The Toontown Riots of 1949: A Critical and Historical Analysis by David Perlmutter

David Perlmutter's essay on how racial tension between humans and the "toon" community flared into violence in 1940s Hollywood.


Though much has been written about inter-racial conflict in the United States, particularly that between Caucasians and African-Americans in urban areas, other areas, for a variety of complex and uncertain reasons, have never been nearly as well documented. One prominent example of this is the continuing strife-filled relationship between "normal" human beings and a class of beings that is loosely termed "cartoon characters", due to an inaccurate assumption on the part of historians related to the belief that these beings existed only within the frames of the animated films which were their primary means of exposure to the wider world. Such an assumption entirely and patently ignores the fact that these beings existed for thousands of years before the invention of the animated film, as well as denying those placed under the label the intelligence and resourcefulness they have and the respect they deserve. As a consequence, while it is largely under-documented within the folds of academic research, this still ongoing conflict remains a potent and divisive force in American life which has shaped it drastically in ways few "normal" people have even attempted to try to understand. One prominent example of this is the Toontown Riots of 1949. Begun as an act of vengeance against the Los Angeles Police Department for their continued and hostile persecution of the "toon" race, this destructive dispute caused considerable damage, not only to the city of Los Angeles itself, but also to the incredibly fragile psyche of the "toon" race as a whole, which, coupled with the recent introduction of television, shattered fragile coalitions within the group and created tensions that continue to exist within the community to this day.

It is my intention, in writing this paper, to expose the truth about this much exaggerated, underappreciated, and under-examined series of events. As little has been written about it in a non-biased way, I was forced into not relying as much on the conventional media for source material as I would have liked, but, rather, in gathering source material from the survivors of the events themselves. This is where the bulk of my research stems from, and it frames a far different portrait from the traditional sources of the mass media. It shows the "toons" not as the alternatively friendly and hostile people which the media portrayed them as (and, unfortunately, still does now), but far more complex figures whose civil rights were (and are) constantly violated, and who, because of their status as "fictional characters", are frequently denied access to the means to obtain them available to other, more "normal" creatures.

Historical Context

The true origins of the "cartoon" race are uncertain, given the lack of available information regarding their past history prior to the invention of the animated motion picture in the late 1890s. This, as has been noted above, was the first means by which they came to be exposed to the probing eyes of a viewing public. However, some clues do exist, and this is all we can rely on in an attempt to reconstruct this history, unreliable and haphazard as it may be.

While some sources indicate the existence of primordial monsters as early as the prehistoric age and beyond, these writers are not entirely in agreement about the proper label to give to these creatures. Many reported attacks of vampires, werewolves, aliens etc., for example, have been given this label in part because the researchers were unable or unaware of the existence of other, alternate existences for these creatures until the "cartoon" race was fully able to be captured on film during the early twentieth century. It has been suggested that these creatures were, in fact, cartoon characters, who had assumed the shape and form of these creatures in order to blend in with the native population, however unlikely this approach might seem to us now. More recent research, however, suggests that the cartoon race is a separate biological creation, and that its origins are somewhat more benign than had been thought earlier. The following represents the extent of the theory created by the meagre documented evidence available.

According to scholars of the folklore of England (Dunsany, Blackwood, Anderson, etc.), a class of beings existed before the time of man known as "fairies" in a realm known as "Faerie", where the existence of magical powers and abilities was not only a known certainty but was something that was assuredly taken for granted. The fairies' abilities to teleport at will, change their shape, and produce magical "effects" to bewilder their enemies mark them as the earliest known ancestors of the modern "cartoon characters". These tactics were used repeatedly in battles amongst themselves as well as in conflict with other races of magical beings and, ultimately, with man. The gradual encroachment of man onto their ancestral land during the l9th century forced many of these "fairies" out into the world, where they were forced by law and custom to abandon their pagan religion in favor of the more respectable Christian religion, and, with it, any claims to their past roots as users and practitioners of the magical arts. Some of this group submitted to the practice, but others did not. Each group chose to continue the race in two explicitly crafty but radically different ways. Either they would mate with members of the human species and other beings, not revealing their true identity until they had procreated, or they would continue to hold out by practicing measured elements of magic amongst themselves for their own purposes while avoiding the glaring light of regulatory elements in the population. It was in both of these ways that a vast majority of this group came to America in the mid-19th century, largely to avoid an increasingly hostile political environment. However, they would be no less persecuted in America, and even to a degree unknown from the life they had abandoned.

What is certain is that they first became noticed by the general public through the institution of vaudeville, at its peak during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By its very nature, this fast paced environment of performing actors and other practitioners of entertainment was welcoming to these beings, provided that they were able to amuse within the strict regulatory limits of the form. And so, rather than hiding their abilities behind a screen of persecution, more and more of them became immersed in the complicated world of show business. It offered them a chance to perform openly and be "themselves" while, in the process, getting paid for it. This was, however, coupled with the removal of the last vestiges of their ancestral identity. As "fairies" came to be a term more associated with the then disreputable practice of homosexuality, the group came to take after a term previously associated with caricatures of politicians in the newspapers of the period - the "cartoon". This term was adopted largely because it was easily understandable and identifiable to the general public and because most of them resembled "caricatures" of humanity, anyway.

