Adam Snyder reviews Gene Deitch's new book and looks back at the role his father, William L. Snyder, played in relocating the director to Prague, thereby starting one of the greatest love stories in animation.
Gene Deitch's For The Love of Prague begins in late October, 1959. A confused, extremely nervous American animator is being transported deep behind the Iron Curtain on a Soviet-built DC3-copycat plane. He wonders aloud, "What the hell am I doing here? Who is this guy Snyder? Am I being set up?"
The anxious animator is Gene Deitch, who had recently left CBS Terrytoons where he had created such unforgettable characters as Tom Terrific and Manfred the Wonder Dog. The mysterious Snyder is my father, William L., who had founded Rembrandt Films a decade earlier to import films to the U.S. from Europe. After distributing such classics as Jiri Trnka's Emperor's Nightingale and Albert Lamorisse's White Mane, he had just begun producing animation in Prague.
To Go Where?
Several months earlier my father had walked into Gene's Manhattan animation studio and, puffing on his signature Cuban cigar, proceeded to give Gene one of the great snow jobs of the Cold War. "I'm told you're the best animation director in New York," he told him. "I want you to go to my studio in Prague."
Gene laughed, wondering why someone would have an animation studio in Oklahoma. He was remembering his basic training days at Camp Gruber in Muskogee, when he and his buddies would go to a bar in a nearby poke town named Prague. "No, not Prague, Oklahoma," my father responded with his typical swagger. "Prague, Czechoslovakia."
Gene had never even had a passport before, and was dubious about traveling to a Communist country on someone else's lark. So my father gave him an offer he couldn't refuse. If Gene would go to Prague and straighten out production on a cartoon he was producing there, my dad would finance Gene's pet project--Munro, Jules Feiffer's story about a four-year-old boy drafted into the Army. When Gene still expressed reluctance, my father also promised, in writing, that he would not have to remain in Prague for more than ten days.
The fates had other ideas, however. Gene promptly fell head-over-heels in love with the city on the Vltava River, and never again would return to the United States to live. However, For The Love of Prague is not the story of one man's love for an ancient, magical city, or even of his experiences as the only American to live in Prague during virtually the entire Cold War. Rather, it's about how Gene left behind everything he knew--his friends, his family (including a wife and three sons in New York), his career, his entire way of life--to be with the 4'11" dynam he met during his first few days in Prague. More than anything, For The Love of Prague is the story of Gene's four decades with Zdenka Najmanova, his "self-assured, in control, in command, unshakably optimistic, fearless, competent and talented" wife and professional partner.
In 1958 my father established a special `Snyder unit'at the famed, state-owned, sole Czech studio. He even imported a state-of-the-art camera from Germany. To run it, he hand-picked Zdenka, one of the few people in Czechoslovakia who spoke English. For the first week Gene was in Prague however, Zdenka refused to talk to him. She was appalled that this "American" had been recruited to "save" the project on which they were working. Today Zdenka is still a bundle of energy; a self-proclaimed workaholic who, save for vacations and a single two-week bout with the flu, has not missed a day of work during more than half a century as a producer at the famed Czech animation studio. Never one to mince words, she has managed over the years to play havoc with the English language, often with amusing results. Like the constellation she calls the Big Diaper. Or that New York is crowded with skyscrappers. And that the Earth someday might be threatened by investors from outer space, causing Gene to envision rows of little green men coming down the gangplanks of their flying saucers, each carrying a briefcase!
Zdenka, too, was married when they first met, and even more than Gene, risked everything so they could be together. One of the most heartbreaking sections of the book tells of how she lost custody of her son, David, solely because she was in love with an American capitalist. The most harrowing pages tell of how in 1985 David sought asylum in the West. Gene vividly describes the frightening experience of driving him to freedom. Gene could have been expelled from the country, and Zdenka might have been denied travel, or worse.
A Special Situation
All during my childhood, Gene and Zdenka's love story, their experiences under Communism, as well as my father's own mysterious adventures in that other world, were part of Rembrandt Films lore. After reading For The Love of Prague, tales of jazz concerts, their many friends, the absurdities of the Communist bureaucracy, and other details of their lives behind the Iron Curtain, confirm for me what from afar and through the eyes of a child, I had always imagined. Despite living under a totalitarian regime, without many of the physical comforts we took for granted, in many ways he and Zdenka led a storybook life. Working for western animation clients and holding a U.S. passport, Gene enjoyed a special status. He could hop in his car and drive to West Germany any time they needed coffee, a new tape recorder, or other hard-to-find item. He and Zdenka traveled regularly to Western Europe together, although Gene was required to write a letter to the government inviting her to travel with him to a specific place and return with him at a specific time.
Gene likes to say that in all the years he lived in Prague he never met a Communist, meaning that he never met a true believer. It's a simple enough statement, but like many anecdotes in the book it reveals a larger insight into the Communist culture. My chief complaint is that I would have liked to learn more about his work at the animation studio, but that book is now in the works, Gene assures me.
Remembering the Good Times
For me, of course, the most painful passages concern Gene's falling out with my father. But Zdenka and I prefer to remember only the good times--the excitement generated by one of my dad's visits to Prague in the 1960s, his buying antiques for a song, throwing dinner parties on a boat as it sailed under the Charles Bridge, handing out nylon stockings to the women and bottles of Jack Daniels to the men. Even Gene admits that he, "cannot forget the great fun we had together, and the great creative burn we both raced through." I buried my father last week. And as I reread Gene's book, I was reminded that no matter what was going on between them, part of my father's legacy was the impact he had on one man and one woman whose story is told in For The Love of Prague.
In 1995 Adam Snyder, president of Rembrandt Films, began collaborating with Gene Deitch on The Nudnik Show, which now has been distributed by Sunbow Entertainment in more than 20 countries.
For The Love of Prague (1997, ISBN 80-7205-467-8) is available from Baset Publishers, U Sanopzu 5, CZ-150 00 Prague 05, Czechoslovakia or via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The price is US$20 per copy, which includes air mail postage to anywhere in the world. Only personal checks and cash are accepted. For credit card purchases, you may order through Barnes & Noble, British Amazon or through fortheloveofprague.com.
Adam Snyder is President of Rembrandt Films, producer of Nudnik and Friends, distributed by Sunbow Entertainment, and other cartoons and several series distributed by Palm Plus Productions, including classic animation from Zagreb Film and the Sofia Animation Studio, which are packaged into two thirteen part series, Maxicat and Friends and Three Fools and Friends respectively.