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Originally published Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Warner Bros. cartoons get respect, with Museum of History & Industry show

Bugs, Tweety and Sylvester live again in a Warner Bros. cartoon exhibition at Seattle's Museum of History & Industry.

Special to The Seattle Times

Exhibit preview

"The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons"

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through May 17, Museum of History & Industry, 2700 24th Ave. E., Seattle; $6-$8, free admission until 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month (206-324-1126 or www.seattlehistory.org).

Family Day: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today, includes face painting and workshops on character design. It features veteran Warner Bros. animator Bob Abrams, who worked with Chuck Jones on "The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour" and the television version of "Horton Hears a Who."

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"The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons"? Presented at a museum?

Management at the studio during its heyday would have been aghast at such a thought.

While the brothers Warner were turning out Bette Davis weepers, Busby Berkeley musicals and such classics as "Casablanca" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood," its cartoon division was treated like an unworthy stepchild.

Despite the fact that Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety Pie and Pepe Le Pew took home Academy Awards and turned out to be immensely popular, they were part of the shorts division. In other words, they were considered filler. Every new character, including Bugs, was disliked by the front office.

To correct that oversight, the Museum of History & Industry is honoring Warner's animated division with a wide-ranging exhibition that runs through May 17.

Featured are completed cels (frames), black-and-white sketches, background paintings and impressive trivia from the 1930s to the early '60s. While the music of Carl Stalling plays in the background, you can check out Dell comic books featuring Bugs and Tweety (once 15 cents apiece), or compare series of drawings that once gave life to Wile E. Coyote, Marvin the Martian and the Tasmanian Devil.

Tweety and Sylvester get a section to themselves (they're labeled "Eternal Adversaries"), and so do Bugs and Elmer Fudd. The animators also skewered the movie stars of the time, stretching Clark Gable's ears, imagining Bing Crosby as a chicken and exaggerating the Gothic features of Peter Lorre and Edward G. Robinson.

In a tiny theater tucked away in back, DVDs show such Warner classics as "Duck Dodgers in the 24 and ½th Century," "Rabbit of Seville" and "The Scarlet Pumpernickel."

These represent the cream of the crop. Intimidated by Disney, Warner struggled to find its own style in the early 1930s, eventually gaining an audience that included the late film critic Manny Farber ("the good ones are masterpieces") and enthusiastic write-ups in Time magazine and The Washington Post.

The years 1944-'62 are now regarded as the golden age. Many of the original cels were destroyed in 1962, when the studio's animation division was bulldozed to make way for Warner's publicity department.

The museum's exhibit is a traveling show that last appeared in Sacramento. The genesis was former New York Times television columnist Steve Schneider's 1988 book, "That's All Folks!: The Art of Warner Bros. Animation."

"Actually, we never called ourselves artists while we were making those films," the late Warner animator, Chuck Jones, once said. "We were just making a living."

According to Warner storyman Michael Maltese, "We wrote cartoons for grown-ups, that was the secret." They also relied on imaginative visuals to put their ideas across.

Jones saw a real difference between now-classic Warners animation and the kind of "illustrated radio" that turns up on television. His masterpiece, "One Froggy Evening," includes hardly any talk at all. (It's represented in the show by a rare lobby card that was once used to promote it.)

"Turn the sound off and watch the film for a few minutes," said Jones. "If you can't understand what's going on, it's not working. If you find it comprehensible without the sound, it's full animation."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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