The advent of film and later television technology in the course of the twentieth century ensured that these creatures now had a semi-reputable forum in which demonstrate their abilities to the greatest degree possible. Live performance had never truly accommodated them and, in fact, limited what allowable means were possible for them to act as "themselves" rather than "characters". There had been severe pressure on the group from the backers of vaudeville and other live theater forms, which were unaccustomed to anything that was unable to fit in with their pre-ordained beliefs regarding what constituted "quality" (i.e. family oriented) entertainment. Also, they were subject to severe persecutions from the audiences themselves when such "cartoon" like actions were performed in public. The earliest known persecutions of cartoon characters, which foreshadowed the elimination of so many others in the following years, occurred in the 1890s and 1900s, utilizing the fact that the nitrate film stock that had become a primary component of the genetic structure of the "toons" was highly flammable. Racism-fueled murder was committed on an epic scale whenever audiences were even the least offended by the cartoons' violations of accepted notions of time, space and physics with their behavior.

It was in this time, as well, that the "toons" first began to form the social and political alliances with the fortunes of the nascent animated film industry that would allow them to avoid further cultural attacks. Early animators were initially concerned about securing legitimacy for their product, but, finding the circumstances for this limited, they instead began opting for producing products with an eye for securing popularity and financial backing. The abilities of the "toons" proved to be ideal for this purpose. As the primary intent of the animated film was to create illusions and images not capable of being presented in the "real" world, it allowed for the "toons" to use the full extent of their abilities for the projection of thoughts and ideas unavailable anywhere else. Thus began a happy and productive alliance which, while not without conflicts and complications, has continued to this day.

Gradually, however, this successful creation of a true raison d'etre for the cartoon race served more to exacerbate tensions in the community rather than support the creation of a united racial unity. It began with the movement of the animated film industry on which they depended for their livelihood away from their long time home of New York for the sunnier climates of Los Angeles. It continued through every successive conflict affecting the film and television industry on a social, economic and technological level. As a consequence, there is no longer "one" community of cartoon characters, but many, and these groups keep as separate from each other as possible to avoid further conflict and bloodshed amongst them. Grudges run deep amongst them, and disputes which originated as long ago as six decades have not yet been fully resolved. The immortality of the cartoon race, and their inability to be truly destroyed by any means except fire (stemming from the nitrate in their bloodstreams) ensures that these conflicts will likely continue to exist.

Our focus, however, will be on one particular section of this group: the still extant cartoon community living on the outskirts of Los Angeles, in a semi-decrepit area known both popularly and pejoratively as "Toontown". This was the scene of one of the most complicated and bloody race riots between humans and cartoons and served as a preamble for the renewal of persecution of the latter in the later half of the twentieth century.

The Creation and Development Of "Toontown"

The district of "Toontown" first began to take shape in the early 1930s, with the firm settling of the animated film industry, along with its related components, in the greater Los Angeles area. Like many settlements consisting primarily or entirely of "minority" groups, it was an outgrowth of the fact that no reputable hoteliers or realty organizations in the city were willing to give even temporary lodgings to the strange and ever growing group of creatures, who resembled "normal" humans and animals but, because of distortions to their physical and mental characters, could never be fully accepted as such. As a consequence, the group was forced to set themselves up, often haphazardly, as a housing, fraternal and protective organization to ensure that others at least attempted to respect their interests. The community took shape on a small uninhabited area that was equidistant from nearly all of the communities in the Los Angeles area (i.e. Culver City, Burbank, etc.) where the major film studios were located. As well, the site provided easy access to the African American community building up around Central Avenue, where jazz clubs existed that the more musically inclined "toons" were able to moonlight in, albeit in heavy disguises, to supplement the meager incomes they were paid for their film work. By the time of the declaration of war in 1941, the community was a bustling suburb of the larger city, providing a secure, if eccentric, neighborhood setting for the "toons" to live and exist relatively free of persecution from the larger community. They were able to bring up another potential generation of performers in the animated films which remained their primary source of exposure and income.

One resident of the community during this period of its greatest affluence was Punkin Pye, a native of New York and a former advertising mascot who travelled to Los Angeles at this time in search of work. He was only available to achieve the odd bit part largely because of his unashamedly socialist politics. In an interview conducted with this author, he explained that the affluence of the members of the "toon" community varied according to the prestige and consistency of their employment:

It reminded me a lot of when I was living in Manhattan in the early days because there was a lot of affluence living beside a lot of squalor. See, there wasn't a lot of room there, since it was kind of a circular dump, you understand? By that I mean that there wasn't enough space for us to expand into the kind of prestigious territory we wanted, given the limited amount of land that was there. So it ended up being like Beverly Hills and the Barrio and Watts living side by side with each other and having to basically "deal", as the kids say now. And that wasn't easy, for a lot of different reasons.

To start with, there was the basic level of inequality that existed within our community, as much as we tried, both within and without of it, to pretend that it didn't exist. Economics was the major motivating factor behind the whole thing. Star characters got paid the most, in thousands or even hundred thousands if they were really big, followed by major supporting characters, who got thousands, then minor and periphery supporting characters, who got hundreds, and then, at the bottom, the bit player guys like me, who got tens at the most and nothing at all at the least. We got paid even less than the human extras sometimes, even though we were basically doing the same kind of work - making the star look good! Thus, even though sometimes it looks like the star characters are being friendly towards us smaller part players, that really wasn't the case. Between takes, and off the set, we were lower than pond scum to them. I mean, lower than low!

