Written content and museum photos ©2014 Mike Pascale. Artwork and personal photos © Frank Frazetta and/or their respective owners.
Welcome back. To refresh: it’s over a couple decades ago, and my friend and former classmate, future cover-artist Dean Armstrong, and I have driven from Michigan to Pennsylvania during a weekend to the Frank Frazetta Museum. We met Mrs. Ellie Frazetta who had asked us to bring in our work.
After lugging our heavy portfolios back up the stairs (hoping but trying not to believe we’d get to meet the master), we spent several more minutes standing around enjoying and luxuriating in the aesthetic glory surrounding us.
Soon Ellie returned with a tall, lanky, dark-haired gentleman.
Dean whispered to me, “That’s him!”
“Who?” I asked.
This repeated a few times until they came over to us and Ellie indeed introduced us to her husband. He held out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Frank.”
As far as we fanboys were concerned, he might as well have said, “Hi, I’m God.” I’m surprised I didn’t squeal or faint.
He said Ellie told him we were artists, and then asked if he could see our work.
Frank. Freaking. Frazetta.
Asking to see our stuff? Gleep.
Once he and Ellie administered smelling salts, we obliged. I went first. I was exhilarated and petrified. What if my hero hates my stuff? What if he tells me I suck? I was sweating buckets of bullets. Frank opened up my portfolio, took a look at my first piece (a b/w pen portrait of a made-up ugly guy who looked vaguely like a demonic Johnny Cash), and said, “Ooh. Great!”
He went through every page, pausing to look at each piece. I only remember a few comments now.
–Ellie (looking at one of the “babes” I drew): “He’s Italian too, Frank.”
FF: “I can tell!”
–FF (looking at a couple marker drawings of mechanical muscle-enhancers for arms and legs): “It looks like you have a handle on your anatomy.” (This after a couple editors had blasted me for the opposite.)
–And my most embarrassing moment, one of the top ten of my career:
Me (While FF was looking at a superhero drawing.): “I’ve always been a big fan of Jack Kirby. Do you know who he is?”
FF (politely as possible): “Yeah, I know who he is.”
AAAUGHH!! I just asked one of the greatest artists of the 20th century if he’d ever heard of one of the greatest imaginators of the 20th century. WTF?! I think I meant to ask if he’d ever met Kirby but it came out wrong. I did ask him that next, and he said he hadn’t yet. (Although I read in an industry ‘zine about their historic meeting not long after, oddly enough.) Of course, on the ride home, Dean didn’t stop teasing me about that brilliant query.
My pal went next. Frank was instantly impressed, as were all who’d ever seen Dean’s stuff. (Between you and me, he’s about the most naturally gifted artist I’ve ever known. One of those types where you can just see the brilliance from a very early age. A guy who just has a knack for drawing and nailing the figure, an intuitive grasp and consummate knowledge of anatomy, form and lighting. He deserves a blog post of his own at a later date.) Frank and Ellie both oohed and ahhed, stopping to enjoy every b/w drawing and gorgeous airbrush painting. He asked Dean why he wasn’t painting book covers. He shrugged, and Frazetta told him to get a rep as soon as he got home.
Frank then noticed a spiral-bound sketchbook Dean had stowed in the portfolio cover pocket. He asked if he could take a look at it. My modest friend downplayed it as “just some sketchbook stuff”.
Frank went through every single page.
On one knee. For nearly an hour.
That’s what has stayed with me since: Frazetta was truly an “artist’s artist”–not just in the clichéd way of the term, but in the sense of an artist who truly loved art. He was no snobbish elitist who only appreciated what critics and historians said was “good,” or who was famous and “successful”, but honestly enjoyed any art that struck him aesthetically, no matter who drew it. Here was arguably the most accomplished artist/illustrator of his generation, who could command six figures for his work, pouring over each page of two portfolios and a sketchbook from a pair of early 20-something Mideastern nobodies–without being asked, selflessly giving us his time, kind words and advice. All while going through serious health issues. (The same generosity applies to Ellie, who was very supportive of other artists as well.)
Once he was done, I took out my copy of TALLY HO COMICS #1 from 1945 that I’d bought a few years earlier, and handed it to him.
“Remember this?” I asked.
“Where’d you get this old thing?” Frank asked, paging thru the Snowman character story he’d worked on with comics mentor, John Giunta. “This is the first thing I had published. I was 16.”
