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Shake, Rattle, and Donuts: Questions for Mark Alan Stamaty

I've had two Mark Alan Stamaty stages in my life. The first was in the '80s, when his political cartoon, Washingtoon, used to run in my local paper. Washingtoon starred the ambitiously opaque congressman Bob Forehead, and it was like no other political cartoon I'd seen. Rather than the traditional single-panel caricatures of real people or allegorical animals, Stamaty made up preposterous tales (but no more preposterous than was happening on the rest of the political pages) about made-up people and crammed so much text and art into his allotted square inches that you half expected them to leak out into the op-eds from Henry Kissinger or Mary McGrory they shared a page with. (By the way, Showtime made a short-lived TV series out of Washingtoon in 1985? Starring Corbin Bernsen? Who knew?!?)

Washingtoon had so much overflowing invention that I shouldn't have been surprised, two decades later, when I discovered, through the reprinted edition of the glorious Who Needs Donuts?, that Stamaty also had a career drawing picture books for kids. Insane and beautiful picture books. I've written my ode to Who Needs Donuts? already here, but having Stamaty lay claim on my imagination once again made me curious about the man himself. Where had he come from? What was he doing now? Well, I'm glad to say he has a new book that helps to answer both questions. Just in time for Elvis's 75th birthday, he has written a new picture book, Shake, Rattle & Turn That Noise Down!: How Elvis Shook Up Music, Me and Mom. Perfect for showing kids (and reminding boomers) just how earthshaking it was when Elvis burst out of the radio for the first time, Shake, Rattle & Turn That Noise Down! tells Stamaty's own story of being transformed by rock & roll at age eight in 1955 and learning to channel its power, first through a new hairstyle and then, in the book's thrilling finale, by performing an Elvis impersonation in front of an entire Cub Scout banquet. (An act, by the way, that he has further refined as an adult--even once in the White House before President Clinton.)

I was able to send Stamaty a few questions about the new book and his work, and he not only replied with answers, but with an illustration too, in which my beloved Sam (from Donuts) makes a cameo, along with some of the bizarre sorts of figures that populate the delirious margins of Donuts (in the new book, the background is reserved for more timely '50s elements like floral wallpaper and Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cards). The illustration is above, the questions and answers are below (including the revelation that there really was a Sad Old Woman who inspired the Donuts story). Thanks, Mark! What was it like to discover Elvis and rock & roll in 1956? Do you think every generation makes the same kind of discovery, or was that moment one of a kind?

Stamaty: Exciting. I'd never had that sort of response to music before. The first time I ever heard an Elvis Presley record, the experience was very much the way I depicted it in Shake, Rattle & Turn That Noise Down! The music just kind of took me over. I was jumping around my room almost involuntarily, swept up in a powerful feeling. After that, each new release or discovery of an earlier Elvis record I hadn't heard before was a great new treat. Then came Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and on and on. Once Elvis broke through, my AM radio down there on the Jersey shore was never the same again. Elvis's emergence was a revelation, followed by a new era of popular music that kept growing and evolving.

I do believe that every generation has its own music and that there is a certain age range in younger years when the music a generation is exposed to plays a very formative role in people's emotional and maybe physiological infrastructure. And as we get older, the nature of our receptivity evolves and changes. As the saying goes, "things change and stay the same." Every generation finds some part of its unique identity in the music of its younger years. That said, I must declare that Elvis led something of a sea change in popular music that, I believe, was a bigger change than any I have witnessed since then. Elvis did not invent rock & roll, but he was the key figure in popularizing it to the mainstream and that impact continues to this day. Would you have become the same artist you did without rock & roll?

Stamaty: I think rock & roll unleashed something in me that I hadn't exactly known was in me. It focused and channeled a lot of my crazy, restless energy. It freed me in a way, in terms of self-expression. And I think that carried over into my art, in subject matter, style, and passion. So I'd have to say I probably would not be the same artist I am today without the impact that rock & roll had on me. I'd also add that I especially love the blues. And rock & roll led me to blues. It's been great to see you return to kids' books. Could you tell me the story of Who Needs Donuts? I was (barely) old enough when it first came out in 1973, but I only discovered when it was reissued in 2003, when my kids and I completely fell in love with it.

Stamaty: The story behind Who Needs Donuts? began in an all-night coffee shop in New York City in 1966. I was in art school (Cooper Union). That coffee shop was one of my favorite places to hang out and watch people, sketchbook always at the ready. So on that particular night, there was an old woman who seemed to be asleep, seated at and kind of draped over the counter near the entrance. After a while, a nicely dressed man in a suit and overcoat came in and asked the waitress for two cups of coffee to go. The waitress asked him if he'd like donuts with his coffee. "No, thank you," he replied. Then, suddenly, the old woman lifted her head, pointed at the ceiling, and said "That's right. Who needs donuts when you've got love?"

As soon as I heard that, I wrote it in my sketchbook. When I got back to where I was living, I lettered it out on a piece of paper that I hung on my wall. About 5 years later, I was trying to think of something to write a story about and I looked up at that sign on my wall. I'd always wanted to immortalize that line and the old woman, and here was my chance. In addition to that, I made it a kind of autobiographical book, by having my character, Sam, leaving his home in the suburbs to come into the incredible immensity, complexity, and energy of the big city. I don't name the city, but, of course, it's New York. And Who Needs Donuts?
depicts how the city looked and felt to me in all of its intensity and visual richness. And craziness. New York has always been a great place for artists, writers, musicians, etc., and the creative spirit in every form. I was trying to express my love of all of that with my pen.

You wrote other picture books in the '70s and '80s, which are just cover photos on Amazon to me, but which I would love to see in the flesh: Small in the Saddle, Minnie Maloney and Macaroni, and Where's My Hippopotamus? Any chance of having them reissued too?

Stamaty: I would love to have my out-of-print books reissued if a publisher were to inquire about it. I think Small in the Saddle is considered somewhat in a similar vein as Who Needs Donuts? but not nearly as detailed. But probably as silly. Minnie Maloney & Macaroni and Where's My Hippopotamus? are quite different from Who Needs Donuts? I don't know what the chances are of those books being reissued. I did get one inquiry about Small in the Saddle a few years ago, but it didn't happen. I may have missed Who Needs Donuts? the first time around, but I did get to know you a decade or so later through Washingtoon, your political cartoon that ran in the Washington Post and elsewhere in the '80s. Have you thought about what Congressman Bob Forehead would be doing now?

Washingtoon Stamaty: What Congressman Bob Forehead would be doing now would be earnestly declaring that he is not afraid to make the hard choices regardless of political consequence. He would express disdain for politicians who decide their every move based on public opinion polls and short-term tactics focused on the next election regardless of what is truly in the best interests of the country. Then he would studiously avoid making any hard choices and viciously attack any opposing politicians who actually do make politically risky hard choices. Bob would decry the "politics of personal destruction" while, at the same time, practicing it with a vengeance. He would make every tactical and strategic decision based purely on his own self-interest, while carefully styling his rhetoric to project an image diametrically opposite to what he really is. And he would manage to fool too many of the people too much of the time and always get re-elected. Finally: Elvis '54 or Elvis '68? (Do I even have to ask?)

Elvis '54 to '57.

His '68 special was good. I liked it. It was great to see him at that time coming away from all of those increasingly lousy movies. But the Elvis that really got to me can still be seen on YouTube in those old film clips from shows like Milton Berle, etc., back in the '50s.

Also, though I'm mostly pre-jumpsuit, I do think he put on a great show in his jumpsuit years. The only time I ever saw him live was in his jumpsuit in Madison Square Garden in 1972. He was great.


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