The Sudden Change

It was December 1983. Once again, I found myself unemployed and it was time to search for a job. However, I was in for a surprise because this time around the jobs came searching for me. Before I could put my portfolio together the phone calls began. Several animation studios around town had heard I was available and wanted me on their team. After years of making the rounds hat in hand, I suddenly found myself in demand. Who knew? I received a number of offers, but the one I eventually chose paid the least amount of money but was the coolest. I accepted a job at the Walt Disney studio as a writer. After years of bouncing around town I knew it was time to settle down. What better place than the same studio where I began my career several years ago. I’m not exactly sure why I decided to return. In a strange, special way the Walt Disney studio felt like home. On a cool December day in 1983 I reported to work at the Disney Burbank campus. The campus where I had already spent a good deal of my career. My new boss hired me as an editor in the publishing unit of Disney’s Consumer Products Division. Unlike the world of motion pictures, an editor in publishing does not cut film, so it took me a while to get used to that title. My initial assignment was to write a silly little story about Goofy buying hi-fi equipment. Once the story was well received I was then asked to create gag ideas for the daily Donald Duck comic strip. I think the regular writer (Bob Foster) of the Donald Duck comic strip was on vacation. In time I was handed all kinds of writing assignments involving the Disney characters. It became evident I had made the right career choice. The work was enjoyable and the staffers were talented, friendly and funny. I was given a name tag, a silver pass to Disneyland, and a parking space on the Disney Burbank campus. The prodigal son had finally found his way home.

All was not well at the Mouse House, however and the studio had not done well in the post Walt Disney era. The Disney board of directors had grown old, stodgy, and completely unable to compete in the new Hollywood. Walt Disney’s son in law, Ron Miller had been promoted to CEO and struggled to revitalize the studio. Sadly, Miller met nothing but resistance as he tried to move the company forward. While George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were enjoying phenomenal success as family filmmakers, Disney seemed totally out of touch with a market they once owned. Green mailers were hammering at the studio gates and for a time it looked as though the house that Walt built might be dismantled. In the company’s darkest hour a ray of light shown through. One quiet afternoon, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells arrived at 500 South Buena Vista to rescue Walt Disney Productions from itself. It was clear the cure would not be easy. The company needed a massive dose of strong medicine and it was not going to be pleasant. I observed Michael Eisner and Frank Wells strolling around the Burbank studio lot giving things the once over. It was evident that things were about to change and I warned the faint of heart it was time to take cover. Overnight, whole departments that had been around since the thirties were dismantled. Employees who had been with the company thirty years or more were given their pink slips. There was even a name change. Walt Disney Productions was now the Walt Disney Company. Little family Disney was about to become a big time corporation and I had no doubt things would never be the same.

Things looked pretty much the same at the eighties Walt Disney Studio. However, massive changes were on the horizon.

Things looked pretty much the same at the eighties Walt Disney Studio. However, massive changes were on the horizon.

Disney in the Sixties

I tend to do multiple things when I’m working. I like the idea of bouncing from one idea to the next. Besides my art projects, I’ve continued to write. Although I have no idea what my next book will be, it will almost certainly include the cartoon business and my years with Walt Disney Studios.

I began doing my “inside” animation gag sketches back in the sixties. It appeared no one else was drawing studio gags any longer and I hated to see such a longstanding animation tradition die. The way Disney films were being made had changed a good deal and the animation staff was just a shadow of what it had been earlier. Walt Disney was now tooling around the studio lot in a little electric vehicle with a Nixon/Lodge bumper sticker taped to the back. His thoughts were on the Mineral King winter resort project in the high Sierras and a new Disney park in Orlando Florida. Walt’s son in law, Ron Miller had joined the company and the Disney television shows were now being telecast in living color.

Amusing things happened in those days. One morning a little old woman in a horse and wagon showed up at the studio main gate. Believe me, it’s true. Somehow this woman had braved the San Fernando Valley vehicular traffic in a horse and carriage. The woman had traveled miles to personally deliver a manuscript to Walt Disney. Any other studio boss would have ignored the incident. However, Walt Disney left his third floor office and walked out to the main gate to meet with the strange little woman. I spoke briefly with Mr. Disney after the meeting. By chance, the two of us took the same path back to the Animation Building. He chuckled and remarked, “The world is full of peculiar people.” This simple gesture impressed me. Can you imagine the CEO of any company doing that today? Rumors of gloom and doom seemed to permeate the Walt Disney Studio as each successive feature wound down. Every film I worked on was rumored to be the last. It was often said that Walt was going shut the whole thing down and just build theme parks. I must admit that the canceling of a proposed feature, "Chanticleer" and the selling of dozens of animation and layout desks did not inspire confidence in a secure future. In spite of my own and everyone else’s worries, I enjoyed doing a number of “Walt gags” as he fired everyone. Animation artists are a hardy sort and most continued to plunge ahead in spite of an uncertain future. They organized an outdoor art show to prove that creativity was alive and well at the Walt Disney Studio. Included in the show was a large poster that read: To Walt with appreciation. I drew a cartoon gag of the poster because most joked that it was the only painting in the show Walt really liked.

