Friday, April 16, 2010

Bob Chambers

AS AN editorial cartoonist, Bob Chambers poked fun at the rich and famous, ensuring the politicians of his day were chided for their constant folly. But it was the bespectacled Little Man character who kept popping up in his cartoons that gave Nova Scotians the broadest smiles and helped make the Wolfville-born artist a household name.

Mr. Chambers, who retired in 1976 as cartoonist for The Halifax Herald Limited, died Wednesday night in Halifax, just two weeks before his 91st birthday.

In a career spanning five decades, he gained both a loyal local following and national notoriety for ridiculing the likes of John Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau and Bob Stanfield.

A 1966 cartoon portraying Mr. Diefenbaker's amazing ability to survive as Conservative leader - the cartoon showed him suspended in mid-air after Dalton Camp and Gerda Munsinger had sawed off a branch near the trunk of a tree - won the affable artist his second National Newspaper Award. His first was for a 1953 cartoon drawn when then-Liberal prime minister Louis St. Laurent was visiting Washington.

His Stanfield cartoons - they often featured Robert L. in long johns even though, as a lawyer, he never ran the family underwear firm - poked fun at the Bluenose premier turned federal Conservative leader with the gentle touch for which the artist became famous. Years later, he presented Mr. Stanfield with a collection of Stanfield cartoons which the former premier donated to the Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

Mr. Chambers, in a 1976 interview with The Canadian Press, said he considered Mr. Stanfield his best subject, confessing he was never too hard on the Truro-born politician because he'd often meet him on Halifax's streets. ``It would be pretty hard to face him with a bad cartoon in the morning paper.''

That never stopped him from playing on Mr. Stanfield's foibles and failures. Mr. Chambers also focused on the decline of the G.I. Smith government in the late 1960s and poked fun at Gerald Regan's administration, until the cartoonist retired two years before voters retired Mr. Regan in 1978.

At the May 8, 1973, opening of an exhibition of Mr. Chambers's cartoons, then-premier Mr. Regan praised him for the fact his work lacked ``the element of bitterness'' that was often the hallmark of other cartoonists.

``An institution cannot be allowed to retire. It is not acceptable that you will ever entirely retire,'' the premier told Mr. Chambers three years before the artist left the daily grind of editorial cartooning.

Perhaps the greatest compliment for any cartoonist is when his ``victims'' ask for the original cartoon. It was a request Mr. Chambers would freely and frequently fulfil.

But it was in countless Nova Scotia homes that one would find Mr. Chambers's biggest and most loyal fans, who wouldn't think of starting their day without first chuckling over his cartoon.

Undoubtedly, their favorite subject was the Little Man - often clad in only a barrel - trying to cope with the rigors of daily life. Be it tax hikes, political scandal or a nasty economy, Mr. Chambers's trademark character somehow always seemed to cope with those challenges.

As an editorial in the April 9, 1973, edition of this newspaper aptly concluded: ``His Little Man is really the ordinary down-to-earth humble man on the street who finds a bit of humor in a world much too serious, much too often. His Little Man is but a caricature of himself.''

Mr. Chambers was as prolific as he was brilliant, turning out in his peak years nine cartoons per week - six for the morning papers and three for the afternoon editions.

In his early years on the job, he was called in at all hours to do front-page illustrations of breaking news, from shipwrecks to fires. Often, on his own time, he'd do artwork for charities or dash off an ``original Chambers cartoon'' to cheer up his ill friends or to commemorate special occasions.

Born in Wolfville on April 13, 1905, Mr. Chambers loved drawing, even as a child. He took a year of art instruction at Acadia University's Ladies' Seminary under the late Lewis E. Smith.

As a teenager, he published a paper run off on a second-hand duplicator for 40 subscribers in his home town, where his father ran the local clothing store. Those early drawings depicted local events published in his homemade journal.

In 1924, at age 19, the son of the apple-rich Annapolis Valley left for the Big Apple - New York City - where he drew cartoons by day and attended night classes at the Art Students' League.

