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Following up the Bouncing Ball

In Search of "Kelly With The Green Necktie"

At The Roster, we talk a lot about respecting and celebrating creative talent. I have been fortunate to mentor many creative individuals throughout my career, sharing what I have learned to further their careers. Mentoring is a tradition I learned firsthand by being mentored by many generous professionals. 

This article is about one such mentor from my college days. An almost forgotten animation industry pioneer. His name was Sid Glenar. 

In 2015 I wrote an article about Sid, documenting how we met and a few of the stories he shared with me about the early days of animation. 

Click images to enlarge.

Two of Sid’s claims stand out:

  1. As the head cameraman at Fleischer Studios, his hand was seen drawing Ko-Ko the clown onto the screen in the historically famous "Out of the Inkwell" cartoon series.

  2. Sid was responsible for the famous follow-the-bouncing-ball effect in a movie called “Kelly With a Green Necktie”. This technique helped audiences sing along with onscreen lyrics in the early days of cinema. It may be hard for any of us to relate to this idea today, but it was exciting and novel at the time. If you have ever sung Karaoke, whatever method was used to indicate what word you should sing next and when can be traced all the way back to the bouncing ball technique.

When I wrote my original article, I felt I needed to share what I knew, adding to the historical record, because there was very little about Sid online. I’m pleased to say not only has my original article been referenced by Wikipedia, but it also caught the attention of Sid’s family, adding details to their understanding of Sid’s life as a cartoonist and animator. Nice!

There was only one problem: I was never able to find any reference to a movie titled "Kelly With a Green Necktie." It was an unsolved mystery.

Now, eight years later, new information and more research have prompted me to update this article and set the record straight regarding Sid’s second claim. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt, but the payoff, at least for me, was worth the journey. 

The balance of this article is broken into two major segments:

A Personal Account

In 1977, I was newly married and a student at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena. I had been contracted to produce an animated surf parody of the newly released movie, Star Wars. The parody was to be called "Surf Wars," a short subject that would play before Gary Capo's surf movie, "Many Classic Moments."

I accepted this gig thinking I could shoot the entire film on the Art Center's animation camera stand. That was the plan, but it soon became apparent that the school was unwilling to let me monopolize their animation department.

I needed to find an inexpensive animation camera stand to complete this epic 10-minute cartoon. After asking around Hollywood, I was introduced to a retired animation cameraman, named Sid Glenar, who I soon realized was a bonafide animation legend.

At 74, Sid was thin and spry, with a head of shocking white hair. He wore two hearing aids that would occasionally feed back, causing an unbearably loud screeching sound. Words cannot adequately describe just how alarming this was to experience. He had long since shut down his production company by the time I met him.

Sid was a long-established resident of Burbank and had set up one of his smaller (and older) animation cameras in his garage. Carl Vidnic, who shot much of the Surf Wars animation scenes along with me, used to refer to Sid's garage as the "sweatshop" because there was no air conditioning and it really heated up once the movie lights kicked on.

One day, Sid asked if he could visit me for lunch at the Art Center campus. Even at his age, he was curious to visit the school's new campus, which had only relocated to Pasadena the year before. I will never forget that lunch because it turned out to be an amazing history lesson about the early days of the animation industry.

I learned that among other accomplishments, Sid was a charter member of IATSE Local 839, the Hollywood cameraman's union, and the head cameraman for Fleischer Studios.

Fleischer Studios produced many animated classics, including the original feature-length animated version of Gulliver's Travels, the Popeye cartoons, and the immensely popular Out of the Inkwell series featuring Betty Boop and Ko-Ko the Clown.

In fact, it was Sid's hand that was seen on-camera drawing Ko-Ko the Clown onscreen to start each episode of Out of the Inkwell. This was a novel gag at the time. An artist’s hand would quickly draw Ko-Ko and then the little clown would spring to life and run around the drawing table. He went on to explain exactly how the effect was created.

  1. First, using a large-format view camera, he photographed his hand holding an ink pen, laying across his animation table. He also photographed the same scene, from the same angle, without his arm -- just his animation table with a blank sheet of drawing paper. This became the background for the famous opening.

  2. Then, the image of his hand holding the pen and a section of his forearm was printed as a life-size photo and mounted onto thin chipboard. Once mounted, the image was meticulously cut out using a X-acto knife.

  3. Next — the genius of the gag — was to cut a vertical slit in the upper part of the arm to allow for a pushpin to be slipped through the slit and anchored fast into a wooden surface off-screen. This allowed the arm to slide and pivot freely.

