TCJ ARCHIVE

The Gene Deitch Interview

This interview is from The Comics Journal #292 (October 2008). Gary Groth interviewed Gene and his sons Kim, Simon and Seth about their lives, their art and their family dynamic. What follows is the Gene Deitch section.

Gene Deitch working on Wild Things layout, 1974. Courtesy of Gene Deitch.

Gene Deitch was born in 1924 in Chicago. His ambition, from an early age, was to be an animator or a comic-strip artist; by 1955, he was both. He started working at UPA (United Productions of America), founded by the animation pioneer John Hubley, which became known for its graphically sophisticated, stylistically modernist approach to animation. His comic strip, Terr’ble Thompson, lasted a mere six months from October 1955 to April 1956. He went on to work at Jam Handy in Detroit, which Deitch has described as “virtually an adjunct to mighty General Motors” and produced largely industrial films before he became Creative Art Director at UPA in New York. He left UPA in 1955 and became the creative director at Terrytoons, where he reimagined Mighty Mouse. In 1960, he divorced his wife, said goodbye to his three children, and moved to Prague, where he had taken a job at an animation studio called Rembrandt Films and, incidentally, fallen in love with the woman to whom he is still married.

Foofle model sheet

GARY GROTH: You were born in Chicago but you were raised in Hollywood.

GENE DEITCH: Mostly in Hollywood, yes: Venice, Hollywood, Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Van Nuys. We jumped all over the place. People were always moving in those days.

I think you moved to the L.A. area [from Chicago] at the age of 4?

That’s probably about right. I went to the Eugene Fields grammar school. It was still old times, with horse-drawn vegetable wagons, organ grinders with monkeys: the whole period-movie schtick. We went back to Chicago exactly when they were having the World’s Fair which was called “A Century of Progress”; I remember it was one of the big things in my life when my family took me to that fair.

You would have been 9 years old.

I think it was 1934 when I was 10 years old. For family reasons I don’t recall, we left Hollywood at that time and drove all the way to Chicago. I remember the long cross-country journey by car.

We didn’t stay there more than a couple of years, and then we went back to L.A. and then I lived there straight until 1949 when I moved to Detroit.

May I ask what your parents did?

My mother was a rich girl. My grandfather had a large knitting mill company in Chicago and they had a fleet of trucks, I was just looking through some old photographs and they were one of the early companies that had gasoline trucks, up through the middle-’20s. And he’s one of the people who lost everything in 1929. But my mother was raised pretty much as a rich girl. She wasn’t used to doing any kind of work except helping out with my grandfather’s company store, just sort of fiddling around.

My father was basically a salesman. He was very handsome; looked like Cesar Romero and was an elegant dresser. When I was born they still had money but by 1929 everybody lost everything. My father was a traveling salesman and did whatever he could get. He ended up doing well with his own insurance agency in San Francisco. He had an office on Sutter Street. But in my early days it was, of course in the Depression, exactly the time I was raised. Things were pretty crumby then for us.

Do you know why your family moved to the L.A. area?

I think it was always in search of work. I don’t think we had any relatives there. My mother was one of four children and the other three were brothers, so she had three brothers, and they weren’t doing too badly. When we went to California, we lived in the house of one of the older brothers, and he had a ladies’ dress shop on Hollywood Boulevard, so he managed to do pretty well. But we were always living with somebody else. There wasn’t really enough money in my immediate family to have our own place.

I know as a kid you read comic strips and that Popeye and Mickey Mouse were among your favorites.

Yeah. I was interested in drawing comics almost in the beginning. I don’t know if you know this — the most famous story about me my mother told me that is supposed to be absolutely true: when I was a baby, still in Chicago, barely able to stand up in the baby bed at that age, my mother came into my room and sniffed a terrible smell and she saw that I had dipped my left hand into my diaper and with the material thus procured, I was drawing on the wall with it, with my left hand. My mother told me that at that moment she found I was left-handed and an artist! That was the very beginning of my artistic career.

As I grew up, I developed really early not only an interest in drawing but all kinds of technical gadgets and I got into the idea of putting out newspapers. I discovered something called a hectograph. You’re in the printing business, so you must know about some of the early technologies for reproducing. You could go to a stationary store and you bought a can of this hectograph gelatin and you heat it in the oven and pour it out, let’s say into a pie pan. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Yeah, wasn’t that a precursor to ditto?

It was really a precursor of ditto! This gelatin, when it set, you wet it with a sponge and then you laid a sheet of paper on top of it upon which you had drawn with what was called an indelible pencil; you remember indelible pencils?

Sure.

It would turn purple if you put them on your tongue or something wet. With an indelible pencil you could draw on there, and later there was indelible carbon paper and indelible typewriter ribbons, and I was able to gradually put this all together. I was 8 years old. We were still in Hollywood then. We hadn’t gone back to Chicago. It was 1932, and we lived in an apartment house in Hollywood called the Somerset Arms Apartments on a street called Cheremoya.

Gene Deitch created "Tom Terrific," an animated cartoon that ran on the Captain Kangeroo show. Manfred the Wonder Dog is from that cartoon.

It was a big apartment house, and I got the idea that I was going to make the apartment-house newspaper. My dad helped me with the typing and I drew the pictures and all with an indelible pencil. And when you got that all onto the sheet of paper, you used a sponge to wet the surface of the gelatin, you smoothed the paper on top of it, let it sit for one minute, peeled it off, and then very quickly lay onto it one sheet of paper after another and you’d get the printed image. It gradually sank into the gelatin, so by the time you had 50 copies, it was then almost too faint to read. That was the first reproduction technology that I was able to do. I was very proud of the fact that I made this newspaper, then I would go through the halls of this apartment house and slip my little newspaper under the doors. It was called The Somerset Scandals — that was my father’s idea to give it that name because the name of the apartment house was the Somerset Arms Apartment. That newspaper started me on that career, and during my whole boyhood, I was putting out newspapers.

I saw King Kong at the neighborhood Marcal movie theater during that time, in its initial run. Scared the hell out of me, but of course, had a great influence. We stayed at the Somerset Arms until I was 13 and my parents were divorced.

When I outgrew the hectograph, I learned how to use a mimeograph, which was much more complex, and gradually I got together with another kid, Louis Desser, and we produced an actual, monthly magazine which went up to my age of 16. We called it The Hollywood Star News. We printed all of the press releases that were sent out to newspapers, which no real newspaper would bother to print, but we printed everything. You know about mimeographs?

Oh, absolutely. That would have been a technological step up from hectograph.

