Telling the Stories

I was lucky enough to be around when many of animation's old timers were still working or attending social occasions. Whenever possible I took the opportunity to sit and talk about the good old days with these industry veterans. We chatted about the early years when life in the cartoon business was simple. Of course, it wasn't always simple even in the good old days. However, there was a free spirit to the cartoon business and most of the artists and filmmakers were young men and women. Back then, creating animated cartoons was hardly considered a real job, and you had to be totally dedicated and perhaps even a little bit crazy to see a future in cartoon making.

These old animation veterans had pretty much seen it all and done it all. Thankfully, they enjoyed sharing their stories with me and my colleagues. I remember many a party where I was privileged to sit with a Disney, Warners or MGM veteran and talk about years past. I found their stories fascinating and wondered why so few of them ever took the time to author a book. Apparently, creating a book is a daunting task. Most would simply reply, “Well, I thought about it, but it never went any further than that.” Sadly, most left this mortal coil without ever putting pen to paper.

Back then, I strolled the streets of Pasadena with a silver haired Disney veteran who was getting on in years. He was a writer and story artist who had been with Walt since the Hyperion days over in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. He often joked about Disney's “barnyard humor” and he remembered Walt's offering him a glass of booze to celebrate the premiere of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I spoke with another talented director who had to endure a “family feud” during the famous Disney labor action in the nineteen forties. He stood his ground with the Disney strikers while his wife crossed the picket lines to help Disney complete the feature animated film, “Dumbo.” His spouse was loyal to Walt even as her husband picketed outside the studio gates. How his marriage managed to survive that stressful ordeal I'll never know. These incredible stories and more are the fascinating part of this quirky business. Just being able to talk with the men and women who created our animation history has provided enormous insight for this animation old timer.

I guess that's why I consider it a shame that so few of these wonderful stories were ever written down. Of course, we have a fair number of books provided for us over the years that include everything from Robert Field's “Art of Walt Disney” to Bob Thomas' “ Art of Animation.” The later book was written during the production of “Sleeping Beauty” and I watched much of the book take form since art and editorial was created in the animation department offices on the Walt Disney studio lot. On a lighter note there's always Jack Kinney's anecdotal but very funny tome on the early days of Disney and the more comprehensive book on the mouse house by Christopher Finch. Disney’s story master, Bill Peet also authored a book on his Disney days from the Hyperion Studio to his final days working on The Jungle Book. Written and illustrated by Peet, the book is oddly dark considering it was written by a guy who gave audiences so much fun and laughter over the years. Finally, we were blessed with several books authored by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston once the two veterans retired from animation. However, with a renewed interest in animation in recent years, we’ve seen a whole new series of books emerge. Everything from Didier Ghez insightful, “Walt's People” series to Mindy Johnson’s marvelous’ book, “Ink&Paint, the Women of Animation.”

However, we've only scratched the surface. There are so many wonderful stories to tell and I wish more of these talented veterans had taken time to write them down. I think that's what motivated me to write my book on my time at the Walt Disney Studios. No way I'm competing with the books that preceded mine. This is not a competition, after all. The animation business has a rich and varied history and the more we know about it the better. Let’s hope that future authors continue to document this wild and wacky occupation and its rich and funny history.

There's such a rich Disney history. Let's hope the stories continue to be told.

There's such a rich Disney history. Let's hope the stories continue to be told.

Making Magic in 1966

So, here’s how it works. I’m sitting in my 2nd floor office in the Animation Building back in 1966. My partner and colleague, Vance Gerry is sitting across from me reading the morning paper. I’m at my desk rearranging pencils and notepads pretending to be a Disney story artist. In truth, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Just days ago, the plum job of story artist had been dropped into my lap. Knowing the decision to give me this shot came from on high, I was determined not to squander this opportunity. However, I must confess, I wasn’t completely sure how to do the job. A few days ago, I was downstairs in the Animation Department completely confident in the job I knew so well. After all, I had been in animation nearly a decade. I managed to survive Milt Kahl while working on, “The Sword in the Stone,” so I was feeling pretty confident. 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I find myself upstairs in 2C, now a part of Woolie Reitherman’s team. The Old Man had once again chosen Woolie to be the director on the show after helming the previous feature film by himself. Usually, Disney feature films had multiple directors. Each director would be given a sequence in the movie. It was a method that seemed efficient. As far as I could tell, Wolfgang Reitherman was the first Disney director to “fly solo.”

2-C was pretty much Woolie’s domain and perhaps I should give you a view of the story department. Vance Gerry and I occupied the large story room to the south, while Eric Cleworth and Dick Lucas were in the room to the north. Should you enter the office space from the hallway you would enter Betty Gossin’s space. Betty was Woolie’s secretary or personal assistant. South of Betty’s office was the directors space that included a large desk, a Movilola (editing machine) and several lounge chairs. The Walt Disney Studio of years past operated with incredible efficiency. Today, you would have to make an appointment to see your director. Back in the day, you would only need to walk next door to get a decision. Past the director’s office was the Layout Department headed up by Disney veteran, Don Griffith. Don occupied a space near the window facing the Ink&Paint Department. It would appear Don had been in this space for decades.

