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ELDON DEDINI

Eldon Dedini has nothing but funny bones in his body. His mind is inquisitive, his spirit – free, his artistic talent – unique. It’s a combination that’s kept the world laughing for more than six decades. It’s not that Eldon thinks life is a joke; it’s simply that he sees humor in everything. Plus, he can draw anything. So without subject or talent boundaries, his freedom of expression has no limits. Dedini’s vision has been documented for the last 50 years in The New Yorker and Playboy. His cartoons are playful commentaries about society designed to make you laugh, then think.

“You’ve got to tie into what people are talking about, what’s relevant, what’s important,” Dedini says. “Cartooning is best self-taught. You just observe and do it. The whole idea is not the drawing itself – it’s the information, what’s in the noggin.” And Eldon’s is crammed with knowledge. One look around his cluttered, Carmel home and you’d understand. He’s got the most eclectic collection of books, magazines and posters stuffed in shelves and piled on desks. He’s read them all: everything from Rolling Stone to Encyclopedia Yearbooks to Russian history texts.

Eldon studies Vogue to better understand fashion and how to draw a dress. He reads the New York Times everyday because he feels he should. Somewhere in the middle his mind is satisfied and his hands take over. He draws his interpretation of the world. To him, the Terminator isn’t scary, it’s comedy. “The name Schwarzenegger,” Eldon says, “it’s so German it sounds like a composer, a conductor. So I thought, Schwarzenegger String Quartet. That works. And the minute you say that, how would it look? All these guys, muscles, collars, big necks.”

There are few who can tell a story like Eldon Dedini. And at 84 years old, he’s got a lot of them to tell. His wit shines in his eyes. One look into them and his age becomes an afterthought. Eldon’s smile defines him. It’s a cross between a smirk and a chuckle – kind of like a guy who really wants to laugh at his own jokes but has to consciously restrain his face.

Eldon tries to avoid politics. Sure, he thinks our president has some issues. “There’s a lot of backwards with Bush,” he says. “Sometimes I think the liberals are just as nuts, though.” He doesn’t draw George Bush with the big ears and stupid look. Everyone else does that. Instead, what Eldon really thinks is funny is communism. One Dedini classic featured Lenin in his trademark overcoat blowing a New Year’s horn. The caption says “Perestroika!” Both Lenin and Dedini had reservations about a changing Eastern Europe. “I was sorry when the wall came down. It wiped me out. I want to try Arabs, but I’m afraid.”

Playboy published his first Middle East experiment in its April edition. It features a scantily clad, young Muslim gal enjoying “the freedom of thrusting her hips forward.” She seems oblivious to the dark figure in the traditional garment with head and face cover who is taught to frown on such behavior. While there are obvious sexual undercurrents here, Eldon is again commenting on change – this time generational and cultural.

Some of Eldon’s Playboy cartoons are much more provocative and much less thought provoking. His girls are the most recognizable in the industry. They are voluptuous and busty. Eldon likes to think of those creations as “erotic thoughts,” not high school sex jokes.

Dedini prides himself in the accuracy of his drawings. “If you’re drawing a giraffe, be sure you’ve got the horns and ears right. If it has to do with fashion or clothing, the people have to be cartooned, but correct.” Eldon has a natural curiosity and has borrowed tricks from the masters. He loves the museums, churches and religious art of the Italian Renaissance. “I like the color combos used by greats like Titian, Giorgione, and Bellini. They’ve influenced my work. Of course, you can’t translate directly because I’m not doing the Sistine Chapel, I’m doing a cartoon.” Dedini is also fond of French Impressionists like Matisse, Monet and Picasso. “Their work is like a dictionary. If I’ve got this color and am wondering what goes with it, I just check out the masters for inspiration.”

Eldon has always been passionate about his craft. The path that led him to cartooning is a head scratcher, though. Eldon Dedini is the son of a rancher and grew up in King City. While his dad corralled cattle and sweat out in the field, Eldon drew. And then, one day, his sense of humor kicked in and he told his parents he was going to be a professional cartoonist. “I have a brother,” Eldon says. “Fortunately, he went into the ranching business because they lost me.”

Eldon didn’t have a choice, really. And his mom and dad were always supportive. “The ranch will always be here,” they told him. At age five, he spent hours drawing cows and horses. When the rodeo came to town, local businesses hung Eldon’s cartoons in their store windows to attract customers. He was a hot commodity in south Monterey County. “Then, I discovered at age 12 that there was a career called cartooning and I bought books like How to Be a Cartoonist and Earn Big Money. I decided that that was it and it never changed.”

