I became a big fan of Cambria Studios’ Clutch Cargo cartoon when I was a boy. The series, while a few years old, was broadcast via a local station in the mid-1960’s. As simple as it was, the cliff-hanger chapters of a story kept me on the edge of my seat.In researching the show for my new book, Clutch Cargo’s Adventure Log Book, I discovered the real action and adventure transpired with the crew behind the making of the cartoon. Even today, the innovation, ingenuity and creativity that transpired at Cambria Studios in 1959 is stunning. How do you make a cartoon with virtually no budget, no network backing, and Hanna-Barbera sucking all the oxygen out of the sky?
Ritchard Brown started Cambria in 1956, and dabbled in live-action projects without success, until 1958, when he paired up with comic strip artist, Clark Haas, and inventor and cameraman, Edwin Gillette. Haas created Clutch Cargo and his pals Spinner and Paddlefoot. Gillette was the person, with special effects man Scotty Tomany, who put things into motion. Combining Gillette’s Syncro-Vox system of projecting human lips on static art, with an upright, moving ANIMAC, Tomany utilized small props set in motion, resulting in television’s “first moving comic strip.”
Margaret Kerry, who will be celebrating her 90th birthday on the 11th of next month, calls herself “the last remaining person who was there” when it all happened. Kerry, the wife of Cambria founder Ritchard Brown, did some office work and the voices of Spinner, Paddlefoot and many others. Her memories of working beside Brown, Haas, Gillette, voice artists Richard Cotting and Hal Smith, as well as others, remain vivid. Her recollections provide the last window into the series.
Kerry spoke to me about how much disinformation about the series has surfaced on the internet and elsewhere. According to her, Emil Sitka, who did voice work for Cambria, was never in a Clutch recording session. Sitka came after the series was completed. Clark Haas was not a founder of Cambria Studios, as stated earlier, he joined on two years after. Kerry said Clark and Ritchard did enter into an agreement, or a “partnership,” then. Hass didn’t come up with series character Swampy, that was Hal Smith’s doing. And the first station to broadcast Clutch Cargo was KULR-TV, channel 9, in Kalispell, Montana, on March 9th, 1959.
What Kerry didn’t know was that Clutch was only on KULR for two months before the station went off the air and out of business.
One amusing backstory is about the bonds put up by Ritchard Brown’s Uncle Mark, as collateral to borrow against, to establish Cambria Studio. Clutch historians are familiar with “Uncle Mark,” but perhaps not how he made his money. Mark Pierce was the owner of Pierce Brothers Mortuaries. So, essentially, the entity that made its business in death gave Clutch life.Cambria began as a family business. Mark’s cousin, who managed the mortuary and Cambria’s financial side, was the treasurer of George Bagnall and Associates, Inc., who became the distributor of the Clutch Cargo series.
52 adventures were produced, each containing five chapters. In one adventure, Kerry had the flu, so they worked her hoarse voice it into the script by giving Spinner a cold. She conveyed that she, Hal Smith, Richard Cotting, Edwin Gillette, and sound engineer Clarence Thompson shared a lot of laughs in the studio, recording dialogue captured on film.
Sometimes it had to do with the absurdity of the scripts, sometime awkward scenarios. One in particular, she recalled, had to do with a character she voiced named Agent X.
“Agent X is standing there, jet black hair, sinister Russian accent, looking very much like a spy,” she said. “And Clutch is standing in front of her, looking right at her, wondering who the spy might be? He just didn’t get it.”
“Hal Smith had this line that we couldn’t get past, and we had to jump to something else,” she said. “My line was, ‘Gee, how are we going to get out of this, Clutch?,’ to which Cotting responded, ‘Did you ever see a camel ladder, Spinner?’ The camel would turn into a ladder, and they could climb up the ladder. The line came out of nowhere, and sure enough, they left it in.”
Out of all of the fan mail the show received, one letter, in particular, still stands out in Margaret Kerry’s mind.
“It was from an Idaho university professor who had questions from his class on animation and writing for animation,” She said. “They wanted to know how the writers of Clutch Cargo work psychologically to get these very deep and interesting stories. I’m not joking.”
Ritchard Brown, who received the letter, burst into laughter and responded.
“He wrote a letter back and answered, ‘We drink a lot of coffee and pray,’” Kerry recalled. “I mean, look at those stories. They’re psychologically deep?”
NOTE: The new Cartoon Research mini-book is on sale NOW! – Jerry Beck