The Vanguard Cartoonist, Filmmaker and Ad Man Who Did it All
By Ash Horn
Written as a part of the Portland Design History Class at PSU
Homer Groening was a forgotten ad man who was a jack of all trades, and a vanguard of Portland design. Homer worked throughout the 1960s and the 1970s helping to create a foundation of thoughtful advertising. He was born December 30, 1919 in Canada to a German-speaking Mennonite family. Homer’s family moved to Oregon sometime when he was in grade school. Homer got a degree in English at Linfield College in McMinnville. This was also where he met his future wife Margaret Wiggum. Her family called her Marge. Throughout his life, Homer loved film, sports, making people laugh, and anything to do with water. In college Homer was a part of Linfield’s basketball and swim teams. However, in Homer’s own words, “I wasn’t a jockhead. The best way to get girls it seemed to me was to get them to laugh.” He also had a passion for drawing cartoons and writing stories. Homer had a knack for experimenting with different ways to make advertisements. He had a talent for connecting humorous concepts with products in order to make their advertisements more memorable.
After graduating from Linfield College in 1941, Homer married Margaret, and became an airplane pilot, flying a B-17 during WWII. After the war, Homer got into advertising by answering a want ad. He started as a production assistant, and developed a reputation for his unusual approaches to advertising. After his presence was known in the business, the Korean War began and Homer went off to fight. During his time in Korea, Homer became infatuated with filmmaking, and upon returning home he went back to advertising with his newfound passion.
While working for Portland ad agency Botsford, Constantine & Gardner, Botsford for short, he became a family man when Margaret had their first child. With Marge busy at home with the new family, Homer began his rise in the advertising world. Botsford had an Idaho account, and Homer made Idaho potatoes famous, even suggesting a branding tagline on Idaho auto license plates. During his time at Botsford, Homer also worked as an account exec on Jantzen, and became unhappy with how Botsford ran its ads. An unpublished essay about Homer by his friend and colleague Byron Ferris describes this further, “Up to the late 1950s, ad making was ‘show and tell,’ show the product and tell about how good it was. But the public had changed. New generations had traveled overseas during the war years... and advertisers with full pockets and new customer attitudes were willing to take a chance on new ideas.” Homer was ready to usher in that change.
Homer’s Ascent in Advertising
In 1958, Homer decided to branch out by entering a national contest to produce an ad for KGW-TV, a new Portland TV station. This is when he made one of his most well-known print ads, which depicts a naked woman complaining about, “You and your damn total television.” The ad was never run, but Homer won the contest and a new car. After that venture Homer left Botsford and opened a one-man shop, Homer Groening Advertising, in a small office in the Executive Building, across from what is now Pioneer Square, on the sixth floor. Homer’s first self published ads were hand-drawn cartoons, but soon he needed a qualified art director for more production. Byron Ferris, an avid designer, was in an adjacent office and they teamed up. Each morning they would have a conference about the day’s work. With Byron on board Homer Groening Advertising became a full-fledged advertising agency.
“Jantzen Sweater Ad” Homer wrote the copy and took the photo used in this advertisement published in Life 1955. “Will the Space Needle Unscrew?” A collaborative print ad by Homer Groening, Rowland Emett, and Byron Ferris which was published in the New Yorker April 28,1962.
The 1950s and 1960s was when Homer did the majority of his illustrative advertisements. In addition to Byron Ferris, Homer worked alongside Charles Politz, and a variety of other designers. Byron Ferris won two graphic design awards while he was associated with the Homer Groening Advertising agency later, Homer Groening Inc. Throughout the 1960s, his work was published in the Oregonian regularly. He helped make films and illustrations for companies like Jantzen and helped Peg Bracken with her I Hate to Cook Book. Byron and Homer also worked together to publish a comic strip called Phoebe, Get Your Man. On top of that, he helped Jantzen transition from a swimwear only brand into one of the most popular sportswear brands of the 70s.
