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Walter Lantz, Creator of Woody Woodpecker, Dies

March 23, 1994|DAVID E. BRADY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"One reason they don't really date is that we use no puns or popular phrases of the time," he once said. "Also, they are made up of two-thirds physical and sight gags and only one-third dialogue. This is a secret of their success in foreign countries too. Often we don't even translate the dialogue."

The son of Italian immigrants, Lantz was born in New Rochelle, N.Y. He had an early interest in art as a child, completing a mail-order drawing course at age 12.

At 15, he traveled to New York City, where he worked for $7 a week as an office boy at a William Randolph Hearst newspaper. After work, Lantz attended classes at an art school.

In 1916, Morrell Goddard, who had created the nation's first color newspaper comic section, offered the aspiring teen-age artist a job in the animation department of Hearst's International Film Service under the supervision of director Gregory LaCava.

"I started out on the camera when I was 16," Lantz recalled in 1982. "Within three years I was an animator on 'The Katzenjammer Kids,' 'Jerry on the Job,' 'Bringing Up Father' and all the cartoons based on popular newspaper strips.

"We didn't know much about animation in those days--everything was loose and rubbery--but my studies at the Art Students' League had given me a good background in drawing the figure in various positions. I also used to project Charlie Chaplin's silent films, trace them frame by frame, then flip the drawings to study his motions."

Despite the challenges of the new medium, Lantz said he and his colleagues were able to meet the growing demand for cartoon entertainment, developing many of the techniques still in use today.

"We didn't have any animation cameras in those days, just Hearst-type newsreel cameras, and that's what we used," he said. "They were like a big wooden box. No motors, just a chain and a crank. We'd put the animation cel down and hold it down with a piece of glass and a lever. We'd press the lever to smooth the cel out so it didn't have any wrinkles, set the exposure, turn the crank and make a picture."

By 1922, Lantz was working as a producer at the John Randolph Bray studio, supervising such characters as Col. Heeza Liar, Pete the Pup and Dinky Doodle in cartoon shorts that occasionally blended animation with live actors--including Lantz.

"I was a terrible actor," he once said. "I had four expressions."

Four years later, Lantz moved to Hollywood, where he was briefly employed with Frank Capra as a gag writer for silent-film director Mack Sennett. In 1928, after a friend's recommendation, Lantz was hired by Universal Film Co. head Carl Laemmle to oversee the studio's animation department. Lantz arrived just as a young cartoonist named Walt Disney was leaving, taking with him his idea for an animated mouse--which Universal had rejected.

Disney had left behind a character named Oswald the Rabbit, which Lantz quickly redesigned and copyrighted. Beginning in 1928, he created the first of nearly 300 cartoon shorts starring the loose-limbed rabbit.

In 1930, he made animation history by producing the first Technicolor cartoon--the five-minute opening sequence of "The King of Jazz."

Lantz spent more than a decade at Universal producing shorts starring Oswald and later, Andy Panda, before he created Woody Woodpecker.

Among his many awards and tributes, Lantz was honored in 1959 by the Los Angeles City Council as "one of America's most outstanding animated film cartoonists." In 1973, the international animation society, ASIFA/Hollywood, presented him with its Annie award.

During the late 1970s, the New York Museum of Modern Art and Filmex in Los Angeles organized retrospectives of his career.

In 1982, Lantz donated 17 artifacts to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, among them a wooden model of Woody Woodpecker and a storyboard from the character's 1941 debut. Museum officials credited Lantz with "a truly profound accomplishment" in producing 400 six-minute Woody shorts. On March 5, 1986, at age 86, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 1993, Lantz established an annual $10,000 animation prize and a scholarship in his name at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

"I've been in this since I was 16 and I have done very well," he said at the time. "I'd like to do something for somebody else."

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