A Forgotten TV Commercial

Back in the fifties, our little animation team was tasked with creating a series of television commercials for Walt Disney’s Commercial Unit. Actually, the order came from the woman Walt had put in charge of his profitable division. The formidable Phyllis Hurrell was the executive in charge. Stop and think about this for a moment. Way, way back in the nineteen fifties, Walt Disney had chosen a woman to head up his commercial division. The man often reviled as a “gender bigot” was years ahead of most Hollywood studios when it came to giving opportunities to women. However, we can talk more about that later.

When Walt Disney decided to make the move to television back in the fifties, decisions were made about the use of the classic Disney characters. Because there were still questions regarding the new electronic medium, it was decided Walt’s world famous characters would not immediately appear on the television screen. This explains the use of Jiminy Cricket instead of Pinocchio. That’s why Tinkerbell appears on the Disneyland TV show and not Peter Pan. So, when it came to hawking Peter Pan Peanut Butter, Tinkerbell, not Peter became the “pitch person.” I was assigned to work with my old pal, Freddy Hellmich on the Peanut Butter spots. A Disney veteran, Freddy and I would later be teamed up to complete the fairy animation on Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” However, this group of television spots was our current assignment. I still remember Freddy’s choice of drawing tools and how those choices influenced me. He roughed his animation using a mechanical pencil filled with magenta lead. Working over the rough magenta sketches, we would finalize our drawings with a 2B or HB pencil. Every lead animator had his or her own way of working. I remember adapting my drawing style and pencils I used depending who I was following.

In one particular television commercial, the little sprite, Tinkerbell was required to skip across the screen clapping her hands to a delightful little tune. I remember it was difficult to animate the magical little sprite and have her hit her marks just right. We quickly decided we needed live-action reference to make our animation convincing. Well, lucky for us, the live-action model for Tinkerbell was still available, so we quickly brought in actress, Margaret Kerry to film the cute little action we needed for our animation. Decades later, Ms Kerry was visiting the Walt Disney Studios and much to our delight she was able to remember and perform the same little dance as though it was yesterday. I found a stack of those animation drawings in my garage. The same animation sketches we did back in the fifties for the Peter Pan Peanut Butter commercial.

Finally, some might wonder why the drawings differ so much from the original models used in the feature films. That’s easy to explain. Because of the poor resolution of most television reception back in the fifties, our animation drawings were usually simplified to accommodate television’s less than stellar resolution. All the Disney characters were simplified in order to appear sharper and clearer on TV. Most of this Disney design makeover was the work of character designer, Tom Oreb. Tom had a way of simplifying every Disney character including Mickey Mouse. You may even remember Mickey with the odd, squared off ears. For the most part, Tom created a design that worked. Our Tinkerbells were somewhat stylized and simplified even though we were able retain the look and appeal of the magical little sprite. You might also wonder why directing animator, Marc Davis wasn’t involved with the commercial spots. If you remember, Marc Davis was already hard at work on another Disney animated feature that featured two important women. A lovely princess named, Aurora and an evil fairy we all know as, Maleficent. So, you see. Marc had little time for TV commercials. 

The nineteen fifties was a magical time at the Walt Disney Studios. My career was only beginning but everything that came my way was a challenge and a joy. The assignments, whether big or small were opportunities for learning and I look back on those marvelous days with a profound sense of delight. Every time I open a tattered box or a worn folder from days past, it sparks wonderful memories of a Disney that once was… and can never be again.

My original animation sketches from a fifties Disney television commercial. Margaret Kerry was our model.

My original animation sketches from a fifties Disney television commercial. Margaret Kerry was our model.

