Animator Ron Campbell brings 1960s-era pop culture to Pittsburgh
Growing up in Australia, in those dark, pre-television days, Ron Campbell spent many a weekend with pals in movie theaters.
He had no inkling at the time that a light was about to dawn on his future career.
Campbell became known worldwide for his animation on The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine,” directing the band’s eponymous Saturday morning cartoon show during the 1960s, and animation and storyboard contributions to “Beetle Bailey,” “Yogi Bear,” “Scooby-Doo, Where are You!” “Rugrats” and so many more.
He will exhibit and sell works of art Oct. 4-6 at Maser Galleries in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood.
“Long before television and Saturday morning entertainment for children, local small movie theaters put on Saturday afternoon programming for children. We would fight over who got to sit in the front row. We all had a shilling in our pocket to buy candy to throw at each other,” says Campbell, 79.
Interspersed between some funny short films, he recalls, were these “wonderful animal features.”
“I thought they were real,” Campbell says. A talk with his great-grandmother set him straight, and set him on a career path.
“I have this vivid memory of seeing my great-grandmother in the kitchen saying, ‘Ronnie, they are just drawings.’ ”
It was, he says, like a lightning bolt to his then 7-year-old self. “I sensed something here that in all the history of art was not possible before, but was possible now. It was an epiphany for me — I could make drawings come to life,” Campbell says.
Coming to America
“I went to art school with the stupid idea that I could do animation in Australia,” he says, laughing.
Campbell recalls spending time as a teen studying and learning at the State Library Victoria.
“As I describe my teenage years, you might get the idea I was a pretty serious kid, climbing all over the library when I could have been (playing) football,” he says.
It’s Campbell’s lead-in to why, when he was approached about working on The Beatles cartoon, he at first believed the show was about insects. Or perhaps small German cars.
“I was more interested in ‘Moonlight Sonata’ or Chopin. I knew Elvis Presley — his posters were on my girlfriend’s walls, with his snarl. … I had only heard of (The Beatles) peripherally. … After (hearing their music), I thought, ‘I kind of like ’em,’ ” he says.
Now a U.S. citizen and residing in Phoenix, Campbell recalls arriving in America in 1966. “I was producing and directing films for American television in Australia, including the Saturday morning Beatles cartoon series. It was early stages of the animation business in Australia and I was on the leading edge. I was getting job offers in America,” he says.
During production on the film “Yellow Submarine,” Campbell was asked to contribute his animation skills to some sequences.
“I was asked to come to London and help. I couldn’t leave (America) because I was trying for permanent residency. I would have had to start the process all over,” he says.
Instead, he and fellow artist, the late Duane Crowther, created 12 minutes of film animation via pencil drawings they mailed to London.
“I never had a chance to see The Fab Four. I was always on the other side of the world. Ringo (Starr) has one of my paintings. I saw a ‘60 Minutes’ interview with him and over his shoulder is my painting. (Musician) Sheila E. bought it for him,” Campbell says.
For 50 years — and one month — he says, his career revolved around animation and/or storyboard work for some of children’s most beloved cartoons.
Many baby boomers, and now their children and grandchildren, recognize his work on “George of the Jungle,” “The Jetsons,” “The Flintstones” and “The Smurfs.” Campbell also produces and directs animation in Emmy- and Peabody-award winning shows “Sesame Street” and “The Big Blue Marble,” which features profiles of children around the world, and offers viewers international pen pal opportunities.
His career longevity is a contributor to what he calls his “second act.”
Campbell quotes author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line: “There are no second acts in American lives.”
And defies him. “I said, ‘Oh, yes there is.’ ”
Campbell follows the lead of the late Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones in making paintings of his popular cartoon characters.
A Rugrats sketch he makes in 10 minutes sells on eBay for nearly $500. “I put some more drawings up and everything sold,” he says.
Something special Campbell does for buyers is to create an on-the-spot painting for their certificate of authenticity.
“Someone says, ‘I’d like a Scooby-Doo or a Fred Flintstone or Ringo or George,’ and I draw it for them. Every (once in a while) somebody cries. Either they are just so in love with John Lennon or Scooby-Doo. One woman cried because I did a drawing of Smurfette with black hair (like the woman’s), not yellow,” he says.
Pittsburghers, he says, are particularly fond of Scooby-Doo and paintings of The Beatles crossing Abbey Road.
Campbell’s career continues after early-morning cartoons have evolved into 24-hour, multimedia availability.
“I can say that I was there at the beginning of Saturday morning television and I was there at the end,” he says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-836-5401, [email protected] or via Twitter .