Bob Hale (1918-1983), affectionately known as the "cartooning weatherman," made history as the first television weather reporter in the Pacific Northwest. A professional sign painter by trade, the Bellingham native founded his own graphic-design business in Seattle in 1942, and in 1955 opened his popular Bob Hale's Hobby Shop. That same year he was hired by Seattle's KING-TV. Hale quickly boosted the fledgling station's viewership by joking about the weather while drawing his distinctive cartoons live on the air. By 1962 he was teaching cartooning and had published an influential mail-order tutorial series that helped get subscribers involved in drawing. Naturally shy, and suffering from stage fright and alcoholism, Hale's increasingly erratic behavior led KING to fire him in 1963, but after working TV jobs elsewhere -- winning an Emmy, a Golden Mike, and other awards -- he returned to Seattle, and to KIRO-TV, in 1968. All the while, his businesses created signs, logos, and cartoon mascots for countless companies and organizations, with Hale staying active until his death in 1983. It is quite possible that Hale never realized that the Northwest was becoming a center of a global surge of intertest in cartooning and alternative comix, and that his life's work had been an inspiration to new generations of artists.
An Artist With a Sense of Humor
Robert Charles "Bob" Hale was born in Bellingham to Vernon W. Hale and Georgia M. Hale on December 11, 1918. He graduated from Bellingham High School in 1937 and moved to Seattle in 1938 to work as art director for the Rhodes Department Store. In 1942 he launched his own commercial art company. Hale's hand-painted signs often featured intriguing cartoon people, critters, and objects typically depicted as emoting joy, or grimacing with anxiety, angst or frustration – replete with Hale's trademark exaggerated sweat plops and flailing motion- and speed-marks.
By 1948 Hale had returned to Bellingham, where he and friend Richard Emery Bell (1924-2000) founded the Art Service company, which produced signs, posters, banners, fence murals, and lettering on trucks and boats. In time the duo outfitted a trailer with supplies and began towing it around Washington's county fair circuit, making signs for whatever customers they could find. That led to touring the West Coast, into Oregon, California, Arizona, and then back to California. They spent a year in San Francisco, and Hale reportedly worked briefly for Walt Disney's studios in Burbank.
After settling into Seattle, Dick Bell married another commercial artist from Bellingham, Marilyn Pederson (1950-1965), and by the following year they and Hale had opened a shop at 311 Madison Street. One of the most consistent aspects of Hale's work was his goofy sense of humor. In 1952, the year of Seattle's Centennial, he produced a "Souvenir Map of Seattle" that depicted funny aspects of the city's neighborhoods, but failed to provide proper scale, or even any accurate information about street names or navigational routes. Hale was not trying to fool anyone; the map included a consumer warning: "NOTICE If Anybody Tries To Find Anything By Following This Map – He's A Dope! This Thing Is Strictly For The Birds! … And Who Ever Heard Of A Bird Reading A Map!" ("Souvenir Map").
Television: A New Medium
The history of television in the Pacific Northwest began in November 1948 with the launch of KRSC-TV on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill. It could boast of being the only station west of Minneapolis and north of Los Angeles. In the fall of 1949 the owner of Seattle's KING-AM radio station, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt (1892-1989), bought KRSC and recast it as KING-TV (eventually moving it to 320 Aurora Avenue). Among KRSC's assets was program director Lee Schulman, a young New Yorker who'd graduated from UCLA's film school and was, "a flamboyant character … who alternately inspired, challenged, charmed, and infuriated those around him" (Haley).
A key challenge for KING-TV was creating content in an industry that was still so new that very few people owned a TV set, and televisions themselves were expensive, unreliable, luxury items equipped with 8-inch black-and-white screens. Schulman proceeded to discover various local talents and launch new shows including 1950's Televenture Tales, 1951's Sheriff Tex's Safety Junction, 1953's Wunda Wunda, and 1955's King's Klubhouse. KING also launched its first live local daily news program, Early Edition, in 1951. In the ensuing years, Schulman pondered how to best present a televised weather report and make it interesting. Perhaps Schulman had the old folksy quip (often incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain) -- "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it" -- in mind when he envisioned having a weather reporter actually do something while delivering a report, like drawing pictures while relaying information to viewers.
In 1954 The Seattle Times published an item about the Hollywood movie Bonzo Goes To College opening at the Northgate Theater. "Of special interest will be the appearance of Mr. Bob Hale, formerly of the Walt Disney studio, who will draw on-the-spot caricatures in the lobby from 10 o'clock until after show time" ("Hawaii ..."). This newspaper item is likely how Schulman became aware of Hale, and while Hale's connection to Disney's empire is not confirmed, Schulman was certainly aware of Disney. In 1947, Dorothy Bullitt had commissioned Walt Disney himself to create a mascot for radio station KING-AM. Disney came up with a cartoon character named "King Mike," an anthropomorphized radio microphone garbed in a king's royal robe and topped with a golden crown.
