Interview: Arnold Roth Pt. 2 [of 2]

Categories:  Interviews


Since first launching his career six decades ago, Arnold Roth has become one of the best know and most beloved cartoonists of the 20th century. His work has appeared on the cover of Time and in the pages of virtual every well-known American publication, from The New Yorker to Sports Illustrated to Playboy to The New York Times.

Of course, the cartoonist had to pay his dues, just like the rest of us. In this second part of our interview with the artist, we dig into Roth’s early career, before The New Yorker, before Playboy—even before Humbug and Trump—to discover how he went from being expelled from a Philadelphia commercial arts college to becoming one of the most celebrated cartoonists working today.

[Part One]

What was the strangest job you had when you were attempting to establish yourself as an artist?

This take s a few words of background, but I was expelled from art school in 1948, to give you a time frame. I started freelancing in ’51. I’d been involved in some other failed ventures for television. They were good ideas, where I was the writer—we were producing a lot of ideas for General Baking’s Bond Bread, which I don’t even know if it exists now. But it was huge back then.

But nobody owned a television [laughs]. That was in 1948. Very few people had bought televisions yet. They were pretty primitive. So when I started freelancing, I shared a studio, which was a largish room right near where the Liberty Bell used to hand in Independence Hall. And there were 10 or 11 other guys, and we shared the $11 rent [laughs]. You’ll never see a rent check that low for anything anymore. So this guy came in and said he’d been sent in by this teacher who I knew hated me, at the art school. It turns out this guy was from a notable Philadelphia family, but it turned out that he owned two nudist colonies [laughs]. The nudists would buy anything about nudists. I did some gag cartoons about nudism for cocktail napkins, drinking glasses, etc. etc. of course I was very poorly paid.

They didn’t have pockets to keep their money in.

And for all I know, they still make them and sell them [laughs]. Then I had a silkscreen company. I did Pennsylvania Dutch Hex signs. Somebody told me that they recently saw one. It was all color separation work. That was the sort of thing that I got. And then things were building. I’d get jobs like that, but more and more people would come to me as they’d see my work. Of course in Philadelphia there was TV Guide. They knew I had a reputation for being reliably on time and the work had quality, I guess. But it takes a while, and you have to do an awful lot of cheap jobs. But, on the other hand, it was earning while you’re learning—earning very little while you’re learning a lot. Mostly about not working for little.

Why were you expelled from art school?

Well, I went into art school along with all the GIs, after the second World War. The had the GI Bill, which was a great idea. I came directly from high school. I graduated high school in ’46. The war had ended the summer before. All of these ex-GIs in the art school I went to, they were frantically putting up buildings to have art classes. So I had a scholarship from the Philadelphia public schools’ board of education. But I also played saxophone—I still do. I was gigging so that I could make money. And I liked it, too. I had a tendency to be late to school, practically every day. You know at most art schools it’s when you show up and when you leave that they care about, but this was very much that you had be there at nine, and there was a lunch break. It was strict that way. The same school is now called The University of the Arts, and it’s huge in Philadelphia. So I tended to be late and casual.

I wasn’t angry that they kicked me out, and I sure wasn’t surprised. They put me on probation after the first year. I figured, it’s their school. But that particular regime was very strict, as I say, and the last they needed was a scholarship student, because the government was paying for everybody else, so it wasn’t a difficult decision. Although years later, a fellow who became my brother in law, a printmaker named Jerry Kaplan, had been at the faculty meeting where they had decided to expel me, and he said that this one woman teacher walked in and said, “before we talk about anything, I want to talk about this boy, Arnold Roth. When he came to this school, he was a genius, but he has not improved.” That’s a strict school [laughs].

So, anyway, we parted ways. But since then they’ve given me every honor. I’ve had two one-man shows, etc. they’ve been very nice to me [laughs]. Of course, they were very different regimes. Oh, by the way, the regime that expelled me, they expelled at least one person every year, for about ten years, and every one of the people that they expelled not only stayed in the art world, but they became very well know in their particular field. Irving Penn, the photographer is the only one I can remember, but I used to be able to rattle them off. In a way, I kind of felt bad for the faculty, but to hell with them [laughs].

Was cartoon something that was frowned up in art school in those days?

Nobody that I knew of—maybe School of Visual Arts, if they were going by that time—taught such a thing. My major in commercial art, they had advertising and commercial art. They went through all forms. It was basically a commercial art school, but you were given all of the same things you would learn in a fine art school, painting, drawing. You were given a traditional background. It was a very good school. They still turn out excellent students. But there was no course in cartooning.

Remember, this was in the late-40s—I never knew why anyone would go to school to learn cartooning, per se. Because here I was playing jazz and to me they still are very similar exercises. You learn to be a jazz player by listening to jazz. You didn’t learn to play your horn. That was the way things worked. If you went to art school and became a cartoonist, you learned to be an artist. But you would apply it to cartooning. Same thing with jazz. People would go to Julliard and end up in the jazz world.

Did that traditional fine arts education have an impact on your cartooning?

Oh yeah. I started going to art classes when I was about eight-years-old. It was the end of the depression before the start of the second World War. They had stuff available for little kids, and because of the depression, the best artists in the city were teaching eight-year-olds. And I would go to classes Sautrday mornings. I’d go to the Philadelphia Art Museum and took printmaking there. We actually did real lithographs on real limestones. We learned everything about it, and here were the finest printmakers in Philadelphia teaching the class. Everybody needed the bread. And then in the afternoon, there were two brothers name Fleischer who were interested in art. They had bought a Catholic monestary, right in the heart of Little Italy. They converted it into an art school. They maintained the cathedral as a museum. It was loaded with statues, etc. it was perfectly free. So I would go there in the afternoon and there we drew in pastel. It was academic training and it was very valuable, but it’s like when you buy a saxophone, you don’t have to have someone teach you to play it.

You mentioned earlier that cartooning and playing jazz are very similar exercises, and of course plenty of people have compared fine art to jazz, in terms of improvisation, et al. Do you feel as if those two disciplines greatly affected one another in your life?

Sure. One thing, you have the confidence knowing that you can handle your materials and realize the ideas that come to you. But then you have that freedom of what you think of to draw and play. But with the training, you notice that someone who can really play will usually be a better jazz player than someone who is fumbling along because they’re more restricted.

Do you often put on jazz in the background when you’re drawing?

Yeeah. But I listen a lot of classical, but of course there’s only one station now in New York. If I have to really write something, I don’t really play the music. I’ve worked with writers and they say, “oh, you’re so lucky, you can listen to music when you’re working.” But if I’m really writing, say a really important letter, I don’t listen to music. That’s the penalty of listening to music that you like. It starts getting interesting and takes your mind off of what you’re doing.

Will you listen to different genres of music, depending on what you’re drawing?

Oh no. depending on what sort of stuff they’re playing on the radio. It’s all good. It becomes recessive. My mind isn’t on the music. I’m hearing it and enjoying it, but my mind is on the work I’m doing.

Do you think the manner of music you’re listening to can subconsciously affect the work you’re doing?

I think at various times, if I was listening and they were playing a very bright tempo, I would cross hatch faster or something. But no, when I really got to the vital parts of the piece, then the music would receed.

[Concluded in Part Three]

–Brian Heater

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