In high school, Eldon sent roughs – pencil drawings of his gags – to magazines, hoping they’d publish them. That’s what his fancy book told him to do. But early on there was a lot of “no,” completely no. Of course, Eldon was just learning. By the time he got to Salinas Junior College (Hartnell), he sold a cartoon to Esquire and was paid mightily for it – $10. In June of 1942, that was a lot of cash. The big seller was a spoof on an advertisement for a bug spray called “Quick Henry the Flit.” In his cartoon, Eldon turned the insecticide on a not-so-melodic, fat opera singer. “You’d have to be 80 years old to understand it,” Eldon smirks. “The sale to Esquire impressed my father more than me. You know, he’s like ‘My God, maybe this kid’s got something.’ I, on the other hand, was a little cocky cause I knew I’d make it. Innocence. Mainly innocence.”

He quickly learned the ropes in college. They didn’t have a cartooning class at Salinas JC. Most schools don’t. But most schools don’t have Leon Amyx either. He was Eldon’s art history teacher. Eldon told him from Day One he wanted to be a cartoonist and Mr. Amyx went out of his way to help. “The professor told me to make a portfolio and go down to the Salinas Index-Journal (Californian) and offer to do the paper’s cartoons for the experience – no salary.” Well, the editor loved the idea. He told Eldon he was writing an editorial on the Southern Pacific Train Depot in Salinas. It was in the middle of Steinbeck country, but the depot was old and ugly and was the first thing travelers saw when they got off the train. The editor wanted a cartoon to go with his text. Eldon obliged. “I drew the building and I drew birds around it with balloons. They were talking about how it’s such a lousy place to sit and talk bird talk.”

Eldon did the newspaper thing for free, but his cartoons were starting to sell. Magazines were paying anywhere from $1 to $10 to publish them. He was in hot demand. After Eldon got his degree in Salinas, he went to Los Angeles and enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute. A lot of cartoonists went there to further their drawing and art history studies. Chouinard was a working college, meaning you had to earn your keep. Eldon was a janitor. One day, he bumped into a woman working in the library. “Her name was Virginia. She was closing up. I was sweeping. I kinda met her. She was in my Life class and I liked her drawings. So I started to sit next to her. I always said, ‘It was your drawings that attracted me… then after awhile, I looked at her.” They’ve been happily married ever since.

When Eldon graduated from Chouinard, he had $300 to his name and no job. He’d taken set design courses in college and thought maybe there was something there. “I didn’t want to disturb the preciousness of my cartooning – more innocence,” Eldon says. Eventually he landed on his feet at Walt Disney Studios. From 1944-46 he did story boards – giant comic strips on a huge wall – for $90 a week. Pretty good living. Eldon worked primarily with two writers. They’d scribble something up on the board and he’d add the drawing. He was doing roughs of Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Pluto and was the principle cartoonist behind “Ichabod and Mr. Toad” and “Fun and Fancy Free.”

After the war, Walt Disney started doing training films for the government and Eldon got a weird call. “They wanted me to draw electro turbo superchargers as cartoons. I didn’t know what the hell I was drawing. It had something to do with horsepower and stuff.” It’s simply proof that Eldon Dedini can draw absolutely anything.

Throughout his time at Disney, he was sending cartoons to Esquire. In 1946, the publisher called. He loved Eldon’s work and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse – a full-time job and double the salary. His assignment was to do one hundred gags a month. “Out of those 100,” Eldon says, “fifty are trash right away. I can’t tell which is which. Ten or fifteen are quite good.” Oftentimes established cartoonists like E. Simms Campbell would finish Dedini’s roughs. If Eldon really liked the concept, he’d do it himself.

Then in 1950, he got two big breaks. The first was an in with The New Yorker. They began publishing his cartoons and, a short time later, offered him a contract making him a regular with the magazine. Eldon’s other break – a call from Hank Ketcham. Ketcham was one of several cartoonists who left Los Angeles and moved to the Central Coast. “Hank said, ‘You gotta come here Eldon.’ I told him, ‘I spent twenty years trying to get out of Monterey County. Born in King City, you know, what else is new?'”

It didn’t take Eldon too long to change his tune, though. During the ten years he spent in L.A., he watched massive freeways being built and saw the atmosphere thicken. He was still living in an apartment and decided he’d had enough. So, he traded in the smog for fog and moved to Carmel. The town was tiny back then. He built just east of Highway 1 at the top of Carmel Hill. The view was breathtaking and the fun was just beginning.

