The legacy of animation designer/writer John Dunn (1920-1983) is secure–if unheralded–as the writer of hundreds of animated shorts for Ward Kimball, Chuck Jones, Bob McKimson, Friz Freleng, and others. In the waning days of animation’s Golden Age, he created some of the era’s last theatrical cartoon stars–Ant and the Aardvark, Roland and Rattfink, Tijuana Toads, Blue Racer, and Hoot Kloot, to name a few. When I started researching his life, I borrowed a variety of artwork from his children: storyboards, paintings, comic strips, character designs. But the most unusual possession I received was a Ziploc bag full of Security Pacific Bank calendars that Dunn maintained for the last 18 years of his life. The first ten years’ worth of calendars were not of particular note–just places for him to jot down notes about his career (weekly deadlines at the animation studio, vacation dates, meetings, and the like). With each passing year, though, the notes on his calendar grew increasingly detailed.
After Dunn semi-retired from animation in 1976, he created in the calendars an utterly unique form of self-expression. Every square inch of the 5.75″ x 6″ calendar pages, both front and back, became a miniature canvas for Dunn’s writings and drawings. He began to keep detailed accounts of what he ate, which television shows he watched, which books he read, as well as notes on his daily encounters with family members and animation colleagues. John’s son Bill doesn’t recall which sort of writing instrument his father used to write so small, but he does remember that his father retired to his study every evening to work on the calendars, using a magnifying lens to help him fit as much as he could into the daily one-inch-square space allotted him by his bank.
John Dunn with his family at Disneyland
Dunn’s devotion to the calendars manifested itself in peculiar ways: he recorded monthly rainfall tables, dates of death of actors and animation industry coworkers, and charts logging the number of times he’d eaten at various restaurants. A most unlikely item was noted on the back of one calendar: “From Oct. 3, 1977 to Jan. 22, 1980 the number of times I have walked back and forth on Hayvenhurst between Sherman Way and D.F.E. [DePatie-Freleng Enterprises] has been 845!!!” In the final year of his life, Dunn upgraded to a 7″ x 10″ engagement calendar; Security Pacific’s complimentary annuals could no longer contain his copious notes on daily life.
Dunn was both an artist and a writer, so it’s little surprise that his calendars are filed with nearly as many drawings as words. He drew mostly on the reverse sides of calendar pages, right over the text-heavy almanac data–the layer of words underneath adding a textural quality to his drawings on top. Dunn had been a fan of newspaper comics since childhood and his drawings reflect an intimate knowledge of Bigfoot cartooning conventions, recalling artists like E.C. Segar (Popeye), Sidney Smith (The Gumps), Billy DeBeck (Barney Google), and particularly Milt Gross (Count Screwloose). Disney animation director Ward Kimball once told me, “You would ask [Dunn] to do a page full of crazy-looking dogs and it was very hard to pick the craziest.” His inventiveness was unhindered even when reduced to postage-stamp proportions.
The raw, unfiltered details of Dunn’s recorded life shed a fascinating light on the man himself–his foibles and insecurities, his likes and dislikes–what made him tick. But beyond the personal aspects revealed here is the purely visceral effect of these calendars: their keeper’s craftsmanship elevate them to unlikely, enchanting, beautiful works of art.
Note: This piece I wrote was originally published as “Day to Day with John Dunn” in the fourth issue of “The Ganzfeld” (2005). I’ve been meaning to post it online for years so that more than five people could actually read it.
A GALLERY OF DUNN’S CALENDAR ARTWORK
Click on the images to enlarge.
Even though he was Scottish, Dunn loved using Milt Gross’s Yiddish-accented dialogue.