Our quiet morning was suddenly interrupted by Larry Clemmons entering the room. Larry was the writer on the movie which was evidenced by the typewriter on his desk. He would type rough story outlines and bring them to us to “flesh out.” Keep in mind, these were not script pages, rather simple outlines providing just enough information to send us on our way story wise. Larry passed out his latest pages to Vance and myself. Then he settled back in one of the Kem Webber lounge chairs to fill us in. “Sher Kahn enters the scene looking for the man cub,” smiled Larry. “He begins to question Kaa the Python about the whereabouts of the boy. However, the sneaky snake has already captured Mowgli. He’s holding the sleeping boy high in the tree out of sight of the fierce tiger. “What happens next,” we asked? “Oh, a lot of funny stuff happens,” said Larry. “Walt’s gonna love this!” And, with that, Larry Clemmons got up and left the room.

Vance Gerry put down his newspaper and I reached for my stack of grease pencils. Something really cool was about to happen.

Larry Clemmon's pages kicked things off. Eventually, animator, Milt Kahl created something truly masterful. It was awesome to share in the process.

Larry Clemmon's pages kicked things off. Eventually, animator, Milt Kahl created something truly masterful. It was awesome to share in the process.

Faded Photographs on a Drawing Room Wall

Photographs evoke memories of days long past. In this case it’s the Walt Disney Studios in the nineteen sixties. The sixties were a time of transition and uncertainty. And, although we didn’t know it at the time, the Walt Disney Studios was moving toward the end of an era. The old guard was growing older and Walt’s interest in animation seemed to be waining. Yet, life and work continued during this uneasy time. The animation staff was just a shadow of its former self and young animation hopefuls like myself eyed with apprehension, an uncertain future.

Here’s a couple of black&white photographs taken during that interesting time. Perhaps these casual photos give a hint of what the studio was like during those quiet days. The gentleman in the picture below is John Ewing. John was one of the new guys like myself who dreamed of a career in animation. Although animation slots were rare, John would eventually score an animation assignment on the forthcoming production “The Jungle Book.” Mentored by master animator, John Lounsbery, Mr. Ewing showed great  promise and we were all delighted by his promotion to, animator. Surprisingly, John Ewing abruptly ended his career at the Walt Disney Studio and moved to New Zealand were he ran his own animation company. Years later, his son, Sam Ewing would follow in his dad’s footsteps and land an animation job at Disney’s Florida animation facility. I still remember John Ewing’s sudden departure from the Burbank mouse house. I drew a funny goodbye card that everyone in the animation department signed. There was added icing on the cake. The card wishing John goodbye was even signed by Walt Disney himself.

There are interesting stories behind the talented young men in the above photograph as well. The guy at the top is Paul “Buzz” Fortney. Everyone has a different path to Disney’s animation department, and Paul Fortney was a monorail driver before making the move from Anaheim to Burbank. Tall, with dark good looks, Paul personified the typical sixties heartthrob. Plus, having the nickname, “Buzz,” guaranteed he was a pretty cool dude. The young lad at the drawing board is Marshall Horton. Marshall’s dad worked in Disney’s insurance department back in the sixties and young Marshall eagerly sought a job in the animation department. We welcomed Marshall into our little coffee group where some of the older guys like animator, John Kennedy would regale us with tales of early Hollywood. Being the youngest in our group, Kennedy even gave Marshall a nickname that stuck. He became known as, “The Kid.” However, being the youngest didn’t Bother Marshall and he always seemed eager to learn about the past. Kennedy’s stories seemed to motivate him to read more history whether it was Hollywood film lore or the rise of nationalism in pre World War2 Germany. We enjoyed lunch on Wednesdays at a local Burbank Mexican restaurant and our conversations were always fun and enlightening.

Military conscription was still active in the nineteen sixties and young Marshall Horton knew he would soon be facing a draft into the military. Rather being drafted, he opted for a four year stint in the United States Air Force. Marshall felt he would have greater opportunities even though it meant a longer military obligation. We hated to see him go, but we wished him well. After a year or so had passed, we were surprised to learn that young Marshall would be returning home. It appeared his years of service had been cut short because of illness. He would be given a full honorable discharge and allowed to return to civilian life. One might consider this a blessing until we learned the illness that caused his early retirement was Leukemia. However, medical science had made some headway in fighting the decease and Marshall’s health problems were being held in check. Undaunted, young Marshall decided to get on with his life and using his GI Bill, he enrolled at Art Center College of Design. Rather than return to Disney, Marshall decided on a career as an illustrator. Eager to move on, he even married a lovely young woman and made Glendale his home. All seemed to be going well until the cancer suddenly returned. While being treated at the Veteran’s Hospital, all the Disney guys paid regular visits, and we often joked about the fun times we had when we were all together at the studio.

