Call Number: Mss 248, A.06-49
Title: Charlie Thorson fonds.
Extent:1.25 m of textual records and other material.
Biographical sketch: Charles Gustav “Charlie”
Thorson was born in 1890 in Winnipeg of Icelandic immigrant parents.
After elementary school, he worked multiple odd jobs around Winnipeg
and Gimli, most of which were secondary to enjoying himself in the
company of his high-living artistic circle of friends. Though
not yet an established artist, he did some cartooning, particularly
for Icelandic-language newspapers.
He married Rannveig “Ranka” Sweinsson in October 1914,
two months after the birth of their son, Charlie. However, Ranka
died only two years later of tuberculosis, and the son died some
three months later. The deaths came as a shock to Thorson, who wandered
for months on end, living as a tramp throughout western Canada.
In 1922, Thorson married Ada Teslock. Their son Charlie was born
in 1923 but lived only three days. Another son, Stephen, was born
in 1925. Thorson and Ada separated in 1928 and divorced in 1931.
During this time, Thorson worked for Brigden’s of Winnipeg
as an illustrator of the Eaton’s catalogue, specializing in
high-profile illustrations of jewelry and saddlery.
In 1935, already over forty, Thorson moved to Hollywood and began
working for Disney. Between 1935 and 1937, he worked on a large
number of animated shorts, as well as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,
for which he designed six dwarves (the seventh, Dopey, was a late
addition). Thorson always claimed that Snow White was based on his
drawings of a Winnipeg waitress. Though this runs counter to the
“official” story put forth by Disney, several pre-Disney
sketches survive to support his claim.
Thorson took offence at his lack of screen credits, particularly
on Snow White, and quarreled with Walt Disney, after which Thorson
left to work first
at MGM (1938), and then at Warner Brothers (1939). Warner hired
specifically to create star characters; they hoped his work would
challenge Disney both in artistry and popularity. Thorson radically
Warner style towards anthropomorphic animals, which remains a part
Warner “look,” and provided characters for budding director
Notably, during his time at WB, Thorson provided the original character
for Bugs Bunny, an achievement in which he took considerable pride.
After leaving Warner Brothers, probably over a copyright conflict,
Thorson worked for Fleischer Studios in Miami, redesigning Raggedy
Ann and Andy, and Popeye, during 1939 and 1940. In 1941, he worked
for Terrytoons, possibly influencing the design of Mighty Mouse.
Throughout the 1940s, before and after his 1941 breakdown, Thorson
did a variety of advertising work, bringing his signature “cute”
animals and children to a wide audience.
After returning to Winnipeg in 1946, Thorson designed Punkinhead,
a mop-headed bear, for Eaton’s. With proper management, he
could likely have retired on Punkinhead royalties, but in a fit
of discouragement, he sold those royalties to Eaton’s for
$1. It was a sadly typical move in Thorson’s influential but
unlucrative career. He published the popular children’s books
Keeko (1947) and Chee-Chee and Keeko (1951), but was never fully
paid for them by his publisher.
In 1952, he redesigned Elmer the Safety Elephant, for a school-based
safety campaign. Elmer’s popularity spread him from his home
base of Toronto throughout Canada. Subsequently, though, Thorson
struggled to find work, and eventually retired to British Columbia
in 1956. He died August 7, 1966.
Custodial history: The Charlie Thorson fonds were
donated to the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections
by the Thorson family in 2006.
Scope and content: The collection contains Thorson's
published books; over 100 model sheets from Disney, Warner Brothers,
MGM, Fleisher, and Terrytoons studios; hundreds of watercolor, colored
pencil, pencil, and ink drawings of Thorson's animation and book
characters; many hundreds of preliminary sketches and studies; several
story sketches; mock-ups Keeko, Ookie the Eskimo, Prince of the
Wilderness, plus a couple of coloring books; several satiric poems,
including "A Dizzy Symp-phony," Thorson's attack on Walt
Disney; other scripts, written work, correspondence, and important
papers; some of his political cartoons; newspaper clippings in English
and Icelandic related to Charles Thorson’s career and to that
of his brother, MP and judge Joseph Thorson. Personal correspondence
dates mostly from 1941 or later, and includes a large number of
letters from Thorson’s son Steve during Steve’s time
in the RCAF during WWII.
Restrictions: There are no restrictions on this
material. Extra care must be taken with this collection because
it is very fragile and light-sensitive.