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?

Less is More

Last evening I was watching what I thought was a fascinating new network show. I mistakenly thought I was enjoying the premiere episode of a new television series. However, it turns out the show is already on its second season. How the heck did I not know this? It would appear television content is coming at us faster and faster. I’m forced to admit I’m not able to keep up with the barrage of content available these days and I almost feel overwhelmed by what one might call, a glut of entertainment.

However, this would apply to most content these days. There’s so much of it and it’s filling multiple platforms. From theatrical distribution to Internet streaming we’re overloaded with content. The latest example would be Hollywood’s current obsession with superhero movies. Add the Star Wars saga to the mix and you’ve got non stop entertainment with no end in sight. I’m sure young people love this stuff and cannot get enough. Yet, all this makes me realize I’m getting old. After all, I’m a movie geek who grew up on this stuff. I loved cowboys, cheesy science fiction movies and Saturday afternoon serials that entertained us as kids. For those of my generation, this was our obsession. The advent of network television some years later would captivate the next generation. They would consume Scooby Doo, Space Ghost and Superfriends as they were being sold sugared cereals and overpriced toys each Saturday morning. However, there was a time when things moved a little bit slower.

When I was a kid we enjoyed the eager anticipation of a new Disney movie. Each Walt Disney feature film was separated by years not weeks. Production of animated feature films required time to produce and market. Even Walt’s existing library was kept under wraps until a new generation of kids provided a fresh audience. Naturally, this meant a new Walt Disney feature animated film required a waiting period that would take years. Naturally, as a kid I enjoyed the delicious anticipation of the next Disney animated movie. More often than not, all we had to go on back then was a title. Inside information on Disney’s latest feature was non-existent with the notable exception of a movie magazine blurb or a media story in the Los Angeles Times. I still remember waking up to the news that the LA Sunday section had an article on Walt Disney’s upcoming feature film, “Peter Pan.” Included in the media piece were photographs taken inside the Walt Disney Studio of animator, Ward Kimball, director, Ham Lusk and layout artist, Thor Putnam. There was a shot of director, Wilfred Jackson conferring with background artists, John Hench and Claude Coats. For a kid like me, this information was pure gold, and it provided a rarely seen view of the Disney Studio. Naturally, I waited on pins and needles for the release of “Peter Pan.”

It would appear no one has time to wait on a new movie today. Almost before you know it, a new Hollywood blockbuster is ready to hit the silver screen and demand our attention. We’ve barely had time to flush the last movie from our brain before we’re hit with a new trip into space or engage in a fresh battle with the forces of evil. It’s way too much space adventure, superhero conflict and cartoony sequels. Yes, I admit I’m showing my age and sounding like an old timer unable to keep pace with the rapidly changing world of content avalanche. It’s just I miss the good old days of looking forward to an upcoming motion picture. Part of the joy was the eager anticipation and the thrill of knowing something awesome was on the way. I miss marking my calendar and counting the days. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of movies but I miss the wait that made a new animated feature film so very special. I truly believe in the old adage that less is more. I don’t know about you…but these days I could do with a little less.

 Ka-Boom! Ka-Blam! EeeeYow! Aaaaarrrrgh! Can we slow it down just a little bit?

Ka-Boom! Ka-Blam! EeeeYow! Aaaaarrrrgh! Can we slow it down just a little bit?

My Hero, Fred Crippen

Here’s how the story goes. A new animation production company suddenly found itself in a heap of trouble in their first few months of production. Call it a blessing or a curse, the young company had formerly operated as a compact, boutique animation production house. Now, suddenly they found themselves with more work than they could ever have imagined. After years of producing commercials and other short form animated content, two half hour animated network shows were dropped into their laps. You might consider this a dream come true. In reality it was becoming a nightmare. Consider this. Normally, the company ran efficiently with a half dozen people handling everything from business, production and post. Now, the tight, efficient little group had expanded to nearly a hundred or more and occupied a much larger facility. Writers, directors, producers and artists faced a production crunch and looming deadlines. Air dates were set in stone and huge fines were levied for missing a deadline. Because of the dreaded circumstances the studio boss decided to make a radical decision. He would set up small production units to create shows outside of the main facility. One might compare these teams to “shock troops” in a war situation. This tightly knit group of professionals could do every necessary job and deliver a show on time and on budget. This was a risky move, but the only way the studio could save itself from a total meltdown.

