Next!

Top level managers seem to have found a popular new word in today’s business jargon. The word is, “Disruption,” and big shot senior VPs love to continually speak of disruption as though it were an end in itself. They don’t take into account disrupting things hardly guarantees moving forward. You don’t simply destroy old conventions and think all will be well. You still have work to do. You have to evolve. You have to consider what’s next. Back in early nineteen sixties, the Old Maestro, Walt Disney was focused on what was next and he called a meeting with some of his staffers. For the majority of the team, meetings with the boss were rare. Disney usually met with his top story guys, animators and department heads. However, this day was different. We met in a sweatbox on the second floor of the Animation Building because Walt Disney decided to address a number of his team. He wanted to share some very important news. And, what was that news, you might ask? It wasn’t about disruption…it was about what was next.

What indeed was next? If anything characterized Walt Disney it would have been his attitude of looking forward. Walt was a visionary always focused on the future and what was to come. He gave scant thought to past successes and achievements. On the other hand, Walt was never deterred by failures or missteps. These things were all part of his creative process and Disney was well known for embracing the future and sharing his exciting views with all who would listen. The fifties had been a creative and productive time for Walt Disney Productions. Walt had moved forward with his plan to continue making animated feature films, yet he also continued his new love for live-action storytelling. Disney had taken the bold step of plunging headlong into the new medium of television and taken the biggest risk of his career by building a sizable theme park in nearby Anaheim. Things could not have looked better for Walt when he held an armload of Academy Awards at a fifties Oscar ceremony. No doubt about it, the fifties had been amazing for the little Burbank cartoon studio. Yet, in the words of Al Jolson’s jazz singer in the Warner Bros. “Talkie,” Walt was eager to tell all, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

A hush fell over the crowed space as the Old Maestro stepped to the front of the room. Attired as always in a grey business suit, shirt and tie, Walt’s avuncular manner put everyone at ease and he immediately had our attention. Without the use of flashy powerpoint graphics or dazzling displays, the boss captivated the crowd by allowing us to share his vision of the upcoming decade. First of all, a new slate of animated and live-action films would add to Disney already profitable film library. That media treasure trove would be strengthen by the new medium of television and would allow new opportunities for creative storytelling. But wait, there’s more! Walt Disney Productions agreed to partner with the Worlds Fair to be held in New York City in 1964-65, where several brand new attractions would be created especially for the world famous exposition. What else? Walt Disney’s Imagineers were already hard at work creating concepts for a new ski resort to be constructed in California’s High Sierras. The mountain top vacation mecca would be dubbed, “Mineral King,” and would offer winter vacationeers the finest in ski slopes and other family attractions. Truly a winter wonderland, Walt could envision millions flocking to his snow covered paradise. A Walt Disney theme park in the high Sierras.

The Disney staffers looked at each other incredulously. Was Walt really going to do all this, they wondered? Far from done, the Old Maestro continued his pitch. Soon, Disneyland would have a sister park in Orlando Florida where Walt’s imagineers would finally have the “elbow room” to practice their theme park magic. Not wanting to repeat the mistake he made with the Anaheim park, Walt was making sure his Orlando theme park would have a “canvas” large enough to showcase his magical ideas and theme park attractions. However, there was another reason for the expansive Florida property on the opposite coast. That exciting news was saved for last and Walt Disney eagerly let us know what was next. EPCOT was next. And, what is EPCOT? It was Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. No longer content creating entertainment venues, Walt Disney Productions would move from fun and fanciful attraction makers to City Planners. They would create a sustainable working city that would serve as a model for urban development. EPCOT would not only be for cities across this great nation — but cities around the world.

Now, we knew what was next, and we had gained a glimpse of the incredible future Walt Disney had planned for us. No doubt Walt’s ideas were audacious. Some critics might have viewed Disney’s vision of the future a tad arrogant. Such opinions mattered little to The Old Maestro as he focused on the future. Sadly, things don’t always go as planned and Walt Disney would never see the Orlando theme park he so meticulously planned. He would never realize EPCOT or play a meaningful role in the way modern cities evolve. Even as his life came to a close that Thursday evening in Saint Josephs Hospital, the modern day visionary stared at the ceiling above his hospital bed. He saw his beloved theme park and the city of the future. “This is where we’re headed,” Walt must have pondered that quiet winter evening. “This is next.”

The amazing, Walt Disney. Back in the early sixties he shared what was next with members of his staff. I was lucky enough to be in the room.

The amazing, Walt Disney. Back in the early sixties he shared what was next with members of his staff. I was lucky enough to be in the room.

Filming Dr. King

The early sixties was a turbulent time. A time of social unrest along with a contentious war in South East Asia. Hippies railed against “The Man,” and racial tensions ran high. It was at this amazing time that a group of young black men decided to launch a Los Angeles film production company. We were not trying to settle social issues, we simply wanted to make movies. The sixties animation scene could hardly be called healthy. Even stable studios such as Disney saw the need to cut back. As our industry began to shrink, we saw even less opportunity for progress. This was not necessarily based on color, or ethnicity. There simply were not enough jobs for the few who worked in this odd, quickly business.

