Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

JEAN KARATY


Silver Screen Animator


You probably never heard of Jean Karaty unless you lived in the Miami, Florida area. You have probably seen the fruits of her work and don't even recognize this heretofore uncredited artist.  If you knew her like her family and friends did, then you would  know of her outstanding contributions to the world of animated films.  Her fame was fleeting, but following her death on this past Thanksgiving, her work as an cartoon animator has once again come to light to show what a really gifted artist this Dublin native was.
Jean Karaty was born Jean Shehan  on February 22, 1917 in Dublin, Georgia. Jean's  parents, Louis and Sarah Shehan, moved from their Franklin Street home in Dublin in 1924 to Miami, Florida, where they opened a dress shop.  The Shehans, natives of Syria, came to Dublin to join other members of their family who were in the mercantile business.  They were closely allied with the Jepeway family, who came from Lebanon.

"She always talked about the big hurricanes," her son Michael Karaty Jr. said. And when Jean was nine years old, she saw one of the worst. The 1926 Great Miami hurricane devastated Miami and caused more than 78 billion dollars (165 billion in 2015 dollars) in damages and remains the costliest in U.S. history.

Jean graduated from Miami High in the mid 1930s and set out to find a job during the still dark days of the Great Depression.  She immediately went to work full time in a parent's dress shop. Then, in a moment of destiny, an employee of Fleischer's Studio happened to walk in the shop and noticed Jean's drawings of flowers, animals and her intriguing cartoon characters.




Most people will point to Walt Disney Studios and Warner Brothers' Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes as the cartoons they fondly remember most from their childhood.  But there is a third leading animation company of that golden era of animated cartoons from the 1930s through the 1950s, and that company was Fleischer Studios. 

Fleischer Studios was founded in 1921 in New York City by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer.  While Walt Disney concentrated on human-like animal cartoon characters, the Fleischers  took the lead in developing human ones.  

In 1938, The Fleischers established a studio in what was a swampy farm outside of downtown Miami.  The building, while still in existence, is now occupied by the Miami Police Department.

Jean was eventually hired by the Fleischers.  As an opaquer, Jean was required to produce 1440 cartoon cells for every minute of film.  Jean and her colleagues filled in spaces and traced the cartoonists drawings when required.

"I used to do some drawings, silly things - flowers, animals, cartoon characters,'' Karaty said. "My mother had a dress shop down on Flagler Street and one of the women who worked there told me to get on the bus and go down to the studio. They took one look at the drawings and said to come in to work. I stayed with them for five years."

"It was the lowest job you could have,'' fellow co-worker Jeanette Simon said.  "It was tedious because you had to be so careful, staying exactly in the lines. But the pay was good - I was getting $30 a week. In those days, that was a lot of money,'' Simon told the Miami Herald.

"When we were working on Gulliver's Travels, there were some weeks when we'd stay until 11:00 o'clock at night four days a week,'' said Celido Rodriguez, who worked with Jean Karaty. ``But we were all young and able to do that.''

"I felt very important that I worked there,'' Simon told Nicholas Spangler of the Miami Herald. "It seemed very glamorous.''

Karaty's work was shown in theaters in Miami, back home in Dublin and around the world.  They are still being seen by people  around the world today.``We used to go down to the Paramount Theater on Flagler Street to see the cartoons before the movie started,'' Karaty remembered. "You'd say, `I did that! I worked on that!' and the people around us would say `Shh!' They thought we were just a bunch of rowdies.''

By 1943, the Miami office was closed after high production costs and a struggle between the owners forced the business to move back to New York. 

"On the last day they called me into the executive office and asked me if I would like to go,'' Karaty said. ``I was so excited. But my parents said, `You're not going,' and that was it.  Families were stricter in those days.'' Jean herself turned down an offer to work for Disney Studios in Orlando.




Karaty and her colleagues never imagined how much their work would have on the culture of America.  Few of their original art works were saved.  After they were processed, many treasures were thrown away as trash.  

Jean Karaty lived in the Miami area for the remainder of her days.  Husband Michael Karaty owned and operated a Whiteway Service Station.  He died thirty years before Jean.  

Jean loved playing cards, especially poker at the local Moose Lodge.  She frequently told the story of her trip to Las Vegas, when she found herself at the card table with comedian Red Foxx.  Karaty outlasted the gravelly, foul mouthed star of  "Sanford & Son," who wished her good luck upon his leaving the game.

And so, you now know the story of the little girl from Dublin who helped to bring the legendary comic characters of Popeye, Superman and Betty Boop to the Silver Screen.

Photos of Jean Karaty@Miami Herald.

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