As I sat at my drawing board wildly sketching away on a new feature film idea, I suddenly glanced up to see two visitors in the room. It seems they were scrutinizing the sketches, models and story boards in my cluttered office. The two older gentleman were wearing the pastel colored garb usually sported by retirees living in the nearby beach community. But, who were these codgers, I wondered? And, why would they have any interest in an obscure little cartoon studio in Newport Beach?
I could tell by their comments the two men were hardly novices when it came to the production of animated films. Could they have worked in the cartoon business at one time, I wondered? And, what would prompt their interest in our little animated venture? Since two gentlemen appeared low key and soft spoken, it took me a few minutes before I recognized the Disney veteran who had once been my boss at Walt’s mouse factory many years ago. His name was Clyde Geronimi, but friends and colleagues knew him by the nick name, “Gerry.” Gerry Geronimi wasn’t just another Disney employee, in case you’re wondering. He had been a major player in Walt’s animation department for decades and directed many of the classic Disney films I saw as a child.
It had easily been two decades since I last saw Gerry Geronimi at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. In the sixties, I remember Geronimi had traveled to Europe on a live-action film assignment for the old Maestro. Though Gerry had spent most of his career directing animated projects, Walt Disney had decided to trust his supervising director with a live-action project this time around. I never did see the completed television show Gerry supervised for Walt, and I was somewhat surprised that the Disney veteran suddenly departed the studio where he had spent so much of his career. Not long after Gerry’s departure, Walt Disney passed away and the studio had been changed forever.
However, the kids in the studio had no idea who the old gentleman was and the incredible accomplishments he had achieved while working for Disney. I still kick myself for not grabbing a tape recorder and asking the animation veteran and few hundred questions. However, we still had a job to do and I was reluctant to impose on our visitor’s time. Perhaps he had a golf game to get to - or whatever retirees do with their leisure time. After the two gentleman said their goodbyes and headed out the door I felt it was important to inform my studio colleagues who they had just met.
Gerry Geronimi was born in Italy and emigrated to the United States in 1908. He began his cartoon career in New York City working as an animator for the Hearst Studios before heading to Southern California in 1931 to join a scrappy little cartoon studio known as Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney had a knack for spotting potential leaders, so Gerry was told to put down his animation pencil and take on a new role as a director of Walt’s cartoon shorts. Geronimi eventually directed several shorts, and even took home an Academy Award for “The Ugly Duckling.” Before long, Gerry Geronimi had become one of Walt Disney’s trusted feature film directors along with Wilfred Jackson, Ham Luske and others. You’ll see Gerry’s name on darn near every Disney classic animated film produced in the forties and fifties. His credits, to name a few, include, “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” and Lady and the Tramp. When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties just beginning my animation career, Gerry was the big boss in the animation department. He was our supervising director on the Disney classic, “Sleeping Beauty,” and often his was the final word on what went into the final film. Of course, Walt Disney had the final say when it came to story, but he trusted Gerry to make the right calls when other duties had the Old Maestro’s attention.
As so often happens, Gerry Geronimi was sadly forgotten once he left the Walt Disney Studios and began his retirement. There were no awards or accolades given to the departing Disney Master for his many years of service. Although he did receive the Windsor McKay Award some years later. Adding icing to the cake, the coveted award was presented to Gerry by Cartoon legend, Walter Lantz.
Clyde “Gerry” Geronimi passed away in Newport Beach California at the age of eighty seven. His stellar career in the cartoon business reached back to the thirties and he wrapped up his Disney career in the sixties after completing work on “Sleeping Beauty.” Ironically, it was the same decade the Old Maestro left us. If you’ve ever seen a Walt Disney feature animated film it’s more than likely you’ve seen a film directed by Gerry Geronimi. The quiet, aging gentleman that stopped in my Newport Beach office that morning many years ago was a Disney veteran and pioneer. Sadly, few people besides myself were even aware we had been visited by a true Disney Legend.