Joe Strike speaks with Jack Zander, is one of the few surviving members of Hollywood's "golden age" of theatrical animation, on the eve of the animator's 99th birthday. Zander opens up his treasure chest of animated memories and anecdotes stored since the 1930s.
Jack Zander is one of the few surviving members of Hollywood's "golden age" of theatrical animation. His career began at several all-but-forgotten animation studios in the 1930s and continued through the decades and into the 1980s. One year short of his centenary (and a few days short of his 99th birthday), Jack was kind enough to share some of his time with me over the phone. With so many memories and anecdotes to recount, our conversation did not always follow a strictly chronological path or explore every tangent touched on, but was never less than entirely fascinating. We began talking on Monday, April 30.
Joe Strike: How and when did you get into animation -- and why?
Jack Zander: It's kind of an interesting story. Do you know the name Pete Burness?He was a compatriot of mine. He and I went to Chouinard School in California. I guess we had both been there three years. We were sitting around the [school] one morning when the nice lady picked up the phone, turned to us and asked, 'Are you fellows animators?' Now I didn't know what animator was, but being out of a job I said yes right away.
She said there's a guy on the other end and told him, 'I happen to have two of them right here.' She gave us the address of Roemer Grey. Remember an author named Zane Grey? Roemer Grey was his son and had converted his father's garage to an animation studio. Roemer asked us if we were animators. We said yes and he told us, 'Okay, go ahead.' What do you do when you don't know what the hell you're doing?
JS: You figured it out pretty quickly.
JZ: Well we did. Fortunately a couple of fellows who were already there helped us out. The McKimson brothers Tom and Bob were moonlighting from Disney. We worked a few minutes for them and they quickly saw we weren't anything. They taught us on the spot. It took about a week to learn the fundamentals, and all of a sudden we became animators.
JS: In a week?
JZ: I'm a stretching it a little bit. We made it through glaring blunders, which they straightened out and in so doing we caught onto some of the tricks. Of course Roemer didn't know an animator from nothing so it was alright with him. He gave us some stuff to do, which we did. There was a character he was developing called Binko Bear, so we started drawing Binko. At that point we had the label of animators applied to us like a sticker on our foreheads and we proceeded to work.
Roemer was using up his father's money, which didn't last too long: one summer I think, the summer of 1930 or 1931. They closed the studio and we were out on our butts. As a matter of fact, sir, let this go down on the record, he still owes me 150 bucks -- I doubt I'll ever get it.
We were out walking around. Pete was living Pasadena and I was living in Beverly Hills with my mother. I ran into a neighbor one morning who played the trombone in the Warner Bros. studio band. He asked me what I did and when I told him he said, 'I hear they're desperate for animators -- you'd better apply,' so Pete and I did.
I went to Warner Bros. the next day. Ray Katz was the guy in charge of the cartoon department. He worked for [Leon] Schlesinger, as a matter of fact he was Schlesinger's son-in-law. He said, 'I'm sorry we don't have any jobs at the moment.'
I went home, I was not very expert in looking for work. The next morning here was the trombone player. He asked, 'How did you make out?' I said they told me they don't need anybody. He said, 'You go back there and push. There are no artists around and they desperately need some help.'
I knocked on the door again. 'What, you again?' 'Yup, I want a job.' 'We don't have any jobs here, you might as well quit knocking on my door.' I said, 'Okay.'
It was a little repetitious, but the same scenario played out again the following morning. My neighbor says, 'This guy doesn't know what he's talking about. I happen to be close to the top' -- I don't know how a trombone player gets close to the top -- 'Push.'
I went back and Ray says, 'Are you really an animator?' and I said yep. Fortunately he didn't ask me what kind of experience I had. He gave me a contract for $14 a week. This wasn't bad because it was in middle of depression. One of my star animators later on in the business was making $12 week. So I snapped up the job and my mother and I lived happily ever after you might say -- until one day Norm Ferguson called up from Disney.
Norm left a message with a mutual friend. He said he had friend working in New York and they needed experienced animators. Of course by this time I'd had a year and a half experience of working with the McKimson boys. I had the nerve to call up the guy in New York and he said, 'Are you?' and we said yes. 'Well we're hiring.' So I'm scared to death. I said I'd send him a telegram. In it I said I couldn't make a move for less than $100 a week.