  4. Finally, to shoot the the Ko-Ko line drawing sequence, animation cells of the line segment advancing incrementally, were placed onto the animation stand, under the arm cut-out, and shot frame-by-frame — each cell photographed with the tip of the cut-out pen carefully placed at the leading edge of the advancing ink line. The illusion, when played back at 24fps, was that the hand was actually drawing Ko-Ko, as opposed to chasing the advancing ink line.

I also learned that Sid was a contemporary of Walt Disney. Not only did the two men know each other, but they apparently favored one another. Sid told me that around the union hall, they’d used to say, "Here comes 'Disney' and there goes 'Sidney.'

Besides being an innovative animation cameraman, Sid was a talented artist in his own right. I left our lunch with a napkin drawing of Ko-Ko the Clown which Sid drew effortlessly as if he had done so a thousand times before.

Validation

One of my animation teachers at Art Center was Warner Brothers animation director, Chuck Jones. Chuck directed many of the classic Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck cartoons and was the creator of Pepe le Pew, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, and Marvin Martian. One day, during a class lecture, Chuck said, "I have never met a creative animation cameraman."

I found this intriguing since I was working with Sid at the time. After class, I asked Chuck if he had ever met Sid Glenar. Chuck took a step back and looked dumbfounded at me as he explained, "As those words came out of my mouth, I thought to myself, ' ...with the exception of Sid Glenar, but none of these kids will know the difference.'

Then Chuck asked me, "How do you know about Sid?" I replied, "I'm working with him." Chuck knew about Surf Wars and so I went on to explain how Sid was helping me to shoot the film on his animation stand.

Chuck was amazed to learn that Sid was still in the land of the living, sharing, "I haven't seen Sid in decades. One of the true pioneering geniuses of animation!" Then he asked, with a glint in his eye, "Does he still wear those gawd-awful hearing aids that you can hear from a mile away?"

I smiled and said, "Yup!" We both had a good laugh over that.

Following the Bouncing Ball Back to its Source

So, what does all this have to do with following the bouncing ball?

During our lunch, Sid told me how he created the the famous cinematic effect, follow-the-bouncing-ball, which bounced from word to word allowing theater audiences to sing in time with the with movie. He referred to the movie as "Kelly With A Green Necktie". Sid went on to describe how he used a white ball on a stick to allow someone to tap out the beat of the music while following the song lyrics.

This sent me a wild-goose chase, searching for a movie, a named Kelly with a Green Necktie. I could find no such movie. I even reached out to several film historians, including Dan Adams and Tag Gallagher. Neither had heard of a movie by that name. Tag suggested that the movie may never have been released, or possibly released under a different title.

Keeping My Eye On The Ball

I decided to research on the history of the “the bouncing ball” technique. Perhaps I’d find a clue to Sid’s involvement and a mention of Kelly with the Green Necktie.

According to Wikipedia, "The bouncing ball was invented at Fleischer Studios for the Song Car-Tunes series of animated cartoons (both Max and Dave Fleischer later claimed to have devised the idea). It was introduced in September 1925 with the film My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."

Hmmm. No mention of Sid, or "Kelly with the Green Necktie".

I found a reference mentioning that before working for the Fleischers, Sid worked for Bray Studios, as did Max and Dave Fleischer. In fact, more than a dozen Out of the Inkwell films were produced for Bray Studios between 1918 and 1921 before the Fleischers struck out on their own. An interesting side note is that “Ko-Ko,” the little clown, as he was known early on, was actually Dave Fleischer, filmed in a clown costume, then traced frame-by-frame in a process called “rotoscoping,” which Max Fleischer invented. At some point during this period, Glenar met the Fleischers, but it is unclear if he actually worked on any of the early Inkwell episodes.

In 1921, Max and Dave left Bray Studios and started their own company: Out of the Inkwell, Inc. They continued producing the Out of the Inkwell series, with a single employee, animation cameraman, Charlie Schettler — not Sid Glenar — operating out of a dingy basement apartment below a brothel at 129 East 45th Street.

Two years later, in 1923, the Fleischers’ staff size grew and they moved the studio to 1600 Broadway in Manhattan. I believe it was around this time that Sid Glenar went to work for the Fleischers, where he remained until he moved to Los Angeles in 1928. On September 23, 1928, a trade newspaper reported:

Headline: Glenar Going to Coast

“Sid Glenar, who has been working on trick photography on Out of the Inkwell cartoons, has resigned to leave Oct, 1 for the Coast.”

