Kausler's Closet
September 26, 2018 posted by Jerry Beck

Animating on Times Square: Douglas Leigh and Otto Messmer

Today in Mark Kausler’s closet we found a real piece of gold: a vintage reel of Otto Messmer animation that was originally shown as animated lights in Times Square.

As most of you know, Felix The Cat master animator Otto Messmer began working for Douglas Leigh (“the Sign King”), the major architect of animated neon signage in New York’s famed Times Square. So famous was Leigh’s work, Warner Bros. made a cartoon parody of his moving signs in Lights Fantastic (1942).

Mickey Rooney (left) with Douglas Leigh and some of Messmer’s art in the background

As John Canemaker stated in his 1991 book Felix: the Twisted Tale of the World’s Most Famous Cat:

“It must be considered something of a miracle that this particular job should find its way to Messmer, for he and (Leigh) were obviously perfect match. Here was work incredibly similar to what Messmer did when he first joined Pat Sullivan’s studio nearly a quarter century before; thinking up silent visual gags for black silhouetted characters”.

Messmer worked in his classic style for another 35 years (1937-1973) and it seems, by viewing this video, he never lost his unique storytelling touch. But first – another associated bonus. Kausler also had this rare kinescope of a local New York TV talk show featuring Douglas Leigh himself talking about his Times Square accomplishments.

The 15 minute program, Elosie Salutes The Stars, hosted by Eloise McElhone, which aired September 28th, 1951 on the Dumont network (thank you Don Yowp for helping track down that data) doesn’t mention Messmer or show any of his work, but the stop-motion animation of the deer in the Doeskin tissue commercial is by Lou Bunin.

And its great to see and hear Leigh talk about his work in such a relaxed way.

And here is the Otto Messmer reel. My only other note is to observe how Messmer utilized Max Fleischer’s rotoscope; and to admire his craft. Messmer was a one-of-a-kind animation genius.

(Thanks, Mark Kausler and Don Yowp for making this post possible)

3 Comments

  • Was that Sonja Heine rotoscoped?Did they reuse it as reference for Disney’s “The Autograph Hound?

    • It appears to be high-contrast live-action film, with animated transitions cut in.

  • Jerry, Mark, Yowp: thanks so much for this informative clip!

    I’d been curious about the touted number of “4,104 lightbulbs” in the Times Square sign. When I looked carefully at a photographed demo in an old LIFE magazine article, it was clearly visible as 38 x 27, which adds up to only 1026 bulbs (and also, a 1.4:1 aspect ratio that more closely matches a common print resolution of 5″x7″ than the 3:2 aspect of 35mm film frames). Then I read your piece and it struck me: it’s a simple up-res. At twice the width/height, the Times Sq sign was 76 x 54 = 4,104 bulbs. So, there must have been different res versions of the sign.

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