It was Warner Bros. Animation in the nineteen fifties, and this is how the story goes. Animator, Benny Washam walked into the office of production manager, Johnny Burton and said, “I hear Warner Bros. has a racist policy and refuses to hire blacks.” A furious Burton wheeled around in his office chair and shouted, “Whoever said that is a damn liar! It’s not true.” “Well then,” said Washam, “There’s a young black animator outside who’s looking for a job. Guess he’s come to the right place.” And with that, so began the animation career of Frank Braxton. I attended Frank Braxton’s memorial service at the People’s Independent Church of Christ in Los Angeles back in the sixties. The speaker was Bill Hurtz, and he spoke of Benny Washam, who was one of the best of the Warner Bros. animators. Benny was taking singing lessons from voice instructor, Lee Wintner. Frank Braxton was driving a taxicab around town at that time and was also taking lessons. That’s when he met Benny Washam. Frank was excited to find that Benny was in the cartoon business because that’s where he wanted to be. He wondered if Benny could do something to get him a job, and you know the rest.
It generally takes five years or longer to learn animation. The art of bringing drawings to life is no easy task. Yet, in just two years Frank Braxton left Warner Bros. as a journeyman animator. There was still much about the craft he didn’t know, but he had some talents to help him. He was a good actor, and a musician. He also felt compelled to make good. Why? At least one of the reasons was because he was black. Bill Hurtz was a producer at a small production house specializing in animated commercials. He hired Frank on the recommendation of Ben Washam, knowing little about Frank or his work. It wasn’t long before Hurtz became to see how well Braxton could draw. He also began to know Frank as a person, but it wasn’t always easy. Frank could be merry and fun to be around, but he was also compelled to succeed. It was inevitable in such a complicated art form, combining acting and good drawing that Frank would occasionally fall on his face. When that happened, and it wasn’t often, he would be plunged into despair. He couldn’t tolerate failure. It was then Hurtz became aware of the pressures that Frank, as the first black in the animation business was under. When he told Frank that his work was good, it wasn’t enough. He wanted it to be the best. As a result, Frank would work and rework a scene of animation to achieve perfection. This drive for excellence meant he could not turn out as much work as his associates because he wouldn’t turn in a scene until it was right. He was, understandably, extremely sensitive to criticism. After all, he had a lot at stake. Though some animation old timers insist the “door was always open,” it was difficult for people of color to get into the animation business in those days. Back then there was no such thing as training for animation. You just walked into a studio and hung around until somebody gave you something to do. That’s pretty good for people who could be invisible in the surroundings, but in those days for blacks to get any kind of job of prestige was very rare. Most black artists preferred to go into the broader fields of illustration and painting. The field of animation was highly specialized, and few black artists even knew about it.
I met Frank Braxton in the early sixties. Like all young animation artists I still had pixie dust in my eyes and saw nothing but boundless opportunities. Along with my animation partner Leo Sullivan, I began to hang out with Frank, and he became our mentor. As young guys struggling to find our way in the business, it was great having the advice of an “old pro.” Over time, we began to learn that Frank had serious issues. He would caution us about our cheery optimism, and made us aware of the “sharks” that inhabited the “tanks” of the Hollywood studios. He was also impatient with the lack of progress besetting people of color in the business. There were no black directors, producers or department heads. Frank was not a bitter man, but it was clear he was growing impatience. I think this impatience with American animation led him to try his hand working abroad. Frank had the opportunity to animate in a cartoon studio in Spain. The company was Estudio Morros in Barcelona. After a year or so, Frank returned to the states. The European experience had made a difference. For the first time in his life he felt free, and enjoyed the absence of prejudice. Now Frank was energized. He was determined to make a difference in animation. A fellow artist named Corny Cole was teaching in downtown Los Angeles. The organization was called, PASLA, Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles. Frank felt that there ought to be an animation section because there was acting, singing, dancing and karate. Frank went around to all the animation studios and bummed equipment from them so he could set up an animation class. Corny Cole wanted to have life drawing as well as animation. So, you had this wacky scene of a half dozen kids drawing a nude model, and at the other end of the room there was another group of kids drawing funny little cartoon characters.
In time, Frank became president of the Los Angeles chapter of ACIFA, an animation organization that continues today. Yet, Frank was growing more impatient. He wanted to direct, and he wanted his own studio. During this time, there was a lot of self- awareness in the black community, and Frank felt there should be a black studio to give young black artists a greater opportunity. He wanted to give these kids a “way out.” Frank was enthusiastic about animation, but worried that he didn’t always have all the answers. Kids were always coming up to him and saying, “How can I get a job?” The Bill Cosby “Fat Albert” special had been on television, and one of the artists gave Frank a box of animation cels to show the kids in his class. The kids had great enthusiasm for animation, and having Frank Braxton as an instructor was a constant reminder that they could make it if they worked hard enough. Frank preferred freelancing to taking a full time gig in a mainstream studio. He animated on a number of commercials for small production houses around town and worked on the “Peanuts” specials for Bill Melendez, and “Bullwinkle” for Jay Ward. He animated “Mr. Magoo,” Cap’n Crunch,” and a host of other characters. The last time I saw Frank was at Jay Ward’s studio out on Sunset Boulevard. I still remember Frank dressed in his cool sixties garb with his guitar leaning against his drawing table. He always had a theatrical quality about himself. He was a natural performer, which is why his animation was so good.
Even after his illness struck, Frank continued to animate. He was an ambitious guy always ready to make the next step. But, the illness was gaining on him just as he hit his peak of excellence as an artist and as a person. Some would call Frank Braxton’s life one of hard fought, hard-earned achievement. Though few people in animation even know his name today he was our “Jackie Robinson.” Yet, Frank Braxton was determined not to be a symbol. He wasn’t a black animator; he was an animator - and a damn good one.