Just Ducky: Al Taliaferro and Donald Duck
Charles Alfred Taliaferro was born on August 29, 1905 in Montrose, Colorado. His family moved to Southern California in 1918 where he graduated from Glendale High School in 1924 and the yearbooks from his years there are filled with his early cartooning efforts. After graduation, he attended art school for a while.
While working as a designer for a lighting fixture firm in 1931, a fellow Glendale High School graduate let him know that there was an opening at the Disney Studios. He went for an interview and was hired on the spot. Shortly afterwards, he was assigned to inking the Mickey Mouse comic strips being done by Floyd Gottfredson.
"I knew I was going to be a cartoonist," Taliaferro told me when I had a short interview with him for my high school newspaper in 1968, a year before his death, "I've always believed that if you want anything bad enough and you work hard enough for it, eventually you'll get it."
When Taliaferro's widow, Lucy, accepted the Disney Legends award for Al in 2003, she talked about meeting and being courted by Al in 1935 when they both worked for the Disney Studio. She also teased Roy E. Disney by saying, "This young man used to come and watch Al draw. He will always be 'young' Roy."
As the comic strip department expanded, Taliaferro found himself penciling and inking the new Silly Symphonies Sunday comic strip that occasionally showcased the new Disney cartoon star, Donald Duck.
Taliaferro worked on this strip for the next six years, doing stories of Bucky Bug, adaptations of Silly Symphonies including "The Little Red Hen" that marked the debut of Donald, and some original stories of Donald that were featured from August 1936 to December 1937.
The October 17, 1937 strip introduced Donald's three nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, who were created by Taliaferro and later appeared in the April 1938 animated short, "Donald's Nephews,"
In the comic strip, Donald Duck?s twin sister, Della, sent her triplet sons to their uncle's house for a visit with a letter that read:
I am sending your angel nephews Louie, Huey and Dewey, to stay with you while their father is in the hospital. A giant firecracker exploded under his chair. The little darlings are so playful. I hope you enjoy them. Your cousin, Della."
A memo from the animation story department, dated February 5, 1938 reads: "Inasmuch as we have decided to actually put a story crew to work on Donald's Nephews, we would like to recognize the source from which the original idea of these new characters sprang... Thanks."
Most sources credit Disney writer Ted Osborne with supplying the gag for that strip. Taliaferro claimed, as did his wife after Al's death, that he wrote most of the gags for the strip himself although that may have meant that he "tweaked" the gags that he got from other writers.
A Donald Duck comic strip drawn by Taliaferro appeared in newspapers beginning February 7,1938. Actually, it wasn't an easy path for Donald to debut in daily newspapers.
Taliaferro's fellow comic strip artist, Floyd Gottfredson, described the situation: "Al was dying for his own comic strip. He was a pretty ambitious guy, hard working and a fast worker, too."
Donald's growing popularity inspired Al to try and convince Roy O. Disney that Donald deserved his own comic strip just like Mickey Mouse. Roy, who was in charge of the comic strip division, wasn't interested in expanding into more comic strips. Undeterred, Taliaferro wrote and drew three weeks of samples and convinced Roy to show them to King Features, the syndicate distributing the Disney comic strips.
Al even decided to go over Roy's head and approach Walt. "I ran into Walt in the hall one day and told him I thought it would be a good idea to do another strip using Donald Duck. Walt had a habit of raising his eyebrow and you'd know you'd hit a chord somewhere," Taliaferro told me.
King Features loved the idea but found the gags weak. A second attempt, with Merrill DeMariswho had written for the Mickey Mouse strip supplying some gagsand Taliaferro doing the penciling and inking also failed to meet King Features standards.
Finally, a combination of gags from other storymen including Homer Brightman, Roy Williams and Bob Karp were submitted and accepted by King Features. When the strip was purchased, Taliaferro wrote many of the gags. "Personally I loved to do the gags myself but it just got to be too much for me."
Eventually, Bob Karp became the regular writer on the strip, although the two rarely met. Karp mailed in the gags from his home in Santa Rosa, California. Robert Louis Karp was born in 1911 and passed away in 1975. He wrote the Donald strip right up until his death.
He was the one who adapted the unmade feature script in the Disney vaults into the very first original Donald Duck comic book, Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold illustrated by Carl Barks and Jack Hannah. Karp wrote for many of the Disney strips. In addition to the daily and Sunday Donald Duck strips, he wrote the gags for the Merry Menagerie strip as well as material for the True Life Adventures daily panel. Roy O. Disney wanted Karp to having a credit on the Merry Menagerie strip but King Features objected, feeling that the name of "Walt Disney" on the strip would have more selling power to newspapers.
Unlike the Mickey Mouse comic strip that was doing continuities, the Donald Duck strip focused on unrelated "gag-a-day" situations although there would be occasional loose continuities like Gus Goose coming to visit.
Once he received a gag from Karp, Taliaferro told me during my short interview with him that: "It only took a matter of moments to transfer the gag to paper. I was never at a loss to how to illustrate a gag, although more than once I was the victim of my adding something to the strip."
One time, he included his own telephone number as the number of Donald's phone. "The number of calls I got was enough to convince me to never do that again. Although, I did get in trouble with the telephone company one time because one of the Donald strips seemed to be giving the idea of chopping down telephone poles. That was not my intention but the telephone company objected."
