Road, wandering in and out of the layout and background departments looking over the artists’ shoulder’s, picking up a brush or pencil and adding a swish of paint or pencil which always seemed to add that ‘something’ to the piece of art that was missing. He never made people feel uneasy or belittled their lack of abilities, but always seemed to get people to push them selves that little bit further.

    To this day I still come across people who have worked with Rowland, all of them remember him fondly and all say that they learned so much from him which they still put into practice today. I have worked recently with the likes of Rick Bentham, Stephen Robinson, Dave McCamley (all BG artists) and Eddie Gribben, Fred Reilly & Ger Miley (all layout artists) and during the course of the projects that we worked on, Rowland’s name would always crop up. In fact I did have some of the color handouts that Rowland made for the BG department in Bluth which we put to good use including color beat boards and shading workbook artwork in tones of B&W to get the lighting right, “if it works in B&W it will work in color” I can still hear him say. His passing will be a huge loss to the industry both from a creative standpoint but also, more importantly, the loss of a true gentleman.

    I hope that his passing was peaceful for him and that you are managing to cope with the loss of your husband and ‘best friend’. I am delighted that I had the good fortune to work with Rowland and hope that some day should I get that talented that I can be as humble and gracious as he was – an inspiration to all who met him. I wish you well and hope that, whilst the pain of loss never goes, that it becomes more bearable as time passes.

    Kind regards,
    Russell Boland (ex-production Supervisor Don Bluth Studios, founder of TerraGlyph Productions/Digital Animation Media)

  4. Suzanne Wilson (October 5th, 2005, 8.22 pm)

    From William Peckmann, PKA Animation Studio, New York

    Subject : THE BEST DANG, DERN CARTOONIST…

    DEAR ROWLAND, THANK YOU, THANK YOU AND THANK YOU!

    Thank you for having the honor the very huge pleasure of knowing you.
    Our meeting each other came about because of the heady years of commercial art in the 1960′s.

    Being in animation at that time was very fortunate because advertising agencies were using famous named print cartoonists to design TV commercials.
    As luck would have it we were paired up with Rowland B. Wilson to do a “Flying A” gasoline animated spot.

    This was a dream come true for me because as a teenager reading Esquire magazine in the barber shop I came across these beautifully designed, wonderful, hilarious, historical, worldly, full page gag cartoons that could only have been done by an elderly, experienced, sophisticated, short, balding, portly Englishman, yes Englishman, what American cartoonist would sign their name using their middle initial.

    It was very easy to become a huge fan of someone who was this talented.
    Imagine my surprise when meeting Rowland for the first time at our studio, in walks this very young, very lanky, tall, slow walkin’, slow talkin’ TEXAN!

    (END OF PART ONE.)

    Subject : PART TWO OF BEST DANG, DERN CARTOONIST…

    Dear Rowland, thank you for sharing so, so easily all that you knew and cared about in crafting and exploring your art.

    We were very, very lucky that Rowland was able to share office space with us in our studio off and on during the 1970′s and 1980′s.

    This was a two fold blessing.

    Number one was Rowland regaling us with his love everything visual which included not only cartoon art but more importantly fine art and his expertise on animated and live action film. Also to critique, constructively of course, all of our efforts which only made them that much better.

    Blessing number two was that he knew where all the good restaurants and watering holes were, especially “The Alamo” which served the best Tex-Mex chili in New York City!

    (END OF PART TWO.)

  5. scott caple (January 2nd, 2006, 1.30 pm)

    Well, they say whatever you do on the first day of the year will influence all of the rest, so i can’t think of a better than talking about Rowland! And it’s already the third day!

    I first “met’ Rowland in the small Southwest Ontario town of my childhood on the pages of my high school friend’s brother’s issues of Playboy. Immediately drawn to the strong design and great gags, but mostly i liked that while he drew nubiles with the best of them they weren’t all sex gags; alot of them were just quite witty and intelligent, often based on history or literature; and Accurate – when he drew a WWI plane, it was a definite type, not just an ersatz cartoon plane. I thought, this guy must have some clout to get this stuff into the likes of Playboy.

    Fast forward to Sheridan College where I had a cuople of Wilsons (exactoed out of mags) over my desk; instructor Kaj Pindal came up and said, oh, yes, i worked with him at Dick Williams studio, and told a story or two. Wow, i thought, this guy works in animation too! Soon after that, I saw those Pushkin vodka commercials at a festival, with Rowland’s tag on them. They’re still great.

    So imagine my surprise and delight when, after joining Sullivan Bluth studios in Ireland, where he arrived after parting ways with Disney, (which, he alowed, was not always a completely harmonious job) he arrived there and I finally met and became friends with this long admired man and his wife, suzanne.

    A couple of my own reminiscences:
    We worked together at the annex that Don put together down the road from the main studio, along with the likes of the Zondag brothers, Dave Goetz, Guy Deel, Kevin Gollaher and Mark Swan. It was a cold draughty warehouse building, two floors, office area in front, warehouse in back, filled with cels of banjo and Miss Brisbe and the shooting stage where Don would shoot the live ax ref for the features at the time. In which the bunch of us hammered out a lot of forgettable artwork, and it wasn’t all fun, but it was an experience in camaraderie, mostly due to Rowland.
    Like others have said, he had these worksheets he had made; small thumbnail exercises of composition and colour with notes about value, colour and the like, real nuts and bolts stuff. These he passed around and copied for us, in his capaciity of Avuncular Artistic Mentor.
    He was always good for a short saying or bon mot at the end of a discussion; there would the pause after a round of talk, then that unmistakable drawl, ” Well, it’s easy to criticize, but it’s hard not to!” And he was not sparing in his criticism, sometimes to our distress.
    He loved taking short trips to various places on the continent from Ireland, as we all did; I remember him raving about visiting a certain castle in Portugal and a show he went to in London of the work of Carreveggio. He thought one the best pieces of Western Art was the View of Delft by Vermeer.
    There’s so much more and it ‘s only a small slice of the man, only my own meagre experience; he was all everyone else has said. It was a pleasure and an honour to have had the chance to know him ; you don’t get such chances often.

    scott c.

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