This week, we look into the career of animation/live-action/comic book writer Cal Howard!
Born on March 24, 1911, Calvin Henry Howard began his artistic career as a young teenager submitting drawings and comics in The Junior Times supplement in The Los Angeles Times from late 1923 through 1927. Howard first went into animation as an in-betweener at Walt Disney’s studio in 1930, but due to budget cuts, as reported by Variety, he was released from his contract (along with junior animator Ed Benedict) on December 7th, 1931. He and Benedict moved over to Walter Lantz’s studio, where Howard met and befriended animator Fred “Tex” Avery. Around 1933, Howard migrated to Ub Iwerks’ studio but shifted back to Lantz a short time later. When Avery left to head a new directorial unit at Warners in April 1935, Howard assisted him on the storyboard for his first cartoon Gold Diggers of ’49 (released November 1935) at his home while still employed at Lantz.Howard joined Avery at Warners as part of the general pool of story men for the cartoons. Each story man contributed ideas for the directors but their names were credited on-screen based on a rotating system. Howard is only credited on story for Little Red Walking Hood (1937) and The Sneezing Weasel (1938), both directed by Avery. He provided incidental voices for cartoons, including Gabby Goat for Bob Clampett’s Get Rich Quick Porky (1937), a character previously voiced by Mel Blanc. In his autobiography Chuck Amuck, Chuck Jones recalled Howard’s sidelines at Warners, which included a makeshift commissary with zinc-lined drawers at his desk. Jones recollected that in other cases, refreshments set in baskets would be lowered from his window to a lower floor. One incident involved a party from an adjoining window pilfering a basket to which Howard retaliated by replacing the food with a lit firecracker.
When Friz Freleng left for MGM around September 1937, a new directorial unit was needed. With this, Howard was given his own directorial unit with animator Cal Dalton. This lasted for a brief stint, with the team credited on only three titles—Porky’s Phoney Express, Katnip Kollege and A-Lad in Bagdad, all released in 1938. Howard departed Warners by September 1938 and managed to celebrate his farewell outside of the studio with his colleagues. Bob Kurtz remembered, “When Cal quit Warners, he went to see one guy who was selling ice cream and he paid the guy to put on his outfit and rang the bell, giving away free ice cream to all the Warner artists.” He stopped over to Walter Lantz’s studio for a brief stint. With the success of Disney’s Snow White, Lantz enlarged his story team in preparation for a proposed Aladdin feature that never materialized. Howard’s only credit during this period at Lantz was for the travelogue spoof Crackpot Cruise (released April 1939).Soon after, Howard moved to Miami at Max Fleischer’s studio, where he helped enhance the storyboards for their feature-length production of Gulliver’s Travels with Tedd Pierce, Dan Gordon and Edmond Seward. He attended dialogue sessions, along with Gordon, which were supervised by Dave Fleischer. Howard also served as the live-action model for Prince David, and provided his one line of dialogue in the film. Judging from the few screen credits to his name, he wrote on a few theatrical shorts and was one of the story men responsible for the “screen adaptation” for Mr. Bug Goes to Town, based on an original concept.
By the summer of 1941, Howard moved back to the West Coast to work for MGM as a story man. Not much is known about his career at MGM, since story men were not often given credit in the films. In later years, Howard recalled that he would alternate between the Hanna-Barbera and Rudy Ising unit on stories in the early 1940s. He also claimed to have contributed to an Oscar-winning Tom and Jerry cartoon, but could not recall the title; it could be assumed that he worked on either The Yankee Doodle Mouse or Mouse Trouble, if not both.
According to James Tim Walker, during the Christmas holidays, Howard brought alcohol into the ink and paint department—mostly comprised of women—and animator Ed Love took the blame. Love was fired—after which he took a job at Hugh Harman Productions—but presumably, producer Fred Quimby terminated Howard after the mistake was rectified. His hatred for Quimby carried over outside of the studio; evidently, when Howard drove his son’s Cub Scout troop past the building, he taught them to shout: “Quimby is a red-faced jerk!”
According to Bob Kurtz, his grudge extended even into his old age: “I used to go and have breakfast with him every two or three weeks. On the road to the restaurant where we would go, there was a Quimby Street and he would stick his head out of the car every time when we would pass in front of it and say ‘Fuck Quimby!’”
