Stephen Bosustow, UPA and City At Night

There was no way of visiting a cartoon studio or meeting an animation studio boss in years past. However, because of a remarkable live television show called, “City at Night,” I was able to visit the cartoon studio, UPA and meet the company president, Stephen Bosustow. For a high school kid in the nineteen fifies, this was dream come true.

You might not believe this but live telecasts were a big thing back in the nineteen fifties. First of all, consider the technology. Unlike today's compact cameras and sound systems, television cameras were the size of refrigerators and electricians had to drag cumbersome cables as lights and other equipment was squeezed through limited spaces. Plus, a live telecast required a small army to pull things off. Yet, this was the idea of a television pioneer and visionary named, Klaus Landsberg. Landsberg ran local Los Angeles television station, KTLA, and it was his idea to take his cameras inside various venues in the Los Angeles area. One of Landsberg’s choices was a Hollywood animation studio. The studio was called UPA, and the cartoon makers were the mid century darlings of animation at the time. Back in the fifties few people had any idea how animation worked or what was required to make a cartoon. Lansberg was going to show LA audiences the entire process and he was going to do the whole thing live.

One quiet Monday evening an armada of “City at NIght” trucks rolled up to the Burbank cartoon studio located near a popular eatery called, The Smoke House. After a lengthy setup the show was finally on the air. The on air host and his cameras made their way through the narrow hallways of UPA as the artists and animators worked at their drawing boards. In those days, UPA employed a who's who of animation legends including John Hubley, T. Hee, Bobe Cannon, Pete Burness and others. The interview concluded with the big boss himself, Stephen Busustow as he explained the joys and pitfalls of the cartoon business. Having completed their assignment, the “City at Night” crew packed up their stuff and headed back to the studio.

As you can imagine, students and cartoon geeks alike were in hog heaven. We had finally been inside a Hollywood cartoon studio and seen the entire process first hand. Believe me, we couldn't stop talking about this television show for days afterward. Being an impressionable kid I even dreamed about being inside the UPA cartoon studio and even meeting the big boss, Stephen Bosustow. It gets even better. In my dream, I ended up sitting side by side with the UPA film maker working on a movie. Ah, that's what it's like to be a kid, eh? What a rich imagination we have.

Decades pass, and now I find myself a young adult working in the movie business. After the passing of Walt Disney in 1966, I decide to strike out on my own. Along with my partners, Leo Sullivan, Norman Edelen and Dick Allen we launched a film studio producing educational media for schools across the country. As we began work on a particularly difficult film series, our producers asked would we mind if they brought in a consultant to work with us on the series. “The gentleman was well qualified,” they insisted. “He had even run his own animation studio for a time. Perhaps you've heard of him. Does the name, Stephen Bosustow sound familiar?” Toward the end of the project, our producers insisted we finish up working at their facility in Santa Monica. Stephen Bosustow and I could share an office and complete our work in the company facility. And that, boys and girls is how I ended up sitting beside Stephen Bosustow in the Santa Monica office. The two of us ended up working on this project together in much the same way I had Imagined some thirty years earlier in my childhood dream. 

Like so much of my life, it was another wonderful, amazing experience. So amazing, I have to reiterate the stories are all true. In my wildest dreams, these are things I could never make up.

The UPA filmmakers were visited by KTLA's television crew. For most of us animation geeks it was our first visit inside the amazing mid-century cartoon studio, United Productions of America.

The UPA filmmakers were visited by KTLA's television crew. For most of us animation geeks it was our first visit inside the amazing mid-century cartoon studio, United Productions of America.

A Visit From Steve Jobs

I still remember the Apple CEO standing by the door with his foot resting on the box. Inside the un-open box was a gift he had brought along for one of the lucky studio executives. Being the top boss, he could give away notebooks the way we might give away note pads. He was dressed, characteristically in a black mock turtle neck shirt, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers. You probably already know the boss to whom I'm referring. It was Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs made a fair number of trips to Burbank and the Walt Disney Studios whenever a Pixar movie was in production. I can only imagine the CEO of the famous Bay Area animation studio wanted to garner Disney's reaction first hand. An animated motion picture goes through many iterations while in production and screenings were held on a regular basis. I honestly doubt Steve was trying to curry favor with Disney. Being a shrewd negotiator Jobs didn't need any extra help to get his way. I think he brought Apple gifts purely as a gesture of friendliness. After all, shouldn't everybody have a Mac Laptop?