Oh sure, they tried to pretend that wasn't so, since if they were actually seen cussing us out or throwing temper tantrums directed at us, like they always did when the shot didn't come off the way they wanted, it would be bad for their saintly public images. The Hays Office [the Hollywood censor board] always kept them from doing a lot of the stuff they wanted, like making out with the human leading ladies and stuff like that. It was convenient for them to blame us, since we had no pull at the studio. And they had the director's complete support, since the director's job was always dependent on whether he could keep the stars satisfied with their pictures. If we acted up even once on set, they'd tell him - it was always a guy in those days, for some reason - and he'd tell us, in so many words, to get the heck out of there and never show our face there again. And then we'd just have to go to one of the other studios if we wanted work. Of course, with my politics and everything, my opportunities were more limited than the others, so I kept my mouth shut. Most of the time, anyway.

Of course, it was even worse within Toontown itself. The big stars - I won't name names, and don't make me - each had their own mansions and whatnot right on the outskirts of town, and they always competed with each other to see which of them could build the biggest house, have the fastest yacht, get the most slaves etc. Yeah, that's right - I said slaves! I know African Americans might not like me using that word, given all the crap they went through with their servitude business, but I have to call it like I see it. They were cagey about acquiring them, like they were about everything. They'd go to the directors, who were usually the best artists on the lot, slap a Jackson or a Lincoln on the table, and say to them that they were having a party that weekend and they needed some "servants" to help them out. And, of course, the directors were more than willing to oblige, if only to keep their jobs. It might be hard for you to imagine that a liberal guy like Chuck Jones or the UPA guys would do something like that, but, remember, they did a lot of racial minority caricatures in those flicks, too, just to appease those racists in the South and West. There are still a lot of them around here, and they've told me the tales. They treated them worse than they did us since they didn't have to pay them squat - the labor laws didn't apply to them, so they could do to those poor freaks what they damn well pleased. Used them as dishtowels, flint to light their expensive $100 cigars, and everything bad those southern slaveholders did to their "help". But nobody did nothing 'cause nobody cared. And nobody really knew, either. Until now, that is.

The absolute worst of the lot, though, were the ones who wanted to be the big stars but never really got the chance. They'd make a picture or two, they wouldn't test well, and the guys would be fired without pensions or nothing. They acted like the world owed them a living while their films were in production, but they sure got theirs once they got the brush-off. The turnaround rate for those guys was atrociously fast - they were probably the ones who suffered the most of all of us, psychologically at least. It's all right when the movie audiences laugh at your pictures when you're the star, but it ain't right or proper to laugh at the guy when he falls down hard and ends up like a bum, wanting handouts.

As a matter of fact, it was one of those fellows that caused me to get permanently barred from working at Columbia, where I'd been doing bit parts and stuff for a while just before they started getting UPA to do all their work, which was, all things considered, a change for the better. The fellow's name was Willoughby Wren, and he was about the biggest, snottiest asshole that I ever met, and, trust me, I've seen a lot of them! Do you know about him? I'm not surprised you don't, 'cause he only made three pictures and they probably burned every copy of 'em 'cause they sucked so bad. Anyhow, his shtick was basically that he wore this hat that made him super-strong, since it supposedly was made out of the hair that Delilah chopped off of Samson. He needed the hat on for it to work, 'cause when he didn't have it on, he was weak enough for even a ten pound weakling like me to smack him around. That was the story he gave Columbia when he pitched them the idea of the series - he'd been doing vaudeville and circuses and so forth for years before this happened. I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't at all true, given the fact that he was such an egotistical tool and all, but what the hell do I know - we wasn't exactly pals, you see.

I'd been picked to do a sequence in his third picture, which was set at a carnival, and I had been told by the director, along with the other extras, to just look admiringly on at Will while he went through his strong man shtick and not to make eye contact or breathe on him or anything while he did it. But something happened I'm not proud of. Apparently, he didn't like the way I was looking at him, 'cause he made the director stop the take and then, after he waved everyone else away, he came over to me.

"You little JERK!" he shouted at me. "You blew that goddamn take!"

"How, Mr. Wren?" I asked innocently. (Deference was something you had to practice a lot then.)

"It was your TEETH that fixed it wrong!" he shouted, going into one of those off-camera tantrums he was already getting famous for. "The glare off those chompers totally wrecked the lighting on the shot! I told you assholes umpteen times NOT TO GET IN THE WAY OF THE LIGHT! But do you LISTEN? HELL, NO!"

Now, normally I'm as much of a pacifist as your average Buddhist, but that asshole had worn my nerves down to a frazzle by this time. We were closing in on one hundred takes of this scene, 'cause stuff always seemed to happen with us extras that he went ahead and blamed us for that was totally his fault to begin with, and all of us were quite pissed off about his Napoleonic attitude and grandstanding and what have you. So I puffed out my chest and threw it down to the ground, like you've seen guys like me do a thousand times in the pictures, and went up to him, tapping him on the chest with my paw.

"Sir," I said, "I think I can speak for the rest of us when I tell you politely to take that 'magical' hat of yours AND GET LOST!"

He was, of course, pissed as hell at me, and ground his beak in my direction.

"You uppity little turd!" he snarled. "Have you any idea to whom you are speaking? I'm the STAR here, and you're just TRASH!"

