Birthday Wishes

Today is my birthday and I’m taking a breakfast break on the patio of Walt Disney Imagineering. As I reflect on my long career in the cartoon business I can’t help but think I’ve been lucky enough to participate in an impressive number of exciting projects. Yet, if I had a birthday wish, I think it might surprise you what that wish would be. You see, anyone who has worked in this crazy business knows there are always projects that fall by the wayside. The movies or TV shows that for one reason or another were abandoned while still in production or development. If I had a birthday wish, I’d love to go back in time and relaunch the many failed projects I’ve worked on. Not just any project, mind you. I’m speaking of the cool ideas that showed real potential and could have sparked a good deal of creative innovation.

Decades ago, my partner Leo Sullivan and I sat down with executives from the major publisher, DoubleDay. We were joined by screenwriter, Buddy Prince who had collaborated with us on our Black History films. At the time, DoubleDay was publishing the Zenith Series on Black History and were eager to take the published material to film. One of the stories particularly intrigued me. It was entitled, “The Battle of the Crater,” one of the historic battles of the Civil War. I had recently been impressed by the films of Stanley Kubrick and his masterful storytelling in “Paths of Glory.” I wanted our film to reflect the same sensibility of the Kubrick film and portray war as the horrific enterprise it truly is. Though we were eager and ready to move forward on the Doubleday project, extraordinary circumstances caused the Zenith Series to be mothballed.

Our next ill-fated project was the second “Fat Albert” Special being produced for NBC by Bill Cosby’s animation studio. I’m willing to bet you never knew Mr. Cosby had a cartoon studio, did you? Anyway, the first “Fat Albert” special was aired in the summer of 1968 by NBC, but Cosby’s deal with the network involved two shows. That meant show number two had already moved into development even though the little company had lost its studio space. Believe it or not, the little animation company had even moved into the Cosby home in a fashionable section of Los Angeles. However, nobody in their right mind wants animators in their home and before long the zany cartoonists were booted out of the Cosby home by Mrs. Cosby herself. As I said, you can’t really blame Camille Cosby for having had enough. In time, the Cosby cartoonists found a temporary residence in one of the bungalows of the commercial studio FilmFair in Studio City. It was here I watched rough animation on a Moviola with jazz composer, Cannonball Adderly who was hired to score the film. It appeared the director and Mr. Cosby failed to come together on this second animated attempt. The animation unit was shut down and Bill Cosby moved his project to Filmation Studios and the rest is history.

The decade of the seventies brought many social changes. Young men began sporting beards, long hair and sandals. Of course, the girls wore hip hugging bell bottoms and platform shoes were all the rage. It was in this crazy, shifting environment we began to develop an animated motion picture we called, “Bush Head.” Inspired by the music of Smokey Robinson, Bush Head was a prehistoric kid of color who lived during the time of the dinosaur. Naturally, in this fanciful film we played free and loose with time and history. It was just a heck of a lot more fun to have our hero, Bush Head ride his pet dinosaur. Keep in mind this was decades before films like Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” mixed reptiles with humans. Working in Hollywood’s Motown headquarters we hashed out character and production designs. We created rooms of storyboards detailing the wacky, prehistoric storyline. Composer, Smokey Robinson often met with us to discuss songs and storylines while dining on a delicious plate of ribs and collard greens from the nearby soul food restaurant. Motown music filled the air along with the fragrance of the “funny little cigarettes” that were popular during the era.