The Walt Disney Company once had a Macintosh User Group, and like the Apple CEO we also gave away impressive gifts at special occasions. Not our idea, actually, but a generous gesture by Apple and they regularly donated Apple laptops and desktops for our events. On one particular Disney event that featured the PhotoShop guru, Russell Brown, Apple once again donated a Macintosh desktop system to be raffled off to one of the lucky Disney attendees. Only this time there was a hitch. And, as you can imagine, I've been steaming about it ever since.

We were all given raffle tickets when entering the large room and at the end of the presentation the lucky numbers were to be read. At least that's what we expected. A young Disney executive walked to the front of the presentation room to explain the raffle had been cancelled because giving away “free stuff” was in violation of the company gift policy. The raffle was cancelled and the Apple people packed up the “gift computer” and returned to Cupertino. As you can imagine, I was ready to start chewing the furniture in the conference room.

WTF?! For years studio executives had been accepting “freebies” and there was never a problem. Yet, when Apple offered a prize that would cost the the company nothing - suddenly there's a problem. As expected, the rules it would appear, apply to some - and not to others. I couldn't help but wonder what Steve Jobs would have thought about this goofy situation? And, I wonder if those company executives who scored the free laptops are ready to return them? I would guess - probably not.

I still remember those trips back in the day and I still remember Steve Jobs generously bringing along cool stuff as he made his many trips to the Southland. And, I so wish Steve Jobs was still around today if only to slap some sense into the hard heads of clueless corporate executives.

My view of Steve Jobs while waiting for the screening to begin. We were showing a rough cut of one of the Pixar feature films.

My view of Steve Jobs while waiting for the screening to begin. We were showing a rough cut of one of the Pixar feature films.

My Early Santa Barbara Years

If I were writing a bio, I’d probably be telling stories like this. Stories about my early life growing up in Santa Barbara.

I’ve always believed in hard work. I learned my work ethic from my grandparents, John and Emma Davis. They were amazingly resiliant and resourceful especially considering the social conditions in America at the time. Once they arrived in Santa Barbara in the twenties they set about doing whatever they could to earn a living and better their lives. My grandparents began by cleaning the homes of the wealthy townsfolk. It didn’t take long before they were able to purchase property and build their own home. Later, they opened the Davis Hand Laundry and took in washing in the rear of their home. In time, my enterprising grandparents opened a restaurant called The Deluxe Southern Kitchen. They worked, they saved, and they invested. In so doing, they taught me the value of work and I’ve never forgotten it.

I’m amazed at todays young people who have absolutely no idea what they plan to do with their lives. I’ve always known what I wanted out of life. Plus, there were so many things that fascinated me I could have chosen any number of careers. Of course, number one was always art. I knew I wanted to be an artist. When I was a young kid I remember lying on the floor in my grandmother’s living room looking at a magazine. I was too young to read so I asked my grandmother to tell me the name of the familiar signature next to the artwork. I’ll never forget hearing the the name Walt Disney. A name that would have a profound affect on the rest of my life. Once in middle school I had a choice of going to study hall or the library. It was an easy choice. The library was a treasure trove. A space filled with books. Could there even be another choice? The quiet spring afternoons in our middle school library helped shape my life. I learned so many things and I fell in love with many of them. One day, I happened across a book on motion pictures. It told how movies were made and it detailed the entire filmmaking process. I found it fascinating. I had been a moviegoer all my young life but now something clicked inside my head and I realized I wanted to make movies. In truth, I became totally obsessed with the idea of telling stories using the medium of film. It was a passion I would never lose. Of course, I would need a movie camera and I couldn’t afford to buy one. I knew my parents didn’t have the money to waste on such foolishness, so, I went to my grandmother with a plan. Emma Davis was an amazing woman in many ways, but she also pocessed incredible vision. It was as though she saw my future even before I did. My grandmother made it possible for me to buy my first 16mm movie camera (the film resolution was better than the crappy 8mm) and even helped me build my animation camera stand to photograph my cartoon art frame by frame. Who would have thought that a Missisppi grandmother would understand the quirky business of cartoon making and help me launch my career in animated film production?