Hoping against hope, I asked if he would mind signing it. He didn’t even look up. Ellie replied immediately, “I’m sorry, honey, but if he did, it would lower the value of all his limited edition prints.”
She was very nice, but I knew it was a lost cause. I should have told her I’d never, ever sell it, swearing on my father’s grave, and that I’d planned to give it to my kids when I died. I should have mentioned he could personalize it to make it less saleable, or just write his nickname “Fritz” or “FF” or even an “X”, just so I had some proof that I’d met him. But then, as now, I was too shy. Plus, he wasn’t feeling good and had just spent an hour looking through our work, so I felt it would be rude to persist. (Yes, I still have the comic! Even if he didn’t sign it, he touched it; and since I never had kids, it’s either going to a museum or being cremated with me when I croak.) It’s also why I didn’t ask for a picture with him, as I figured he wouldn’t feel up to it.
The bond between the married couple was obvious and heart-warming. She adored him and he her, each in his/her own way. At one point, Frank said, “She’s my right arm, boy” and you knew he meant it. Very few of those paintings would have been there if it weren’t for Ellie’s tracking them down. And there’d be no poster business.
At some point, Mrs. F offered Dean and me the chance to purchase our own special limited edition print. She was having 300 gorgeous prints made of his Cat Girl painting, with the Frazetta Museum logo underneath, and Frank would do pen-and-ink remarque sketches at the bottom, of either a jungle cat or a woman at a price of $600, or one with both for $1000. When we pointed out we were poor kids barely out of college, she said we only had to put down $50 and could pay $50 a month for 11 months with no interest! She would give us a print of Frazetta’s caveman and cave girl b/w drawing in exchange–since its estimated value was $50, our deposit was non-refundable and if we decided later to not pay further, no hard feelings. Dean and I looked at each other, paused a bit and succumbed–I signed up for a woman and he signed up for the two-fer.
(Though it was tough some months coming up with even the $50, I still have the print, along with a letter from Ellie. Dean never sent in another payment and didn’t get his…I wonder who did.)
We finally prepared to leave and thanked them both profusely for their time and generosity. (I somehow managed not to sob or slobber on him.) We each bought a copy of their self-published book, FRANK FRAZETTA: THE LIVING LEGEND, with a great photo of the artist’s face on the back cover. As we left, Frank, lighting a cigarette, repeated his advice to Dean to get a rep and get working.
As we walked out, he said, “You’re good. Both you guys. Keep it up…” Though I was not at Dean’s level, I appreciated the bone-throw. We basically floated down the stairs.
In fact, I was so pumped up with inspiration I ran into the parking lot and leaped as high as I could as Dean snapped a blackmail-worthy photo. (It helped since we did a turn-and-burn and drove the other nine hours home in the same weekend.) I was so inspired that within two weeks of returning home, I quit my job–and budding advertising career–to pursue my dream of being a professional comic book artist. I figured, if The World’s Greatest Artist liked my stuff, editors would too, right? Right?
Not quite. But that story is one yet to be told. The point is, although I still regret not getting a photo of the master or his signature, I still have these photos and my shared memories. I’ve forgotten many of the details of that day and most of the rest of the trip, but there are some that are still crystal clear–as are the emotions. If I live to be double my current age (heaven forbid, unless I can find a Dorian Gray painting on eBay) and forget my own name, I will never, ever forget meeting Ellie and Frank Frazetta.
Thank you, Frank.
And thank you, friend reader, for letting me put these memories down permanently. I hope you enjoyed them.
P.S.: Since that long-ago day, the museum moved to a much larger, more deserving and more impressive location, on several gorgeously landscaped acres near Frank and Ellie’s home. Sadly, it closed after Frank’s passing and was damaged during a dispute amongst his heirs. However, things have come back together nicely and plans are being made to reopen it this spring! Trust me, no tablet or monitor or TV can match the power of your own senses for viewing the originals. Digital is great for super closeup study, but you can’t beat life for the overall aesthetic beauty. For more info–and more great Frazetta artwork–see Frank Frazetta Jr.’s official Frazetta web site.
[Mike Pascale (Twitter: @MikePascale) is a freelance storyboardist, artist, writer, comic book/strip creator, graphic designer and award-winning former ad agency copywriter/senior art director. He’s the creative farce [sic] behind BRU-HED, NASTI: MONSTER HUNTER, the GAME BUZZ weekly online strip and more. He’s currently revising his first novel. Read his weekly blog (and order a commission) right here at WednesdaysHeroes.com.]