It was against this sixties backdrop we decided to launch our own company. It was called Vignette Films, Inc. and our mission hardly differed from the agenda of our colleagues. They were also bailing out of the few mainstream studios still around to go off on their own. Our white colleagues had an edge. In short time, they were able to obtain financing to launch their film business. We were not so fortunate. When presenting our business plan I do not joke when I say we were laughed out of every bank and loan company in Los Angeles. Back in the sixties the idea that four young black men would launch a movie company could only be called, ludicrous. Our fanciful dream probably would have come to an end, but a well to do investment banker in the La Canada area of the San Gabriel Valley came to our aid. He knew full well the challenges people of color faced in the sixties. Deciding to bypass his own financial institution, he loaned us the money from his personal funds. Call it white guilt or generosity, we soon had the money needed and Vignette Films launched in a suite of offices in what is now know as Korea Town near the Wilshire District of Los Angeles.

You’ve probably already heard the story of the 1965 Watts Riot and Roy Edward Disney’s 16mm Bolex movie camera. However, there’s another story and this one concerns a film trip to document a fiery young preacher who was stirring up the Pre Civil Rights American South by staging, Sit Ins and other acts of civil disobedience. Long denied their rights as American citizens, the Southern Blacks had finally had enough. I won’t bore you with the history here because you should already know it. If you don’t, I implore you to please learn it. We were a struggling young company and hardly able to afford flight tickets to the Southern States. Yet, there was no way we could pass on this history making opportunity. We decided to buy cameraman, Eddie Smith an airplane ticket. Armed with his cameras and a stack of Kodak film, Smith headed to Alabama to document what we already knew would someday be history. You probably already know the rest of the story. The sixties continued to rage on as a divided country grappled with social issues, a lost war in South East Asia and the bitterness between two Americas. Each side seemed convinced they would be proven right by history. Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it? It would appear some things never change.

The nineteen sixties was a long time ago. Yet, when I look at issues today I wonder how much we’ve changed as a nation. In some ways we’ve grown a great deal. Yet, I look at the talented people I’ve worked with at Hollywood’s cartoon studios who may well be wearing jack boots and goose stepping down Cahuenga Boulevard. They truly believe our president is taking America in the right direction. It would appear we may not have grown as much as I thought.

DrKing.jpeg

The Ultimate Businessman

 

The world lost Walt Disney this month back in December 1966. With his passing, the world of entertainment lost an amazing man. Walt Disney was an exceptional businessman and a remarkable innovator. He was a visionary and a unique creator who never seemed to run out of ideas. He began his career as a scruffy young film maker in Kansas City and in time he would migrate to Hollywood where he would confound his critics by building an entertainment empire. Even with his success, Disney regretted not having a college education. Yet, his skills as a businessman would soon be evident. A man of his time, Walt Disney had the scrappy determinism of an American entrepreneur and totally believe success could be found through hard work and the sincere belief in a dream. 

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of young graduates right out of business school. Eager and passionate, most couldn’t wait to get their careers underway. Like Olympic athletes at the starting line, they were ready to sprint toward the finish line leaving their competitors in the dust. I’ll not mention their names, but these bright young people eventually moved up the ladder and a few even managed to garner the coveted title of CEO. As expected, they found a home in today’s top media companies. I’m hardly a business type and probably couldn’t tell you the first thing about running a company. My job is making the stuff that’s usually marketed by these companies. I’m a Disney animator and an artist. I’ve spent my career as a filmmaker, storyteller and maker of magic. However, even the business of magic is still business after all. However, Walt Disney never attended business school. Though totally self taught, the Old Maestro could easily have taught us all a thing or two.

So, how exactly does one manage magic you might ask? I can’t think of a better example than my old boss, Walt Disney. We called him “The Old Maestro” because Disney conducted his remarkable enterprise from his tinsel town podium. Much like the Sorcerer in Fantasia, his baton could easily have been a magic wand. With a confident wave, Disney could command a platoon of living broomsticks or turn a little wooden puppet into a real boy. He could teach an elephant to fly or transform a pumpkin into a glistening silver carriage. Confident with his movie product, Walt fearlessly entered the medium of television when Hollywood studio executives deemed the new medium a threat. Walt Disney recognized an ally when he saw one and was determine to use the emerging new platform to sell his product. I arrived at the studio in the fifties during what could only be called a creative explosion. Along with his live-action and animated film product, Walt had entered television and constructed a theme park in nearby Anaheim. As far as Disney was concern, the sky was the limit.

The decade of the sixties provided more creative and business opportunities and Disney met them head on. He partnered with the New York City Worlds Fair in 1964 and pondered  the construction of a ski resort in California’s high Sierras. A new theme park in Florida was on his agenda along with what might be called the biggest gamble of his long career. No longer satisfied with simply providing entertainment venues, the Old Maestro began planning his city of Tomorrow on the vast properties he had acquired near his theme park venue. By caprice, I found myself working with Walt Disney in 1966 on what would be his final film project. Seriously ill with only months to live, Disney continued his role as creative leader. Not a person on our team was the wiser because the Old Maestro worked with the same furious determination that characterized most of  his career. Then, suddenly he was gone.