What do you think? I got it. He sent a wire back. 'The next time you're in New York drop up and see us.' We firmed it up a little bit more than that. I took an airplane back to New York. This was 1933. I got a job with this guy. This was the Van Buren studio. They weren't much better than Roemer Grey, which was fortunate for Pete Burness and me, because we were still neophytes.
JS: Pete went with you?
JZ: Pete went first. He sent me a telegram saying in effect, don't come back, you won't like it here. You've got a studio in California with green trees, etc. Back here there's nothing but tall grey buildings.
Anyway, I went back. By this time I had to work doubly hard, because I was doubly a non-animating animator. I had gotten my first job by saying I was an animator, which I wasn't and I'd gotten this $100 a week job by saying I was really an animator, which of course I wasn't, so I had to work twice as hard.
JS: To prove you were who you were.
JZ: That's right -- I was a star. All this goes to prove if you work hard enough, it pays off. Pete and I worked day and night learning and we got made animators. We held down the $100 a week jobs. $100 a week during the Depression? That was amazing. We worked there for two or three years.
Van Buren had the cartoon release for RKO. In those days the big studios -- RKO, Paramount, Warner Bros. all had what they called the short subject. Van Buren had tied up the cartoon end of it for RKO. Then one morning by golly, the Hollywood Reporter came out with a big headline: "Walt Disney Had Landed the RKO Release for Cartoons." Which they did -- so where does Van Buren go?
I got fired on my birthday in New York City. I recall living in the city all alone. I had $700 in bank and I was out on my butt. There I was with no job, no money hardly and no place to go.
It all sounds like a big fairy tale really. And thinking about it now, it's hard to believe. I'm lying in bed one morning and the phone rings. 'Is this Jack Zander? This is Paul Terry.' I'm not very enthusiastic until he says, 'Jack Zander the animator?' Oh boy, those magic words. 'We're expanding.' They had a studio in New Rochelle. 'We're expanding and we're taking on some people. I'd like to have you come up and talk to me.'
By this time you can imagine I'm not an animator but I'm a pretty good imitation of one. So I went to New Rochelle and got a job with Paul Terry. Three or four other fellows went with me. By this time I formed a team: Danny Gordon, Ray Kelly, names you probably never heard of. It sounds corny and repetitious, but again, the phone rang. It was a friend in a friend in California who was working for MGM -- Max Maxwell, he and I were pretty good friends. 'How would you like to come back and work for MGM?' Well, that's a bigger name than Paul Terry. We all said yes and a group of us went back to MGM.
You have to understand just by exposure by this time I was a pretty fair animator, having bounced around from one studio to another. So we went back to Hollywood and I worked for MGM for five years until the Army got me.
JS: During World War II?
JZ: Yep. I had a choice, one of my golden luck choices. They were forming group of Hollywood studio experts. Really and truly I didn't know anything, but by this time I had a fair name. I had choice of joining army as master sergeant, which is a pretty good rank, or hanging around and being drafted as private. I joined and went back to New York again. I worked there until end of war and again I'm out on my butt doing nothing.
JS: What did you do in the army?
JZ: We had a studio on the corner of 32nd and Lexington. Again, it was just of group of Hollywood fellows who were having a good time -- the U.S. Army sort of came out second best. We worked hard and enjoyed it until the end of the war. We did training films and other secret stuff. We had this one picture that was so secret they had an officer, believe it or not following the animators and the artwork around to prevent any terrible German spies from getting hold of it. It was quite a deal -- they even had an armed officer watching the cameraman shoot this stuff, it was so secret.
JS: What was it about?
JZ: The next week the Readers' Digest out came the whole story about what we were doing. It sounds stupid but the Army Signal Corps, where we were, set up a unit in the woods in France. They would play recordings of a big unit, which makes a lot of noise, whooping and hollering, yelling and stuff. The Germans who I guess weren't too smart, listened and reported back that the Americans were setting up camp here, so they shifted all their forces over to where they thought we were -- just a bunch of recording machines.
JS: How does this relate to the animation you were working on?
