The last time Cinema Studies professor Linda Simensky C’85 graced the pages of Street, she was an undergraduate dressed up in a Santa suit, vying for a title in the 1983 "Funny Photo Competition." Regrettably—and to her surprise (sort of)—she and her friends left bearing the title of Street’s "Stupidest Photo" instead.
With a chuckle, Simensky recalls the fond memory of her undergraduate years from her cozy home in Alexandria, VA: “34th Street has always had an attitude ... but I guess the photo wasn’t that funny in retrospect,” she says.
Simensky has now made her way back into the publication to tell a story of more definitive success, both on campus and around the world. As a Penn professor, she teaches various topics in animation, such as this semester's “The History of Children’s Television.” And as an expert in the animation industry, she has overseen the development of scores of animated television series, with a strong focus on children’s programming. Her IMDb page boasts around 100 movies and shows that the current generation of Penn students grew up with: Rugrats, Doug, Hey Arnold!, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Dinosaur Train, and Odd Squad, among others.
In the past 35 years, she’s held executive roles at Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and most recently PBS, where she currently serves as Head of Content for PBS KIDS. At PBS alone, Simensky has developed content that reaches 72 percent of all kids under eight years old in America on TV and 10.9 million monthly streamers online.
“I always loved cartoons as a kid—long past the point where you’re supposed to stop watching them.”
She notes a few self–titled "seminal moments" in the growth of this passion. First was when a group of friends in seventh grade went around quoting Bugs Bunny cartoons. “There must be some sort of shared thing about them that spoke to all of us,” she recalled. Next was a ninth–grade assignment in which she declared her career aspiration was to be a “writer for Bugs Bunny … even though it had been out of production for decades.”
Setting out to pursue this ineffable "shared thing," Simensky found the means to turn her passion into action at Penn. After attending a show of independent animated shorts at the Annenberg Center one night, she realized that the universal power of animation extended beyond the children’s shows that she had admired from afar.
“I was just fascinated by these cartoons ... I set out to learn as much as I possibly could.”
Since there were hardly any books on animation at that point, Simensky dug into the subject on her own. She soon found herself working late nights conducting her own research and tying animation into her coursework wherever possible. As soon as she graduated with a major in Communications, people were telling her, “‘You know, you could really teach this subject.'" Evidently, she agreed.
Simensky rose through the industry ranks quickly, first at Nickelodeon, whose animation department she helped build. She continued to study animation, earning a master’s from NYU before finding her first formal teaching position.
Meanwhile, she found herself at the helm of countless projects that all changed the media landscape for young people. As in the case of The Ren and Stimpy Show, some projects were even revolutionary in the themes they engaged—rebellious, to put it in her words.
In 2000, Simensky received the June Foray Award for her significant contributions to the art and industry of animation at large. She is also a past president of ASIFA–East and the founder of the New York chapter of Women in Animation.
“It’s hard to know why you love what you love,” says Simensky. “But this idea that you can tell any kind of story using any kind of animation has always been amazing to me.”
Amidst her illustrious career in television, Simensky has always found time to teach. First working at the School of Visual Arts in New York, she’s been a teacher throughout her career—though, fittingly, she prefers the term "lifelong learner." Since returning to Penn in 2013, she has been deeply engaged in her classes every Fall. Her course this semester will take students through the history of the children’s television industry, with a focus on the series, artistry, and figures who have touched many millions of lives.
While admitting that teaching takes a lot of time, and usually an interstate train ride, she still believes deeply in its value. “If you are studying the history of something, it really makes sense to be teaching it while studying it so you can follow what’s important,” she explains. “Plus, I love picking up on the energy that college students have.”
Simensky embraces the challenge of remote classes as a time for even more learning. “I’m actually starting to feel really excited about it,” she says. Quite animated herself, she has countless new ideas up her sleeve, like pulling in guest speakers from all over.
Likewise, Simensky has been helping guide PBS Kids through the current national climate. As the network rolls out topical specials on issues like racism—which it has never directly covered—Simensky is happy to see the “big steps” being made. “We can always do better, and we will continue to work on doing better,” she says. Her newest project, Elinor Wonders Why, a science show for preschoolers, just premiered on PBS KIDS on Monday, Sept. 7, and we can expect more on the way.
In the words of Bugs Bunny himself, "I know this defies the law of gravity, but I never studied law.” With a warm smile and a cat perched on her lap, Simensky reminds us that in the world of animation and imagination, we are limitless.