661 Ellice Avenue
This beautiful rendering was a tribute to Icelandic Canadian artist Charlie Thorson who grew up in Winnipeg; and, starting in the 1930's eventually worked for every major Cartoon Animation Studio except for Walter Lantz. It was rendered in 2005 by Tom Andrich in an effort that took months of research and hard work.
In June of 2009, the Mural, in perfect condition, was painted over by the new building owner who simply did not bother checking with anybody. We were devastated to lose this wall- one of our personal favourites in Winnipeg from any time; and also a favourite on the West End BIZ Mural Tour.
Original notes follow===
Charles Thorson is remembered as an Icelandic Canadian from the Winnipeg West End who
was a great animator and character designer. His work is responsible for the design of Bugs
Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Elmer the Safety Elephant, Punkinhead, Little Hiawatha, Keeko and
numerous others. During his lifespan he worked at every major animation studio in the US
except Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker).
"There was a LOT of research on this one," chuckles Tom Andrich, the Mural's artist. While
Andrich was working on the design of the Mural and its various pictorial elements, he was very
careful and wary of copyright infringements, especially of Disney characters. Disney tends
NOT to attribute any of their characters as original creations of any single artist; they are
DISNEY characters owned by Disney. Tom used only characters from sketches or renderings
that contained Thorson's original signature; i.e., Thorson's own property. There is therefore no
rendering of any Snow White character- ONLY of the waitress that it is believed Thorson
based the likeness of Snow White upon. Tom: "I needed to find things that people would sort
of recognize and yet not be in violation of any type of copyright. When Gene Walz (Winnipeg
author of the SUPERB book Cartoon Charlie) was talking to the folks at Disney, they would
definitely not say that any of the characters came from Thorson. As far as artists for Disney,
Thorson isn't even credited as one of the artists who ever worked for Disney."
Kristin Solvadottir- Wevel Café waitress. "That's why the waitress is the focus; not
Snow White. And that's why she's so important and adds to the Winnipeg connection- the
drawing originally of her was the inspiration for the likeness of Snow White. The hairdo and
facial characteristics were very much like that of Kristin. He sketched out a love note to Kristin
that said 'All this will be yours if you will have me.' He drew a tiny prince bowing before the
large princess (with an outline of a cityscape in the background). I used that in the mural design (at the top right) because that's part of the story.
And he drew it at the rooming house at 690 Furby (photo 4). All of this makes it part of the
"I couldn't really use any of the Seven
Dwarfs in there for the same reason. I couldn't use Hiawatha but I wanted to put an Indian in
there. He did another one that's reasonably close to Hiawatha but is not; so that's the one I
used. He also did Popeye, but I thought that I could get in really big trouble if I used Popeye."
The most famous Thorson self-portrait, The Schemer, had already been used on another
building nearby (see Dave Carty's Icelandic Mural at 563 Ellice). So Andrich used a photographic reference from a 1943 portrait for the head of Thorson's portrait
sitting in the restaurant. Thorson's body was taken from another photo. Tom: "I changed him
quite a bit in the body, and getting the head to fit with the body- the angle of the body was all
wrong for how he was sitting. I had to redo this whole section because I wasn't happy with it.
In my research I found he reminded me of Fred Astaire with his dapper look and extremely
smart tailored clothes- he had a lot of class. He must have been quite a character, but he died
poor. His son became a doctor, but died in February, 2005. I had hoped to send a picture of this
Mural to him since we were honouring his dad. And in that Wevel Cafe scene I wanted to
introduce something Chinese, so I gave him (the Thorson figure) a bowl of rice with chopsticks
in it! The food in Dalat Restaurant is great, by the way (Ed. note- we concur!). I also had to look for waitress uniforms
from the era of the 30's; and went with the orange (see photo 2)."
With a wealth of characters to choose from, Andrich was selective: "I didn't choose characters
that I felt could be scary to kids. I did take the cigarette out of the little scrapper rabbit's mouth
(lower right hand corner) so that he wasn't smoking. For Keeko (see Photo 3), I got the colours
from an image I couldn't use (for the reasons stated above) and reversed the black and white
image on one I could use for the Mural."