What is known for certain is that in late 1954 Schulman realized that Bob Hale, cartoonist, might be just the guy to host KING-TV's weather report. He telephoned Hale and the two began exploring possibilities.
Rain, Sleet, Snow, Hale
Schulman had envisioned that KING could produce a weather report hosted by an individual who could charm an audience with weather blather and augment things by sketching cartoon characters representing, say, the sun, a windstorm, gray clouds, rain showers, or snowfall. Schulman and Hale discussed scenarios and began planning his show, which would be promoted as KING-TV's daily "Weather Picture."
On February 13, 1955, Hale made his live television debut. He stood at an easel, sign-painter style, while nervously clattering about the weather and drawing on poster-sized sheets of paper. Hale was an unlikely candidate to be a TV personality: He was a 36-year-old beanpole of a man, prematurely balding, bespectacled, and afflicted with stage fright. None of that mattered, because his TV appearances were so unique and fun. He was an incorrigible punster. Even his utter lack of a background in meteorology or climatology was easily forgiven. His job was to read the reports produced by the U.S. Weather Bureau and present selected bits of information with a dollop of humor. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer would note, "Bob Hale … with his quick-draw sketches, has made pleasant and unpleasant weather alike for Channel 5 viewers. Using a personified sun -- Old Sol, as Hale calls him – as his central figure, beset by elements, or reigning supreme, the talented and jovial bachelor calls upon comical seagulls, stout little tugboats, civic celebrations and news happenings of the day to illustrate upcoming weather conditions" ("Bob Hale Champions ...").
Viewers of all ages grew fond of Hale's cartoon characters, especially Sammy the Seagull and his pal, Samantha, who appeared regularly. "[V]iewers loved the sketch-pad avatars he created: sunny Old Sol, leering for a really hot day; a fearsome polar bear when winter blasted; and Sammy the Seagull, a long-suffering everybird who shivered through every forecast" (Miller). So popular did Hale become that his segments "often drew more viewers than the news itself" (George). It was simply fascinating to watch how fast and efficiently Hale could whip out his cartoon Weather Pictures each night.
'If You Want Art, Go To Hale!'
In addition to his sign-painting business and his KING-TV job, Hale launched a retail business called Bob Hale's Hobby Shop at 421 Olive Way in 1955. There hobbyists could acquire art supplies, toys, electric model train sets, and balsa wood hydroplane kits, or bring their slot cars to race on three different tracks located upstairs. In time, Hale and Bell opened a commercial art studio, Bob Hale Inc., which was conveniently situated at 400 Aurora Avenue, steps away from KING-TV's studios. Hale was the main artist, while Dick Bell served as vice president, and Marilyn Bell as secretary. Hale's humor was evident from the sign on the building: "If you want art, go to Hale!"
Countless local businesses went to Hale. He produced cartoon mascots or signage for such clients as the Seattle Rainiers baseball team, the annual Seafair festival, the Washington Athletic Club, the Northern Pacific Railway, KJR Radio, Ivar's Acres of Clams, Bartells Diner, and the Showbox Theater -- plus lots of hamburger stands including Dag's, Ernie's, Gil's, Herfy's, and Zesto's. Another client was Bob Murray's Dog House restaurant and cocktail bar, a personal favorite of Hale's.
In 1962, when Seattle was in a frenzy of excitement during the World's Fair, KING-TV set up a temporary broadcasting studio in the Washington State Coliseum, where it made daily live broadcasts throughout the fair. By now Hale was a regional celebrity, and his performances became a popular attraction for fairgoers, especially for those lucky enough to be gifted one of his cartoon "Weather Pictures" at the end of the show. Hale was hired to produce cartoons for inclusion on a wide range of souvenir items, and Hale himself marketed a gag gift: an empty tin can with a label touting the "Pure Puget Sound Air" contained within. By late 1962, Bob Hale Inc. was expanded into a school, Bob Hale's Cartoon College, which would employ five fulltime cartoonists at its peak. That same year he published a 24-lesson mail-order tutorial correspondence course titled Bob Hale's Cartoon College.
Personal and Personnel Problems
Hale's personal life was complicated. When neighbors complained about him loudly playing records, as well as an electric organ, it resulted in a few 3 a.m. visits by the police, and Hale opted to move to a hastily made "apartment" in the back of his studio. Meanwhile, signs of his alcoholism became increasingly obvious to his associates, employees, and the management at KING-TV. At times during his years in television, viewers had wondered about his well-being, his on-air behavior, and whether he was sober. Telltale signs reportedly included the slurring of words on-air and his occasional angry snapping at off-camera KING staffers. Word got around that the shy guy was "not infrequently fortified by liquids" from the bar at the Dog House (George).
