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"So, What Was It Like?" The Other Side Of Animation's Golden Age

Tom Sito attempts to puncture some of the illusions about what it was like to work in Hollywood's Golden Age of Animation of the 1930s and 40s, showing it may not have been as wild and wacky as some may have thought.

Most animators begin as animation fans. Seated in front of our TVs with heavily sugared cereal dribbling down our chins, we marvel at the adventures of Bugs, Casper and Scooby Doo. Then one day we decide to apply our desire to draw into becoming an animator. Just like ballplayers dream of becoming a Ruth or Cobb, we dream of being the next Bob Clampett or Chuck Jones.

I was fortunate that during the time of my entering the field, one could still learn at the side of many of the great artists of the Golden Age of Hollywood animation. In 1975, it was still possible to assist John Hubley, Shamus Culhane or Ken Harris. Sadly, these and other legends are passing from the stage leaving us orphans with the films and, if we are lucky, some memories of what it was like.

I think a lot of us today have the impression that Golden Age Animation was done in a state of bliss. Modern Animators complain about ignorant and grasping corporations, tight deadlines and studio politics. Back then it was an Art, today it's just Business. In the good old days animators lived on their love of cartoons, ate ambrosia and had no deadlines or headaches. Obviously,that is why Pinocchio and Tom & Jerry cartoons were so good. Never mind Hitler, the Depression, or Jim Crow, it was all one long party. This naive view is encouraged by all these revisionist, Wasn't Hollywood Wacky?? books and documentaries corporations fund nowadays.

How It Really Was

Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but just take the time to chat with some of our great retired gods and goddesses and they'll tell you how it really was. Oh, I'm not denying that compared to any steelworker or being on a breadline their kind of job was a dream. Still, every animator then as now soon finds that, in the end, cartoons are a business just like anything else.

UPA studios, March 1957. Top row: Dick Shaw, Morey Fagan, Ed Friedman, Gil Turner, Barney Posner, Bob Dranko, E. Bennet. Bottom row: Bob McIntosh, Al Wade, Peter Burness (holding Oscar for When Magoo Flys), Rudy Larriva, Bob Brown

The first revelation that shocked me was how, before the animation unions started around 1937, animators had a six day work week. Nine to 6:00, Monday through Friday, and 9:00 to 1:00 on Saturday. If you had a problem with Saturdays, Max Fleischer or Walt Disney would let you work Thursdays until 11:00 p.m. to make up the time. Disney and most studios went to 40 hours in January 1941, in an attempt to stop their artists from unionizing; and the same thing has been happening right now at many nonunion computer houses, for the same reason.

Time clocks were once standard. At MGM, there was an electric bell that told you when you could get up from your desk for a coffee break, and also told you (15 minutes later) when to come back to work. When I was at Hanna Barbera in 1978, the time clock was out of use (it kept having "accidents," like people pouring cel paint into it), but it remained in effect at Disney up until the The Little Mermaid. So instead of the timeclock Hanna Barbera we also had "The Late Book," in which the security guard would write your name if you arrived five minutes past the 8:30 a.m. checkin time; the powers that be would supposedly read it at the end of the month and have your head. On any morning, at 8:28 a.m., you could see people literally running up Cahuenga Blvd. to avoid this fate. I never actually heard of anyone being fired for that reason.

In the silent film days, the Bray Studio didn't pay it's artists until Monday, because Mrs. Bray wanted to make sure their artists would not spend all their money on drink over the weekend and possibly not show up on Monday. In 1976, at the Raggedy Ann Studio, our employer wouldn't pay us until Friday at 5:00 p.m., because he distrusted us to stay all day. Many of us repaid his respect for us by stealing our pencil sharpeners.