A cartoonist colony was taking shape on the Central Coast. With Ketcham, Dedini, and Gus Arriola all living in Carmel, their friendship and careers were about to take off. Arriola made it big with his comic strip “Gordo.” The setting was the Mexican countryside and was the first to accurately depict life south of the border. People fell in love with the main character, Gordo, a fat bean farmer. The strip had a 44 year run in American newspapers. Meantime, Ketcham and Dedini became regulars in The New Yorker. Hank called the publication “the cartoonist’s bible, and to make a sale there was akin to being knighted or anointed.” Ketcham ultimately gained fame after turning his rambunctious son, Dennis, into a cartoon character appropriately named “Dennis the Menace.”

While the Carmel cartoonists were hard at work, they also found plenty of time to play. Their favorite hangout was Doc Ricketts Lab on Cannery Row. Dedini, Ketcham, Arriola and five other buddies bought the lab a couple years after Ricketts got hit by a train. The group called itself the Pacific Biological Laboratory. They met there every Wednesday night to drink beer, eat, play darts, discuss literature and listen to jazz. The group dubbed Doc’s Lab “the club for people who hate clubs.” They had one five-minute meeting a year, for legal reasons. There was no president, although the group named Dedini “King” because he took out the trash every Thursday.

The group at 800 Cannery Row saved that historic building and has shared a million laughs since. The club eventually grew to 20 dues paying members – the three cartoonists, doctors, lawyers, businessmen and teachers. One man on the Doc’s Lab guest list was “Peanuts” creator Charles Schultz. He’d drop by when he was in town for the Crosby Pro-Am. Schultz didn’t drink, smoke or swear like most of the gang but did add some more brains to the place. Actually, every member of the Pacific Biological Laboratory was a literate soul. Dedini credits them for his eclectic book collection saying, “I just tried to keep up.”

In 1954, another one of Eldon’s peers had a smart idea. Hugh Hefner thought bare boobs could sell. Dedini wasn’t so sure. But Hefner wanted Eldon on his team. Hefner was a cartoon wannabe and had been a fan of Dedini’s for more than a decade. During that time, Hugh worked for Esquire in Chicago as a copy boy. That’s where he studied Dedini’s work and saw first-hand how much power a successful men’s magazine could generate. Hugh never forgot about Eldon’s work, and when he started Playboy, Dedini was one of the first people he turned to. Hugh sent Eldon letters from 1955 to 1958, but Dedini always rejected them. That changed the following year. “(Hefner) kept offering me more money. Finally, it got to $800 – $900 a drawing. So, I said, ‘Okay.’ And then he bought like there was no tomorrow – four or five at a time. In one magazine I had nine cartoons.” Eldon’s worked for Playboy ever since and loves the gig. It’s given him a chance to expand his expression, adding more color to his professional life. Dedini has been to the Playboy mansion a couple times and says no other party place can compare.

Dedini’s real love affair, though, is with the Central Coast. He’s worked for many of the area’s biggest events and businesses. From 1966 to 1973, Eldon’s cartoons graced Pebble Beach’s Concours d’Elegance posters. There again, Dedini studied automobile books to get all the features right. In an era before auto illustrators, a salesman could have gotten top dollar for his cartoon cars. Eldon did the Concours work for charity. About that time, he got a call from Color Ad. It was a local printing company experimenting with color processing. It asked Eldon to design Monterey Jazz Festival posters. Dedini cranked out four in three days – one a trumpet player with a seagull on his instrument. The printer took them to the Jazz Fest folks, who promptly said, “No thanks.” So, Color Ad took up a booth at the festival and sold Dedini’s posters to the public. They were big hits along with the musicians playing at the time like Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. “Then, fifteen years later, the powers that be said ‘Eldon, would you do jazz posters for us?’ And in my mind I said, ‘Man, you had your chance.'”

For nine years, Eldon Dedini had to make broccoli fun. Mann Packing, a produce company in Salinas, hired him to do its ads. From people juggling vegetables to a rainbow assortment of produce, Dedini came through. “Every time I went into Salinas to drop off a new cartoon, they’d load me up with plastic bags full of broccoli. I just kept thinking, ‘At least this is a gift that’s good for me.'”

In the early 1970’s, Dedini got a call from Budweiser. The company was marketing a new malt liquor as well as the standard Bud. Eldon drew a cartoon party with people enjoying their booze. But advertising reps wanted one to target black people, the other to target whites. Eldon didn’t make any judgments. He could draw black hippies and white hippies. So, he did and was done with it.

One thing Eldon didn’t know anything about was computers. That didn’t matter to Microsoft when it called Dedini to illustrate its computer books. The company wanted something to brighten up the endless pages of grey type. Eldon studied computers for eight months and sent in accurate and funny gags. Bill Gates loved them so much, he asked Eldon to do a book of just computer cartoons. It’s a Much, Much Better World was published in 1985. “I got well paid for it I thought,” Eldon says. “You know, Bill Gates can do anything he wants.”