Walt Disney’s remarkable enterprise continues to enjoy success today. Yet, I’d venture few at his amazing magic factory know much about the man who co-founded the company. Some may have childhood memories of the avuncular television host who introduced fanciful stories about princesses and bunny rabbits. Some might compare Walt Disney to a PT Barnum like pitchman who sold fanciful dreams to an eager public. However, there was nothing cynical about Walt Disney. He truly believed in his special mix of business and magic. Lucky for us, we believe it as well.

Totally self taught, the Old Maestro could easily have taught us all a thing or two about business.

Totally self taught, the Old Maestro could easily have taught us all a thing or two about business.

"BushHead"

If you’re an animation geek you’ve probably heard of all the animated cartoon features that were produced over the last twenty years. Should you really be into this odd and quickly business you may even know a few of the motion pictures that never made it through the production process and realized as a finished film. This is the story of one such cartoon film and you’ve probably never even heard of it. The feature length animated movie was titled, “BushHead,” and it is a tale worth telling.

Here’s how the story goes. Back in the seventies I was busily animating for a sizable animation company here in the Southland when I was summoned to a late evening meeting in a Sunset Boulevard tower. I parked my vehicle on the street (yes, there was parking still available back then) and headed into the building. Suddenly I realized this was no ordinary enterprise. I found myself in the swanky Hollywood offices of MoTown where it appeared every women you met was either a singer, actress or model. I guess I hadn’t been paying attention when the famous hit record company decided to pull up their Detroit stakes and head west for Tinsel Town and a fling with the glamorous movie business. I’m sure you remember Motown as the legendary record company that nurtured and developed the recording stars of the sixties. It was an impressive list topped by, Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. Of course, that list included, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. But, we’ll get to Smokey in a minute. Motown provided the living soundtrack for many kids growing up during that turbulent and exciting time. These thoughts swirled through my head as I was directed upstairs to the Penthouse where my animation colleagues would be awaiting my arrival.

As expected, the Hollywood penthouse was expansive with a view of the city along with paneled walls and a well stocked bar. My animation colleagues lounged on plush sofas scattered throughout the large room as they enjoyed the Southern California sunset. At that point in my career I had attended meetings at a fair number of Hollywood studios but none quite like this. It was already evident this cartoon venture was going to be unlike any other in my long career. What was this cartoon experiment, you ask? It was called, “BushHead,” and the animated film was the brainchild of popular entertainer, Smokey Robinson. You see, back in the seventies, animation had become comatose. Nothing exciting was coming out of the mainstream studios and only filmmaker, Ralph Bakshi dared challenge the cartoon status quo. It was a time ripe with opportunity for young animated filmmakers eager to try something new. Lucky for us, we had just that. Our little team consisted of top filmmakers from every studio in town. Our film idea was novel and unique and didn’t include blonde European princesses. Set in prehistoric Africa, our animated characters were black. You heard right. This film would feature a black hero, a black princess and a black villain. No animation studio in history had ever attempted a black animated musical and we were going to be the first.

Before long, the penthouse walls were filled with incredible development artwork and gorgeous background paintings. My little story team cranked out a series of storyboards in a large room toward the back of the penthouse suite. I still remember the gaudy, gilt encrusted bathroom where Donald Trump would have felt at home. There would be music, of course, and songwriter, Smokey Robinson would deliver a marvelous score that would have the film audience jumping out of their seats. In time, the art and storyboards were ready to show, and our audience would be none other than the Motown titan himself, Berry Gordy. We were all brimming with anticipation on the day of the presentation. The president of the successful record company arrived with a good deal of fanfare and made his way around the room shaking hands with the development team. Our creative director was in charge of making the pitch to Mr. Gordy, but before long, world famous entertainer, Smokey Robinson could no longer contain himself. Smokey literally jumped into the movie pitch and began acting out the story. When it came to our evil villain, the Witch Doctor, Smokey stood on a chair, waved his arms and began doing incantations. The entire room erupted in cheers and applause and it was a performance I doubt I’ll ever forget.

For one reason or another, “BushHead” the motion picture would never see the light of day. The film languished in turnaround and was eventually forgotten. Universal and Motown focused their attention on another movie project that seemed to have more promise. It was a movie version of the Broadway hit, “The Wiz.” Frankly, I think they put their money on the wrong project. In many ways, “BushHead” could have had a profound impact on popular culture in the seventies. Much the same way “Yellow Submarine” and The Beatles defined the sixties. But, such was not to be. “BushHead” was the animated black musical feature film that never got made. It joins other forgotten chapters in my “animated book.” A book that, on occasion, I’m willing to share with you.

 

 

Making the animated pitch at Motown in the seventies. We were ready to turn animation on its ear, but such was not to be.

Making the animated pitch at Motown in the seventies. We were ready to turn animation on its ear, but such was not to be.