I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in Disney’s old Animation Building recently. A visit to the second floor always provokes a flood of memories. The structure has been renovated and yet things look pretty much the same. At least enough remains to remind this Disney veteran of a time long gone in Walt’s magic kingdom. When I first arrived at Disney in the fifties, 2-C was considered a shorts unit. Directors like Jack Hannah and Dick Kinney still produced animated shorts for Walt Disney Productions. For those of you who don’t remember Disney story boarding “Old School,” it was guys like Roy Williams and Al Bertino knocking out gags and then going out for a drink. In the old days the story rooms were strictly a man’s world replete with cigars and cigarettes filling the ashtrays.
In time, cartoon shorts no longer generated sufficient income for the company and even the distributors were growing disenchanted. Of course there was a reason for their displeasure. Exhibitors could squeeze in more screenings of a feature film without short cartoons clogging the schedule.To his credit, Walt Disney continued to produce animated shorts even though these films were being produced at a loss. Finally, Roy had to tell his brother that enough was enough. I still remember the day when old timers like Jack Hannah and Dick Kinney were given their walking papers and we had come to an end of an era at Walt’s cartoon house. The 2-C wing now had a new tenant, and Wolfgang Reitherman and his crew would remain in this special location longer than most. Woolie would direct the Dragon battle in “Sleeping Beauty,” and sequences from “101 Dalmatians” from this work space. In the early sixties, Woolie would be the first Walt Disney director to helm a feature film on his own. “The Sword in the Stone,” unlike its predecessors, would not have three directors. In a bold move, Walt Disney gave Reitherman the helm. Surprisingly, I would join Woolie’s unit on “The Jungle Book” in 1966, and Woolie and company would continue on long after my departure.
Woolie’s wing would move through a number of changes over the years, and artistic personal would continue to rotate. However, a few things stayed the same. A casual visit to 2-C would make you feel as though you’d never left, even though you may have been gone for a decade. Senior layout artist, Don Griffith sat at the far end of the wing in the spacious office. His work area overlooked the Camera Building to the east, and trees were visible through the window. This was a large room usually shared by layout artists, Basil Davidovitch and Sylvia Romer. During “101 Dalmatians,” Dale Barnhart, Ray Aragon and Sammie June Lanham worked here as well. This room connected to Woolie’s office. A large space with plenty of room for chairs, couches, storyboards and a Moviola. Moving west down the hallway was Woolie’s personal assistant, Betty Gossin. Of course, assistants were called secretaries back in those days. Her space was connected to the next large story room where story veterans Vance Gerry and Al Wilson worked away. Across the hallway were two other large rooms where veteran animators, Dick Lucas and Eric Cleworth doubled as story artists for the unit. The beauty of this arrangement was that all the spaces were connected. The office of the story artists and layout flowed into the directors space. Should Woolie have a question for his layout crew, he only had to walk through a doorway. Instead of making an appointment to speak with your boss, you knew he was only a few feet away. Walt Disney had created an amazing system to develop animated films, and these directorial units, or “Music Rooms,” as they were called back then were incredibly efficient. When I think of how animated films are produced today, studios appear to need an army to accomplish what we did with only a handful of people.
In time, Woolie Reitherman finally packed it in and announced his retirement from the Disney Studios. Some of Woolie’s crew remained for while, but they eventually left as well. 2-C was turned over to producer, Joe Hale and his team to begin work on “The Black Cauldron.” In spite of the nearly ten years spent on the film, “The Black Cauldron” turned out to be more forgettable than classic, and animation’s days in Burbank were clearly numbered. “The Great Mouse Detective” showed that Disney animation still had promise, but they would have to prove that in a new location. I still remember the fateful week when Walt’s premiere animation staffers were kicked out on their butts. Walt Disney Animation has finally returned to Burbank. Well, in a round about kind of way. Their new home is an architectural oddity on Riverside Drive, and the staff makes do with their less than functional surroundings. Thankfully, all that is about to change and next year we’ll see a much improved animation facility. Yet, decades have passed since 2-C has been home to a Disney animation unit. That marvel of efficiency and functionality pioneered by Walt Disney that we once knew as, “The Music Room.”
Today, few people in the Animation Building know of its history and the brilliant men and women who labored here. Would anybody in 2-C even know Woolie Reitherman, Don Griffith or Vance Gerry? Are they even aware of the magic that was created within the walls of the very wing they now inhabit? I slap myself awake as I stare down the hallway of 2-C. This was the wing that was once my home as a young Disney story artist. It’s 2015 and 1966 is a long time ago. I can’t help feeling a lingering sadness as I remember the days past. You can wait around and hope but it’s doubtful you’ll ever see the likes of this again.