Back in the sixties it seemed every day was an exciting day. You never knew what you might find or discover while wandering the Walt Disney Studio lot. On this particular morning we were in for a surprise. As we turned the corner near sound stage one we happened upon a remarkable sight. Huge dinosaurs loomed over us, and we felt we had suddenly returned to a primordial jungle in our earth’s prehistoric past.

Well, you probably already know Walt Disney and his team of magic makers were busily creating attractions for the upcoming New York’s World Fair that would be held during the years, 1964-65. It was a massive undertaking and you would have thought the Old Maestro had enough on his hands without this huge undertaking. However, even though Walt had several animated features in preparation and the upcoming Mary Poppins live-action movie being prepped, he wasn’t about to pass on this incredible challenge that would test the talent and resources of Walt Disney Productions.

I’ll have to confess seeing these massive dinosaurs being created was a remarkable sight. As a matter of fact, a good deal of the attractions for the New York’s Worlds Fair were created right here on the Walt Disney Studio lot. We were a bee hive of activity and it seemed Walt had pulled out all the stops in order to get the job done. The Disney artists, technicians, carpenters and machinists were working feverishly in order to meet the Worlds Fair deadline. If you were lucky enough to be working at Walt Disney Productions back in the early sixties you had a front row seat and a view of these amazing attractions as they were being created. Yes, the sixties were a remarkable time, and Walt Disney showed no signs of slowing down. We never knew what magic tricks Walt was going to pull out of his hat next, but I guarantee you, he had no shortage of amazing ideas. We’ll talk more about this tomorrow, okay?

Dinosaurs on stage one at the Walt Disney Studio lot. Yes, they were there in all their glory and it was an amazing sight.

Dinosaurs on stage one at the Walt Disney Studio lot. Yes, they were there in all their glory and it was an amazing sight.

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AuthorFloyd Norman

This is my view as I’m sitting on a park bench outside the Animation Building at the Walt Disney Studio. The year is 2014, but the years long past are still in my head. I shared this bench with a number of Disney friends and colleagues over the years and the first name that comes to mind is famed Disney composer, Oliver Wallace. Ollie and I would sit on this bench at break time and enjoy a pleasant conversation. If you don’t know who Ollie Wallace is I’ll give you a hint. The composer scored dozens of Disney animated short cartoons and feature films. Ollie had a full head of assertive white hair much like the famous orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Well into his eighties, Ollie Wallace was always a joy to speak with. I also sat on this bench with Kay Silva. Kay was one of the many women working at Disney back in the fifties and one of the many female artists you’ll never read about. As I’ve often said, few people realize how many women worked here and the important role they played in the making of animated films. Kay had a great sense of humor and we would sit and joke as people walked past. Kay was due for open heart surgery back then and she took it all in stride. Sadly, she never survived the operation, but my memories of her remain fresh and clear as if it were yesterday.

As I sit here I suddenly realize behind me is the window of my very first Disney office. Back in February of 1956 a group of young artists were taking their first shot at becoming  Disney animators. We would have a month of training before the decision was made to keep us or let us go. The seven young hopefuls were put in a large office in B-Wing, the very same office directly behind me. Of course, there were many Disney artists who occupied 1B-1 over the years. Back in the sixties, Blaine Gibson and Jack Fergis sculpted mermaids for Disneyland in the very same space. In the seventies, the office was the home of Disney Animation Scene Planning and was run by Ruthie Thompson and Bob Ferguson. 102 years of age, Ruthie Thompson is still with us today.

My memories of Disney past is a long time ago and yet it still seems like yesterday. I can even remember the names of my pals and colleagues and the large office we shared. Tom Yakutis, Tom Dagenais, Rick Gonzales, David Michener, Jack Foster, Bob Ray and Stan Chin were my seven comrades hoping for a job at Disney. Luckily, we all made the cut and most of our group stayed in animation the remainder of our careers. Bob Ray didn’t stay at Disney for long and Stan Chin later left for an advertising career in New York. The rest of us managed to do okay. Rick Gonzales became a top character designer at Ruby-Spears and Dave Michener became a story artist, animator and director. Tom Dagenais kept his word and left the drawing board for a writing gig. Tom heard that writers were being paid more than the artists. The very funny, Tom Yakutis even became a professor at a Midwestern university before returning to cartoon world and wrapping up his career at the Walt Disney Studios in the nineties.

