Damn Near Dead

Animation was damn near dead back in sixties’ Disney. The sizable animation staff had been downsized after the completion of “Sleeping Beauty” and downsized again with the wrap up of “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Young animation hopefuls like myself looked out at a bleak future in the cartoon business. If talented Disney veterans such as Don Lusk and Amby Paliwoda were being shown the door after thirty or more years of work, what possible chance did we have?

In spite of our distraught situation, the Walt Disney Studio moved forward on the next animated feature film. It would be an adaptation of the T.H. White novel, The Sword in the Stone. Sadly, the once lofty Disney Animation Studio was only a shadow of its former self, and limited staff occupied only a portion of our marvelous artistic facility. Our department was so tiny, I moved into the large bullpen in D-wing. This was a room that once housed a half dozen artists, but now it was only me. In many ways things hadn’t changed all that much. The “old guys” still came to work each morning following their usual routine. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston made the trip from La Canada Flintridge as they had for years, and Milt Kahl drove his red sports sedan to the Disney lot from his digs in the nearby Los Feliz Hills. The dapper, Marc Davis had vacated his D-wing office and made the move to Glendale. The usually bustling hallways of the Animation Building had grown quiet and the crackling energy of cartoon making had clearly diminished. Was this the future of Disney animation, we wondered? It appeared our wonderful filmmaking medium was dying a slow and painful death.

When things look bleak, it’s only natural we find stuff to bitch about. This was especially true for the studio during this sad, desolate period. Since there were few animators my age to speak with, I regularly made my way upstairs to F-wing on the second floor of the Animation Building. There, I would find my pal, the very talented and irascible, Walt Peregoy. Walt and I would meet every morning at break time. We would have our morning coffee and our regular, twenty minute bitch session. Naturally, we would list everything that was wrong with the Walt Disney Studio. We spoke of the abandonment of Walt’s stellar animation division and the lack of creativity in the sixties studio. We grumbled about the calcification of the Disney “old timers” who simply seemed to be waiting for retirement or the Grim Reaper. It would appear no one had the cojones to stand up to “The Old Man” with the possible exception of Ward Kimball, and he was often slapped down for his insubordination. It was not the happiest time to be a Disney animation artist if you happened to be a young guy or girl. It was more than obvious Walt Disney was green lighting movies to keep his guys employed. If animation was going to have a future at the Walt Disney Studios, a team of new animation artists needed to be mentored. To the best of my knowledge, only one young guy from our group was given a shot during this time. John Ewing was promoted to animator at a time when no one under the age of fifty was animating.

While we were supportive of our colleague, John, most of us younger artists had been at Walt Disney Studios for at least ten years and promotions seemed unlikely. Like my colleagues, it appeared my career was going nowhere, so I began doing something I thought I would never do. I began making plans to leave the Walt Disney Studio. I was hardly aware another longtime Disney veteran was also making his way out the door. It appears an explosive argument between Walt Disney and story man, Bill Peet had come to a head and the Disney veteran called it quits. However, this failed to change Walt’s mind, and the film continued forward with a new addition to the story team. Ironically, when I thought promotions were impossible at the Walt Disney Studio I was given the biggest promotion of my career. The new fledgling member of The Jungle Book story team just happened to be me, and my life would never be the same.

Chuck Williams and a very young Floyd Norman before moving to Disney’s Story Department.

Chuck Williams and a very young Floyd Norman before moving to Disney’s Story Department.

Ron Miller

Ron Miller passed away last weekend. The news was surprising because Ron was a guy who always looked great each time Adrienne and I visited Northern California. We also knew how stubborn and fiercely independent Ron could be. Family and friends couldn’t help but be concerned since the lost of his wife, Diane. But Ron didn’t need anybody’s help and was determined to take care of himself. Tough and resilient, Ron Miller was a man’s man. A big guy who could easily block a doorway at the Walt Disney Studio, and I honestly doubt I’ll ever get that image out of my head. Ron Miller didn’t simply enter a room, he filled it.

When I think of Ron I can’t help but think of the many zany cartoons I drew of the Disney CEO. Those of you who know me are well aware I have a habit of mocking my bosses. It’s all good natured, of course. I honestly can’t draw cartoons about people I don’t like. I alway drew Ron Miller wearing a business suit and a football helmet. It was a silly image that always brought a smile to my face. You couldn’t help but admire Ron for being one very lucky guy. What the heck, he married the bosses’ daughter and went from being professional jock to Hollywood movie maker and entertainment CEO. In all fairness, Ron didn’t marry the boss’s daughter because he wasn’t a Disney employee when he began dating Diane Disney. Walt brought Ron into the company because he grew tired of seeing his son in law getting pummeled on the football field. “Come work for me,” said the Old Maestro. “Cartoon making is a lot safer.” Walt always had a way of making an offer you couldn’t refuse. It was a great offer, and Ron soon became a regular sight around the Disney cartoon factory. You couldn’t miss Ron. He was a big guy and ruggedly handsome. Heck! He could have easily been mistaken for a movie star. That’s how good he looked. Initially wary of Walt’s son in law, the young Disney animators kept their distance. However, we soon learned that Ron Miller was the real deal. A likable guy who was easily at home in the board room or the volleyball court. All the girls loved him and all the guys wanted to be him.

