By Gabriel Neeb

If you’ve watched a Bugs Bunny short, marveled at the new Miyazaki film, or fried your brain trying to understand Akira, cartoon historian Jerry Beck is one of the main guys you can blame. In Room 24ABC on July 20, Jerry Beck spent fifty wonderful minutes with writer Danny Fingeroth recounting just the first half of his career.

Jerry and Danny began the panel by joking about conventions, and Jerry’s career, and Danny casually mentioned his ex-wife was a cousin to Jerry (She told Jerry to give him a hug).

Danny stated he had around lots of questions, but as soon as started describing Jerry’s many titles- writer, historian, professor (Jerry is on the faculty at Cal Art and UCLA)- the panel went in its own direction by starting on what Jerry described as the greatest day of his life, where his dad said that instead of going to school, “…we’re going to the World’s Fair.” The 1964 World’s Fair was held right next door to Jerry’s Queens-area home in Flushing Meadows.

This line of discussion segued into a discussion of things you could find in Queens in the 1960s… like Japanese book shops. It was in shops like this that young Jerry discovered manga, specifically Osamu Tezuka‘s Astro Boy series, and he soon discovered Japanese cartoons (that had ended up in America, reeditted and dubbed) possessing a style and quality not seen in American cartoon series.

The timeline moved forward a bit to Summer 1968. On a trip to the beach, Jerry’s grandmother handed him an article from the New York Daily News she thought might interest him… about Phil Seuling and the debut of one of the first comic book conventions.

Jerry had to go, and made it with the change in his pocket. He soon met with Seuling and even rose to run the film programs at conventions Seuling was involved in- which made sense as Jerry was building a small collection of films which he bought through small vendors that advertised in the back of magazines. This was, at the time, the only way to see old cartoons.

By now, it was 1973. The first books about animation were debuting. Jerry was self-financing his schooling at the School of Visual Arts… where he met Leonard Maltin (who wasn’t the Leonard Maltin yet). Maltin had begun writing about short movies, but he hadn’t written about animated shorts yet. Maltin needed research, and Jerry went about doing just that- eventually leading to Maltin’s book on the subject, Of Mice and Magic.

Jerry, at the time still in New York City, related a few stories when asked by Danny if he ever applied to Marvel or DC. Jerry didn’t, but he did tour the DC offices, and the Mad Magazine offices where the secret to getting a tour was to ask the receptionist, “I want to buy a 25 cent Alfred E. Newman portrait.” That tour, he said, was always the coolest.

Now, around this time, there was no animation work for young artists. The guys that had been drawing all the old cartoons… were still doing so. There was some work in advertising… so Jerry interviewed with United Artists (UA) and went to work in their nascent computer department. Now, at this point in history, UA held the rights to the pre-1948 Warner Brothers catalog, which included the Looney Tunes shorts (about a thousand or so shorts).

Jerry discovered this, and pitched UA the Cartoon Catalog as a way to get programs of cartoons into theaters. He even managed to get books of available cartoons a cover.

Jerry was learning about film distribution as well, and one of the programs he assembled, Uncensored Cartoons, would become one of his first film credits.

In 1986, Los Angeles beckoned. More specifically, Landmark Theatres who wanted to program animation beckoned. Jerry hopped in his car, and made the cross country drive. The job was great… save for the boss. He left after 18 months after assembling some terrific programs involving the Hanna-Barbera film Rock Odyssey and… one of the first appearances in the United States of a Hayao Miyazaki film, Castle in the Sky.

Quite an achievement in the mid 1980s when non Disney animation wasn’t widely available.

Out on his own, Jerry met up with Carl Macek (producer of the Robotech movie) and together they formed Streamline Pictures to get films like Lensmen, Castle in the Sky, and the classic Akira into theaters, but more importantly, to get the VHS tapes in comic stores where they sold very well. They couldn’t be sold in regular video stores as those stores wouldn’t see R-rated animation.

Jerry left after five years and ended up at Nickelodeon where they were forming their motion picture department. He tried and failed to get projects based on old TerryToons shorts off the ground, but he did get pitched by Stan Lee for a CG Thor movie in 1994. That didn’t go forward, but Lee did give Jerry a No-Prize.

In the late ’90s Jerry left Nickelodeon and briefly ended up at Disney, right around the time South Park hit on Comedy Central. Jerry remembers this time as one of the Disney producers tried to get a “Disney South Park type” project made. Again, didn’t happen but some of the designs ended up as interstitial segments on the WB networks between episodes of Animaniacs on that network’s Saturday Morning block.

As the panel neared it end, Danny mentioned Jerry had married animation royalty: you see in the mid 1980s, when Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro was in the process of being dubbed (kids, it was the time, if it hadn’t been dubbed then, you never would have gotten it today), he met Cheryl Chase who would serve as one of the voices. They would continue to meet off and on until they married a few years ago.

And with that, the ‘Spotlight on Jerry Beck’ had its Hollywood Ending.

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