Last year, I was lucky enough to meet Martha Sigall, the 96-year-young former inker and painter who worked in what some consider the golden age of cartoonmaking in Hollywood. You name it, she worked on it, over the past eighty years.

I had the opportunity to sit in on a Q&A with her, and then had the pleasure of chatting with her afterward, and she couldn’t have been nicer.

Courtesy of the culvercityhistoricalsociety.org

Martha Sigall, courtesy of the culvercityhistoricalsociety.org

We talked about living in New York, where she was born and lived until age seven, and the brutal winters that can be had in the Northeast. She told me her family moved her out West after a relative out there became ill, and they went out to California to take care of them.

As a young teenager Mrs. Sigall ran errands for the workers at the ink and paint department at the Leon Schlesinger studio, the home of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies. While there, she one night secretly finished the inking of a series of cels that a coworker hadn’t finished before the weekend. Monday morning, when that worker went to finish her inking, she realized that all her work had in fact been submitted the Friday night before. Within hours it had gotten around what had happened, and Mr. Schlesinger personally asked Sigall to his office and asked her if she had indeed finished the leftover cels. He told her she’d done a wonderful job and when she turned 18 if she wanted a job at the studios, she’d find one waiting.

merry melodiesSo at 18, when she couldn’t find a job around town in 1936, she remembered what Mr. Schlesinger promised and used the last of her money to take a trolley car over the studios where she asked for that job. Mr. Schlesinger kept his word and hired her as an apprentice in the ink department, making $12.75 per week coloring animation cels that would introduce characters like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd to the world.

She had wild and wonderful experiences with the Warner Brothers cartoon crew, working and laughing all day with the animators, partying all night with the Looney Tunes gang on the bowling and baseball teams, and participating in weekend scavenger hunts. She was made president of the in-house “Looney Tunes Club“, co-wrote the company gossip column, and performed in the company’s theatrical troupe.

Mel Blanc circa 1950

Mel Blanc circa 1950

I spoke to her about Mel Blanc—she spoke of what a lovely man he was, and told me the legendary story of how he was finally able to secure a job at the Schlesinger Studio. Mr. Blanc would come in once a week, every week and ask if any voice work was available, and the secretary would politely decline him. Then one day the regular voice director, who had been denying him, died, and the new man in his place instead said “yes” to Blanc. After an on-the-spot audition for Chuck Jones and Tex Avery right there in the hallway, he got the job.

Another thing Martha told me was that Blanc was finally able to secure a credit on the shorts, which up until that time was unheard of. But he had a huge condition: no one else could be credited on the films for voice work but him.

After World War II, Martha joined MGM Animation (Tom & Jerry, with Tex Avery) in Culver City as an assistant in the camera room. As she got steadier and steadier work and became so well-known in the business, she was able freelance her ink and paint services, working from home once she was married and had children.

She went on to create art for many classic features, shorts, commercials, and TV series, including Garfield, Peanuts, and The Pink Panther.

For more inside stories, you can check out Mrs. Sigall’s book, Living Life Inside The Lines: Tales from the Golden Age of Animation.

Here is the Q&A with Mrs. Sigall, in which she speaks about the practical jokes the animators would play on each other, the years she spent working for the Navy doing animated training films, and her favorite short:

Martha Sigall: I was president the of the Looney Tunes Club, I wasn’t elected, they just said you’re it. (audience laughter) And whenever I had to collect anything, a gift or something he (Leon Schlesinger) always gave me a dollar. And that was a lot, because most people during the Depression could only afford 10 or 15 cents. But that’s the kind of fella he

Leon Schlesinger circa 1934

Leon Schlesinger circa 1934

was. He loved animation, there was no two ways about it and everybody knew that. And so did a lot of the people I worked with. And that’s what made me love animation and I think that’s why I’ve lived as long as I did… so far, (laughter) because I had so much fun. I used to feel so sorry for my friends who weren’t in animation. That’s kind of an arrogant attitude but I can’t help it, that’s the way I was. We had so much fun and they played so many tricks on each other, they were such funny people and very good people- they would give you the shirt off their back. Truly, truly, they were wonderful people.

I started in 1936, that’s 75 years ago I think, and it’s hard to believe, but I was making $12.75 a week for 44 hours, and I thought I was a millionaire. I got to work on cartoons, and I also got to work with the funniest and warmest people in the world. We just had a great time and in my wildest dreams, I couldn’t imagine a home like this. I mean who would have thought that the cartoons would be that popular? I assume then, that all of you people love cartoons or you wouldn’t be here. And it never occurred to me that once a cartoon was shown and all through, that there would be such a thing as television, and that would bring back every cartoon, and by the way I have every cartoon on tape. I got 900 just by television, and Jerry Beck, whose a historian helped me get the rest because a lot of them aren’t shown anymore, because people might feel that they’re not worthy, but still, when you’re a collector, you got to have it all. (laugh) So I have them all and I just have always loved cartoons and always loved the people and I I’m so lucky. (applause) Thank you so much. If there’s any questions, and I can still answer them, I’d be happy to. (applause)

Question 1: Could you tell us some of the stories of the jokes on one another?

young martha

Martha standing up at right, with fellow ink, painters and animators.