In the 1930s, vacations were unheard of and overtime was rarely paid. Disney animator Claire Weeks told me that, on Snow White's deadline rush, the studio demanded 3 hours extra a night and the only pay was a 55 cent dinner ticket to Blackie's Steakhouse on Sunset Blvd. (Of course, 55 cents could probably buy you a good dinner in 1937...) The Van Beuren Studio in 1935 asked for "voluntary" unpaid overtime, which was in fact something less than voluntary.In 1947, instead of overtime Paul Terry gave you oranges from his Florida orange grove.Today, many digital CGI houses speak to their artists of the "reality" of the 55 hour workweek. A Free-For-All In 1941, before the union, people's wages were a free-for-all and ranged from $500 a week for a top animator like Art Babbitt, down to $12 for a painter. Babbitt used to augment his assistant's salary out of his own pocket, because the man could not afford to feed his family. New trainees like Warner Bros legends Virgil Ross and Paul Smith were hired at $6.00 a week, up to $10.00 after one month. Painter Martha Sigal told me she was hired by Leon Schlesinger at $12.75.After one year she was called a journeyman and raised to $21.00 (inkers were paid $23.00); after that, no more raises were allowed. Some companies set policies about raises, but mostly you had to go haggle like a Bedouin camel trader. And if you asked for a change in these conditions, like a worker's council or union, you were branded a "Lousy Red."

There were no black animators until 1954. Max Fleischer promoted Lillian Friedman as the first woman animator and paid her $40 a week, while her male colleagues made up to $125. Despite some standouts like Mary Blair or Laverne Harding, women mostly were kept as ink & painters until modern times. Hispanic and Asian artists fared better--Bill Melendez, Rudy Zamora,Ty Wong or Chris Ishi faced no barriers based on their ethnicity.

The great 1941 strike for union recognition at Walt Disney was considered animation's own Civil War and has left hard feelings down to this day. Picketers later to achieve fame included John Hubley (Mr. Magoo),Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace), Walt Kelly (Pogo), Bill Melendez (A Charlie Brown Christmas), and Bill Hurtz (Rocky and Bullwinkle). One little factoid most pro-management histories of the strike omit, was while the Disney Strike was contentious and ruined the family atmosphere for a time, everyone's wages doubled overnight.

Today, animators complain that the producers who control their destinies know nothing about animation. They're all from some corporation or defense contractor. Well, in the Golden Age, Leon Schlesinger was an executive from Pacific Title who helped Warner Bros. get funding for The Jazz Singer and so got the cartoon contract. Layout artist Bob Givens told me that Leon's most oft spoken phrase was, "I'm going to Palm Springs for the week and f*&% you all!?" Other bon mots included his order to, "Put in more Purple! Purple is a funny color!?" After he retired, Warner's replaced him with Eddie Seltzer, whose only experience was arranging publicity roadshows with leggy beauties. In 1944 Chuck Jones was finally introduced to the legendary Jack Warner, who said, "I don't know what the f&*% you guys do, all I know is we make Mickey Mouse!"

sito3.gif Warner Bros. Studios, Friz Freleng Unit, 1954, Back row: Ray Young, Ted Bonicksen, Gerry Chiniquy, Front row: Bob Matz, Warren Batchelder, Art Davis, John Brandt, Sid Farren. Picture courtesy of Bob Matz and Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists, IATSE.

MGM's Fred Quimby was a minor executive of whom one artist said, "Fred was a nice man, but as far as animation went, he didn't know his ass from a hot brick." Yet when director Hugh Harman complained to him in 1937 that he was getting too much interference from above and demanded more independence, Quimby showed him the door.

When Steve Bosustow left UPA, Columbia replaced him with Henry Saperstein, who also knew nothing about animation.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

On The Little Mermaid, my wife Pat, who is a checker, was remarking talking to an older colleague on how all the useless executives who walk around the studio looking terribly important that today we call "suits." The old timer said that on Bambi they called them "The Walk-Around-Boys." Yet, of course, on every cartoon these producers are the most prominently displayed in the credits. Sic transit Gloria Mundi.

