BAXTER'S BREAKDOWNS
August 2, 2017 posted by Devon Baxter

Moonlighting Animators in Comics: Don R. Christensen

Tony Sgroi (left), Disney, and Don Christensen (right) at the Thomas Edison Foundation Awards ceremony, in 1957.

This week, we profile the career of an artist with an impressive career, Don R. Christensen!

Born in 1916 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Don Christensen’s interest in art led to his enrollment at the Minneapolis Art Institute, where he attended evening painting classes after he graduated high school. After two years at the Institute, Christensen took a job in the art department of the Minneapolis Journal. A year later, he left Minneapolis to join the Disney studio, and in October 1937, Christensen became an in-betweener.

During his training period, he submitted gags for animated films in progressa practice encouraged by the studio for every divisionwhich granted him a promotion in the story department, where he partnered with Roy Williams. Christensen worked on several features as a story artist, such as Fantasia, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Happy Valley (later the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment for Fun and Fancy Free). He was one of many artists laid off during the strike on September 12, 1941, but fortunately, he met Ivy-Carol at the picket line. The two were later married, and remained together for 48 years. As he recalled in an interview with comics historian Alberto Becatinni, I started our honeymoon by stopping off at the state office to pick up our unemployment checks!

Don Christensen at Disney.

Christensen went over to Warners, after showing his portfolio of rough gag panels from humor magazinesnamely Peek, Swank and Hooey – and became a story man for Norm McCabe. He is credited on such films as Daffy’s Southern Exposure (1942) and The Impatient Patient (1942). He partnered with Melvin Tubby Millar on McCabe’s cartoons, without receiving credit, meaning Christensen would have also contributed on The Ducktators (1942), The Daffy Duckaroo (1942), and Hop and Go (1943). When McCabe was drafted into the Army, Frank Tashlin took over his unit, beginning with Scrap Happy Daffy and Porky Pig’s Feat, both 1943 releases credited to Christensen and Millar, respectively.

During his time at Warners, Christensen was recruited by James Davis to freelance on “funny animal” stories for the Sangor line of comics, under the pen name “Don Arr”. (Tubby Millar, his writing partner at Warners, was the main letterer for the comics.) He left Warners in December 1944, and continued to write and draw these stories. By the late 40s, he also wrote and drew his own featured stories with Puss n’ Pooch for DC Comics’ Leading Comics magazines. Besides drawing funny animal stories for Sangor and DC, Christensen managed a busy work ethic. He designed greeting cards (for Sangamon, Gartner & Bender, Buzza-Cardozo), submitted short stories for magazines (Argosy, Detective Tales, Family Circle) and wrote for radio dramas (Stars Over Hollywood and The Man Called X).

Around 1948, Christensen stopped drawing for the Sangor comics as its Los Angeles operation dissolved, and continued to freelance for DC Comics. Two years later, he went into Western Publishing, where he drew Mickey Mouse and the Disappearing Island, a promotional comic – for Wheaties Cereal – written by former Disney story-man Homer Brightman. Christensen didn’t draw any other comics for Western, and instead became one of their principal writers.

He wrote countless stories for Western Publishing featuring the Disney, Warners, Lantz, and Hanna-Barbera characters, as well as designing activity pages and childrens books. For his adaptations of the Disneyland episodes, Man and the Moon and Mars and Beyond in the mid-50s, each received a Thomas Edison Science Foundation Award for Best Science in Comic Books. By the early ’60s, Western Christensen wrote for a superhero series, Magnus, Robot Fighter, drawn by Russ Manning.He also the syndicated Yogi Bear and Flintstones daily and Sunday comic strips; while Gene Hazelton was the regular writer, he would occasional use material from other writers. Christensen wrote Disney comic book stories aimed at foreign markets during this period. (He wrote stories for the foreign market in another stint, in 1970.)

Christensen at the 1982 San Diego Comic-Con

When he felt comics werent enough to earn enough income, Christensen went back into animation on a freelance basis in 1965. He worked as an art director at Grantray-Lawrence, served as a storyboard artist for Filmation, and became a writer for DePatie-Freleng, Walter Lantz, Fred Calvert Productions and Hanna-Barberathe latter studio he worked for in two consecutive stints. Coincidentally, another Don Christensen – Don L. Christensen – worked at Filmation around 1966; Christensen used the Don Arr signature in his Sangor/Davis comics to avoid confusion from the other animator bearing his name. (This identical Christensen remained at Filmation until the early 80s.)

