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Local Feature

A one on one interview with
T he Peanuts Gang Animator

words by Jenny Graber & Ed Boling

It was another day at the local gym when a friend raved about his wife’s grandpa. He told me her grandpa is an animator from Los Angeles, that he is the original animator of the Peanuts Gang, and that he has won many awards. I didn’t believe him. We joke around all the time so I thought it was just another joke. He insisted that he was not joking.

A Reedley local, born & raised, Javier Espindola married Porsche Melendez who is the grand-daughter of Bill Melendez, the famous animator. As we talked more, Javier mentioned that Mr. Melendez often visits the valley and dines at our local restaurants. I was intrigued that this famous animator has a connection to Reedley. I took advantage of the great lead and called his studio hoping to land an interview.

As soon as we got the good news that Traffic Magazine officially landed an interview with Bill Melendez I got very excited. I began to spread the news with some friends and found it quite surprising that nobody really knew of the animator. You may not know him either, but Bill Melendez is a very famous animator. Early in his career he worked as an animator for Disney on Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, Donald Duck, & Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts. Bill was also a prime mover in the Disney strike of 1941.

In 1941 Melendez signed on with Leon Schelsinger Cartoons, which later became Warner Bros. There he animated some of the most loving cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. Twenty three years later Bill started his very own production company, “Bill Melendez Prod. Inc.”. His company was the first to animate Jim Davis’ Garfield The Cat, an Emmy award winning special. He has won many awards since, including eight Emmy Awards. In 1964 Melendez produced the first Schulz Television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Until this day, Melendez has been the exclusive animator of the Schulz characters. He not only draws Snoopy & Woodstock but he’s also responsible for their voices. The Peanuts Gang became the longest running series of specials in television history.

Despite all the great achievements in Bill’s life, there was one thing that inspired me to wake up at 3 a.m., get in my car, drive 350 miles, and meet the guy personally. It wasn’t his success or his fame, but the fact that he is 90 years old and still shows up to the studio and creates magic. He can easily retire, but he doesn’t. His passion for art is too strong. I wanted to know his secrets. I wanted to know what keeps him motivated to work. And I wanted to know after all he had achieved, did he still think he had something to prove?Traffic: How did you get started in animation?

Melendez: When I moved here from Mexico I landed in Arizona. My mom had an aunt in California who insisted that we move to the West Coast so we did. One of my first jobs was at a lumber yard. One of my co-workers said, “a guy is hiring a guy like you”, I said, “what do you mean a guy like me”. “They are hiring artists”. The guys at the lumber yard thought I was an artist because I drew all the time. My co-workers told me, “you’re an artist, go out there and get a job”. So I took their advice and went to the place they told me about. I showed the employer my drawing samples. My drawings then landed me a job working for a guy by the name of Walt Disney. I didn’t even know who Walt Disney was. So, my co-workers opened up the door for me that led to my animation career.

Traffic: Out of all of your accomplishments, which one stands out the most?

Melendez: The most momentous one is the one that opened up the door to this industry; the lumber yard lead that led me to Walt Disney.

Traffic: What advice would you give to students who are taking up art/animation as a career.

Melendez: Never be lazy. Draw all the time. Don’t waste any time, Like in the evening don’t go out and goof off. Go to night school, always learning and continuing your education. Try to get as much good instruction as you can. This will be your greatest advantage. You need the help of professionals to guide you. I often here people say, “yeah but it costs money.” I say, “Spend it”. Find the money because it’s very important to get good training. I have a feeling that the time is right, right now. The industry is growing and the money is there.

Traffic: You have worked for well known companies and still you risked it all by starting your own business. What advice would you give to people who are interested in starting up a business?

Melendez: Every time a door opens, go for it and take it. You never know what that door is going to open up to. Be bold and aggressive. It’s the only way to do it.

Traffic: You have been animating for many years, you’re 90 now. You could retire if you wanted to. What keeps you going?

Melendez: Because I love it, I love what I do. I love sitting at my drawing table and drawing. That’s how I communicate with everybody around here. They ask me, “What’s going on?” “I start drawing it out.” It’s part of my life. I do it instinctively now. I know no other way.

Traffic: Are you working on any major projects right now?

Melendez: Nothing specific. I have several things going on but they are small like commercials and things like that. I do have a great feature plotted and the title is “The Boots of the Virgin” Some day you’ll see it. I’ve been working on it for a long time.

Traffic: We found out that you do the vocals for Snoopy and Woodstock. Was that planned?

Melendez: I needed a voice for Snoopy and Woodstock, we were recording, so I said, “I’ll give you a voice for Snoopy until we find a replacement with a professional later on,” but then they said, “No that’s good enough.” “So I got stuck with that job, but it was ok I guess.” It saved me on the talent budget.

Traffic: How long does a half hour Charlie Brown television special take to create & produce?

Melendez: A half hour special’s minimum time frame is about 6 months. What takes most of the time is the story, the creation, the development, the character, boy does it take a long time. Once you get that all done it narrows down to model sheets and there you can build up a library or story board right away. That’s the most fun. But I do like every aspect of it.

Traffic: When you’re not drawing, what are you doing?
Melendez: I read a lot. I go to plays. I go to a movie that gets good reviews, especially if it’s an animated one.

Traffic: Do you have a favorite Peanuts character?

Melendez: I think Linus was my favorite, as a personality, but I loved working on all the characters.

Traffic: Do you mind drawing something for us?

Melendez: Oh sure, I do it all the time. That’s easy for me to do.

So, Team traffic gathered around the drawing table of a legendary animator and witnessed the cartoonist at work. It is his passion for art that keeps him going. It was an overwhelming experience I will never forget; to the five Emmys that stood out in his lobby, to his friendly staff who happily welcomed us and showed us around. After the interview he began to sign a pile of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” books for an upcoming art gallery. Mr. Melendez has no plans to retire; it is his childlike spirit that keeps him active. After all he is only 90 years young.



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