"Concept" part one

Let me tell you about a motion picture you’ve never seen. It’s a movie you’ve probably never even heard of. The title of the film is, “Concept,” and it was produced and directed by my dear friend, the late, Jim Fletcher. The motion picture was created for the Hollywood Museum project and it’s a fascinating story that takes us back to the Walt Disney Studios in the early sixties, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

I was speaking with a Los Angeles journalist who had recently seen the interesting and unusual motion picture. The screening took place at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. What was this odd movie he wondered, and why would the Disney Studios be in procession of the only print? I told the journalist I was not only aware of the film, but I had even worked on the project decades ago. “Concept” was the motion picture sales pitch for the Hollywood Museum. A museum that would celebrate the history of the motion picture industry and the pioneers of this marvelous medium called, movie making. The Hollywood Museum would be a massive film archive and a repository of movie scripts, costumes and other memorabilia of motion picture production. Naturally, there would be interviews and recordings of film directors, actors and screenwriters all available to the eager film student doing his or her research. The Museum Project had the backing of the Hollywood elite as well as the generous support of Walt and Roy Disney. However, more on that in a moment.

An avid movie buff, Jim Fletcher was a good friend of the late actress, Debbie Reynolds. Ms Reynolds had been collecting movie costumes that she hoped would one day find a permanent home in a museum celebrating movie making. At the time no such venue existed but it didn’t stop a group of Hollywood notables working together to create such a museum. Better yet, Hollywood civic leaders had already donated a sizable chunk of property across from the Hollywood Bowl to be the museum’s permanent home. Still, a museum of that size would be a sizable investment and constructing the state of the art facility would cost millions. Could the money be raised, they wondered? Jim Fletcher had an idea. What if he utilized Hollywood’s considerable star power and the support of the major studios to get the ball rolling. Perhaps local politicians might even decide to lend a hand. It was hardly a crazy idea. Millions of film buffs flocked to Tinsel Town every year. A Museum celebrating the movies could generate millions from eager tourists visiting La La Land from around the world.

The Walt Disney Studios was the first Hollywood major to show their generosity. Walt and Roy Disney were totally committed to the museum project and opened their studio doors to the museum project. Producer, Jim Fletcher and his team moved into a wing on the second floor of the Animation Building to begin their work on what would be an elaborate sales pitch to Hollywood’s elite. Before long, Fletcher had a list of movie celebrities tacked to his storyboards. It was an impressive list that included, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, Art Linkletter, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Nat King Cole, Edward G. Robinson and singer, Peggy Lee to name a few. The Disney artists began to snicker behind Fletcher’s back. How was he going to get this list of Hollywood notables to lend their talents without pay? The mocking abruptly stopped one Monday morning as Jim Fletcher walked to his Disney office with a tall, distinguished gentleman by his side. Our jaws dropped as we looked up from our animation drawing boards to see the celebrated actor, Gregory Peck. Apparently, my pal was going to make a movie after all, and he seemed to have no problem signing up an impressive list of top Hollywood stars.

To be continued.

A rare piece of visual development from the motion picture. The work is by the Los Angeles artist and illustrator, Joseph Mugnaini. The artist also collaborated with noted author, Ray Bradbury.

A rare piece of visual development from the motion picture. The work is by the Los Angeles artist and illustrator, Joseph Mugnaini. The artist also collaborated with noted author, Ray Bradbury.

Another Retta

Perhaps some of you amateur Disney historians are knowledgeable about Disney’s first female animator. After all, the talented young woman even has a credit on the Walt Disney feature film, “Bambi.” It’s not surprising that Retta Scott has been an inspiration for a many a young woman hoping for a career in cartoon animation. Unfortunately, I never met Retta Scott, but I did meet and work with another Retta. This particular Retta, (not Ms Scott,) is the subject of this animation profile. Over the years, I’ve heard a fair amount of talk about animation having little appeal for women. Yet, when I think back to my arrival at the Walt Disney studio in the middle fifties I recall an animation department with no shortage of women. Animation had an enormous appeal to a lot of young artists and a fair number of them were women. “Sleeping Beauty” was the feature film currently in production and the animation in this particular Disney movie required a high level of drawing ability and meticulous attention to detail. It seemed women were particularly skilled at doing this job. One of the many women I met and had the pleasure of working with was Retta Davidson. Years earlier, a young Miss Davidson, who had always wanted to be an artist, began her career right out of high school when she was only seventeen years of age. The Walt Disney studio hired her as a painter on the feature film, “Pinocchio.” When Walt Disney created his sprawling, utopian facility in Burbank, Retta Davidson continued working in the ink & paint department on the movies’ “Bambi” and “Fantasia.”

