Concluding my interview with Jon Graboff, artist and illustrator Abner Graboff's son, we talk about animation, the numbers game, and music:
W: I'm curious, do you know if your father did any work in animation? Abner's work would've fit in perfectly with various studios that were producing interesting work during the 50's, especially UPA Studios. Do you know if he had any connections in the animation industry?
J: Anyone old enough to remember the Danny Kaye Show during the 1960’s might remember my dad’s animation of a cartoon marching band parading along the bottom of the screen at the beginning and end of the show. I asked him once why he didn’t do more animation and he said, with pained look “it was too time consuming” and that he didn’t want to draw the same character over and over with an arm, here then there and so on!
UPDATE: Stu Shostack of Shokus Video has found the animated opening of The Danny Kaye Show and graciously uploaded it for all to see on YouTube! The segment that Jon speaks of, the marching band of people, doesn't appear until around :40, and is cut off, but it's still cool to see Abner's characters in action. Big thanks to Stu for doing this for us! See for yourself:
W: Ha! Yes, animation can be quite tedious. I'd love to see this opening, if possible.
Back to books, I have a 8 year-old daughter and a 5 year-old son. I recently released my very first children's book. What was it like to grow up with your father creating children's books and working as an artist? Any interesting stories to tell?
J: I remember the numbers game. My brothers and I would write a number down on a piece of paper and my dad would work it into a drawing… it’s kinda hard to describe. And dad making roman style armor out of yellow flexible art cards. A painting of a cowboy on the inside of my brother Mike’s closet and the barrels of the six shooters had clothes hooks screwed into them. My father restored an old snow sled and stenciled rocket on it. It was pretty cool. The funny thing about growing up with a book illustrator is that we knew virtually nothing of other well known children’s books. I didn’t know anything about Potter or Sendak until much later in life!
It’s funny that you mentioned “Dick and Jane” style illustrations because I remember elementary school, and using the “Dick and Jane” stories when we were learning to read, and thinking that they were very lame compared to dad’s work!
I think the enduring interest in my father’s illustrations comes down to one very important thing. They were fun and they were funny! He loved kids and had a big heart and a keen sense of humor and those qualities always came through.
W: Did he have any musical interests, and/or musical talent? If so, did he influence you as a musician?
J: Here’s an amazing memory. My mother was a very talented violinist and there was always music in the house and my brothers and I took up band instruments in elementary school. Michael learned the trumpet, I played the French horn and my other brother Paul played the clarinet. Paul only seemed to be able to create one sound on his clarinet, which was reminiscent of a higher pitched foghorn… way off in the distance… whooooo. One night, we were sitting around the living room watching television and suddenly heard real clarinet playing from somewhere in the house. We looked around at each other with puzzled looks and realized that dad wasn’t there. We all bounded up the stairs, threw a bedroom door open and found dad playing the clarinet… and rather well. We all expressed our astonishment because he’d never even hinted at knowing how to play an instrument! He bashfully explained that he was a big Benny Goodman fan and had taken up the clarinet in high school. But he said his music teacher was a “Nazi” about the “correct” way to play “correct” music, and quit. This was the first time he’d picked up a clarinet in 25 years! He was actually pretty good.
He had collected small combo jazz 78’s as a teenager but later in life, listened almost exclusively to classical music. He loved Mozart in particular.
W: About your siblings, are they also artists and/or musicians?
J: My twin brother Paul, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2004, followed in my father’s footsteps and was a graphic designer. My older brother Michael is actually a very talented musician but became the family rebel by becoming a businessman. He lives in Munich, Germany and has two children.
W: Tell us a little about yourself. Can you tell me what your earliest memory was in regards to music? Were there any songs, band, events or concerts that had a major impact on you and your musical upbringing?
J: My earliest musical memories are of my mother singing a made up song about being on the swing as she pushed me higher and higher and my father singing me to sleep. Oddly enough, the song was the old depression era song, “Hallelujah I’m A Bum”. And honestly, I can’t remember a time when I was not thinking about music.
W: I see that you've collaborated with a great number of people, such as Ryan Adams, David Byrne, Willie Nelson, Ben E. King, Jon Spencer, to name a few. Any particular collaborations stick out in your mind? How long have you been performing? I'd love to hear how you got involved with the music industry.
J: Music became an all-consuming passion for me and I left home when I was 16 years old to join a band. I’ve played with lots of remarkable musicians over the years… some more so than others, but I like to think that I learned something valuable in each and every time. I think maintaining the attitude that I don’t know it all, and I can glean something from every situation, is something that I got from my father. He was artistically and intellectually curious by nature and he was always saying things like, I wonder why… I think that he believed that when you stop asking why, when, where, and what’s next… it’s all over.
This concludes my interview with Jon Graboff. I want to thank Jon for taking the time to talk with me about his father. I can't tell you how exciting this entire experience has been for me, a huge fan of Abner's work. It's one thing to enjoy a particular artist's work at face value, but it's quite a different experience once you know more about the artist and learn of his/her background. Thank you, Jon, for providing us the perfect opportunity to get to know your father, and for sharing with us your memories about his life & work.
It's unfortunate that Abner wasn't able to make much money off of his incredibly vibrant children's books. My hope is that there'd be enough interest in Abner Graboff's books that some publisher out there would be willing to reprint his titles, much like Rizzoli has done with M. Sasek's successful "This Is..." series. One can least hope, right?
More family photos:
A night out: Abner, Vivian, and Ira (Abner's brother). 1945.
Gift giving: Vivian & Abner at Christmastime, late 1940's
More images from Abner's books:
Who was Abner Graboff?
The Art & Life of Abner Graboff: Part 1 of my interview with his son, Jon.
More on Abner can be found here:
My Abner Graboff Flickr set
Abner Graboff in The Retro Kid
Abner Graboff on Biotope (Japanese site)