"Punkinhead was essentially a mascot for Eaton's in the 50's. They used to have
Punkinhead in the Christmas parade, and there were little books about the adventures of
Punkinhead. Every kid from that era knew Punkinhead pretty well. That's why I put him in as
such a large character- Punkinhead was known virtually across Canada. Elmer the Safety
Elephant was definitely a Thorson creation which closely resembles the Elmer Elephant character he
created for Disney."
Tom's rendering of the original plaque on the grave is immediately below the circular inset. To the right of
the plaque is a reproduction of his signature. The sketch of the Viking in the
ship was a greeting card Charlie did in 1951 for family and friends. Thorson
would often delight family and friends by doing this. Simple Indian ink or pencil drawings of cute characters were his specialty; and the
end result was a beautiful keepsake of Thorson's art. He portrays himself in the cartoon as a
genial bright-eyed Viking. He's hoisting a drink to the familiar toast of 'skal'. Gene Walz, the
author of the book on Thorson states that of all his sketches perhaps this one was the closest to
Thorson's heart. Many Icelanders believed they had the blood of Vikings: Thorson not only
believed it- he lived it. Tom: "I did get some comments about this because people thought it looked
unfinished. But I was trying to show them that it was a black and white drawing to begin with.
To have colourized it for the wall would have just been wrong!"
690 Furby (Photo 4)- "On the 'sidewalk' you'll see the children's name who helped me: Lauren,
Mona, Karen and Tracy."
"My wife and I went down late at night to do the projections (outlines of the Mural figures
onto the wall). We were in the middle of the street with the overhead. It was a good team effort
over the two nights- I couldn't have done it by myself."
"With the pipe (at lower left) I was trying to think of a way to incorporate it. At first I thought
of a candy cane and then I thought 'why not a snake'. It was just perfect for it. From a
distance you can't even tell it's a pipe. The air conditioner, the sign, the two windows and the
pipe and the deep bricks were all problems that had to be dealt with. The original wall had a
sign on it for Dalat and for their parking, and they still wanted that information on there. I took
the sign down and that's when I put that other stuff up there. I had to incorporate it somehow
without making it a sign, right? So I thought of making it into a cartoon dialogue balloon! It was
"I started doing this and Lauren came along with her friends asking to help. I gave Lauren the
job- I showed her how to fill the wall and she did a great job! She listened well and did what
she was told. She did a whole bunch of the fill for me. Then there was some painting to do. I
showed her what to do- she did a good job! She was 9. It was a training thing for her. A
really nice kid, and her family as well! Every day I would come back and I would find jobs for
her to do. I showed her how to roll- she had never rolled a wall before. I got her to roll that
circle and how to use a roller. She learned how to climb a ladder and paint. She did parts of
Punkinhead. She had never been up a ladder before and learned to conquer the fear of falling.
I really enjoyed having her there. I saw her at Christmastime and I got her into the kids' classes
I teach and the Forum allowed her to go without having to pay. She's now about to start a ten-
week course again without having to pay for it. I wanted to see her do well so she can take
these new skills back to her family and her sisters. Actually she had a cousin, Tracy, who was a
really good kid too and she was also doing a good job, but she had to go to the reserve.
There's a community newspaper in the neighbourhood, and they took a picture of me with the
kids and put it in the newspaper. The kids were so pleased."
"She was such a great help I ended up paying her 7 bucks an hour. She was a neighbourhood
girl and I started showing her things and she picked it up. Two other girls helped too; Carol
was her sister and Mona was her cousin; but Lauren was the only one who came back and kept
"I didn't like this wall much (see Photo 6)- the crevices between the bricks were so deep. A few years
earlier, the wall had been sandblasted; and they sandblasted a lot of the mortar out. Some parts
were shallow, some parts were really deep and some parts had holes. Then I had the bright
idea of trying to fill the wall with urethane foam (see Photo 7); when I tried cutting it off I
realized that this wasn't going to work; and it had cost 15 bucks a can. And when I was
painting the wall afterwards the foam had actually made it harder to work with. It was actually
easier to paint in between the bricks than to paint on the rough foam afterwards. I had earlier
tried using concrete to fill in the wall, but I saw it was going to be prohibitively expensive plus all
the effort involved it mixing it and then carrying the heavy mixture up the ladder. So I bought
this other stuff from the faux store- veneer stucco. Since it was expensive (35 dollars for a 3
gallon pail) I ended up concentrating on filling in just those areas where the drawings and
portraits were going to be- primarily the area inside the circle at centre. I found out afterwards
that I could have gotten the whole wall filled for 1200 bucks before I put any paint on it and
then I could have just rolled the wall. So I won't make that mistake again. That would have
saved me so much time, because I sprayed the base coat twice because the wall was sucking in
so much paint. All of the glaze had come off the bricks when it was sandblasted a few years
At the end of the project, Tom and Lauren painted the asphalt strip at the bottom of the wall
black; which gives the Mural a finished and attractive look. Both the restaurant and West End
BIZ were very happy with the completed Mural.