Oh, it was a big technological step. Especially when we learned how to do multicolor stuff… This kid and I, (Louis Desser later became a section editor of the Los Angeles Times,) because we actually made money with the newspaper, we were able to buy a mimeograph made by the A.B. Dick Company, which was the main company which produced mimeographs, and that one had registering pins. That was a fantastic upgrade for us. With registering pins we were able, with a lot of careful figuring, to make images that looked like full-color.

Gene, where did your interest in publishing a newspaper or in newspapers, in general, come from?

Naturally, I was looking at the newspapers every day, even as a kid reading the comics, and that was something I wanted to do. That was my original ambition, to be a comic-strip artist, and also a magazine writer, and it kept with me all the time until I finally was able to do it.

But at the same time, I was interested in the cartoon movies, of course. I was starting to see the cartoon movies as a small kid, and I was yearning every year for Christmas to be able to get a 16mm projector, which was too expensive for my parents to buy for me. So I made a projector out of a shoebox. This was not a completely unknown thing, I think I read about it in Popular Mechanics Magazine or something, but what I did was I took a shoebox, cut a hole in the top in which to insert a light bulb, put an ordinary cosmetic mirror in the back of the shoebox, and then a toilet paper tube you stuck in the front and a magnifying glass glued on to the front of that, and then with careful grooves in the side and using what was called onion-skin paper, you could slide this paper through and project it onto the wall. I would hang one of my mother’s bedsheets on the wall, use that as a screen, and I was able to make cartoon slides. That became even more fascinating to me than the newspaper idea because movie cartoons during my childhood were really coming into their own in the ’30s. Mickey Mouse and all the great cartoons were being produced then.

With this makeshift projector, you weren’t able to make animated cartoons?

No, because getting a real 16mm projector, which I think cost something like $8.95 then, even a hand-crank projector was still much too expensive for my parents. So when my mother took me downtown once, I saw a projector — and I’m looking at it right now because I managed to get it again. It’s a green, baked-enamel projector; it has two lenses on the front. By moving through it a wide strip of paper with two position drawings drawn on the top and bottom areas of this strip of paper, and by turning the crank, it alternately opened and closed the upper and lower lens. I don’t know if you ever saw this kind of a projector?

No.

It had a decal on the side of it and it had a picture of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim on it. You probably already know the end of the story. When we had our first son, I named him after this toy projector. This was my “Rosebud.”

Is that right?

It’s absolutely true. I have this projector right here and I’m looking at it now in my home-theater room in our apartment. I was talking about this projector for years and wondering whatever happened to it, and one of my friends had this projector and he sent it to me. Whether it’s the exact one I had when I was a kid, I don’t know, but it’s exactly the same. This was something that meant a tremendous amount to me. I was able to do two-position animation with it. You could draw a character with his legs apart and his legs together and as you turned this crank when it opened the upper and lower lenses it would give a simplified animation effect. Later, I did get a 16mm projector and of course, it just went on from that.

Kim Deitch is named after a projector Gene Deitch had as a kid.

My whole life has been a series of upgraded technical gadgets. Right now I have a big 24-inch iMac computer. I had the first tape machine that came on the market after the war and before that, I had a disc recorder. My life is just split between technology and art. That’s why I got into what I’m doing. Animation and filmmaking is just about equal parts technology and art, along with the storytelling.

What animated cartoons were you watching in the ’30s?

When I first got the little 16mm projector, you could buy little short film loops at the five-and-dime and drugstores and places like that. I think it was a short bit from Mickey Mouse’s “Steamboat Willie,” the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoon, was I think the first one I got. Of course, I loved Popeye from the very beginning. You’ve been putting them out yourself, Gary. Those were among my favorites — I still love to look through all the stories. I was following the daily and Sunday Popeye comic strips in The Los Angeles Examiner, which was a Hearst newspaper and that had the King Features comics. I was following Popeye all the time. Not really from the very beginning, but almost.

Segar's Feb. 4, 1931 Popeye strip.

I understand that, with the encouragement of an art teacher at Venice Junior High School, you made your first animated cartoon at age 13.

Yeah, this guy was named Sterret. Venice Junior High School was a great place. It was just like a plain concrete-type building, but what made it stand out was that it had a statue of naked Myrna Loy in front of the school, and this guy — I think his name was Sterret — was the sculptor that made that statue. She was a student there. Sterret used her as a model.

That sounds like a great junior high school!

[Laughs.] It was a great junior high school. Those were my best school years.

Myrna Loy went to that high school?

Yeah. Her original name was Myrna Williams. She went to that high school and she was definitely the model for this statue. I’m told that it’s still there. I think it’s Venice High School, the junior high school and high school all in one. But I only went there during the junior-high-school years. I went to L.A. High when we moved back to the middle of the city. But that was in Venice, Calif., and it was an interesting place. There was this great art class and one day some people from the Disney Studios came and they presumably had the idea of developing talent. They gave us some basic equipment, punched paper and pegs, and gave us a little course on the basics of how to make an animated cartoon. One girl and myself were chosen to be the creators of two cartoons. And naturally, the girl made something with lots of flowers and butterflies and I created a character named Pol Parrot. My story was Pol Parrot going to the Moon. So it had to be, naturally, something technical and science fiction. And the big joke in my cartoon was the parrot got in the rocket ship and zoomed up to the moon and when he got to the moon there was a sign there that said, “Los Angeles City Limits.” [Groth laughs.] And that was my first great film joke.

Anticipating urban sprawl.

Gene Deitch drew Pol Parrot for a comics contest when he was 13 years old.

Exactly. Even in those days, I’m talking now about the mid-’30s, it was a big joke about how big Los Angeles was and the Los Angeles city limits were far away. So the Disney people then came and they took this artwork and they produced a little film and they brought it back and it was projected in the school auditorium and this girl and I were stars for a day.

During your teen years, it sounds like you had a creatively vital childhood and upbringing.

I was pretty much encouraged by my mother. My father thought I was completely wasting time. His interests were business. He had no artistic pretensions or interests whatever. It’s amazing how this came out. My mother’s side of the family were Delsons. The Delson family, according to everything I ever heard in my childhood, were all full of geniuses, so I was told. “There were poets and singers and musicians and writers and professors, but the Deitch side basically came from a line of horse thieves.” [Groth laughs.] That was pretty much the propaganda I got, finally leading up to the fact that my parents got divorced when I was 13 years old. My mother definitely did encourage me in art, because I did have the ability to draw. I was never discouraged in that, even though it seemed like an almost impossible career to get into.

I always tell people now who I don’t know how to get started, I say that in everyone’s life, at one time or another, a door opens, but you have to be ready to walk into it. So I spent all my time drawing, I had lots of samples and when the door did open for me, just by the merest chance, I was able to convince the person that was going to hire me that I could do it, and that’s it. Once you get in, then you can prove yourself and become successful at it; then, of course, there’s no stopping you. It’s always just getting through that first door.