For more than 65 years, Eldon Dedini’s cartoons have been staples in major magazines, movie/event posters and advertisements. It’s more than a hobby, obsession and job – it’s what he was born to do. Four times in his illustrious career Dedini has been awarded the “Best Magazine Cartoonist of the Year” award by the National Cartoonist Society. He draws in a cluttered, isolated office in his Carmel home coming up with gags from his crowded, one-of-a-kind mind. Like any artist, he takes his work very seriously. But Eldon breaks the mold when it comes to taking himself seriously.

As for his club on Cannery Row, there are only eight members left. They still hold those occasional five minute meetings. “The secretary reads off who is present, who’s dead and who’s left,” Eldon says. Sadly, club member Ed Haber passed away this summer. The longtime Carmel Vally entrepreneur started Quail Lodge and figured out the finances to buy Doc Ricketts on a matchbook cover. Ten years ago, the group gave Doc Rickett’s Lab to the city of Monterey with Dedini and his buddies retaining exclusive rights to the building through 2013. Eldon loves the place. He has taken so much from those social gatherings and woven them into timeless pieces of social commentary.

Michelle Urry is Playboy‘s cartoon editor and has worked with Eldon Dedini for more than 35 years. She says, “He is a consummate professional and a dream to edit. Ironically, his cartoons often depict a cornucopia brimming over with an abundance of riches. The image is basically who Eldon himself is; a font of originality, a cornucopia of fun and probably, overall, the finest cartoon watercolorist in the world. His grasp of mythology, classical art, pop culture and comics is nonpareil. He moves seamlessly from one genre to the other and even before you read his captions, you are involved in the magic of his drawings and the brilliance of his characterizations. He has been consistently funnier and at the top of his game longer than any other cartoonist alive today. Working with him has been an unmitigated pleasure. He should be declared a national treasure!”

Over the years, Dedini has been very generous in donating his time and cartoons to countless charities on the Central Coast. Right now, he’s rounding up all his originals getting ready for a one-man show at Sassontsi Gallery in Salinas this winter.  “I’m digging under the bed, in the cellar, and deep in closets looking for them,” he says. The rest he’s donating to Ohio State University. The art department will then catalog and preserve all of Dedini’s works. Why Ohio State? “They called up and asked for them. That’s all.”

Eldon Dedini is part of a disappearing breed. “Magazine cartooning is a sinking ship,” he says. Today, the cartoon business has morphed into a massive clump of political satirists. You can’t tell any of them apart. Dedini thinks a new era will come someday. Until then, he’ll keep doing it his way. Whether it’s broccoli or babes, Eldon Dedini has always had an edge – one that readers often talk about at the water cooler. “Cartooning is sort of running things off a cliff,” Eldon says. “It means taking it as far as you can go but still having logic to it. That’s when I think you’ll laugh.”

Written by: Ben Bamsey

(Sadly, just weeks after this article was published in 2005 Eldon Dedini passed away at his home in Carmel, CA, from cancer. In the following issue of Artworks Magazine – Spring 2006 – I wrote the following)…

The next roll call read at Ed Rickett’s old lab on Cannery Row will be a sad one. A group calling themselves the Pacific Biological Laboratory has met there for the last 50 years. Legendary Carmel cartoonist Eldon Dedini was a founding member along with Hank Ketcham and Gus Arriola. The old boys club also had doctors, lawyers, teachers and businessmen. The group of 20 drank beer, discussed literature and listened to jazz. The weekly meetings became less frequent as the group grew older. By law “the club that hates clubs” had to have one five minute meeting a year. Dedini joked, “The secretary reads off who is present, who’s dead and who’s left.” Sadly, the group has shrunk to seven with the passing of its king. Dedini died at his Carmel home on Thursday, January 12th. He was 84.

In Artworks Winter 2005 issue, we featured Eldon Dedini. It was his last in-depth interview. The news of his death pains us all. Dedini was telling jokes right up to the end. For more than a half-century, Dedini’s curvaceous, busty broads in Playboy were the most recognizable in the industry. Hugh Hefner published 1,200 of Eldon’s cartoons over his illustrious career. Dedini was also a staple in The New Yorker. More than 600 of his wry gags graced its pages. Dedini was a junkie for knowledge. He was an eclectic reader of books and magazines always searching for relevance and importance. Dedini’s cartoons were more than funny; they were playful commentaries about society. His wit and charm will be sorely missed. While Dedini is gone, his charismatic soul lives on and is, no doubt, smiling.

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