About Charles Thorson:
(Note: almost all of the synopsis below is taken from my notes from a superb book,
Cartoon Charlie: The Life and Art of Animation Pioneer Charles Thorson, by
Winnipeg author Gene Walz. The book is a magnificent read, and is profusely illustrated with
Thorson's work, photos and numerous other fascinating illustrations in support of this extremely
worthy biography. The synopsis below provides only a taste of the many rich highlights, details,
stories, and antecdotes contained in the book. The book is available from Great Plains Publications, at
#420-70 Arthur Street, Winnipeg; (204)475-6799; and also from their website at
http://www.greatplains.mb.ca/ . This book receives my highest possible recommendation.)
Charles Thorson was born in 1890 of Icelandic Immigrants Stefan Thordarson and Sigridur
Thorarinsdottir who came to Canada in 1887 with 10 dollars in their pocket. Within 2 years of
their arrival they settled into an apartment in Winnipeg on Assiniboine Avenue. His father
changed their name to Thorson in accordance with North American custom, converted from
Lutheran to Presbyterian, and worked as a caretaker for the next 20 years. Charles (Karl) was
the 3rd of 4 sons born to the couple.
As a child Charlie was high spirited and rebellious. He liked bringing home stray animals to have
as pets. He claimed that he began to see the world through animal's eyes when he was crawling
around playing with his pets. And he also loved to draw. In his teens he liked to travel for
adventure, taking odd jobs. He'd inevitably come back to Winnipeg, usually broke and hungry
and work at menial jobs. His favourite job was fishing, perhaps a Viking thing, and had
contacts with Creel Indians on the shores of the lake, who fascinated him. Their heartiness of
spirit was similar to his Viking ideal. His first paying artist job was painting Indian faces on
Charlie fell in love with Ranka Swanson. Ranka was 5 years younger than Charlie; and artistic.
Ranka became pregnant in 1914 and a shotgun wedding ensued at Stefan's insistence, two
months after the baby was born. Ranka contracted TB in 1915 and died a year later; Charlie's
son died of diphtheria in 1917 at only 2 years old. During this time, Charlie illustrated brochures
for Brigden's of Winnipeg Ltd. In 1916, he did a series of gentle caricatures of Icelandic for the
front page of Logberg, a Lutheran Icelandic newspaper.
In 1917 free spirited Charlie went on the road. He was a scrapper and boxer. Fifteen years
before the Depression made it more commonplace, Charlie lived life as a hobo. In 1918 he
worked for the British and Colonial Press in Winnipeg drawing cartoons and illustrations, some
of which were framed and sold as art. Charlie's caricatures poked fun at familiar community
figures but weren't mean spirited. Both Icelandic papers published his stuff. Six gnome-like
characters he designed for a children's paper at this time provided foreshadowing of Disney
characters that he would design 20 years later.
He was a fan of the Winnipeg Falcons hockey team, and did caricatures of some of the players.
He designed the souvenir posters and postcards after the team won Olympic Gold in Antwerp.
He then went to work at Brigden's; and shortly after, met and fell for Ada Teslock, a Polish-Catholic
farm girl, who worked as a hostess at Child's restaurant near Portage & Main. They
married in 1922.