You had no siblings?

I’m the oldest of three sons. My middle brother was Jim and my younger brother, Donald. My middle brother, Jim, is dead. He, unfortunately, became a lifelong smoker and also a drinker and he died of lung cancer. Terrible tragedy. My younger brother has had many illnesses, but he’s still OK. I’m not only the eldest, but the luckiest one, obviously. I’m going to be 84 in August and knock on wood, I’m still basically OK, as far as I know. And if I’m not OK, I don’t want to know about it. I’m working every day, I’m still making things. I just delivered two new films.

In 1938, Gene was 14 and testing his Jekyll and Hyde makeup. His brother, Jim, took photos. Courtesy of Gene Deitch.

Were you close to your brothers when you were growing up?

Yes. My middle brother Jim and I were only three years apart and we were quite close, all the way until the time he died. We had very similar interests. He became a writer and became a newspaper editor. He was the editor of the Las Vegas Sun and became quite a big journalist in Las Vegas and eventually had quite a few businesses there. We were communicating in those days by telefax — that was before e-mail — almost every day, and we had projects together. We had a lot of stuff in common. My younger brother Donald, though, was seven years younger than Jim, so he was pretty much the baby. Jim and I mainly spent our childhood torturing him. He’s also quite creative but he went into the real-estate business. He had pretensions of being a writer. He did a lot of interesting things in his time.

You made your first animated cartoon at the age of 13. What did you do subsequent to that? What was your creative activity like?

By the time I graduated, of course, the war had come. And when I graduated from Los Angeles High School in the summer of ’42, we were right in the war. What was happening then, because the war was on and we were getting close to graduation, different recruiters would come to the school to offer job opportunities, because in those days with the war on and the war plants going, there was no problem about getting a job; it was only a question of the right kind of job. Some people came from Frank Wiggins Art School and said there was a great opportunity to do industrial drawing or parts catalog drawing in the aircraft factories. You had to learn perspective, how to draw ellipses, how to render mechanical parts. So I took this course, and it was a great way to also keep out of the Army for a while.

Deitch's parts catalog drawing, 1942.

So I went to work at North American Aviation and went into the Parts Catalog Department. I became very good at this and it stood me in great stead, because not only did I know how to draw cartoons and figures and things but learning the technology of how to draw mechanical parts, how to render metal so it looked like metal and how to do stippling.

So you acquired an invaluable technical skill doing all this?

Exactly. All of these things come together when you get into filmmaking because it is, as I said before, 50 percent technology. So, in this work, I got a feeling for technology and a great love of doing this and being able to draw in perspective and do faithful rendering of objects and so on. I use many of those skills doing layouts for my films.

How long did you work for them?

I worked for North American Aviation until I was drafted. In 1943, I was drafted. So it was only about a year. It was very enjoyable. But out of that, I met my first wife. When I mentioned before that I was checking out blueprints, she was the girl in charge of the blueprint department. And how things came together —very quickly, without going into a whole romantic story — in those days you had gasoline tickets. In order to buy gasoline, you had to have a sticker on the windshield of your car. An “A” sticker gave you a right to buy more gallons of gasoline. In order to get this, you had to take at least one person to work. You had what they called carpools. So when I met this girl, she became my carpool. And that’s how that happened.

Gene Deitch as an air cadet, 1944. Courtesy of Gene Deitch.

The old carpool ploy.

Exactly. And then I was drafted, and by that time, Kim was conceived. He was born in 1944, May 21st, one day before I was discharged from the Army.

You were drafted in ’43?

’43, right, and already a child was on the way, so it was a pretty desperate situation.

Did you get married before…?

Yeah. I was in a terrible place. It was called Muskogee, Okla. In those days, it was Jim Crow country and it was really terrible.

They have a huge military base there, right?

Yeah, and the name of the base was Camp Gruber [laughter]. What could be worse than being in a place called Camp Gruber in Muskogee, Okla.? One day I saw on a bulletin board that there were some tests being made for the Air Force. In those days it was the Army Air Corp. I took the test and I managed to pass. I was one of the few people that passed all the psycho-motor tests and whatever else they threw at us, and I was then transferred to Washington State, not so far from where you are. I went to Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., and that was my first experience with snow that I could remember. That was very interesting. There I became an air cadet, and I was going to be trained to be either a bombardier or a pilot or a navigator. Those were the three things you could get. That was my one and only university training. So I was there going to Washington State University and that was a great boon. I learned a lot. One of the great things about Washington State University in those days was that they had, and I discovered it almost by accident, a tremendous newspaper archive way down in some cellar. They had bound copies of all major American newspapers. Every minute I could get away, I was down there turning these books, page after page of the Sundays and the daily comic strips, going all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century. Going back to the original Katzenjammer Kids and everything. That’s where I further developed and intensified my interest in comic strips. I followed the comic strips looking at the original yellowed newspapers. I can never forget the fantastic smell — You know how old newspapers smell? Huge bound books. With that was I was able to follow the development of comic strips. I saw comic strips such as Blondie from the very first day and followed them all the way through. That was great. It sounds like all of this is happening in a very short time but there was so much going on. What happened there, after just six months, and before I even got close to an airplane, in early1944, they marched us all out, all the students in this university, on to the field and they read a notice to us that the whole program was being dissolved, that they had more pilots and navigators then they needed. In 1944, even by that time, they already saw the war winding down. So that was a very desperate, terrible shock and terrible disappointment and I was going to be sent back to the infantry. I guess by luck or whatever, being in the snow and winter of Washington state, I caught pneumonia and I was in the university hospital with pneumonia. Whereas everybody else was sent back to the infantry, I got a discharge. It was a miracle. I got back to Marie’s bedside when Kim was one day old.

So I found myself out of the Army in 1944 while the war was still on and there were no other men around, and in those days all you had to do was just stand on the street corner and look dumb, and somebody would hire you. So I had the golden opportunity there of being able to get into jobs as a commercial artist. I had no contacts whatever. With my new wife, Marie, we went to the Los Angeles telephone book, and I made a little file card for every place that was listed as an art agency. I took my hand-drawn samples — I had nothing yet published — and I went to downtown L.A. and went from one address to another, of course always getting refused. Even though they needed people, I was just too young and had no experience.

