News Column

'Yellow Submarine' artist headed to Pittsburgh to share his work at show

August 31, 2014

By Scott Tady, Beaver County Times, Pa.

Aug. 31--PITTSBURGH -- "Yellow Submarine" animator Ron Campbell didn't expect to spend his retirement years painting the Beatles.

Campbell, who will appear in Pittsburgh next weekend, didn't even know who the Beatles were in the early days of 1964, when at the age of 23, he got a late-night call from his boss, Al Brodax, asking if Campbell could animate a weekly ABC television series about the Fab Four.

"I said, 'Al, what's the show?' and he said, 'The Beatles,'" Campbell recalled. "I said, 'Gee, I don't know ... insects make terrible characters.

"I was so involved in my studies and my business I hadn't taken any notice at all of the Beatles," Campbell said.

Living in Australia, Campbell had been busy toiling as an animator for King Features whose new line of cartoons, overseen by Brodax, included TV adaptations of newspaper comic strips "Beetle Bailey" and "Krazy Kat." He was oblivious to Beatlemania conquering the pop music world.

"To me at that time, popular music was 'How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?' and 'When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,'" Campbell said. "I wasn't interested in stupid kids' music. I was a cocky sucker then."

But Brodax persisted, convincing Campbell to draw and later direct what would become the first weekly TV series featuring animated versions of real, living people. "The Beatles" cartoon aired Saturday mornings from 1965-67, and a few years more in reruns.

Before starting that job, Campbell checked out the Beatles' records.

"Turned out I did like their music, though I thought it was a bit simple at the time; a little too 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,'" he said. "But it turned out to be amazing."

Amazing enough to spark a worldwide phenomenon that endures 50 years later, making the 72-year-old Campbell in-demand at Beatles celebrations like the one next weekend at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel.

Campbell plans to appear all three days of the Sept. 5-7 "Beatles Art Show & Sale," a visual history of the Beatles including rare, hand-signed artwork created by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, as well as Beatle fine art photographs, animation and more.

Admission is free for the show that kicks off a series of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' lone Pittsburgh concert.

Campbell will exhibit and sell paintings mostly completed within the last six months.

"For the most part, they relate to 'The Beatles' cartoon show, for which I directed half of the episodes in 1964," he said in a phone interview from his Arizona home. "And I'll be selling paintings with images based on 'Yellow Submarine,' for which I did 11 to 12 minutes of animation.

Campbell animated several scenes in the Beatles' famed 1968 film, including the Sea of Time sequence, and much of the action between the Chief Blue Meanie and his boot-licking sidekick, Max.

"I enjoyed the Blue Meanies. They were fun. Though I had no idea I'd be painting the Blue Meanies in my retirement," Campbell said. "I mean, it was a nice job, but at the time it was just a job."

Keep in mind, rock bands of that era weren't built to be long-lasting sensations.

"There were people like Elvis Presley and maybe a few others who were exceptions, but at that time popular bands were absolute phenomenons who in a very ephemeral manner would disappear," Campbell said.

And while more than two dozen "Yellow Submarine" animators helped spread the band's legacy in perpetuity, "unfortunately, not many of them are left," Campbell said. "I was the young kid on the block; most of the others who worked on it were older and are no longer around, or those who are around are deeply retired."

Campbell considers himself semi-retired, and enjoys traveling to new places like Pittsburgh.

"That's where the fun lies in my retirement, being able to meet the audience who appreciates my work and is willing to buy it, which apart from paying my electric bill, allows me to enjoy my retirement," he said.

Buy one of his paintings in Pittsburgh and he will sign a certificate of authentication right on the spot.

"If there's a child there I might draw them a Scooby-Doo or Rugrat or a Smurf or something," Campbell said, casually dropping names of other famous cartoons he worked on after "Yellow Submarine."

Between chatting with fans, he also will get work done.

"If I'm sitting there for eight to 10 hours, there's usually time to do paintings so people can see me work," he said. "Sometimes, I'm cracking jokes."

He's a funny and frank guy who's got great stories to tell, like the tale of a second late-night phone call from Brodax asking if he could take his Beatles TV cartoon skills to the next level and help bail out "Yellow Submarine."

"They had gotten into considerable difficulties making the film; they had run out of money and needed a lot of interconnected scenes," Campbell said. "They didn't finish the script until they nearly finished the movie."

The Beatles agreed to an animated movie to fulfill their four-film contract with United Artists.

"They were sick of making films," Campbell said.

The four Beatles were surprised by "Yellow Submarine's" final version.

"They were expecting the feature film to be like the cartoon show, which was a bit naive of them because the TV show was a very low-budget production," Campbell said. "But we didn't know it would turn out to be what can only be described as an iconic film that captured the essence of the late-1960s in a way that no other film did; while also capturing the spirit of the Beatles songs, for which I take no credit because it was their music. All I did was the interconnected scenes."

In a 1995 TV documentary, McCartney, Harrison and Starr indicated they liked the "Yellow Submarine" movie.

Starr, who sings the title track, wasn't as tickled by his depiction as the dim-witted Beatle in the earlier TV cartoon series.

"Ringo was slightly flummoxed," Campbell said. "He was upset when he came out of a preview screening saying, 'They made me the idiot!'... 'They made me the idiot!' And it was true, we had."

It was nothing personal, just a standard approach to comedy.

"Whenever there's four main characters, you have to have a leader, a pretty boy, a mystic and an idiot. Of course, in real life Ringo was far from being an idiot," Campbell said.

That mid-'60s TV series was a ratings success, "and people thought I had something to do with it, so I started getting offers from places like Hanna-Barbera," the animation studio that lured him to America and put him to work on "Scooby-Doo."

He'd later direct animation for the Emmy winning mid-1970s PBS children's show "Big Blue Marble" and storyboarded the hit '80s series, "The Smurfs," including the Emmy-winning "Smurfolympics" special. He continued through the 1990s on Disney, Nickelodeon and USA network shows, like "Rugrats" and "Darkwing Duck."

It was a dream job for someone who became smitten by cartoons at age 7 when he saw his first "Tom and Jerry" short films prior to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies.

"I had went to school with the full intent of doing animation. It deeply fascinated me that still drawings could be made to seem alive; that the drawings of man could talk and move."

He was never keen on retiring.

"From an early age I had realized whenever someone like my headmaster retired at age 65, he'd die at age 65-and-a-half," Campbell said. "But I had to retire eventually, because everything was going towards computer animation and I was sick, frankly, of making cartoons."

He began writing a weekly column for the Arizona Republic and took up painting for the first time.

"And, well, what was I going to paint? The cactus in my garden? Some beautiful vista?"

He started painting the Beatles and after a conversation with famed Looney Tunes illustrator Chuck Jones learned of the lucrative opportunities of selling newly created versions of your most famous work.

"So I said, 'Hey, I'll try that,' and sure enough it worked.' So here I am, approaching 75, painting and going to art shows across the country."

He looks forward to his first visit to Pittsburgh, which he associates with Guy Mitchell's 1952 hit record "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," and its chorus, "There's a pawnshop on the corner in Pittsburgh."

Happy to hear the Andy Warhol Museum is right across the river from the Renaissance, the Beatles' artist offers forthright advice about his visit.

"Tell people if they're coming out to meet me, it's best they don't wait until it's late because I get cranky," Campbell said. "By the end of the night, all I want is my cot."

Celebrating the Beatles' '64 Pittsburgh visit

PITTSBURGH -- Concert promoter Pat DiCesare doesn't expect 29 minutes of solid screaming this time.

___

(c)2014 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)

Visit the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.) at www.timesonline.com

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Source: Beaver County Times (PA)


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