One Friday evening while cleaning out my bedroom closet, the darnedest thing happened. I distinctly heard Marshall’s voice informing me he was leaving. I immediately told my wife what had just happened and decided to head for Veteran’s Hospital in the West Valley. However, it was already late and my wife thought it best I wait until morning. The next morning I received a phone call from my Disney pal, Jack Foster. Before Jack could even give me the sad news, I said, “Yes, I already know.”

Every now and then I think about that Friday evening many years ago when a friend said goodbye in a most unexpected way. I think about the Disney chats at coffee break in D-Wing and the Lunches at the local Mexican eatery. I think about my Disney pals, John Kennedy, Jack Foster, Marshall Horton and the many others since departed. Of course, this is simply life. Life captured in a few faded black&white photographs on my drawing room wall.

Fond memories of the Walt Disney Studios in the sixties.

Fond memories of the Walt Disney Studios in the sixties.

Elephant Tale

Perhaps I’ve told this story before but back in the eighties I accepted a job in Disney’s publishing department as a writer. I confess after years of sketching cartoons it took me a while to accept my new title. After all, I never considered myself that much of a writing talent. Don’t believe me? Ask my Santa Barbara High School English Lit teacher. When it came to literary skills I was hopeless. The idea that I would ever write for a living was pretty much a Disney fantasy. Yet, here I was at the Walt Disney Studios pretending to do just that.

In spite of my lackluster writing skills, my boss decided I knew how to craft a Disney script. I honestly hadn’t given it much thought until I read through a stack of manuscripts on my desk. As I began to leaf through the pile of stories one thing became obvious. While well crafted, they were not Disney stories and each was clearly lacking in the fun, charm and unique sensibility that makes a story, “Disney.” Perhaps my new job was not a mistake after all, so I settled down to learn the business of writing. Assisting on this editorial adventure was a wonderful editor named, Jeanette Steiner. And, she is the subject of this unique Disney story. 

Some years ago, a package was sent to the Publishing Department of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. A local Burbank high school student had submitted a manuscript along with a stack of fanciful sketches illustrating the story he had written. The eager young student submitted his creation in the hope that Disney might publish his charming yet quirky story. Ordinarily, the Walt Disney Studio does not accept unsolicited material and the normal procedure would be to return the material unopened. However, the package ended up on the desk of editor, Jeanette Steiner. Although she was known as a serious publishing editor with little time to waste on some starry-eyed kid’s aspiration, Jeanette took the time to read through the manuscript and provide several notes for the young writer. She also examined his clever drawings and complimented the student on his rich imagination. Although the Walt Disney Studio could not publish the high school students book, Jeanette did not want to pour cold water on the kid’s creativity. She wrote words of advice and encouragement and insisted that the young writer/artist continue to pursue his dream. Amazingly enough, a copy of Jeanette’s letter remains on file at the studio even today.

You might be wondering what happened to the talented kid from Burbank California who dared to submit his odd, quirky story to the Walt Disney Studio for publication. After graduating he headed for art school and ultimately an internship at the Walt Disney Studios. Yet, it was hardly a success story and things did not go well at the mouse house. It would appear the Disney Animation Department found the young man’s quirky sensibility at odds with their sweet, cutesy vision of cartoon making. Marginalized, the young writer/artist worked on special projects apart from the rest of the cartoon department. However, he did spend a little time on “The Black Cauldron,” a misguided attempt to move the lackluster animation unit forward. In time, studio bosses provided enough money to film an engaging live-action two-reeler that would showcase the kid’s zany but dark humor. Luckily, I was around during the shoot and I was continually impressed by what I saw. However, such was not the case with the studio bosses who had absolutely no idea what to do with the finished product. The dark but clever motion picture went on the shelf and the creative filmmaker left the Walt Disney Studio never again to return. Well, not exactly.

At nearby Warner Bros Studios the young filmmaker paired with comic, Paul Reubens to create, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” and things would never be the same. The kid went on to become a notable Hollywood director and his name is associated with a number of movie blockbusters. The filmmaker has even returned to the Walt Disney Studio on occasion and he has developed numerous film projects for the company he started with so many years ago. I’ve been watching film clips from his newest Disney project and remembering the advice given the storyteller many years ago by my editor, Jeanette Steiner. Though highly supportive, I don’t believe the two individuals ever met. I find it interesting the Disney bosses had no idea what to make of the odd, and quirky filmmaker back in the day. Yet, they would one day welcome him back with open arms. Yes, it appears in Hollywood nobody knows anything. However we all know the name of the filmmaker currently helming the latest remake of the classic Walt Disney film, “Dumbo.” The odd, quirky filmmaker who simply didn’t fit in… until one day he did.

The storyteller we all know as, Tim Burton.

Tim Burton's Dumbo. Who knew?

Tim Burton's Dumbo. Who knew?