Animators today complain if their desk isn't as well made as a Disney classic, or they don't have a window view. At New York's Raoul Barré Studio in the roaring 20's, there were no curtains, rugs or heat during the winter, and animators went home when their fingers got too cold to draw. In the 1930s, Fleischer, Terry and Schlesinger used to equip their studios with used office furniture and kitchen tables bought at garage sales. No wonder artists who went to Disney's Hyperion studio or MGM were amazed! The furniture all matched!

One painter told me the first thing that impressed her about going from Termite Terrace to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1943 was that at MGM they took the trash out every day! In Toronto, Nelvana's first large building was a former cheese factory on the waterfront. Everytime you opened a door, you got a whiff of some ancient Stilton. During the winter, ropes were hung on the side of the building so you wouldn't get blown into icy Lake Ontario on your way to work.

At Disney's, until The Great Mouse Detective, you had to pitch in money to pay for coffee and bottled water, and you had to pay rent for your parking space! (Some famous comic book companies charged novices rent for their desks, but that's another article). And who remembers that at Filmation when you needed a new pencil from Munchie the equipment guy, you first had to turn in your used stubbs!

Every studio had a footage quota--at Schlesinger's in 1940, it was 23 feet a week and at Disney's it was 5; when MGM went union the same year, Fred Quimby angerily raised the quota to 25 feet a week and kept his dreaded "footage book"; this ledger, of course, could then be used against you when you went in to ask for a raise. Animator Rudy Zamora responded by figuring out where Quimby's office was and started to practice bowling on the floor above. Another early commercial studio had every animator's name up on a large chart; everytime someone screwed up, a check was placed next to his name. You can guess the fate of the artist with the most checks.

Paul Halliday (center with hat) on picket line during 1937 Fleischer strike. Photo courtesy of Harvey Deneroff.

A Friendly Witness

Those who feel animation was immune to the pressures of national politics should remember when Walt Disney was a friendly witness at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. He denounced the Screen Cartoonists Guild as being "infiltrated with communists." One Rocky and Bullwinkle director told me it was common knowledge in Hollywood, at the time, that for $5,000 paid to certain politicians, your Committee dossier would be moved to the bottom of the pile, or even lost. Meanwhile, at progressive UPA, studio director Steve Bosustow was given a list of undesirable (i.e., politically incorrect) artists by distributor Columbia Pictures who were to be fired.

In 1954, columnist Walter Winchell denounced Tempo, a commercial animation studio in New York, of past communist affiliation (the company was run by former union leaders). The F.B.I. investigated and even though nothing was ever proved,Tempo lost its clients and laid off 50 artists.

I'm not trying to blacken anyone's memories or achievements. Much already has been written of the studios with baseball diamonds, parties and volleyball courts. Max Fleischer gave all his animators a bonus of $500 for Christmas in 1931. Disney gave his artists free art lessons and made his top animators rich with stock options. They all came to love our art form as we artists do. I'm merely trying to see the past with a more balanced eye. No matter what the conditions were, these artists still created magic and the entrepreneurs took chances that produced the great cartoons we grew up on and still cherish.I once asked Snow White veteran Joe Grant, "What's the real difference between 1940 and today??" He replied that, "Ah, much is the same. Same deadlines, same politics, people drew better back then."

Many today like to forget that the great artists of the past were also great supporters of the union and stuck together to fight for what they wanted. People want to cherry-pick their history to suit their opinions or agenda. I celebrate the complete legacy. Like those great union agitators Groucho Marx, James Cagney, Boris Karloff, King Vidor, Frank Capra and Joan Crawford, do honor to the efforts of Chuck Jones, Bill Melendez, Art Babbitt, Ben Washam and Bill Tytla on behalf of animator's rights.

Most of us enter the field of animation not to get rich, but for the love of the art. We just have learned over the years that when it comes to the business end of our profession we must learn to to keep our hearts inspired but our heads out of the clouds. And I think that the last and greatest lesson our past masters can teach us is, "It was ever so."

Tom Sito is an animator at DreamWorks and is President of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union (Local 839 IATSE), in North Hollywood.

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