According to union newsletter Top Cel, Howard arrived at Screen Gems as a story man by May 1945, where he is given screen credit on several Phantasies and Color Rhapsodies. He continued to supply incidental character voices in the films, including the homeless homing pigeon in Cockatoos for Two (1947). After the studio folded in 1947, Howard went into early television animation, where he created Brother Goose, a three-minute serialized program that contained still drawings shown sequentially over a music/dialogue track. Howard returned to theatrical animation with a brief stint at Warners in Friz Freleng’s unit by early 1949. (He is co-credited on the story for 1951’s Canned Feud with Warren Foster.) Brother Goose was eventually picked up by NBC without his involvement.
Near the end of the 1940s, Howard wrote for other mediums, penning material for star comedians such as Red Skelton and Abbott & Costello. He freelanced in writing comic book stories—namely, “The Hepcats” (drawn by Jack Bradbury) and “The Kilroys”—for James Davis, who packaged the full magazines to publisher Benjamin Sangor in New York. By the early 1950s, Howard moved to humor magazines for DC, based on popular entertainers such as Ozzie and Harriet, Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Sgt. Bilko. Soon, Howard moved to the East Coast in the early 1950s to work in television; his comic book for DC continued through the early 1960s.
Morey Amsterdam and Jerry Lester hired Howard to write sketch outlines for NBC’s late-night comedy-variety program Broadway Open House, which first aired on May 29, 1950. Radio disc jockey Dick Whittinghill, who became acquainted with Howard in later years, remembered his first experiences of live television: “Cal threw up before every show that was good. If it was a bad show, he didn’t throw up. The crew would run around just before airtime and ask if Cal had thrown up yet. If the answer was yes, everybody jumped up and down with delight.”
After the show’s final episode in 1951, Howard migrated back to the West Coast to work with Ralph Edwards (creator/host of Truth or Consequences during this period) to become a producer/director on his new self-titled program, which debuted in January 1952. Edwards replaced himself with Johnny Dugan four months later, and kept Howard on the program. Howard also wrote for Funny Boners, a spin-off of Truth or Consequences featuring children, which aired for a short period on NBC from 1954-55.
At the end of 1956, Ralph Edwards withdrew from hosting a revived version of Truth or Consequences and brought in Bob Barker to host, with Howard as one of the main gag writers. The “consequences” in the aforementioned show usually involved a humiliating stunt, and as such, on a dare, Howard made a television appearance in a 1957 episode of Steve Allen’s Sunday night show where he was struck with breakaway bottles. Following the cancellation of The Adventures of Superman in 1958, producer Whitney Ellsworth enlisted Howard to write a teleplay for a pilot episode of The Adventures of Superpup, intended for younger audiences, but was not picked up by the network. The presentation was shot on the same sets as Superman with little people dressed in dog costumes and Dal McKennon lent his vocals in post-production.
In the early 1960s, Howard went back into animation as a story man for several studios such as CBS-Terrytoons, Format Films (The Alvin Show), and Ed Graham (Linus the Lion-Hearted). Throughout the decade, he wrote stories for Walter Lantz and became the main writer at Warner Bros./Seven Arts, when Herbert Klynn and Bill Hendricks produced the last remainder of the theatrical cartoons. When their animation department shuttered in early 1970, Howard switched back to Lantz, where he is credited on the last of the studio’s output before it folded in 1972.
Howard returned to comic book work as a story editor for Walt Disney Publications in 1974. He wrote various stories for the foreign market, such as the “Mickey and the Sleuth” series (Mickey as an assistant to a Sherlock Holmes-esque private eye) and “Goofy Classics” (Goofy portrayed as various historical figures). Howard also revived the character of Mortimer Mouse, originally from the cartoon Mickey’s Rival (1936), but unseen in comics since the 1940s. In 1980, he received the Annie Award for lifetime achievement for his work in animation. Howard officially retired from the comics department in 1986. He passed away in 1993 at the age of 82. At the insistence of Howard’s family, many humorous stories that spanned throughout his professional career were shared by many of his colleagues, including Bob Kurtz and Chuck Jones, during his eulogy.
(Thanks to Michael Barrier, Didier Ghez, Bob Kurtz, Keith Scott, Yowp, and Dave Bennett for their help.)