Disney B.S. (Before Starbucks)

Believe it or not, this blog post is about coffee. That’s right, my subject today is coffee. This is my view from my corner table at Starbucks and I find that a rough sketch often says a good deal more than a photograph. So, let’s talk about coffee.

Today, Millennials routinely gather at this early morning watering hole and it has become a matter of habit for most. Casually, paying two dollars or more for a cup of coffee, most would be shocked to hear that a hot cup of Joe once cost a nickel. That’s right. Five cents. Let’s go back to the early days of Disney. The time known as, Walt Disney Studios B.S. (before Starbucks) and see what coffee was like back then. If you know the Animation Building you’ll know that each of the wings had a small foyer. My office was in F-wing and ours was the only one with a coffee machine. No matter your position in the company, it meant a trek down to 1-F, where a nickel would buy you a cup of brown gunk from the coffee machine. There were other options, of course. Some hardy souls chose to make the trek across Buena Vista Avenue to Saint Joseph’s Hospital where the coffee was a good deal better. This was before the hospital expanded and built the multi-storied hospital building we see today. Of course, that tall building put an end to the nude sunbathing on the roof of the Animation Building - but that’s a fun story for another day. Should a motion picture or television show be in production on the Walt Disney Studio lot, you might even take a chance at snagging a cup of Joe from Craft Services. However, you’d better not get caught doing so. There were also a few who brought their own coffee makers from home, but the studio fire marshal discouraged having a coffee pot in the office.

For years, the coffee machine was pretty much the only place you could find coffee in Walt Disney’s Animation Building. In-betweeners and movie stars alike could be seen standing in line at the coffee machine in f-wing. Of course, everyone complained about the terrible coffee, but the options were few. Should you want to see your favorite movie or television star, simply stand in the lobby of F-wing. You never knew who might show up on a given day. Sometimes it was Disney voice actor, Sterling Holloway or film star, Dean Jones. Actress, Suzanne Pleschette was a frequent visitor along with Fess Parker and his Davy Crockett pals. The coffee was terrible, but the star power was pretty impressive as you stood in the F-wing coffee line back in fifties Disney.

Today, the dreaded coffee machines are pretty much a thing of the past and nearly every studio worth its salt has a least one Starbucks on the lot. Here at the Walt Disney Studio we have several and I’ve made it a point to visit every one of them. After all, I’m the guy who used to pay a nickel for a bad cup of coffee. Thanks to Starbucks, today I can pay a good deal more.

 Young people waiting in line at Starbucks. The view from my corner chair.

Young people waiting in line at Starbucks. The view from my corner chair.

The Three Fairies

I probably know these lovely ladies better than most. I spent nearly two and a half years drawing Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. I had the privilege and pleasure of working with the best in the animation business, and our directing animators were the legendary, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. The directing animators rode herd over a talented team of veteran Disney animators that included guys such as Hal Ambro, Hank Tanous and Hal King. Our team, led by animator, Freddy Hellmich consisted of Chuck Williams, Jim Fletcher, Bob Reese and myself. We were tasked to clean-up the scenes delivered to us by the Good Fairy animators. Freddy went over our scenes drawing by drawing before they were handed to Frank and Ollie who did pretty much the same. Were they tough, you ask? You better believe it. They were damn tough, and I do not exaggerate when I say we often did our scenes at least three times before they were finally approved.

Walt Disney found his finest voice actors often came from radio. Unlike a film star, the only tool a radio actor has is his or her voice. That means actors trained in radio were exceptionally talented when it came to creating a character using only their vocal talents. That’s why Walt Disney choose the famed radio actress, Verna Felton to voice the character of Flora who often took the role as the lead fairy. Verna Felton was a radio veteran who radio listeners knew from the “Red Skelton” radio show and the Fanny Brice show, “Baby Snooks.” She was an amazing actor who could deliver a scary performance as the Queen of Hearts to the warm and delightful Fairy Godmother in Disney’s “Cinderella.” Another talented radio actor was, Barbara Jo Allen who provided the voice of Fauna. Miss Allen had the knack of often playing “ditzy” characters on radio and Walt knew she would be perfect as the often scattered, Fauna. Finally, the voice of cute little Merryweather was performed by Barbara Luddy, who was also a radio veteran. Luddy had a cute, delightful little voice, but she could also be spunky and determined when needed.

While the voice actors did their job, ours was keeping our nose to the grindstone or in this case, the drawing board. As the “Sleeping Beauty” deadline loomed, our teams began to put in overtime hours. The Walt Disney Commissary instituted a night shift to feed the hungry animation staff and keep us working full steam ahead. In spite of all this, our boss, Walt Disney did something exceptional. The Old Maestro set a limit on how late the artists could work. Walt Disney did not want his staff spending all night at the studio. The boss stated that his staffers needed to get home and spend time with their families. They should not work all night at the Walt Disney Studio and be an absent mother or father. Honestly, can you imagine anything like that happening today? Can you imagine the Disney top managers stating their staffers need to spend more time with their family? The world has changed, hasn’t it? And, our priorities have changed as well. This Disney old timer has to confess that we’re all the worse for it.

As a young Disney animation artist, I cut my teeth on this first feature film assignment. Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” was my first animated motion picture and though the work was rigorous, it was never a grind. We put in long hours and we sketched our scenes over and over again until we pleased our bosses and that included the big boss, Walt Disney. It may sound a bit naive, but I’ll confess as I look back on this time with fond memories and I can honestly say I loved every minute of it.

 Flora, Fauna and Merryweather were three wonderful Disney characters. They became a big part of my life back in 1957.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather were three wonderful Disney characters. They became a big part of my life back in 1957.