Restaurants were Charlie's hangouts. He'd sit in them for hours smoking cigarettes and telling
stories, sometimes illustrating them on napkins or whatever was handy (see Photo 5). He became the political
cartoonist for the weekly publication of the United Grain Growers (circulation: 75,000). They
were extremely well drawn: humorous rather than satiric; artwork rather than placards. In May
1923 their newborn son died. A second son, Stephen was born in 1925, but the marriage was
He was adept at borrowing money, though and sly at repaying: he'd regularly pay off debts by
drawing portraits or cartoons. Brigden's quickly saw Charlie's value and paid him a retainer in
order to keep him. Brigden's produced the Eaton's Mail Order catalogue. Charlie was their
star illustrator. His specialties were livery and jewellery: no other artist was allowed to draw
them, and Charlie was always good at drawing animals from memory. He also wrote raunchy
poetry about his mates there.
He opened a studio for art classes next to the Capitol Theatre on the second floor, but came
home drunk one night two weeks later; opened all the windows because he was warm, passed
out and froze the pipes, which burst. He was immediately evicted.
Thorson chased women with the dedication of an Olympic athlete! The Wevel Café was
located near the corner of Sargent and Victor; and was the heart of the Icelandic District, or
'Goolie Town'. You could get molakaffi there, strong Icelandic coffee that you poured into
one's saucer and then drank through a cube of sugar held in your teeth. Young children loved hearing
his stories; and he would sketch an animal drawing that looked like the child. He flirted openly
with the waitress there, Kristin Solvadottir. Because of his reputation with the ladies and
because he was twice her age, she was wary of him. Nevertheless, Charlie and Kristin saw lots
of each other, not all of it at the Café. Once Charlie brought his son to meet her at her
apartment. In his room at the house on Furby, he sketched a love note to her with himself as a
tiny prince and her as the larger princess with the inscription 'all this will be yours if you will have
me'. Eventually she left Winnipeg for Niagara Falls and never saw Charlie again, but he wrote
at least two love letters to her. In a letter to her best friend in Winnipeg, she confessed that she
had feelings for Charlie right from the start, and expressed regret that they were not together.
He left Winnipeg and a secure job in late 1934 to try to get on at Disney. He got an interview
and showed his portfolio of cartoons and drawings. Disney was so impressed that he was hired
on the spot. Disney studio was starting to work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the
world's first full-length colour animated cartoon. His timing was perfect. A movement had
started at Disney that would change animation from flat 2-D images towards personality
animation that gave 'real and unique personalities, behaviors and life' to each 'cute' and warm
individual character with human-like, behaviour characteristics; more rounded and 3-D with
precise and sentimentalized graphics. Thus, the characters were sympathetic and easy to
identify with. Thorson was a master at drawing the big expressive eyes that became
synonymous with Disney characters from that point on. At first he worked in the background as
a member of the lowly story department but shortly as his full talents were revealed got
promoted to character development of original characters. As a character developer, he
needed to have the skills of casting director, costume designer, makeup artist along with this
precision of a portrait painter; all rolled up into one.
Two months after he started at Disney, he designed all of the characters for a short film, Elmer
Elephant. His designs were so good that the selection committee accepted them all without
considering any others (this was almost unheard of). In his two years at Disney, Thorson would
work for days lavishing over the fine details of a character until he got it just right. He would
spend hours on the eyes alone utilizing every artistic trick of shading, design and colouring to
make them expressive as he saw them as the key to characterization. His model sheets for the
characters had great detail with enough reference points in the 360-degree perspective that they
could later be used and reproduced by the many cel animators employed at Disney. Walt Kelly
(the creator of the Pogo character and comic strip) attributed Thorson as his biggest influence
and inspiration. Pogo was actually based on the raccoon character Thorson drew for Little
Hiawatha. Another of his characters, Droopy Dog (from Disney's Toby Tortoise Returns), was
borrowed and reused by Tex Avery when Tex moved to MGM.
For Little Hiawatha, Thorson used his niece Ellen as his model. When the feature was released,
Thorson's name appeared nowhere, even though, according to him, he 'designed all of the
characters, contributed most of the gags and thoughts on which the story was constructed'.
Furthermore, almost all of those forest animals were then used again in Snow White.
