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 other people of color 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 firm belivers in the American dream.
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? I’ve had cops level their service revolvers at me and I’m just a damn cartoonist. Our DP and editor, Dick Allen has since passed on. Oddly enough, Dick was a retired Los Angeles police officer himself. Our other partner, Norm was also a retired LA cop and has written about the corruption in the LA Police Department. In an odd way, we lived through much of Los Angeles history. Tom Bradley, who would be LA Mayor one day even shared office space in our building. Although we enjoyed a degree of success making animated movies and television shows, the dream of building our own company was never fully realized. We concluded our meeting, finished our meal and headed out the door. It was 2015 and I looked around the restaurant and realized little had changed since 1966. I guess that’s life after all. Things seldom change, do they?