From Snow White to Bugs Bunny: Gimli cottage was childhood home to artist who shaped cartoon history
Charles Thorson credited with radically changing Warner Bros.'s animation style, developing iconic characters
When Andy Blicq bought a century-old cottage in Gimli, Man., to renovate and turn into his year-round home, he had no idea he was buying a connection to some of the greatest cartoon characters in history.
Built in 1918, the cottage in the Manitoba Interlake town is the childhood home of Charles Thorson, who moved to Hollywood in 1934 and became a cartoonist who created prototypes for Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the Flintstones (he also developed story ideas for the animated TV series featuring the latter).
He left Disney in anger at the lack of screen credits given to him, especially for Snow White, and was hired by Warner Bros. to conceive star characters they hoped would challenge Disney's reign in animated entertainment.
His new bosses asked Thorson to design a rabbit for a cartoon to be directed by Cal Dalton and Ben "Bugs" Hardaway.
Thorson labelled his model sheet as "Bug's Bunny" and the name stuck, according to a biography by former University of Manitoba film studies professor Gene Walz called Cartoon Charlie: The Life and Art of Animation Pioneer Charles Thorson.
History in the walls
The history in the home on Gimli's Fourth Avenue is so deep "you can feel it in the walls," Blicq said.
"We love it. It is a piece of the past."
That history was recognized this week as the home turned 100.
A Canada Day ceremony was hosted by the municipality to honour the home and the handful of others in the area that remain from the earliest days of the Icelandic-settled community in Manitoba's Interlake.
"These cottages are disappearing pretty quickly. There are a few around still but many have been taken apart or renovated right out of recognition," Blicq said.
Whenever one is demolished, Blicq has tried to salvage the lumber and put it back into his own cottage to maintain the original feel and history.
"We've wanted to maintain that as much as we possibly could. This is about us, it's about our past and it's important to save them."
The home was originally built for Stefan Thorson, a former Gimli mayor. He and his wife, Sigridur, emigrated from Iceland to Winnipeg in 1887. They had two sons — Charles and Joseph — before moving the family to Gimli in 1912.
The home belonged to three other families after the Thorsons. When Blicq bought it in 1997 it was showing its age.
"It was in pretty tough shape by that point but we've had this ongoing renovation for about 20 years," he said.
"I think I've touched every single board in it."
He didn't know anything about the history until the Gimli Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee did some research to find out who the previous owners were.
"When you have a building like this, you're kind of caretakers as it goes through different families and incarnations in its lifetime."
He has since learned the home was constructed by Hjalmar Thorsteinson, a master carpenter who also built boats in the harbour community on Lake Winnipeg.
The walls were made out of Douglas fir, which would have been shipped in from the West Coast at the time.
"It's irreplaceable wood, very strong. Largely, that's why many of these buildings [built the same way] remain," Blicq said.
Calling himself "a glutton for punishment," Blicq recently bought the cottage next to his — another old one — and plans to embark on a renovation to save it.
"It's really original," he said, adding that the history of that one has yet to be uncovered.
Thorson's roller-coaster career
Early in his career, Thorson did some cartooning for Icelandic-language newspapers as well as the Winnipeg Free Press and the Grain Growers Guide, according to Historica Canada's Canadian Encyclopedia.
From 1914 until 1934, he was chief illustrator for the Eaton's catalogue, in which goods were all hand-drawn. But he also did freelance work, including designing souvenir posters and postcards after the Winnipeg Falcons hockey team won the 1920 Olympic gold medal in Antwerp.
But it was also a tumultuous time in his life. His first wife died of tuberculosis shortly after the birth of their son, who then died three months later, according to the University of Manitoba archives, which contains much of Thorson's work.
The deaths rattled him and he wandered for a time, living homeless throughout Western Canada. He eventually remarried in 1922, but tragedy struck again. The couple's son lived only three days.
They had another in 1925 but the couple split up a few years later. Single once more, Thorson spent a great deal of time drinking away his sorrows and drawing at the Weevil Cafe, a diner near the corner of Sargent Avenue and Victor Street in Winnipeg's West End.
That's where he met waitress Kristin Solvadottir, who was from Iceland and visiting relatives in Manitoba. She worked at the diner to cover her expenses while away from home.
Drawn by a Winnipegger. Charlie Thorson. Modelled after a waitress in a West End diner that he was in love with. <a href="https://t.co/XyOwtj1kG7">pic.twitter.com/XyOwtj1kG7</a>—@brent_bellamy
Thorson, at 44, was twice her age and Solvadottir showed little interest, according to Gene Walz's Cartoon Charlie. He sketched drawings with love notes to her but when she left the city, he headed for Los Angeles.
After leaving Disney, Thorson "radically revised the Warner style towards anthropomorphic animals" and set the company on a strong animated course, according to the U of M archives.
Known as someone who didn't stay at a job too long, Thorson left WB after developing Bugs and the rabbit's antagonist, Elmer Fudd, along with several other lesser-known characters.
He moved on to Fleischer Studios in Miami, where he redesigned Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Popeye characters and created the Flintstones.
After Fleischer, he worked as a children's-book illustrator, in billboard and magazine advertising, and for a few other studios. He then moved back to Winnipeg in 1946, where he created one of his other iconic characters.
Punkinhead, a teddy bear with a mop of blond hair, was designed for Eaton's and marketed through storybooks, songs, records and television commercials. The character was a big hit and Eaton's eventually promoted him to Santa's sidekick during the store's Christmas parades.
Thorson likely could have lived off Punkinhead royalties if not for a big blunder on his part.
According to Walz, Thorson was drunk during a party at the Fort Garry Hotel in his honour and got into an argument with an Eaton's executive. Thorson threw a punch and was promptly fired, Walz says.
In 1952, Thorson designed Elmer the Safety Elephant for a school-based safety campaign but struggled to find work beyond that and eventually retired to British Columbia in 1956.
He died a decade later.
While these days, many Manitobans may not know about his contribution to cartoon history, his former home has now been recognized in the town where he once lived.
The Gimli cottage owned by Andy Blicq is now a municipally designated historic site, with a plaque commemorating its significance.
"More than anything, it makes you feel connected to the community's history," said Blicq.
Read an article by Gene Walz on Winnipeg's Bugs Bunny connection, from the summer 1997 issue of the film magazine Take One: Film & Television in Canada (digitized by Athabasca University Library and Scholarly Resources):