JZ: I can't answer that -- I don't know. What you have to do is someday join the army and find out -- they do weird things. A piece of history: Lee Blair, Preston Blair's brother. They were both fantastic artists. The draft took him and looked at his classification: artist. They put him to work painting garbage cans. And that's the way the army works.
Along came a notice one day that we were all discharged because the unit they had been so proud of eventually was not working out, which you probably figured out some time back. 'What do we do with Master Sgt. Zander? We discharge him.' I'm trying to remember how the hell I got back to Hollywood again and went back to my old MGM job for a while, and then ended up back in NYC doing commercial work.
This is a sad part of my life. While my friends stayed in Hollywood working for MGM, I stayed in New York working for commercial houses. I eventually started my own studio and that was the story of my life. That long story has been around. Mike Barrier wrote a book -- we'd been talking for 20 years -- a great big book that went into great detail on all the animation. He covers the whole business - I'm a drop in the bucket.
JS: A fairly big drop -- you made quite a splash.
JZ: It's nice of you to say that.
[Our conversation continued in May -- the day before Jack's 99th birthday.]
JZ: Buzz Potamkin called me recently to tell me Joe Barbera had just died. I never worked for Hanna Barbera; I worked with Joe at MGM. I helped him develop Tom and Jerry. It was a great experience. He was, without question, one of the most talented fellows I ever, ever worked with. The best part was, in my experience the fellows who were great talents were all either drunken Irishmen or other specimens, they all had some terrible flaw. You were lucky when you worked with them to get a storyboard out of them. But Joe Barbera was always hopping around and always brilliant.
JS: I understand you worked on the very first Tom and Jerry cartoon. Any idea you were helping to launch --
JZ: We were well aware we had something hot, but it did take a little work on our part to develop it.
JS: Theatrical characters had time to evolve, unlike TV characters.
JZ: They said afterwards that Hanna and Barbera were at once the greatest and worst thing that ever happened to the cartoon industry. Once they made it with their new television system, there was a certain stigma to that the type of animation that showed in all their pictures. Which is not to say they weren't a success, because they were.
JS: You mentioned Pete Burness a few times earlier; could you talk a little more about him?
JZ: Pete and I were very close personal friends. I met him years ago in California. We had similar senses of humor. We would -- it sounds stupid, but we would tell jokes, and the other would get the joke before it was finished. We knew exactly what other guy was going to say. Like Joe Barbera, Pete was extremely talented and a nice guy. Pete and I were both complete neophytes at the same time, really. His learning experiences paralleled mine -- both of us had to work very, very hard to prove to the world we were animators. Despite the fact we started in together, excepting for brief period when I hired him, we never worked together.
JS: You were working on different projects at same studio?
JZ: We weren't at the same studio. We started together, then after Roemer Grey fell apart, Pete and I worked for another studio that never got anywhere. Then we split. I was at Warner Bros., I don't know where he went. Theoretically we never saw each other again, but of course we did, just not working at the same place. Pete ended up working for Jay Ward as a director. He worked on Mr. Magoo -- a lot of Magoo gags were originally Pete's and the characters were really his, but I did not work there.
JS: What was Paul Terry like? I've heard the name, but what was the person like?
JZ: Paul Terry -- this was way back before Disney, if you can believe it. He made cartoons the old fashioned way, which is to say they moved and they were not particularly developing character studies or types of humor. The fact that they moved was sufficient. For many, many years he was the Fox release. They sold pictures in bulk, you might say -- bargains.
[Before going to work for Paul Terry] there was a knock on the door [at Van Buren]. Who presented themselves but five or six Chinese gentlemen. Van Buren did a lot of work in Asia. It seems that their original characters Tom and Jerry -- you probably don't remember them --
JS: The human Tom and Jerry.
Yes -- a tall guy and a short guy. They were very big in China. They didn't know at the time Van Buren was interested in doing other things. They asked to see some original Tom and Jerry drawings. Of course there was no one at the studio who could draw the characters, we had to do a lot of faking.
But Paul Terry had this Fox release. Do you remember block booking? When Fox sold a feature, accompanying it was a Paul Terry cartoon. They moved, that's about the most you can say about them.