In the nineteen forties, the United States found itself on a war footing and many a young man left the comforts of home to join the military. This included several Disney artists, who put down their pencils and brushes to join the war effort. Because of the shortage of manpower at the studio, many Ink & Paint women were suddenly being considered for jobs in the animation department. Retta was one of the few considered for training as an animator. Putting service to her country over her own personal ambitions, Retta left this opportunity to join the United States Navy where she served for four years before returning to Hollywood to complete her military service. Once the war ended, Retta accepted a position as an assistant animator at the Walt Disney Studio where she worked for a dozen or so animators. Good assistants were highly sought after, the Retta was always in demand. Never expressing any desire to become an animator, Retta found being a Key Assistant was a tough enough job, and she seemed to find satisfaction in that assignment.

If I could find one word to describe Retta Davidson, I think it would be, “chipper.” She was an upbeat and very funny lady who always had a joke or funny story to tell. As you can imagine, she could keep us kids entertained for hours. Being a little older than most of us young upstarts at the studio, she could easily be mistaken as our Den Mother and she conducted herself as such. Tough and demanding when it came to work, Retta could also be sweet and gentle as a mom when necessary. When she was pregnant with her first child, she worked up until the last moment because she knew she only had to make a short trip across the street to St. Joseph’s Hospital to have her baby. Before long, Retta was back at the drawing board doing inspired sketches for the latest Walt Disney feature film, “The Sword in the Stone.” I moved to the story department on our next film, “The Jungle Book,” and it would usher in the end of an era. As we completed our story reels for the third and final act, The Old Maestro, Walt Disney, passed away. With the passing of Walt Disney both Retta Davidson and I said goodbye to the studio we both loved.

Retta Davidson continued to work in animation as a freelancer in Hollywood, and eventually moved to Montreal Canada as an animation instructor. Retta taught animation at Concordia College in Montreal and Sheridan College in Toronto. Years later, Retta recalled the joy of living in Canada and the wonderful time she had there. Suddenly, there was a call from the Walt Disney Studio and the opportunity to train young animators working on the new film, “The Black Cauldron.” As luck would have it, I returned to Walt Disney Studios as well. Naturally, it was great to see Retta again and learn she had finally been promoted to Co-ordinating Animator. It may have taken decades, but finally another Retta had become a Disney animator. This was no small matter in a studio once dominated by men.

Retta Davidson embraced her new job with her usual enthusiasm. She hoped that her position would open up greater opportunities for other young women who were currently in training as Disney actively began rebuilding their animation department. I remember speaking with Retta in the hallway of the Animation Building one afternoon. She was excited about an upcoming vacation to Walt Disney World, and encouraged me to take some time off as well. That was Retta, after all. Even though I was now in my forties, she was still the den mother. In time, our department moved offsite, and being away from the Walt Disney Studio lot, I eventually lost track of Retta. Sadly, I would never see her again. I had heard she enjoyed her retirement near Dana Point in Southern California and spent a good deal of time with her grandchildren. Unfortunately, Retta Davidson passed away in 1998.

Over the years, Retta Davidson has continually been confused with the Disney Legend. However, in my book Retta Davidson will always be a Legend. She was my boss, colleague and the nicest woman I ever knew. More mature than the rest of us crazy, Disney kids, Ms Davidson always kept us in line. A gracious mentor, she was all that and much more. Retta Davidson was a Disney animator, supervisor and mentor. Most importantly, she was the very special den mother in Walt’s animation department.

No, She's not Retta Scott. This is another Retta, and a Disney animation artist you should know.

No, She's not Retta Scott. This is another Retta, and a Disney animation artist you should know.

