Don Duga, 78, artist and resident of Riverhead since 1980,...

Don Duga, 78, artist and resident of Riverhead since 1980, is the original animator of Frosty the Snowman. (Dec. 18, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

Don Duga's 50 years in the animation business took him from his hometown in California, across the country to Manhattan, all around Europe and finally to Long Island. Along the way, he worked on numerous national television films, and helped bring to life such famous characters as Frosty the Snowman, Mr. Magoo, and Captain Cupcake.

Today, Duga, 78, lives in Riverhead and works from his studio there. He also teaches animation at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he has taught for more than 40 years.

About 45 of Duga's colorful, whimsical animation paintings, including about 20 of Frosty the Snowman, are on display at 73 Main, a new designer clothing store and gallery at 73 E. Main St. in Riverhead.

The show opened Dec. 8, and fans lined up to get their portraits painted by Duga, alongside Frosty. They'll get another opportunity Saturday, when Duga will welcome children to come and be drawn into a parade of characters in his Frosty paintings, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Among his television specials were "The Last Unicorn," starring Mia Farrow, and "Mad Monster Party," starring Phyllis Diller and Boris Karloff.

These were just some of the half-hour TV specials Duga produced from the 1960s through the 1980s as the storyboard editor and continuity designer for Rankin/Bass, a Manhattan animation company. He also helped produce "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "The Ballad of Smokey the Bear," "The Coneheads," "The Wind in the Willows," "The Jackson Five Show" and "The Little Drummer Boy," which was nominated for an Emmy Award.

Duga designed and set up all the angles and key poses on the "Frosty the Snowman" TV film, which first aired in 1969 and has continued each year since.

Born in Hollywood, Duga dreamed of becoming an artist when he began drawing at age 5.

"My mother was involved in community theater, so I studied acting as a child, but I had terrible stage fright," he recalled. "By doing animation, I found a way to act out the characters in my drawings, and I liked being behind the scene."

He drew cartoons for his high school yearbook and went on to study at Chouinard Art Institute in California, where he planned to be an abstract artist.

"But my life changed while studying with the famous animator Don Graham, who was hired by Disney to teach the animators how to draw Snow White, Duga said. "After graduation, I worked for United Pictures Association, an animation studio that produced 'Mr. Magoo' for TV, and they taught me the craft, working on storyboards, layouts and character designs."

He then moved to San Francisco, where he spent several years working on animation for live-action and science films.

"Being the restless type, I soon yearned to go cross country in my Volkswagen bus to see the East Coast, and in 1960 I drove to New York City," he said. Duga lucked into an art director job when he called a friend from art school, who was leaving Pelican Films, an animation studio on Madison Avenue.

"I suddenly became an art director of animation for movies, TV and commercials," he said. "Animation was hot back then, and it was a whole new experience to work in the New York atmosphere."

But after a while, Duga decided to try a new adventure when he found out he could ship his VW bus to Belgium for only $200. He traveled around Europe. "I moved to Europe and traveled around, before settling in Rome, and then Milan, Italy, where I got a job for "Cartoon Films" doing animation for Olivetti typewriters and other Italian products," he said. While in Milan, he met fellow animator Irra Verbitski, and they later moved back to Manhattan and formed their own animation company, Polestar Films and Associated Arts, in 1976.

"We've produced educational children's films for shows such as "Sesame Street," and other animated films for Nickelodeon, NBC, SONY and AT&T," Duga said. He and Verbitski codirected the award-winning children's film "Owen," narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker.

His "Frosty" exhibit runs through Dec. 31. Michael Mahon, who owns 73 Main's store and gallery with his partner, Danielle Gisiger, said their interest is to promote North Fork artists.

"Don Duga is a nationally recognized animator who lives in our community, and it's an opportunity to see his art and watch him working," he said.

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