Paul Terry came into the room one day when I worked there. There was a storyboard on the wall. He follows it through, laughs a little bit, 'heh heh heh,' then asks, 'What's this mouse doing?' One guy attempted to explain the story. Paul said, 'Put two mice in -- if one mouse is funny, two mice are twice as funny.' We went back to redo the story and put two mice in. We wound up putting hundreds of the little mice into those cartoons.
JS: You and your friends went from Terrytoons to MGM as a group?
JZ: In fall of 1937, I got another one of those phone calls. It was Max Maxwell, who was sort of in charge of MGM. He said he thought I was a good animator; did I want to come back and work for MGM? I said I think so, what are you doing? 'We're changing over,' he said. 'Now we're going to spend a bunch of money and make better cartoons.' Everybody wanted to be like Disney. They were going to be another Disney.
We did have a group that worked together -- George Gordon, Ray Kelly, Mike Myer, Joe Barbera and maybe one other, I can't remember. Max asked me if there were any others who wanted to come back, I said sure.
JS: You were already a leader of men.
JZ: That's stretching it a bit. Anyway, we all hung together so tightly that when we arrived in Hollywood I had already lived there and knew the geography fairly well. We came back on the train; they had trains in those days. I found a hotel off Hollywood Boulevard appropriately named the Hollywood Hotel. Later on we found out it was one of more active whorehouses in Hollywood. Everything worked fine until one night one of the, uh active girls overdid it. Her client died on top of her. So we all moved out. We did stick together as group, worked together fine. We separated a little bit when we went to the studio.
JS: Anything to add about Hollywood?
JZ: About living in a whorehouse? There are many stories about working at MGM. The head of MGM ['s cartoon unit] was a fellow by the name of Fred Quimby. He was a big fat Irishman, not overly fat. His long suit, he was the head of the sales group at MGM. They thought so much of Louis B Mayer, and the other guys thought so much of him, they made him head of cartoon dept, which of course is a terrible thing. His friends had a sense of humor. He didn't understand any of us. We were always pulling jokes and gags on each other.
JS: That seems to be very widespread among animators.
JZ: They're all nutty.
JS: You'd have to be to get into that line of work.
JS: Any favorites of the cartoons you worked on?
JZ: Commercial or entertainment?
JZ: When we were working on the characters, it was a personal job. We all got along together, mostly because we were friends. We had outstanding talent. The studio struggled for years trying to build other staff, trying to find somebody who could control all these nutty animators and get their money's worth out of them.
I'm probably not answering your questions.
JS: No, but it's interesting anyway.
JZ: Remember an old cartoonist named Milt Gross? A crazy, crazy, crazy man, but so funny. When he was hired by Quimby to take over the cartoon department, his ideas were so far out, nobody understood or appreciated him. After shall we say a suitable time, whatever that is, they fired him. He developed a couple of characters that he had been doing in his comic strips. He had a dog character that was very funny, J.R. the Wonder Dog. His other big thing was New York City characters. The humor depended on knowledge of New York humor.
Almost every character he developed was a pleasure to work on, as was working with him. Of course we did the Katzenjammer Kids, which later turned into a tremendous thing. Bud Fisher was an old sports cartoonist in New York. [Zander is probably referring to the creator of the Mutt and Jeff comicstrip.] They even offered him a job. He came out, but nobody could handle the animators. It wasn't until Bill [Hanna] and Joe [Barbera] paired up and came up with their ideas of humor that anything really hit.
JS: Did you overlap with Tex Avery at MGM or at Warners?
JZ: I overlapped with him, worked with him a couple of times. His humor again was far out and nobody understood it. He did of course make funny pictures. We sat for a whole morning once, trying to decide what was funniest. He was big on signs. He had this soldier with a great big, tremendous cannon. To show how long it was, the camera closed in and traveled up the barrel until it got to the end. Halfway up the barrel was a sign, "long darn gun, ain't it?"
JS: He did variations on that a lot.
JZ: We spent the whole morning trying to figure out whether 'long darn gun' or 'darn long gun' was funnier.
When I started Pelican Films [Jack's New York-based animation company] with a partner, I left the good old cartoon group. They all stayed in Hollywood, and built a staff: Bob Clampett. Friz Freleng and the rest of them. It was a different part of world than we were.
