was a time when somebody from Texas who made a name in the wider world
was invariably given a new nickname: Tex. We point to cowboy singer
and actor Tex
Ritter, boxing promoter Tex Rickard and jazz saxophonist Tex Beneke
as prime examples.
Tex Avery was another and I dare say there are more people familiar
with his work than with the other three combined. Ever watch a Bugs
Bunny, Daffy Duck or Porky Pig cartoon? Then you’re familiar with
Tex Avery’s contribution to American culture.
Born in Taylor in 1908,
Frederick Bean Avery was a direct descendant of Daniel Boone and Judge
Roy Bean. The family was proud of its connection to Boone but
took pains to hide their relation to Bean.
Avery’s grandmother urged him to never tell anyone of the judge in
the family closet because “he’s a no good skunk.”
Avery graduated from North Dallas High School in 1926 when the popular
catchphrase for teens was, “What’s up, doc?” He studied art and drawing
in Chicago for a summer but returned to Dallas that fall to work odd
jobs. A couple of years later he took a road trip to California with
some friends. His friends went back to Dallas
but Avery stayed in California, unloading produce trucks by day, sleeping
on the beach at night and trying to sell his cartoons to local papers.
A job at the Walter Lantz studio as an assistant animator for “Oswald
the Lucky Rabbit” cartoon series led Avery to the realization that
he wasn’t the best artist on the lot – far from it – but he took it
upon himself to learn as much as he could about every aspect of production.
By the end of his stay at the Lantz studio, Avery had directed two
full-length animated features and gained the nickname he would become
known by: Tex. He also lost the use of his left eye during some playful
office hijinks featuring paper clips and a game of catch.
1935 Avery went to work for Warner Brothers, where he produced much
of his best-known work. Working from an office dubbed Termite Palace
because of the heavy presence of said insects, Avery oversaw a team
that included artists Chuck Jones and voice-over specialist Mel Blanc.
From Termite Palace came Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and a whole
new way of looking at animation. “What’s up, doc?” and “Th-th-that’s
all, folks” became enduring catch-phrases.
The Warner Brothers cartoons produced by Avery and his team represented
a sub-genre of animation. Disney had the realistic and the cute and
cuddly market wrapped up, but Avery understood something very basic
about cartoons that Disney did not; anything can happen in a cartoon.
In an Avery cartoon, an anvil might fall from a great distance onto
the head of the main character, who is immediately reshaped as an
accordion, every movement accompanied by an off-key note. In the next
frame, the character is just fine and ready to get run over by a speeding
locomotive if that’s what the story calls for. Generations of children
and adults alike have praised this as “great stuff.”
Avery went to work at MGM after creative differences with his bosses
at Warner Brothers and turned out features and shorts at a furious
clip, but at the expense of his health and his family. A son died
of a drug overdose and his marriage dissolved while he continued to
experiment with the endless possibilities of animation.
In the 50s, Avery turned to advertising. His work in that realm included
the Raid commercial where the cockroaches scream “Raid!” just before
getting sprayed into oblivion. The Frito Bandito was also a Tex Avery
Avery died in 1980 at the age of 72, just as the extent of his contribution
to the art of animation was beginning to be recognized. Chuck Jones,
who worked with him at Warner Brothers, said, “I was as ignorant of
his genius as I suppose Michelangelo’s apprentices were oblivious
to the fact that they, too, were working with genius.”
© Clay Coppedge
August 14, 2014 Column
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