Donald “Don” Jerome Duga, of Baiting Hollow, died May 31, 2021 in Westhampton. He was 87 years old.
Duga was a renowned animator whose work included iconic favorites such as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Mr. Magoo” and the Emmy-nominated “The Little Drummer Boy.”
“The fun-loving Mr. Duga had an innate connection with the magic of childhood that he carried into his art. Mr. Duga was fittingly best known for his work on Frosty the Snowman, which debuted on television in 1969 and ran once a year ever since, and which taught millions of viewers the values of friendship, sacrifice and the magic of believing,” his family said in a statement.
He was born on Jan. 1, 1934 in Hollywood, California, the son of Joseph Duga and Bess Landau Duga.
After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Chouinard Art Institute, where he planned to be an abstract artist.
His life changed while studying with the famous animator Don Graham, who was hired by Disney to teach the animators how to draw Snow White.
“I was never going to be in animation,” Duga once told Dan’s Papers. “I was going to be a painter! But my drawing teacher said that you actually get paid if you do animation.”
After graduation he worked for United Pictures Association, which produced “Mr. Magoo” for television. Duga once described his big break into the industry working on Mr. Magoo, the creation of legendary John Hubley, who was blacklisted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Mr. Duga was called on to replace the head writer and took on all the aspects of creating the animation, including writing the stories, creating the storyboards, layouts and design.
A few years later, he drove his Volkswagen bus across the country, winding up in New York City. He landed a position as an art director for movies, television and commercials at Pelican Films, an animation studio on Madison Avenue.
While in New York, he met fellow artist Irra Vertbitsky, whom he later married.
Duga decided to try a new adventure when he found out he could ship his VW bus to Belgium for only $200. He and Verbitsky traveled around Europe before settling in Rome and then Milan, Italy, creating animation for Olivetti typewriters and other Italian products. They later moved back to Manhattan, married, and formed their own animation company, Polestar Films and Associated Arts, in 1976.
Duga’s career in animation included working with Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment, Sesame Street and individual animators such as Seamus Culhane and others. His work ran the gamut from the iconic Christmas specials, to Saturday morning cartoon classics such as “The Jackson 5ive” and “The Osmonds,” educational triumphs such as “Owen” (narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker) and “Goodnight, Gorilla,” as well as pop culture favorites like “Mad Monster Party”(with Phyllis Diller and Boris Karloff) and “The Last Unicorn” (featuring Mia Farrow and Jeff Bridges.)
Duga and Verbitsky won several awards including the prestigious Carnegie Medal for best children’s film of the year and the ASIFA East Award for their work on “Owen.”
Duga was a mentor to up-and-coming animators, teaching for 50 years at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Much-loved by his students, Duga formed lifelong bonds with many of them as they pursued their own careers in the “art of animation” as always referred to it. He taught his students classical animation techniques including hand-drawn storyboards and individually painted backgrounds.
Duga lived much of his life with his family in Greenwich Village, in New York City. In his later years he spent most of his time in the family summer home in Baiting Hollow, where he enjoyed kayaking and socializing on his beloved beach. He was a staple of the East End arts community, hosting annual art shows and crafting several special covers for Dan’s Papers.\
He is survived by his wife, Irra Verbitsky, his daughter, Amanita Duga-Carroll, his son, Brady Duga, and four grandchildren, Jacob, Kyle, Lila and Cameron, as well as by his son-in-law Bruce Carroll and daughter-in-law Gina Pisello. He was predeceased by his sister, Sharon Kamens and his brother, Lawrence Duga.
Duga donated his body to science, therefore there will not be a funeral. The family will have a private gathering, with plans for a public memorial later this summer.