Every day provided more fodder for jokes as Disney’s animators and directors deliberated over the craziest of things. What would be the shape of Winnie the Pooh’s hands and would he have a thumb? Would Ravi Shankar provide sitar music for "The Jungle Book” or would the songs be performed by the Beatles? With Walt Disney in charge my material for cartoon gags seemed endless. Would it be another disastrous story meeting or the Old Maestro agonizing through one of his filmed television show introductions out on the sound stage? This was the end of an era. Mary Poppins was a big hit, the Nine Old Men were in their prime and Walt Disney showed no signs of slowing down. I didn’t attempt to save all the cartoons I drew during this time. There must be a ton of drawings and sketches probably lost or forgotten. This was back before Xerox and nobody thought much about saving anything. If I had all the cartoons cels and animation drawings I threw out I’d more than likely be rich today.

It was the nineteen sixties and a good time to be working at the Walt Disney Studios. In spite of many challenges, the Old Maestro was still our leader and you couldn't do better than that.

It was the nineteen sixties and a good time to be working at the Walt Disney Studios. In spite of many challenges, the Old Maestro was still our leader and you couldn't do better than that.

Animation Expo

I truly enjoyed myself at CTN Expo this past weekend. The annual show is a feast for the eyes and the insightful panels provide an insider view of the cartoon industry rarely seen at art institutions. It’s a mix of animation veterans and eager young kids looking for a way into this rather odd and quirky business. This is an incredible show and I’m amazed we continue to have naysayers when the show comes around each year. The critics are talented, experienced colleagues who are part of the animation industry. Do they not care there’s a show that celebrates our incredible art form? Or, realize that ComicCons and other shows have long since lost interest in the cartoon business and given us the back seat in favor of the big, blockbuster comic book franchises? Here is a show for animation professionals! Why the hell would you not support it?

I chalk the whole thing up to apathy. It has plagued the cartoon business since my arrival back in 1956. Let’s face it. Animation professionals have always taken the back seat. I still remember the lack of respect given artists over the years. Everything from being excluded from studio wrap parties to not getting a screen credit. By the seventies, some of these issues were addressed. However, in spite of its incredible earning power animation has always been the bastard child in the movie industry. Today, everybody wants to climb aboard the cartoon bandwagon. And, no wonder. Animated films make a crapload of money. That’s why I love CTN. Animation professional are not only given respect - they’re celebrated. And in my view, that’s a good thing.

Okay, let’s move on. While at the expo I had the opportunity to view some vintage Disney animation art. Most were pencil sketches from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty - or, so it would seem. The sketches were on bonafide six and a half field Disney three hole punched animation paper complete with the old fashioned peg reinforcements we used back in the olden days. However, the sketches were a cause for concern because I worked on Sleeping Beauty back in the fifties. Had I delivered sketches like these to Marc Davis, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas or Ollie Johnston, I would have had my head handed to me. The Donald Duck photograph below is indeed a sample of original Disney art from the nineteen fifties and this is the real deal. How do I know this you ask? Because I made the damn sketch back in 1956 While working for Volus Jones, Al Coe and Bob Carlson. Hardly a stellar sketch, it’s more on model than the “original” stuff I observed at the Expo.

Okay, enough said. I need to take Elsa’s advice and, let it go - let it go. Overall, I had a grand time at the Annual CTN Expo and can’t wait until next year. With any luck, the eager kids attending the animation show will probably be my boss.

An original animation drawing from 1956 Disney. Is it real? I was the guy who made the sketch.

An original animation drawing from 1956 Disney. Is it real? I was the guy who made the sketch.

The Ascent of Walt

As you can imagine, I have enormous respect for Walt Disney and consider the man an American icon. If you’ve taken the time to read any of the biographies written about the Old Maestro you already know what a remarkable individual he was. I had the rare opportunity to come to the Walt Disney Studio when Walt still ruled over his kingdom. Over time, I was granted the opportunity to work with the boss and even attended private meetings on occasion. What’s even more remarkable, I was allowed to do this while still a know nothing kid.

Walt Disney was tough task master and he demanded nothing less than our best. He had the remarkable ability to focus like a laser and nothing escaped his watchful eye. His intuition when it came to story telling was amazing and I’ll confess he was rarely wrong when pin pointing a problem. Disney was a gifted story editor who made every sequence in a film that much better. Though I’ve often portrayed the boss as dour and grumpy, I’ll admit I was just having fun. Walt displayed a healthy sense of humor and enjoyed a joke as much as anyone.

I have no doubt the Old Maestro would smile if he saw himself portrayed in this series of cartoon drawings. Actually, most of us could probably sum up our lives in a few cartoon sketches as well. There’s something about cartoon drawings that are clear, concise and to the point. My sketches begin with a brash, young Walt Disney eager to prove himself as an artist and filmmaker. The second sketch portrays a totally confident Walt at the top of his game. Having added a few pounds, the fifties Walt was already world famous and no longer needed to prove himself. Though older, he still had the drive and enthusiasm of a young man. I knew the sixties Walt, and I often portrayed him as the grumpy boss. It was all in fun, of course. Disney still managed to retain his youthful enthusiasm even though his health was failing.

This time of year should always be the most joyous, yet it remains less so for me. November and December continues to be remembered as a time of loss. The loss of friends, family members and my old boss, Walt Disney. Perhaps I’m using this cartoon sketch to lighten things up and enjoy a chuckle and a fun look at a remarkable life.