Kansan was illustrator of 'Porky Pig' toons

11/23/2009 12:00 AM

11/23/2009 6:02 AM

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

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Melvin “Tubby” Eugene Millar is a famous Kansan, but few recognize his name.

Mention he was the illustrator of “Porky Pig” cartoons, and then just about everybody knows who Millar is.

He was born Melvin Miller on May 6, 1900, in Portis. In 1918, he graduated from the town’s high school.

When he went to Hollywood, Miller changed his last name to “Millar,” thinking it sounded better and was unique.

Local residents said he used to doodle in textbooks.

“He drew pictures ever since he was big enough to hold a pencil,” childhood friend Hud Turner told a Wichita Eagle reporter in 1992. Turner, then 92, showed an old high school government textbook in which the margin of nearly every page was jammed with drawings of faces, figures and exaggerated cartoon characters.

After high school, Millar went on to the Kansas City Art Institute and then off to Hollywood to draw pictures for a living.

He often illustrated the portly pig and other characters with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.

During the 1920s and 1930s, several artists with Kansas connections were drawn to Hollywood for work.

Isadore “Friz” Freleng was one. Freleng grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and became friends with Millar through the Kansas City Art Institute. Freleng became Millar’s boss at Warner Bros.

Freleng was head animator of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons and created the series for Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird, Sylvester the cat and Yosemite Sam.

It was another Kansas City Art Institute artist who initially helped bring these Midwesterners to Hollywood: Walt Disney.

Disney’s father, Elias Disney, started farming with his parents near Ellis during the 1880s and — a century later — some of Disney’s relatives still farm there.

Throughout his career drawing cartoons, Millar enjoyed injecting hidden references about Kansas into his background, according to Dave Webb, historian and author of “399 Kansas Characters.”

For instance in one cartoon called “Porky’s Pet,” the train station has a poster in the background reading “When in Portis, Stop at Millar Manor.”

Another cartoon called “Bingo Crosbyana” has a matchbox with the name “Portis Match” and a wine bottle with the label “90 Percent Portis.”

Although he had different assignments, Millar spent the majority of his time drawing Porky Pig.

He was a gag man, coming up with comic situations in cartoons, such as having an anvil flatten Porky Pig.

Millar died in Burbank, Calif., on Dec. 30, 1980.

The town of Portis has a limestone memorial dedicated to Millar and Porky Pig.

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