The story of the Homer Groening Advertising agency truly begins when Jantzen moved their account to Homer’s shop. Bruce Strum, the Jantzen sales manager, invited Homer to the Jantzen team, which linked Jantzen swim suits and sportswear to nationally honored players. One of the first projects was to photograph the Los Angeles Rams all lined up on the bleachers wearing Jantzen sweaters. The ad appeared in Life, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, and The New Yorker. The Rams got national exposure and the players got to keep the sweaters, the first sports endorsement perk. According to Byron Ferris, “The Jantzen International Sports Club became an advertising entity and Bruce and Homer invited diverse sportsmen on summer trips to Hawaii and Jamaica to be photographed together wearing Jantzen. The famous sports heroes got free vacations for their involvement. On occasion the Club assembled at Tom Kelly’s photo studio in L.A. for ad shots just because they liked each other and the fame that came with the ads.” These ads typically included a paragraph of copy. The mood of creative advertising at the time was to find a single intriguing idea and produce a simple message based on a human and striking communication, but Homer enjoyed writing and said, “If you write a long copy ad that people will read they will spend more time on your message.” In 1962, Homer published his “Seattle Space Needle” advertisement for the Oregonian, and the ad was put into The New Yorker later the same year. The copy for the ad was written by Homer, the illustration was created by Rowland Emett, and the overall design of the ad was a collaboration between Homer and Byron. Still early on in his career, Homer submitted some of his work into the Communication Arts magazine, a well-known informational about graphic design and business advertising. The magazine published three pages about Homer in a September/October edition.
The Flicks That Should Have Been Famous
According to The First, a well-known film catalog, “Homer Groening shoots, writes, directs, edits, and sometimes narrates his own films.” Early in his relationship with Jantzen, Homer went to Hawaii with his wife Marge in June of 1960. At the sendoff party, friends and coworkers of Homer’s dressed in tacky fake grass skirts, leis, and straw hats. While in Hawaii he filmed “Surf” which was used in Jantzen ad campaigns, and was later shown in theaters in California and Washington. This marked the first time he would go to Hawaii to film, but certainly not the last.
Titled,“Ad Man Talks to Rabbit in Preparation for Pops Concert”. Homer talked to a rabbit as part of the Animal Circus bit that he preformed during the Pops concert. An article about him preparing for this piece was published in the Oregonian April 23, 1962. “Pops Concert Informal ” This image is from an article that advertised the Pops concert and had a brief interview with the conductor published in the Oregonian June 11, 1962. “Film Award Announced” Photo of Homer in Hawaii used for an article about Homer’s latest film in the Sunday Oregonian May 21, 1967.
Another of Homer’s achievements was his involvement in the Portland Pops concert in 1962. In an avant-garde performance, Homer hosted and narrated over the musical score “Carnival of Animals,” conducted by John Trudeau. The Oregonian published several articles advertising the event, and one review which called for an encore. Homer’s film Timberline was also released in 1962 which depicts stunning shots of Mt. Hood and the surrounding Oregon forests. Timberline was one of Homer’s first films focusing on the beautiful nature that Oregon has to offer. It is also the first time Homer’s films talk about how important environmental conservation is.
In 1966, “Man and His World” was released. It depicts three minutes of a soccer player bouncing the ball while Homer narrates about mankind and world peace. Throughout the following years Homer’s film career took off and multiple articles were written about him in the Oregonian. This is because in 1964 he made his most popular film, Study in Wet which won multiple international awards by 1966. The film depicts different scenes of water with a musical score that is also made by the sounds of water. It was so common to read reports about his achievements in the Oregonian that one article stated, “Groening won some more awards (ho-hum).”
Philosophy and Influence
Between 1965 and 1969 Homer started to do interviews for the Oregonian about his creative process. In one article titled “Portland’s Zany Ad Man,” Homer shared his philosophy, “I’ve come to the conclusion that what I’m really after is fatigue, if I have my spare time, I schedule myself so I’m pooped… The idea in painting is not to cover the wall, but to empty the can.” This look into his creative process truly defines him as an artist. Homer’s mentality of making work until he can’t anymore is a mantra which he seemingly used in business as a whole.
