In the 1990s, STARTOONS was a Saturday Morning Cartoon production powerhouse, operating out of their facility south of Chicago. Before that though, their studio was briefly located in downtown Chicago where I worked for them one summer. Here is an animated PSA I worked on, back in those early days when they did a commercial or two.
At that time, their studio workspace was simply a downtown apartment in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, that animator Jon McClenahan & his producer/wife Chris shared with illustrator John Hayes. Briefly, I was their coworker who slept on the studio couch after everyone else went home for the night. The PSA for the Anti-Cruelty Society started as a collaboration between illustrator & animator, with John designing and Jon animating. After agency changes, I finished the spot (as Jon was busy working on something else).
Jon is a native Chicagoan, but he actually learned to animate in Sydney, which is where I first met him. We became fast friends at my very first job, as an inbetweener at Hanna-Barbara’s Sydney studio. In time, Jon became the main creative pooh-bah there, before eventually going home to the USA and setting up his own shop.
In mid 1989, I’d just been traveling in Mexico & South America, living out of a backpack for several months. So a chance to stay someplace and work with my old friend was a joy. Bicycling around the city and exploring on weekends, while making myself useful on weekdays by helping out Jon with storyboards, layout & animation chores.
Living & working downtown for the summer of that year, I developed an abiding love for the great city of Chicago. Unlike the cities I’d seen on the west coast, Chicago really felt like scenes I’d seen in American films & TV and comic books. The steam coming up from vents in sidewalks.. The gothic beauty of its many skyscrapers.. I could easily imagine Batman lurking around up there, amongst the gargoyles and distinctive water towers.
I saw my first ever 4th of July fireworks display during my brief tenure at the Startoons downtown branch. Jon & I went to Grant Park where a massive crowd of well behaved Chicagoans celebrated joyfully & dispersed peacefully afterward. I was amazed. When I’d been in similar crowds for New Years Eve fireworks shows in Sydney, there’d been utter rowdy chaos, before during & afterward. There were some notable trips out of town that summer. To the Milwaukie Summerfest (where we saw Smokey Robinson in concert) and a memorable roadtrip down to Tennessee to visit Graceland in Memphis. However, my focus was animation work with Jon.
Jon is a prolific artist. He forges ahead without the second guessing typical of my own noodly ‘process’. When we worked together, Jon was the accelerator and I was the brakes. Later, when I’d finally moved to the USA (to work at Colossal Pictures) I went to the movies with the McClenahan family. We saw Kev Costner given the Sioux name of “Dances With Wolves” for playing with his wolf buddy, which inspired Jon to give me the Startoons name of “₣v<k$ with layouts” for my incessant tinkering with animation drawings. Ha ha!
Back in those pre-internet days when we couldn’t simply upload files to a client’s server, it was imperative that we rushed the envelope of artwork to a Fedex office in time to ship to clients on the west coast. One particular day, we’d just made the deadline after a frenzy of drawing, and needed to unclench. On the ground floor of the building where we worked was a posh bar/eatery. People really dressed up to go out in Chicago, and this place catered to the fancy crowd. Jon & I relaxed at the bar, watching the night creatures preening their plumage.
Sitting next to us, was a dude rocking a late 1980s/early 1990s Huey Lewis mullet, & padded shoulders on his Miami Vice jacket. Clearly dressing to impress.. After the traditional Chicago conversational foreplay of SPORTS, he confided that he considered this bar to be a pickup-joint par excellence. “Oh really, is that so?” sez us. “Oh absolutely” sez Mr Mullet, with much gymnastics of the eyebrows. Looking around to make sure nobody was eavesdropping, he leaned in close to give us his primo hot tip for wowing the womenfolk at his fave watering hole:
“Tell ‘em you’re an animator..”
With raised eyebrows, we asked for more details, never letting on that we were real-deal animators ourselves.. “Really? Does that work?” “Oh yeah, the ladies love that shit.” Then, with gun-fingers shooting at us, low-rent Don Johnson prowled away to begin his evening mating dance, leaving Jon & I to chuckle over this encounter. Being actual animators had never been a magic babe magnet for either of us, but we were amused to hear that it worked for this oily gentleman.
I was mostly Jon’s work-sidekick but helped out John Hayes for a few days when he’d double booked. While he finished an illustration job in the studio, I drew some ad agency storyboards that he’d committed to, but had no bandwidth to draw. DDB Needham had me work in their building on Michigan Avenue, because they probably wanted to keep an eye on me (a complete unknown). I was set up at a drawing table, and each panel of the storyboard was snatched away as fast as I could draw them, to be scanned by a sweaty PA.
As I furiously scribbled, there was a commotion – “It’s Naked Guy! It’s Naked Guy!” as a throng of agency employees stampeded past my door. One excitedly stuck his head in my office “Quick! Come see!” I hurried into a conference room with a floor to ceiling panoramic window, where dozens of people jostled to oggle something across the other side of Michigan Avenue. About half way up the opposite skyscraper there was a nude dude spread-eagled against a distant window pane. He’d pulled the drapes closed behind him. Though his birthday suit was fully displayed to us, he couldn’t be seen by someone over there, even in the same room, as he strutted his stuff.
A few people had binoculars, but my view was with the naked eye (NAKED being the operative word here). “What the?” Nobody knew who he was, but there was considerable hilarity & speculation about this fleshy mystery man and his solo stripteases. He’d lately appeared at random times, all up & down that building. Sometimes his wedding tackle was shmushed against a window on a low floor, other times he paraded his jewels from a high floor. Some folk thought this mobility implied that he was in the building cleaning crew. Or security perhaps? Lively office discussion of this mystery continued, but I had no time for such frivolities. I had to dash back to the drawing board, to finish storyboarding a dancing sausage commercial..
When my time at Startoons downtown was over, I strapped my backpack on again, and head onward to New York, Toronto and Japan. Startoons soon moved away from the downtown hub of ad agencies & art studios. Jon & Christine McClenahan set up a bigger facility down south in Homewood, to focus on Saturday Morning cartoon production. Their scrappy little studio was responsible for many classic episodes of TINY TOON ADVENTURES, TAZMANIA & ANIMANIACS over the next decade. At a time when most US TV shows were animated overseas, Startoons somehow managed to produce episodes locally, while competing on price & providing excellent quality.
In the mid 1990s, I worked with Startoons again, at their Homewood facility. The 2D animation for the KOALA LUMPUR CD-rom game was done there, by an enthusiastic crew. Just as he’d done in Sydney in the 1980s, Jon taught a generation of young Chicago animators in the 1990s, many never having been to any art school before. Some of them then went on to become movers & shakers in LA animation.
Jon McClenahan has mentored many young animation artists over the past few decades. I count myself extremely lucky to have been one of them many years ago.