Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

A blog dedicated to the making of the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Abe Levitow, director

During my interviews with some of the artists and production personnel who worked with Abe Levitow, it became apparent that despite being a highly regarded draftsman, he was a man of few words.  Annie Guenther, color modelist on Christmas Carol, who lived near him in Northridge when they both worked at UPA, would sometimes drive him to work when his sports car was experiencing trouble.  She remembers that during the lengthy drive to Burbank, Abe spent the entire time thoughtfully puffing on his pipe, never uttering so much as a word.  Although every single artist and administrator praised him as being a kind and an unusually supportive director, few could tell me much about him as a person.  With enough anecdotes and access to his well kept archives, I was able to form a fairly clear picture of the man but I felt that when it came time to consider candidates for profiles on this blog, perhaps the people most qualified to provide insight into the artist who directed Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol were his family.  Following is a remembrance by his three adult children.

“REMEMBERING THE MOOSE” by  Judy, Roberta and Jon Levitow

They called him “Moose” in the Army, and the name just stuck.  During World War Two he worked for the animation branch of the Signal Corps, the Army’s motion picture division, in New York's Astoria Studios making training films with other writers and cartoonists such as Stan Lee (Marvel Comics), Sam Cobean (The New Yorker, The Naked Eye) , and George Baker (Sad Sack) as well as many other Hollywood animators .  There are hundreds of caricatures of our dad as a moose with a huge nose and antlers planted on his head, towering over everyone.  He sent our mom Valentines and Anniversary cards with himself as a giant, awkward moose and our mom as a dainty damsel.  The caricature really fit him since he was tall, gentle, shy and funny.  (Above and below, drawings by Chuck Jones.) 

Often he communicated better through drawings than through conversation.  “Moosey” wasn’t prone to blowing his own horn, but worked with a quiet pride.  Even many years later, we’re told of the fierce loyalty he instilled in those who worked with him.  People tell us how he encouraged creativity in others and always tried to get the best work from them.  When he died too soon in 1975, just short of his 53rd birthday, he fell into a quiet obscurity undisturbed by the animation revival of the 1980’s.  It’s thanks to animation historians like Darrell Van Citters that our dad Abe Levitow’s loving contribution to the field will at last be remembered.  

Conceived in Ostrolenka, Poland, near the Russian border, our Dad was born in Boyle Heights in East LA in 1922.  William Levitow, his very pregnant wife Sarah, and their 2- year- old daughter Frances were part of an early wave of Jewish immigrants leaving Eastern Europe due to the upsurge of anti-Semitism amidst constantly changing borders, armies and governments.   “Willie” was originally a Talmudic scholar in Vilna, Lithuania, but left to avoid conscription in the various Russian armies to become an artist in a new media…photography.  He loved to tell us grandchildren that back in the Old Country everyone thought he was some kind of magician because he could superimpose an image of a man and make him look like he was sitting on a horse.  When he came to Los Angeles, he worked as a photo-retoucher for 20th Century Fox and made all the stars’ defects disappear.   Willie joined the IATSE #683 film laboratory technicians strike in 1945, found himself on the blacklist and never worked again for the studios.  As far as we could tell, from then until after “Willie” grew too weak to lift boxes at his brother-in-law’s grocery store, our grandparents lived on the rents in the little quadraplex they owned on Fountain Avenue in Hollywood.   


It was our grandmother who really nurtured our father’s drawing talent.  Sarah was passionately involved in Los Angeles’ early Yiddish culture scene and she counted many artists among her friends. She encouraged young Abe to pursue his evident talent and sent him to Saturday art classes.  As a teenager, Dad sent away for and completed mail-order cartooning classes from the W.L. Evans School of Cartooning.  After he graduated from Roosevelt High School, Dad won a scholarship to Chouinard School of Art (which eventually evolved into the California Institute of the Arts).  Our grandmother encouraged Abe to walk his drawings virtually across the street to the Leon Schlesinger studio on the Warner Bros. lot.  It was long spoken of as one of the family miracle stories that, on the spot, Chuck Jones hired him as an in-betweener.  Dad never left the animation business after that.  In gratitude, Chuck got one of our grandmother’s delicious European-style cheesecakes every Christmas time. We never knew if it was the cheesecakes or not, but they marked a long alliance between Chuck and our father.  They worked together at Warner Brothers, MGM and ABC.   Another benefit of animation was that Abe met our mother Charlotte, an award winning artist in her own right, who was an ink & painter at Warner Brothers.   They married in 1949.  (Below, a 1954 shot of Abe at Warner Bros., just after he began receiving screen credit.  Seated at the desk is animator Dick Thompson.)
Dad was always a little self-conscious about not having gone to college.  But he never stopped educating himself - reading, seeing plays or movies.  Throughout his career he continued life-drawing classes.  Our Sunday afternoon family outings were most likely to be a trip to the latest exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Fine art books filled our family bookshelves, and Dad had a particular love for the work of powerful draftsmen like Mexico’s Francisco Zuñiga and David Siqueiros.  
 