My film making ventures continued into Santa Barbara high school where I suggested our class make a documentary film as part of our civics course. Of course, it was my scheme to get the school to finance our movie. Our short student film had a very long title. “An Exchange Student in an American High School” and it detailed the arrival of European students visiting America for the first time. The motion picture was completed on budget and on schedule. All the students involved in the making of the film had a grand time working as script writers, set designers, photographers and editors. Once I graduated from Santa Barbara High School there was little doubt I would be headed for Hollywood.

My grandmother, the amazing Emma Davis. She totally supported my goal of becoming a Disney animator, and even helped me create my first animated films as a child. I owe her everything.

My grandmother, the amazing Emma Davis. She totally supported my goal of becoming a Disney animator, and even helped me create my first animated films as a child. I owe her everything.

Meeting With Mr. "C"

I wanted to like the guy, I really did. In many ways his growing success was an inspiration to all of us. His career was moving at top speed and in short order he would be gaining superstar status. After all, he was playing the top Vegas night spots, along with concerts and comedy albums. Now, a prime time television show and an animated cartoon special would be added to his portfolio. I considered it an honor to be associated with the talented entertainer because in many ways he was paving the road to success for all of us. Being around actors and entertainers was hardly anything new for me, but this guy was incredibly successful and his popularity was soaring. I couldn’t help but be just a little bit excited about meeting the star in person.

It would be our first meeting on the Warner Bros. studio lot where the prime time television show was being filmed. Of course, we had made many visits to the Beverly Hills office for meetings, but the famous comedy star was seldom available for a sit down. His busy schedule had him on the road and meeting time was limited. For now, his new television show would keep him in town for a while, so we took advantage of the situation to discuss our plans for upcoming projects. My partner and I entered the darken soundstage and an assistant ushered us to a large trailer parked inside the stage. If you’re familiar with the world of show business you already know that a trailer is a special space reserved for those who have obtained star status. As we were shown to a small room, the star was already in a rather intense conversation with the director of the show. Their meeting quickly ended and the director headed back to the set. We imagined the issue had been settled and now it was our turn. The famous comedy star was taller than I had imagined and he leaned back in his chair as he puffed on a large Cuban cigar. The plumes of smoke might have annoyed some, but my dad was a cigar smoker so I was more than used to it. The star wasn’t rude, but there was no time for chit chat. We immediately got down to business and quickly hammered out the agenda. Having often watched the comedy star perform on stage, I suppose I was waiting for a little lightness in our conversation. Perhaps a joke or a funny comment concerning what we were hoping to do. However, there was none of that and our meeting rapidly concluded with, “take care of it,” or get that stuff done!” It appeared the star needed to get back to work, so there was little time for graciousness. This never struck me as unusual in any way. After all, celebrities are often not the same person they appear to be on stage or screen.

You’ll gain no further insights here because I have absolutely nothing to say concerning the star’s current difficult situation. I will say that from this initial meeting on the Warner Bros. studio lot so many years ago I regretfully found the star remarkably unlikable. And, I do not say this lightly, because it’s my nature to like people immediately. Even people I’ve never met before. However, something made me uncomfortable. Something nagged at me after each meeting with the famous celebrity. I truly wanted to like this guy - and he should have been my inspiration. Further, I don’t want to say he didn’t do good things on occasion, because he could show incredible generousity. However, he didn’t strike me as a good person. Sadly, my initial instincts were correct and it now appears the once well loved comedy star has proven himself to be incredibly unlikable.

On occasion, we would meet in his dressing room on the Warner Bros. Studio lot. The meetings with the funny man could never, ever be called fun.

On occasion, we would meet in his dressing room on the Warner Bros. Studio lot. The meetings with the funny man could never, ever be called fun.