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Don’t Give Your Right Name! — Part 1

Fats Waller once said that, and another blues man sang, It Must Be Jelly, Cause Jam Dont Shake Like That! There really was a man named Jam Jam Handy and he ran a 500-person studio in the then gloomy city of Detroit. It was an amazing adventure working there, in that most amazing, little-known but heavyweight studio. I directed my first film there, nearly had my tender career nipped, and discovered John Lee Hooker. 1949-51.

An excerpt from Gene Deitchs book, How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

JHO was a large outfit, more than 500 Christian Scientist souls, virtually an adjunct to mighty General Motors Corp, doing all of that behemoths sales training films. It was a company joke that there was a secret tunnel between The Jam Handy Organization on East Grand Boulevard, and the General Motors Building. But JHO also did motivational movies for the U.S. military, stop-motion and animated TV commercials, and every sort of worthy, establishment propaganda film.

In this rich atmosphere, I was ushered into a meeting room, seated in the center, and ringed with all of the top executives and creative department heads.

Gene, weve heard you are one of the hottest young animators in Hollywood!

I actually felt somewhat offended. I couldnt let them think I was a lesser light than I actually was!

But Im not an animator! I said, proudly proclaiming the truth. Talk about dead silence! Talk about ice-formation! I didnt have to be clairvoyant to be able to read the mind of everyone in that room. What? We just paid this boys train trip across the country, and hes not an animator???

An instant too late, I suddenly awoke to the fact that I had committed the cardinal crime of any job applicant: Never, ever, admit that you cant do anything!

So then followed my panic back-peddling: Um, er, well, I must explain that in our work, the generic term animator is applied to anyone in the profession. I am specifically a production designer, but of course I can animate.

Were they going to buy that? I tell you now that I had at that time never animated a scene in my life. I had scribbled animated stick figures in the margins of my junior high school mathematics books, idly flipping them as I failed math. But I had carefully watched the master animators work at UPA. I had spent my lunch hours and after-work hours sitting at the studio Moviola machine, running their brilliant animation backwards and forwards. I knew the principles, and I could draw. I had come to Detroit assuming and hoping that I would immediately dazzle them with my advanced design concepts, and would craft stunning movies for them. So what was my first assignment? To animate a TV commercial!

Back to luck. My luck was that the animation standard at Jam Handy was antediluvian rubber hose stuff that was 30 years out of date, even in 1949. Remember what I told you about building a house? Or doing any job? Step-by-step. With basic talent or skill and observation, any intelligent person can figure out how to do any job. I knew the principles. I could draw. I could act.

So I got my dialog reading from the film editor, and I squashed, and I stretched. I plotted my arcs. I anticipated. I followed through. I lip-synched. They thought it was the best animation theyd ever seen. It was better than any animation I had ever done before. (None!) I kept the job. They moved my family. I soon directed my first film there, and within a year I was the head of the JHO animation department.

So that's the secret! Never admit you cant do anything! Brazen it out! Analyze the problem, and you can figure out how to do it!

As The Jam Handy Organization was one of the more obscure corners of movie making and animation production, and there may be no one left around to tell you about it, I will. It was a truly amazing place, run by this crusty old devout Christian Scientist, with the top echelon mainly made up of the followers of that faith.

Organization was the proper name for the place. It was the classic paternalistic and slogan-saturated work place. Above every members desk was a framed list, titled, for example: "Gene Deitch, duties and responsibilities: 1. Reports to Grant Harris, studio producer. 2. Creates and organizes animation projects. 3. Acts as director and scenarist of animated films 4. Co-ordinates the work of the animation department. 4. Consults with the leaders of other branches for projects combining live-action sequences. 5. Co-works with story department where required. 6. Consults with musicians, actors, and technicians for the completion of his projects... etc.

It didnt include helping to clean the mens johns, or organizing studio softball teams, but it might have. I got a kick out of these framed duty lists, and I imagined that should a worker come in drunk or zonked from lack of sleep, and wonder what in the name of heaven he was doing there, all he had to do was swivel his chair and read the sign!

In fact, the place was loaded with helpful signs, mottos and exhortations. One I remember showed a large block of ice, held up by iceman's tongs. (They still had iceboxes then.) Large letters informed us that IDEAS ARE LIKE A BLOCK OF ICE. THEY MELT IN TRANSIT! Do keep that in mind. It was claimed that the famous motto, The difficult we do right away the impossible takes longer, was coined at Jam Handy. I wouldnt dispute that.

You old time animators will be interested to know that the nominal head of the Jam Handy Organization's animation department during part of the 40s and 50s was old Max Fleischer himself! Jam had him on retainer, assuming Fleischer's name would add class to the joint. Max actually showed up once during my two-and-a-half year stay at JHO, presumably called in to look at my first film, Building Friends For Business. We had a pleasant chat, and I never saw him again.

The studio's greatest claim to animation fame up to that time was the original animated version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was so early, in fact, that it didnt even incorporate the hit Christmas song of that name, which was apparently written later.

One of the great features of JHO life was the annual 4th of July picnic. The staff numbered about 500, so real big-time picnics were staged in a country setting. Jam himself went all-out for these picnics. It was all part of his grand paternal plan. There was plenty of food and root beer from barrels, greased pig chases, kissing booths, volleyball, fireworks and, of course, pep talks. Jam himself displayed his great condition and commonality, playing volleyball with the underlings, er, associates. Great stuff.

The head animator, when I came on board, was a chap named Ted Vosk. I didn't know from Slavic in those days, but I soon learned that there was a large Polish city named Hamtramk, plopped like a huge wad of poppy seeds right smack in the middle of the Detroit coffeecake. Many of the JHO staff were of Polish extraction. Ted Vosk was a refugee from the old Fleischer studio, still passionately devoted to early 20s rubber-hose animation. His name hasnt appeared in any list of Fleischer greats that I have seen, but he was the star animator at Handys. He is the very one, who after seeing some of the outrageous UPA-influenced design I was importing into JHO animation, and sizing me up as a post-pubertic upstart, who advised me, Gene, when you've been in animation as long as Ive been, (10 years at the time), you'd know you can't get away with that sort of stuff! However, I did get away with it.

To read more about the production of these classics visit Genes online book.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon renaissance of 1956-1958. He was also: animation department chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, creative chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, director at John Hubleys Storyboard, Inc., New York, 1955, president of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc., New York, 1958-1960, creative director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for more than 40 years with the Prague animation studio,"Bratri v Triku.