A good deal larger than most conference rooms, the upstairs Sunset Boulevard Motown space was filled with colorful production design paintings and a series of elaborate storyboards. On the day of the presentation to Berry Gordy we were visited by “wise guys,” Joey and Carmine. At least that’s what their names should have been. They gave the large room a once over looking for hidden cameras or secret recording devices. I was never sure whether their concern was protecting us — or Mr. Gordy. In any case, the Motown boss did not make an appearance until the room was deemed “safe.” The “Bush Head” presentation was now underway. Much of the pitch was led by Phil who even got down on all fours mimicking the dinosaur dancing to the music. Our villain was an evil witch doctor and when it came to his scene, composer, Smokey Robinson could not resist getting involved. Channeling the movie bad guy, he waved his arms wildly while doing his evil incantation. I’ve done my fair share of movie pitches during my career and on occasion one stands out as magical. I’ve little doubt that all of us were thinking, what an amazing movie this is going to be. Sadly, our project was dumped when Motown decided to produced “The Wiz” as a feature film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

There you have a few of my motion picture regrets this Birthday Morning, June 22, 2016. There’s a good many more projects I can tell you about. However, that will have to wait for another day.

Most of my movies manage to get shut down. However, I keep smiling anyway. Cheers!

Most of my movies manage to get shut down. However, I keep smiling anyway. Cheers!

The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle

Back in the fifties I worked in Phyllis Hurrell’s Television Commercial Unit at the Walt Disney Studios. Wait a minute! Did you say, Phyllis Hurrell? Do you mean that a woman was in charge of one of Walt Disney’s film production units? Believe it, boys and girls. I’m speaking of that old “gender bigot,” Walt Disney. The tyrant who forbade women from ever leaving the Ink & Paint “sweatshop” had promoted a WOMAN to be in charge of one of his important production units. And, all this took place decades ago. The Television Commercial Unit at Walt Disney Studios was a very important production unit and garnered a good deal of income for the studio when Walt needed the money. Already financially pressed by the cost of the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, the commercial unit was a godsend.

I worked in that special unit back in the fifties and we did commercials for many of the sponsors of the Walt Disney television shows. The shows, if you remember included, Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club. Our clients included, Ipana Toothpaste, Peter Pan Peanut Butter and Nash Motor Cars, among others. There was one series of commercials that only a true Disney geek would remember. We did a series of commercials featuring Alice from Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Featured in the television ads were characters from the film. However, some of these ads featured an extra added attraction. We animated characters never seen in the Walt Disney feature film. I’m speaking of characters you never saw on the big screen. The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle were characters created by the author, Lewis Carroll but never used in the Disney motion picture. For some strange reason, Walt Disney decided to bring these obscure characters to life in the series of television commercials and that’s how I ended up working on characters you never saw in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.

It’s been over fifty years since I’ve drawn these odd and quirky Disney characters, but as you can see they’ve got the Disney DNA and they’re very much characters that look like they came from the Walt Disney Studio. We even produced the fanciful commercials in full color even though the television viewing audience back in the fifties only saw the ads in glorious black and white. Isn’t all this amazing? Color commercials in the nineteen fifties when the world watch television in black & white. That was Walt Disney, of course. Always ahead of his time. It’s been a while since I’ve drawn these fanciful Disney characters. But, you know what? It seems like yesterday.

Believe or not, I worked on these characters over fifty years ago. Anybody even remember?

Believe or not, I worked on these characters over fifty years ago. Anybody even remember?

The Legendary Pete Alvarado

Back in the seventies, Hanna–Barbera decided to do a reboot of “The Flintstones.” It had been years since the show had been on the air and many of the talented veterans who had worked on the first shows were no longer around. The series needed to get off to a strong start. The layouts for the show's opening required solid draftsmanship and a clear understanding of the characters. We needed someone with a flair for good animation composition and design. Hanna–Barbera was fortunate to have such an artist on their staff. The scenes were given to Pete Alvarado. Many years later, the Winsor McCay Award For Lifetime Achievement was given to Pete Alvarado at the annual Annie Awards. It was a great moment for all of us to see this animation legend honored, recognized and celebrated by the members of the animation community.

