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LI animator Don Duga dies at 87; worked on 'Frosty' and 'Santa Claus' TV specials

Animator Don Duga of Baiting Hollow died on

Animator Don Duga of Baiting Hollow died on May 30 at age 87. His best-known works included the annual TV classic "Frosty the Snowman." He also worked on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," though uncredited. Credit: Family

Award-winning animator Don Duga, a longtime Baiting Hollow resident known for his work on such classic TV specials as "Frosty the Snowman" (1969) and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" (1970), died May 30 at Westhampton Care Center following a long illness. He was 87.

"He loved to draw," said his wife, fellow animator Irra Verbitsky. "Up to his last days in the facility, he drew."

"My father always gave of his art," said their daughter, Amanita Duga-Carroll of Putnam County. "Every year, he would go to both of my children's classes, from kindergarten to middle school, and do an animation project with the class. Depending on how old they were, he would give them a fun lecture about 'Frosty' and I would bring in snowman cookies and hot chocolate. And later he would run a little animation workshop where the class would create an animated film, and he would give it to them on a disc."

Donald Jerome Duga was born on New Year's Day 1934 in Hollywood, California, the son of Polish Jewish immigrant Joseph Duga, a shoemaker who co-owned a small factory, and Russian Jewish immigrant Bessie Landau. While earning a bachelor's in fine arts from the Chouinard Art Institute, now part of the California Institute of the Arts, he studied with animator Don Graham, who had been commissioned by Walt Disney to help train artists.

That proved pivotal, Duga said in 2013, telling Dan's Papers: "I was never going to be in animation. I was going to be a painter! But my drawing teacher said that you actually get paid if you do animation."

Duga worked briefly at the Manhattan animation studio Pelican Films and then moved with Verbitsky to Italy, where they worked on animated commercials for Olivetti typewriters and other products, his family recalled. After returning to New York, he got a major career break with Manhattan animation studio Videocraft International, later more famously known as Rankin/Bass Productions.

"I met with Arthur [Rankin Jr.] and Jules Bass; they had a little studio in the city, with a garden, and they called me in and gave me my first project, which was [the 1964 stop-action animated TV special] ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ " Duga said in that 2013 interview. He received no on-screen credit for it, he said, but was duly credited on the company's future productions including the "Frosty" and "Santa Claus" specials, as well as the 1967 theatrical feature "Mad Monster Party?" and the 1968 holiday special "The Little Drummer Boy."

Duga and Verbitsky, who were married in 1966, formed Polestar Films in 1976. Their extensive body of work includes segments for "Sesame Street," films for corporate clients such as AT&T and commercials for the likes of Hostess baked goods, including the design of such characters as Twinkie the Kid and Fruit Pie the Magician. Among their children's-book adaptations are the short "Owen" (1995), which was narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker and won a Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children's Video, and "Good Night, Gorilla" (1998), which earned a TV/video-industry Telly Award.

Duga, who was stationed with the U.S. Army in Alaska during the Korean War, taught for decades at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He and his family lived in New York before moving permanently to their Baiting Hollow weekend home around 1980.

In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by son Brady Duga of Carlsbad, California, and grandchildren Jacob, Kyle, Lila and Cameron. Don Duga donated his body to science. The family plans a public memorial for this summer.

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