Days of Disney Past

Sleeping Beauty continued to move through production back in the fifties but progress remained slow. Walt Disney was preoccupied with His new theme park and getting his attention was often difficult. Unlike today’s production schedules, the studio simply pushed Sleeping Beauty’s finish date ahead another year when making the release date seemed improbable. Sleeping Beauty had already spanned a number of years, but it did provide something positive. It was a great training ground for young animation artists beginning a career at Disney. The animation department seemed eager to assemble finest draftsmen and women in the industry and marginal talents need not apply.

Our clean-up team often worked late and one evening we wandered into a story room on the third floor. The storyboards were completed, stacked and ready to show to Walt Disney. Much to our surprise, the veteran storyman invited us into his office to view the sequence. Better yet, the storyman performed the climatic battle sequence for our little group. Suddenly, the phonograph filled the room with dramatic music by the composer, Tchaikovsky. The enthusiastic story artist used his pointer as a sword as he leaped from desk to chair acting out the role of Prince Philip fighting the dragon. There was little doubt the Walt Disney studio staff had tremendous creative energy. Each of us returned to our desks that evening with renewed enthusiasm for the movie we were making.

I began doing my studio animation jokes in the early sixties. Nobody was drawing funny gags back then and I hated to see the passing of a long standing Disney tradition. Animation production had undergone a number of changes and the animation staff was just a shadow of what it had been earlier. Walt was now tooling around the studio lot in a little electric cart that included a Nixon/Lodge bumper sticker. His thoughts were on the Mineral King winter resort project in the Sierras, along with a much larger theme park in Orlando Florida. Walt’s son in law, Ron Miller took on a larger role in the company and the Walt Disney television shows were now being broadcast in color.

Of course, there were a number of amusing things that happened during this time. One day, a little old woman in a horse and wagon arrived at the studio main gate. It appeared the woman, who must have been in her seventies had traveled miles to personally deliver a manuscript to Walt Disney. Naturally, any other studio boss would have ignored the odd, quirky incident. However, Walt Disney was not that kind of gentleman. The Old Maestro left his office and walked out to the main gate to meet with the strange little woman. After the incident, I spoke briefly with Walt Disney as he made his way back to his office. He chuckled and remarked, “The world is full of peculiar people.” Yet, Walt Disney’s simple gesture impressed me. Can you imagine any CEO doing that today?

Rumors of gloom and doom continued to permeate the company as each successive animated feature wound down. It appeared, every film I worked on was going to be the last. It was rumored that Walt was going shut the whole thing down and just build theme parks. I must admit however, that the canceling of a proposed feature, “Chanticleer” and the selling of dozens of animation 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 Disney cartoon gags as he fired everyone.
Animation artists are a hardy sort, and most continued to plunge ahead in spite of an uncertain future. The artists 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 printed poster that read: “To Walt with appreciation.” Some joked that it was the only painting in the show Walt really liked.

Every day provided more fodder for jokes as Disney’s animators and directors deliberated over the darndest 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 it simply be standard western music? With Walt Disney in charge, my material for gags seemed endless. Would it be another disastrous story meeting, or Walt agonizing through one of his filmed television show lead in's out on the sound stage? It was the mid-sixties and in many ways 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. With a few exceptions, I made no attempt to save all the cartoons I drew during this time. There must be a ton of stuff I’ve probably lost or forgotten. This was pre Xerox, and nobody thought much about saving anything. If I had all the cels and animation drawings we threw out, I’d be rich today.

In an attempt to impress the Old Maestro back in the sixties, the Disney artists launched a huge art exhibit on the studio lot. I think Walt only liked one painting.

In an attempt to impress the Old Maestro back in the sixties, the Disney artists launched a huge art exhibit on the studio lot. I think Walt only liked one painting.

Stephen Bosustow, UPA and City At Night

There was no way of visiting a cartoon studio or meeting an animation studio boss in years past. However, because of a remarkable live television show called, “City at Night,” I was able to visit the cartoon studio, UPA and meet the company president, Stephen Bosustow. For a high school kid in the nineteen fifies, this was dream come true.

