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Cleveland native Joe Siracusa of Spike Jones and His City Slickers dies at 99

Spike Jones Joe Siracusa_NBC 1952.jpg
Joe Siracusa (far right, next to a plastic recreation of his head) was born in Cleveland in 1922 and drummed with Spike Jones (left) from 1946 until 1952. After that, Siracusa transitioned to a three-decade career as an animation editor, working with Dr. Seuss, Stan Lee, Chuck Jones, and numerous others. Siracusa died Saturday.

A Cleveland native who made a lasting impact in the worlds of music and animation has died at age 99.

When Spike Jones played the Cleveland Palace Theatre in 1946, the bandleader was accosted backstage by a young man who auditioned on the spot to join the band. Drummer Joe Siracusa was hired and toured the world for the next six years as drummer for the City Slickers. The group appeared on NBC’s “All-Star Revue” January 12, 1952:

By the mid-50s, Siracusa had transitioned to a career in animation, editing everything from “Popeye” to Looney Tunes to the “Muppet Babies” over the next three decades. He was editor for this Road Runner short, "Chaser On the Rocks," released Christmas Day 1965.

A list of Siracusa's many credits is here. One of the specials he worked on was 1977's "Halloween is Grinch Night." During a 1998 interview for the Animation Guild’s “Tales From Termite Terrace and Other Tooneries,” he explained how his background with Spike Jones’ offbeat musical style prepared him for animation.

“With my musical background, they let me work with music. And with my sound effects background, I started recording sound effects. And within two years, I was a supervising film editor there.”

Writer/producer Mark Evanier wrote this in-depth piece on Siracusa’s career and says many musicians who had worked with Spike Jones found their way into the animation world. Siracusa remembered how versatile those fellow musicians were in building props and devising visual gags. In this 2009 video, Siracusa explained the double bass with a false back, the glasses which allowed a singer to spurt water during a “crying” song, and a bass clarinet with a secret inside the bell.

Siracusa's son, Steve, followed his father into the business, working as an editor, film archivist, safety instructor.

"My father was a very charismatic person," he said. "He loved people and he loved entertaining. It didn't matter if he was on a stage or if he was at the kitchen table eating dinner, he pulled out his harmonica and starts playing and singing and was a very joyful, happy person. Not an arrogant guy at all."

Steve says his father grew up on Cleveland's east side and went to John Adams High School -- at the same time as composer Al Lerner, future Congressman and Cuyahoga County Commissioner Frank Pokorny, and Phillip Shriver, who served as president of Miami University from 1965-81. Joe Siracusa made occasional trips back to Northeast Ohio, and still has a sister in the area. But Steve says his father was very in-demand in Los Angeles during a three-decade career in animation.

"He took that Spike Jones noisemaker stuff and brought it into animation. He first started working on 'The Alvin Show' and 'Rocky & Bullwinkle' and so he brought the sound effects into his editing, adding them all into the soundtrack. He was really gifted at it and he just he could make noises with his mouth and so forth."

Joe Siracusa was the last living member of Spike Jones’ backing group. He died Saturday. A 2015 tribute from the Motion Picture & Television Fund is available here:

Kabir Bhatia joined WKSU as a Reporter/Producer and weekend host in 2010. While a Kent State student, Bhatia served as a WKSU student assistant, working in the newsroom and for production.