As I sit on this park bench I realize much has changed over the past fifty years and the Walt Disney Studio is hardly the same company it was back in 1956. Although animation’s future has never looked more promising, it’s hardly the same business I entered back in the fifties when cartoon making was considered an odd, quirky and unstable profession. However, in 2014 animation has become big time and big business and Disney’s recent movie has already netted over a billion dollars. That’s a good thing, I suppose but somehow I just can’t seem to get excited. I keep remembering the nineteen fifties, Walt Disney and a business that used to be filled with magic instead of money.

This is my view from the park bench on the Walt Disney Studio lot. I shared this bench with many a Disney Legend when I was a kid. My memories of those conversations are as fresh and clear today as they were fifty years ago.

This is my view from the park bench on the Walt Disney Studio lot. I shared this bench with many a Disney Legend when I was a kid. My memories of those conversations are as fresh and clear today as they were fifty years ago.

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AuthorFloyd Norman
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The animation artists arrived early at the studio to find fresh brewed coffee and platters of elegant rolls and pastries from an exclusive Beverly Hills bakery. Astonished, the animators wondered if the goodies had been accidentally delivered to the wrong address. Their employers, unfamiliar with the world of animation regarded their animators as “stars.” Stellar talents that should be regarded with the utmost respect. They knew very little about the real world of animation.

Animated cartoon makers have always been the red headed stepchild of the movie business and even though our films earn impressive amounts of money, animation artists are seldom regarded as important. Those of you old enough might even remember when animators were not invited to the premiere of the films they made. If you know your animation history you’ll remember “Termite Terrace.” It was the ratty, rundown facility where Warner Bros cartoons were created. Even when Warner animation moved to a new studio in Burbank they were still relegated to the rear of the studio lot. After all, why should animators be anywhere near the important people who made motion pictures?

Animation filmmakers have seldom gotten respect in the film industry. Remember the old joke about the starlet who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter? Consider the animator a few rungs lower than that. Sadly, this is a position we’ve all accepted as normal so when things suddenly change it takes us by surprise. I remember being employed by producers who had never worked in animation before. They provided us with well appointed offices and private parking spaces. Assistants and toadies fetched us coffee and snacks, and we lived like stars. The artists would gather in the hallways and privately joke about our employers. Our bosses were totally naive because they had never worked in the animation business before. They didn’t have a clue concerning how producers normally treat cartoonists, and we enjoyed the good times for as long as they lasted.

Animation artists did enjoy their “star treatment” for a brief period back in the nineties. It was the “Animation Boom” and major studios eagerly sought top cartoon talent for their animated motion pictures. Soon, animators were moving into prestigious neighborhoods and driving luxury automobiles. Artists secured agents and a signing bonus became the norm. No longer restricted to the “back of the bus,” top animators could pretty much name their own price. Animated films cleaned up at the box office and it appeared the good times were going to last forever. But, surprise, surprise! Producers found they no longer needed to rely on the talents of “prima donnas” who made characters move with pencil and paper. The CGI revolution totally changed the way animated films were made and now the rest is history.

It would appear things are back to normal as animation staffers are once again relegated to the status of workers and not superstars. Impressive paychecks are few and signing bonuses are pretty much a thing of the past. In many cases, the artists are simply grateful to have a job. It’s a far cry from the days I experienced many years ago when cartoon makers were treated like Hollywood stars. No more snacks from prestigious Beverly Hills eateries or toadies fetching double expressos at our whim. It may be 2014, but I’ll tell you this. “Termite Terrace” is alive and well.

The animator as a Superstar. Oh yeah, we lived it up for a while. Usually because the producers were so inexperienced they thought we were important. Always look for a naive producer, and you'll be treated well.

The animator as a Superstar. Oh yeah, we lived it up for a while. Usually because the producers were so inexperienced they thought we were important. Always look for a naive producer, and you'll be treated well.

Posted
AuthorFloyd Norman