Bob Jones: quite a draw!

Tue, 09/02/2008 - 5:00am
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Peter Voskamp

Who do you know who has had a hand, literally, in the drawing of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Alfred E. Neuman, the creation of the Exxon Tiger — as well as the bait diagrams for Twin Maples tackle shop?

Bob Jones, that’s who!

Longtime Block Island summer visitor Jones stumbled upon two of his greatest passions early in life: fishing and drawing.

He first dropped a line in the water at age five in his native California, and drew his first lines even earlier. Jones “loved to draw like every kid does,” he says, except that he seemed to be a little “better at it.”

In the second grade his teacher asked him to draw a fish. His sketch garnered such a round of accolades that he thought, “I’m sticking with this!”

Now, seven decades later, Jones, 81, is a renowned artist and illustrator who created the Exxon Tiger and drew many of the Warner Bros. cartoon characters we know and love. His work appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, as well as on cereal box covers. He also did stint at MAD Magazine.

Jones has set up camp at Twin Maples this summer, where he keeps his boat for daily fishing excursions, and where he has become the official head of the tackle shop’s “graphics department.”

An ‘in-betweener’

Growing up in Beverly Hills, Calif., where his father was a “veterinarian for the stars,” Jones attended Beverly Hills High School with Andre Previn and Miriam Marx (daughter of Groucho Marx).

He was 16 when he landed a summer job in the animation department of Warner Bros. studio, where he utilized his drawing skills as an “in-betweener.”

Jones offers an explanation: when any one of the famous cartoon characters — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd — made a gesture of any kind, the head animator would draw the character at the beginning and end of the gesture, but the “in-betweener” would draw those frames in between — the “easiest part,” Jones says with a chuckle.

He did a stint in the Navy during World War II, and was stationed in Memphis and Miami.

After the Navy he took art classes at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and then went on to learn commercial illustration at the Art Center College of Design, also in Los Angeles. 

After he was married he decided to head to the Mecca of illustration: New York City, where he got a job with the venerable Charles E. Cooper Studios on East 57th Street. As he explains it, most advertising in those days were drawn by hand. He began by making $100 a week, then worked on commission. He was there from 1952 through 1964.

Stemming from his early days drawing fish, Jones displayed a knack for rendering humorous animals, and he created them for countless ad campaigns. At one point the Saturday Evening Post called him to illustrate a story about a polar bear, and, recognizing his ability, then asked him to provide more serious, realistic illustrations.

Tail, er, tale of the Tiger

Jones tells the tale of how the Exxon — at that time Esso — tiger came to be.

It was late on a Friday in 1964 when a salesman approached Jones to say that an advertising agency was looking for tiger — they needed it on Monday. Jones declined at first, saying he was too busy. But he finally agreed and turned in a sketch on Monday as requested.

Weeks passed and he’d practically forgotten about it when he got a call to show up at an advertising agency. When he walked into a conference room at McCann-Erickson the walls were covered in tiger drawings. To his astonishment, they chose his tiger to become the “spokesman” for the multi-national corporation. It went on to become an almost iconic figure in American culture.

“Damn near turned it down!” now Jones marvels.

His career went on to include illustrations for the Book-of-the-Month Club, as well as General Foods (he drew and designed Cocoa Pebbles and Fred Flintstone along with the toys that went with them). He also put in time with Star Magazine.

In the ’70s he was contacted by Nick Meglin, the editor of most every kid’s favorite publication: MAD Magazine.

He spent more than a decade with MAD, and did five covers for the magazine, which necessitated his mastering the face of Alfred E. Neuman. At a MAD reunion a year ago, many young cartoonists accosted Jones for an autograph. Though he insists he was “never one of their big guys,” he says he was “privileged to be part of that group” — which included Al Jaffe, Mort Drucker, Antonio Prohias, Sergio Aragones and Don Martin, to name a few.

Block Island bound

One weekend in 1963 Jones’ family was away and he found himself alone. He decided to drive out to Montauk Point on the tip of Long Island to go free diving. He was already a seasoned diver from his days in California, where he regularly dove for abalone, lobster and clams.

Someone in Montauk mentioned that if he liked to dive, he should go to Block Island.

Jones had a bit more financial room to maneuver after the success of the tiger, and he soon began visiting the island to dive for lobster, often joined by his friend Peter Wood.

As the years wore on, Jones, who now lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., would rent a Block Island house with his family for part of the summer.

Still an avid fisherman, he’s been a customer at Twin Maples for decades, and has become very close to the Swienton family. He’s recently been named the head of the “Graphics Deptartment” at Twin Maples. He’s draws the “how-to” diagrams — how to hook an eel, how to tie a knot. He once drew a sympathetic fish, with a tear coming from its eye. That one was vetoed by management, he laughs.

Jones is also part of the island’s daily coffee gang, which gathers every morning at cafes around town to swap stories and gossip.

He also has begun trying his hand at painting, and his work can be seen at Jessie Edwards Studio.

Sitting at his bungalow looking out over Harbor Pond, Jones appears to be that most elusive of things — a truly contented soul.

“Pick a profession you love and you’ll never work a day in your life — and it’s true,” he says, flashing a smile.