Generations who grew up on the beloved ritual of Saturday morning cartoons owe lots of happy memories to Ron Campbell. A force in animation for five decades, he brought life to such favorite characters as Scooby Doo, the Jetsons, Captain Caveman, Sesame Street short cartoons and The Beatles.
Now retired, Campbell has a second, decade-long vocation and a new legion of fans. He paints many of the characters he drew for so many years, and sells his work in Cartoon Pop Art exhibits in galleries nationwide and internationally. This week, Campbell’s paintings will be on display at Shaviq Boutique & Art Gallery in downtown Rapid City, where fans can meet the renowned animator.
“I’m looking forward to meeting the audience of all the cartoons I helped to make,” Campbell said. “I love the little children coming in. I love to see their smiles.”
Animation has been Campbell’s lifelong passion. His love for it — and a demand for his work that took him by surprise — drew Campbell to painting animated characters after he retired.
“There are very few artists who could paint what I could paint. I was inspired from the example of (award-winning animator) Chuck Jones. He made a successful retirement career for himself in painting Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner and all the wonderful things he did,” Campbell said.
He sold a few colored sketches on eBay, and discovered buyers bidding and outbidding each other for “what I thought of as just a doodle,” Campbell said.
What Campbell finds most satisfying, though, are meeting the fans who watched and loved cartoons he helped create. For about a decade, he’s taken traveling exhibits around the United States.
“When people do buy my work, they’re buying it because of the power of nostalgia and … every time they walk in the room (where they hung it), they smile and remember a happy moment from childhood, and that’s part of the pleasure I get,” Campbell said.
Everyone who buys a piece of Campbell’s art receives a certificate of authenticity with something special added.
“This is the fun part for customers. They sit down in front of me and I do a doodle. With a brush and a blank piece of paper comes a wonderful drawing of (a character such as) Scooby Doo or Ringo,” Campbell said. “There’s a lot of reminiscing. That’s a big part of the fun people get out of the show. An enormous thing is the nostalgia.”
“And here I am 80 years old this year and still working,” he said, laughing. “I guess cartoonists never die. We just fade away.”
Animation first captivated Campbell when he was a child, watching Tom and Jerry cartoons at the movie theater. Born and raised in Australia, Campbell remembers how real the characters seemed to him, and how astonished he was when his great-grandmother told him the cartoons were drawings.
“I found pleasure in sitting by myself drawing so I guess that’s what kept me at it,” Campbell said.
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He graduated from Swinburne Art Institute in Melbourne and began his career in the 1950s, when television was new and, in Australia, he was able to learn all aspects of animation, including production, direction and script writing. He was soon working on Beetle Bailey, Krazy Kat, and Cool McCool, directing the hit TV cartoon series The Beatles.
“When I finally came to America, I had a bit of an edge in understanding all the stages of production, and that’s why it was so natural for me to open my own studio,” Campbell said.
His studio was across the street from the famed Hanna-Barbera company. Bill Hanna subcontracted with Campbell when Hanna-Barbera needed extra help.
“That’s how I came to be working on the Jetsons, the Flintstones and other Hanna-Barbera material,” Campbell said. “Bill Hanna was one of my guiding lights. I admired the way he worked. I admired his mind … because I was always more than just an animator. I was also a producer, I was directing and script writing. I was doing all aspects of production and Bill Hanna was a little bit like that.”
Campbell wrote and produced cartoons for Sesame Street and animated the original George of the Jungle and Tom Slick TV shows. In 1969, Campbell was part of the original team that created the Scooby Doo series.
When the world was in the grip of Beatlemania, Campbell was one of the animators who worked on the cult classic “Yellow Submarine.” In particular, Campbell animated the Sea of Time sequence, much of the action between the Chief Blue Meanie and his sidekick, Max, and several scenes involving Jeremy Hillary Boob PHD aka the Nowhere Man. He later wrote the forward to the book “Beatletoons: The Real Story Behind The Cartoon Beatles.”
“Yellow Submarine” marked its 50th anniversary in 2018, and the Beatles are the topic of another movie, “Yesterday,” that’s being released this month. Campbell’s paintings of the infamous submarine and the Fab Four are always a prominent, popular part of his shows.
Among Campbell’s proudest achievements was “Big Blue Marble,” a syndicated show for children that aired in the 1970s and '80s and promoted diversity and international relations. It aired in more than 100 countries. Campbell’s Hollywood studio, Ron Campbell Films, Inc., produced and directed the animation for “Big Blue Marble,” which won the prestigious Peabody award for excellence in broadcasting and an Emmy for best children’s show of the year.
In the early 1980s, he storyboarded Hanna-Barbera’s hit series The Smurfs. In the 1990s, Campbell went to Disney TV Animation, where he directed and storyboarded shows including Goof Troop, Darkwing Duck and Winnie the Pooh. He earned Emmy nominations for storyboards he created for Aaahh! Real Monsters.
Choosing a favorite character he animated is nearly impossible, like choosing a favorite child, he said. “I love Captain Caveman, I loved Scooby Doo, I loved the Yellow Submarine, the Jetsons.”
Campbell still loves to watch the older cartoons, he said, but keeps up with some modern ones as well. He was pleasantly surprised when someone showed him — on their smartphone — a cartoon Campbell had created for Sesame Street and hadn’t seen in 50 years.
“I greatly admire Disney and Pixar — the high-budget films like “Frozen” — but I still find computer-generated characters to be just a little too perfect,” he said. “If I were young now, I would not want to do animation because I was fascinated with drawing. But the world rotates on its axis, and here we are.”