By Michael Aushenker
He was the envelope-pushing animator who worked at the innovative UPA animation house (home of Mr. Magoo) and who directed such MGM features as 1962’s “Gay Purr-ee,” a feline-driven, Paris-set tale voiced by Judy Garland, Robert Goulet and Red Buttons, and 1970’s “The Phantom Tollbooth,” based on Norman Juster’s classic children’s novel.
Recently, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it had inherited Abe Levitow’s professional effects, a collection comprised of hundreds of feature animation cels, backgrounds, storyboards, and related materials and film prints. Thanks to Levitow’s children –Santa Monica resident Roberta Levitow, Culver City resident Judy Levitow, and son Jon of Los Gatos – these materials can now be accessed by the public.
The Levitow collection will be housed in both the academy’s Margaret Herrick Library and the Academy Film Archive. All of the production materials may be accessed at the library, located in the academy’s Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study in Beverly Hills. Many pieces can be viewed online at collections.oscars.org/prodart.
Abe Levitow enjoyed a robust career as an animator in Chuck Jones’ unit at Warner Bros. (home of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck). Beginning at age 17 at Warner Bros. Cartoons-precursor Leon Schlesinger Productions, Levitow animated at the studio for 15 years. He headed to UPA, where he supervised two Mr. Magoo series and the “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” special at a time when TV animated programming was still developing. Levitow also served as animation director on UPA’s first feature film, “1001 Arabian Nights.”
Roberta Levitow recently spoke to The Argonaut from Utah, where the co-founder and co-director of Theatre Without Borders was staying at the Sundance Resort for the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab.
“We agreed that we wanted Dad’s enormous talents to be fully appreciated in their historical context,” the Santa Monica resident said.
Abe Levitow died at 52 in 1975, and wife Charlotte kept his belongings until she passed away in 1997. That’s when “we had to start thinking seriously about what we had and what we were going to do with it,” Roberta said. “Our brother Jon spent over a year cataloguing what turned out to be a substantive collection of materials.”
The Levitows grew up largely in San Fernando Valley.
“Our dad was not a flashy guy,” Judy recalled. “He hung out mostly with friends he grew up with in Boyle Heights, not his fancier friends from ‘the business.’ Our father was very beloved in our home and in the family. We often had ‘art night’ at home – painting, clay projects, drawing all together.”
Levitow’s wife was also an artist who worked in animation as an inker and painter.
“Learning about current art and culture was important to our parents,” Judy recalled. “Our dad was quiet and gentle but when in the mood, he was very funny and would amuse us by talking in accents and funny voices. He would get the whole family laughing.”
Jon recalled how seeing his father’s drawing board and “the floor of Mom and Dad’s room covered with publicity materials like the punch out books for ‘Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol’ seemed like magic to me.”
“At the time, animation was still the neglected step-child of the film business,” Judy explained. “It didn’t achieve the glorious status it now holds in our culture.”
However, she remembers how Abe was well received during a trip to the former Yugoslavia that he took just before he died to visit some studios there. “He was treated like a king there and was surprised to see that Eastern Europeans considered cartoons there true art,” she said.
Judy described Abe’s years at the groundbreaking UPA “a struggle.” She remembered plugging “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” on her school chalkboard to remind classmates to watch it on the day of its TV debut.
“All those artists were really sticking their necks out trying to create something new and different from Disney but UPA was always on the brink of disaster, so that made it a little challenging,” she said. “There were worries if the job would last and where to go next. I think that’s why, at the time, Dad was often taking jobs on the side and going back and forth with Chuck Jones developing ‘Gay-Purr-ee.’”
Coming from the irreverent WB sensibility, Levitow “never lusted to work (for Disney),” she added.
Despite its shakiness, UPA “(seemed) like a magical place to work,” Judy said. “There were always peals of laughter coming from other rooms and artwork everywhere.”
Roberta remembers her childhood surrounded by a houseful of art books and peppered with Sunday outings to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“You can see Dad’s love for (fine) artists in the sequence of painterly portraits of Mewsette in ‘Gay Purr-ee,’” she said.
Today, Roberta loves her coastal Santa Monica environs; the seeds were planted in childhood when her parents and aunts and uncles pooled together to purchase a small house one block from the shore in San Diego’s Ocean Beach.
“Every summer, all the parents and kids would descend on the beach house for weeks of beach baseball, ocean swimming, pier fishing, sand hiking and spaghetti dinners for 16. It was my idea of heaven,” she said.
So when Roberta Levitow met husband-to-be Mitch Greenhill in 1989, she embraced abandoning her “cottage in Silver Lake” for his Ocean Park neighborhood: “I really felt my dreams were coming true on many levels,” she said.
Increasingly, as Roberta’s work has taken her around the world, “I long for our little home by the sea. I’m so appreciative of our neighbors in Ocean Park, the Santa Monica community spirit, the fresh ocean breeze, the sound of the fog-horns, the solar pier.
“People come from all around the world to visit Santa Monica, and I’m always grateful that I can call it home.”
For more on Levitow, abelevitow.com.
Abe Levitow animation legacy now open to the public
By Michael Aushenker