He worked for Fables Pictures Inc., earning $18 a week helping craft Aesop's Fables for two years. He later was employed by Paul Terry, whose popular Terrytoons animations preceded feature films in movie houses in the 1930s and '40s.

To make ends meet, he produced covers for sheet music and illustrations for ``pulp'' - or tabloid style - magazines. He also did story illustrations for United Features Syndicate and the New York Evening Graphic.

It was at the Graphic, a daily publication, that the young artist rubbed shoulders with columnist Walter Winchell and sports writer Ed Sullivan (whose weekly TV variety show would later make him more famous than his columns). Mr. Chambers once said he liked Mr. Winchell but not Mr. Sullivan.

New York's loss was Nova Scotia's gain in 1932, when Mr. Chambers returned home. A year later, he would play a pivotal role in the Liberals' winning election campaign, as Angus L. Macdonald unseated Gordon Harrington's Conservative government.

``I was hired by the Chronicle in Halifax to do editorial cartoons. Election day was Aug. 22 and Macdonald won, and on Aug. 23 I was fired,'' Mr. Chambers recalled of the days when newspapers engaged directly in the partisan fray.

Six months later, after returning for six months to recession-plagued New York, where he worked for National Screen Services, Mr. Chambers came home for good after failing to obtain a work visa. He was rehired by the Chronicle, only to be enticed by 2 1/2 times the salary to join the rival Halifax Herald Ltd. on May 17, 1937.

The relationship lasted nearly four decades, ending only on his retirement at age 71 in May 1976. That was 53 years after his first cartoon had been published in the Herald's rival, The Halifax Chronicle, on May 2, 1923. (The subject was Nova Scotia seceding from the rest of Canada).

Ironically, technical problems in operating the first Speedgraphic news camera used in Nova Scotia may have played a role in shaping Mr. Chambers' career path.

In April 1936, Mr. Chambers, then a photographer/illustrator/cartoonist with the Chronicle, was assigned to cover the Moose River gold mine disaster. It stretched into a 10-day drama, followed intensely around the world.

In what the rookie photographer later labelled ``the worst moment of my life,'' his camera shutter failed to open in the wee hours of April 23, as a survivor was lifted from the mine after days underground.

Fortunately, the photographer from the rival Herald also missed the shot.

It wasn't the first time his camera had malfunctioned. A year earlier, Tory prime minister R.B. Bennett was returning from London to Ottawa through the port of Halifax, where he was greeted by a camera-wielding Mr. Chambers.

``I pointed it at him and the bulb exploded. Two or three fellows jumped me. They thought I had taken a shot at him,'' Mr. Chambers reminisced years later.

Fortunately, Bob Chambers's career focused on cartoons, not photography, in a nearly four-decade love affair between newspaper readers and artist.

His sports sketches - 30 of which he compiled in a 1989 book in collaboration with the late sports writer Alex Nickerson - are still collector's items. He also published in bookform a collection of his cartoons for the years 1966, '67, '68 and '72. And he compiled a small book of about 15 illustrations titled Halifax During Wartime.

Besides two National Newspaper Awards and a 1950 citation of merit from the awards group, his career earned him honorary degrees from Saint Francis Xavier University in 1965, Dalhousie University in 1976, and, only last year, from his hometown Acadia University.

He was a Fellow of the Nova Scotia College of Art and a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame. The latter honor, bestowed in 1977, is shared with only one other Nova Scotian - Joseph Howe.

In 1976, Mr. Chambers was invested as a member of the Order of Canada. The Ottawa ceremony was a special night for the Nova Scotia cartoonist, who shared the spotlight with the likes of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, governor general Jules Leger and famed ballet dancer Karen Kain.

``I was just a regular hick,'' Mr. Chambers fondly recalled years later. ``I got all the placecards from the table. I got Trudeau's cigar, which he didn't smoke, and I have that.''

Always self-effacing, Mr. Chambers will be remembered and revered as one of Nova Scotia's most talented and best loved sons.

QUOTE:
"For 40 years, Chambers made people laugh when they woke up in the morning. He made their day."
Bruce MacKinnon

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