I was very glum and when I was walking back to where we lived down Sunset Boulevard. I looked up and saw the brand new CBS Radio building, which was, at that time, one of the most advanced architectural buildings in Hollywood. CBS always had a great graphic tradition, and I said, “My God, there’s the place to work.” I had no contact, no previous telephone calls, nothing, but I had learned from my other experiences how to get into places. Of course, you never ask anybody anything. You just look straight ahead and walk like you belong there. So I took this same ploy and I walked into this radio-station building. In those days, Jack Benny was broadcasting from there. I walked in there and immediately went into the elevator to get out of the lobby as fast as possible. Once I got up on the upper floor I asked someone where the art department was and I had my folder under my arm so they pointed it out to me. There was a man named James Cantwell, a really nice guy, who was the art director of this Hollywood headquarters of CBS Radio. I showed him my stuff and he hired me, just like that, asking me only one question: “Are you married?” When he heard that I was not only married but also had a kid, that was all he needed to know, assuming that I would thus be responsible and not be a person who would konk out on him after being trained. That was a really big luck and a crucial step for me.

There I learned another technology, which was print. So I learned, working with Jim Cantwell, direct mail. They use a lot of direct mail, advertising their shows. This was before television; just radio. Frank Sinatra had a weekly show, as did Jack Benny. I was able to go in and watch these shows. The main thing I learned was typography and cutting and pasting. I was able to learn all these different things and it was exactly at that time that I started drawing the Cat cartoons.

A Cat cartoon from the February 1948 Record Changer magazine.

Did your wife share your passion for the arts?

She was not an artist, but she did share my passion for jazz. That was one of the things that brought us together and kept us together for a long time. We collected jazz records together.

I understand you were a jazz fan since the age of 15.

Yeah. That was when I was still living with my mother, of course. Jazz, at that time, meant to me Benny Goodman. I hadn’t gotten very much beyond the swing bands. I always had some kind of a record player, however primitive. I would play my records really loudly, and my mother was convinced that I was deaf. But that was the way you did it. At maximum volume, attempting to emulate the sound of a big band, but of course with a primitive record player with much distortion!

Going backward from Benny Goodman I discovered Bob Crosby and his “Bobcats” (pseudo-Dixieland), and I finally stumbled into the Jazzman Record Shop and met Marili Morden and Nesuhi Ertegun, who were big factotums of jazz music, and they said, “No, that’s not Real Jazz,” and Marili brought out a King Oliver record. I started to learn all about the snobbism of jazz collectors, and naturally being a cartoonist and liking funny stuff, I picked up a copy of the Record Changer Magazine in this Jazzman Record shop and I saw that this was a pretty dry-looking magazine with nothing but classified ads for buying, selling and trading records, and I thought, “what this magazine needs is some funny cartoons.”

So I made this character and sent some cartoons to the editor. His name was Gordon Gullickson. He came up with the name The Cat, after the first couple of issues he said that was going to be the name of the character, so that was fine with me.

And I assume that was derived from a “cool cat”?

Yeah, it was an expression that Louie Armstrong used a lot.

So you started contributing drawings to The Record Changer?

Yeah, and that was what got me back into the animation. Collecting jazz records was a real endeavor in those days because you could barely buy jazz records in a normal record shop. So buying and selling and trading records, and finding them in attics and junk piles, or in black neighborhoods was the way you accumulated real jazz records. Most of the historic jazz records that are now reissued on CDs, lots of them came from these obscure sources.

Gene Deitch cover

So I sent in my cartoons, and because most of the people who were in animation and the arts were exactly the kind of people who were jazz record collectors, it turned out that practically all the leading, core guys at the UPA studio in Hollywood were readers of The Record Changer.

[Bill Bernal] was a screenwriter at that time and he was working on a project for UPA Studios. [He placed a record ad.] When I knocked on his door and I said, “I’d like to get that Jellyroll Morton record from you,” he said, “Are you the same Gene Deitch that draws the cartoons in The Record Changer? I know some guys who are looking for you.” To make a long story short, the person I was assigned to assist when I got the temporary job at UPA, was Bill Hurtz, who was the production designer at UPA. He happened to also be the president of the Cartoonist Union! Through his pull, he managed to get an exception for me, and I was able to get into the union, and thus went from temporary to full-time employee at UPA, and that was the beginning of my animation career.

It was in June 1946. You can see how things were happening to me very quickly.

Let me skip back a little bit. You acquired an awful lot of technical skill, you learned typography and graphic design at CBS. How were you developing your drawing, who was influencing you, and how did you reach the level of drawing you did when you started doing the Record Changer material?

I think William Steig was the first real inspiration for me of wild and crazy caricature. William Steig, who was the creator of Shrek and did all those cartoons for The New Yorker for years, [but] in his spare time he did real wild and crazy abstract figures. He put out a book that was called Persistent Faces. A book by William Steig that was full of extreme caricatured faces. If you look at them, you will see what got me inspired into the kind of abstract drawings that I was doing for The Record Changer. Then Steinberg. Many, many people were influenced by Steinberg and I was one of them. Then, of course, I came under the influence immediately of people like John Hubley, who was the main creative director of UPA.

How about Jim Flora?

How could I forget him? Jim Flora was even earlier. Jim Flora was working also for CBS at the time I was. He was doing those monthly little bulletins about Columbia Records Releases. I must not skip over him. I was first influenced by Jim Flora, because I was going into record stores, and discovered his stuff. And then, when I got the job at CBS, there I was, actually working at the same company that he was contributing to. He was doing all LP album covers for Columbia Records before it was called CBS Records. He was my great influence and of course, we later became great friends. I made quite a few films with his work. For Weston Woods, I made “Leopold, The See-Through Crumb Picker,” which I adapted from his book, and for Terrytoons I did “The Fabulous Fireworks Family.” We did quite a few projects together. We became very close friends. It was another devastating death for me. Jim Flora was truly a great guy. He was spectacular. A most original, unique artist. He was my primary influence. My first Record Changer cover, if you look at the very first one, The crazy profile on the December 1945 cover, that was pure imitation Jim Flora, and there was much else, but no one, certainly not I, who could come anywhere close to his amazing inventiveness.

Naturally, I moved away from the attempt. I kept his influences and I still use a lot of his design elements whenever I have a chance. What I’m doing now, adapting children’s picture books, I have to follow the style of each book that I’m doing, so my artwork now is all over the lot. I sort of pride myself that I don’t have a “Gene Deitch style.” I’m able to adapt myself to anybody’s style.

You’re a chameleon.

That’s part of doing film work.

From the October 1947 issue of the Record Changer.

It seems like your influences were all over the place. One of your early Record Changer covers was an homage to Salvador Dali, for instance.

Yeah. That was fun. That was when I was just basically doing that “Who am I going to do this week?” I even imitated Braque. There’s one towards the end that’s right out of the Braque-Picasso type of cubism. I was following all the graphic designers. At one time or another, I was trying the elements of all of them. There was a Steinberg cover.

Were you familiar with UPA?