JS: Why did you open your own studio?
JZ: It was economics -- to make more money.
JS: Did running a studio mean you were animating less?
JZ: I animated less, that was true. But every once in a while you had to step in and shall we say rescue a picture?
JS: You started Pelican Films in 1954. There must have been a lot of work back then when TV advertising was still just getting off the ground.
JZ: To coin a phrase, it was the golden years. I worked on a half dozen or more Tom and Jerry s, they were great. But counting up we made over 5,000 TV commercials, all nationally televised. Some were pretty good. Now everyone knows me for my few pictures at MGM, and they forget about the commercials.
JS: The cartoons were shown over and over again but the commercials were only shown until the next one came along.
JZ: That's true. It was a great business and we enjoyed it. There were only a half dozen studios here in NYC. Shamus Culhane and our friend Buzz Potamkin, Lee Blair, a bunch of prominent guys stood out and knew what they were doing. We turned out a pretty good product. We did some of those Bert and Harry Piels commercials. [The Piels Beer ads were a long-running and much beloved series of animated commercials that ran throughout the 1950s. The Piel brothers were voiced by radio comedians Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding.] They were [done for] Young and Rubicam, right across the street from us. We were on the west side of 40th and Madison, and they were on the east side of the street.
The agency business and cartoon business were pretty tightly wrapped up together. When they started out, animated TV commercials were nothing more than illustrated radio commercials if they worked, but often times they didn't.
Sooner or later the agency would come over and give us the opportunity to help them with their storyboards and ideas. Sometimes we did everything: recording, talent. We had a seven year run with Jax Beer.
JS: I never heard of that brand.
JZ: That's it -- unfortunately for us Jax Beer was based down south. The Bert and Harry ones, we would find out when they ran the commercial, show up at a bar in time to watch it, then have another drink and go home.
JS: How long was Pelican in business?
JZ: From 1954 to 1986 [including its successor studio, Zander's Animation Parlour]. We were at one time the largest studio in New York. There were others that had a bigger jump on creativity, but we had a pretty good reputation.
JS: Why did you end Pelican and begin the Animation Parlour?
JZ: My partner, who was more of an entrepreneur than I, thought we ought to branch off into live-action, which eventually proved to be the death of the company. We started out and made our reputation in animation. When we were across street from Young and Rubicam we were, I guess the largest place in New York. We had two floors in that building.
JS: The move into live-action killed Pelican, because it didn't work out financially?
JZ: Both financially and creatively. A studio has to have kind of a guiding light, you might say. We had a small guiding light in animation -- me, but we never found anyone really hot in the live-action end of it. I started Zander's Animation Parlour -- 'p-a-r-l-o-u-r,' very elegant. My wife decorated reception area with sort of red plush walls -- it looked like a whorehouse. We made out just fine. This was 1970.
JS: The technology was changing at the time. Did you get involved with motion graphics?
JZ: It was changing, just a bit. Frankly, one of the reasons I got out of it were [because of] the creative meetings at the advertising agencies. You've seen them. A giant room, a table as big as the room practically. All these quote-unquote 'brains' sitting around thinking of ideas. It got so they were all so much younger than I; I was lost. After a while, the young kids get tired of being talked down to, so we just got out.
JS: This was when you retired?
JS: You had a good run with both Pelican and the Parlour. What were some more memorable commercials you did there?
JZ: I've got a three- or four-page single-spaced typewritten list of our clients -- everything from Colgate to Shell Oil, back and forth. Upstairs in my bathroom every night I brush my teeth with Colgate toothpaste. I'm reminded of a brilliant young man who was an art director at Colgate's agency. His storyboards were fairly accurate, but there were some details in them that I had not bid on, such as a dog animated with a bone in his mouth. When it came time to do the picture, the bone was not there. He said in no uncertain terms, 'put the bone in.' I said 'I can't afford to,' etc. He said 'Jack if you don't put that dog in the dog's mouth, you'll never ever work for Colgate again.' Now when I brush my teeth with Colgate, I get a slight grin. The average user of Colgate toothpaste couldn't care less. We did a lot of commercials for Crest too.