"Try saying that without your HAT on!" I answered in my best "Noo Yawk" accent. I then proceeded to smack the thing off his head so that it glided off camera like a Frisbee, although those things hadn't been invented yet.

"I don't need that hat to kick your ass!" he said, and he lunged at me.

But I showed him. I clawed and bit at him and pulled out tufts of his feathers, and he just squawked like the under-grown turkey he was. It took most of the crew to get me off of him, and the upshot was that I never worked at Columbia again. Yes, UPA's stuff was distributed by Columbia, but they had their own facilities so I never had to deal with Columbia direct. And ol' Willoughby got his soon afterward when that picture bombed. I don't know what happened to him after that.

This rigid caste system among the "toons" themselves, still very much in place in the twenty-first century, provides one reason for why their relationships with outsiders could often break out into similar intense or hostile displays. They were unable to adapt their performance behavior to that off screen, especially if they had been ill-treated. However, another, and even more significant, reason also exists.

As would be expected, racism was an ever-present part of relations between human beings and "toons", both then and now. Yet, in 1940s Los Angeles, racism was not an aberrance among isolated individuals that could easily be avoided but a rather direct and obvious part of life itself. The Los Angeles Police Department in particular was used by the white establishment to remind "toons", along with other racial minorities, who was truly in charge of the city and what would happen if they crossed the line. What made this most evident was not only the extreme and excessive way the police attacked the "toons" in the city proper - one of the major reasons for the existence of Toontown in the first place - but also the way in which they misrepresented the off-screen image of the "toons" to the point of distorting reality entirely. One such example of this was a mailer sent around the civic area shortly before the events of the riots:


Please be advised that the Los Angeles Police Department considers all "cartoon characters" to be creatures threatening the sanctity and security of the United States of America. Please avoid contact with them at ALL COSTS! They are unable to be harmed by traditional means, can shift their shapes and very being at will, and are able to elude and destroy all disease and traditional means of confinement used to restrict human beings. Though appearing friendly, the majority of them are semi-bestial creatures whose chief desire is to manipulate you, kill you, spill your blood or rob you via elaborate confidence games. Under no circumstances should you even interact with them on the street, for they may threaten your life at a moment's provocation. Please leave all dealings with these beings to the Los Angeles Police Department and their employers, the "animators" of the film studios, for they are the only people capable of handling them fairly and justly.

This was, however, a sentiment the "toons" themselves vehemently disagreed with. Toontown shopkeepers and restaurant operators, who had visions of a thriving ethnic/economic community on par with New York's Harlem, or, more closely, Los Angeles' own Watts/Central Avenue neighborhood, were particularly incensed by this attitude. Yet even the biggest stars of the area were not immune to the prejudice felt towards the "toons" in the greater LA area, and their very presence in the city made it known to them in often costly ways. The lower-tier "toons" felt this to an even greater degree, since they had no film studio patrons to protect them from harm.

One example of this occurred with the aforementioned Willoughby Wren who, on the strength of his short-lived career with Columbia, attempted to move into the city to live closer to his job, with disastrous results:

Well, this would have happened back after I'd made my first picture at Columbia, in the winter of 1943, and it seemed like I'd be around for a while. Of course, that didn't last, but the studio kept me in the pink until they figured I'd run my course a couple of years later and unceremoniously gave me the shaft. If you talked to anyone else working then, you know what a cocky asshole being a "star" made me, just like it made everyone else who came before and after me like that. Success does that to you.

Anyhow, I got it into my head that Toontown was too big to contain my humble majestic graciousness, and so I started looking around for a place around Gower Street, which was where Columbia had its facilities in those days, so I wouldn't have to fly down there every day. Bob Wickersham, who picked me up for Columbia and directed my first flick, was worried about me and tried to talk me out of it. He was worried that the white people, who were pretty racist in those days, would try to burn me up so I couldn't do anything any more. After what happened after that, I sometimes wish they had!

The problem started when I first made my way into the real estate office after I'd made an appointment. The guy I met with was polite enough, but it looked to my eyes that he didn't have too much experience dealing with toons. At least not with any with money, like I did in those days. There was a bit of a pregnant pause until I made it clear to him that I just wanted to find a house on Gower Street near Columbia so I could commute without too much trouble. He said he'd see what he could do, but not to expect anything much 'cause of that housing shortage that was going on during the war. Eventually, he got back to me about a place, though he suggested that I might not want it. Why? 'Cause the neighbors were racist towards cartoons. "Let 'em be!" I said, and told him about my magic hat and everything, which was real and not something the studio stiffs made up, by the way. "Anyone so much as tries to cross my property line and I'll kick their ass!" And that, to my mind, was that.

But then, I had to be like the usual big shot I was in those days and throw the biggest and most flashiest housewarming party ever seen in LA among the toons in those days. After all, it isn't every day that a toon moves into a human neighborhood. Naturally, as is common among us toons, we got drunk and loud and riotous. The neighbors didn't like me to begin with, and that party just gave 'em an excuse to get my uppity ass out of the neighborhood and back to Toontown where I supposedly belonged. That's what I thought when I saw the cop at the door. I was in my cups by then, so I said some pretty naughty and disrespectable things to him when he tried cussing me and the guests out for making "so much noise". I topped it off by cursing all of the white people in LA and telling them that they could go ahead and kiss every one of our cartoon asses. Well, that did it! Before I knew it, we were all in the paddy wagon, and the police had given clearance for the neighbors to burn down - BURN DOWN - my whole house so I'd have to get out of the neighborhood. I'd learned my lesson, and so did everybody else, so we all basically stayed put in Toontown after that.

