CHARLES (CHARLIE) THORSON
(1890 – 1966)
Artist and Author Gimli, MB, Winnipeg, MB
Every so often the world is fortunate to host someone with undeniably innate talent and if we are lucky, that talent is brought to the forefront and delights everyone who encounters it. One individual to be included in that category is my grandfather, Charlie Thorson.
Charles (Charlie) Thorson was born on August 29,1890, in Gimli, MB, to Stefan Thordarsson and Sigridur Thorarinsdottir. He was one of four sons for this couple who had emigrated from Iceland in 1887 to settle on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
As a youth, Charlie received only eight years of general education but even at an early age it was evident that he could translate with pencil onto paper, the real world and most importantly, the imaginary world that existed in his creative mind. His son (and my father) Stephen Thorson, wrote in his autobiography that “by the time my father was in his early twenties, he was widely known in the Icelandic community for his clever political and topical cartoons that appeared widely in the Icelandic newspaper”.
In his mid-twenties, Charlie was employed as a catalogue illustrator for Brigden’s Ltd. in Winnipeg. Here he produced remarkably detailed and accurate drawings, proving his adeptness at transferring observations to paper. Over the next few years Charlie’s restlessness manifested itself as he meandered back and forth between Vancouver and Winnipeg, trying his hand at boxing, pool and poker, more work in the field of illustration and even giving art lessons. During one sojourn in Winnipeg he designed the Winnipeg Falcon’s uniform and logo. The recent children’s book, Falcons Gold by Kathleen Arnason and illustrated by Luther Pokrant, features Charlie as an imaginary character and provides a creative take on one of his self-portraits.
After losing his first wife to tuberculosis, Charlie married Ada Teslock in 1922. The early years of their marriage and the birth of my father, Stephen, resulted in a brief but somewhat stable time for Charlie. He was employed for a year as a political cartoonist for the United Grain Growers magazine, and although he returned to Brigden’s as an illustrator, an increasing interest and skill at characterization and storytelling was becoming evident.
By 1932, my grandparent’s marriage was officially over. Charlie had by now developed a reputation for poker playing, hard-drinking and everything that came along with it. During those ‘fast-living’ years, he was attracted to Kristin Solvadottir, a young Icelandic waitress living in Winnipeg. Despite the disparity in ages, Charlie fell deeply in love with Kristin, as evidenced by love letters and drawings that remain in various archives. Although the two parted ways, it is popularly believed that Charlie used Kristin as a model for the character of Disney’s Snow White when he was working on character creation for the classic film during his Hollywood years.
In the early-1930’s, North American moviegoers were enjoying the emergence of animated short films and Charlie was captivated by the animal characters and storylines. His love for animals, combined with his skill at analyzing character form and shape, was resulting in a unique style. My father wrote that Charlie “...had developed a special talent for humanizing animals in a delightfully funny way”. In 1934, at the age of 44 and armed with his portfolio, Charlie left Winnipeg and audaciously set out for Hollywood to begin what were the most important years of his creative life.
It was likely that the immense appeal of Disney’s characters led Charlie to initially choose Disney Studios over other studios that were also exploring the popularity of animated films. His abilities were immediately recognized by Disney and Charlie was soon designing characters such as Elmer Elephant for a number of animated short films. His new life in the animation world must have been exciting. In 1935, Charlie wrote to his friend Cyril Ashmore:
“This is probably the most interesting place in the world to work in.... The studio attracts an endless stream of notables from all parts of the world. I felt considerably honored last week when Walt brought two well known and distinguished persons into my room to see my work. They were Charlie Chaplin and H.G. Wells, the writer who is Chaplin’s guest on his visit in California.”
A year later, he was on the design team for the first feature-length cartoon film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Six of the seven dwarfs are Charlie’s design and we know from story conference transcripts that he worked on the storyline also. Despite the popular belief that he also created the character design for Snow White, there is no mention of Charlie in the film credits. There is no denying, however, that he would certainly have had some influence in her creation.
Charlie left Disney Studios in 1937 and found employment with MGM where he worked on The Captain and the Kids and Old Smokey, among other favourites. After approximately two years he moved on to Warner Bros. His portfolio revealed a rich assortment of clever animal characters and his ever-developing style of giving cutely human attributes to his creations. An enduring fellow of his design for Warner Bros. was Elmer Fudd, but it was also here that one of his most controversial and famous characters came about. Charlie was asked by fellow animator, Bugs Hardaway, to design a rabbit for a new cartoon, Hare-um Scare-um. The rabbit came to be known as Bugs Bunny. Bugs has been redesigned over the years, and claims for the creation of Bugs have been made by various artists. In 1947, a letter addressing the controversy was written to Charlie from John Burton, then Production Manager at Warner Bros. He wrote:
“You and I both know that the first drawing of Bugs Bunny was drawn by you in 1938, while employed as a character model man by Leon Schlesinger Prods., the organization that has since been taken over by Warner Bros Cartoons, Inc. and for any other to claim credit is far from the truth.”
In the years following his time with Warner Bros., Charlie’s talents took him to Fleischer Studios in Miami where his career in the animation world peaked. His sense of style, white suits, panama hats, his constant companion – a cigarette in tortoise shell holder, and his rakish grin were pure “Miami” glamour. Some of his most notable work there included Raggedy Ann and Andy, Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy and Baby Popeye.
After criss-crossing the United States several times in the ensuing years, the ever-restless Charlie continued leaving his creative mark on further animated films and book illustrations. An idea for a children’s book was taking shape and in 1947 Keeko was published. The charming book was a culmination of Charlie’s talents that he had developed over the tumultuous years. The illustrations and storyline were simultaneously simple and sophisticated, and as a result Charlie received an Honorary Membership in The International Mark Twain Society. Four years later, the sequel Chee-Chee and Keeko was completed.
In 1946, Charlie returned to Manitoba. Eaton’s Department Store was in need of a mascot for their annual Santa parade so Charlie created Punkinhead, the little bear loved by Canadian children in the 1950’s. He also recreated Elmer the Safety Elephant, the mascot for elementary school safety programs which are still in use today.
Charlie retired in Haney, BC, near to our family in Surrey. It was here where my sister, brother and I came to know our grandfather. My memories of Grandpa are many; his soft chuckle, the lingering scent of cigarette smoke, the fedora perched on his head, his love of my mother’s fresh peach pie, and his willingness to spend hours playing checkers with me. He would gladly draw cartoon characters for us and a handmade birthday card will be treasured always. Being children, we had little understanding of his immense talent nor the effect it had on the animation world.
Grandpa passed away in Vancouver, BC, on August 7, 1966, of cancer a few days before his 76th birthday. With my knowledge now of his brilliance, I would like to be like Erik in Falcons Gold and have Grandpa return to me in a dream so I could sit with him and hear his life story first-hand.
Our family donated grandpa’s extensive collection of original character drawings and storyboards to the University of Manitoba Archives in 2006.
Kristin (Thorson) Vignal
June 4, 2013