JS: Did you do the Cavity Creeps? [The villains in a series of Crest commercials, put in their place by an anti-cavity superhero team.]
JZ: Yes, they were successful too. People responded to them.
JS: What do you think of animation nowadays?
JZ: I talk about that frequently with old friends of mine in the business. Frankly, except for the younger, sharper ones, we're all baffled by digital animation. I don't know how they do it. I have an idea, but it ain't like we used to do it.
JS: Do you like the look of it?
JZ: The characters now all look like they're upholstered like carpet. I admire the technique and the ability that goes into them, except it takes about 500 guys to knock out a picture. It's frightening. You go back to Snow White and Art Babbitt doing the Seven Dwarves. He can rightfully take credit for all seven with his own pencil. He made those dwarves live. Nowadays if you have strength you can wade through minutes and minutes of credits and you still don't know who animated certain bits.
JS: The people going into animation nowadays grew up with computer animation. They don't know a time when there wasn't computer animation, but there's a growing appreciation for 2D animation; people are realizing it's not to be forgotten about.
JZ: I have friend teaches at [New York's] School of Visual Arts. He said the producers beg him to send them talents who have a basic knowledge of animation. He said the new ones do things by numbers -- literally. So it's a big change. As you know, it's still changing.
I cannot go for the novelty of the animated live-action stuff, where they attempt to draw live-action characters and render them as much as they do animated characters. They fall flat on their face when they get to that point.
JS: Which movies are you thinking of?
JZ: Toy Story. It attempted to look real. Then if you look closely at some of the commercials you'll see animation so close to live-action, it takes a sharp eye to figure out the difference.
JS: They brag now they can make computer animation look indistinguishable from live-action.
JZ: Well, the world is coming to an end.
JS: I hope not. Tomorrow [May 3, 2007] is your 99th birthday. How are you going to be celebrating?
JZ: Who knows?
JS: Will you have friends coming over?
JZ: More than likely. I have a big family: six kids, piles of grandchildren, piles of 'em. We'll all be around for some time.
JS: Are any of them in animation too?
JZ: My son makes commercials. He has an animator, a designer, a layout man in Russia. He and I worked together successfully for several years, then one day he felt he'd like to be out on his own. Business associations are very difficult to maintain. They're kind of like a marriage: things come up, so he left. Now he's quite busy.
JS: He has someone in Russia?
JZ: Here's the thing: When I had a studio I had a whole floor in an office building in midtown. I had camera, a $40,000 piece of equipment, I had editors who cut film, we had talent searches. I had 15-20 people working for me, overhead to pay for.
Mark sits at home with his computer and he has this guy over in Russia somewhere. He has another guy in Canada and they all work together, and as you well know, knowing much more about computers than I do, they're in touch, they know what drawing was made by the guy in Russia, how does it tie up with the other stuff going on in Canada. He can handle the whole operation and it finally shows up not only on Mark's laptop but quite possibly the client's.
We used to have to carry a 16mm projector up and down Madison Avenue for clients who did not have projection apparatus. It's all done with a couple of switches now. He can make picture. The recording industry hasn't changed too much, but once he gets the soundtrack and a few details settled, he can do whole picture sitting in his library out here in the country.
JS: It sounds like a good life.
JZ: It's a hell of a life. It makes me look stupid. I used to bust my ass driving into New York every working day and park my car, walk over to the studio, do my job, come home at night and end up dead.
JS: Not yet, anyway. It's definitely a different game now. It sounds like your son's enjoying himself.
JZ: He is. He's got an airplane, a new girlfriend, he plays golf whenever he feels like it. This is astounding to me, but it doesn't bother you, on the golf course he can pull some complicated thing out of his pocket and have an intelligent talk with a guy about whatever changes he made, and so forth. You can't beat that.
JS: He may have a lot of fancy gadgets, but you've done more for animation than he has a shot at doing.
JZ: Well, anyway you look at it, we had a lot of fun. I don't have really very many friends left, but the ones I do have, we get to laugh, talk about the jokes and the good times we experienced when we were working in the studios.
JS: That's wonderful and I really appreciate your time. You take care and happy birthday to you.
JZ: The way things go someday I'll meet you. Give me a ring.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.