I think part of the whole deal with me and how I respond to world culture is that essentially I feel I was born too late and missed out on most of good stuff first hand, much of which is now probably lost forever. I think I would just about sell my soul if I could experience first-hand the evolution of the movies. To a lesser extent, I feel the same way about radio. Consequently I do not consider myself to be a nostalgic person. I feel that I was born in a world of great popular culture already in decline. There were still plenty of hints around of what had been, but the really good stuff had already come and gone. Somehow I felt that culturally we had already lost something of great value. I’ve had this feeling for just about along as I can remember. I think the major unspoken theme of the creative work I do is an attempt to find and imitate some semblance of what I (we) have lost or missed out on.
However, the one cultural phenomenon that I did get to witness firsthand was the coming of television. I think the first time I became aware of TV was in 1947, and I can still remember the moment quite clearly. I was walking in downtown L.A. with my Father. In a store window, right in the middle of it, was one of those big early televisions with its teeny tiny blueish black and white picture. It was a moving picture of a man sitting at a desk talking, making eye contact with us. I couldn’t hear what he was saying because we were on a noisy street and the TV was behind a big piece of window glass. But over and above the general amazingness of this new invention, I was struck by the fact that the talking man on the TV was looking right at us and my first question to my father after he explained the new machine was, “Is he talking to me Daddy?” I was fascinated and kept my eye on that TV thing after that. They were starting to show up here and there in our neighborhood. I remember looking through the mail slot of one of the houses on our block and getting a good view of that family’s TV. On it was a cowboy movie. A masked man that looked like the Lone Ranger (I knew about him from radio and general osmosis, I guess) was spying on someone. He took his Lone Ranger mask off so you could see his face, then put it back on again. Cowboy movies are the main thing I remember seeing on TVs in those prehistoric days. I was never especially conscious of who the changing hero of these films was but his comedy sidekick nearly always seemed to be a funny looking bearded guy named Fuzzy.
One night in early 1949 I had just been put to bed when my parents told me they were going out, but not to worry as they would be just next door watching TV with our neighbors. What they were going to watch was a TV milestone: one of the earliest remote broadcasts of workers trying to save a little girl who had fallen into a well somewhere in Los Angeles. When you consider all the mega-disasters that TV now covers worldwide, it seems kind of incredible that the story of one little girl falling into a well could cause such a sensation. It was the subject of a movie that came out a year or two later, and was also covered many years later in Woody Allen’s Radio Days. Even if you were not in L.A. it was still a big radio story.
We didn’t actually get a TV until we moved to the Detroit-area later in ’49, and boy what a night that was! It just happened one night, quite unannounced. My father walked in with it and the event seemed earthshaking. There were only three channels and they didn’t even come on until the afternoon. One of the first shows that I remember my father putting me onto was the Charlie Chaplin Show, which consisted of old prints of his 1910s comedies. There was plenty more old TV I could talk about, but I think its time to steer back to things musical. One early show that fascinated me may have been what one station started its broadcast day with around noon. It was a show I watched by myself while my parents were elsewhere, and I can no longer remember why this was. The show was a man sitting at a piano-like keyboard. When he played this device it seemed like the sound of a whole orchestra came out. I found this to be rather amazing and watched it daily for a spell of time. Thinking about it now, it was probably just one of those big theater organs that just sounded like an orchestra to my young untrained ears. The guy had a taciturn look on his face, wore an old felt hat and never spoke. Other early musical shows I can report on more accurately.
There were the live broadcasts of Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Orchestra. We watched all of those. My father didn’t know a lot about classical music but he respected the form and was always ready to listen to it. In fact, an interesting thing about my father is that he was pretty much up for watching any musical presentation on TV regardless of whether or not he actually liked the music. In this way I was introduced to a lot of interesting music early on.
For instance, on Sunday nights there was The Paul Whiteman Show. My father had nothing good to say about the so called “King Of Jazz.” He was a fabulous leftover from the roaring ’20s and just about as big a musical act as there was in those days. And while he may not have been the “King of Jazz,” I later discovered that he left behind a treasure chest of fascinating recorded music. Anyhow, he relived his glory days of the past on live TV and I watched these shows with utter fascination while my Father jeered. Another show that always seemed to be on was Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. These were filmed half hour shows. My father hated him, had nothing good to say about him, and yet we watched. Well, I guess Guy and his brother Carmen were past their prime, as was Paul Whiteman, and I can’t say that I really liked Guy Lombardo at the time, but he had my attention. In later years, when I found out that Louis Armstrong worshiped the ground the Lombardos walked on, I made a mental note to check out this Lombardo thing a little closer, but that came later. Another one we watched was Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye. I’m still waiting to be shown on that one. One thing my dad said when we were watching Sammy Kaye stayed with me: “Those guys are good musicians but he won’t let them play good.” One day he told me, “Tonight a band is coming on that you’re going to love.” He was right. It was The Spike Jones Show. Jones was a percussionist who played his band for laughs. He must have been the novelty record king of the 1940s. But watching old kinescopes of that show today, I have a similar reaction to them that my father had to Sammy Kaye. There seem to have been some rather good musicians in that band, especially the main trumpet player, whoever he was.