In late March 1963, Hale failed to show up for work one day and KING had to scramble to find an emergency substitute. The station reached out to another local commercial artist named Bob Cram (1925-2017), the co-owner of Seattle's Graphic Studios. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Cram made his debut on March 25, winning a job he would hold for eight years.
Hale was fired but quickly resurfaced on San Diego's KOGO-TV, and while at KOGO he hosted a cartooning instructional program on weekends. The KOGO job didn't last long, however, and by September 2, 1963, KING had him back on the air rotating shifts with Cram. Before long the dueling weather cartoonists began poking friendly fun at each other during their broadcast segments. On October 1, 1963 they made a presentation together at the Seattle Advertising Club titled "Cartoons Can Sell Anything."
Problems must have continued for Hale, however, because by June 1964, his Hobby Shop had been up for sale for eight months with no buyers. In September 1965 he moved the store to 1611 Westlake Avenue. In about July 1966, KING – which was by now being run by a new generation of the Bullitt family who wanted their station to evoke more gravitas – shook things up. Lee Schulman and Hale both exited, but soon after, Schulman was hired by Chicago's WBKV-TV and he brought Hale along to the Midwest.
In and Out of the Picture
Hale's stay in Chicago was brief. He returned to Seattle in late 1967 and three months later, on March 25, 1968, he returned to the airwaves for KING's rival, KIRO-TV. The latter station was pleased to have snatched KING's former star, placing ads in the newspapers gloating that, "HALE'S BACK AND KIRO'S GOT HIM!" But by the following autumn KIRO informed Hale that changes were needed. What they wanted was a weather report with a more technical approach. More scientific facts. Less humor. Less cartooning. KIRO began designing an all-new stage set.
Hale didn't seem to take this heads-up seriously, and was apparently caught off-guard when KIRO notified him on Friday April 25, 1969, that he was being fired effective the following Monday. When April 28 arrived Hale did his 5 p.m. segment, but it was bereft of his usual mirth. Behind the scenes Hale told his producer that during his upcoming final appearance in the 11 p.m. hour he would like to say farewell to his fans. "I have a right to tell the public I was fired. I don't want Puget Sound residents to think I left them," Hale said (Skreen). KIRO management told Hale that if he mentioned his firing during the broadcast they would cut him off. In the face of Hale's stormy obstinacy, he was told to go home. Picking up the slack at 11 p.m., one of KIRO's cub reporters hacked his way through the weather report.
Hale moped around and whined about his tale of woe to friendly reporters, saying he was "summarily dumped because cartooning weather shows are old hat … I will probably never go on TV again. I'm really not trying to get back at KIRO. They say they want dignity, and I'm apparently not dignified" (Skreen). "I have no complaint against KIRO for letting me go. My only gripe, and it is a delicious one, is that the people of Puget Sound have been very kind to me and I would like to have told them that I was fired. I don't want them to think I walked out on them ... As far as Bob Hale on television is concerned, I would assume I'm dead" ("Weatherman Bob Hale Fired").
The erratic trajectory of Hale's life was informed by many factors, including his fear of the stage, his fear of being exposed as a homosexual, and his accelerating alcoholism. The latter would come to play a role in his ongoing graphic design career.
In May 1969, Hale told Post-Intelligencer columnist Emmett Watson that he might soon accept an offer to work as an artist for Pat Frawley, a businessman who had invested $2 million into alcoholism research as the owner of what became Seattle's Shick Shadel addiction-treatment hospital. "As an old weatherman," Hale quipped, "I say there's a 98 percent chance I'll take the job. I'm through with TV. When a station's rating go down, they fire everybody in sight" ("This, Our City"). By July Hale had announced that his art studio was up for sale and that he was leaving Seattle on August 1. But an earlier notice of the upheaval in his life had actually appeared in May in a "Business Opportunities" classified ad in the Times, which noted, curiously, that Bob Hale's Hobby and Toy Shop was for sale due to "divorce."
The nature and details of this purported divorce remain cloudy. Hale never married, while his business partners Dick and Marilyn Bell had divorced six years earlier, in 1963, and Marilyn died in 1965. As it is known that Hale and Dick Bell became companions over the following two decades, this "divorce" reference appears to have been a manufactured smokescreen.
Treatment and Recovery
Lee Schulman hired Hale again, and around July 1970 Hale resurfaced in Los Angeles as a member of the KNBC-TV news team anchored by Tom Snyder. Hale was touted as, "A weathercaster who can do more than read the highs and lows. Bob Hale knows his way around a cumulonimbus as well as any weathercaster in town. He also likes to draw pictures of a seagull named Sammy. Which doesn't get in the way of all of the weather. It just makes the whole thing more interesting to watch" (KNBC). Interesting, apparently, only until the day that Hale introduced his California viewers to Sammy's girlfriend Samantha the Seagull. After somebody took note of Samantha's newly enlarged breasts, KNBC promptly fired Hale.