Of course, I never said the job was easy. In time, Ron began learning the filmmaking process, and early assignments included assistant directing along with other tasks necessary to produce a motion picture. Walt Disney was teaching his son in law the business from the ground up and Ron proved to be a darn good student. In time, he would be on set directing his father in law in a series of introductions for the Walt Disney television shows. How do I know this, you might ask? I was on Stage Two when Ron had the toughest job in the world. He was giving directions to the man who was his boss and his father in law. A daunting task in anybody’s book. Yet, time zips past quickly when you’re having fun and soon Ron and I faced new challenges. I moved upstairs to work in story and Ron Miller became a full producer. However, in these best of times, the worst can happen. Walt Disney passed away suddenly in late 1966 and the studio was thrown into turmoil because the Old Maestro had not formally chosen a successor. After a series of missteps, Ron Miller finally took over as CEO of Walt Disney Productions. Once again, Ron was given the toughest job in the world.

We can never know the final conversations Ron had with his father in law back in 1966. I suspect Walt was preparing Ron to lead the company forward. If you recall, Hollywood and movies were moving through a turbulent time in the seventies, and Ron, like Walt was determined to lead rather than follow. The film landscape was changing, so Ron launched Touchstone Films in order to appeal to older more sophisticated audiences. While others waited on the sidelines, Ron boldly announced The Disney Channel and a new way to deliver family entertainment to a broader audience. Like his father in law, Ron took the initiative while conservative members of the Disney board were hopelessly calcified wondering, “What would Walt do?” Yet, things would only get worse. Adding insult to injury, Ron was eventually removed as CEO and painfully departed the Disney Studio. He and Diane moved into a new home and a new life in Napa Valley. They created Silverado Vineyards, a delightful winery far and free from the craziness of Hollywood. Gracious as always, Diane Disney Miller and Ron shared that life with Adrienne and myself on a number of occasions. Unlike myself and my colleagues, Adrienne never knew Ron Miller as boss or the Disney CEO. He was just a good friend and we shared fun times together. In time, those marvelous get togethers in Napa and Disneyland included the Miller family.

Yet those marvelous years with Ron at Walt Disney Productions can never be forgotten. I remember watching Ron Miller and his producers playing the Disney animators in a spirited volleyball challenge on the studio back lot. And, I remember Ron sitting with Walt Disney in the 3E screening room trying to explain why a monkey didn’t behave on set. Finally, I remember Ron Miller swiftly rising to his feet when a Disney producer admitted, “He didn’t like football.” Miller glared at him and grumbled, “What’s wrong with you?” It may sound silly, but I can still imagine Ron Miller dressed as a handsome prince in a Disney fairy tale. You gotta admit it’s true. After all, he married the king’s beautiful daughter and they lived happily ever after.

Diane Disney Miller and Ron entertain us along with Gordon and Donna Kent in Napa Valley.

Diane Disney Miller and Ron entertain us along with Gordon and Donna Kent in Napa Valley.

My Review of "Mary Poppins Returns"

I didn’t attend the premier of Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins” back in the early sixties. Back then, animation artists were not invited to posh Hollywood affairs. It may seem odd, but none of us felt slighted in any way. That’s because there was never any expectation of an invitation. We had the pleasure of being a part of a Disney masterpiece and that was reward enough. However, there was an unexpected bonus that came with being members of the “Mary Poppins” team. I had the opportunity to meet members of the cast, and that included, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Of course, the icing on the cake was the opportunity to work with our brilliant composers, Robert and Richard Sherman.

What a difference a few years can make. When “Mary Poppins Returns” premiered a couple weeks ago, Adrienne and I joined my pal, Richard M. Sherman on the red carpet at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. Even though we had already seen the Disney motion picture, we waited in eager anticipation. The atmosphere inside the theater was electric as the seats were slowly filled. Suddenly, the entrance of 93 year old, Dick Van Dyke brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation. We already knew the movie was good. Would it hold up as well on this second viewing, we wondered? I’m pleased to say the delightful Disney musical exceeded our expectations. A week earlier, I had spoken with director, Rob Marshall. “I absolutely love your movie,” I told the smiling director. “You truly honored the film we made fifty four years ago. Now, on the evening of the premier and after party I made my way toward Mr. Marshall with a smile on my face. “Rob, it just keeps getting better and better.”