By the end of the war, with a new area of prosperity emerging, the "toons" became increasingly impatient with these very unsubtle forms of prejudice from the white population. At the same time, their opponents found new and creative ways to control them socially and politically. It was these two opposing and contentious social movements that were major factors in the outbreak of the Toontown Riots of 1949.

Prelude To A Riot

The direct causes of the Toontown Riots of 1949 were events that had occurred in the previous year. First and, at least at the time, more threatening was the advent of commercial television broadcasting in 1948. As other historians have suggested, the advent of television created a gradual and steady decline in film attendance across the United States, and with it the profit margin of the film studios. That same year, another economic body blow was given to the traditional "studio system" with the notorious Supreme Court case Paramount v. United States, in which the studios were forced to relinquish ownership of the film theater chains that had provided them with the supplementary income required to produce films of secondary importance, which included animation. Under reduced circumstances, the film studios, though resisting the economic encroachment across the 1950s until they had no other choice but accept it, cut their production levels across the board. Animation, considered an expensive novelty item at best and an annoying nuisance at worst, was often on the chopping block. In some cases, the animation departments of the studios were either eliminated entirely, as they would ultimately be at MGM in 1955, or were severely curtailed, as would be the norm across the 1950s and early 1960s. The ultimate result was that a severe economic and social tension began to emerge in the Toontown community. Jobs, once plentiful, were now being given to fewer and fewer "toons", and these precious commodities were increasingly given to younger and more attractively drawn characters rather than the more established characters. While some of this group were able to retire from active performing at this point, with considerable fortunes made from licensing their images and other shrewd investments, many more had not been as careful or considerate with their money. As a consequence, whereas Toontown had been a relatively prosperous neighborhood in the 1930s and early 1940s, that prosperity quickly vanished by the end of the decade. More and more, the residents were in bitter and deadly conflict - with themselves and, more decisively, with human leadership, in particular the LAPD, which was increasingly losing patience with them.

Few suffered as much, however, as those who were already living a hand-to-mouth existence during that period. This included Punkin Pye, who was not reticent in explaining the extent of his deprivations in this period:

When the Supreme Court case came down, a lot of us ended up being put out of work with no warning or explanation. We were basically "non-essential", which was their oh-so-pretentious way of telling us we didn't belong. And they made it clear to us that, even if we had always belonged there beforehand, we sure as hell didn't anymore. The studio cops just said, "We don't need you anymore. Get the hell out of here." And that was what we did, although it wasn't without some passionate words said on both sides, you understand.

So, most of the time, we were pretty much on our own, trying to stay alive. The toons who ran the shops and everything were able to give us discounts and things until we got on our feet, since they were feeling the heat themselves. But money didn't always come easy, and sometimes you had to go and get it yourself. Which is how I happened to get myself into trouble with the law.

Some of my friends had been bending my ears about how none of us had money but that the humans constantly had it and kept it in their precious banks. They suggested to me that it would be fairly easy for a few of us less virtuous toons to break into one of said institutions and steal some cash. So we figured out a plan, went into LA after dark, and tried to knock over one of those places. All we really had to do was punch holes in the masonry and reach into the vault, easy for toons who aren't tied to logic and gravity and all that. That was what we did, working at opposite points in the structure 'til we got into the vault and were able to carry away some sacks of money and some gold bricks. Of course, the LAPD found us real quick, since they were pretty quick on the draw, and we were arrested.

Now you would think they would've understood our situation and let us go if we were able to have a clear man-to-man conversation about the whole thing. Not so! The jerks beat the shit out of us as soon as they caught up to us, and they didn't stop for the whole week they locked us up! The idiots called us all sorts of names and used all sorts of racks and iron maidens and so forth on us 'cause they knew we didn't have no human-type bones in our bodies, and they actually CHARGED ADMISSION to passers-by so they could watch us have our asses handed to us by the cops. Eventually, we got to trial and got suspended sentences 'cause the judge could see the cops had already given us enough punishment. Apparently, that was standard operating procedure for the cops regarding the toons, mainly cause we were regarded as "products" of the film industry that didn't have any civil rights or nothing. I really think that was the root cause of it all - it wasn't that were handled badly by the studios, even though a lot of the time we were. It was that the LAPD had the right to treat us like SHIT because we were "inferior" to them in some way. As I hauled my beaten ass back to Toontown with my pals, we all knew that this crap wouldn't be able to continue - we'd just HAVE to fight back some day. And that day came a lot sooner than I thought, unfortunately.

As Mr. Pye has suggested above, the climactic confrontation between the LAPD and the residents of Toontown came considerably sooner than any of them were prepared to deal with. And with it would come not a clear and carefully negotiated settlement between the two parties, but the near destruction of Toontown itself.

The Cause Of The Riot And Its Related Events

The following article from the Los Angeles Times of January 15, 1949, describes in detail the exact events which served as the true inciting incident of the Toontown Riots:

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The residents of the civic area of "Toontown", just outside of Los Angeles, are up in arms again. And no, as they would say, that does not mean that they are literally in someone's upper appendages, but they are, in fact, preparing to go to war with our fair city's police department over a perceived mistreatment of some of their own several nights ago. Heaven help us if we should be destroyed by their rubber chickens and banana cream pies!

