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Gene Deitch: The Pen Behind 'The Cat'

Chris M. Slawecki By

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I recognized in myself, and the other hard-core traditional jazz/blues/folk record collectors around me, a lot of potential fun.
You'll usually find one unsung person, or more, standing behind a legendary 'jazz cat.' In the case of 'the Cat,' the subject of witty comic illustrations that enlivened the classic jazz aficionados' and collectors' magazine the Record Changer published from 1941 until 1957, that person standing behind 'the Cat' is artist Gene Deitch.

Gene Deitch claims a body of work that anchors a significant cornerstone for modern illustration and animation. His animated films for children have earned more than 150 awards, including the Best Cartoon Short Academy Award for his 1960 adaptation of Jules Feiffer's story Munro. TV commercials featuring Deitch's animation were the first ever shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Deitch also worked as assistant production designer on the first Mister Magoo cartoons for Columbia studios, and created Tom Terrific, the first animated serial for network television.

Deitch was, is, and most likely will always be, a serious jazz head too. In 1945, at the age of twenty and deeply devoted to the classic New Orleans jazz sound of Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and Sidney Bechet, he sent some drawings to the Record Changer, a publication with sale/swap listings and articles for 78 RPM jazz record collectors. Deitch the illustrator quickly blossomed in this and other jazz niche publications. His work for the Record Changer (every cover he drew for the monthly publication from 1945 ' '51 and all of his magazine interior cartoons) plus his work for Storyville (the British equivalent of the Changer ), Tailgate Ramblings magazine, and one of his two covers for The Index to Jazz, are now all compiled in a bright, oversized anthology called Cat on a Hot Thin Groove.

In his 'Notes From the Author' preface to Cat', Deitch explains his trademark character's genesis and revelation: 'If you listen to early Louis Armstrong records, he frequently refers to his musicians and listeners as 'cats.' A white guy earned the title 'CAT' either by playing or listening to righteous jazz, and that's exactly my 'CAT'!'

As the 1950s turned into the '60s, Deitch struck a deal with Rembrandt Films producer William L. Snyder: Snyder would finance Deitch's treatment of 'Munro' if Deitch agreed to do the work at Snyder's production facility. This site turned out to be in Prague, the capital of communist Czechoslovakia. Before beginning work, Deitch insisted that both parties agree to a contract guaranteeing that Deitch would not have to stay in Prague longer than ten days. Forty-two years later, Deitch is still in Prague, with his wife and colleague of four decades, Zdenka, an animation producer he met at this studio.

A typical Deitch Record Changer cartoon from December 1945 displays one record collector complaining to another, 'Here I had a complete collection and then what happens ' they have to go an' discover Bunk Johnson!' If this is your idea of humor, you'll discover a fun read in Cat on a Hot Thin Groove.

AAJ: What inspired you to create the character the Cat?
GD: I recognized in myself, and the other hard-core traditional jazz/blues/folk record collectors around me, a lot of potential fun. I was just starting to have to wear glasses, and wore the heavy dark plastic frames of the time, so I soon had a trademark visual idea for the character.

AAJ: How did the Cat best capture the spirit of jazz of its time?
GD: We're talking of traditional jazz record COLLECTORS, and we lived in a world of our own, not necessarily reflecting the jazz of the time, which was mainly big-band swing. We were trying to hold back the changing of jazz. We wanted to set jazz clock back to the mid 1920s! That was the only 'pure' and righteous jazz as far as we were concerned!

AAJ: Did you have any formal art training prior to joining the Record Changer ?
GD: Not really. I always drew. I majored in art in high school, and did some weekend life drawing at the Choinard Art Institute in LA, and also took a short course in mechanical drawing at Frank Wiggins Industrial Arts school. That was about it.

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