Monday, October 08, 2007

Cliff Roberts (1929-1999)

When we initially looked at the work of Harry Borgman, it was in conjunction with another artist: Cliff Roberts. In the late 1940's, Harry and Cliff got their start in the illustration business at the same Detroit studio - Allied Artists.

Writing about his early career for Cartoonist PROfiles magazine, Cliff Roberts said, "My first job after graduation [from high school] in 1946 was as an apprentice in a commercial art studio. I made $25 a week matting other people's artwork, running errands, emptying waste baskets and all that other 'creative' stuff."

"After a few months, I was given an assignment to illustrate an article on fox hunting for Ford Times."

"I must have done well at it, because for a period of time I was type-cast as their 'outdoors' illustrator."

"Fortunately the magazine covered a myriad of subjects and I was soon illustrating all kinds of articles on travel, food, etc., and eventually did other general assignments which commercial studios are prone to find."

Roberts talks about his early style being influenced by the likes of Jan Balet, Jerome Snyder and Joe Kaufman... though you can also see the influence of Jim Flora - in the spot illos below and even more so in The First Book of Jazz, which Roberts illustrated in 1955. Paula Wirth has created a Flickr set of scans from The First Book of Jazz for our enjoyment.

Harry Borgman and Cliff Roberts left Allied Artists in 1950 to seek out new opportunities... but a year or so later, the two men found themselves working together once again at another Detroit studio; McNamara Brothers. When Harry talks about that period in his and Cliff's careers, it becomes apparent that Roberts was not long for the commercial art business.

"While we were working together," writes Harry, "Cliff was doing a lot of ad cartoons. He was out of his element at McNamara's. They were completely focused on the automotive area, so he got few assignments there and I think that's when he went to NY."

Indeed, though these examples above and below are still from that early period in Roberts' career, they begin to hint at his future in the animation industry. He first worked with legendary cartoon director Gene Deitch (of Gerald McBoing Boing and Mr. Magoo fame) at a Detroit animation studio called The Jam Handy Organization.

"During this period (1950 to 1968)," writes Roberts in the CP article, "I designed, wrote, and directed (somehow missing an ulcer) innumerable commercials, some children's shows, public service announcements, industrial films and just about anything else, except stag films, that anyone wanted on film."

Roberts also found time to contribute cartoons to Playboy and The New Yorker, among other magazines.

But around 1970 Roberts really hit his stride. He began work on a newspaper comic strip for the Children's Television Workshop, based on what was then a still relatively new - and extremely popular - children's tv show, Sesame Street.

Roberts went on to write, direct and animate many popular Saturday morning cartoon shows, including Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs and The Pink Panther.

Cliff Roberts retired in 1993 and passed away in 1999.

*A special note of thanks to Harry Borgman for providing most of the images for today's post and to the amazing Amid Amidi of Cartoon Modern for providing the article from Cartoonist PROfile.


  1. Nice illustrations, reminds me Mr. Magoo and Pink Panther drawings style, beautiful!


  2. Cliff Roberts was also part of the late 60's creative renaissance at Paramount Cartoon Studios. He's probably most noted for a cartoon there called "The Plumber", in which a plumber discovers musical ability in his pipes. Roberts wrote and designed the cartoon, and Howard Beckerman animated it.

  3. Anyone know where more Cliff's Sesame Street comic strip could be seen?

    Was this strip a success or little know venture?

  4. Dave; I suspect this page at will provide as much info about the strip as you're likely to find anywhere else. ;-)

  5. Anonymous3:31 PM

    Great post. The car-waiting-for-the-train-to-pass comic strip cracked me up.

  6. Thanks, all, for your comments!

  7. The Ford drawing reminded me strongly of the illustrations for the "Madeleine" books - I wonder if he did those?

  8. That would be Ludwig Bemelmans, Catherine - he wrote and illustrated the Madeline book(s).

    But I can certainly see the general similarity in style. Thanks for commenting! :-)

  9. Anonymous11:34 PM

    Hi there. I'm one of Cliff Roberts sons and might be persuaded to post some of my dads stuff on a site if anyone was interested. you can reach me at