Fat Albert Part Two

Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” television special was something I’ve written about in times past. However, I’ll bet you never knew there was a second “Fat Albert” animated television special you never saw. That’s the story I’m going to share with you today. If you remember, my partner, Leo Sullivan and I made our initial contact with Bill’s production company, Campbell, Silver, Cosby back in the late sixties. It took some doing because this was pre-Internet and tracking down information and addresses was not always easy. However, in time we were able to locate Bill’s production offices in nearby Beverly Hills. Although Leo and I had done early development work, Bill Cosby had already made his decision on who would direct the animated television special. The artists name was, Ken Mundie and he and Cosby had worked together some years earlier. However, Leo and Ken were also pals having met before at the Bob Clampett Studio on Seward Street in Hollywood. Partnering with his old pal, Ken Mundie, Leo joined the “Fat Albert” team while I moved on to ABC to join the writing staff of a new television show. The producers of the new sketch comedy show had already proven themselves on their hit NBC show, “Laugh In.” They were ready to become even more irreverent and outrageous with their new network offering. However, we’ll save that weird story for another time.

NBC had made a deal with Bill Cosby’s production company to create two animated cartoon specials for the network. The first special you already know. It was broadcast in the summer of 1968 and featured a lovable animated character named, “Fat Albert.” Production on the show had been interrupted by a riff between Bill Cosby and his partners, Bruce Campbell and Roy Silver. The team split and went their separate way leaving the second animated special in the hands of Cosby, Mundie and the creative team. Because of the break up, the animation team found themselves without a home. This allowed Bill Cosby to make a problematic decision. He told the animators to temporarily move into his Los Angeles home and use the family room as a work space. Well, Cosby’s wife, Camille was having none of this. Animators may be a fun group but you sure don’t want them in your home. Before long, Mrs. Cosby had had enough of the zany cartoonists and the animation unit was kicked out of the Cosby home.

The homeless cartoon unit eventually found a home in the bungalows of the Studio City commercial production house known as, FilmFair. The successful commercial studio was started by former Disney animator, Gus Jekel and went on to produce a series of successful TV ads such as Keebler Cookies and Charlie the Tuna. I spent a fair amount of time working at FilmFair as well. I animated Tony the Tiger, and a host of other cartoon ads. I had the pleasure of working with talented guys such as Bob Kurtz, Ken Champin and Dale Case. The compact Studio City facility had a few small buildings on the studio property. Because of his relationship with studio boss, Gus Jekel, Ken Mundie was able to move the animation unit into one of bungalows for the remainder of production. Work would continue on the second animated special for the next few months. Yet, somehow this second cartoon special was never seen. That is, except for a few of us. And that, my friends brings us to the end of this odd tale.

One afternoon, I arrived at the Studio City facility to find noted jazz musician and composer, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly watching scenes on the Moviola. Bill Cosby was a huge jazz fan and had hired Herbie Hancock to score the first “Fat Albert” special. Bill intended to follow up with another jazz great. Unfortunately, Cannonball Adderly seemed perplexed by what he saw on the screen. It would appear the animated cartoon made absolutely no sense whatsoever. If he didn’t understand the film, how could he create an effective film score? In a misguided attempt to be provocative and innovative, the movie fumbled a creative opportunity and the second animated film was deemed not worthy of completion. I never saw the famous jazz musician after that odd afternoon. I can only guess Mr. Adderly contacted Bill Cosby and asked out of the deal. And, what was so odd about the film, you might ask? Well, there’s a term we use in the animated cartoon business. Sometimes a flawed film can best be described as a locomotive that has completely run off the rails. Sadly, this film had left the tracks and even Bill Cosby could see that.

At least this quirky story has a happy ending. In time, Bill Cosby took the “Fat Albert” character to the West Valley cartoon studio known as, Filmation. There, under the guidance of studio boss, Lou Scheimer, the studio produced the hit television series we know as, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” I still regretfully look back at a missed opportunity. When the first “Fat Albert” animated show made such a promising television introduction in the summer of 1968, one might ask, what the hell happened? Why wasn’t the second animated special a huge success? After all, it had everything going for it. How could you blow it?Remember, it was the late sixties, my friends. A time when a lot of weird and wacky things were going on in Hollywood. Some of that weirdness even affected animated cartoon making. I won’t bother going into detail here. However, in light of current events I’m willing to bet you have some idea what I’m talking about.

Don't blame this jolly fat fellow. A lot of weird stuff was going on in Hollywood back in the late sixties.

Don't blame this jolly fat fellow. A lot of weird stuff was going on in Hollywood back in the late sixties.

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.