You might not believe this but live telecasts were a big thing back in the nineteen fifties. First of all, consider the technology. Unlike today's compact cameras and sound systems, television cameras were the size of refrigerators and electricians had to drag cumbersome cables as lights and other equipment was squeezed through limited spaces. Plus, a live telecast required a small army to pull things off. Yet, this was the idea of a television pioneer and visionary named, Klaus Landsberg. Landsberg ran local Los Angeles television station, KTLA, and it was his idea to take his cameras inside various venues in the Los Angeles area. One of Landsberg’s choices was a Hollywood animation studio. The studio was called UPA, and the cartoon makers were the mid century darlings of animation at the time. Back in the fifties few people had any idea how animation worked or what was required to make a cartoon. Lansberg was going to show LA audiences the entire process and he was going to do the whole thing live.

One quiet Monday evening an armada of “City at NIght” trucks rolled up to the Burbank cartoon studio located near a popular eatery called, The Smoke House. After a lengthy setup the show was finally on the air. The on air host and his cameras made their way through the narrow hallways of UPA as the artists and animators worked at their drawing boards. In those days, UPA employed a who's who of animation legends including John Hubley, T. Hee, Bobe Cannon, Pete Burness and others. The interview concluded with the big boss himself, Stephen Busustow as he explained the joys and pitfalls of the cartoon business. Having completed their assignment, the “City at Night” crew packed up their stuff and headed back to the studio.

As you can imagine, students and cartoon geeks alike were in hog heaven. We had finally been inside a Hollywood cartoon studio and seen the entire process first hand. Believe me, we couldn't stop talking about this television show for days afterward. Being an impressionable kid I even dreamed about being inside the UPA cartoon studio and even meeting the big boss, Stephen Bosustow. It gets even better. In my dream, I ended up sitting side by side with the UPA film maker working on a movie. Ah, that's what it's like to be a kid, eh? What a rich imagination we have.

Decades pass, and now I find myself a young adult working in the movie business. After the passing of Walt Disney in 1966, I decide to strike out on my own. Along with my partners, Leo Sullivan, Norman Edelen and Dick Allen we launched a film studio producing educational media for schools across the country. As we began work on a particularly difficult film series, our producers asked would we mind if they brought in a consultant to work with us on the series. “The gentleman was well qualified,” they insisted. “He had even run his own animation studio for a time. Perhaps you've heard of him. Does the name, Stephen Bosustow sound familiar?” Toward the end of the project, our producers insisted we finish up working at their facility in Santa Monica. Stephen Bosustow and I could share an office and complete our work in the company facility. And that, boys and girls is how I ended up sitting beside Stephen Bosustow in the Santa Monica office. The two of us ended up working on this project together in much the same way I had Imagined some thirty years earlier in my childhood dream. 

Like so much of my life, it was another wonderful, amazing experience. So amazing, I have to reiterate the stories are all true. In my wildest dreams, these are things I could never make up.

The UPA filmmakers were visited by KTLA's television crew. For most of us animation geeks it was our first visit inside the amazing mid-century cartoon studio, United Productions of America.

The UPA filmmakers were visited by KTLA's television crew. For most of us animation geeks it was our first visit inside the amazing mid-century cartoon studio, United Productions of America.

A Visit From Steve Jobs

I still remember the Apple CEO standing by the door with his foot resting on the box. Inside the un-open box was a gift he had brought along for one of the lucky studio executives. Being the top boss, he could give away notebooks the way we might give away note pads. He was dressed, characteristically in a black mock turtle neck shirt, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers. You probably already know the boss to whom I'm referring. It was Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs made a fair number of trips to Burbank and the Walt Disney Studios whenever a Pixar movie was in production. I can only imagine the CEO of the famous Bay Area animation studio wanted to garner Disney's reaction first hand. An animated motion picture goes through many iterations while in production and screenings were held on a regular basis. I honestly doubt Steve was trying to curry favor with Disney. Being a shrewd negotiator Jobs didn't need any extra help to get his way. I think he brought Apple gifts purely as a gesture of friendliness. After all, shouldn't everybody have a Mac Laptop?

The Walt Disney Company once had a Macintosh User Group, and like the Apple CEO we also gave away impressive gifts at special occasions. Not our idea, actually, but a generous gesture by Apple and they regularly donated Apple laptops and desktops for our events. On one particular Disney event that featured the PhotoShop guru, Russell Brown, Apple once again donated a Macintosh desktop system to be raffled off to one of the lucky Disney attendees. Only this time there was a hitch. And, as you can imagine, I've been steaming about it ever since.

