14. Cliff Roberts

 “There’s 50 pounds of fat floating around up there, ready to pounce on me at any moment!”

When I ventured into the almost laughable cultural pit of Detroit’s Jam Handy Organization, I needed help to bring a visual spark to its moribund animation department; more than I could do alone.  The answer came at one of those Friday night jazz record Kaffee Klatches I mentioned in the previous chapter.  To attract new sympatico friends when we moved to Detroit, I just changed the address in the regular notice I’d been running in The Record Changer magazine. One of the first local jazz fans to show up was a chubby 20-year-old enthusiast named Cliff Roberts. Cliff not only loved to listen to traditional New Orleans jazz records, but he would beat out the rhythms on any available surface. In that habit, often annoying to other record listeners, I was his box beating buddy! We became a long-running amateur bongo duo. It also quickly came out that he was just spreading his wings as a cartoonist, and he showed me his funny drawings for a Detroit restaurant menu and illustrations for a Ford Times advertising brochure.

His stuff knocked knocked me out. This was the guy!  That‘s how I „discovered“ one of the great animation designers of the 1950s and 60s.  I brought him onto my first important Jam Handy production, BUILDING FRIENDS FOR BUSINESS. His design work brilliantly camouflaged the dreary narration and insipid music I was stuck with.

For one so young, Cliff was a phenomenon.  I suppose we would say that he represented what is now called the 50s graphics style, closely in tune with my own great influence, James Flora.  I thought Cliff’s stuff was strong, original, and evocative. It certainly was on a higher level than what is rampant now, which unfortunately may one day be called, „The New Ugly.“   Along with Jim Flora, the king of wildly charming graphics of that time, Cliff was always reaching for fun with form…To Jam Handyites,  it was at first outlandish!

Personally, Cliff was a fun guy; a fellow jazz fan and co-hand-drummer. A rare photo of us banging away is attached here!   He had a line of glib gags,  sharp, but never mean, even extending into self-parody.  We had great times together in Detroit.  We had enough laughs and creative kicks together to bear the boring absurdities of this Land of Oz studio, and the scary threat of the McCarthyites.

And then came a phone call from Steve Bosustow, He was flying in to see me, It was a career rescue package, but I was going to miss Cliff Roberts!

Steve Bosustow had no trouble whatever in luring me back to UPA in 1951, sending me to New York as a member of the NY studio’s founding group.

Once again I gained from the reputation established by Hollywood titans!  I came to The Big Apple in style!  I could hardly have done that on my own.  The challenge was to live up to the great image created by UPA, Hollywood.  With that wonderful 3-egg, red, yellow, & blue UPA logo we had no trouble getting commercial orders from the top agencies and organizations.  I was soon not only a director, but a UPA director, and I had to somehow not smudge that lofty label!

We already had the legendary animator, Grim Natwick on board, and many other great animators were eager to come to us as soon as orders and productions developed.  But I wished I had Cliff Roberts on our New York team.  Steve had sent us an excellent designer, a Canadian named Ted Bethune, who very quickly became homesick for Canada, and abruptly took off northwards.  Losing our only designer when we’d barely gotten rolling gave me the impetus to get Steve Bosustow’s OK to bring in Cliff from Detroit.. Getting him turned out to be one of the keys to our following successes. Cliff was one of the most extraordinary young graphic artists of that time, and also my great friend!  He subsequently embellished many of our landmark UPA-NY productions, including HOWDY DOODY & HIS MAGIC HAT, and  PUMP TROUBLE. We at UPA were always trotting on the Wild Side, bending the viewers minds with graphics instead of drugs!  We had no thought for chasing realism, the current craze.  Cliff was the man! We rode high together while the good times rolled.

When I left UPA, and later had my biggest job, as the Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons, I was able to employ Cliff one more time as designer of my most ambitious industrial film, DEPTH STUDY, for the CBS TV Sales branch.  I would say that film represented the peak of so-called‚ 50s  graphic styling, together with Allen Swift’s versatile voicing and the brilliant music of Irwin „Bud“ Bazelon.

Later, Cliff‘s designs fell out of fashion. He was able to make living for a while at Hannah-Barbera with his comedy writing.  His personal battle was with his weight, which ultimately killed him.  His last years were miserable, with one affliction after another – not able to work, and living on dialysis as his kidneys failed him. His once „jolly fat“ shape shriveled, but he still had enough humor to tell me, “There’s 50 pounds of fat floating around up there, ready to pounce on me at any moment! My good friend and long-time colleague, whose brilliant work for me boosted my own career, died tragically in 1999. I still bang my drum for him.

As I write this in 2011, with Cliff gone, and Duane gone, I’m happy that the other true genius on my staff, the great Fred Crippenis still a survivor from our great times together.  We all at UPA loved Fred, who’s personality and creativity made him one of our most treasured colleagues.   I wish him well. He is another I wish to credit for my success and fulfillment at UPA/New York.

Cliff Roberts, my Detroit discovery & iconic designer
Drumming together – What we really liked to do
Cliff Roberts‘ sketch for BUILDING FRIENDS FOR BUSINESS, my first film as director. 1951
Cliff Roberts personal drawing, ink on paper board, 1951, now hanging in our Prague apartment.
Cliff Roberts sketch of me, on a napkin, at our UPA staff reunion party in 1984, Signed by Grim Natwick, Duane Crowther, Fred Crippen, Wardell Gaynor, and my son Kim, along with other UPA veterans.
Fred Crippen, from a much later period than our time together.

2 thoughts on “14. Cliff Roberts

  1. Two of my greatest UPA/NY guys, Cliff Roberts & Howard Beckerman, made this film later, on their own. It’s brilliant!! Watch it here! I’m happy to say that Howard is still around, still doing great things! We keep in touch. I thank him for all the good work he did for me in those great, triple-egg days! Thanks to Charles Brubaker for sending this clip!

  2. Cliff wrote and designed one of my favorite 1960s cartoons, “The Plumber”, which Shamus Culhane produced and directed during his short tenure at Paramount’s animation studio. It was brilliantly animated by Howard Beckerman.

    It’s worth checking out:

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