It may seem like ancient history but the sixties was a very exciting time at the Walt Disney Studios. Shortly after the completion of the feature film, “The 101 Dalmatians,” Walt Gathered what was left of his decimated animation department to give us a glimpse of the future. We met in a large conference room just off of A-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building. There were a handful of managers, but most of the space was filled with animation artists. Walt was keen on bringing the story of the little Indian boy, “Hiawatha” to the screen. Hiawatha was a pre-colonial Native American leader and as always, Walt saw an exciting story worth telling. The Old Maestro pitched another surprise. He suggested we began developing a series of “B Features.” Feature animated films that could be produced in a couple years instead of the lengthy six year production grind of “Sleeping Beauty.” It would be the same way the studio tackled “Dumbo” back in the forties when time and money was tight. Sadly, for one reason or another the things the boss pitched that morning never came to pass. I began doing my “inside” animation gag sketches back in the sixties. It appeared no one else was drawing studio gags any longer and I hated to see such a longstanding animation tradition die. The way Disney films were being made had changed a good deal and the animation staff was just a shadow of what it had been earlier. Walt Disney was now tooling around the studio lot in a little electric vehicle with a Nixon/Lodge bumper sticker taped to the back. His thoughts were on the Mineral King winter resort project in the high Sierras and a new Disney park in Orlando Florida. Walt’s son in law, Ron Miller had joined the company and the Disney television shows were now being telecast in living color.

Amusing things happened in the sixties. One morning a little old woman in a horse and wagon showed up at the studio main gate. Believe me, it’s true. Somehow this woman had braved the San Fernando Valley vehicular traffic in a horse and carriage. The woman had traveled miles to personally deliver a manuscript to Walt Disney. Any other studio boss would have ignored the incident. However, Walt Disney left his third floor office and walked out to the main gate to meet with the strange little woman. I spoke briefly with Mr. Disney after the meeting. By chance, the two of us took the same path back to the Animation Building. He chuckled and remarked, “The world is full of peculiar people.” This simple gesture impressed me. Can you imagine the CEO of any company doing that today? Rumors of gloom and doom seemed to permeate the Walt Disney Studio as each successive feature wound down. Every film I worked on was rumored to be the last. It was often said that Walt was going shut the whole thing down and just build theme parks. I must admit that the canceling of a proposed feature, "Chanticleer" and the selling of dozens of animation and layout desks did not inspire confidence in a secure future. In spite of my own and everyone else’s worries, I enjoyed doing a number of “Walt gags” as he fired everyone. Animation artists are a hardy sort and most continued to plunge ahead in spite of an uncertain future. They organized an outdoor art show to prove that creativity was alive and well at the Walt Disney Studio. Included in the show was a large poster that read: “To Walt with appreciation.” I drew a cartoon gag of the poster because most decided that it was the only painting in the show Walt really liked. Every day provided more fodder for gags as Disney’s animators and directors deliberated over the craziest of things. What would be the shape of Winnie the Pooh’s hands and would he have a thumb? Would Ravi Shankar provide sitar music for "The Jungle Book” or would the songs be performed by the Beatles? With Walt Disney in charge my material for cartoon gags seemed endless. Would it be another disastrous story meeting or the Old Maestro agonizing through one of his filmed television show introductions out on the sound stage? This was the end of an era. Mary Poppins was a big hit, the Nine Old Men were in their prime and Walt Disney showed no signs of slowing down. I didn’t attempt to save all the cartoons I drew during this time. There must be a ton of drawings and sketches probably lost or forgotten. This was back before Xerox and nobody thought much about saving anything. If I had all the cartoons cels and animation drawings I threw out I’d more than likely be rich today.

Looking back, the nineteen sixties was an exciting time. The Walt Disney Studio and Walt Disney in particular appeared to have boundless energy and the future appeared more exciting than ever. The studio was struggling back from a number of setbacks, but I had already survived two massive layoffs and in the next few years I would survive a good deal more. It would appear that working at the Walt Disney Studio was my destiny and nothing or no one was ever going to change that.

Working at the Walt Disney Studios back in the sixties was exciting. Walt was a demanding boss but we thrived under his direction and became more creative than ever. Today, we just make money.

Working at the Walt Disney Studios back in the sixties was exciting. Walt was a demanding boss but we thrived under his direction and became more creative than ever. Today, we just make money.

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AuthorFloyd Norman