Don Figlozzi, the First TV Animator?

New York Daily news Front Page of June 14, 1948 TV Supplement announcing the inaugural broadcast of its TV station, WPIX, channel 11

Don Figlozzi (1909-81), spent the first half of his career in animation and the second half at the New York Daily News, , where his cartoons, signed “Fig,” became a fixture (see sample below). In between, he briefly worked for the newspaper’s TV station, WPIX, as a  pioneer in a field that became known as broadcast design. In fact, he was one of the first employees of the station, which went on the air June 15, 1948. Above is the front page of the paper’s Television Supplement published the day before (from the paper’s website here; the original picture and more details on the station’s history is here). I had the pleasure of interviewing Figlozzi at his Glen Head, Long Island home on Sunday, June 10, 1979, as part of an oral history project on New York animation unions I did for the Astoria Motion Picture & Television Center Foundation (now the Museum of the Moving Image.) The following excerpts from my interview covers his stay at WPIX and starts towards the end of his involvement with the 1947 Terrytoons strike, which lasted over seven months.

Harvey Deneroff: So, when you left Terry that was, essentially, the end of your animation career in a way.

Don Figlozzi: Yes! I thought I was going to get in the TV business. I was the first so-called, the first animator in the TV Business, you see.

HD: Could you go back and tell me about meeting Sydl Solomon?

DF: I was walking down 42nd Street one day and I met Sydl Solomon on the street. She asked me what I was doing. I told her I was still out on strike, but that I was looking for work. She said, well, she’d just come from CBS, why don’t I go up to CBS and see Georg Olden? She says, “He’s a very nice guy.”

So, I went up to see him. He was Graphic Art Director. George was very genial, a nice guy; he wanted to hire me on, but he just didn’t have the budget for it. He would have taken me on if he did, but that he didn’t want to see me out of work; I told him I was out of work in Terry’s and I didn’t want to go back there. And he says, “Well, if you don’t tell anybody, it’s a deep, dark secret, but The Daily News is going to have a TV station.”

So, I said, “Well, that’s great, but who do I see down there?”

He says, “Well, the only people I know down there that you could see [are] fellows that worked here, Rudy Bretz and Hank Ross.” Hank Ross was a TV director at CBS.

I went down to see Rudy Bretz, he was setting up the whole Engineering Department, setting up the studio and telling them what cameras to buy and everything else. He was a very busy man, but they didn’t even have the studio built in those days; they were just about starting to plan it out. They had the architects working there and stuff like that;  the studio [was being] built on springs, believe it or not! On the 10th floor of The News [Building], in the back, it’s all balanced out on springs. I asked to see him and he was so busy he couldn’t see me. The girl told me to come back some other time, that he just couldn’t possibly see me that day. He was very busy, in the midst of things.

“Well,” I said, “I have nothing to do. I’ll sit here, maybe he might have some time.”

I think she felt sorry for me, because she went in and talked to him a while later after sitting there a couple of hours. He came out to see me and he told me that he couldn’t do anything for me, because he didn’t know anything about that end of it. But he would have Mr. Ross see me, Hank Ross.

“Well,” I said, “that’s another man whose name I got from CBS.”

I got very friendly with Hank; he was a young fellow and he told me a little bit about the process and all that. But he said they’re not ready to do anything, because they weren’t even thinking of hiring anybody; they didn’t have any staff; they didn’t have anything yet, but to keep them in mind. And as I recall, that’s the way it worked.

It was Ross that told me about the kinescope size. I didn’t have any samples to show him; and he told me that kinescope size was about the size of a postcard; it was a 4:5 ratio, 3:5 ratio. And I could work anything in that size, that’s what they might use on TV. So, I didn’t make up any samples, as I recall, until they after they had a conference with me. But they asked to see some samples, and I realized I wasn’t dealing with anybody that had been used to looking at art samples before. I was dealing with laymen, so to speak, engineers and people like that, and Hank Ross, who was a director, didn’t know anything about the art end of it.

So I figured I’d make the stuff as close to TV as possible. I made their call letters and a call background — just like an announcement background. And then I made a series of things like the Twentieth Century-Fox heading that they have now; I originated that for WPIX, where letters come over a skyline; and worked up several different things: maps, little tiny maps — I thought everything had to be drawn small, so I did them small. I worked with a magnifying glass.

So, when I submitted this stuff and I left it there; and I was told after, on my way home, that I had the job. [Figlozzi later found out that one of the reasons he got the job over a rival was that he had experience in animation.]

Television Artist's Duties by Don Figlozzi - 16 June 1949

Figlozzi’s description of his duties as a television artist he prepared for The Daily News, June 16, 1949. (Click on image to enlarge.)