Homer’s influence became abundantly clear to me when I sat down with Loren Weeks who started as a graphic designer in the 70s. We went through a little bit of Homer’s design work and Loren immediately started to discuss the iconic advertisements that Homer would make. He stated that the majority of Homer’s work would be loose linework with thin strokes and clever copy overlaid. During the interview, Loren recalled one of Homer’s many Groening-isms “One of Homer’s best lines was, ‘To make a good movie, it either has to be short or funny’ and that really sums it up.” This shows Homer’s ability to hone in on attention-grabbing advertisements. Clearly one of the fundamental qualities of Homer’s ads was to keep it short. A short advertisement means that there isn’t much a client could change, and the artist’s intent would be shown throughout the ad. For many designers, there is a struggle to find a medium between making something that they like, and making something a client wants. The other fundamental quality of Homer’s work, besides keeping it brief, was to make it humorous, and good luck to the client who tries to be funnier than a Groening, especially Homer.
Another person who I talked to about Homer was fellow filmmaker Richard Blakeslee. He says, “When I first started working in the film business in Portland, in 1966 at Northwestern, Inc., the editor there, Al Montolvo, was helping Homer with one of his short films. Immediately I was enthralled and knew that was what I wanted to do. His shorts were funny, personal and wildly entertaining…So in some ways Homer was responsible for getting me started.” This illustrates Homer’s significant influence within the local film community. Richard informed me that Homer had a 35mm Bell and Howell Eyemo camera that he would lend out at no charge. This generosity shows Homer’s support to other’s creative endeavors. Richard also recalled that, “He had his advertising agency [filled] with awards leading down the hall. Kind of intimidating for a young filmmaker.”
From the Top of the World to Forgotten
Well-known in his field, Homer showed some of his works at the Caroline Berg Swann Auditorium, Portland Art Museum. Homer won his eleventh CINE Golden Eagle award, an award given out to American films that are shown at European film festivals, for his film The New Willamette which was made originally for Oregon Governor Tom McCall’s campaign to clean up waterways. The film was sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers, and depicts Tom McCall and renowned fisherman Jim Conway enjoying the Willamette. The film discusses the dangers of pollution while elegantly displaying shots of the river.
In 1973, Homer created a 28 minute-long film titled Linfield Revisited which he narrates. Throughout the film Homer talks with Linfield staff and students about campus life, athletics, and education. Through the camera lens, he captures the thriving diversity that Linfield College offered.
On November 13, 1975, Ted Mahar, a well-known Oregonian writer, Portland film critic, and jazz enthusiast wrote an article about Homer’s new film: Introduction to the Parry Center Portland Oregon. The article explains the purpose of the Parry Center, which is to help children get the support that they need when dealing with trauma. At the end of the article it states, “Homer’s films are slickly made, clever and often whimsical. It’s nice to see that he can cover a dramatic situation matter-of-factly, sympathetically and without irrelevant sentimentality.” Ted Mahar describes one truly amazing thing about Homer: the fact that he can tackle any subject, that he puts his heart and his mind to. From abstract, to sporty to informative, it is clear that Groening’s creative range allowed for him to succeed as a filmmaker.
“War Stories At 20,000 Feet” Illustrations by Homer from his short story in the Sunday Oregonian February 8, 1976.
1976 was a big year for Homer. On February 6th his writings and non-commercial art was published in the Oregonian. The article he wrote was titled “War Stories At 20,000 Feet,” and it took up three full-page spreads. The wonderfully-crafted tale recounts Homer’s war experiences in a wild way that only he could imagine. Then in April, he wrote an article under the “Modern Times” column called “Avoiding the Swamp.” The short story is about morality and how Homer would find different ways out of trouble. Sometime in May, Homer was on The Lucky Jim Adventure Show, a fishing series. This particular episode was about how to catch bass, as well as fishing on Lake Mead near Las Vegas, Nevada. Homer was in another episode in July, about fishing summer-run steelhead on the Kalama River in Washington. Earlier that month, he got another story featured in the Oregonian titled, “How the Trail Blazers and I Won the Championship.” Although he loved basketball, this was a work of fiction complete with Homer’s classic witty humor. In the story Homer vividly illustrates how he and his coworker Norton Borrno —most likely a fictionalized version of Bennet Norrbo, who was a colleague and friend to Homer— rig up a contraption that makes it seem like objects are levitating, and how they use this device to help shoot hoops for the Portland Trail Blazers during the championship game. A year later the real Trail Blazers went on to win the actual championship.