Hardly a movie critic, I know a great film when I see one. “Mary Poppins Returns” is the sequel I’ve anticipated for nearly fifty four years. And, while some have nit picked casting choices or preferred a Sherman Brothers score, this is a motion picture musical that proudly stands on its own next to the previous Disney classic. How do I know this, you ask? I was on Stage A with Robert and Richard Sherman on the first day of the pre-records. I attended dance rehearsals with choreographers, Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, and was present on every sound stage on the Disney Studio lot for filming. Finally, I worked as part of the animation team for nearly a year creating a marvelous cartoon sequence where every composited drawing was done by hand.

It’s been a while since a Disney film has captured the magic, whimsy and wonder of “Mary Poppins Returns.” There’s a long standing rule (in my opinion, anyway) that all movie musicals have to live by. The movie has to fly. The film has to soar. This doesn’t happen by accident. Right choices have to be made, and boy, did Disney make the right choices this time around. The casting of Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda was inspired, and trusting Rob Marshall was smart. Who would dare follow Robert and Richard Sherman’s marvelous score? Get ready to listen to what composer, Marc Shaiman has done with a soundtrack that connects to the original while managing to maintain its own sense of magic and wonder. I’ll not say anything more, because this is a movie you simply have to experience for yourself. “Mary Poppins Returns” is a marvelous trip back to a happier time, and proof that Disney magic is still very much alive. Can you imagine that?

Sadly, todays Hollywood musicals usually stumble. This Disney film soars.

Sadly, todays Hollywood musicals usually stumble. This Disney film soars.

The Greatest Job in the World

It was a late Friday afternoon when I spotted the older gentleman staring into a department store window. He was tall, gaunt and had a cigar clenched in his teeth. He noticed me and gave a nod of acknowledgement as I walked passed. I was headed back to work at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Oddly enough, the old gentleman was a former employee, but much more than that. He was a celebrated Disney legend and one of Walt’s favorite directors. Being a Disney geek, I knew a good deal about his amazing career and I had followed his work since I was a child. I couldn’t help but think this ordinary situation seemed strangely odd. The old gentleman had been a creative force at the Walt Disney Studios for several decades. Now, he was window shopping on a Friday afternoon in beautiful downtown Burbank. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind that sunny afternoon. Was he happy with his recent retirement and an abundance of leisure time? Could anything else be truly rewarding after having what I considered, the greatest job in the world?

Being a Disney director had to be the coolest job one could ever imagine. You are the creative leader of an amazing animated enterprise and you only answer to one person. Of course, that person was the old maestro, Walt Disney. However, putting that detail aside, you remained the boss, the head honcho and the top enchilada. You sat with the story team as they crafted the films narrative and you scrutinized production design alongside your art directors. You turned up the heat in sweatbox sessions as your animators presented their footage for your approval. Finally, you joined your voice actors (usually Hollywood celebrities) on the recording stage for a spirited session. No doubt, you were working hard, but you were also having a helluva lot of fun and getting paid to do it. Remember, we’re talking about directing back in my day. The good old days before the animated motion picture became immensely popular and incredibly profitable. In many ways, the recent success of animated movies has taken a good deal of joy out of the process of creating an animated film. Sadly, that includes the work of the motion picture director. Hardly a fun job today, the director of an animated movie turns over their life to the production once they sign on. Incredibly efficient managers will whisk you to one meeting to the next and every hour of your day will most likely be spoken for. This exhausting process will begin once you assume the job as director, and won’t end until you have completed the motion picture and the tedious press junket that precedes the films release. Once it ends, you’ll be glad its over, and I doubt you’ll be eager to repeat the process.

In the good old days, graduating to director was a true promotion. A substantial bump in pay was hardly the motivation. Rather, it was the opportunity to realize your own personal vision for a new animated motion picture and leading a talented team to create something truly special. In Disney’s Golden Era, I watched a fair number of talented directors do their jobs. They were a marvelous group of animated filmmakers that included, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Lusk, Les Clark and Gerry Geronimi. Bill Justice, Jack Kinney and Jack Hannah directed the short cartoons and versatile guys like Ward Kimball handled special projects. Finally, our directors were usually accessible and you only need walk into their office to have a question answered. In today’s Hopelessly over-managed studio system you’d have to make an appointment.

I wondered about the cigar chomping gentleman starring into the department store window that sunny Burbank afternoon. I wondered if he missed his job and the creative collaboration of so many amazing Disney artists. Would he ever consider returning, I wondered? Though a life of leisure and relaxation may have sounded enticing to director/animator, Wolfgang Reitherman, it could hardly compare to having the greatest job in the world.

Director, Woolie Reitherman (far left) enjoying a pitch by story man, Vance Gerry.

Director, Woolie Reitherman (far left) enjoying a pitch by story man, Vance Gerry.