If you remember the early days of Cartoon Network, when you were more likely to see Atom Ant than animé, and you could still see Bugs Bunny on your TV screen without needing a hatful of money and a DVD player, then you probably remember KEVIN WOLLENWEBER.
May 20, 1995 became “Kevin Wollenweber Day” on the still-young cable channel when Kevin, that toon fan among toon fans, was granted the opportunity every fan dreams of: the chance to host his own slate of cartoons for the day. (For Kevin, it was more of a nightmare, but that’s another story).
If they’d chosen anyone else, it would be just another “fifteen minutes of fame” story; what makes Kevin’s achievement all the more remarkable, however, is that he hasn’t seen a cartoon for nearly his entire adult life. Literally.
You see, since the age of 24, Kevin has been completely blind.
The congenital glaucoma that eventually took his sight luckily spared him at least some vision during his years growing up in Valley Stream, Long Island. The time and place of his childhood made him doubly fortunate; these were the glory days of local New York City kids’ programming, the era of avuncular hosts like Soupy Sales and Sonny Fox, and of early-morning cartoon fests like WPIX’s The Early Bird Cartoon Show. From them, Kevin would receive quite a far-reaching “education” in all things animated.
From the widely popular (Bugs Bunny, Popeye, and Betty Boop) to the more obscure, from studios like Van Buren and Sam Singer (the latter of whom gave us Courageous Cat) Kevin saw it all–and remembered.
That memory would serve him well in later years, as public showings of these classic–and often oddball–cartoons gained popularity in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s. Kevin became a part of that growing network of animation enthusiasts that kept interest in the medium alive, a group that included such future notables as Jerry Beck, Will Friedwald and Leonard Maltin. Even after he lost his sight, Kevin remained an enthusiastic member of the theater audience during these showings, gaining an appreciation for the details the rest of us tend to push to the background: the timing, the music, the sound effects, and the writing. Details which, though not always apparent, can make the difference between a mediocre cartoon and a classic.
In the pre-internet years, small “amateur press associations” such as APATOONS provided a creative outlet for fans like Kevin; relying on an impressive, sometimes astounding memory, he wrote with nostalgic fondness of the images he could now see only in his mind.
He was also a prolific letter-writer, dashing off letters to stations expressing praise–or distaste–for their selection of animated cartoons. It was a series of such letters to cable “superstation” WTBS that caught the attention of the Cartoon Network executives–and led to his brief time in the spotlight.
Even as the animation industry rapidly changes, Kevin remains hopeful that traditional cel and stop-motion animation, of the sort that characterizes what we now know as the “Golden Age”, will not be consigned to the hazy, distant past. As he himself writes:
I do hold animation above all other forms of filmmaking, even though it hasn’t been the artistic spokesperson for change and progressive thinking. Yet, I hold animation in high regard because it can be anything that we humans can and will make it…..
If only today’s studio executives had that kind of “vision.”