In any event, the events that caused this current kerfuffle between our esteemed colleagues in the entertainment community and our masters of the law goes as follows:

On the evening of January 12, 1949, several "toons", taking the loose shape of dogs, cats and other animals in their typically jocular animated way, were seen to be congregating along the corner of Hollywood and Vine. These properly zoot-suited hoodlums refused to vacate the premises when told to leave, and, furthermore, referred to the police, in response, with what can only be said to be a surprisingly vast array of un-Christian language and threats unable to be reproduced in these pages. The police responded in kind and prepared to make arrests. However, the "toon" beings at this point chose to further aggravate their position by resisting arrest in such a disruptive manner that the police officers were forced to draw their nightsticks and guns to correct the behavior of the miscreants. In response, one of those disreputable "toons" proceeded to rip out the street light on the corner DIRECTLY OUT OF THE STREET and proceeded to use it to bash in - and KILL - one of LA's finest! The group made its getaway soon afterward while the police were attempting to clean up the body of their deceased colleague.

Members of the LAPD have indicated that they intend to take action as soon as possible, sealing up Toontown from the remainder of Los Angeles. A good eraser might be used, suggests this reporter.

Of course, this story, written by the notoriously unreliable - and racist - Times columnist Cholly Albertson, is a gross simplification of the true events and easily contradicted, contravened and corrected by other sources. According to both Punkin Pye and Willoughby Wren, both of whom were aware of what the truth was through hearing the direct accounts of the participants, it was in fact the police, and not the "toons", who initiated the battle, and who were responsible for the use of the majority of the "un-Christian" language and behavior cited by Albertson. Furthermore, the actions of the "toons" were undertaken strictly in the name of self-defense. The LAPD, as suggested earlier, was frequently wont to turn events to their favor, and such a street corner confrontation, particularly involving a manslaughter action misinterpreted as a murder from the side of the police, was something they could easily manipulate to favor them. What the Times and other media sources failed to indicate, as well, was the fact that the police in the Hollywood and Vine area were notoriously prone to graft and other forms of corruption, and had quite obviously been bought off by other "toons" who had loitered in the area before without incident. These "toons"' lack of money, coupled with a brazen lack of tact and intelligence drove them to engage in the confrontation which resulted in the lamp-posting to death of Sgt. Peter Piper of the LAPD purely to protect their own self-interest. But it would be this self-interest that would soon nearly result in the death of Toontown as it had existed until then.

Following the burial of Sgt. Piper, the LAPD took steps to protect its own house from the "threat" posed by the "toons". Engaging the full cooperation of the Armed Forces, they began preparing a full-scale act of urban renewal - and genocide - upon the hated "toon" neighborhood. They were able to proceed with the full support of the majority of the populace of Los Angeles, who had been wrongly convinced, by both years of bad personal experience as well as the distortions of truth by the media, that the "toons" posed as great a threat to the city as the so-called "Zoot Suit Rioters" had during 1943. Cholly Albertson, in his column cited above, made this connection apparent by using the "zoot suit" terminology in his depiction of the "toons". In fact, while some "toons", particularly the younger ones, were involved in the "swing" sub-culture, and were depicted in some films of the period participating in it, the ones who were involved in it on a full-time basis were relatively few. And none of them had been involved in the Hollywood and Vine fracas at all.

Regardless, the speed with which the news spread that the LAPD was preparing for an all-out assault on the neighborhood was rapid even by "toon" standards. They quickly took steps to protect their homes, families and livelihoods from the attack. The experience of being mascots and friends of members of the Armed Forces in World War II was, for many, a considerable aid in preparing such a defense. Punkin Pye takes up the story:

Once we got word about the death of the cop, there was no going back. The LAPD was going to turf us out. Didn't matter that we'd been there for years, or that we'd helped the city make its fortune with our movies. We had killed a human, and that meant we all had to die. That was the way white people thought then. That was why they could get away with demeaning the blacks, the Jews, the Mexicans, the Orientals, the Indians [sic] and us - we were not white people, and therefore, if we couldn't keep our shit in line, we were expendable. As far as I was concerned, this had been building up for a few years now - it started back in the Depression and was only blocked by all the patriotism and enforced chumminess of the war period. Now, they couldn't afford to keep us around any more, and, therefore, we all had to die.

The thing was, the cops and soldiers knew next to nothing about us other than the fact that they had to arrest us and beat us and all that. They barely knew about our physical abilities since they didn't have time to go to the movies much, it seems. So they were in for a shock when they and their army buddies showed up on the outskirts of town and demanded we send somebody out to negotiate with them. It was a little purple rabbit fella who kind of looked a bit like me, only younger. And, of course, he had to go ahead and open with some bad jokes, which them hard-hat fellows didn't laugh at simply 'cause they weren't that good. Then they start exchanging bad words about the fact that the cops and soldiers thought the jokes sucked and the rabbit fella said they were family heirlooms and how dare they not laugh at them, which even I could hear in my little hovel in the center of town. Then there's a gunshot. And I hear one of them soldier types screaming, "Holy shit! The goddamn bullet just passed right through him!" Like he'd never seen a damn toon in all his life! So they try other stuff - beating him up, throwing poison on him, and so on. And the same sort of thing happens. So the heads of the police and the Army and Navy types and so on start yelling at each other, and again I hear the whole thing 'cause those assholes never thought once about the fact about keeping their tempers in check, let alone that we had civil rights or nothing and pretty much pretended we weren't there. So they're shouting at each other, like, "What's going on here? We can't kill these bastards!" and "How are we going to kill them?" and stuff like that. Finally, they decide that they'll go down to Lockheed [a nearby airplane factory] and commandeer a bunch of planes and fire-bomb us out of existence. Uh oh! You know what fire does to us toons! The purple rabbit fella comes back in, shouting about how we're all DEAD because the cops and soldiers have figured out that we can burn! And then a lot of them less courageous type toons start running around like chickens with their heads cut off, shouting about how they're all gonna DIE! And that's when I start taking action.