As shows were being parceled out to independent producers, two young black animation professionals decided to throw their hat into the ring. As expected, the studio production manager scoffed at our proposal. “What do you guys know about producing an animated show? I’ve got animation veterans who can’t get the work done. What makes you think you could do any better?” My partner, Leo Sullivan and I had produced motion pictures in our own shop some years earlier and knew the job better than most. However, being black in the nineteen sixties hardly guaranteed job opportunities and work was hard to come by even if you knew your stuff. Young white filmmakers struggled to prove themselves in this very competitive business. Imagine what you faced if the color of your skin was black. We were about to throw in the towel when the big boss suddenly spoke up.“Give them the show,” he said, quietly. “Let them do it.” Suddenly taken aback, the production manager took a nervous drag on his cigarette and complied with his boss’s orders. Leo Sullivan and I had instantly become television producers because one man decided we could do the job and do it well. In a world where young black men had to prove themselves daily, this exceptional gentleman didn’t need any proof. Our work spoke for itself and the color of our skin mattered little. If that doesn’t seem all that insightful today, remember this was the nineteen sixties and a very different world.

Who was the gentleman who made that remarkable decision many years ago? Probably a name you wouldn’t recognize unless you’re a serious student of animation. His name is not on the hallowed walls of Disney, nor is he considered one of the icons of Warner Bros Animation. Yet, his amazing animation and his delightful wit helped define midcentury cartoon making. After leaving art school, Fred Crippen and his wife headed for New York to begin a career in the animation business. Almost immediately, Crippen scored a job at United Productions of America where the innovative cartoon company was producing television commercials for the then growing television market. However, success at UPA wasn’t enough, so Fred Crippen packed his bags and headed west. He opened his own shop, a studio he called, Pantomime and began creating clever and funny television commercials. Every studio tends to have downtime, and Fred found a way to utilize the time when the little studio wasn’t cranking out ads for the small tube. He came up with a TV series called, “Roger Ramjet.” The hero, voiced by LA radio announcer Gary Owens proved that you didn’t need lots of money to be delightfully entertaining. The episodes were only about five minutes in length, but honestly had more wit and charm than an hour of the animated dreck being cranked out by the big time competitors down the street. It was around this time I was chasing my dream of becoming an animator but nobody in the industry would give me a shot. Not surprisingly, my first animation gig was a gift from Fred Crippen. Children’s Television Workshop had a New York show in development and they needed animation content. My first assignment was animating short segments for the critically acclaimed children’s program, “Sesame Street.”

After his experience with network television, Fred Crippen decided the “big time” just wasn’t for him. He went back to doing television commercials with a small reliable crew and a much simpler life style. The big time and the big bucks seem to have little appeal for Fred Crippen. He found he was happier creating animated product that was not only appealing to audiences, but had wit and intelligence as well. There was a purity in Crippen’s animation. An honesty often lacking in big studios where artists seemed more concern with impressing others. Fred made what he did seem easy and his inspired sketches were the perfect example of everything cartoon animation is lacking today. When we were doing “Sesame Street” many years ago I was given an assignment to animate the show opening for the letter, “F.” I arrived at the studio late one Friday afternoon as Fred Crippen was watching my animation on the Moviola, (an editing machine of the day) and was laughing his head off. I can’t tell you the enormous sense of satisfaction and pride that filled me that evening. Here was one of the Masters of animation watching with approval the material I had animated. I drove home that evening feeling on top of the world.

I’ve been told a good deal of Fred Crippen’s work can now be seen on YouTube. It is well worth a visit to the website where you’ll see the work of a Master Animator. His impressive work includes TV commercials and UPA’s “The Boing Boing Show.” His short form material and titles done for various clients include, “The Edifice” seen in the Saul Bass film, “Why Man Creates.” Always busy as heck, Fred Crippen still found time to enjoy life and he did it with the same exuberant enthusiasm that characterized so much of his career. However, I’ll mostly remember Fred Crippen as the outrageous Democrat who fought for fairness for all people and demonstrated that by the way he lived his life and conducted his business. Fred Crippen was a Master animator and a gentleman. He was my hero and there will never be another like him.