The 1958 Screening

Monday, January 20, 1958 was a pretty exciting day. That’s the morning I received this inter-office communication slip inviting me to a screening of our latest Walt Disney feature animated film, “Sleeping Beauty.” Please take note. This wasn’t an email I received. It was an inter-office communication slip delivered by hand by a young man or woman who worked in, “traffic.” They were our messengers. They were our “email” back in 1958 when the world was a simpler, less stressful place. There would be a knock on your office door (yes, we had private offices back then) and a young man or woman would hand you an envelope. The message in this particular envelope was an invitation to studio screening of our latest film still in production. Remember, not everyone was invited to the screening, and getting this personal message was always a pretty big deal.

You’ll note the screening is for the very next day. Tuesday, January 21st 1958. Many of those invited will be getting their first time look at Walt Disney’s latest animated motion picture. An animated film still in the early stages of production. As you can imagine, the studio buzz was off the charts and most of us animation newbies were giddy with anticipation. What would we see on Tuesday morning? How much of the film had moved into animation and would there be any scenes in color? Had you been an employee of Walt Disney’s animation department back in 1958 I can only described this as a Disney version of Christmas Eve, and I do not exaggerate when I say many of us would have difficulty sleeping that night.

Why wouldn’t the screening be early the next morning, you might ask? Well, there was an early morning screening of “Sleeping Beauty” but that particular screening was for Walt Disney and many of the key people working on the film. Present for that screening would be the art directors, Ken Anderson, Eyvind Earle, Don Dagradi, Tom Oreb and a handful of others. The directing animators were in attendance. Marc Davis, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsbury would be there. If you notice a few missing names, it’s because guys like Ward Kimball were busy working on other projects. Supervising director, Gerry Geronimi and his directing team consisting of Eric Larson, Les Clark and Woolie Reitherman were at the helm. Naturally, we wondered about the 3rd floor post mortem. Was Walt happy with the film? Did he feel the money and time lavished on the movie was worth it? None of us “lower level” employees would be privy to such information, and we couldn’t help but wonder what a meeting with Walt Disney would be like. 

Finally, it was almost 2:00 p.m. and a sizable group of mostly young men and women made their way to the third floor of the Animation Building and the screening room designated, 3E-11. It was a large screening room with theater seats and ample leg room. We knew that Walt Disney and “the boys” had met earlier in 3E-12, a screening room a few steps down the hall. That room had KEM Weber lounge chairs and ash trays. Clearly, it was a room for “big shots”only. We knew there was little chance we would ever sit with Walt Disney in that special screening room. Finally, our supervisor, Ken Peterson stepped forward to give a few remarks about the motion picture we eagerly anticipated. There was still a great deal of work to be done on “Sleeping Beauty,” and it would be our job to rise to the task of getting this massive animated enterprise through production. Ken reminded us it was going to be hard work and would require long hours. However, at the end it would all be worth it because this particular Walt Disney animated motion picture was going to be a masterpiece and each and every one of us would one day have the pleasure of bragging we worked on this movie. With his remarks ended, Peterson stepped toward the back of the room. The lights in screening room began to dim, and a hush settled over the crowded room. We could hear the faint whirr of the 70mm projector as the film began to move through the gate. The familiar sight of Academy Leader appeared onscreen and the count down began. Seven, six, five, four, three, two…Sync pop!

The screen began to glow and the first image of Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” magically appeared. At that moment we knew our lives would never be the same.

You're scheduled for a special screening of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty back in 1958. I wouldn't  want to miss it if I were you.

You're scheduled for a special screening of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty back in 1958. I wouldn't  want to miss it if I were you.

Two Seriously Funny Men

There was something very serious about the two funny men we lost this weekend. Both were well known for their outrageous comedy, but they were so much more. Masters of their craft, both were unique in their incisive use of humor. It’s pretty clear they did a good deal more than simply entertain us.