M.S.: This is one I forgot to put in my book, you know when Volkswagens came out and were very economical and you could get a lot of mileage, well this one fella I did MGM cartoons bought one. He kept bragging about the wonderful mileage he was getting all the time. So one of the fellas, his name Frankie Smith, there were a whole much of Smith Brothers in the cartoon business, and Frankie got a big tin can, and whenever he would get the chance, he would suction out the some of gas in Elliott’s car. (laughter) So while he was doing this, Elliott would say, “That’s funny, I’m not getting good mileage anymore…” (laughter) So they said, “Why don’t you go back to Volkswagen plant and complain?” (laughter) And he said, “Oh, I can’t bother with that…” And it kept getting worse and worse. It just was so sad. (laughter) So they started putting it back in. (big laugh) It got to the point they were putting so much gas in, he couldn’t figure it out. (big laugh) And I don’t think they ever told him…(big laugh)

And my favorite story is one that is in my book, but maybe all of you haven’t read it, so I’ll tell you it. There was a fella by the name of T. E., his real name was Thornton E, but we all called him T.E. and he did caricatures. This is way back in the ’30’s. Can you remember what those big cars looked like? They were pretty heavity.Well he bought a little Triumph, I think it was from England and he just loved that car, and he was always able to park right in front of the studio, because nobody could park there because their was no room. But he’d do that. And then at noon, he would put on a little tan over his head, he’d get into his car and go pick up his girlfriend and they’d go to lunch and then come back and go to work. Well one day, the fellas, about 6 of them, lifted his car and brought it into one of the animation rooms. Then they hung around the front, waiting to see what T.E. would do. He came out and couldn’t find his car. And he’s looking up and down the street, looking everywhere and can’t find it. He’s just about to call the police and have cardiac arrest when they said, “Come here T.E., we’ll show you where your car is.” They took him into one of the animation rooms and there was his car. They lifted it, put it back into the street and he drove away. (big laugh)

1936 SHIELD

The 1936 Warner Shield

Oh and there’s another story I have to tell ya.  There was one of the fellas- we had no air conditioning; course I don’t think they’d even invented it yet- but it was so hot in that place, the studio we worked in had at one time been a storage room and there was no good air and it stayed that way. So it was awful hot one day, and this wonderful guy, Gil Turner, decided to take his clothes off and work. He even took his shoes and socks off, and taped his feet to animation paper because the floor was so rough, he would get slivers. So he sat there in his shorts, drawing and one of the fellas happened to notice that. So he see’s Gil’s clothes on a hanger and takes them, and they pass them out to all the guys in the animation room (laughter). They went into the office and told Henry Bender, who at the time was our personnel fella, and told him we were playing a gag on Gil. They described what they were doing, and he (Bender) said, “Okay, I’ll call him on the public address system.” “WILL GIL TURNER PLEASE COME TO THE OFFICE…” (laughter) And Gil looks around and sees his clothes are gone! (Laughter) Well he knows what’s happened, and he runs to the guys and says: “Give me my clothes, give me my clothes!” And he hears again: “WILL GIL TURNER PLEASE COME TO THE OFFICE, IMMEDIATELY!” And he’s panicking and finally they give him his clothes and he runs in to the office, buttoning his shirt, and he says, “You wanna see me Henry?”  And he says, “Oh go back to work Gil, it’s only a gag.” (big laugh)  That’s the kind of stuff they did all the time.

And if you did anything, it was on the bulletin board the next day. (laugh) So, you just had to watch yourself… Another question?

Dion: Yes, 2 actually… Do you remember what the first cartoon was you worked on? And, secondly, do you have a favorite out of everything you did or you like best?

M.S.:  Oh yes I do! The first cartoon I worked on was called At Your Service Madam, and it’s about a mother pig who gets a fortune, I guess. She’s a widow and receives her husband’s benefits and she has some little piglets and in the beginning it shows them all rushing around, doing crazy things, and she gets them settled. Then another character, another pig, whose dressed like a big wig but looks like W. C. Fields. We called him W.C. Sqeals…(laugh) I don’t know if you’ve seen the cartoon. And he reads in the paper that she inherited a pretty big slice of money. So he makes  it right to her house and knocks it on the door and just like W. C. Fields, he says: “May I come in Madam? My little chickadee…” And he makes all these little innuendos like W.C. Fields did. And he comes in and compliments her on her house, and he sees the safe. He’s picturing all this money in the safe and they go over to where the safe is, and she plays the piano as he sings, and he manages to open the safe and take money out and stuffs his pockets. Meanwhile, the little piglets catch on to what he’s doing, and they put a light socket on his tail, and they light it, and that’s my scene! The first scene I had, I had 300 cels! (Everyone gasps) Took me 10 days to do it! …They didn’t care. (big laugh) What happened was they pulled him swinging back and forth on the tail, and at the end of my scene, they swing him over to the window and the mother gets angry at the kids. But she finally catches on and sees money coming out of his pockets because they’re swinging him, and they swing him right out of the window. And that’s At Your Service Madam. (applause)