To say Pete is a layout artist isn't nearly enough. He's worked in almost every area of the business, including animation, styling, and character design. You might not have known that Pete was a talented background painter as well. Pete migrated to sunny, Southern California from Colorado. In his younger years he had hoped to become a painter. Because of his talent he was able to attend Chinouard Art Institute on a scholarship. It was during this time that he studied with renowned artist Rico LeBrun. Animation buffs are probably familiar with the famous artist who spent some time teaching at Walt Disney Studios in the forties. Pete tells of a life drawing class where the students were frantically sketching away at their easels. The colorful and flamboyant LeBrun strode into the room, dramatically raised his arms into the air and shouted, “cease!” LeBrun was intent on his students thinking things through before launching into a drawing. An important lesson Pete would remember. Like so many young artists, Pete tried out for a job at the Walt Disney studio's animation department and worked on the studio's first feature film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” However, Pete didn't stick around for "Pinocchio.” He moved to the Warner Brothers cartoon department and that legendary Hollywood facility known as “Termite Terrace.”

The days at Warner Brothers cartoons are still the days Pete remembers most fondly. Though some may have considered this the perfect place for a psychiatrist's case study. “Termite Terrace” was a unique gathering of extemely talented people. Though there were many different personalities in the studio, Pete remembers that they all respected each other as professionals. The “Porky Pig” shorts were still being made in black and white when Pete started working for Bob Clampett. A union man, Pete was even made the shop steward. He tried his best to improve the less than ideal working conditions at the studio. Pete tells of a time when studio boss, Leon Schlesinger called one of his many cost consciousness meetings. “Boys and girls,” said the parsimonious businessman, “we gotta start cutting corners.” The boss was taken at his word. From then on, the staff began clipping corners off the animation paper. Some even sawed chunks of wood off their drawing boards. You might find it interesting that studio managers were talking about cutting costs as far back as the thirties. Things haven’t changed much, have they? Eventually, Pete joined the Chuck Jones unit and tried his hand at doing layout. He took over as background painter when Maurice Noble became ill. His design skills and fine background work helped Jones win two Academy Awards. Pete also worked with Chuck on the very first “Roadrunner” cartoon. His desertscapes expressed a brilliant use of color as well as a strong sense of depth and distance in the film, “Fast and Furry–ous.” It was during this time that Pete began a long relationship with Western Publishing, where he worked on a number of Golden Books. It was the hey day of the western craze, and Pete found himself penciling and inking western heroes' Red Ryder, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. The country couldn't get enough of the cowboys, so Pete did comic strips as well as comic books. Eventually, he just did the pencils, and still managed to keep two inkers busy. Pete was just as ease doing funny animal characters, and the work he did touched on nearly every cartoon character one could think of. Not just Disney characters, but Warners and MGM's as well. One of the few artists put under contract, Pete has been doing work for Western for over forty years. That's a lot of books!

Pete has always said he never liked to stay at any one place too long. In the forties he move to New York hoping to illustrate pulp novels. Oddly enough, he ended up doing comics because it paid more. Pete did work for Fawcett and Funnies, Inc. One of the characters Pete worked on was "Dick Cole,” an all American military cadet. Pete tells of a strange story where the wacky American hero tries to talk Adolph Hitler out of invading Europe. Pete also did “Blue Bolt,” another superhero. While working in New York, Pete did whatever was needed. He penciled, inked, and even did backgrounds, everything except letter, although he could have done that as well. As nice as it was working in the east, Pete found that the weather left a lot to be desired, so he decided to return to the milder climate of southern California. He divided his time doing children's story and coloring books for Western and working on Saturday morning cartoon shows for Hanna–Barbera, Ruby–Spears, Warners and UPA.

At a time when younger men seem to be thinking of retirement, Pete continued doing what he does best. He worked on Hanna–Barbera's “Jetson” feature film, as well as penciled the “Donald Duck” comic strip for Disney. Pete regarded his career as very satisfying. He recalled that the best part of being in the business was the friends you work with and learn from. “Our work may not hang in the Louvre,” says Pete, “but more and more, the public seems to be recognizing animation as a true art form.” As far as the future of the business is concerned, Pete feels there will always be a need for artists, At least,“ says Pete, until they can get computers to round off the corners.” Recalling his days at Chinouard Art Institute, Pete speaks of his instructor, Rico LeBrun, who told his students, "Animation is an okay job, as long as one moves on to do something more significant.” All of us who love the wonderful world of comics and the art of animation can be thankful Pete never took Rico LeBrun's advice.

