The Only Son of a Bitch!

Over the years there’s been a fair number of stories told about Walt Disney. As a matter of fact, I’ve told a few of them myself on this journal and elsewhere. However, this particular story is one of my favorites. Let me take you back to the late fifties when this curious event took place. I find this studio incident insightful because it reveals a good deal about a wonderful gentleman named, Walt Disney. It’s also a cautionary tale for all top level Disney managers and the responsibility that job entails.

The story takes place during Disney’s remarkable mid-century growth explosion. The time during the opening of the Disneyland theme park and the move into network television. The Disney Company had hired many new staffers including a new vice-president. This executive’s office was located on the first floor of the Animation Building. It was the wing on the buildings east side facing the Ink&Paint facility. The new manager was somewhat full of himself and usually posturing so Disney employees would recognize how “important” he was. Unlike most Disney managers at the time, he even insisted on putting his name on his office door.

As the executive was making a telephone call one morning he was distracted by the sound of a lawn mower outside his office window. The Disney studio gardener was going about his morning task of mowing the well manicured studio lawn. As the gardener continued his work, the short tempered executive finally had enough. He opened his window and screamed at the hapless gardener at the top of his lungs. “Turn off that damn lawn mower you son of a bitch! I’m trying to make a telephone call!”

It wasn’t long before the recently hired vice-president had a visit from Walt Disney. It appears the boss had heard about the incident, so he made his way downstairs to deal with the matter. “I heard you called my gardener a son of a bitch!” The Old Maestro growled. “I want you to know that man has been with this company for over twenty years. You call him that again, you won’t be with this company another twenty minutes.” Finally, Walt Disney capped off the brief exchange with this final remark. “By the way, there’s only one son of a bitch at this studio…and that’s me!”

I often hear negative things said about Walt Disney these days. Yet, this particular event is something I’ll always remember. Walt could easily have been a crass, petulant autocratic ruler with subordinates jumping to his every whim. Yet, Disney was exactly the opposite. He was a gentleman who treated everyone with respect. You might be an executive or a gardener. Or, you might be employed as a producer or a janitor. One thing was always certain. All would be treated the same. A few thoughts you “high level executives” might want to keep in mind on this cool November morning.

The "Big Shot" Disney executive was finally put in his place. Who better than Walt Disney to do it.

The "Big Shot" Disney executive was finally put in his place. Who better than Walt Disney to do it.

Corporate Workspace

Being a cartoonist enables me to see the irony in every situation. Cartoonists are observers, after all. We simply look around and view life from a slightly different perspective. And of course, we see the humor clearly evident in the situation. I’m often asked, where do you get the funny ideas for your gags, or what makes you funny? Actually, I’m not funny at all. Life is what’s funny. Let me give you an example.

Many years ago, when I was a young animation apprentice I had the privilege of working at the finest cartoon studio in the world. Better yet, I had my own private space. Before you ask, what’s the big deal about that, let me remind you that I was a nobody. I was an apprentice. Yet, I had an office with a window, a desk, a drawing board and a lounge chair. And yes, that even included a door I could close should I desire a bit of privacy. I was certainly not a top executive or a high level manager. I was an animation artist, yet that was enough for this green, know nothing kid to be worthy of a private office.

My, how times have changed. Today, workers are crammed together in a large workspace where essentially every person shares a desk with everybody else. Gone are the days of the private office or even the private cubicle. It would appear we’re all one big happy family in this new working environment. I’m told this new idea comes to us from the high technology companies of Silicon Valley where scores of attractive, highly motivated millennials sprawl over any available space needed to accomplish their task. In this new paradigm the old ways of working are quickly abandoned to meet the needs of new business models where things change at a moments notice. Forget about planning for ten years down the road. Today’s changes happen every two weeks. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical. Office space is hardly needed these days because workers find themselves in perpetual meetings day after day. It’s hardly unusual for a worker to find him or herself in several meetings each day. Back when we worked for Walt Disney we could usually count on one meeting a month. And, that’s if we were lucky enough to get the Old Maestro to attend the meeting.

Should you find yourself sharing an office desk with 25 of your fellow employees I’d advise you to get used to it because I doubt it will change anytime soon. This is simply the way corporate America does business these days. The toxic work environment we have today is, in my opinion, a reflection our current corporate and American values. Employees were once a valued part of the organizations they worked for. Now, they are simply disposable parts. And, I regret to say, that’s not very funny at all.

Has the corporate workspace changed just a little since I was a kid. I certainly think so.

Has the corporate workspace changed just a little since I was a kid. I certainly think so.

Saving the Movie

Richard Sherman, Bruce Reitherman and myself. All the rest are gone. The animators, layout artists, background painters, musicians and voice talent of Walt Disney’s animated classic, “The Jungle Book” are no longer with us. Sadly, the Old Maestro himself never lived to see the finished motion picture. Walt Disney passed away a few weeks after we had wrapped the story. 

Back in early nineteen sixty six, it was already common knowledge that Walt Disney was not exactly delighted with Bill Peet’s adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling novel. Color stylist, Walt Peregoy had already been given the boot when Walt expressed his displeasure with the movie’s background styling. Now Walt focused on the dozens of storyboards Peet had created over the past two years. The moody sensibility of Bill Peet’s story line caused Disney to mutter something totally unexpected. “It reminds me of Batman,” Walt grumbled. Was Walt Disney a closet fan of the Dark Knight, we wondered? Anyway, it was not exactly an endorsement of Bill Peet’s adaptation. Things were hardly rosy between Bill and Walt. Peet’s latest film, an adaptation of T.H. White’s novel, “The Sword in the Stone” had stumbled at the box office and Peet had been given carte blanche on the movie. Not about to let this happen again, Disney ordered changes. Rather than change the tone of the story, Bill Peet decided to head out the door.