Abe Levitow’s career went on to span over 35 years.  He progressed from in-betweener, to animator, to animation director.  (Above, some of Abe's late '50s doodles.)  Besides his work with Chuck Jones, he spent a number of years at UPA and worked with Richard Williams in London and LA (below, an original cel setup from Richard Williams' version of A Christmas Carol).  We couldn’t be prouder of him and his accomplishments.  He’s listed as an animator on eight of Jerry Beck’s “The 100 Greatest Looney Tune Cartoons”,  although he had begun animating years before he received screen credit.  He directed late-UPA favorites Gay Purr-ee and Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol.   Many kind testimonials fill our guest book at www.abelevitow.com, a website we created to help bring his wonderful talent back to aficionados of animation history.  


In 1971, after decades of supporting so many other studios' efforts, he finally struck out on his own, forming Levitow/Hanson Films.  But just two years after realizing that dream, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a bone cancer that painfully reduced his former Moose-like stature.  Dad loved animation and never stopped working until he just couldn’t manage the effort, finally succumbing in 1975.  (Below, Levitow and crew in front of their office in the Walter Lantz building in Hollywood.  Christmas Carol alums Tony Rivera and Steve Clark are on the left.)

We remember our father as a homebody, not much of a traveler - someone who loved nothing more than spending the evening and weekends doing ink drawings with his kids, working on clay sculptures, and exploring his oil paints.  He even painted sets for the local Northridge Theatre Guild.  He charmed our mom’s huge extended family and especially all the kids and cousins.  He enjoyed summers in San Diego, where we shared an extended-family house at the beach and where he delighted in beach softball and water sports.  For  a towering man of 6’4”, he was surprisingly gentle.  Sometimes he seemed lost in his own thoughts,  but if he was in the mood, he could keep the kids and grown-ups laughing hysterically at funny stories or his funny voices.  At family gatherings, “Moose” was always the large man with all the little kids crawling all over him, shooting hoops with the older kids in the backyard, or drawing a funny picture of Bugs Bunny or the family dog—whatever struck someone’s fancy. 

"Remembering the Moose" copyright 2010 by Judy Levitow, Roberta Levitow and Jon Levitow

6 comments:

Daniel said...

Wonderful post. Thank you. He's been on my radar since I first read The Art of Friz Freleng. What a talent.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic bio. I have always been a big cartoon-addict and Magoo has been my favorite since I first saw "Rock Hound Magoo" in a theatre in 1957/58.I was 7 years old and both my parents had died in 1957.Magoo and Bugs and so many others that Abe worked on literally gave me a lot to be happy about in those early years. It's so nice to finally read/see photos of some of the men & women who brought me so much laughter when I was young (and even now when I'm almost 60).My thanks to the Levitow children (and you Darrell)for sharing these stories on this blog!Keep up the good work ...... Also,I love all the artwork you share with us. DJA

Anonymous said...

Great post on Abe Levitow, Darrell. My old friend Frank Andrina had a nickname for Abe; he called him "Abe Levity". That's Bob Bransford to Abe's right in the 1954 picture. In the Levitow/Hanson staff picture, Carl Bell is seated in front with the bell bottom pants. Milt Schaffer was one of Abe's directors at Levitow/Hanson, I animated a bit of a Count Chocula for him there in 1975, I guess. Abe was so quiet that you would hardly know he was there, just letting Milt Schaffer take all the abuse from the clients on Count Chocula, who were incredibly picky about the animation, scrutinizing it frame by frame on the moviola. I can't remember the agency guy's name on the Choculas today, but I remember the cops jailed him in Hollywood for taking a whizz in public! That spot was the only one I worked on for Abe, just a few weeks after I finished work, he passed on. I hope that the picky clients on the Choculas didn't stress him out too much, but Abe wouldn't have shown it, anyway. Mark Kausler

Darrell said...

Thanks for the additional insights, Mark! Great to hear from someone who was there.

Brubaker said...

Very insightful post! Nice to know more about Levitow/Hanson studio. I believe their only major production was the B.C. Thanksgiving special, (based on Johnny Hart's comic strip).

harrymccracken said...

In 1973 or thereabouts, Abe Levitow spoke about his work and classic cartoons in Portland. My father took me (I was about 8). I remember the fact that I couldn't hear very well, and that he showed a bunch of amazing cartoons I hadn't seen before (numerous classics, including Little Rural Riding Hood and One Froggy Evening). It was the first time I'd encountered a cartoonist in person, and my first exposure to non-Disney brilliance.

--Harry