There’s nothing like a Don Duga cover to get us into a celebratory mood, whether for the fast-approaching holiday season or the even-faster-approaching Dan’s Best of the Best Awards Celebration. Duga, who is perhaps best known for his animation and work on beloved classics such as Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970), The Last Unicorn (1982),Chicken Little (1998) and Goodnight, Gorilla (1998), to name a few, finds inspiration for this week’s cover in a lively Riverhead (where he has lived since 1980), and a bustling scene in front of the Suffolk Theater—where the Best of the Best party will be held on November 14.
Apropos for the “Best Of” cover, the Suffolk Theater’s sign reads “The Best Is Yet To Come”—an optimistic and prophetic nod to the revival of downtown Riverhead, notably marked by the restoration of the Theater itself, which reopened in 2013, after 18 years of being closed, in all of its 1930s glory. Duga’s cast of characters for the cover conjures up movie stars like Mae West, Charlie Chaplin and others, all crowding the front of the theater—as if making their red carpet entry to the Best of the Best Awards Celebration. The image is actually taken from his recollection of the theater’s 1930s-themed Grand Opening Gala and all the guests who arrived in costume.
Duga is no stranger to stars and celebrity. Originally from Hollywood, he attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. It was there where he met and was inspired by legendary artist Don Graham, who taught Disney animators, most notably those working on Snow White.
After graduating from Chouinard, Duga storyboarded countless cartoons and projects, but Duga’s big break came after his move to New York, where he settled in the Village. He met with Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass of Rankin/Bass Productions, and they gave him his first project, which was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964).
In 1976, Duga and Irra Verbitsky founded Polestar Films and Associated Arts, Ltd., a New York–based studio that has produced hundreds of animated films, television shows and commercials and specialized in educational titles. The duo received the Carnegie Medal for Owen, originally a children’s book by Scholastic, which was narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker. Duga and Verbitsky wrote many of the stories for Sesame Street, one of Polestar’s first jobs. They would pitch their ideas to the show’s creators and then direct the chosen episodes. Duga and Verbitsky also teach at School of Visual Arts (SVA) in the animation department, and sometimes recruit former students to work on Polestar projects.
Duga has also taught animation classes in Northport, Shelter Island and Greenport. He continues to work on films, paintings and also displays his work at local galleries. In July of 2013, he had an art show called “Surviving Sandy,” featuring art inspired by the resilience of those affected by Superstorm Sandy, in the 73 Main Boutique and Gallery in Riverhead. Duga was also a featured artist at 73 Main’s “Grey Gardens” exhibit, where he presented several paintings of the legendary mansion. Last December, he opened his holiday show at Dark Horse Restaurant in Riverhead, with original Frosty the Snowman paintings. The show had a community-based aspect, inviting the public to hear Duga share memories in animation. Families with children even got to take home a souvenir drawing of “Frosty.”
Indeed, Duga’s spirit and enthusiasm for Riverhead extends beyond this week’s cover.
Meet Don Duga at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Saturday, December 20 at “Frosty and His Puppet Friends” presented by Think Big! Puppet Theater. The show will have a special introduction and art exhibit from Duga, and Muppet-style puppets and full-body puppets will bring the characters of Frosty, Santa and all of their friends to life with holiday songs and fun for the whole family. Doors open for brunch at 11 a.m., and the show begins at 1 p.m. Tickets at suffolktheater.com.