Dick Gregory appeared on the scene during the turbulent sixties when America was moving through social change and a divisive war in Southeast Asia. Gregory was one of the first black comics to address social change head on, and his style of comedy would resonate with American audiences for years to come. Unlike contemporaries such as Bill Cosby who handled white audiences with kid gloves, Dick Gregory went for the jugular and shoved the countries racial issues in our faces. He did so with his own special brand of humor and before long he was propelled into the big time. Dick Gregory was irreverent, caustic and fearless. Yet, he was always funny. Being black in sixties America was pretty serious business and Gregory never soft peddled issues such as race. Don’t believe me? One of his books was even titled, “nigger.” Every time you say the word, you’ll be marketing my book, said the irreverent comic. Dick Gregory was often compared to his white colleagues, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. The three were masters of modern satire and their humor came from the same place. Reluctant to grapple with its social problems, America chose to look the other way. Dick Gregory knew humor would hardly solve the countries social problems, but at least it would force us to confront them. Humor is a great way to get someone’s attention. As an old cartoonist, I know that to be a fact. I never saw Lenny Bruce perform, but I did have the opportunity to see Mort Sahl. I was a young man considerably naive when it came to politics. Suddenly, I was realizing humor could work on two levels. Dick Gregory knew this as well, and his unique brand of humor began to push America’s consciousness in a new direction. It would be a long, slow journey, but America was finally beginning to change. On an unexpected visit to the Walt Disney Studios last year I was able to get a few moments with Mr. Gregory. No longer the brash young man brandishing a cigarette, the white bearded Gregory looked more like “The Old Wise Man.” What should we watch for in the coming years,? I inquired of the former comedian now turned activist. I still remember his answer. “Russia,” he said. “Keep your eyes on Russia.” Ever the comedian, this time Dick Gregory was not joking.

I payed an unexpected afternoon visit to the set of his latest motion picture shooting on location in Burbank. In many ways, a film crew can be compared to an army with a General or Field Marshall in charge. On this particular day there was no doubt director, Jerry Lewis was in charge. For those of you who love or hate Jerry Lewis movies I can tell you there is no filmmaker that I respect more. Hardly “The Kid,” a character Lewis played in practically all his movies, Jerry was a serious filmmaker who was the ultimate craftsman when it came to making movies. Anybody who has made a comedy knows that humor is a serious business and not to be taken lightly. I consider my being on set great luck because I had the opportunity to watch a master at work. I first became aware of the serious filmmaker when he began teaching a class in cinema at USC. I never took a class from Mr. Lewis but I did have a friend who generously shared his notes and I was amazed how insightful they were. For those who considered Jerry Lewis a lightweight, goofy comic, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Here was a consummate movie maker who took his craft seriously. I still remember his introduction of the Video Playback System that allowed directors to immediately see what they had just photographed without waiting for dailies. Jerry Lewis was continually pushing the boundaries of cinema and sharing this knowledge with young filmmakers.

Jerry Lewis loved big band music and some of my favorite bits in a Lewis film is where Jerry is alone on screen doing schtick to the music of Les Brown or Count Basie. Clearly influenced by Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis could command the attention of the audience throughout the number. Maybe you’re not a fan, but his staging, timing and performance was always dead on and few people could command screen time like Jerry Lewis. Chances are you’re not as old as I am and not able to remember when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were huge. On occasion they would appear on NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour on Sunday evenings. I still remember the gigantic full page ads in the Los Angeles Times when Martin and Lewis were scheduled. It was a big deal. A very big deal. Of course, you’ve all heard of the famous split that sent the dynamic duo in different directions. Both continued on, each successful in their own right. And, I still remember Jerry immediately coming to the defense of his old partner, Dean Martin when anyone dared to criticize, Dino. Even apart, Martin and Lewis were very supportive of each other. Of course, Jerry Lewis could be abrasive on occasion, and I remember him tearing into reporters and interviewers should they get on his nerves. What can I say? Lewis was hardly perfect, but the man was a genius, after all. Today, I’m looking at his movies made twenty or thirty years ago and they still make me laugh. Should you not be a fan of Jerry Lewis movies, I completely understand. However, I’m not ashamed to say, Jerry Lewis was my hero and I will truly miss him.

The two left us this weekend, but what a wealth they left behind. Thank you, Jerry and Dick for the laughs and the wisdom.

The two left us this weekend, but what a wealth they left behind. Thank you, Jerry and Dick for the laughs and the wisdom.