One of the nicest guys in the cartoon business, Pete Alvarado could do darn near anything and do it exceptionally well.

One of the nicest guys in the cartoon business, Pete Alvarado could do darn near anything and do it exceptionally well.

Getting Hit by The Greatest

I’ve read a fair number of posts the past few days concerning the passing of Muhammad Ali. People have enjoyed sharing stories of their encounter with, “The Greatest.” Much has been said about Muhammad Ali, but I thought I might add one final story of my own. You see, I also had an unexpected encounter with “The Champ.” I’ll even go as far as saying, I was struck by Muhammad Ali and never hit the floor. That’s right, kids. This humble cartoonist took one from a heavyweight champ and managed to walk away without a scratch. Let me give you the blow by blow description of the incident back in the seventies.

For those of you who were not around in the seventies, you’ll not remember the colorful heavyweight champ had become a household name. Muhammad Ali was known around the world even though he had since left the ring. The Champ remained brash, colorful and outspoken as ever. To say Ali was somewhat controversial would be an understatement. A genuine rock star, crowds would gather wherever he would appear. It was in this most unusual atmosphere, the champ decided to do something that was crazy even for him. Muhammad Ali would star in his own television show as a cartoon character. The NBC Saturday Morning television show would take Ali along with his young friends on a series of adventures. Muhammad Ali would take on the role of a “big brother.” He would be a mentor and role model for the kids and pass on nuggets of wisdom throughout each episode. It should come as no surprise the television show would be entitled, “The Greatest.”

Oddly enough, the producer of “The Greatest” was an old friend. Fred Calvert and I had shared an office at the Walt Disney Studios back in the sixties. As we labored away in D-wing, Fred often spoke of one day becoming a producer. As we flipped away on our dead end jobs doing in-betweens I couldn’t help but think cynically, “Good luck with that!” Now, it was suddenly the seventies and Fred Calvert had become exactly what he had predicted a decade earlier. He was now producer of a network television show and he summoned me to his Hollywood office to consider a job. “Do you know why I want you on this show?” he asked one sunny afternoon. Being a wise ass, I immediately replied, “Of course, I know, Fred. I’m here to make you rich.” Despite my attitude, my friend hired me anyway.

Our television shows were recorded in Hollywood near what was once known as “Gower Gulch.” We drove our own cars, but Muhammad Ali traveled to the recording sessions in two limos. Why two limos, you asked? It’s because one limousine was a decoy. That’s how careful we had to be when traveling with “The Champ.” Once inside the recording studio the sessions were pretty much what you would expect from any other Saturday Morning cartoon show. Producer, Fred Calvert sat alongside his star and fed Ali his lines. I doubt Ali even saw his lines before the session began. If he did have a script prior to recording I doubt he even bothered to read it. After recording for about an hour we decided to take a break. As I was hurrying down the hallway in the recording studio I noticed Muhammad Ali was directly in front of me. However, the Champ must have changed his mind because he suddenly reversed his direction and slammed into me. As you can imagine, crashing into Muhammad Ali was like crashing into a stone wall. Of course, the Champ barely noticed he had practically knocked out an animator. Still somewhat preoccupied, Ali mumbled something like, “Excuse me,” and continued on his way. Still reeling from our unexpected collision, I regained my composure and staggered back to my chair. Soon, the recording session continued and I couldn’t help but reflect on this unique experience. Most people would consider themselves lucky if they managed to get a handshake from “The Greatest.” However, this animated filmmaker was able to get “Slammed” one afternoon and survive. That’s right, kids. I took a hit from Muhammad Ali and lived to tell the tale.

You don't ever want to get hit by Muhammad Ali. Take it from one who knows.

You don't ever want to get hit by Muhammad Ali. Take it from one who knows.