“How the Trail Blazers and I Won the Championship” Illustrations that Homer made for the first page of his story in the Sunday Oregonian May 9, 1976.
In 1977 Homer put together a presentation of short films including his piece The New Willamette. The films all had the common theme of being about Oregon, and were shown at the Garden Club. Then in March of 1978 the Oregonian published another article about one of his films. This time the film is about global ecosystem conservation, and the importance of—you’ve probably guessed it—water as a natural resource. The title of the work is called Blue Rock and was filmed in a variety of Oregon locations.
“Oregon’s Ace Movie Maker” A photo of Homer captioned by himself filming in Hawaii for an article that he wrote about his film career for the Sunday Oregonian July 29, 1973.
Throughout his life, Homer won multiple awards for his films and for his art. Despite this, he was largely forgotten about due to the lack of documentation during the era. The closest Homer has come to fame is his namesake, Homer Simpson, which his son, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, lovingly named the doughnut-loving father on his hit cartoon sitcom. Before you get any ideas, the correlations between the two Homers ends there. Despite the lack of remembrance for his work Homer was able to do what he loved for a very long time, and that is something I think most creative people hope for. Homer’s work also became part of the bedrock for designers to follow. His design choices created the groundwork that inspired other Portland designers for years to come.
“Butler On the House” a prize the Groening family won by bidding on an auction item from the Oregonian Ad Club December 10, 1957.
By the end of his life, Homer had well over forty films with themes ranging from sports, education, advertisements, environmental conservation, and water. His last film, which his son Matt helped him create, was of Homer facing away from a basketball hoop and shooting balls backwards into the basket without looking. This was a trick shot that he mastered long ago during his time in college. Overall Homer was a witty, kind hearted, humorous man, with a passion for film and a love for the water.
Oregonian writer Jack Berry said it best, “A man who does a number of different things is rare in this era and a man who does several things well is almost unheard of. Ad man, cartoonist, writer, consummate talker (sometimes under formal, speech-making circumstances), basketball player, skin diver, pilot and movie maker Homer Groening is one such.” •
Portland's Creative Homer
By Byron Ferris
published in Our Portland Story Volume 1, November 2008
In 1952, Portland's second television channel came to town bringing network TV to a market area that was approaching one million. The new channel announced a contest to the advertising creatives of the nation, a contest to do an ad that would put KGW on the marketing map. Back then, the standard way to create an ad was to picture the product and write "5 Reasons Why" the reader should buy it. Portland's Homer Groening, a recent graduate from Linfield College, was working in Portland at an ad agency as a copywriter. Homer entered the contest with the ad shown here. Homer's ad broke the rules. Not only did it show a nekked woman, but it expressed a negative in the headline.
Homer's ad won the local contest and then won again, nationally, selected by a panel of ad luminaries. The prize was a Hillman auto, large enough for the Groening family, including Homer, Margaret, and the kids, Maggie, Lisa, and Matt. Homer soon opened up his own ad agency, Homer Groening Advertising, and within a month had a major client, the Jantzen International Sports Club. Many other career successes followed for Homer, including pro photoshoots in Hawaii, promotions for the Benson and Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square, and, later, movie-making.
Perhaps seeing his dad succeed in this creative business prompted Homer's son, Matt Groening, to create The Simpsons, television's longest running TV cartoon show. He used the family's names with "Bart" being an anagram of "brat." But Homer Groening was never the oafish Homer Simpson. He would never have said "Doh!" in his creative life.