By: Marianna Gatto, ISDA Contributing Editor
What do Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, The Jetsons, Snow White, and The Flash have in common? In addition to being some of the most iconic series and characters in the history of animation, they were also conceived by or can be linked in some manner to Italian Americans.
The impact that Italian Americans have had on the world of animation, and the Italian Americans who continue to inspire audiences today, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.
Spanning a century of animation history, Fantasy World: Italian Americans in Animation, examines the lives, inspirations, and contributions of Italian American artists, writers, directors, voice actors, musicians, and producers who created unforgettable characters, hilarious cartoons, enduring musical scores, and timeless stories. The exhibition examines creative minds such as Joseph Barbera, who, along with his partner, William Hanna, created several popular series, including The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, and The Jetsons. Walter Lantz, the son of Italian immigrants, whose surname was changed from Lanza, created Woody Woodpecker and Space Mouse, among other characters. Animator-director Joe Oriolo created Casper the Friendly Ghost and the Felix The Cat television show.
Italian Americans also figure prominently in Disney history. Among the artists that Disney enlisted to guide his animators were several Italian Americans, including Rico Lebrun. While teaching at Disney, Lebrun produced original animation guides for Bambi that explained how to replicate the fluid movements of wild deer on paper. Clyde Geronimi co-directed Lady and the Tramp and conceived the film’s famous spaghetti sharing scene. He also worked on Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland. Italian immigrant Nino Carbé’s credits include Fantasia, for which he designed the iconic fairy in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum” sequence, as well as Bambi, Pinocchio, and other productions.
Although animation has been and remains today, a male-dominated field, Italian American women were among those who overcame bias to carve out successful careers. Fantasy World highlights important figures such as Bianca Majolie, Disney’s first female story artist, Grace Godino, an animator for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White in Walt Disney’s 1937 film, and Milicent Patrick (born Mildred di Rossi), the long overlooked creator of The Gill-Man from the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Historian Marianna Gatto, the director of the IAMLA who also served as the exhibition’s curator, shared some background information about how the exhibition came to be. “This exhibition was in the works for many years, and as we were compiling the list of the luminaries to be featured in it, the list continued to grow, and grow,” Gatto recalls. “We soon came to realize that while the exhibition examines a distinct chapter of entertainment history there is a lot more to be discovered in terms of the Italian American impact on animation. We hope the exhibition will serve as a launching point for additional research.”
A special section of the exhibition is dedicated to Italian American comic artists including Carmine Infantino, who co-created The Flash and designed the character’s iconic costume, Frank Giacoia, a legendary inker behind The Incredible Hulk and Captain America, John Romita Sr., who worked on Spider-Man with Stan Lee, and John Buscema, who co-created The Vision, an android member of The Avengers, among others.
The musicians who created the lively scores for animated classics and contemporary animated films are also showcased. Vince Guaraldi composed dozens of scores for Peanuts, including the Charlie Brown Christmas album, a holiday favorite. Henry Mancini, although best known for film scores such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Days of Wine and Roses, was also the creative mind behind The Pink Panther theme. In recent years, Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino (who has won three Grammys and an Emmy) has created critically-acclaimed soundtracks for Coco, The Incredibles,and Ratatouille, among others.
Today, CGI (computer-generated imagery) represents the new frontier of animation. Anthony and Joe Russo, one of the most successful directing duos in history and the creative forces behind the Captain America franchise, modernized the classic comics for the contemporary audience through their innovative use of CGI.
Fantasy World features objects from classic films and animated series, rare comics, and interviews. Henry Mancini’s 1964 Grammy Award for the Pink Panther theme is on display along with storyboards by Michael Maltese from the Bugs Bunny cartoon Forward March Hare!, an original script from Walter Lantz’s The Woody Woodpecker Show, an original painting from Alice in Wonderland by Nino Carbé, and the baton used by Michael Giacchino to conduct the score for Up! Fantasy World: Italian Americans in Animation is a family-friendly exhibition that engage audiences of all ages. For more information, please visit www.iamla.org.