While enjoying my breakfast on the outdoor patio one quiet summer morning, a young man approached me with a dilemma. A complication to be sure, but it was probably the best kind you would want. You see, he had been offered a job opportunity outside the company. A new position that would include a substantial pay increase. How do you deal with this predicament, he wondered? Should he remain with the company that clearly valued him, or should he take advantage of the opportunity awaiting him on the outside? It was a difficult choice - or so he thought. What if his choice turned out to be the wrong one? I reminded him that there are no wrong choices. There are only choices. Be grateful that you’ve been given such cool options. Now, take advantage of them and make the best of your situation.

Back in the sixties I had to make a similar choice. I had been given the opportunity to move upstairs to Walt Disney’s coveted story department. This was a job eagerly sought by many in animation, yet the plum job was practically dropped in my lap. Certainly, I recognized the opportunity to work with a story genius such as Walt Disney, and I took advantage of being on the re-write of The Jungle Book. However, as soon as my work was complete, I opted to leave the job behind and hand in my resignation. Not surprisingly, my boss, Andy Engman was dumbfounded. Why would I turn my back on such an amazing opportunity? Why would I leave this highly sought after job for anything else? I tried to explain to Andy that I was not unhappy with my new position. I was grateful for the opportunity, but now it was time to move on. You see, while doing storyboards is pretty awesome, it was hardly the pinnacle of animated film making. I was young, ambitious and filled with the desire to do more. Please understand we’re talking about the Walt Disney Studios of years past where things moved at a snails pace. More often than not, the movement - what movement there was, could be considered, glacial. I simply didn’t have the time to wait for my next promotion. I wanted to produce, direct and write. I wanted to be a total filmmaker, and the mainstream studios were hardly eager to promote young people to such lofty positions. Unlike the pace of today’s studios, you’d have to wait your turn, and that wait could take decades.

Leaving Disney in 1966 could easily be considered an unwise decision. Sure, I could have stayed on as a story artist and eventually earn that screen credit I never received on The Jungle Book. I could have contributed to a number of upcoming Disney feature films and merited my place as a story veteran. However, even the challenging task of story artist can park you in a rut where you do the same job day after day. For better or worse, I wanted more. Much more. Sure, I wanted to animate, but I also wanted to write, produce and direct. I wanted to do all the things I would never be permitted to do in a mainstream studio. Such promotions are impossible, of course. Impossible, unless you’re working in your own studio - and that’s exactly what we intended to do. In 1966, four young men of color had the audacity to launch their own motion picture production facility at a time when the smart money would have said, bad idea. The bad idea turned out to be an incredible learning opportunity where we earned our film making “degrees” the old fashion way. That meant each film was a master class in writing, direction and production. Disciplines we never would never have garnered had we remained in the restricted ranks of the major studios.

So, when it’s time for you to make that important decision, it might be wise to consider your choices. Why are you leaving? Why have you decided to stay? Know what’s at stake and know what you are trying to accomplish in your career. Know that life is always a series of choices. Choices only you can make.

 I love this image from Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Tough choices, Alice.

I love this image from Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland. Tough choices, Alice.


Guys my age tend to look at their lives as a retrospective. They look back on past years of accomplishment and challenges overcome. They often bask in knowing they were able to beat the odds and create some pretty impressive things during their career. They take pride in a job hopefully well done.

I’ve never cared for looking back and much of my career remains a blur. Much of it, in my opinion, is really not worth remembering. While it’s pretty cool to have a few accomplishments under your belt that’s not what truly motivates me. I care about beginnings. I care about the first step and where it might lead. This is what motivates me, challenges me and excites me. I look back on many beginnings in my life. The first in-between sketch of Donald Duck that showed I could master the challenge of a Disney in-between and qualify for a job in the animation department. The first animated pencil test returned from camera that showed whether I had the chops to become a Disney animator. Then, there was that first day in Disney’s story department. It was a new beginning as my partner, Vance Gerry and I tried to sort out an effective storyline in the Disney film, “The Jungle Book.” With the passing of Walt Disney in that same year, I left the studio I loved for another new beginning. The launch of our own motion picture production company in Los Angeles. A lofty, ambitious plan for a group of kids still in their twenties. And, kids of color at that. But, what the hell. It was another new beginning.

I still get jazzed when I see a new start up move into their recently acquired office space or the pervasive enthusiasm that surrounds a new feature animated film or television series as it begins to ramp up. I remember the energized feeling of a new beginning, a new start and a step into the unknown. This is what has always excited me about this amazing business, and quite frankly, it never gets old. That’s because each new project is the beginning of an amazing journey. A journey where you never quite know the destination - but you know you’ll be going somewhere and it’ll be the best place ever. That’s why I love beginnings. That’s why I have little interest in the past.

Beginnings are hard to come by once you begin to age. Don’t expect to be invited to participate in beginnings of any kind when that happens. It’s not because you lack talent or experience. It’s simply because you’ve grown older, and that’s clearly a curse in today’s world. Even worse, it’s a guaranteed curse all will experience sooner or later. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, trust me, it will. Your company, no matter who your company happens to be will eventually cut you loose. They will offer you a generous separation package or some other incentive to get you out the door. Once an asset, you are now a liability and they can’t wait to say goodbye. I’ve spoken to a fair share of pals over the past few years who still smart at the indignity of being discarded by the company they loved. Sadly, I have to remind them that the company they once loved…has zero love for you. Get over it.

Here’s the good news. Beginnings don’t have to end. If you’re smart, resilient and resourceful you can create your own beginnings. Reinvent yourself. Redesign yourself and screw the corporation you worked for. Walk away and move forward on your own. If you’ve been booted out take this as a cue to get started. Begin a new task. Begin a new journey. Begin!



 No matter how young...no matter how old. Go for it!

No matter how young...no matter how old. Go for it!