Cartoons have captivated and delighted children — and the young at heart — for generations. As the motion picture industry emerged, cartoons became a staple feature of the matinee. As television later emerged, they became normal fare on Saturday mornings and late afternoons after school. Even in the modern age of DVD players and wireless streaming, they still delight audiences of all ages. Young children still enjoy discovering and watching the same cartoons from as early as the 1930s and 1940s that their parents and grandparents grew up watching. One of the early and most important pioneers of animation was a Texan known simply as Tex Avery.
Frederick Bean Avery was born in Taylor, just northeast of Austin in 1908. The family moved to Dallas when he was still young. He later attended North Dallas High School where he occasionally drew cartoons for the student newspaper and yearbook and students often greeted each other with, “What’s up, Doc?” He graduated in 1926 and took a summer drawing course at the Art Institute of Chicago before returning to Texas.
In 1928, he and a few friends took a train trip to California. Avery struggled at first, taking menial jobs loading the docks or painting cars while sleeping on the beach at night. Within a few months, he landed a job at Universal Studios painting the animated cels for their different cartoon productions. Along the way, he picked up the nickname “Tex.” He began looking at the different stages of cartoon production, slowly mastering the process. Many of the cartoons he worked on were for the “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series, an early creation of Walt Disney. Avery wrote his first cartoon story in 1932 and even offered voices on some of the early cartoons. He ultimately worked on dozens of different stories in his years with Universal. By 1934, he directed the first of 143 cartoons in his career.
He lost his job with Universal in 1935 and began working at Warner Bros. Studio a few months later. He immediately began working on the emerging Looney Tunes series. Avery and his crew created such characters as Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and Bugs Bunny, who gained the name from a nickname for one of the staff animators. It was Avery’s idea, remembering his high school days, to give Bugs Bunny his classic “What’s up, Doc?” catchphrase in 1941.
Avery often said, “In a cartoon, you can do anything.” He thus encouraged writers and animators at the studio to be creative and appeal to both adults and children in the audience. While children enjoyed the vibrant imagery and slapstick comedy, adults could enjoy the subtle political and social satire that was often on display. While he worked well with his fellow animators, he often clashed with his own superiors. He left Warner Bros. in 1941 and began working for MGM.
At MGM, Avery helped direct and write cartoons promoting the war effort during World War II. He also began directing and writing stories for the Droopy and Barney Bear cartoons. He also directed many of the Tom and Jerry cartoons produced in the 1940s and early 1950s.
He left MGM in 1954 and began working with his old colleague from Universal, Walter Lantz. He helped produce the Woody Woodpecker cartoons. By the late 1950s, Avery moved on to animated commercials before retiring in the early 1970s.
He spent more than 40 years working in animation in his long career, working alongside some of the most important animators and writers and creators in the history of the genre, leaving his own unmistakable imprint on animation and giving the world so many memorable characters. Tex Avery died at his home in California in 1980, leaving behind animated stories that will continue to delight for many more years.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.