+8: Sterling Sturtevant Design | Keith Haring Animation | Zagreb Ads
Three animation stories we love — but couldn't tell until now.
Welcome to the eighth bonus issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter! Glad you could make it. We’re trying something just a little bit different today — a look at animation stories that we haven’t told.
With each issue of this newsletter, we try to offer you a deeply researched story. That means a lot of studying and a lot of going-down-rabbit-holes on our end. We don’t have the option of including everything we find. Fascinating tangents land on the cutting-room floor.
Plus, we sometimes uncover intriguing new information on a topic we’ve written about already, but not enough to write a full follow-up.
In today’s issue, we’re seeking a solution. We’ve gathered three side-stories that excite us — they don’t have a home elsewhere in the newsletter, so we’re going to share them here. We hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we do!
1. Sterling Sturtevant at Playhouse Pictures
Sterling Sturtevant starred in one of our earliest issues. A designer who made her name at UPA, she created the version of Mr. Magoo that we all recognize today. We showed off some of her beautiful work in that article.
Back then, our main focus was Sturtevant’s UPA period — but this represented just a few years of her career. Her longest stint was at Playhouse Pictures, which the book Cartoon Modern describes as “one of the busiest and most successful commercial animation studios in Los Angeles” during the 1950s. She was its main designer.
We didn’t have access to Cartoon Modern when we last covered Sturtevant. Now, we do. The book contains more information about this chapter of her career — and the wonderful design she was putting on TV.
Bill Hurtz of UPA once said that Sturtevant “was very shy, but she was an incredible draftsman.” That stayed true during her Playhouse years. An anecdote from Cartoon Modern gives you a sense of how valuable her talent was to the studio:
In the late 1950s, when Playhouse Pictures was producing Ford commercials featuring Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz sent a note to Playhouse animation director Bill Melendez commenting that one of the commercials needed “Sterling’s touch.”
This was well after she’d perfected Magoo, and Sturtevant was still getting better. “Her character designs had become looser and more fluid since her days at UPA,” per Cartoon Modern. In 1957, one of her commercials for Ford took home a major prize from the Art Directors’ Club of New York. This is the kind of recognition that few artists could hope to earn at the time.
That still wasn’t the peak for Sturtevant and Playhouse. Their Thinking Dog ad series for Ford, with design and layout from Sturtevant, was a colossal hit in the late ‘50s. One source called it a success on the level of John Hubley’s It’s a Ford campaign.1
Then there were those Peanuts commercials that required “Sterling’s touch.” She designed quite a few of them — including this one from around 1960, where she’s co-credited with Schulz.2 The design of one called Phonograph, which won a top award at the 1961 Clios, is credited solely to Sturtevant.
The Ford spots were the first animated appearance of the Peanuts cast, as explained in Charles Solomon’s book The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation. They helped to set the style of what was to come. More specifically, Sturtevant helped to set it.
These Peanuts ads that Sturtevant designed would change the life of their director, Bill Melendez. It was here that he first met Charles Schulz. They formed a working relationship that lasted many years. You might recognize one of the products of that relationship as A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Like we wrote when we last covered Sturtevant, we’re only scratching the surface. A lot of her design for Playhouse has yet to be publicly identified. She worked there from roughly ‘54 through ‘62 — in an era when other artists often bounced from studio to studio. We’re going to keep looking.