Team Berenstain – Part 2

In  Down a Sunny Dirt Road: an Autobiography, Random House, 2002, Stan and Jan Berenstain describe an early professional breakthrough.

“Shortly before the turnaround in our magazine cartoon fortunes, we took a job teaching a Saturday morning children’s art class at Settlement School, a well-known institution in South Philadelphia.  Working with kids, age five to eleven, was more like herding cats than teaching.”

“But teaching that class took us back.  It reminded us of ourselves when we were kids.  We began drawing upon our own childhood experiences for cartoon ideas.  Kid jokes became our strongest suit.”

“Our cartoons were so small in print, though―about four by three inches.  Not only that, they appeared in the back of the book and were limited to black-and-white.  Why couldn’t cartoons be big-space features and appear in the front of the book?  And color would be fun.  With the headlong optimism of youth, we began noodling around with a whole new kind of cartoon.  It would be about our new specialty: kids.  It would occupy a full page and be in full color.  It would show at least a hundred members of the skinned-knee set engaged in every kind of activity known to the schoolyard: kids running, jumping, fighting, wrestling; little girls with holes in their socks strutting past little boys, who were stopping off all the outlets in the bubbler fountain except one, which arced like a geyser onto other little girls swinging on railings.  It would be a mad, multitudinous moppet mob scene, the apotheosis of childhood, a modern counterpart of Brueghel’s Children’s Games.”

“We worked it up and sent it off to Gurney Williams, Collier’s cartoon editor, who snapped it up and published it under the title Recess―in front of the book and in full color.”

Recess: the Berenstains’ first full-page, full-color cartoon in Collier’s, 1948. It recalls the many forms of play and mischief they participated in during their days in Philadelphia-area elementary schools and contains no fewer than 209 (count ‘em) figures, all but eight of them depicting children at play.

Moreover, Williams wanted more.  He urged them to create a sequel, immediately.  This became Freeze ― a winter version of children at play: skating, hockey, sledding, skiing, snowball fights―you name it, it’s in there.

Freeze, Collier’s, December 1948.

Freeze was followed by Gymnasium, which was followed by Saturday Matinee.  For many it summed up a whole era of popular culture and one that was soon to disappear―the world of that afternoon-long, multilayered entertainment extravaganza, the Saturday matinee.  Stan and Jan again produced a crowd scene of tots on the rampage.  They drop things off the balcony, they take good aim with pea-shooters and squirt guns, they blow bubbles, climb on seat backs, play the kazoo, drip ice cream and, in the left foreground engage in something resembling major combat.

There are a few oases of peace in the theater, as well.  One with a personal connection is the little boy in the front row, right, standing on his seat calmly sucking a lollipop while observing the chaos around him.  This is a portrait of their son, Leo, who had just turned one.

Saturday Matinee, Collier’s, March 12, 1949.

Stan and Jan continue …

“We could hardly believe it when Collier’s ran our Saturday Matinee as a cover.  The response was remarkable.  Saturday Matinee struck a chord deep in the hearts of everyone who had ever tormented ushers, whistled through candy boxes, and dropped water bombs from the balcony.  Thousands of letters poured into Collier’s editorial offices in New York, paeans of praise were read into the Congressional Record, Newsweek came to interview us in our ramshackle apartment over the Woodland Army and Navy Store.”

“We were twenty-four.  We had gone from being a couple of struggling cartoonists too dumb to come in out of the rain―or at least too dumb to realize that toothpaste and burnt-lamb-chops were what magazines wanted―to being cover artists for one of the world’s leading magazines.”

Over the next two years, Stan and Jan produced ten Collier’s covers and one more interior full page. One of them, Art Museum, was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a world exhibition of cartoon art.

The scene and collection depicted in Art Museum is an amalgam of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, two of Stan and Jan’s favorite places. The scene approximates the grand hall of the Philadelphia Museum with its large Calder mobile. The Lachaise sculpture is in the Met collection, as are other depicted works. Velázquez’s Court Jester with Glass of Wine is in neither collection, nor is the portrait of Gurney Williams, Collier’s humor editor, which they incorporated into the painting.

If you missed Part 1 of Team Berenstain, you can read it here.

Part 3 is now available.

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