No, I had never heard of it at all. Actually, it was a brand new studio. I’m talking about 1946. When I came into UPA it was exactly at the moment that Dave Hilberman and Zach Schwartz were going out. UPA was a political hotbed. It’s a great romantic tradition, but not everything about it was great. There were definitely inside battles going on. For reasons which I didn’t understand at the time, Dave and Zach left the studio and Steve Bosustow took over. Steve Bosustow later got all the credit for UPA, but he was never one of the creative people there. He was an in-betweener or an assistant animator at Disney and mainly he was a political leftist. He was one of the people who was marching in front of the Disney Studio in the 1941 strike. He also had some money and was able to help in financing the studio at the beginning and he became the president of the studio and eventually got the credit.

The real creative leader of UPA was John Hubley and people like Phil Eastman in writing, and even Chuck Jones. He did one of the early films for them and Art Babbitt. All the best animators came over, and more or less moonlighted at UPA, helping to develop the basic concept that UPA had. Many people in those days wrote articles about UPA, saying they invented “limited animation.” That was a lot of baloney because limited animation was simply because there was limited money! What UPA did invent was the idea that the whole world of graphic art could be animated. That’s what made the studio unique. They didn’t have a house style. Every kind of art, they thought, could be adapted and made into an animated film. I think UPA was the first studio, certainly in America, to do it.

My understanding is that John Hubley took you under his wing.

Yeah, I immediately became his protégé. They said amazing things to me as a young, naïve guy. They said, “Gene, we’re going to make you into the first true UPA director.” Well, they said that because all of them came from Disney or they came from Warner Brothers. Robert “Bobe” Cannon came from Warners, Chuck Jones was from Warners, and Art Babbitt was from Disney. So were Hubley and Hurtz. So they were all trying to break away from that. They saw me as a piece of moldable clay. The other studios would have rejected me because I didn’t have that experience but, by a miracle, I fit exactly into what UPA was looking for: someone who had no experience in another animation studio and who was not going to be wedded to any particular style. They said that they were going to make me the first “pure UPA” director and it sounded like a lot of BS to me at the time. It turned out to be true. I was the first American animation director who had only UPA training.

How big an operation was UPA at the time?

When I came in there were 12 of us. That’s all. We were in the Otto K. Oleson Building in Hollywood. Otto K. Oleson was the supplier of the big Klieg lights for the premiers. That building was basically his. On the very top floor, the roof, as a matter of fact, was divided up into offices, but the hallways were unroofed — open to the sky. So when we were up there and it rained, we had to put our coats on and bundle our animation drawings under our coats and dash from one room to next to keep the drawings from getting wet. So it was a pauper operation.

You worked on the roof?

Yeah. It was a top floor. It wasn’t exactly a roof. It was a bunch of offices, but the hallways were open to the sky.

It had no ceiling?

Yeah, no ceiling. So when it rained, as I said, we had to dash from one room to another to keep the drawings from getting wet. Gradually, when we made a couple of films and started to make a splash, and we got the Columbia release, then there was enough money, that at least could be borrowed, to build a real studio. That’s when UPA then moved out to Burbank. That’s where the studio really prospered.

I understand that a guy by the name of Bill Hurtz also taught you a lot.

As I said, I was sort of the creative godson of Hubley. I looked up to him as a creative god. He was the creative chief of the whole studio and was working mainly on stories and trying to develop big projects. But I was put directly with Bill Hurtz as Bill Hurtz’ assistant, to learn the technology of what they called “Production Design,” which every other studio called “layout.” But, after all, a company that called itself “United Productions of America,” and was only 12 guys working in a roofless place, you can see that they were very big on trying to create their own terminology.

From Bill Hurtz, I learned all the nuts and bolts of animation. He told me everything there was to know about pan bars, peg holes, field guides, how to construct scenes so that they would flow together technically. All the craft things that are necessary to construct an animated film I learned from Bill Hurtz.

Then, of course, he became a great friend and he’s the one who got me into the union, and I eventually became a full-fledged production designer. By 1949, I was Bobe Cannon’s designer, up until the time I got the offer to go to Detroit for Jam Handy, which is part of another long story. Hey, this is an expensive telephone call for you!

Well, I hope you’re worth it.

[Laughs.] Jam Handy was a big step for me. That’s where I directed my first film. What happened was that I’d gotten practically to the ceiling of what I could do at UPA Hollywood. I was surrounded by giants. By people like Hubley and Hurtz and Bobe Cannon, people like that. My chances of becoming a director at UPA then were pretty distant, although they kept telling me that I was going to be one, and I should hang in there.

One day in 1949, I got a message from a company called the Jam Handy Organization. I remembered Jam Handy from the educational films that they would send to schools. Even when I was in Venice Junior High School, we would often be called into the auditorium where they would project a film that maybe showed how automobiles were made or God knows what, all these kind of technical things and they always said Jam Handy at the end of them and I thought “Jam Handy” was a pretty funny name. I couldn’t imagine what that meant. But later, I got an offer from them. It turned out there really was a man named Jamison Handy, who had this big film company in Detroit, Mich., basically connected with General Motors, doing all the documentary, sales-promotion films for Chevrolet cars every year, etc., and they had an animation department. The animation department was backward and primitive and they were doing early Max Fleischer-style “rubber hose” animation. You know what that means?

Yeah; where the people’s limbs are like rubber hoses?

At UPA we made fun of that all the time. So this guy, Bill Murray, who just went out of my life, I found he became a film director for the Jam Handy Organization. (JHO) And they always needed to have animation sequences in their films, even if it had to be something like a cross-section of a Chevrolet motor with the pistons going up and down or whatever, or sometimes little parables that they would insert into these sales films. The animation being made at the Jam Handy studio was terrible, and Bill Murray remembered me from my working with him at Lockheed. He told the JHO people about me and that they should get me. He built me all the way up, you know, that I was a great Hollywood animator. In fact, I was still just barely a layout man, I was not an animator or anything like that.

So, suddenly I got a letter saying that they were sending one of their cameramen out to interview me because Bill Murray had told them that I was somebody great that they should hire. And I had nothing to show except a reel of UPA cartoons. I was not the creator of those cartoons. I was an assistant layout man on all of them and in many cases not even credited. But that was all I had to show and, even though I carefully pointed this out, they wouldn’t listen to it. They thought the cartoons were great and they agreed to hire me on a trial basis and pay my train fare to Detroit. It was another one of the great key moments of my career.

When they got me there, there was a circle of all the bigwigs of Jam Handy sitting in like a horseshoe of chairs. They put me in the middle, and they started to interview me. They started right off by saying, “Well Gene, we understand from Bill Murray that you’re a great animator.”

And I said the words that nobody looking for a job should ever utter. I said, “But I’m not an animator.”

And the whole place went ice cold. Suddenly, I realized that I had made the world’s worst possible faux pas. I could see going through their minds, “What? He’s not an animator? We paid this guy’s train fare across the United States to come here?!”

