Ron Campbell had a hand in animating Beatles’ television series and Yellow Submarine, in addition to Scooby Doo, Rugrats, The Flintstones, The Smurfs, The Jetsons, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Winnie the Pooh. Now, the 78-year-old animator is on tour and showing his paintings at galleries around the U.S.
“I do these shows as a second act in my life. It pays my electric bill, and it’s better than sitting at home,” Campbell, who will visit Fort Worth on Feb. 18. Campbell is from Australia, and during his childhood, the thing to do on Saturday mornings was to go to the local movie theater and watch children’s serials like Rocket Man and Superman. In between the serials, short cartoons played. These living images both fascinated and confused 7-year-old Campbell.
“I remember asking my great-grandmother what they were and telling her about them, and she explained to me, ‘Ronnie, they’re just drawings,’” Campbell says. “It was like a childish epiphany: ‘You mean I can do drawings that can come alive?’ Because as a 7-year-old, I was drawing, like every other 7-year-old I knew. Everybody at 6 and 7 is drawing. You did, too, but at some point, most people stop drawing. I didn’t.”
Young Campbell was obsessed with creating life through animation, and toward that end, he looked for ways to make his drawings move. He made flip-book animations and built a machine to run his drawings across in sequence. Campbell drew and drew, eventually drawing his way into art school.“It wasn’t a consideration for me at the time because I was just a teenager, but in point of fact, there was no way a person in Australia could make a living as an animator during those years, but I was determined to do it,” Campbell says. “I was like on the leading edge of animation in Australia, a business that is pretty big in Australia now, but there I was, just coming out of art school, fortuitously, just at the first time possible to make a living doing animation,” Campbell says. After he made commercials for some time, King Features approached him to work on shows such as Popeye, Beetle Bailey, and Crazy Cat.
In 1964, King Features told Campbell it had a new show signed, and it wanted him to direct it.“I said, ‘Yes, what is this show?’ And he [the exec] told me that it was ‘the beetles,’ and I thought to myself, ‘The beetles? Insects make poor characters for children’s cartoons.’ And then I was told that it was not insects, it was not beetle beetles. It was the Beatles.”During its runtime, the Beatles television show had an enormous following. Campbell says the show had a 67 rating, which means that for every 100 TVs turned on during the show’s time block, 67 of them were tuned into the Beatles’ show and Campbell’s living drawings.
“If somebody had of told me when I was doing the Beatles TV cartoon show that, ‘Ron, 50 years from now, you are going to be doing drawings based on this show, and you are going to be doing interviews for newspapers and going on TV and talking about the work you’re doing now,’ I would’ve said, ‘You’re nuts,’” Campbell says. “I certainly didn’t know how long they [the Beatles] were going to last. … I could never believe that 50 years later, I’d still be talking about them. … They did last, and they’re likely to last like Mozart lasted.”
Campbell went on to work with Hanna-Barbera, where he spent 10 years on The Smurfs, 10 years on Rugrats and several years seat-directing Ed, Edd n Eddy.Fifty years and thousands of frames later, Campbell is taking his cartoon legacy on the road. At each of his exhibits, he shows 50 to 60 paintings, all of which are based on the cartoons he drew during his career.“My show is an experience as much as it is an art show. … It’s an emotional connection with the audience, you know, if they already have a love for those cartoons or the memories they have sitting on the living room floor on a Saturday morning, watching cartoons with their brothers and sisters,” Campbell says. “We all live with childhood pains, but we also live with childhood pleasures, and one of the pleasures is television turning itself over on a Saturday morning just for children.”
Campbell will be at Fort Worth’s Milan Gallery in Sundance Square from Feb. 16 through Feb. 18. All of his paintings are sale, and each certificate of authenticity will be customized with a doodle of the buyer’s choice.