Monroe man follows heart to cartoon career
By Christine Sparta
MONROE —When Frank Caruso told his parents that he wanted to be a cartoonist while his brother had an interest in the medical field, they knew they had to take action.
So they contacted the local priest.
But the result was different from what his parents expected.
"He actually gave me a job," said Caruso, 45, remembering the Rev. Frank Weber, a Catholic priest who was one of his teachers at DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne.
Instead of discouraging Caruso's doodling, the clergyman pushed him to pursue it as a career.
Caruso, who was about 10 years old at the time, illustrated Weber's graduate–school thesis about the morale of priests in a changing church, drawing a series of images of religious leaders with different facial expressions.
"I told him, 'You've got a gift. You run with it,'" said Weber.
That assignment led to other things, like work on yearbook covers in school and his eventual career at King Features Syndicate, a unit of the Hearst Corporation, a company that distributes comics, columns and word games to newspapers worldwide.
Through a guest speaker who visited one of his college classes at the School of Visual Arts, he got a freelance job as a cartoonist at the company. Just three days into the post, he was offered full–time status but he wasn't sure if he should take it.
"I've got to think about it. I'm playing in this band," he told his employer.
Meanwhile, Caruso's parents were ready to throttle him for his indecision in the face of a great opportunity.
Now, 21 years later, he's still with the company as a vice president in the licensing division. He oversees two of the hottest properties, Betty Boop and Popeye. Besides licensing, he also oversees the creative aspects of promotions, Internet, entertainment and animation ventures worldwide for the King Features properties.
At the King Features Syndicate offices in the Hearst building in Manhattan, a life–size Betty Boop statue poses a la Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway grate with a billowing dress. A giant Popeye figure holds court in the back of the office chomping on his signature spinach in view of passersby below.
Even though Caruso now works on the licensing end, he still keeps a hand in the sketch world.
Caruso's art training is especially helpful when someone needs a rush job, like a Popeye rendering for a magazine cover.
Caruso has also branched out into children's book illustrations and is currently doing the art work for a graphic novel by Andrew Vachss titled "Heart Transplant," a story about bullying in society.
He has won two Emmy awards for his work as the executive producer on "SeeMore's Playhouse," a PBS television show geared toward preschool children to teach them about safety and healthy living.
"It sends out a real positive message," he said about the show, which is co–produced by King Features.
Caruso's former incarnation as a rocker with a band called Chapter XI served him well on "SeeMore's Playhouse" and he has written some songs for the show.
"I've always said growing up. I don't care if it's a bagel shop. It should be fun. Why can't it be fun?" said Caruso about his work environment.
Caruso has managed to create a home that reflects that philosophy as well since he and his family took up residence in December.
His house is a cross between "House Beautiful" and the set of "Happy Days."
His wife has carefully decorated much of the house, but Caruso has a couple of special places of his own that show off his whimsical side.
One room is reminiscent of a 1950s soda shop with diner booths and a juke box. A pinball machine and a full–sized video game machine filled with favorite –80s staples like Ms. Pacman occupy the space as well. There is an old–fashioned Coke machine filled with beer.
"Oh, yes, this is for the children," his wife, Laurie Caruso, 44, joked about her husband's original rationale for the purchase.
The other special spot is his basement enclave, where he has his drawing board complete with a barber's chair to sit in and work just like his idol, the late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
His 9–year–old twins — daughter, Skyler, and son, Noah — also love to draw. Caruso set up his old drafting table nearby with another barber's chair so they have a place to sketch along with dad. The twins' friends sometimes peer in the basement window to watch Caruso draw.
"Some of the kids call me the toymaker," he said.
Caruso has a litmus test when he creates new characters. He asks his kids to sketch their favorite ones. "If a kid can draw it, it's simple enough," he said about this process.
In the case of the cast for "SeeMore's Playhouse," he was pleasantly surprised that his children decided to draw all of them.
His wife found out one unique perk of having a cartoonist husband on her 40th birthday in 2003.
Caruso created a mock newspaper in her honor that was given out at a surprise party at the Society of Illustrators in New York, where Caruso is a member.
Guys in newsboy outfits gave out the publication, which was filled with articles about Laurie by friends and family. Special columns were created for her by some King Features columnists, including Dr. Joyce Brothers, Heloise and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Cartoonists also drew strips featuring Caruso's wife.
"I thought I was creative," joked Laurie, who had a career in public relations before she decided to stay home with her kids. "But now I get zero credit," she said in comparison to her husband's artistic abilities.
© Copyright 2008 Courier News
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