Hale now chose to face the truth that he was an alcoholic. He isolated himself in the Mojave Desert town of Hesperia, California, for about 18 months in an effort to quit drinking. Part of his therapy was to contribute to the cause of sobriety by making art for alcohol-recovery programs. He designed a series of alcoholism-awareness teaching aids, posters, and films for the Northrop Corporation and the U. S. Postal Service. "I don't drink now and I'm busy trying to get other people not to drink," he said. "I'm not a preacher, but I believe in the Alcoholics Anonymous program and in industrial alcoholism programs" (Evans).
The need to make a living introduced a new ethical conflict for Hale, one that he took in stride. "I'm happily involved in promoting booze posters, brochures, newspaper ads, etc. for elite gin mills such as the California Yacht Club, Riviera Country Club, and about 4,000 other gin mills that can afford my outrageous fees," he told the P-I's Emmett Watson. "That's funny, as in ironical. I made several films and produced cartoon books for people in alcoholism treatment and never made a dime. But I've made a fortune coaxing folks to get bombed" ("Tuesday's Child").
All Hail Bob Hale
After living in Santa Monica, California, for several years, Hale returned to Seattle for the final years of his life. He essentially laid low, doing design work for various clients. On May 30, 1979, he and Cram had a reunion while featured together as "Seattle's former weathermen" on KING-TV's Seattle Tonight show. Meanwhile, an underground resurgence of interest in cartooning was already underway, and the Pacific Northwest would soon become a hotbed of activity, with a number of young cartoon artists emerging via published cartoon strips and comix.
Hale's legacy seemed to slip away with the passage of time. When he died on April 19, 1983, none of Seattle's news publications offered an obituary. Hale's contributions to local television history were similarly absent from at least three important books: David Richardson's 1981 Puget Sounds: A Nostalgic Review of Radio and TV in the Great Northwest; Delphine Haley's 1995 biography, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt: An Uncommon Life, and Daniel Jack Chasen's 1996 volume On The Air: The KING Broadcasting Story.
Seattle cultural observer Clark Humphrey noted, "the force that really got local kids from the late '50s to the early '70s turned on to the possibilities of funny drawings came not from the papers but the tube." The cartooning weathermen and their "nightly real-time demonstrations helped demystify the creative act, and instilled the cartooning bug into local kids." Humphrey noted that Hale and Cram "undoubtedly inspired area kids to take up cartooning" (Humphrey and Sturm). Among those kids, he suggested, were such famous cartoonists as Tacoma's Gary Larson (b. 1950), and Seattle's Lynda Barry (b. 1956) and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich (b. 1960).
Among the successful artists who have credited Hale as an influence are California's Scott Shaw (b. 1951), who has drawn for Marvel, Hanna-Barbera, and DC Comics. Another is Edmonds-based sign painter Mack Benek (b. 1946), who explained that as a kid growing up in Olympia, "I used to stay up to see the 11 o'clock news so I could see his weather forecast. He would do these cartoons to illustrate the weather. Some people say they see a trace of his style in what I do" (Brown).
The cartooning community did not forget Hale. Dick Bell himself was invited to make a presentation on May 31, 1985, at a monthly meeting of the Cartoonists Northwest organization at the New School of Visual Concepts at 500 Aurora Avenue, just down the street from the old Bob Hale Inc. studios at 400 Aurora Avenue. That evening Bell showed examples of Hale's artwork and offered a tender telling of Hale's life and their 35-year partnership. Two years later, Bell took on the task of republishing Hale's original Cartoon College tutorial, this time set in a booklet format.
In 2010, Seattle outsider-arts impresario Larry Reid curated an exhibit, Counterculture Comix: A 30-Year Survey of Seattle Alternative Cartoonists, at the Seattle Center. The exhibit included work by most of the local stars in the "alternative" galaxy. Among them were Peter Bagge (b. 1957), Lynda Barry, Charles Burns (b. 1955), Ellen Forney (b. 1968), Matt Groening (b. 1954), Jim Woodring (b. 1952), and Mark Zingarelli. Reid offered a respectful nod to Seattle's cartooning roots by honoring Hale in his exhibit. In addition, Seattle-based filmmakers Ron Austin and Louise Amandes included Hale in their 2015 documentary, Bezango, WA, about the history of cartooning in the Pacific Northwest.
[Editor's Note: Seattle historian Peter Blecha, who authored this essay, maintains a Facebook tribute page called "Bob Hale – The Cartooning Weatherman." Founded in 2013, the site features many more examples of Hale's artwork.]