Besides Donald's nephews, Taliaferro introduced the character of Bolivar, a huge St. Bernard, into the strip in 1938. The dog was accepted and enjoyed by readers in the United States and most of the rest of the world. Some of Bolivar's antics were supposedly inspired by the Taliaferro's Scottish terrier.
Unfortunately, Bolivar was not well received in Bolivia. The Bolivian government accused Disney of making fun of the country's national hero, Simon Bolivar, and demanded that Bolivar be discontinued immediately.
Bolivar soon went to dog limbo except for the fact that a dog looking remarkably like Bolivar named "Bornworthy" appeared as the first official Junior Woodchucks mascot in the Carl Barks comic book stories of the ducks.
In the days when women wore hats, Mrs. Taliaferro's hats always found their way to the heads of fat old ladies in the Donald Duck strip. I still don't know if Al was joking when he told me some of Daisy Duck's actions were inspired by his wife, and some of Grandma Duck's behavior was modeled after his mother-in-law. However, at the time, Mrs. Taliaferro showed me that she also had a hand-drawn valentine to show for each of their 33 years of marriage.
Mrs. Taliaferro was very active in community affairs in Glendale, California and she cajoled her husband to create an anti-litter mascot that still decorated city trash receptacles more than a decade after Al's death. In 1967, Al drew a very "Disneyesque" burro with a sombrero and carrying bags that proclaimed "Every Litter Bit Hurts" with the Verdugo Mountains in the background. Surrounding the drawing was the phrase "Keep Glendale Clean.The Verdugos Green". Taliaferro's little burro was named Litter-Not and to this day is the official mascot of the Committee for a Clean & Beautiful Glendale.
When I interviewed him, Taliaferro showed me some early examples of Donald Duck, "He was horrible. He had a longer neck and jutting beak and generally lacked the charm of his older seasoned self."
Even Taliaferro's later design of Donald Duck did not meet with much enthusiasm from Jack Hannah who had animated, written and later directed many of Donald Duck's classic shorts.
Jack told me in an interview the following: "There was no co-ordination between the comic strip and comic book departments and the animation department. They were completely different departments, located in different areas and we obviously had very different ideas on how to draw the characters, especially Donald. I never saw the comic strip unless I ran across it by accident in a newspaper I was reading.
"I certainly didn't care for the style of drawing Donald with that long neck. To be honest, the comic strip people probably didn't care for the way I preferred to draw the Duck. It's funny. Even though Al Taliaferro, who was the artist on the Donald Duck comic strip, and his wife used to go out socially with my wife and I, we never discussed it. I guess I was trying to avoid arguments or more likely, it probably bored our wives if we talked about work. I always remember Taliaferro as just a comic strip guy. I don't remember him doing anything else around the studio. He and Gottfredson were the comic guys. I can't remember reading their work because at the time, I just wasn't too interested in comic strips."
Taliaferro really was ambitious and flew to New York on his own to convince King Features to introduce a Donald Duck Sunday strip as well. The first Donald Duck Sunday strip appeared December 10, 1939. With this additional work on top of the daily strip, Taliaferro employed the help of other inkers including Bill Wright, Karl Karpe, Dick Moores and George Waiss. Amazingly, from around 1946 to 1965 when his health began to decline, Taliaferro penciled and inked the daily strip himself.
Other Disney artists like Al Hubbard, Kay Wright, Ellis Eringer and Frank Grundeen quietly assisted on the strip for Taliaferro's last few years with Grundeen taking over the Donald Duck strip upon Taliaferro's death on February 3, 1969. Al was made a Disney Legend in 2003.
The Donald Duck strips consumed Taliaferro's time and his work was reprinted in the Dell comic books. Apparently, he also did some original work for comic books through the Jim Davis and Sangor shop for ACG.
He did find some time to do some original artwork with the ducks in the Cheerios Premium Giveaway Donald Duck: Counter Spy (1947) and the cover of Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #107 (August 1949).His work also appears in two books Donald and His Cat Troubles (1948) from Whitman and Donald Duck and the Hidden Gold (1951) from Simon and Schuster.
In my personal archives, I have a three volume set reprinting Donald Duck comic strips from 1938 and 1939. They were published in Italian by an Italian publisher. Fortunately, most of these early strips were done in pantomime or with very few words so I can still enjoy the gags and the artwork of Taliaferro. Gladstone and Gemstone have occasionally reprinted some of Taliaferro's Donald strips as "filler" material in their Disney comic books.
Frequent readers of this column know that I am a strong advocate of a limited edition reprinting of the very earliest Mickey Mouse comic strips where Mickey was less a corporate icon and closer to the original mouse that audiences from around the world fell in love with. (One panel in the strip in the early months has Mickey discovering a room full of cheese and proclaiming "If only I had a bottle of beer...") I am now also advocating that some publisher consider a limited edition reprinting of the early Taliaferro Donald Duck strips.
Shortly before his death, Al and Lucy were making plans for a vacation in Hawaii. Lucy remarried and imagine my surprise when two years later I was taking a botany class at Glendale College and found that Mr. Yarick who was one of the best teachers I ever had was the new husband of Al's widow. It truly is a small world after all.