Thursday, January 17, 2008
“You don’t make any noise when you’re thinking,” Gus Arriola says when we meet in his Carmel home, his wife Mary Francis adding to the tale of their life with “Gordo” the comic strip Gus created and drew for 45 years: “It was a very monastic life.”
Describing how he worked, Arriola says, “Monday was my thinking day. I would stare out the window, smoke these little cigars.”
The thinking led to writing, the writing was distilled to its essence, the essence drawn into a strip and refined to achieve a superb synthesis of graphic and verbal humor. A publishable gag 365 days a year for 45 years – six daily strips and one color Sunday every week. That’s an achievement.
“He has a gag mind,” says Mary Frances. They both do. They met in 1939 in the animation department of MGM.
Arriola was the youngest of nine children of Aquiles Arriola, who emigrated from Mexico to Florence, Ariz. His mother died when he was a baby, so his sister, Herminia, raised him in a household where Spanish was spoken, evenings were filled with music, and days filled with the animals and atmosphere of the desert.
“Herminia moved us to Los Angeles. I graduated from Manual Arts High School in 1935 in the middle of the Depression; there were very few jobs. I took what I could get, handling hot orange juice cans on a conveyor belt… my sister saw an ad for animation lessons and enrolled me.” Arriola was hired by Screen Gems, then MGM established its animation division and hired him. He became a story sketch man.
“MGM asked me to create characters for an animated movie I’m ashamed to have been connected with now, Lonesome Stranger, directed by Hugh Harman. They wanted a villain who was a rough-looking Mexican – in those days, the Mexicans, Chinese and blacks were always the bad guys.”
At the time, Arriola didn’t think much about adding to that stereotype and drew the villain to order. But he had long been trying to come up with an idea that would provide rich enough material for a newspaper comic strip. The villain became a character patterned after actor Leo Carrillo as “Pancho,” sidekick to “The Cisco Kid,” a thickly accented trencherman whose speech teemed with malapropisms. Arriola set the strip in Mexico, using the atmosphere and stories from his childhood and created Gordo, a portly bean farmer.
“I would work on MGM animation all day and Gordo at night and weekends,” he says. “Finally I took three weeks worth of daily strips to New York to show the syndicates… United Features gave me a contract. I signed my life away.”
Ten months later, Pearl Harbor intervened. Arriola joined the motion picture unit of the Army Air Force, making training films while continuing to produce Sunday Gordo comics. After his discharge in 1946, the daily deadlines resumed.
Over decades, Gordo the farmer evolved into a dandified tour guide, dropped the malapropisms and smoothed out the heavy dialect. Still, as a tour guide Gordo introduced U.S. readers to the language, culture and history of Mexico. While courting the chicas, Gordo interacted with characters like the intellectual Poet; young Pepita (who matured in synch with Arriola’s son, Carlin); the predatory Widow Gonzales and Tehuana Mama whose 45-year pursuit of Gordo concluded in the last strip. Gordo also was populated by a menagerie of animal characters.
“People are always asking if Gus is Gordo,” says Mary Frances. “But Gus was all these characters, including the animals.”
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote: “We all need families, our own and at least one other. For more years than I care to think about, my other family has been the singular creation of Gus Arriola – Señor Gordo and his extended menagerie of diverting humans and spectacular animals a literary contrivance of the first magnitude – buffoon as hero.Everyman whose triumphs and tragedies are our own.”
“It was a fun life,” Arriola says. “I enjoyed the work. I worked at home. I saw my wife every day for 65 years. I had some great studios. Many people wrote to us with real affection. And I had that man named Gordo to answer to every day.”
2008 CHAMPION OF THE ARTS awards banquet begins at 5pm Saturday, Jan. 19 at Embassy Suites Hotel, 1441 Canyon Del Rey, Seaside. $75. 662-9060.