So I run outside and tell everybody to shut up while I tell 'em what we need to do. I had been an auxiliary mascot during the war, so I knew we had to organize our defenses, and fast, 'cause I knew the planes from Lockheed would be coming any minute. I dispatched a few of the younger and quicker ones to go out to the suburbs to tell the bigger league toons to help us out, and another bunch to start loading up the cannons and guns and what have you, and then me and still another group go through Toontown waking the town and telling the people. Not formal like, just saying stuff like, "Come outta there if you wanna keep your ass!", and things like that. You have to be direct when you ain't got a lot of time to get your act together. In an hour or so, everyone's out in the main square, waiting for their marching orders from me and the other organizers. Fortunately for us all, the big names didn't pull rank or act snotty like they usually did. They'd been through the war, just like I had, even if they all hadn't left LA except in the plots of their flicks. So they knew that bitching and whining wouldn't be tolerated here. They were all humble and all, asking me, "What can I do?" And I told them. And that was how we ended up seeing Toontown through the worst of it all. A lot of the town got messed up, but we still saved it.

The planes arrived several hours later, and the civil war between the people of Los Angeles and the creations of the mind commenced.

To some less partial observers, the ensuing battle could have seemed to be an elaborate joke, given what the "toons" in particular used as their means of defense. But to its participants, it was a serious matter, and it had serious and grievous consequences for lives on both sides of the encounter.

It began promisingly for the "toons". The aforementioned aircraft seized from Lockheed proved to be too decrepit to provide much in the way of firepower, having been taken from the dregs of the army surplus materials left from the war. As a consequence, the burst of gunfire and dropped shells the "toons" feared did not materialize, at least not in the initial rounds of the battle.

Because of this lack of the deadly fire that would have potentially put their lives at risk, the "toons" were then able to proceed with their active attack on the human beings with a cocksure arrogance that they eventually would come to regret. Yet that was still in the future. At that time, they were too focused on taking an offensive strategy to worry about what was to happen as a consequence of their actions. And their offensive was truly an offensive one. Using an elaborate system of giant catapults and cannons, the "toons" fired in an effective scattershot fashion an absurd collection of materials and devices rarely seen elsewhere in combat. Grand pianos, wagons (with horses attached), automobiles, cannonballs and powder, outhouses and chamber pots, wooden tables and chairs, plumbing and carpentry apparatus, and a vast selection of fruits and vegetables were hurled up into the sky and at the approaching planes, damaging the pilot's vision patterns and causing severe damage to the point where the planes were ultimately consumed by fire and hit the ground. In many cases, the devices used to knock the planes out of the sky were themselves animate beings, given the curious properties of the animated film and its ability to give life to even the most unlikely of creatures. As a consequence, there were many among the honored dead of this initial battle that would not have been considered among this group had this been human warfare. Eventually, Lockheed refused to supply any more planes to the government and LAPD, and the air assaults ceased entirely

This might have ended the conflict under other circumstances and had cooler heads prevailed. However, most of the "toons", having had a taste of defeating the humans at their own game, were eager to continue the assault by land into Los Angeles proper and the nearby suburban communities to underline to the humans the fact that they truly meant business. Despite the objections of the more pacifist-minded members of the community, who were concerned about the horrific consequences of such an action (which the war had made them aware of in a way they had never been before), lots were drawn to assemble brigades that would engage the citizenry of Los Angeles in urban conflict. Willoughby Wren headed one of these brigades:

By this time, I had been out of work for a couple of years, and my money supply was starting to get low. I needed to find some way of getting myself some attention, and volunteering for the defense of Toontown was one way that I thought I could help myself get back in the game. So I said, "Sure. I'll do it." And that was that. There weren't too many others who really approved of taking the fight into the city. The big name stars all said no with a big N-O. They had their careers and contracts to think about after all, and if they were even so much as seen as slipping us a buck to get a sandwich at the Brown Derby or something like that, they would have been in mucho hot water with the studio brass. But me, I had nothing to lose. So the toons who formed the brigades were the ones who were in my situation - the unemployed, the under-employed, and the over-employed "slaves" of the major stars, who were just starting to feel their oats about getting paid and what not and getting burned up or given their walking papers as a response.

We fixed it so we would each take a neighborhood or area and smack it down a bit to let 'em know what we wanted. It wasn't like those riots by the blacks [sic] that hit the city later on, where they burned up large sections of the town and looted their own neighborhoods. First of all, fire kills us, as you know, and second of all, we were clear-headed enough to know that anything we did to them, they'd do to us back, and worse. So it was just minor stuff that we did: breaking windows, overturning cars, knocking out the bulbs in street lights, drawing mustaches on the pictures of pretty girls, sassing the cops and so on. The problem was, they interpreted it as "rioting" regardless, and that's how the LAPD and the feds communicated things to the rest of the people. The toons are rioting in Burbank! The toons are rioting in Glendale! They're rioting at La Brea and Sunset! On Central Avenue! You get the idea. All we were doing was trying to be who we really were for once, give the people just a little taste of what we could do to them if they didn't leave us be, and they called it "rioting". Go figure!