My father must have made good at Jam Handy, because in 1951 he got an interesting offer from UPA. They were going to set up an office in Manhattan primarily for making TV commercials, and they were giving my old man the opportunity to come to New York and run it. So suddenly there we were in Westchester County, a suburb of New York. And it was here that I started getting more of an inside look at this TV thing. I was hooked on all the kiddie shows, and most of them would have tie-in drawing contests you could enter for modest prizes. One such show was The Magic Cottage, which ran on the old Dumont network and appeared on channel five in New York. The studio was in the old John Wanamaker department store and it was also where The Jackie Gleason Show began.
Anyway, one day in late ’51 or ’52 I decided to enter The Magic Cottage drawing contest. I got out my crayons and drew a picture representing a scene from that week’s show. Then I folded it up, jammed it into an envelope and addressed it. When my father walked in from work, I asked him if I could have a stamp. He wanted to know what for, and I told him. He told me I was going at it all wrong. He said, “Get a bigger envelope and send it flat. They’re not going to pay any attention to something all wrinkled and folded up like that.” Then he looked at the picture. “This is no good,” he said. “You have that dark background. There’s not enough contrast for black and white TV. Draw it again and leave the background white to give it good contrast. So I did those things and I won! It was the first of a number of such wins. I was learning stuff and it was paying off. Later I actually went down to Wanamaker’s with my mother to be on The Magic Cottage show. It was nearly my first look at the wild world of live TV from the inside. So chaotic! And all these props painted in black and white. Fascinating! Another early TV experience I had occurred in 1954. My father was coming up in the world and a national kid’s TV show called Let’s Take a Trip decided to make the New York office of UPA the subject of their show that week. The theme of the show was that TV personality Sonny Fox would take these two kids named Pud and Ginger on a live remote tour of some interesting place in the New York area every week. My father, as head of the UPA studio, was to conduct the tour. He decided that a good way to get the concept of animation over with kids was with a flipbook. I’d been fascinated by flipbooks since I was about four years old, when my father showed me one that consisted of consecutive cartoon drawings of a rabbit and a bee. By 1954 I was making crude flipbooks of my own. So my father offered me my first big break on the national media scene: I was to make make a flipbook that he could use on the show that would demonstrate the basic principle of animation. I made one of a boat running up on an iceberg and sinking. My father looked it over critically and seemed to think it would do, although he did add a professional looking settling pool that appeared on the surface of the water after the ship sank. This was hot stuff! And it got better. Shortly after the show aired The Museum of Modern Art decided to mount an exhibition based on the art of UPA. Accompanying it was a daily screening of the kinescope of that Let’s Take a Trip episode. Today that kinescope is apparently lost, as nobody has seen hide nor hare of it for years.
And now you may be asking yourself, Hey! Whatever happened to records? Well, I feel that I need to supply one more connecting link to get back to records, which I will attempt to do right now.
Time marched on and I continued to get more and more of an insider’s look at the world of TV. Around 1954 my Father met an actor named Allen Swift. You may have never heard of him, but he made a fortune in TV. He was known as “The Man of a Thousand Voices.” He rarely appeared onscreen but he did voices for countless TV commercials for more than half a century. At the time we first met him he was also a regular on what was then the most popular program, The Howdy Doody Show. It may seem hard to believe, but at that time Buffalo Bob Smith, Clarabelle (later to become Captain Kangaroo and a national institution in his own right), and Howdy Doody (a rather ugly looking marionette) were the kings of TV, and not just kid’s TV—all TV. At this particular time on the show, Buffalo Bob, the big honcho, was taking a year long break to recuperate from a major heart attack. Gabby Hayes (another iconic show business legend) was filling in as the show’s host. Allen, besides playing various parts on the show, was also filling in for Buffalo Bob as the voice of Howdy Doody.
Now let me tell you, the peanut galley, where real world kids would cheer on the show’s daily doings was one hot ticket. You had to have some pull to get your kid in there! Even with all my old man’s inside connections, he couldn’t get me or my brother Simon into the peanut gallery! At a certain point Allen Swift bailed on The Howdy Doody Show and picked up a show of his own: Popeye on WPIX, channel 11. On this show, Allen appeared made up as an old salt, but under his own name, “Captain” Allen Swift, and presented the old Popeye cartoons of the ’30s and ’40s with no commercials in between.
One day in 1957, out of nowhere, he said in his old salt voice, “Well, mateys, one of our favorite shipmates, Kim Deitch, has a hobby of making flipbooks and so I’m asking Kim to make one for you Mateys to see. How about it Kim?” Oh my God! well, of course I would. I drew one up of Bluto doing a kind of clog dance, and before you knew it I was on the program showing God only knows how many kids out in TV-land my flipbook! Well, there was one kid in Westport, Connecticut who saw that show. His name was Tony Eastman, son of Phil Eastman, an ex-Disney/Warner Brothers animation man. Tony told Phil about seeing me on TV and said he wished he could meet me. Phil told Tony, “That shouldn’t be too hard. I know his father.” To be continued…