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I just learned that legendary animator-director Bill Melendez died at age 91.

courtesy of Bill Melendez Productions

Bill was the director of the 1965 classic A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, considered by many the finest animated TV special ever made. It's been run every year for 53 years since it's debut. Bill once told me he himself animated the opening scene, of all the children ice skating in pairs to Vince Guaraldi's carol " Christmas Time is Here." He did it all straight ahead, on one level, a downshot, about 30 feet worth.
He was very proud of it.

Bill was funny, opinionated, big-hearted, a teller of tales. We spent many a lunch at Mussos, the Valley Inn or Petit Chateau, talking about the old lefty days. Bill came of age during the MAD-MEN era of lunch meetings. So downing three vodka martinis and going back to work was no problem for him. I however, struggled to keep up.

Born Cuatemoc Jose Guillermo Melendez, the son of an officer in the regular Mexican Army, who named him for the last fighting Emperor of the Aztecs. Bill said his father and the local priest argued over the baptismal font because the priest didn't want to use a pagan name like that. So as he said, his life began with a fight. Guilliermo ( William) was added as a compromise. Bill's family sent him to LA for college in 1934 and he attended Choiunard. Bill first joined Walt Disney Studios in 1938 as an Assistant Animator. He was very active in the Great Strike of 1941. He was kicked out of the Magic Kingdom for being a troublemaker, and thought his career over.
But it was just beginning.

Bill Melendez became a terrific animator at Warner Bros for Bob Clampett on shorts like THE GREAT PIGGYBANK ROBBERY and BOOK REVUE. He also worked at UPA on GERALD MCBOING-BOING and MADELEINE. And rejoined Clampett for Beany & Cecil.

I always loved the way Bill kept to the essence of Schulz drawing style, while keeping the animation fresh.

But it was as the creator of the Charlie Brown specials and features that he is well known. He did 75 more Peanuts films over the years. His studio was the final holdout of the old Cartoonist Guild Local 852. Those who read my book DRAWING THE LINE will have read about the feud between that union and the IATSE local that lasted until 1979. Bill joked with me that he could never come into an IA local.

Me interviewing Bill for ASIFA a few years back.

Many will keep their special memories of Bill Melendez. My memories will be of his activism, his passion for the rights of animators to be treated right. As Guild president Bill argued with Walt Disney about wage increases for artists, tried to save Norm Ferguson's job from being cut when he was past his prime, argued with HUAC henchman Roy Brewer over the alleged Red infiltration into the Guilds. Bill loved to show me how Leon Schlesinger could fake having a heart attack rather than raise your pay.

Bill Littlejohn, Bill Hurtz, Art Babbitt and Bill Melendez, all past Presidents of the Cartoonists Guild, were my personal inspiration when I became union president. Their example led me past the pinstripe suit, pinky ring, Tony Soprano-type union hacks to see the original activists, and to yearn to fight for the same things they fought for.

I noticed something curious when interviewing old animators who gave in and crossed picket lines or went back on their brother and sister artists. Many of them wouldn't look you in the eye when explaining themselves. Their gaze would drop to the floor-"You don't know what it was like back then... etc."

Bill Melendez always looked you straight in the eye. I could see he regretted nothing. His little black dot eyes sparkled when he recalled how they made the studio heads crazy.

That is a goal in life almost as satisfying as having a fulfilling artistic career. That when it's over, you never have to look away, you can look people in the eye with pride, and say at least I did my best.

To never stoop to selling out your friends, to live your principles as well as your dreams, is the best way I can think of honoring the life of Cuatemoc Jose Bill Melendez.

Via Con Dios, Companero!

Quiz: What is the Riddle of the Sphinx?

Yesterday’s Question answered below: Who said: “ an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, set in a question..” and what was he/she referring to?
History for 9/4/2008
Birthdays: Darius Mihlaud, Anton Bruckner, Chateaubriand, Craig Claiborne, Dick York, Richard Wright, Nigel Bruce, Mary Renault, Tom Watson, Mitzi Gaynor, Damon Wayans is 48, Paul Harvey is 90, Beyonce' Knowles is 27

218BC- Hannibal’s army with elephants reached the summit of the Alps.

1781- HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LOS ANGELES. Royal Governor of New Spain Gaspar de Portola and Franciscan monk Fra Junipero Serra with twelve soldiers, some free black families and Indians, about 44 in all, dedicated a new town, one days ride north of San Pedro. The 63 year old Serra had been stung by a scorpion but ignored it, so he hobbled around dragging his swollen leg. Fra Serra named the town after St. Francis of Assisi's first church in Italy- St. Mary of the Angels, so El Pueblo Nuestra Senora Santa Maria Reina de Los Angeles de Porcuincula. Like totally knarly dude!

1781- Benedict Arnold, the American Colonial general turned traitor, led a force of British redcoats to burn his own home town of New London, Connecticut. Who says you can never go home?

1833 –The New York Sun hired young boys to sell their papers on street corners. The first newsboy was ten year old Barney Flagherty. Now go peddle your papers, kid.

1884-Thomas Edison proves he could replace gas streetlights with electricity by illuminating one square New York City block (around Pearl st.) with his new dynamo. J.P. Morgan's bank on the corner of Wall and Broad streets is the first private business to be lit solely by electricity.

1888-George Eastman patents the roll film camera. The word "Kodak" is supposedly the sound the shutter made. Another story on the origin of the word was that George wanted a word pronounced the same in all known dialects. So after some research (Rochester lore has it that he did all of this himself) he concluded that only k and x qualified as sounds uttered the same way in all languages. Thus Eastman Kodak. Years later the Rochester based Haloid company, which had for years manufactured photographic paper for Kodak, invented a dry copying process and renamed their company Xerox, following the same convention.

1893- Writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter sent a letter to a sick child: " I don't know what to write you so I shall tell you the story of four little rabbits. Their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter." The Peter Cottontail stories born.

1904 – The Dali Lama signed the first treaty allowing British commerce in Tibet. Tibet had been a closed society forbidding any contact with the outside world.

1934- Young filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl was contracted by the German Propaganda Ministry to film the 1934 Nazis Party Congress held in Nuremburg. While they were expecting a routine documentary-" They would have been happy if I just kept ze camera on Hitler for 90 minutes.." Leni Reifenstahl instead created the film THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, who’s darkly hypnotic images would make film history.

1940- The Columbia Broadcast Service or CBS network started up their first television station.

1957-Ford Motor Company introduced the Edsel, named for Henry Ford's son. Touted as "the dream car of the decade". Ford spent more to promote it than any other car in history. Only 200,000 were sold and after complaints like the steering and brakes failing and dashboards unexpectedly bursting into flame the car was discontinued. Ford lost $250 million. Edsel became the synonym for corporate failure.

1972- American swimmer Mark Spitz won his 7th gold medal in Olympic competition in Munich. He also spawned a cottage industry selling the poster of him wearing his medals, tiny Speedos and that’s about it. This image and the swimsuit poster of Farrah Fawcett, were two of the more famous images of the 1970’s. Phelps! Make a poster deal, FAST!

1976- College party boy George W. Bush was busted for drunk-driving close to his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine. He later applied for a brand new Texas State driver’s license, which came with a clean record with no report of the arrest. As President delivering the commencement at Harvard in 2002 he joked:” In the motorcade, seeing all those police cars behind me with their lights flashing… kinda brings me back to my college days…”

Yesterday’s Quiz: Who said: “ an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, set in a question..” and what was he/she referring to?

Answer: Winston Churchill, in a radio address in October 1939, after Soviet Russia joined Hitler’s Germany in crushing Poland. “ I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, set inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."