So then I had to go into this great back-pedaling. I said, “This is a question of terminology. I’m an animation filmmaker and we all call ourselves animators, and blah blah blah …” and so, naturally, the very first job they gave me to do was to animate a TV commercial with figures.

I had never animated anything in my life. Really. Only flipbooks in my math books or something. I was doing layouts and scene planning, but I had never actually animated professionally. Nothing I animated, aside from my parrot going to the moon when I was 13 years old. But I had been spending a lot of time going in the editing room and looking at the stuff on the Movieola and trying to analyze how animation was done. I knew how it was done from a theoretical viewpoint. It’s just that I had never done it. So I animated this commercial and they thought it was the greatest thing they ever saw! That was the number one test. One of the big tests of my career. And they hired me.

One thing I didn’t quite understand is why you would move from UPA to what seems like a second-rate company like the Jam Handy organization.

I had reached as high as I was going to get at UPA for a long time. To be an animation director in those days, you had to be working for 20 years as an animator, as a layout man and so on. I went to Hub and said, “Look I got this offer, but I love being at UPA and I’m reluctant to go to such a cornball place.” I didn’t want to go to Detroit at all and JHO was an absolute crass commercial company. But Hub said, “Take it. Go there and spread your wings and we’ll see what will happen.”

So what happened was, in short, I became the head of the animation department and, two years later, Steve Bosustow flew to Detroit and hired me to head the planned UPA-New York studio. So Jam Handy turned out to be a proper move. I did find myself in charge of an animation department, I was thrust into it. I was creating stories and creating films from the ground up; doing story creation much more advanced than I would ever have been able to do at UPA.

When you moved to Detroit, you moved lock, stock and barrel, right?

Yeah. Once I got that commercial done, the animation, they hired me. Then they moved my whole family there and they found me a house to live in, everything. They treated me great.

Jam Handy turned out to be a fascinating place to work. It was the essence of the American Dream, capitalism kind of thing. Jamison Handy and all the leaders were Christian Scientists. They all had kind of a do-gooder attitude. This was 500 people. This was a really big studio, mainly doing lots of live-action films, and also putting on some of the early industrial fairs. Like presenting the new model of the Chevrolet and it would be like a piece of show business, as they still do now. Jam Handy was one of the creators of this kind of thing. Big product launches. They had a lot of divisions there and animation was just one part of it. They did some of the first stop-motion animation commercials. The marching Lucky Strike cigarettes were created at Jam Handy by an old duffer named Goodman.

Was the reason they were located in Detroit because they had auto manufacturers as clients?

It was because it was practically a branch of General Motors. Jamison Handy had top-level connections with General Motors and that was his bread and butter.

It must have been a culture shock to move from L.A. to Detroit.

It was. It was really a hellhole. But on the other hand, a lot of great things happened to me. First of all, I became a director. And Detroit is where I did the recordings with John Lee Hooker, which 50 years later turned out to be such a big thing, an important thing to have done.

Did you have your second son by then?

Yes. Simon was born in California. He was dragged kicking and screaming to Detroit. Simon was a difficult kid. That’s another story.

What year was Simon born?

’47, I guess. Ask him.

I will.

I know it was May 12th, his birthday, and I think it was 1947.

And when you moved to Detroit, Kim would have been 5?

Yeah.

One of the great things about working at Jam Handy, (you asked me why in the world I would want to go to Detroit and so on), it was just something that happened, and it gave me a chance to spread my wings as a director. Also, as somebody who was born in Chicago and raised in Hollywood and California in a certain kind of atmosphere, to be suddenly subjected to Middle America was interesting with all the typical Middle American values.

Jam Handy was a very paternalistic organization. Moral values were emphasized, and there were all kinds of posters and slogans all over the walls. Over everybody’s desk was a little framed list that had your name and duties. Mine said “Gene Deitch” and it says, “Answers To:,” “Is Responsible For:,” and “His Job is to do this and this and this.” I immediately thought this was a great thing: In case you ever came to work absolutely drunk one day and didn’t know what the hell you were doing there, all you had to do was look at that frame! [Laughs.]

Or if you forgot your own name. [Laughs.]

Everything was going great for me, and then suddenly I got a telephone call from Steve Bosustow, president of UPA, that they had decided to open a studio in New York and they had heard of my success at Jam Handy, and he came to Detroit and offered me to lead this new group in New York. Somebody had once told me, “Don’t go to New York unless you’ve got a contract and a good job, because you can end up washing dishes at a take-out food place or something.” So I was sent to New York finally in style. It was my ambition, ever since I had read about the New York World’s Fair in 1939, to someday go to New York. And it now was the right way. They got me an apartment, they arranged everything, they moved us. Don’t forget that I had two kids at that time. They moved us and all our furniture and everything else and got us a nice apartment in Hastings-on-Hudson, up the river from Manhattan. If you know that village, it’s a wonderful place. So that’s how I got to New York.

Your mission at UPA in New York was, I think, to do television commercials, right?

Yeah. The idea was that UPA had made all this prestige in Hollywood, but no money. They were constantly just barely making the payroll every week because it was a big operation: they were doing these Columbia Pictures shorts. So now suddenly TV commercials began to be a real business and they wanted to get in on it almost at the ground floor. Our job was really to support the Hollywood studio. All the money we were making had to be sent to Hollywood, and we ourselves had to lock ourselves into the office every week, waiting for the checks to come in from them so we could pay our people in New York. Even though we were doing well, they were siphoning off all the money.

Nevertheless, that also pushed my career way up. We had managed to make a splash, winning big clients and lots of prizes. By 1954, the Museum of Modern Art had a month-long show of our TV commercials, the very first television commercials ever shown at the Museum of Modern Art. We were then riding high.

From "The Giants" (1969).

Gene, how big a crew did you have in New York?

It grew very fast. I have a photograph of the original staff we took on the day or second day we all arrived. But very quickly, and especially after Abe left, the staff grew, and people like Chris Ishii, Fred Crippen, Duane Crowther, Bard Wiggenhorn, Jack Goodford, Lu Guarnier came in, I was able to bring in Cliff Roberts from Detroit, and many other great guys came in, even Richard Williams for a while. There were a lot of people, including the most glorious girl ever created: Edna Jacobs. Whenever she walked through the whole studio, because the inking and painting department was up at the back, she had to walk past the whole studio to go to the john and, during those walks, all work stopped. She’s still living. She’s a nice white-haired lady by now, but she was a boom-boom girl.

You refer to her in your book as the studio sex object.

Exactly.

Were you happy doing TV commercials?

