The Man on the Rooftop

Should you be one of the lucky boys and girls born recently, a look back at the nineteen fifties probably seems like a view of ancient history. In some ways I guess it is exactly that. As a twenty something just beginning my animation career I felt pretty much like a kid myself. It was a time few seldom remember as we try to navigate the complexities of todays world. There’s always nostalgia about the past, I suppose. But, I’ll have to confess the world we lived in, though not without its social problems, appeared to be a more stable place. Free from domestic and world problems we were able to concentrate on silly stuff such as the meeting of a prince and princess in a forest glen or focus on the sketching of little squirrels and bunny rabbits hopping underfoot.

It was my second year on the Walt Disney animated feature film, “Sleeping Beauty.” Our animation clean-up team consisting of Freddy Hellmich, Chuck Williams, Jim Fletcher and Bob Reese had moved from our temporary second floor digs to permanent quarters in G-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building. As an aside, this is the present location of actor, Edward James Olmos’ production company. However, more on that later. In any event, work proceeded slowly as we fine tuned the piles of rough animation stacked on our shelves. Though you’ve probably read a good deal about Disney’s Nine Old Men, there were many other animators on the film, and it was our responsibility to clean up their scenes. There were scenes animated by Hal Ambro, Hank Tanous, Don Lusk, George Nicholas, Ken O’Brien, John Sibley and Harvey Toombs to name a few. It had been a long, hard year, but hardly unpleasant. Unlike today, the Disney artists had private offices and more than a degree of privacy. Even a lowly clean-up artist like myself had a private office that not only included an animation drawing board, but a desk and lounge chair as well. I honestly can’t think of a better time to be working at Walt Disney Productions. The year was 1958 and all was well with the world. At least it was in our little world.

Freddy Hellmich’s clean-up crew continued to work away at their drawing boards as the sunny day began to move toward late afternoon. Suddenly clouds rolled in and the sky began to grow dark. Think about a Walt Disney movie when ominous music fills the air and light suddenly turns to dark. Little animals scamper for cover and you know a storm is on the horizon. It was then, brilliant lightning flashed across the sky and the roar of thunder appeared to shake the Animation Building to its foundation. More than one artist left their drawing tables and ran to the window to peer at the sky. “What the heck! Where did this come from?” One artist exclaimed, totally taken aback by the storm that appeared to come out of nowhere. Rain suddenly came down in torrents and several artists who drove convertibles left their drawing boards and sprinted to the parking lot. Employees who were caught outside in the storm hastily scampered for cover. What’s so unusual about an afternoon rainstorm, you might ask? Nothing, I would imagine if you lived in the midwest. However, this was Southern California, and such a freak storm was considered unusual. In any case we thought it was. Moments passed and the pouring rain began to diminish in strength. Darkness turned to light as the clouds suddenly began to part. Magically, if I dare use the word, it appeared the storm was over. 

Many years have passed since that strange afternoon at the Walt Disney Studios back in 1958 and the unusual storm that ended as suddenly as it began. How it began and how it ended so suddenly remains a mystery even to this day. However, there are rumors, though unsubstantiated that a lone individual was seen on the rooftop of the Animation Building that late afternoon. An individual that some say was none other than, the boss. That’s correct. I’m referring to the old maestro himself, Walt Disney.

Can Walt Disney control the weather? You decide.

Can Walt Disney control the weather? You decide.

The Creation of a Gag Book

The meeting took place one quiet spring afternoon at Jerry’s Deli in Studio City California. John Cawley and I sat down to discuss plans for a new book. Hardly a magnificent academic tome, this was nothing but a simple gag book. A book inspired by the humorous situations at animation studios such as, Walt Disney Studios, Hanna-Barbara Productions, and the latest upcoming contender, the Tom Carter Studio. These were gags never intended for publication. Rather, the rough sketches that simply adorned the walls of cartoon studios to amuse the employees. However, John Cawley saw more than gags on a wall. He knew this material could provide a humorous look at the animation business. At the time, I knew little to nothing about the world of publishing and creating a book of any kind seemed a daunting task. Though this was a simple book of jokes, I preferred my involvement in the enterprise be limited. John remained passionate about the project and volunteered to do all the “heavy lifting” required to take a book to press. This was the early eighties, and we were still years away from the print revolution that would eventually be called, “Desktop Publishing.” Back in those days, editorial was still hammered out on a typewriter, and the finished pages were tediously constructed on paste up boards where text, photographs and art were physically pasted in place using rubber cement. This analog process was simply the way things were done prior to the digital revolution.

On the plus side, the content already existed. Over the years, I had sketched dozens - no, let’s make that hundreds of cartoon gags that chronicled the wacky activities inside Hollywoods animation studios. As far back as the nineteen sixties, I had started sketching jokes about the Old Maestro, Walt Disney. I later filled the hallways of Hanna-Barbara Productions with cartoons mocking the company founders while entertaining the cartoon makers as well. When the Tom Carter Company entered the cartoon business in the early eighties, I mercilessly hammered my boss by portraying him as a rich kid aspiring to be Walt Disney. While my gags were pointed, they were never mean spirited. In fact, I received the ultimate compliment years ago by a old Walt Disney veteran. He commended me for being able to humorously criticize people and even studio policy with a delicate balance. My gags never “attacked” anyone - I simply needled them. In my opinion, a good satirist has to be able to make his “victim” laugh even if he or she is the butt of the joke.