Walt Disney’s displeasure with Rudyard Kipling’s novel, “The Jungle Book” was hardly something that concerned me. After all, I wasn’t even on the picture. Whatever problems that had to be worked out were certainly no concern of mine. I had what I considered an animation dream job working for my favorite animator. Even better, I worked in my private office in coveted, D-Wing where no one bothered me. I do not exaggerate when I say I was living the dream. The dream ended late one Friday afternoon when my boss, Andy Engman called me into his office over in B-Wing. “Sorry to get this news to you so late,” explained Andy. “But, you’ll need to pack up your office because we’re moving you upstairs to 2-C. Why would I be going to 2-C, I wondered? That’s the directorial wing of Wolfgang Reitherman. That’s the headquarters of the feature film, “The Jungle Book.” Why the heck would I be moving up there? Andy Engman quickly answered the question before I could even ask. “You’re going to be working on “The Jungle Book” with Woolie, Andy replied. I confess I was so shocked, I could not even think of any further questions. I headed back to my D-wing office and began to pack. Why was I going to story, I wondered? The story department at Disney was a pretty big deal, and many had tried to break into story without much success. Now, I had been given a job I never even requested much less tested for. There were procedures and protocols in place. Even then, an assignment in Walt’s story department was no guarantee. How the heck had I managed to leap over the many requirements? Why had nobody dared questioned my qualifications? It would take somebody truly important to make this happen. It was then, I suddenly realized I had answered my own question.

Monday morning, I arrived in 2-C on the second floor of the Animation Building and sat down at my new desk. In true Disney story fashion, my desk was butted up against another where my story partner, Vance Gerry would be working. Thankfully, I had known Mr. Gerry for a few years, so he was hardly a stranger. Vance was wearing his characteristic saddle shoes and had a wool sweater tied over his shoulders, preppy style. He seemed absorbed in his newspaper, and work appeared to be the last thing on his mind. Naturally, I was apprehensive and somewhat nervous. After all, this was my first day in Walt Disney’s coveted story department, and I do not hesitate when I admit I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there. I grabbed a stack of story pads and a handful of grease pencils because I knew that Walt Disney loved story sketches that were broad, bold and not fussy. I looked over at my laid back partner for some sign of what to do next. “Vance, What exactly are we supposed to do” I inquired? Vance Gerry casually lowered his newspaper with a wry smile on his face and said, 

“We’re gonna save the movie.”

This guy slithered into my life fifty years ago. Actually, it seems like yesterday.

This guy slithered into my life fifty years ago. Actually, it seems like yesterday.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

On a chilly November morning in 1993 my Disney colleagues and I gathered in a Glendale meeting room. We were not alone. In the room were the Disney bosses, Peter Schneider, Tom Schumacher, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Edward Disney and CEO, Michael Eisner. Can you imagine the tension in the room?

Art Director, Dave Goetz began his pitch. “14th century Europe, a dark and dreary time. A time of hopelessness. A time of…” Before Dave could finish his sentence, Michael Eisner blurted out, “EuroDisney!” Suddenly, the room exploded with laughter and the tension was broken. Should you not remember your Disney history, let’s just say the Disney theme park project in Paris had not been going well. However, it was clear that the big Disney boss, Michael Eisner was willing to laugh at himself. However, it was time to get back to the business of pitching a new animated Disney motion picture. A movie totally different than anything we had tried before. Hardly a story about princesses and bunny rabbits, this story would push the animated filmmakers in a bold new direction. What were we proposing, you might ask? An animated adaption of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Much like the despised, ugly hunchback, Disney animation had been lacking in respect for years. Without the support of the Old Maestro, Walt Disney, the animation department had found itself with an uncertain future. When new management came to Disney in the early eighties, animation was deemed costly and unprofitable. Without the support of Roy Edward Disney, the entire unit could have - and would have been placed on the chopping block. Finally, the beleaguered department was dumped into the hands of film chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg. It was either fix it - or get rid of it. The artists rose to the challenge and worked harder than ever. Under the chairman’s new leadership animation was given a reboot and what was to follow proved to be amazing. “The Little Mermaid,” Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were all critically acclaimed and profitable as well. Bolstered by incredible success, the Disney Animation Department suddenly had the feeling they could do anything.

In spite of the considerable religious overtones, the motion picture was given a green light for production to begin. The small team of development artists began preparing for the move to our new production facility, a large warehouse on Airway Street in Glendale. As the Disney story and layout team moved into the new quarters we decided our building needed a name, so one was given. It was a name more than appropriate for our animation production. Our building was called, Sanctuary. As the team settled in, I made it a point to learn the names of our new colleagues. Because Disney was already knee deep in production on another film, we had to recruit a number of new (new to Disney in any case) animation staffers to round out our team. Some of the animators were Canadian, while others, such as James Baxter relocated from the UK. Finally, two talented brothers named Paul and Gaetan Britzzi joined our production. Interestingly enough both came from the very city where our story takes place. That’s correct. Unlike the rest of us, the Britzzi brothers actually lived in Paris France. No doubt about it, this was going to be interesting. I’ll tell you all about it in part two, okay?

Quasimodo, the wretched and despised hunchback of Notre Dame. Until Disney animation became successful again we could truly identify with this guy.

Quasimodo, the wretched and despised hunchback of Notre Dame. Until Disney animation became successful again we could truly identify with this guy.