Yeah. We had success and we were doing stuff at a high quality. After all, we did the first TV commercials with Saul Steinberg. We brought in avant-garde musicians. John Cage did a score for us and Carlos Surinach, a great Spanish composer. We did the openings for the CBS Omnibus show, which was one of the high-class TV shows in the ’50s, hosted by Alistair Cooke.

So you were able to find creative fulfillment doing this?

Oh yes. I won the Art Director’s Gold Medal twice and lots of other honors and was called upon to make speeches. We got the Museum of Modern Art show. So I had plenty of prestige, and I was very happy and of course, that led to my being chosen to take over Terrytoons. But the first reason I left UPA New York was because John Hubley came and hired me away.

Tom Terrific gag drawing c. 1957

Before you get into that, tell me a little about what working with Steinberg was like on a Jell-O Instant Pudding commercial.

It was very exciting. Going to his apartment was one of the great happenings and thrills. He collected pendulum clocks and rocking chairs, which were all over the place. Right at the time I was there, he was drawing these series of drawings in which he had somehow discovered he could put his fingerprint on the ink pad and put the fingerprint on paper and then draw a bird or something around it. He was very forthcoming. I never register peoples’ age, but he didn’t seem to be very old. He might have been 50 or something: in his 40s or 50s. He wore round glasses and he was very nice. He was getting paid to do a TV commercial. He made the key drawings, which we then adapted as close as we could to his style. That was, of course, a great happening.

Steinberg was easy to collaborate with?

Yeah. Absolutely no problem. Unfortunately, it was only one project — Jell-O Instant Pudding.

The UPA approach seemed to owe something to Steinberg.

Sure. Steinberg was one of the main influences.

My understanding is that John Hubley was forced out of UPA in 1954.

Yeah. Earlier than that, I think. There again, there was an animosity between he and Steve. Steve had just worked himself up to be the chief and was not willing to tolerate anyone that was any kind of a threat to him, and because Hubley was the obvious central creative genius at UPA, the creative director of the studio. He was invaluable and irreplaceable and yet, Steve was willing to sacrifice him to the McCarthyists.

You wrote that Steve Bosustow “fed him to the Red-baiting wolves.” What did you mean by that?

The word came from Columbia Pictures that anybody who was on the McCarthy hitlist had to go. Otherwise, they would have lost the Columbia release, which was the key to the survival of UPA. Ethics at that time was thin on the ground. Some people did sacrifice their careers. Many great writers in Hollywood were out and many great actors. All kinds of people were blacklisted and couldn’t be on television.

Earlier than 1954 Hubley had established his own studio, Storyboard, Inc., and had opened a New York branch. In 1954, possibly to get revenge on Steve, I guess, he hired me away from UPA New York. There were multiple factors here working. Hubley was my guru, he was my god in animation-film creativity. To me, every word he spoke was gold. I was on my knees to him.

Hub knew that one way he could get revenge against Steve was to hire me away from UPA, and that’s what he did. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, even though it was a big mistake. Hub hired me away from UPA and then really didn’t let me do anything. Hub was perpetually flying back and forth between his Hollywood and New York offices. When he came to New York, he came to me and saw what I was doing and said, “Hmmm. Pretty good. Let me take a look at it. I’ll take it with me and I’ll bring it back.” And he would take it with him to the coast and I’d never see it again. He would redo whatever I did. I couldn’t do much for him.

Fortunately, I got another offer from Robert Lawrence to become creative director. He had a big studio and was going to make me the creative chief of his animation department, where I could, at last, do something. No sooner had I got there when the CBS scouts found me and hired me to go to Terrytoons.

So in the Spring of ’56, you went to work for Terrytoons.

I was only just a few weeks with Robert Laurence when suddenly comes in the offer I couldn’t refuse. I’d gotten several offers I couldn’t refuse, but this was the main one: to become the creative chief of Terrytoons, even though I knew that Terrytoons was the world’s worst animation studio. I saw this as the ultimate challenge.

You were excited about working at Terrytoons because there was so much room for improvement?

Yeah. They were the bottom. They did nothing but hack work. Everything they did was a knockoff of something else. [Contemptuously]: The only thing they ever had that became a hit was Mighty Mouse if you like that. [Groth laughs.] That was their number-one success. They had Gandy Goose and Dinky Duck … all were just imitations of something else. What they did have was the Twentieth Century Fox release of 18 Cinemascope cartoons a year: that was the key opportunity to me. I said, “My God, just imagine the 18 Cinemascope-shaped screens a year to run barefoot through.” Being backed by the CBS organization.

I came in with an absolute promise that I was going to be supported. The man who recruited me was named Newt Schwinn, who came from the bicycle family. He was one of the star salesmen for CBS Television. He came to our weekly Terrytoons staff meetings, and he was my protector. Everything was going great as long as he was there, but then suddenly he got a big job somewhere else and left. I was then at the mercy of Bill Weiss.

I first turned the job down as soon as they took me out there to meet Bill Weiss. I said, “Who is he? No one mentioned him before!”

And they said, “Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s only the manager.”

I said, “If he’s the manager, I want to have a contract.”

And they said, “Nobody at CBS had a contract.” That’s what they told me. “No executives at CBS have contracts.” So I was a CBS executive and I didn’t have a contract. I learned later that Bill Weiss did have a contract. And the reason he had a contract — he was the only one who had a contract — was because that was a condition of the sale.

The greatest swindler of all was Paul Terry. Paul Terry had promised key staff members a piece of the company when he retired. He sold out to CBS surreptitiously. People in the studio read about it in the newspapers. He never mentioned it to anyone. During the gangster days of the film business when they were lowering cans of film out the windows to keep the bankers or police from confiscating their negatives, Bill Weiss was somebody who perjured himself in court to keep Terry from being imprisoned. Therefore, Terry owed Bill Weiss. He had promised Bill Weiss 10 percent of the studio if he sold. Of course, CBS wasn’t going to go for that. What Terry was able to get out of CBS was a five-year contract of tenure for Bill Weiss. Putting all those things together, I was dead in the water before I even got there. But I did have a glorious two years that made my career.

You brought a number of very young artists into Terrytoons, who established successful careers subsequently. You brought in Jules Feiffer. Tell me how you met him and what his involvement was.

Jules had come to me when I was at UPA, looking for a job, but he was not at all anybody you could use to make TV commercials. He was an interesting cartoonist. I was working in UPA when I got my contract from United Features Syndicate to make the Terr’ble Thompson comic strip, so I hired Jules to be my first assistant. I think in [my] book there’s an example of how he was going to draw Terr’ble Thompson. It was fine, perhaps better than what I could do, but it wasn’t what I wanted for that strip. So I was not able to use him, and I felt terrible about it. He was living in Greenwich Village on a mattress on the floor in a closet. He had no money at all. When I got to CBS, then it hit me: now I could use Jules and bring him into the story department because that’s what he was superb at. He was a fantastic writer. So that worked. That’s how it happened.