For the next few months, we gathered stacks of jokes garnered from the Walt Disney Studios, Hanna-Barbara and Tom Carter. Because these were rough gags never intended to be published, the originals had often been discarded. Thankfully, John Cawley was able to carry on using photocopies of the original sketches long since thrown away. Before long, Cawley had completed the tedious and meticulous job of, paste up, and the book was ready for press. A few weeks later, we had stacks of the published book ready to be distributed. I think John only ordered a thousand copies but that seemed like a huge print run at the time. Hardly a publishing masterpiece, the book had a few rough edges, yet it managed to find an audience. And, so began my flirtation with publishing so many years ago. As the years rolled past, a technological revolution took place enabling tyro publishers the ability to create books on their computer. Even though a decade had passed, I decided to utilize the new digital publishing tools and create a second book on my own. As an homage to John Cawley’s first publishing venture, I called the gag book, “Son of Faster, Cheaper.” Since those early experimental attempts at publishing I finally became legitimate when real publishers began asking me to write for them. My latest book, “A Kiss Goodnight,” a collaboration with my pal, Richard Sherman has just been released. However, I look back on those early days of print with a certain nostalgia. We’ve come a long way since that quiet afternoon lunch at Jerry’s Deli in Studio City.

"Faster, Cheaper, the Flip Side to the Art of Animation" was the gag book that started it all.

"Faster, Cheaper, the Flip Side to the Art of Animation" was the gag book that started it all.

Ward Kimball

Having had the good fortune of working at the Walt Disney Studio during the last of a golden era, all of us kids had the opportunity to connect with many of the Disney Masters. If you were really lucky, you may have even assisted one of the Famous Nine Old Men. In the fifties, I worked on the animated feature, “Sleeping Beauty,” and even qualified to do in-betweens for Milt Kahl. Years later, I assisted Milt when working on “The Sword in the Stone” for nearly two years. However, my most memorable assignment at the Walt Disney Studio was assisting my favorite animator, Ward Kimball. That’s correct. Ward Kimball was my favorite of Disney’s Nine Old Men, and he never failed to impress me with his considerable talent in bringing a cartoon character to life. Kimball’s animation exploded onscreen with an energy and vitality few animators could match. His work contained a cheeky irreverent quality that continually fascinated me. If I was ever going to become a Disney animator - I wanted to be Ward Kimball.

Back in the sixties, there was a falling out between Ward Kimball and the old maestro, Walt Disney. Because of this misunderstanding, Kimball was removed as director of the live-action film, “Babes in Toyland” and as a cruel punishment, Ward Kimball was sent back the animation department to resume his role as a Disney animator. Some other artists considered this, “punishment” as something they would eagerly welcome. In any case, Ward returned to his second floor office to begin animating the character, Professor Ludvig Von Drake. Hardly a daunting assignment for the master animator, Ward Kimball knocked out his duck footage with (as Carl Barks would say) ridiculus ease. Kimball’s team had all been reassigned so the second floor office was practically vacated. It would appear the only people in the wing were Ward and his secretary who held down the fort. Each morning, Kimball would arrive at work in his sporty Porsche and head to his upstairs office where he would begin animating at a furious pace. By noon, Ward had already completed a days work, so after lunch he would head for his sofa where he slept the rest of the afternoon.

During this time, Kimball was assisted by another veteran of the Walt Disney Studio. Because of a lull in animation assignments, the work was handed to an animator who needed work. The talented gentleman was named, Fred Kopietz, and he began doing the assistant work for Ward. Suddenly, work became available and Fred Kopietz called away on another assignment. I now had the opportunity of a lifetime. The job of following Ward Kimball was suddenly mine and I couldn’t wait to begin assisting the Disney Master. Boy, was I in for a surprise when picking up my first scene. As I flipped through the completed scene it became clear why Kimball was burning through these scenes so quickly. There was practically nothing on the pages. Of course, there were ovals that would suggest a head and a rough squiggles suggesting a body. Naturally, the timing charts were on the right hand side of the paper defining the speed and tempo of the scene. However, for the most part, the pages were empty with only a few suggestions to guide the assistant animator. For those of you thinking Ward Kimball was lazy, I’ll have to ask you to think again. You see, Kimball had done his job as animator. Everything that needed to be done was on the pages and on the exposure sheets. It was my job as assistant animator to sketch in Professor Ludvig Von Drake and complete the drawings following Ward’s rough indications. After all, that’s what the assistant animator is supposed to do.

Looking back on the nineteen sixties, I was one lucky kid getting to assist my favorite animator. Ward Kimball never offered any words of wisdom with the notable exception of handing me the rough scene and saying in his own sardonic way, “Put the funny stuff in here.” In any case, it was a marvelous opportunity to work and learn from a Disney Master, and it’s not something I’ll soon forget.