Further validation that Sid was a cameraman with the Fleischer Studios and his tenure was during the five-year period from 1923–1928. But that alone doesn’t support his second claim to fame: the bouncing ball effect.

Breakthrough

It was feeling like I may never be able to connect the dots when I caught a break. An online comment responding to the earlier version of my article. The comment was from a woman who only identified herself as Marianne. She wrote, “Book referencing music in cinema and Kelly with a Green Neck Tie, and bouncing ball. Music written in 1909.” She also shared this link.

Click images to enlarge.

The book is titled, "Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema” documents the history of music in cinema. The specific reference Marianne shared is a footnote to a story about the history of the bouncing ball in cinema. The footnote describes a bouncing-ball singalong song titled, "Has Anyone Here Seen Kelly?" Sheet music for the song was published in 1909. According to the footnote, the third and fourth choruses of the song include the lyric, "Kelly with the green necktie." Not exactly the perfect validation of Sid's story I was hoping for, but seemingly too close to the mark to be a coincidence. Perhaps the lyric is what stuck in Sid’s memory, and it was never the title of the movie?

This sent me back to the Fleischer Studios website, in particular the online museum exhibit about the history of Out of the Ink Well series. Was there any refetence to "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?" on the site?

To my surprise, it was — and I almost missed it, buried below-the-fold on the third page of a very long, content-rich article, “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly” (1926).

1926? Sid was definitely working for the Fleischers at that time. I clicked through to YouTube and nervously played the video. Was my decades-long mystery about to be solved? And there it was, just as reported in the book footnote above, the second and third chorus end with the phrase, “Kelly with the green necktie.” Eureka!

Click images to enlarge.

I couldn’t believe it. And if finding Kelly wasn’t enough, further down the same page on the Fleischer Studios website, there was a section about the bouncing ball process with a diagram detailing an interesting mechanical contraption and a paragraph explaining the innovation of the device.

Click image to enlarge.

The first bouncing ball cartoons were not terribly precise. Matching the frame-by-frame bounce of an animated ball with music was a difficult and unforgiving process. The solution turned out to be elegantly simple: a live-action ball controlled by a live-action person. The lyrics were attached to a drum that was turned by one technician as a second technician (often Lou Fleischer himself), wearing black gloves and holding a black stick with a white ball on its tip, bounced the ball from word to word in time with the music. This enabled the ball to bounce gracefully from beat to beat, hanging on longer notes and allowing for subtle shifts in tempo.

The words that jumped out at me were, The solution turned out to be elegantly simple… I was immediately reminded of Sid’s solution for the artist’s hand drawing Ko-Ko. It too was “elegantly simple.” The paragraph goes on to explain how a black stick with a white ball on its tip was used to bounce the ball from word to word in time with the music — just as Sid had explained to me so many years ago.

New Theory

So my new theory, which seems to be supported by the facts, is that Sid wasn’t claiming to invent the concept of the bouncing ball; he was explaining how he perfected the technique!

Fond Memories and Fading Recognition

It is surprising and a little sad that the Fleischer Studios website doesn’t make any mention of Sid Glenar, given the ample evidence that Sid worked with the Fleischers early on. I can’t prove that Sid was the inventor of the bouncing ball drum, but it matches the technique he described to me and his reference to "Kelly with a Green Necktie" was valid.

This much I know with certainty: Sid was a true animation pioneer and a kind mentor. I am glad to have gone on record with my personal anecdotes about Sid Glenar.

References

  1. Bouncing ball - Wikipedia
  2. Tralfaz: Cartoons of 1928 | Glenar Going to Coast
  3. Scrappy Portraiture « Scrappyland
  4. Tralfaz: December 2012
  5. King Vidor - Credits (text only) - IMDb
  6. Farewell to Phil Davis! | Devon Baxter on Patreon
  7. Sidney Glenar (1903-1993) *89, Grave #80722864 - Sysoon
  8. Sid Glenar - EverybodyWiki Bio
  9. "Beyond the Soundtrack”, book footnotes 31-33
  10. Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly
  11. Fleischer Studios - Out of the Inkwell History
  12. About Fleischer Studios
  13. Chuck Jones - Wikipedia
  14. Chuck Jones - IMDb
  15. Learn What Made Chuck Jones A Great Director In Under 9 Minutes

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