Thorson left Disney; probably because he was too independent and uncompromising to be
there. He made significant contributions to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He told
friends back in Winnipeg that his design for Snow White was based on his Icelandic girlfriend,
Kristin Solvagottir; a waitress at the Wevel Café. Kristin told friends the same story right up to
From Disney, he went to Harman-Ising (Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising were both ex- Disney
animators from the 20's). Next was MGM where he made twice the money he made at Disney;
and with his Disney experience was considered a star. He worked with Friz Freleng (who later
became a big name at WB) and with Bill Hanna (of later Hanna-Barbera fame). His best and
favourite character during his MGM stay was Old Smokey, a broken down old fire horse. 25
years later, he singled out Old Smokey as one of his best creations.
He jumped to Warner Bros. (WB) to work in Leon Schlesinger's Looney Tunes and Merrie
Melodies studios. The work coming out of WB was as IRREVERENT as Disney's was
ENDEARING, and Charlie fit right in. He worked for Ben 'Bugs' Hardaway/Cal Dalton and
for a very young Chuck Jones. For Jones he created Sniffles the Mouse (Ed note- I remember
him well!), Inki (the little lion Hunter) and his nemesis the Mynah Bird. For Hardaway and
Dalton he designed Elmer Fudd, the Rainmaker (a much loved Indian character for 'Sioux
Me'); the giant and baby giant in 'Porky and the Giant Killer', and the prototype for WB's
most famous and successful character ever, Bugs Bunny.
According to the Bugs Bunny story, Bugs Hardaway had asked Thorson to design a new
bunny. Charlie created a model sheet containing six different poses and left them on Hardaway's desk for
his approval. At the bottom of the sheet, he'd written "Bug's Bunny" (sic). The name stuck and the
rest is history! Thorson's Bugs make his debut in 'Hare-um Scare-um'. Certainly there were
many later refinements to Bugs by other animators (most notably Bob McKimson in 1939).
Although many others may have claimed a stake in the creation of Bugs, there remained little
doubt years later about who WB considered as the actual originator of their character when WB sued a doll
manufacturer for making a rabbit doll that too closely
resembled Bugs. Edward Selzer (who became head of WB cartoons after Schleisinger sold the
business) wrote a letter to their lawyer representing the lawsuit saying: "The name of the artist
who created the first Bugs Bunny is Charles Thorson." Thorson himself in support of the WB
lawsuit wrote and signed a 5 paragraph legal affidavit also to this effect that Bugs was his own completely original
Elmer Fudd was also designed by Charlie and was an adaptation of the lovable babies he had
designed for Disney's Wynken, Blynken and Nod. Another Thorson character for WB was the
glamorous female dog, The Lady Known as Lou, which Andrich included in the Mural.
In 1939 he moved to join Max and Dave Fleischer (they were best known for Betty Boop) and
helped them complete Gulliver's Travels. He redesigned all of the characters in the Raggedy
Ann and Andy (including the more prominent eyes), and redesigned Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy
and Baby Popeye for colour. One of his best characters was Twinkletoes, a goofy carrier
After working as a children's book illustrator (for Samuel Lowe) in New York, he returned to
animation at Terrytoons Studio (Paul Terry) in 1941 when Mighty Mouse was created. He was
also doing lots of non-animation work on the side: he designed billboards for Texaco, Gallo
Wine, Tip Top Clothes, and Blue Ribbon Tea; and 3 panel cartoon ads for Ray-O-Vac
batteries. He then moved back to California to work with Dave Fleischer at Columbia-Screen
Gems and at George Pal's Puppetoons Studio where he experimented with puppet animation.
In 1945 he sold two versions of the Three Bears story and shifted more full time into illustrations
of children's books, just in time for the baby boom. His most successful character was Keeko,
a small Indian boy, who also is featured in the Mural. This was perhaps the only character with
Charlie retained the copyright for (a few years later he unwisely signed away the copyrights to
Punkinhead for 1 dollar; and he missed out on the benefits of the vast marketing empire
Punkinhead became for Eaton's). The first Keeko book sold 60,000 the first year in North
America alone. He received Honourary Membership in the International Mark Twain Society
because of the book. He also designed Elmer the Safety Elephant (based closely on his Elmer
Elephant character for Disney) for the Traffic Division of the Toronto Police.
Late in his career, he suffered from some type of neuralgia to his face and neck; and at one point
took cobra venom to lessen his pain. Thorson died of liver cancer at 76.
Displaying Photos 1-3 of 9