How did you know he was a good writer? Did he bring in samples?

Yeah. He hadn’t yet done the Village Voice cartoon, but he had brought me some things that he had done: some stories and also comic strips. He was trying to create a comic strip himself. I can’t remember specifically, but you could definitely see that he was a fantastic talent.

Why did you not like the work he did on Terr’ble Thompson?

Well, I guess I had my own idea about how I wanted it to be drawn and I think in retrospect people look at Terr’ble Thompson now and think it was very advanced design for the time. It was also more commercial and possible to get away with than what he was doing, I thought. I hired Ruby Davidson to be my TT assistant. He closely followed my style; good or bad, the strip was my personal expression.

More recently, you adapted Jules Feiffer’s Bark George into an animated short, didn’t you?

Yes, that’s the new series: Bark George and I Lost My Bear were two additional films we did together.

I understand that you had a bit of a falling out with Jules over one of those.

Well, he fell out with me. And he fell out with me for a reason which is hard to understand. It was when we did I Lost My Bear, which was adapted from his first children’s book. He had written the story for his daughter, Halley, when she was about 7 years old. She was very little. Now she’s a grown-up. On a visit to Weston Woods, the present producer, Paul Gagne, said “We found two books by Jules Feiffer we’d like to do, but we can’t get past his agent. The agent wants big money for the film rights, and it’s beyond our budget for a children’s film.” He said, “You know Jules, so maybe you can talk him into it.”

From I Lost My Bear, and adaption of Jules Feiffer's work.

Well, of course, we were old buddies, so when Zdenka and I were in New York, we phoned him, went to his apartment and got a great welcome. I explained to him the situation with Weston Woods, and he said, “Don’t worry about my agent, we’ll make a deal.”

So that was great. Because of my 45-year personal friendship with Jules, Weston Woods was able to do these two films. We first did Bark, George, which he loved. All went well. And then we got to I Lost My Bear, and he said, “My daughter has to do the narration.” But by that time, she was a late teenager, she had a woman’s voice. It seemed to be impossible. So I said, “Jules, it’s not going to work, because the character in this film is 6 or 7 years old.”

So I went to the American school here in Prague and interviewed a bunch of kids, and I found a little girl who had a great voice, and I recorded her as a test and sent it to him for approval. But just my doing that made Jules completely furious. for my treachery, he never wanted to speak to me again!

I later found out, too late, there’s a program that had been developed called ProTools in which it is possible to raise pitch without speeding up or slowing down. We did end up having to use Halley — and she turned out to be a terrific actress. And we used ProTools, which raised the pitch of her voice to a 7-year-old without any of that speeded-up effect, and it was great! I was amazed at this magical computer wizardry.

However, it was too late. Jules had already slammed the iron door on me because I had the temerity to try somebody else. And he said, “I never want to speak to you again in my life.” It was a terrible blow to me. So those are the ways that things happen, it’s just a personal thing.

You also hired Ralph Bakshi. He must have been a kid at the time.

I didn’t actually hire Ralph. He was hired as a cel painter, probably the lowest level of production work. Ralph was a feisty young kid and he would often be drifting away from his work, following me around the studio and eavesdropping on the meetings I was having with the animators and story guys, trying to soak up whatever he could. He was hungry for getting ahead. I didn’t pay all that much attention to him. I didn’t hire him. I hired animators and story people, writers, musicians, designers; the creative personnel. I didn’t hire in-betweeners and I didn’t hire inkers and painters.

Did Bakshi stand out in any way?

Only in his intense interest. I never saw anything he created, because he was just a cel painter. That’s all. He never did any creative work when I was there but when I left he suddenly bloomed. He was an eager beaver. Well, so was I in my still-younger days.

You adapted Bob Blechman’s The Juggler of Our Lady.

That was one of my great adventures. I loved that book. I found it by chance and got in touch with him. He knew very well the standard of Terrytoons and hadn’t yet seen what we were doing or hadn’t known me at that time. It took me a full year of talking to him on the telephone every night to talk him into letting us do this. I thought his style would be ideal to sell the Cinemascope screen in an absolutely new way. I thought, what could be funnier than having this tremendous widescreen and these tiny, squiggly little drawings? Everybody else, especially Bill Weiss, thought I was completely out of my mind. That this would never go. Of course, it was a great story. I had ideas about how to do it, and I had the idea of getting Boris Karloff to narrate it. I was always interested in casting people against type. Even later, when I had the first chance to do The Hobbit here in Prague, my idea was to hire Stan Laurel to do the voice. I knew Boris Karloff was a British gentleman. He was not a monster in any way. He was a very refined, highly sophisticated, intelligent, cultured guy, and a fine actor. I thought, here’s a chance to use Boris Karloff in a way that nobody else has ever used him. And that worked, I think. His voice helped make that film, along with Bob Blechman’s drawings, and Phil Scheib’s music.

Can you tell me how long that film was?

It was a typical movie short. About seven, eight minutes. Not much longer than that. Movie cartoons were limited in length. It was always certainly well under a reel. A standard 35mm reel of film is 12 minutes.

And these would be shown before films in theaters.

Oh yeah. These were movie cartoons. 20th Century Fox release. That was certainly, at that time, the most far-out extraordinary movie cartoon ever. People were used to looking at Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. Nobody had ever seen anything like Blechman! And it was a failure. 20th Century Fox always audience-tested our cartoons, and I was being beaten over the head all the time because what they would do was have screenings and bring in people off the street who had to press little buttons, you know, “yes/no,” as the film unreeled. And my films always got rotten ratings. People would go in there expecting to see madcap cartoons, and when I was trying to do something more sophisticated it bombed. I made the history books, but it would be a while.

Once you talked Bob Blechman into allowing you to adapt “The Juggler of Our Lady,” was he involved in the production?

One of the ways that I was able to do it was that a friend of his who had worked with me at UPA and was now on my staff at Terrytoons, was Al Kouzel, I said, “You know Al Kouzel. He’s an honorable and sensitive guy. We’re not going to turn your characters into Mighty Mouse or Dinky Duck or anything like that. You know if I put Al Kouzel on it as the animation director, it’s going to be your images that are going to get on the screen.” That’s what I had to keep drumming into him every night: that we guaranteed him that it was going to look exactly like his work and that he was welcome to come to the studio any time he wants and follow the progress along. Of course, Al Kouzel was also a high-class artist. He later did the layouts for Munro for me. He was perfect at adapting anybody’s style. And I think, if you look at “Juggler of Our Lady,” it looks like Bob Blechman drew it himself.

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