Jeff Hale, the award-winning director best known for his work with Sesame Street and the controversial Lenny Bruce short Thank You Mask Man, passed away in late February. He was 92 years old. ASIFA San Francisco president Karl Cohen confirmed his death via email.
Born in Margate, England in 1923, Hale began drawing as a teenager during a long hospital stay and trained at the Royal College of Art in London. His first animation job was at W.M. Larkins studio in England, where Hale trained under German director-designer Peter Sachs. He launched his own commercial studio Biographic Films in 1955 with partners Bob Godfrey and Keith Learner.
Following a move to Winnipeg, Canada, in 1956 to work at Phillips-Gutkin and Associates (PGA), Hale joined the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 1959, where he directed short segments for non-commercial Canadian television. Jeff’s most notable work for the NFB was The Great Toy Robbery (1963), which pitted Santa Claus against gun-slinging outlaws in the American west.
Hale moved to San Franciso in 1964 to work with NFB co-worker Cameron Guess. He directed Guess’s Oscar-nominated short The Shepherd but never received credit for his efforts. In 1968 Hale and his wife Margaret became partners with John Magnuson and Walt Kramer at Imagination, Inc animation studio in San Francisco. In addition to television commercials, the bulk of work at the studio was supplying animated shorts to the Children’s Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street.
For Sesame Street, Hale’s longest and most fruitful work relationship, he created several series of shorts, including the “Pinball Number Count” series, some of which are still seen on the program.
Through Magnuson, who was a close friend of Lenny Bruce, Hale came to design and direct the animation of Thank You Mask Man, using audio from a Bruce routine based on the Lone Ranger and Tonto, in 1968. The short had a controversial and unprofitable run; it was scheduled to premiere at the opening night of the San Francisco International Film Festival but was mysteriously taken off the proram. Magnuson believed that the film’s submission for Academy Awards consideration was sabotaged by an Academy member, with Hale suggesting “the projectionist took it upon himself to act as a censor.” The short found an audience and attained cult status nonetheless, with regular pre-feature screenings over many years at Landmark Theatres.
With Geraldine Clarke and Prescott Wright, Jeff and Margaret Hale founded ASIFA-San Francisco in 1973.
Hale later helped set up the San Francisco studio Mill Valley Animation. He also animated the “B-17” segment of the feature Heavy Metal (1981), which was directed by NFB colleague Gerald Potterton. Later he worked as an animation director on Muppet Babies and Transformers, as well as The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, G.I. Joe and My Little Pony. Hale continued to work, with considerable artistic freedom, on Sesame Street until 1999.
Hale retired to Talent, Oregon where he continued to paint and draw. He is survived by his daughter Margot and son Nick.
Hale is featured in this 1982 PBS documentary called The Animators: