Charlie Thorson fonds
Call Number: Mss 248 (A.06-49)

Title: Charlie Thorson fonds.

Dates: 1928-1967.

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 Teslock 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 M.G.M. (1938) and then at Warner Brothers (1939). Warner hired Thorson specifically to create star characters.  They hoped his work would let them challenge Disney both in artistry and popularity. Thorson radically revised the Warner style towards anthropomorphic animals, which remains a part of the Warner “look,” and provided characters for budding director Chuck Jones. Notably, during his time at Warner Brothers, Thorson provided the original character model 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 fonds was donated to University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections by the Thorson family in 2006.

Scope and content: The fonds contains Charlie Thorson's published books, over 100 model sheets from Disney, Warner Brothers, M.G.M., 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 of 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, and newspaper clippings in English and Icelandic related to Charles Thorson’s career and to that of his brother, Member of Parliament 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 his time in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII.

Restrictions: Extra care must be taken with this fonds because it is very fragile and light-sensitive.

Accruals: No further accruals are expected.

Finding aid: An online finding aid is available at the link below:

MSS 248 (A.06-49).

 

Digitized Material

Charlie Thorson fonds