Don Duga: The Man Who Made Frosty

Frosty the Snowman is a jolly, happy soul, and so is the man who created him. Riverhead’s Don Duga has had a remarkably successful career. The good-natured artist is best known for his work on the seminal holiday classic Frosty the Snowman. “Frosty the Snowman kind of opened a lot of doors for me,” Duga says. “When you work on something, you kind of just do it and move on, but people liked it!”

Duga, originally from Hollywood, attended to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1958, where he wanted to study painting. “I was never going to be in animation,” Duga laughs. “I was going to be a painter! But my drawing teacher said that you actually get paid if you do animation.” The Chouinard Art Institute had many famous animators on its faculty, including Shamus Culhane, the lead animator of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. 

After graduating from Choinard, Duga storyboarded countless cartoons and projects, but Duga’s big break was at Rankin/Bass Productions. “I came to New York from California and lived in the Village,” he notes. “I met with Arthur [Rankin, Jr.] and Jules Bass; they had a little studio in the city, with a garden, and they called me in and gave me my first project, which was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The 1964 holiday special, which was animated with puppets, was far along in production and Duga didn’t get credited for the project. Rankin/Bass Productions’ holiday specials—including The Little Drummer Boy, Mad Monster Party, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town and more—helped the studio gain exposure, not only thanks to the animation, but the vocal talents as well. “Arthur was great at getting people [to perform]. He had a lot of great actors,” Duga says. Frosty the Snowman starred Jackie Vernon and Jimmy Durante.

Duga has lived in Riverhead since 1980. “When I lived in the Village, friends of mine were staying out here on the North Fork,” he recalls. “I went with them and fell in love with it.” Duga has a great fondness for Riverhead and is glad it’s experiencing a renaissance; he drew the September 2012 cover for Dan’s Papers featuring a whimsical version of the village.

Still a very active artist, Duga continues to work on special projects and shows. In July, he did 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. Most recently, Duga was a featured artist at 73 Main’s “Grey Gardens” exhibit, where he presented several paintings of the legendary mansion. The artist is currently preparing for his holiday show, which will open in December.

“I make up these cards with Frosty the Snowman in a parade [with the other characters] with a blank space, and when kids come in I draw them into the space,” he says with a smile. “There’s a lot of fun and festivity.” A staple of the East End art community, Duga’s work is a timeless treat that people of all ages can enjoy.

Dark Horse Restaurant, at 1 East Main Street, Riverhead, will host a holiday family luncheon with Don Duga and his art on Saturday, December 14, featuring  live music by pianist Andrew Wargo and guitarist Kris Ambrose. Duga will draw each child with Frosty in color as a souvenir gift. Call 631-208-0072 for reservations.

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