A Pensive Moment with Rick

Here’s a favorite photograph taken at the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties. Of course, the picture could never be called stellar. The lighting is hardly the best and the focus is rather soft. However, the candid shot captures a pensive moment with my Disney friend and colleague, Rick Gonzales. It’s late in 1958 and after nearly two years work on “Sleeping Beauty” the animated motion picture is finally winding down. I wonder what’s on Rick’s mind this quiet winter morning? I suppose he might be pondering whether he’ll be moving on to the next feature production or maybe headed back to a television or shorts unit? There’s been nervous talk about a major studio layoff and naturally that’s a real concern.

For many of us, “Sleeping Beauty” was our first big Walt Disney animated feature film. After nearly two and a half long years at the drawing board maybe a break is exactly what most of the staff needs. Bob Reese is thinking about a possible trip to Europe. He was encouraged by veteran traveler, Jim Fletcher. Fletcher insisted that it’s always best to travel when you’re young. You don’t want to be wheezing as you struggle up a long flight of stairs on your European jaunt. Jim has already seen a good deal of the world, and he’ll be off on another journey when the film comes to an end. However, Jim Fletcher is hardly worried about the future. It seems he has a job with Ward Kimball’s prestigious unit waiting for him when he returns.

As for myself, I’ve been digging up a few old magazines. Magazines with photographs of Dalmatians and I’ve been trying my hand at drawing the spotted dogs. I’ve also been snooping around upstairs and I’ve noticed that character designer, Tom Oreb has his drawing table filled with these special doggies. Up on the third floor of the Animation Building, production designer, Ken Anderson has been filling his storyboards with several color sketches of British illustrator, Ronald Searle. Perhaps our next animated feature motion picture might have something to do with Dalmatian puppies. It’s a crazy thought - but it could happen, couldn’t it? Whatever happens in the next few months is hardly a cause for concern. We’re just a bunch of kids in our early twenties finishing up our first Disney feature movie. Luckily, we’ve got our whole career ahead of us.

We are nearing the end of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty. My pal, Rick Gonzales takes time to contemplate the future on the Animation Buildings' rooftop. The year is 1958.

We are nearing the end of Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty. My pal, Rick Gonzales takes time to contemplate the future on the Animation Buildings' rooftop. The year is 1958.

Revisiting 1966

As I was driving west on Olympic Blvd in Los Angeles I suddenly realized I had driven past Western Avenue. Not surprisingly, the area had changed considerably since our company first secured office space on Western Avenue many years ago. Now, the area could better be described as, “Korea Town.” In many ways it was more like Korea than Los Angeles. Having had a tour of duty in the far east it was no wonder the place seemed so familiar. I quickly made a u-turn and headed back to Western Avenue and El Cholo Restaurant where we were having our lunch time meeting. It was all oddly familiar. Many years ago, my partners and I had gathered at this same restaurant back in the sixties. How much had things changed since that time, you ask? Let me give you some idea.

Back in 1966, my partners and I gathered for lunch at El Cholo Restaurant on Western Avenue in Los Angeles. We were going through our second round of financing for our new production company, Vignette Films, Inc. Fresh out of the Walt Disney Studios and actively involved with launching my own company, the money being discussed seemed enormous. A whole new chapter in my life was suddenly opening up. Not that my life had been dull up to this time. I was just coming off the completion of Walt Disney’s final film, “The Jungle Book.” I had no illusions of getting a screen credit for my contribution on the motion picture. As a first time story artist I knew the chances of that were slim to none. That’s simply the way things were done in the old days. In any case, I appreciated working on the animated classic and sitting in meetings with the Old Maestro, Walt Disney. Whether anybody would ever believe this happened was anybody’s guess since there would be no tangible record of my involvement with the film.

As we sat enjoying our lunch back in 1966 I wondered what the future might bring. Los Angeles had just been through a devastating riot in the community of Watts and racial issues were on everybody’s mind. Because of voting rights disparity in the south, a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to launch a peaceful demonstration by leading a march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama. Sensing a developing story, we sent our photographer, Eddie Smith to America’s south. Armed with cameras and loads of 16mm film, his job was to bring back footage of the dynamic young preacher leading the demonstration. We considered it was worth the effort. Who knew? The young Martin Luther King might be well known one day.

The word suddenly came over the radio that Walt Disney had passed away. I remember a mixture of shock and disbelief. How could Walt Disney die, I wondered? What would happen to the company he founded and led for so many years? Whatever the future might bring for the Disney Studios, I feared it wouldn’t be good. Now, I was on the outside and we had our own work to do. We had four educational films on our agenda and a possible television series. Our first film was already headed for distribution and we felt like we could do anything. We assembled a talented creative team and struck out on our own. While others were eager to grab easy government money, we decided to work in the private sector. We knew that anybody could make it in America if they were smart enough and were willing to work hard enough. We were young, naive and knew nothing could stand in our way.