In the early 70s, Christensen went back into illustrative work for Western, writing stories for Big Little Books, published by their Whitman subsidiary. Throughout the ’70s, he worked for Disney merchandising and ad agency deals. He worked with artist Russ Manning again, writing continuity arcs for the syndicated Star Wars Sunday comic strip, which appeared in 1980. As president, vice-president and treasurer of the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS), he compiled and edited an instructional how-to book entitled Tips from Top Cartoonists, first published in 1982. Christensen also wrote for a Marvel-published comic Wally the Wizard, some drawn by Howard “Howie” Post, issued in 1985 and 1986. He passed away on October 2006, at the age of 90.


Now, here is a sampling of Don R. Christensen’s comic book work!

Potter OtterHappy Comics #14 (July 1946)

Fixer FoxHappy Comics #22 (November 1947)

Robin Hood RobinBarnyard Comics #18 (June 1948)

Kermit the HermitCoo Coo Comics #45 (May 1949)

Relative Troubles (Porky Pig) – Four Color #426 (Sept. Oct 1952); drawn and inked by Fred Abranz.

Caws and Effect (Pluto) Walt Disneys Comics & Stories #152 (1953); drawn and lettered by Paul Murry.

The Near-Sighted OwlBugs Bunny #35 (Feb.-March 1954); drawn by Ken Champin.

Chore Chump (Ludwig von Drake) Walt Disneys Comics & Stories #265 (1962); drawn and lettered by Paul Murry.

(Thanks to Didier Ghez and Thad Komorowski for their help.)

11 Comments

  • A story artist is not an animator, so unless there’s hard evidence that Christensen actually animated, he wasn’t a professional animator. I assumed he was, given the cartoony and animated look of his drawing. Nothing in your article supports that he held that position.

    Being an in-betweener doesn’t count as animating because it’s a mechanical job filling in the blanks, and not creating the movement.

    Do any credits exist of Christensen noted as an animator??

    • The situation of two Don Christensens becomes confusing typed on digital media, particularly when both men were working at Filmation. The late Don L. Christensen was a layout artist who became supervisor of the layout department and eventually, line producer for the whole studio by the mid-1970s. Don L. Christensen began at Disney in the mid-to-late 1950s as an inbetweener on the Sleeping Beauty feature, Disney’s Paul Bunyan UPA styled featurette, and other projects in production at that time. He then left animation to work for the Young and Rubicam ad agency, returning to the world of filmed cartoons in the mid-1960s at Filmation, where he was on staff, as the above article states, until the early 1980s. I knew and worked under Don L. Christensen and by the verbal accounts of many Filmation old-timers, the two Don Christensens were very different people and couldn’t have possibly been mistaken for one another, other than by name – the one condition that makes it tricky for animation historians who never happened to meet either person. It might have been easier for latter-day animation researchers had Don L. Christensen been more of a public figure but that never happened, through circumstances only partially under his control.

    • I understand Christensen wasn’t an animator in the studios he worked for. I guess “moonlighting ANIMATORS” might not work out in this case, but rather “Golden Age animation artists”, maybe?

    • That can be quite daunting, Tom. People who don’t put themselves out in the public eye are often doomed to obscurity as the years move on.

    • Coincidentally, I got together with my friend Joe Torcivia today, who knew Don Arr in his later years (and managed to pin down a lot of his credits for the Western books with the Disney and Warner characters). No, Christensen never actually animated. But, as Joe and I discussed, I think the use of the term “animator” here is an all-inclusive broad title just as it is in the mainstream, where people are too stupid to grasp there are several job titles in cartoon-making [see the instances of director=”creator”, too]. We know the difference here, anyway.

    • ‘Animation artist’ is a better term. Personally I don’t care how stupid the public is – that’s not really an excuse. There’s enough behind the scenes DVD features to watch for that and the like on youtube to educates themselves on the different jobs in animation.

      Cartoon Research is a great place to straighten that out and help educate them by defining the different job positions so that everyone is not an ‘animator’.

      Anton Loeb did comics – it would be great to see a post on him from the perspective of his job, and not that of an animator. And BG artist Erich Schenk did some really bizarre comics that were the furthest thing from those drawn by an animator.

  • “…He left Warners in December 1944…” I am guessing that date, corresponding with the year Leon Schlesinger sold out to Warner Bros., indicates the downsizing of the story department as a way of recouping the costs of the buyout.

    • Lloyd Turner, Bill Scott, Dave Monahan, Sid Marcus, and George Hill were all part of the story department aside Maltese, Pierce, and Foster, at some point after the buyout. What downsizing?

  • Don Arr was a great guy and a great talent. I miss him.

  • Not only did you have the two Don Christensens, there were also the two Paul J. Smiths – both of whom worked for Disney (at different times).

  • As,a byproduct of my unsuccessful attempt to get Bob Clampett to visit my college, Sody Clampett sent me his press kit. One item was a photostat of a letter, signed Don Arr Christensen, praising Bob ‘s appearance at CAPS

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