Asked for the story, Roth, 83, chuckles and says, "You got a minute?" He's speaking from the New York City home he shares with his wife of 60 years, Caroline.
He has an easy laugh - necessary in the business of art and publishing - as he tells how he got into UArts, then known as Philadelphia Museum School of the Industrial Arts.
"The war had just ended," Roth says, "and the only people who got scholarships were women in the service, vets on the G.I. bill, and me. I was lucky. Yet, at a strict school such as this, I managed to always be late. Always. They put me on probation after a year, and after the second year, I was expelled. They didn't need any free customers, so they let me go. Years after that, I was told a story by someone I knew: During a faculty meeting, this woman - my drawing and painting instructor - said, 'Before we sit down, I want to discuss this boy Arnold Roth. When he came to this school he was a genius, but he has not improved.' "
Roth laughs heartily. "At least she was thinking of me."
He was never tardy again, making certain, during his first paid gigs for TV Guide, that no deadline went ignored. "Maybe if they had paid me to go to school ... " he giggles. Roth went back to UArts after several years, but because of a health situation in his family, he never finished: "That's when I started freelancing - in 1948, '49." He recalls trying his hand at early television cartoon animation and some minor jobs in Philly. "But I would have graduated in 1950, which is why they list me as Class of '50."
He loves his alma mater and adores the city he hails from: "I'm an expatriate from a city I miss all the time." He spent his formative years here, got married here, had his children here, started his freelance career here. "I was drawing since I was 2, maybe earlier," he says. "I don't remember when I wasn't drawing."
Roth grew up in North Philly at the corner of Marshall and Montgomery between Bayuk Cigars and Stetson Hats, born "just in time to not miss one minute of the Great Depression." His grandmother owned a corner candy store in an area where Eastern European Jews and African Americans newly arrived from the South ("don't forget to mention the Albanians") mingled. That meant the young Roth got an eyeful. "It was such a rich area and time. Like Peter Pan, I didn't want to grow up."
He missed Saturday afternoon movies with his friends to take free illustration classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Sketch Club in the Italian Market. He went to college for illustration, not because he was pushed but because he had a knack: "I had the sort of family where if you were good at something - anything at all - perhaps that would be your life's calling."
Roth isn't the only star in the UArts galaxy that will be part of the annual fundrasier. "ArtUnleashed showcases many well-known UArts alumni, including Adam Wallacavage, who's received national recognition for his unique octopus chandeliers," said Sean Buffington, UArts president. "Marc Williams, a goldsmith whose jewelry pieces have been worn by artists at the Country Music Awards, has work in the show, as does Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney, and Deb Willis, who was named by Photography magazine as one of the 100 most important people in photography."
Most importantis where ArtUnleashed's money is going:"Proceeds go to the University's Sam S. McKeel Promising young Artists Scholarship Fund," Buffington says,"which has helped more than 5,000 students through more than $100 million in scholarships."
Roth never intended his cutting line characters to have the look they do. He just let the line look like handwriting. After loving and copying Mickey Mouse and Popeye cartoons as a child, as a teenager he became a fan of British political cartoonists like W.K. Haselden. That affection stood him in good stead when he began illustrating Great Britain's smartly humorous Punch magazine in the early '60s.
"I was a real Anglophile," he says. "The films, the books. At great expense I subscribed to Punch before I started working for them." When he did start freelancing, the editors loved him immediately and even offered Roth the famed "Report from America" column that writer P.G. Wodehouse had before him. "He stopped writing connecting sentences," laughs Roth, who illustrated the column for more than 20 years.
He also penned a syndicated comic strip titled "Poor Arnold's Almanac" that ran below "Peanuts" when Walter Annenberg owned the Inquirer. "Annenberg loved that strip," says Roth enthusiastically, recalling, too, the covers he drew for The Inquirer's Sunday magazine. "Don't worry. You don't owe me money," he teases.
Roth has two grown sons, Charles and Adam, but he speaks of his greatest hits as if they're children, too. He's wild about the Humblug.com blog that he, a self-professed "computer illiterate," crafts with his wife. "She's so very good with witty captions, and when presented with my fait accompli knows how to imaginatively exploit the medium," he says. The locally-produced TV Guide covers that put him on the map and the "Illustrated History of Sex" that he drew for Playboy are his babies. "Can you imagine how delightful a job that was?" says Roth. " Hefner's a smart guy and a funny guy. He wanted to be a cartoonist, poor guy."
In particular, Roth recalls his work for the New Yorker - the go-to magazine for the smart set. He laughs when considering the intellectual differences between that storied publication and his work for, say, Sports Illustrated. "You imagine that some magazines have a more sophisticated taste and understanding, sure, but I don't draw them any differently," says Roth. The same thing holds true of anything he draws these days. "I won't do something on information the reader does not have at their command. It's like telling a joke about your uncle - if you have to spend an hour describing him, it's not funny."