Early animation expert visits Forest Hills
by Michael Perlman
Mar 29, 2016 | 12428 views | 0 0 comments | 95 95 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tommy José Stathes pursuing his niche
Tommy José Stathes pursuing his niche
slideshow
Felix the Cat
Felix the Cat
slideshow
Meet Tommy José Stathes, an early animation historian, film archivist, and preservationist who recently exhibited at the Forest Hills Library, giving residents the opportunity to discover early and forgotten pre-Hollywood cartoons on rare 16-mm prints created between 1900 and the late 1920s in New York City.

“Many people think of Disney as being the first animation powerhouse, but it was really Bray Studios in New York City, which produced over 500 animated films in the silent era [1913 – 1927], and I’ve made efforts to locate half of those films,” said Stathes.

Many notable animators got their start with Bray, such as Max Fleischer of Betty Boop and Popeye fame, Paul Terry of Mighty Mouse fame, and Walter Lantz of Woody Woodpecker fame.

The event was part of a new series he coordinated with the Queens Library. The seven works included “The Tantalizing Fly” by Max Fleischer (1919), “Mutt & Jeff in Soda Jerks” by Associated Animators (1925), and “Felix The Cat in Astronomeows” by Otto Messmer (1928).

“It would be great to have another event at the library, where a pianist could give live accompaniment for silent films,” the 27-year-old Flushing resident said, adding he is seeking ideas for more exhibitions in Forest Hills and Rego Park.

Stathes’ collection includes over 1,500 short films and he is the proud owner of a large archive of production-related documents and images, as well as artwork.

“Watching the films is a dynamic experience,” he said. “And it’s also marvelous to view an artist’s original drawing on paper from nearly a century ago.”

In 2009, Stathes began hosting his 16-mm Cartoon Carnival series, which is currently in its 42nd installment. Over the decade, he has organized similar events for schools, museums, and other film festivals, adding up to nearly 100 public events.

“As a young child, I was especially fascinated by the cartoons my grandparents grew up watching in the 1920s and 1930s, which were rerun on TV in the 1950s and 1960s and enjoyed by my parents,” he said. “It’s fascinating how a simple drugstore item such as $2 VHS tapes containing Betty Boop, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny could spark a strong interest and a career.”

Stathes finds most of his films in antique shops, flea markets or online, and then inspects and does some maintenance to restore and preserve them.

“The basics consist of manually checking the film with a set of rewinds to wind the film from one reel to another,” he said. “Cleaning and repairs can be done this way using cloth and film cleaners and either special tape or a splicer and cement.”

Films are sometimes sent to a lab, where they undergo high-resolution scans for digital restoration.

“So many silent era films are considered lost, where copies of certain films are not generally known to exist in archives or private collections,” he said. “Thankfully, lost films turn up from time to time in attics or barns. Sometimes they are completely useless, and other times they can be preserved in new copies, though occasionally with distracting quality flaws.”

Queens also played a role in the early history of animation.

“A very early international film distributor, Gaumont, which carried a few cartoon films, once had a branch in Flushing in the early 1910s,” Stathes said. “Many animated adaptations of William Randolph Hearst-owned comic strip characters such as Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids were produced by Hearst’s International Film Service in Long Island City in the late 1910s, as were the Mutt & Jeff cartoons by Associated Animators in the 1920s.

“The Fleischer brothers also had a studio space in Long Island City in the late 1920s while producing Out of the Inkwell films featuring Koko the Clown,” he added.

Stathes has also taught animation history at the School of Visual Arts.

“Someday, I would love to have my own gallery or theatrical space,” he said. “My recent line of Cartoon Roots Blu-rays and DVDs are the manifestation of a dream and sort of coming full circle, as I began watching cartoons on VHS as a child and I am now distributing some for the home market.”

Learn more at tommyjose.com.

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