My Hero, Fred Crippen

Here’s how the story goes. A new animation production company suddenly found itself in a heap of trouble in their first few months of production. Call it a blessing or a curse, the young company had formerly operated as a compact, boutique animation production house. Now, suddenly they found themselves with more work than they could ever have imagined. After years of producing commercials and other short form animated content, two half hour animated network shows were dropped into their laps. You might consider this a dream come true. In reality it was becoming a nightmare. Consider this. Normally, the company ran efficiently with a half dozen people handling everything from business, production and post. Now, the tight, efficient little group had expanded to nearly a hundred or more and occupied a much larger facility. Writers, directors, producers and artists faced a production crunch and looming deadlines. Air dates were set in stone and huge fines were levied for missing a deadline. Because of the dreaded circumstances the studio boss decided to make a radical decision. He would set up small production units to create shows outside of the main facility. One might compare these teams to “shock troops” in a war situation. This tightly knit group of professionals could do every necessary job and deliver a show on time and on budget. This was a risky move, but the only way the studio could save itself from a total meltdown.

As shows were being parceled out to independent producers, two young black animation professionals decided to throw their hat into the ring. As expected, the studio production manager scoffed at our proposal. “What do you guys know about producing an animated show? I’ve got animation veterans who can’t get the work done. What makes you think you could do any better?” My partner, Leo Sullivan and I had produced motion pictures in our own shop some years earlier and knew the job better than most. However, being black in the nineteen sixties hardly guaranteed job opportunities and work was hard to come by even if you knew your stuff. Young white filmmakers struggled to prove themselves in this very competitive business. Imagine what you faced if the color of your skin was black. We were about to throw in the towel when the big boss suddenly spoke up.“Give them the show,” he said, quietly. “Let them do it.” Suddenly taken aback, the production manager took a nervous drag on his cigarette and complied with his boss’s orders. Leo Sullivan and I had instantly become television producers because one man decided we could do the job and do it well. In a world where young black men had to prove themselves daily, this exceptional gentleman didn’t need any proof. Our work spoke for itself and the color of our skin mattered little. If that doesn’t seem all that insightful today, remember this was the nineteen sixties and a very different world.

Who was the gentleman who made that remarkable decision many years ago? Probably a name you wouldn’t recognize unless you’re a serious student of animation. His name is not on the hallowed walls of Disney, nor is he considered one of the icons of Warner Bros Animation. Yet, his amazing animation and his delightful wit helped define midcentury cartoon making. After leaving art school, Fred Crippen and his wife headed for New York to begin a career in the animation business. Almost immediately, Crippen scored a job at United Productions of America where the innovative cartoon company was producing television commercials for the then growing television market. However, success at UPA wasn’t enough, so Fred Crippen packed his bags and headed west. He opened his own shop, a studio he called, Pantomime and began creating clever and funny television commercials. Every studio tends to have downtime, and Fred found a way to utilize the time when the little studio wasn’t cranking out ads for the small tube. He came up with a TV series called, “Roger Ramjet.” The hero, voiced by LA radio announcer Gary Owens proved that you didn’t need lots of money to be delightfully entertaining. The episodes were only about five minutes in length, but honestly had more wit and charm than an hour of the animated dreck being cranked out by the big time competitors down the street. It was around this time I was chasing my dream of becoming an animator but nobody in the industry would give me a shot. Not surprisingly, my first animation gig was a gift from Fred Crippen. Children’s Television Workshop had a New York show in development and they needed animation content. My first assignment was animating short segments for the critically acclaimed children’s program, “Sesame Street.”

After his experience with network television, Fred Crippen decided the “big time” just wasn’t for him. He went back to doing television commercials with a small reliable crew and a much simpler life style. The big time and the big bucks seem to have little appeal for Fred Crippen. He found he was happier creating animated product that was not only appealing to audiences, but had wit and intelligence as well. There was a purity in Crippen’s animation. An honesty often lacking in big studios where artists seemed more concern with impressing others. Fred made what he did seem easy and his inspired sketches were the perfect example of everything cartoon animation is lacking today. When we were doing “Sesame Street” many years ago I was given an assignment to animate the show opening for the letter, “F.” I arrived at the studio late one Friday afternoon as Fred Crippen was watching my animation on the Moviola, (an editing machine of the day) and was laughing his head off. I can’t tell you the enormous sense of satisfaction and pride that filled me that evening. Here was one of the Masters of animation watching with approval the material I had animated. I drove home that evening feeling on top of the world.

I’ve been told a good deal of Fred Crippen’s work can now be seen on YouTube. It is well worth a visit to the website where you’ll see the work of a Master Animator. His impressive work includes TV commercials and UPA’s “The Boing Boing Show.” His short form material and titles done for various clients include, “The Edifice” seen in the Saul Bass film, “Why Man Creates.” Always busy as heck, Fred Crippen still found time to enjoy life and he did it with the same exuberant enthusiasm that characterized so much of his career. However, I’ll mostly remember Fred Crippen as the outrageous Democrat who fought for fairness for all people and demonstrated that by the way he lived his life and conducted his business. Fred Crippen was a Master animator and a gentleman. He was my hero and there will never be another like him.