by J.B. Hyppolite
Northwest Philadelphia is filled with talented artists, but it is doubtful if there are any others who have the kind of experiences in the early days of local live television shows that Mt. Airy’s Jim Ferrantello had at WCAU-TV (Channel 10) in the 1950s after graduating from the University of the Arts.
“Back in the day, at WCAU-TV everything was broadcast live just before color. What we used to do is design sets and build them down there,” said Jim. At the time WCAU broadcast westerns, puppet shows and cooking shows. Jim built sets for a Western called “Action in the Afternoon,” and the setting of the show was supposed to be a town in Montana.
“Cowboys rehearsed there,” said Jim, “and they’d bring the horses in, which was funny because the story was supposed to be taking place in the year 1856, but you’d hear a truck in the background as it went up a hill. Or an airplane would go by, and you’d see the shadow of the plane over the town … A horse would be eating hay, and there’d be a microphone sticking out of its mouth … There were no retakes; that was it. Everything was shot live, and it was rehearsed everyday. It was a lot of work.”
Jim had the opportunity of meeting the celebrities of that era at WCAU including Ed McMahon and John Facenda. Jim and his son, Chris, who requested that their ages not be mentioned (“That’s for us and our hairdressers to know,” said Chris), both have impressive gifts in painting, design, illustration and animation that have enabled them to not only travel the world, but also be a part of many noteworthy and even historically important projects.
In addition to his memorable work at WCAU-TV, Jim also worked on the U.S. space program, the Thanksgiving Day Parade and other significant projects such as promotional pieces for the moon landing. This was done for Philco and the U.S. government. Jim was subjected to much secrecy.
“I had the highest security badge in there,” he said. “I think missiles were made there. Philco (and Univac) was a pioneer in computers, had huge contracts with other countries such as Iran and “was involved in a lot of things that people didn’t even know about.”
In terms of painting, Jim’s work has been viewed at the Woodmere Art Museum and at several galleries. Chris also graduated from Central High School in 1973 and the University of the Arts in 1979 and has contributed to various projects including film posters and editorial work for magazines. His very first gig out of college (around 1980) was doing an illustration for a short story called “Dracula,” written by none other than Woody Allen, although he never actually met the Oscar-award winning director.
“It was about a Jewish Dracula … I was just happy doing my first job. That’s the key, to get the work. To get that first piece is very important to an illustrator. I mean, it was great. Woody Allen? Sure.”
Chris was inspired to work in the arts due because of his father and began studying illustration. Chris’ illustrations were geared towards the world of magazines and newspapers, so he worked a lot in New York City for Esquire, the op-ed page of The New York Times, Travel and Leisure and The Progressive. “… I also did a lot of stuff in Philly. Y’know, Philadelphia Magazine, the Inquirer, the Daily News … ”
Sony Corp. asked Chris to illustrate the art for “Marco Polo,” an opera by classical composer Tan Dun, won the Oscar for Best Original Score for “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” at the 73rd Academy Awards. “I have actual notes that Tan Dun sent Sony at the time from China.”
After Chris did a piece for Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem gave it to Alice Walker at a luncheon. “Later on I met Alice Walker,” said Chris. “She had this piece of mine that was never signed. I went up and said, ‘Look, if you ever need me to sign the piece, just send it to me.’”
Alice Walker is the author of “The Color Purple,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, wa adapted into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and is now a Broadway play. Chris also created an original illustration featured in Ms. Walker’s short story, “Birth.” “I think it’s the nature of the business. You just end up doing a lot of really neat things, rubbing elbows with celebrity types,” said Chris.
Among other accomplishments, Chris has had works accepted by the Sundance Film Festival, specifically through animation instead of illustration. The works of animation were “The Pope’s Hat” and “Twin Killing,” the latter of which is about the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Chris started working on an animated re-creation of the 9/11 attacks the day after they took place. He ended up entering that at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, and it was accepted.
“That brought tears to my eyes I was so excited getting in. I didn’t think I had a chance of getting into Sundance,” said Chris, who almost dropped his phone when he got the news. Chris views this as one of his finer achievements, especially since he had only done a few works in animation at the time. Chris’ film, “Recipe For Love,” was also selected for inclusion in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
Chris has also had his work featured in museums in Germany, Switzerland, Spain and the Pompidou Center in Paris as well as many other film festivals such as SeNef, a film festival in Seoul, South Korea. He was invited to visit Paris to see “The Pope’s Hat” featured at the Recontres Internationales Paris/Berlin/Madrid, an experimental film and video art festival. Some of his work has also been distributed by the Rome Independent Film Festival.
“(Nowadays) I paint and I cook, ” mentioned Jim, who also has had works featured at various galleries. Chris, who has won a prize at Woodmere Art Museum, continues to freelance in illustration and animation and also takes on other projects involving web design. “I wanted to be like dad,” said Chris.
Jim and Chris Ferrantello have been residents of Mt. Airy since 1960. Jim went to Germantown High School and graduated from The University of the Arts in 1951, majoring in advertising.