Anyway, it wasn't long before the cops arrived, and they were loaded to off us, with flamethrowers and everything. It's hard for me to talk about what happened after that, but the upshot was that most of my buddies got roasted dead. I got out, but barely. I had my Samson hat on, so mostly I was doing the muscle work. I busted up the flamethrowers before the cops could smack me with them and then I smacked them around a bit, so they left alone. Wish I could say that for some of the other guys in town - and the town itself.

As with the air assault, the raid on Toontown that followed was done under prejudicial and biased circumstances that did nothing to relieve the tension between the two communities. Only hours after the "toon" brigades had "rioted" in the streets of Los Angeles, LAPD and federal troops once again converged on the outskirts of Toontown. However, they did not observe the formalities of warning the populace of their arrival this time, with horrific consequences.

Punkin Pye, who had remained in town because of his pacifist objections to the raid on the city, takes up the story of how the conflict was finally resolved:

They just barged in like they owned the place. No "Come out with your hands up or we'll shoot!" or nothing else like before. One of the soldiers comes towards one of the more babyish toons who approaches him and points a bayonet at him. "You're DEAD, shithead!" he growls, and sets the poor kid on fire - right in plain view of everyone! And we can't do nothing to save him 'cause there are cops and soldiers around us with their bayonets and nightsticks. "All you shitheads gonna be like him soon!" says the leader of the group. And they just proceed to go through the neighborhood, rubbing oil and grease and stuff on all the buildings - the shops, the houses, the apartment blocks, EVERYTHING! They're toon stuff, after all - made out of film and paper and imagination just like us. Of course, we're shocked, but we can't do nothing to stop it. And then, finally, the chief of police takes a match out of his book and lights it. "Come on, fellas," he says, "let's BURN this SHIT!" Of course, we're outraged. Never mind that they still got us under guard, we fight back. We punch and kick and scream and shout at them, since we want to save our lives and our skins. But the matches get lit and the buildings burn. Then they start throwing us into the fire too! The heartless bastards killed over half of Toontown that day, not to mention the town itself! I barely got out alive, and those of us that survived won't let LA forget what they did to us. But they just pretend that we don't exist, like they always do.

The inferno that resulted from the conflagration, confined to the small area of Toontown, was an epic act of property destruction and genocide the likes of which had never been seen in American history before. It confirmed to the "toons" that, contrary to what else they might have thought before, they were a minority group to the humans, one that was best kept out of sight and out of mind if they knew what was good for them.


With the riots of 1949, Toontown effectively ceased to be an independent neighborhood within Los Angeles. While some smaller settlements were rebuilt on the general area in later years, it would never again enjoy the prestige and prosperity of the depression and war years. Likewise, neither would the "toon" population of Los Angeles. The population was quickly divided socially and politically over the destruction of the original Toontown, particularly over the need to be "rioting" in Los Angeles in the first place. These divisions further exacerbated internal conflicts within the community, and made it increasingly impossible in future years for them to define the terms needed to present themselves as a united social and political group in order to define their civil rights to a nation increasingly uninterested in them as anything except the figures of fun and amusement they had always been.

A paper as brief as this can only begin to suggest the social and psychological consequences stemming from the events of 1949. What I will suggest is that the Toontown Riots of 1949 are a largely unknown social and political event that need to be more formally understood to get a better sense of the true social position of animated characters in the vast mosaic of America. It is only under such conditions that a more sympathetic relationship between human beings and "toons" can begin to occur.


  1. An interesting conceit, Incisive social comment/analysis woven into an ambitious fiction peace. You maintained the internal logical integrity of this world with impressive rigour. You mirrored the appalling way that difference is responded to in the real world; the oppression by dominant cultures of everyone else. You certainly made the reader work to fully embrace the complex detail of the piece, and I think that that is a good thing.

    PS Initially I thought it might be about the followers of Newcastle FC - the 'Toon Army'! Sorry I just wanted to share that local reference!

    Ceinwen Haydon

  2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It's the first question I'm sure a lot will be asking when they read this story. The second is, where is Eddie Valiant when a "toon" needs him?

    At the risk of stating the obvious, it's an allegory, a moral tale and sadly a timeless and timely parable. Being couched in an historical context and a journalist's investigative style, lends a convincing, just-the-facts-ma'am quality to the piece. The year 1949 was no doubt a red-letter year for Joe McCarthy's henchmen as they gathered 'evidence' against all the commie-pinko sympathisers on their list of undesirables. Many were in the film industry--"normal" people who became "toons".

    "The Toontown Riots of 1949" were only the harbinger of worse things to come. Prejudice, discrimination, racism, sexism, bigotry in any form, are all intolerable injustices that live inside the hearts and minds of some "normal" human beings. We can't see those injustices. We can only see their progeny.

    "The not in the stars, but in ourselves..."

    It's not the things you see that get you, it's the things you don't see coming at you in the dark.

    Stepping down off my soapbox now...

    James Shaffer