As I sat in El Cholo Restaurant on a quiet Monday afternoon I couldn’t help but realize how much things have changed since 1966. Our quiet Business neighborhood is now known as Korea Town and racial issues still divide America as young black males continue to be shot dead by police. Think I’m exaggerating, do you? Cops still level their service weapons at me and I’m just a damn cartoonist. Our DP and editor, Dick Allen has since passed on. Leo, Norm and I are now tired old men. We’ve enjoyed a degree of success making movies and television shows, but the dream of running our own company was never realized. We concluded our meeting, finished our meal and headed out the door. I looked around the restaurant and realized little had changed since 1966. I guess that’s life after all. Things seldom change, do they?

It's Los Angeles in 1966 and Four young black men decide to launch their own company. Their success is damn near guaranteed. After all, this is America and anybody can make it, right?

It's Los Angeles in 1966 and Four young black men decide to launch their own company. Their success is damn near guaranteed. After all, this is America and anybody can make it, right?

More Thoughts on Fat Albert

A few days ago, I posted about the early days of developing Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” for television. I soon received a letter scolding me for slamming the Filmation studio and studio boss, Lou Scheimer. While it’s true I did say the Fat Albert Show simply became another lackluster Saturday Morning television show, that was never meant as a slam against Lou Scheimer. If I had complaint with anyone it would have been Mr. Cosby. While some think I should be grateful that a show featuring AfricanAmericans could be on network television and providing positive lessons for black youngsters, I’m afraid that’s not going to cut it.

First of all, let’s admit Saturday Morning Television is lackluster. It’s purpose is to sell toys and sugared cereal to kids. That’s not a slam at Filmation. All the studios produced that crap for years. Heck, I did over seven years of that junk myself because I needed the work. Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all the Fat Albert accolaids. All the, Bill Cosby consulted on the show and positive images were shown, ect. However, when you consider the show took place in the AfricanAmerican community and featured characters of color providing (here we go again) positive images - lets also consider who produced, wrote and directed the shows. I was informed that my friend and colleauge, Leo Sullivan animated on the show. Big effin’ deal. One black animator? This old veteran ain’t satisfied.

I’ve refrained from speaking about this for over forty years - but it’s always been a sore point with me. You see, when the Fat Albert team was assembled back in the sixties, my pal, Leo Sullivan was lucky enough to make the cut. Having done early development on Fat Albert I would have loved being part of the team but no positions were available. No problem. I had already secured a job on the writing staff of an ABC comedy show. However, it did strike me as somewhat odd that only one - I say again - one black artist was qualified to work on a black show. Was it only a concidence the one black artist was also the lowest paid member of the team? I’m just sayin’…

With all the stuff surrounding Bill Cosby these days I can’t help but think back to our many meetings in the sixties and the positive feelings we had concerning animated projects that would be driven by artists of color. It would have been opportunites for AfricanAmerican artists and writers instead of business as usual. However, Mr. Cosby went for business as usual and to be fair, that was his choice to make. I can’t tell you how many times we sat in Bill’s dressing room breathing that damn cigar smoke. Cosby was on top of the world and his career was soaring. I didn’t like him very much back then. I’m afraid I still don’t.

The remarkable African American show could boast of having one black animator. Excuse me if I'm not impressed.

The remarkable African American show could boast of having one black animator. Excuse me if I'm not impressed.

A Storyteller named, Tim

Back in 1976, my pal, Jeanette Steiner received a submission by a young storyteller hoping to sell his book idea to Walt Disney Studios. As a rule, outside submissions are never even opened much less read. However, Jeanette took the time to read the story and offer a helpful critique. Having worked with Jeanette I knew she was a real stickler for grammar and spelling. She considered the work submitted much better than the usual stuff being done by the high school students of the day. Though the story was somewhat derivative and might have smacked a bit too much of Dr. Seuss, she nonetheless found the story delightful and enjoyed reading it.

However, the young man had additional talents as well. He even did the illustrations for the story. Even though he lacked the proper tools and materials, Jeanette thought the art was very good. She found the characters charming, imaginative and had sufficient variety to sustain interest. Jeanette thanked the young man for the opportunity to read his book and she praise his good work and encouraged him to continue.

Some years later, the young man was able to secure employment at the Walt Disney Studio, only this time it was in the animation department. In spite of his remarkable talents he was not a good fit for stodgy seventies Disney. His ideas and approach were not exactly welcomed by the rather conservative Disney artists. He was too odd, quirky and dark. It was clear this stint at the Walt Disney Studios was not working out, so the young man was soon sent on his way. Perhaps - just perhaps he might find a creative career outside of the Walt Disney Studios.

I’m glad my good friend, Jeanette Steiner was so encouraging back in 1976 because the young man went on to establish himself in the entertainment industry where he became a major talent. Today, his films are already legendary and the young story teller continues to attract audiences around the world with his moviemaking efforts.  The Walt Disney Company failed to see what Jeanette Steiner saw back in the seventies. They allowed a major storyteller to walk away - only to be wooed back later for a good deal more money. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention the young man’s name.

His name is Tim Burton.

Jeanette Steiner - then, T. Jeanette Kroger wrote this reply to director, Tim Burton back in the seventies. The young man from Burbank went on to some degree of success in the movie industry.

Jeanette Steiner - then, T. Jeanette Kroger wrote this reply to director, Tim Burton back in the seventies. The young man from Burbank went on to some degree of success in the movie industry.