ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In the mid-1960s, Australian animator Ron Campbell got a late-night call from the head of King Features to direct a new cartoon series based on the Beatles.
Campbell was a classical music buff who preferred Beethoven to Buddy Holly.
“I didn’t know who they were,” he said in a telephone interview from Phoenix.
“He asked me if I could direct the episodes they were making in Australia,” he said.
The first cartoon series to be based on living people, “The Beatles” cartoon ran from 1965 to 1967, with repeats lingering through 1969. Each episode featured a song title, with the story based on the lyrics. The series would live on to be broadcast on both MTV and the Disney Channel in the late 1980s. Today, thanks to YouTube, it enjoys an online cult following.
By the late 1960s, Campbell was working in Hollywood, animating many of the scenes in the “Yellow Submarine” feature film. The animated classic turned 50 years old in 2018.
Now retired, the artist is stopping in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque to showcase his original Beatles cartoon paintings. He’ll also show art based on his 50-year career working on such animated classics as “Scooby Doo,” “Rugrats,” “The Smurfs,” “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons” and “Yogi Bear.” The exhibit is free, and all of the works are for sale.
Born in the Australian state of Victoria, Campbell was the kid who always showed up at the regular Saturday screenings of “Tom and Jerry” in local movie houses.
“I thought they were real animals,” he said.”I vaguely remember my great-grandmother telling me they were drawings. It hit me like an epiphany – you mean I could make my drawings come to life?”
He went to art school in Melbourne and talked himself into animating commercials.
“I pretended I knew how to make cartoon films,” he said. “There were very, very few people in Australia interested in animation. It wasn’t practical.”
Soon King Features producer Al Brodax appeared, scouting Australia for production help. Campbell began working on “Beetle Bailey,” “Krazy Kat” and “Cool McCool.”
Then Brodax caught the Beatles on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and bought the rights for a comic strip. The original concept somehow evolved into a cartoon.
“Al asked me if I could direct the episodes they were making in Australia,” Campbell said. “I think it was that it was low-cost for him.”
King Features shipped the designs, scripts, voices and music from London.
Capturing the band members’ distinctive personalities was easy, Campbell said.
“It wasn’t difficult at all. They had established their personalities every time they came up in front of a reporter.
“John was, in essence, the unacknowledged leader; Paul was the unacknowledged chick magnet. George was the mystical figure in the group, and poor Ringo was the idiot or the jokester.”
This was the Beatles as preteens probably liked to imagine them: living in a single big room, sharing beds, rolling along in their car while strumming their guitars, and taking in movies together.
Campbell soon moved to Los Angeles, first working for Hanna-Barbera and then launching his own studio. He wrote and produced for “Sesame Street” and animated the original “George of the Jungle” cartoon series. In the late 1960s, he received another middle-of-the-night call from Brodax asking for help with “Yellow Submarine.”
“London was having production problems, and they needed animating help,” he said.
Campbell animated the “Sea of Time” sequence and much of the action between the Chief Blue Meanie and his boot-licking sidekick, Max. He animated many of the scenes involving the multinamed Jeremy Hillary Boob, the Nowhere Man.
Campbell couldn’t attend the London premiere, because he was in the middle of establishing his permanent residence status in the U.S.
He never met the Beatles, although he heard their initial reactions to the series were quite negative.
“I have heard accounts of how John (Lennon) regularly called the cartoon s***,” Campbell said. “He was stupid enough to insist that the series never be shown in England.
“I did hear they went into the screening for the first time and Ringo came out complaining, ‘They made me the f***ing idiot’.”
Some of that ire seems to have softened over time. In 1972, Lennon told Rolling Stone magazine, “I still get a blast out of watching the Beatles cartoons.” Campbell spotted Ringo in a “60 Minutes” interview with a framed version of his cartoon self in the background. Paul McCartney has asked him for paintings of the cartoons to sell for charity.
In 1999, George Harrison said, “They were so bad or silly that they were good, if you know what I mean.”