You might find this surprising but I never wanted to be a story artist at the Walt Disney Studios. It’s not that I didn’t have an interest in storytelling. I knew creative storytelling was what set Disney apart from the competition. More often than not I found myself prowling the hallways of Walt Disney’s story department in the evenings or early mornings. The story department was located on the second and third floors of the legendary Animation Building. I found Disney’s story department fascinating but I left that component of cartoon making to those much wiser than myself. The task of spinning an effective narrative seemed daunting to this inexperience kid and I knew such challenges should be left to the gifted few who occupied the upstairs offices.
However, there was another cause for concern. The Disney story department could be filled with peril. In many ways it was a jungle up there. On my many visits to the upstairs story rooms I often watched as nervous story artists feverishly prepared a pitch for the Old Maestro. Ash trays were filled with smoldering cigarette butts and apprehensive artists made a fair number of visits to the Pago Pago or Aphonse’s. These were nearby “watering holes” where old story guys sought solace in a glass of booze. Then, there was the eventful day when the boss finally arrived to check out what the guys had done. Naturally, to this dumb kid everything looked fine and peachy. The beautifully drawn story boards were fun and fanciful and the ideas felt fresh and new. The boss, Walt Disney was sure to love this stuff, right?
Remember, you’re getting this unique view of the early sixties first hand because I was there to observe it all. Naturally, I was not in the room when all the meetings took place. I was simply a novice from the animation department downstairs. However, I’ll admit I was curious how things were going behind the closed doors of the story room. More than once I waited outside the upstairs story rooms for a verdict to be handed down. Suddenly, the door would slam open and Walt Disney would make his way out of the room. If the boss wasn’t smiling it was a pretty good indication things had not gone well. A quick glance inside the room revealed the story team nervously lighting up another cigarette. As you can imagine, they were not smiling either. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the hapless story team and I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not tasked with such an impossible job. For the moment, I was safe downstairs in the Animation Department. This was an area the Old Maestro seldom visited. Walt Disney had no need to ride herd on his animators. After all, they were the best in the business and continually delivered the goods. If you worked in animation it was doubtful you’d ever find the Old Maestro looking over your shoulder. The work was challenging, yet there wasn’t all that much pressure. Compared to storytelling, life in animation was serene.
However, life can be filled with unexpected twists and turns. Early in 1966, storm clouds were brewing on the third floor of the Animation Building and Walt Disney’s premiere story man, Bill Peet could not come to terms with the boss on how the story of The Jungle Book should be adapted. Peet had created a narrative that was dark, mystical and mysterious. The tone of the story even caused Walt Disney to make an odd and unexpected comment. During a tense story meeting, Disney exclaimed, “It reminds me of Bat Man!” The confrontation eventually came to climax with Bill Peet walking off the movie and Disney scrapping Peet’s adaption of the Kipling novel. Nobody could have been more surprised than myself when I was suddenly recruited from the animation department to join the story team on a new revamped version of the movie. adding to this task was its compressed time schedule. We had less than a year to turn the story around. Not to mention I had never done story work as a professional before. The amazing task was accomplished by Larry Clemmons, Vance Gerry, Al Wilson, Dick Lucas, Eric Cleworth and myself. It’s funny how things work out, wouldn’t you say? I had no aspiration of working in Walt Disney’s hallowed story rooms and I never dreamed of being on a story team. I was eager to avoid the trials and tribulations of Disney’s story department and preferred to remain at my safe and secure animation drawing board. Call it caprice or quirky, a decision had been made. A decision that would change my career…and my life forever.