America’s Youngest Collector of Old Cartoons Explains the Beauty of New York’s First Animated Films

April 24, 2015 | Prachi Gupta

Tommy Stathes only graduated from college two years ago, but he is already one the country’s foremost experts on old school animation. The New York Daily News credits the 26-year-old Queens native as being “by far the youngest serious collector of old cartoons in the country,” an expertise that was cultivated long before he graduated Queens College with a degree in film.

Stathes possesses over 1,000 reels of old filmstrips from the early 1900s and screens them in retrospectives and events across the city. Immigrants were settling in by the droves, jazz was taking hold of the city and women were pioneering the suffragist movement making New York “a brewing, feverish melting pot,” he says. Early cartoons, overshadowed and easily forgotten by flashier technology, are “often wonderful time capsules containing glimpses of all these issues,” says Stathes. He will be giving a talk about the history of the city’s early animation in May at an event for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and answered a few questions about what we can learn from some of the country’s first animated cartoons.

Why did you choose to focus on New York animation from this time period?

Early animation is the main genre of film I research, archive, and exhibit in my work. One of the charming things about the genre and its early period is that so many of animation’s roots are tied to this city’s early 20th century history–animation as both an art form, and as a soon-established industry. As a proud New York native and someone with a lifelong interest in local history and film history, it happened to be very convenient for me that early animation history largely played out in my backyard. Both J. Stuart Blackton’s and Winsor McCay’s pioneering efforts were produced in Brooklyn; J.R. Bray’s first film was produced out of a loft in Morningside Heights and developed in a film lab in the Bronx, and Max Fleischer’s studio in the 1920s existed for a time in Long Island City. The dominant Hollywood film histories are all very interesting to me, but seem less organic and groundbreaking than this industry’s budding period across the boroughs.

What was the mood of the city, and how was that reflected in the animation?

The mood of the city at this time was that of a brewing, feverish melting pot. Massive waves of immigration were occurring and new groups of people were learning how to live and work together under trying conditions. The Gilded Age had ended; it was a time of trust-busting, unionization and workers’ rights in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1913, women’s rights movements and eventually flappers, prohibition, and the clashing of persistent neighborhood poverty versus Roaring 20s excesses and newfound social freedoms. Early cartoons are often wonderful time capsules containing glimpses of all these issues. Given that cartooning is often a parody-based medium, animators were often making light of old nostalgic sentiments, current social issues, as well as new, progressive movements happening at the time. As illustrators and print cartoonists put a mirror in front topical subject matter with their pens, so did those working in animation.

Did New York’s animations have a certain trademark?

One of the fun things about dissecting an animated film, and keeping in mind where it was produced, is looking for influences. On the whole, many New York-produced cartoons definitely have an urban feel to them. Sometimes that refers to certain types of humor and expression, but sometimes it’s purely visual information. For example, many New York cartoons will depict crowded city streets, tenements, fire escapes, and other clues as to where the writing and production occurred. Many of the animators were not New York natives, however, so often time other influences are apparent, such as plentiful barnyard and animal cartoons. Even in those subjects, distinctive New York-based (while not native) animators’ styles can often be observed in specific films, though it takes a keen and well-read eye to know what to look for. In animation, geography, landscape, and local cultures typically played a major role in the finished products, while they may or may not have in other art hubs of the time.

Who were some of the biggest pioneers of New York’s animation scene at the time and what did they contribute to the artform?

The earliest New York animation roots can be traced back to J. Stuart Blackton. Blackton is well known in film history for running the Vitagraph Studios in Midwood, Brooklyn; a major early live-action film company. Some of his earliest productions were filmed vaudeville “chalk talks” where Blackton himself appears on screen, drawing on a sheet of paper and using in-camera and stop-motion editing techniques to manipulate the drawings, creating animation. Then there was Winsor McCay, one of the greatest illustrators of all time, who put pen to paper in the early 1910s to produce painstakingly detailed and whimsical animation for the period. Gertie the Dinosaur is his best-known film, and the one most people usually know of when they think about pre-Mickey Mouse animation. McCay was operating out of his home in Sheepshead Bay at the time. Raoul Barré was also a notable figure in the early 1910s, founding the first dedicated animation studio in New York City which failed within months–although Barré continued animating for other local studios into the 1920s. J.R. Bray established the first successful animation studio, first in his Morningside Heights apartment in 1913 and eventually moving to offices overlooking Madison Square Park. Bray Studios was the first employer of many future animation studio moguls, such as Max Fleischer, Paul Terry, and Walter Lantz. Bray produced over five hundred animated films and ceased animation production in 1927. Other historians who have fine arts backgrounds (my own is limited) might be better equipped to satisfactorily describe what all of these figures contributed to the art form, though I can say that they all paved the way for animation as a commercial industry–and that’s the vehicle by which most people have come to know animated films.

What do you think is the most under appreciated cartoon from this era?

This is a difficult question to answer, only because many hundreds of cartoons were produced in this era, most are temporarily or permanently ‘lost;’ and the bulk of the surviving examples are rarely screened. It’s always a challenge to single out individual films to make a point, and practically impossible to do when so many in a particular genre are so elusive and unavailable for studying–even for the most dedicated historians. However, I would say that the Bray Studios product on the whole is under appreciated, considering that the animation industry was effectively founded by Bray in 1913. In contrast, Disney’s high regard in animation history only reflects building upon and perfecting groundwork that was laid much earlier by Bray.

How have cartoons (and society’s relationship with them) changed since this era?

The exchange between cartoons and society has always been far more complex and weighty than most are willing to believe. Most importantly, the notion that cartoons are for kids was never true, from day one. In looking at some of the earliest examples of mainstream animated cartoons, one will find rather adult situations, political issues and telling socio-economic commentary. Violence also goes way back to the beginning. In terms of how cartoons have evolved, there have been major changes, mostly techniques of production (i.e. hand-drawn supplanted by CGI) and a heavy reliance on dialogue, especially when cartoons reverted to inexpensive ‘limited animation’ product for early television; a commercial trend which persists to this day. As for how society’s relationship has stayed the same all these decades, it remains true that the kinds of animation out there are actually very varied and appeal to all sorts of audiences, both children and adults. Hopefully general awareness of animation will gradually begin to match the vastness of the medium’s art form and echoes of “cartoons are for kids” will fade into the past.

Are there cartoons in this collection that, upon seeing them now, we’d consider them offensive, ignorant, or even racist? As a collector who hopes to share art with the public, what do you think we should do with art like that?

The issue of race and ethnic stereotyping was always a tricky subject in animation. I think many people are generally aware that some “old cartoons were racist.” That’s true, and there are many examples where the entire narrative is based on extreme ethnic stereotyping, or for no apparent reason other than to insert an extra gag, there will be a racial joke or image that may or may not advance the plot of the film. In this screening, such an example concerning a small black boy exists in Cartoons On Tour (Raoul Barré, 1915). There are also examples where, even if subject to visual or verbal stereotyping, black characters are treated fairly in comparison to other characters in a story, and are sometimes major protagonists who save the day. As an archivist who exhibits historical works, I do not believe in hiding or editing insensitive films; rather, I think keeping them in public view provides us with a sort of living history lesson. These films in particular also serve as a dual-natured reminder that we’ve both come a long way in the media arena while much more progress still needs to be made in our civil rights landscape.

Stathes and J.J. Sedelmaier will co-present The History of New York Silent and Early Sound Animation on Tuesday May 19 at 7 PM at the Academy Theater on 59th Street.