Born This Day: John R. Bray

Today, some brief appreciation for cartoonist, pioneering animator, and independent film producer John R. Bray (1879-1978). The name may not immediately ring any bells (his entertainment contributions were during the silent era) but you undoubtedly are familiar with many of the important people who got their start at his studio: the Fleischer Brothers, Walter Lantz (creator of Woody Woodpecker), Paul Terry (creator of Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle), Pat Sullivan (creator of Felix the Cat), and director Gregory La Cava among them.

Originally from a small town in Michigan, Bray attended to Detroit School of Art, and worked as a young man a reporter for the Detroit Evening Press. This led to a post at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which is of course where he met early collaborator Max Fleischer. From 1907 to 1909 Bray drew a comic strip for Judge magazine called The Teddy Bears (later known as Little Johnny and the Teddy Bears).

By 1912, Bray had founded his studio. His best known animated series would include the Fleischer Brothers’ Out of the Inkwell (1918-21), and the screen versions of Krazy Kat and Happy Hooligan (both 1920-21). For a time in 1920 he also produced an animated version of The Katzenjammer Kids (renamed The Shenanigan Kids due to post-World War One anti-German feeling). Other series included Colonel Heeza Liar (their first series, personally directed by Bray in the beginning), Farmer Al Falfa (inspiration for this guy‘s name?), Bobby Bump, and several others.

In 1926 Bray launched a series of live action shorts called The McDougall Alley Comedies or The McDougall Kids, which were designed to compete head-to-head with Hal Roach’s Our Gang. Bray lost the face-off and closed down his entertainment division in 1928. He was not down for the count, however, as he continued to make documentaries, industrials and educational films and filmstrips through 1963. His family continued to operate some of his enterprises as late as the 1990s.

Bray was living in P.T. Barnum’s town, Bridgeport, CT when he passed away in 1978, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday.

For more on silent film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.