Going nuts! Alum’s peanut-driven animations charm audiences

Ron McAdow, AB’71, began filmmaking journey in the kitchen of his Hyde Park apartment

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

“Are the peanuts going to eat the fork?”

That possibility weighed heavily on one little girl during a recent Saturday afternoon at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Sitting among other children and parents, she had just finished watching Hank the Cave Peanut, an animated short in which a pith-helmeted legume leads a successful hunt for an untamed fork.

For director Ron McAdow, AB’71, the MoMA screening and Q&A marked the latest stop on a filmmaking journey that began at the University of Chicago, where he’d turned his apartment dining room into a makeshift studio.

McAdow didn’t enroll at UChicago with plans for a career in animation, regarding the campus as a place where his “serious academic interests could be nurtured.” What unfolded was a process of elimination. He liked to write but didn’t want to major in English. He was drawn to anthropology and the social sciences, but a student job in the sociology department convinced him not to pursue academia.

Still, the 69-year-old reflects fondly on the intellectual community he found at UChicago. As a student in the College, McAdow found joy in learning not only from preeminent scholars, but from discussions with his fellow students. For the self-described “generalist,” the interdisciplinary curriculum helped spark the ideas in his filmmaking.

“I was so interested in culture,” said McAdow, who graduated with a degree in tutorial studies. “It was natural for me to do a coming-of-age kind of story.”

Back home in Champaign, Illinois, McAdow spent a summer filling potholes with Kevin Brown, a high school friend who had begun exploring object animation with a Super 8 camera. When the two were laid off, they got serious about messing around with Brown’s new toy. That fall, McAdow returned to UChicago with a used camera of his own.

Soon, he decided to try making animated films for children. He experimented with coins and other household objects in his tabletop animations, but peanuts became the anthropomorph of choice “because they were so charismatic.” McAdow would open the shells carefully, filling in a bit of sand before gluing them back together as characters.

“You didn’t have to paint any eyes because people just project a face onto them,” he said.

The Super 8 movies he made in his apartment on Hyde Park Boulevard became a hit on the student party circuit. After McAdow graduated, he and Brown moved to Holliston, Massachusetts, creating short segments for the television show Jabberwocky.

McAdow followed up on Jabberwocky with two longer independent shorts: Hank the Cave Peanut (1974), which led to a gig on the math-oriented program Infinity Factory, and Captain Silas (1977). He distributed the films himself to libraries and nonprofits, one of which later sold copies to MoMA. Last summer, the museum purchased a digital version from McAdow to use in their screenings.

During the Q&A in February, he was delighted by the children’s wonder and suspension of disbelief. Questions like the one from the girl who worried about the fork confirmed that his low-tech productions could still resonate with modern viewers.

“I thought it was very sweet,” said McAdow, who assured the girl that the peanuts would domesticate the fork as a working animal. “It’s touching, and it makes the storyteller feel connected to the audience.”

McAdow still worked with children even after he stopped animating peanuts, spending much of the 1970s teaching teaching English, math, science and history to elementary and middle schoolers. He continued to stoke his creative fires through writing: a newspaper column, canoeing guides to the Sudbury and Charles rivers in Massachusetts—Hank includes a nod to McAdow’s lifelong passion for paddling—and two novels.

A subsequent career in educational software kept him abreast of the latest digital tools. He now applies those to creating animated backdrops to the stories he tells each fall at a wildlife sanctuary near his home in Massachusetts—an alternative for “families that want to do something besides go to the mall the day after Thanksgiving.” His latest tale, “The Sky Worm,” is peanut-free, and no forks are harmed.

“As long I have all my marbles,” McAdow said, “I’ll be telling stories in one medium or another.”

——Adapted from a story that first appeared in the University of Chicago Magazine