I started to layout storyboards, too, for the 7:00 news show; I made up a big storyboard, and we had a main title we used every night. And I made that main title. We put that up. And as the reporters would come in with their stories, we used still photographs, and we also used movie film. I’d have a frame from the movie thing, where the movie went. And they had the whole 7:00 News laid out. And if I had a map to do, I would do it from the beginning, say 2:00 that afternoon, I’d just hurriedly draw the map; it would take me maybe an hour to draw the whole map. And maybe another hour [or] an hour-and-a-half to have it photographed and animation. And this is all cutaway animation. I just worked it backwards. The camera would be reversing everything.

Harvey Deneroff: Upside down and backwards?

DF: Upside down and backwards. I would be reversing the animation. And after they had it printed up, they’d run it in, and the director would mark his cues for the announcer. They had the copy all typewritten; and they marked big red marks for the cues, where certain things starts, where certain film starts, or any cue that was on the map. So that worked swell. We had the only animated maps on the air for a long while! It’s something I’m surprised they still don’t use today.

HD: Don’t they use sort of background projections?

DF: Now they do, yes. But in those days we had no such thing as background projection. We had the kinescope and something else (I forget what they call it). Well, kinescope was really like tape is today.

HD: You also mentioned that PIX was the first to use reversed polarity for negative.

DF: Yes! That was on my maps, we used reverse polarity. But we got that from the Oksana Kasenkina thing. See, we had one newsreel man that was an experienced newsreel man; his name was [Lester] Mannix. And he worked for Twentieth Century-Fox, Fox Movietone [News]. He came to work at WPIX and he was the best movie cameraman we had. (The other fellows were all still photographers that worked for The Daily News and transferred upstairs and wanted to be TV men. And they carried both still and movie cameras around.)

And this fellow Mannix photographed Oksana Kasenkina jumping out of the rear window of the Russian Consulate, when she was being held there; in fact, they were going to ship her back to Russia and that’s why she jumped off the window. But he was right there, he got the whole thing. He happened to be in the backyard. No other newsreel man got it. And NBC and everybody was buying our film from us. And that was the reverse polarity, because that thing happened about, oh, five in the afternoon. And Lester had to rush back with that film; it had to be quickly developed. We had these big tanks, big wheels and stuff like that. And we had two men working in there, in the laboratory.

They assumed that it would be the same as a newspaper; newspapers have a darkroom, where they print all the pictures. So they figured that TV stations would have the same thing; so they buy these big developing tanks and everything. They could develop a thousand feet of 16mm film a minute. But the drying time is what took the time. They had to put it on big drums and have it dry. That’s what took the time. And that’s the reason they couldn’t make positive prints. They could do it normally. But they didn’t have to bother with the polarity switch on the camera, which was a great boon; I thought it was great, because I could do my maps that way and everything else. [For more details on the incident and Mannix’s role in capturing it on film, see  Time’s original story here.]

HD: You would film the maps?

DF: Oh, yeah, on movie film.

Consulting for WOR

DF: WOR started maybe about two or three years later. And I got a telephone call from one of the fellows at WOR, and he said, “I’m your opposite number over here at WOR. I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground about TV production.” He said, “Would you be willing to work as a consultant for a few hours a week?”

So, I said, “Well, I don’t know what I could tell you.” He says, “Well, you certainly know more than I do.” He said, “I was an art director for Bamburger’s Department Store,” and they transferred him over to WOR.

I said, “Well, I’ll have to confer with my bosses first.”

So I did. And my boss was elated that I was asked to work as a consultant over there. He said, “Go ahead. He says, “But make sure you get paid a consultant’s fee.” He says, “At least $25 an hour.”

So I went over there and I was making an extra $50-$75 a week working at WOR in the mornings; I’d go in there at 9:00 and I’d work until about 11; and then I’d go over to WPIX, there I didn’t have to be in before 10:30 or 11:00. And they never bothered to check on the time, I didn’t have to punch a clock or anything; it wasn’t anything like that.

HD: How was working in TV in the early days?

DF: It was terrific: It was a challenge. I loved every bit of it. I even worked on the first election that they had at [WPIX], the Truman-Dewey election.  … I was working behind the cameras; in other words, I was changing all the numbers; they had to be done manually in those days. Today, you can’t do that in a TV station, because today the IATSE (the stage hands’ union) walks in and they say “We do that!”

1960 New York Daily News cartoon by Don Figlozzi ("Fig")

HD: How long did you continue to work at PIX?

DF: Until, I think it was 1950. And I had worked at WOR as a consultant; that was the total experience I had. I mean, I helped WOR get organized with the Art Department and everything they might need in the way of art supplies and stuff like that. And get an art department organized. And I guess they were happy because they sent me Christmas cards every year after that.

HD: What did you do after WPIX?

DF: Well, when they got rid of the whole News Department at WPIX; I was slated to go, too! But since I was hired on by The News and not WPIX; since I was the first employee hired. (I was made Graphic Art Director.) They were cutting out the whole thing. I was slated to be fired. But by that time I belonged to The Newspaper Guild, and the Newspaper Guild wouldn’t allow that to happen.

The Fig cartoon is from the Heritage Auction Galleries site.