Arnold Roth: A Living Cartoon

“You never call, you never write,” says Arnold Roth when I introduce myself on the phone. Then he pardons himself for a hearing aid adjustment. “If I press this button, are we still in English?”

Arnold Roth is not just a cartoonist, he is a living cartoon. He dishes out one gag after the other, exuding warmth and generosity.

A selection of Roth’s work, which has graced covers of The Nation, The Progressive and Time magazine and appeared inside the New Yorker, The New York Times, Esquire, GQ, Sports Illustrated, Playboy and much more, is on view at the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts  through April 7. Roth, who lived in Princeton from 1963 to 1984, has published six books of cartoons and illustrated books by George Plimpton, William F. Buckley Jr. and John Updike.

Speaking from his Manhattan studio, Roth describes the space as cluttered with supplies and huge piles of mail. Fan mail?

“I do get nice letters from people who have seen my work,” he says, but the piles of paper are mostly business correspondence because Roth, 83, doesn’t do e-mail. In fact he doesn’t use a computer. “I can’t turn it on, I can’t turn it off. Only MIT grads and my wife can do that.”

Caroline Roth helps run the business side of his affairs, and maintains his website and blog.

To celebrate Roth’s 50th anniversary as a freelancer, an exhibit of his work toured the U.S. and Europe in the early 2000s. The artwork at the Arts Council is on loan from Princeton collectors. So how did the Philadelphia native wind up in Princeton?

“It was happenstance,” he says. “We were living behind the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, and my brother-in-law, head of the printmaking department of University of the Arts, had a Guggenheim fellowship to Europe.” Roth would go to his brother-in-law’s house in Germantown and start the car to keep the battery working. During spring break, the Roths took the car for a spin to Princeton. “It was April, when everything was in bloom. We thought we’d give it a try and stayed for 21 years.”

While living in Princeton, Roth’s friends included Arthur Lithgow, McCarter Theatre artistic director from 1963 to 1972; New Yorker cartoonist Henry Martin; cartoonist, illustrator, painter and sculptor Michael Ramus; writer John McPhee; and cartoonist John Huehnergarth. There were regular Tuesday and Thursday afternoon lunches at the Annex restaurant for writers, artists and cartoonists. Roth says he was invited to the writers’ lunches, because they were soul mates.

When he learns that the Annex is no longer in business, he quips “I hope it’s not a Greek restaurant funded by Euros.”

“A funny thing about being an artist in Princeton is you cross all the lines – academics, research scientists and bankers will invite you places,” Roth says. Princeton friends still invite him.

“The university makes it a culturally rich town and there’s always something going on. I work long and erratic hours” – he notes that he’s in his 62nd year freelancing – “and then I enjoy music, movies and an active social life.”

The idea for the Arts Council show came from his Princeton friend Fleury Mackie. “She has the Arnold Roth Gallery in her kitchen,” Roth jokes. He would give friends drawings for birthdays, anniversaries and bar mitzvahs. Sometimes the drawings were personal, created for the recipient; other times they were something he had already drawn.

“My favorite places for people to hang my pictures are in the kitchen and bathroom because I know people go in those rooms every day. The living room is Siberia,” he says. The works in this show have never been exhibited together before.

Roth says he left Princeton because his house quadrupled in value and he could afford to live in Manhattan. There, he became a regular at Elaine’s, the celebrity hangout restaurant and bar, along with good friend George Plimpton, whose book he illustrated.

The artist and writer is also an accomplished saxophonist, and first visited Elaine’s in the 60s with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. Before his cartooning days, Roth illustrated album covers for Dave Brubeck, Desmond and others recording with Columbia Records, RCA and Fantasy Records.

He still performs in private clubs about once a month. “I so enjoy doing it. I hope the audience does too. At least they don’t run out in a fury.”

Playing jazz and cartooning are the same exercise – theme and variation, he says. “Writing is the most difficult of the arts, because humanity made up language. But arts were made for the eyes and sound was made for the heart’s rhythms.”

When creating his cartoons, Roth says his ideas come from life. “Life is the cornucopia of ideas — the way dishes are put  on the table, or someone in the middle of Occupy Wall Street pushing through the crowd” all provide ideas.

Roth grew up in a neighborhood of row houses and factories. “You were identified by which factories you lived by,” he says. Arnold was between Stetson Hats and Bayuk Cigars. His father was a wholesale flower salesman and his mother a homemaker. “Thank God, because there were six of us.” Although he doesn’t remember, he was told he started drawing at age 2.

“In kindergarten and first grade, I could draw Popeye and Mickey Mouse better than the other kids. I loved comics and animation and always wanted to be a cartoonist.”

He also wanted to play the sax. When, at age 14, his father rewarded Arnold’s hard work and bought him his first instrument, “I was the happiest kid in North Philly.”

As much as he laments the lost work due to the shrinking of print media, Roth says he feels for younger cartoonists who are searching for ways to create markets. “It’s a tough time. Print won’t vanish, but there’s a less prolific market. I’m old, but younger cartoonists are trying graphic novels and searching for ways to create markets.”

With help from his wife, Caroline, Roth started in June 2011. It includes “Downtown,” a syndicated comic he created in 1979 that never ran, as well as other cartoons, posted three times a week.

At present, he is working on two drawings for City Journal, but he can’t talk about them. “That would give it away,” he says. He is comfortable working for publications that run the gamut from liberal to conservative. He works in pen and ink with watercolor wash on watercolor paper, usually 14-by-17 inches, and still ships the original drawing.

“I hope you come to my show,” he concludes. “But if you don’t enjoy it, don’t tell me about it.”

Arnold Roth: A Selection from Area Collections is on view at the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, 102 Witherspoon St., Princeton,  through April 7.; 609-924-8777.

This story originally appeared in U.S. 1 newspaper.

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