Final Ward Flat.jpg

Hey! Hey! Hey!

For some odd reason I began thinking about a remarkable animated project I worked on many years ago. It’s mentioned briefly in the current documentary on my life and career, but there’s probably a lot you didn’t know about this particular animated film. I had decided to bail out of Disney and a very good job after the Old Maestro had passed away in 1966. The truth is, I was considering leaving the studio eventually because we had already set plans in motion to create our own production company. Walt’s untimely passing simply speeded things up. We had a number of projects in mind, but my partner, Leo Sullivan had somehow gotten news that comedian, Bill Cosby was looking to bring his famous Fat Albert routine to cartoon animation. In the days before the Internet, information was not always easy to come by. Leo and I roamed Hollywood and Beverly Hills in an attempt to track down the famous comedian.

In time, we found the offices of Bill Cosby’s production company in Beverly Hills where we were able to take a meeting with one of his producers, Marvin Miller. As expected, Cosby was out of town, but his people gave us the go ahead on the creation an animated demo. This short sample of cartoon animation would sell the idea of bringing Fat Albert to the screen. At least we hoped it would. The first thing we did was rip the audio tracks off one of Bill Cosby’s comedy albums. In this case it was an album entitled, “Wonderfulness.” Each of us took a funny segment of the album and began creating animation to go with it. Clearly, we were on the right track. There was no better way to sell an idea and Cosby’s people loved our little animated film and awaited word from the man himself.

Time passed, and Cosby’s team eventually moved into a suite of offices on the Warner Bros studio lot in Burbank where Bill would be shooting his television show. I remember the afternoon we sat in the conference room and learned much to our surprise that Bill Cosby had already selected an animator to helm the Fat Albert project. There was an additional surprise when we were told that the animator was a guy we already knew. Apparently, the animation maverick, Ken Mundie had worked with Bill previously on the television show, “I Spy.” Ken managed to get Cosby’s ear before we did and lock in a deal to do the animation. I’ll admit it was a letdown, but at least my friend Leo got a job out of it. Plus, he and Ken had worked together before. Unfortunately, there would be no job for me on the Bill Cosby Fat Albert Special. I know it sounds crazy, but I was already so invested in the cartoon show, I would come in after hours from my day job and work on the animated special without getting paid. I know it made little sense, but I was already hooked on the cartoon.

As I think back on the nineteen sixties and the Bill Cosby Fat Albert special for NBC, something still puzzles me even today. There were no people of color on the black project with the notable exception of animator, Leo Sullivan. And no, the boss, Bill Cosby doesn’t count. It still strikes me as odd that the famous black comedian never noticed his “black show” was considerably lacking in color. Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that Bill Cosby’s animation team should have been selected on the basis of color. After all, many of the amazing animators on the show were good friends of mine. Having said that, I can’t help but wonder was my partner, Leo Sullivan was simply a “token?” A minority on a show that ostensibly celebrated minorities?

Today, no one seems to know what happened to the Bill Cosby Fat Albert Special that was aired on NBC back in the sixties. However, I’ll bet you didn’t know that the NBC deal included a second special, did you? An animated TV special that was put into production and then, quickly trashed. If you remember, the first Fat Albert show was scored by jazz musician, Herbie Hancock. The music for the second special was going to be provided by Nat “Cannonball” Adderly. I was with Mr. Adderly when he viewed a rough cut of the animated film on the Moviola. For all you young people, the Moviola was an editing machine used back in the dark ages of film making. Sadly, the movie totally lacked the charm and imagination of the first special. Not long after, the project was eventually scrapped. The dream of a Bill Cosby Animation Studio was also washed down the drain. Director, Ken Mundie left the project and the other animators soon departed as well. However, Fat Albert managed to survive. In time, Bill Cosby took his fun characters to the West Valley animation studio, Filmation where they produced the acclaimed Saturday Morning television show, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.”

I still have a lot of great memories from the NBC “Fat Albert Special.” I loved the early visual and story development I created for the show and I love the innovative techniques Ken Mundie and his team explored. Lead by technical director, Ray Thursby, the Cosby artists did amazing work by compositing animation and live-action without the use of costly opticals. Remember the year was 1968 and we didn’t have the luxury of digital technology. We worked with the tools we had and fortunately, the Oxberry camera allowed us to do an effect called, Arial Image. Even before digital technology we were able to “float” an image in space, and physically composite with a live-action picture. Finally, I love how director, Ken Mundie totally deconstructed the animation process and allowed each artist to do every job on the film. Trashing the bloated, big studio structure of endless departments and managers, the artists did every job on the film including story, layout, animation, and background. Finally, we even inked and painted the cels that would be photographed under the Oxberry camera. It was an amazing, creative time, and I’ve never had such fun on an animated television project in my career. Sadly, the animated Bill Cosby Fat Albert special has one bad memory that remains to this day. 

You can probably guess who that is.

Hey! Hey! Hey! Back in the nineteen sixties, I had an encounter with Fat Albert and life has never been the same.

Hey! Hey! Hey! Back in the nineteen sixties, I had an encounter with Fat Albert and life has never been the same.