Damn Near Dead

Animation was damn near dead back in sixties’ Disney. The sizable animation staff had been downsized after the completion of “Sleeping Beauty” and downsized again with the wrap up of “The One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” Young animation hopefuls like myself looked out at a bleak future in the cartoon business. If talented Disney veterans such as Don Lusk and Amby Paliwoda were being shown the door after thirty or more years of work, what possible chance did we have?

In spite of our distraught situation, the Walt Disney Studio moved forward on the next animated feature film. It would be an adaptation of the T.H. White novel, The Sword in the Stone. Sadly, the once lofty Disney Animation Studio was only a shadow of its former self, and limited staff occupied only a portion of our marvelous artistic facility. Our department was so tiny, I moved into the large bullpen in D-wing. This was a room that once housed a half dozen artists, but now it was only me. In many ways things hadn’t changed all that much. The “old guys” still came to work each morning following their usual routine. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston made the trip from La Canada Flintridge as they had for years, and Milt Kahl drove his red sports sedan to the Disney lot from his digs in the nearby Los Feliz Hills. The dapper, Marc Davis had vacated his D-wing office and made the move to Glendale. The usually bustling hallways of the Animation Building had grown quiet and the crackling energy of cartoon making had clearly diminished. Was this the future of Disney animation, we wondered? It appeared our wonderful filmmaking medium was dying a slow and painful death.

When things look bleak, it’s only natural we find stuff to bitch about. This was especially true for the studio during this sad, desolate period. Since there were few animators my age to speak with, I regularly made my way upstairs to F-wing on the second floor of the Animation Building. There, I would find my pal, the very talented and irascible, Walt Peregoy. Walt and I would meet every morning at break time. We would have our morning coffee and our regular, twenty minute bitch session. Naturally, we would list everything that was wrong with the Walt Disney Studio. We spoke of the abandonment of Walt’s stellar animation division and the lack of creativity in the sixties studio. We grumbled about the calcification of the Disney “old timers” who simply seemed to be waiting for retirement or the Grim Reaper. It would appear no one had the cojones to stand up to “The Old Man” with the possible exception of Ward Kimball, and he was often slapped down for his insubordination. It was not the happiest time to be a Disney animation artist if you happened to be a young guy or girl. It was more than obvious Walt Disney was green lighting movies to keep his guys employed. If animation was going to have a future at the Walt Disney Studios, a team of new animation artists needed to be mentored. To the best of my knowledge, only one young guy from our group was given a shot during this time. John Ewing was promoted to animator at a time when no one under the age of fifty was animating.

While we were supportive of our colleague, John, most of us younger artists had been at Walt Disney Studios for at least ten years and promotions seemed unlikely. Like my colleagues, it appeared my career was going nowhere, so I began doing something I thought I would never do. I began making plans to leave the Walt Disney Studio. I was hardly aware another longtime Disney veteran was also making his way out the door. It appears an explosive argument between Walt Disney and story man, Bill Peet had come to a head and the Disney veteran called it quits. However, this failed to change Walt’s mind, and the film continued forward with a new addition to the story team. Ironically, when I thought promotions were impossible at the Walt Disney Studio I was given the biggest promotion of my career. The new fledgling member of The Jungle Book story team just happened to be me, and my life would never be the same.

Chuck Williams and a very young Floyd Norman before moving to Disney’s Story Department.

Chuck Williams and a very young Floyd Norman before moving to Disney’s Story Department.