We were all given raffle tickets when entering the large room and at the end of the presentation the lucky numbers were to be read. At least that's what we expected. A young Disney executive walked to the front of the presentation room to explain the raffle had been cancelled because giving away “free stuff” was in violation of the company gift policy. The raffle was cancelled and the Apple people packed up the “gift computer” and returned to Cupertino. As you can imagine, I was ready to start chewing the furniture in the conference room.

WTF?! For years studio executives had been accepting “freebies” and there was never a problem. Yet, when Apple offered a prize that would cost the the company nothing - suddenly there's a problem. As expected, the rules it would appear, apply to some - and not to others. I couldn't help but wonder what Steve Jobs would have thought about this goofy situation? And, I wonder if those company executives who scored the free laptops are ready to return them? I would guess - probably not.

I still remember those trips back in the day and I still remember Steve Jobs generously bringing along cool stuff as he made his many trips to the Southland. And, I so wish Steve Jobs was still around today if only to slap some sense into the hard heads of clueless corporate executives.

My view of Steve Jobs while waiting for the screening to begin. We were showing a rough cut of one of the Pixar feature films.

My view of Steve Jobs while waiting for the screening to begin. We were showing a rough cut of one of the Pixar feature films.

My Early Santa Barbara Years

If I were writing a bio, I’d probably be telling stories like this. Stories about my early life growing up in Santa Barbara.

I’ve always believed in hard work. I learned my work ethic from my grandparents, John and Emma Davis. They were amazingly resiliant and resourceful especially considering the social conditions in America at the time. Once they arrived in Santa Barbara in the twenties they set about doing whatever they could to earn a living and better their lives. My grandparents began by cleaning the homes of the wealthy townsfolk. It didn’t take long before they were able to purchase property and build their own home. Later, they opened the Davis Hand Laundry and took in washing in the rear of their home. In time, my enterprising grandparents opened a restaurant called The Deluxe Southern Kitchen. They worked, they saved, and they invested. In so doing, they taught me the value of work and I’ve never forgotten it.

I’m amazed at todays young people who have absolutely no idea what they plan to do with their lives. I’ve always known what I wanted out of life. Plus, there were so many things that fascinated me I could have chosen any number of careers. Of course, number one was always art. I knew I wanted to be an artist. When I was a young kid I remember lying on the floor in my grandmother’s living room looking at a magazine. I was too young to read so I asked my grandmother to tell me the name of the familiar signature next to the artwork. I’ll never forget hearing the the name Walt Disney. A name that would have a profound affect on the rest of my life. Once in middle school I had a choice of going to study hall or the library. It was an easy choice. The library was a treasure trove. A space filled with books. Could there even be another choice? The quiet spring afternoons in our middle school library helped shape my life. I learned so many things and I fell in love with many of them. One day, I happened across a book on motion pictures. It told how movies were made and it detailed the entire filmmaking process. I found it fascinating. I had been a moviegoer all my young life but now something clicked inside my head and I realized I wanted to make movies. In truth, I became totally obsessed with the idea of telling stories using the medium of film. It was a passion I would never lose. Of course, I would need a movie camera and I couldn’t afford to buy one. I knew my parents didn’t have the money to waste on such foolishness, so, I went to my grandmother with a plan. Emma Davis was an amazing woman in many ways, but she also pocessed incredible vision. It was as though she saw my future even before I did. My grandmother made it possible for me to buy my first 16mm movie camera (the film resolution was better than the crappy 8mm) and even helped me build my animation camera stand to photograph my cartoon art frame by frame. Who would have thought that a Missisppi grandmother would understand the quirky business of cartoon making and help me launch my career in animated film production?

My film making ventures continued into Santa Barbara high school where I suggested our class make a documentary film as part of our civics course. Of course, it was my scheme to get the school to finance our movie. Our short student film had a very long title. “An Exchange Student in an American High School” and it detailed the arrival of European students visiting America for the first time. The motion picture was completed on budget and on schedule. All the students involved in the making of the film had a grand time working as script writers, set designers, photographers and editors. Once I graduated from Santa Barbara High School there was little doubt I would be headed for Hollywood.

My grandmother, the amazing Emma Davis. She totally supported my goal of becoming a Disney animator, and even helped me create my first animated films as a child. I owe her everything.

My grandmother, the amazing Emma Davis. She totally supported my goal of becoming a Disney animator, and even helped me create my first animated films as a child. I owe her everything.