Mrs. Sigall's 2005 book, Living Life Inside the Lines

Mrs. Sigall’s 2005 book, Living Life Inside the Lines

And my favorite cartoon, is called The Fella with a Fiddle. Does anybody know the cartoon? That was from 1937. It’s a story about a greedy mouse. But the beginning they’re a much of little mice and they’re playing and they hear the ice cream man, and they go to Grandpa and they say: “Grandpa can we have some money?” And he throws them a coin and they all dash over for the one coin, and it goes down a hole in the woodwork. And he says, “See! That’s what happens when you are greedy!” And then he says: “Now I’ll tell you a story of a greedy mouse.” There’s this mouse playing the fiddle and pretending he’s blind, but he isn’t really. And people drop money into his coffers there. There’s a little action, somebody tries to steal it but he slams them down, but then he goes home to a little hovel in a junkyard and inside, he opens a door and he’s in a mansion. Maybe you’ve seen it. He goes and he gets dressed into his tuxedo and there’s a butler that calls him master, and he takes the money out of the safe; the safe isn’t just you open the safe- they’re 3 or 4 things before you can get to the money. And he throws the money up and down, and he is really enjoying the money. All of a sudden, there is a big rap at the door. And he says, “Whose there?” And the person whose knocking says “It’s the tax collector.” And he quickly pushes a button and all the stuff from the mansion becomes a hovel. But we had to paint, every single move that you can picture, everything changing- it was so, so difficult. But in the end, it was terrific. But anyway, he fools the tax collector, temporarily and he then pushes buttons and puts everything back, and everything goes back to the way it was in the mansion. And pretty soon, the guy comes again and everything has to change back again! He gets rid of the tax collector for the second time and just as he is ready to go back into the mansion, and change things, a cat sees him and is going to go after him. He peeks through a hole in the wall and the cat shows him he’s got gold in his teeth. He opens his mouth wide, and the little guy runs in and grabs the gold. The cat is a little bit upset but does the same thing again and calls, and he runs back in and the last thing you see is him in the cat’s mouth, waiting to be swallowed. So you think he’s gone. And then the Grandpa tells the kids, “You see what happens to someone whose greedy.” And one of the little mice sitting and listening sees the gold tooth on Grandpa’s chain. So he knows that his Grandpa was the greedy mouse.(laughter) And that’s all folks!(applause)

Q2: Were you the only female in the department?

Private_SNAFU

World War II Army training films

M.S.: Oh no. When I started there were 40 of us. 20 inkers, and 20 painters. And we did all the cartoons for all the units. The animation had their own units. The animator would do all the rough (work) for the main scenes, then the assistant would come along and clean it up and that sorta thing. Then there was an in-betweener. They all worked on the glass, you probably know that, over glass. At that time they only had light bulbs and it was kinda hard on their eyes, but they got along. But now it’s a little softer, ha, and it was just a great thing to work on, these cartoons. You know we washed off the cels 6 times; they were nitrate, and they would burn, so thank goodness they weren’t allowed to smoke. (laughter)

But they had hot, goose-neck lamps and one of the girls who went out for a cigarette, got her lamp too close to the cels and it caused a fire. And they yelled “Fire!” and I didn’t hear it, I was sitting there working and didn’t hear that. I saw a supervisor running, trying to get the fire extinguisher and he couldn’t get it because our cupboard of paints was there. (Laugh)  And guess who grabbed the cupboard?! I got super human strength and pulled the cupboard toward me and a few bottles came out but they didn’t break or anything, and he was able to get the fire extinguisher, and put out the fire. (applause)

But there were a lot of us. And then later, there were 60 of us and during the war, we had to do training films. When we did training films, the FBI came and made us give our fingerprints and asked us questions, and they went to our neighbors to find our what good citizens we were, (moans and ‘wows’) and all of us except 1 passed. One girl got fired because her husband was a member of the German American BUND, and the FBI found out about it and she couldn’t work on the training films, on the SNAFUs (wows). But we did, and they hired more girls, and there were 60 of us working. And we all got along pretty well. Any other questions?

D.B.: What was the last one you worked on before you retired?

M.S.: The last thing I worked on was not a Looney Tune, it was for Bill Melendez’s Snoopy, (sighs) I worked for him and that was my last cartoon. That I got paid for. But I worked at MGM, and at MGM I worked in the camera room. And during the war, I worked at Graphic Films, and I was taught the camera. So I was the assistant cameraman, and there were no cameraman they didn’t take care ladies, they didn’t take females in the cameraman’s union, or the projectionist union, and maybe some others but I don’t know. But they allowed me to work because it was wartime and all the fellas were going into the service. So they let me work without paying any dues, or initiation fees or anything like that, but they said, as soon as the war is over, you’re fired. (big laugh) And the day the war was over, the celebrating, it was so exciting- we knew we were gonna lose our jobs because we were doing training films for the Navy and they had a contract that said when the war was over, they would stop. So they called to tell my boss to say Martha’s union benefits have now been rejected… So I was no longer in the union (laugh). But little by little girls got into the business of animating, and now they’re even directing. They’re doing everything. So that’s changed.

Big applause.

Martha Sigall and I

Martha Sigall and me

Leave a Reply