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The Terry-fying Challenge

Terrytoons. Here was my locale that most interests the animation historians. So now I finally have the chance to tell it like it really was. I name names -- all the names, and print the pix. I tell you what I did and what I tried to do -- a "renaissance" -- a total make over... and I tell you why it failed.

In 1955, Paul Terry suddenly sold his Terrytoons studio and vast library of schlock cartoons to CBS-TV, who began looking for a new creative chief to "revitalize" the studio. In the spring of 1956 they came to me. Why, I didn't know, and I certainly didn't ask. It was the dream challenge of every red-blooded 100% American boy animator; a chance to remake the world's worst animation studio into the best. It turned out to be my greatest failure. Yet it was at Terrytoons that I created my most famous cartoon character, Tom Terrific.

I was so dazzled by the CBS offer that I completely overlooked two totally depressing facts. Fact One: What CBS really wanted was that vast library of 650 schlock cartoons. Mighty Mouse! Heckle & Jeckle! Gandy Goose! Farmer Alfalfa! Dinky Duck! Kiko the Kangaroo! The Terry Bears! Puddy the Pup! Little Roquefort! Names that reverberated like punctured tin drums in the annals of animation! Fact two: The studio manager, one William Weiss, had a tenure contract as his only pay-off for a life of toadying to Paul Terry. And he, Bill Weiss, would have the job of juggling those ancient cartoons into weekly kiddie shows on CBS-TV.

Whereas I was given the golden job of turning a loser cartoon studio into a winner; complete freedom to reinvent Terrytoons, to make a creative "renaissance!" A sure winner, right? Wrong! I never had a chance. I couldn't fly, but like the bumblebee, I didn't know it, and I flapped my wings anyway.

There were 18 blank CinemaScope screens to fill each year for 20th Century-Fox. (This was still the mid-20th century, you understand.) And there was the parent company, CBS, which would be using us as their source of animation programming. We had it made.

Except for a few negative factors: When I was first recruited by CBS, they delayed as long as possible taking me out to the Terrytoons studio, until they felt sure I would accept the job. It was clear to them that I would be dismayed, and turned off, when I finally was introduced to Bill Weiss. They were right. The moment I met him, I sized him up as a crude and cultureless dead-hand. He regaled me with tales of how he was screwed by Terry. Bitterness! I reluctantly opted out. This was not a man I wished to work with.

Schwin had downplayed Weiss's position, describing him as a "business manager" of minor importance, and that I would have CBS support continuously in weekly staff meetings, which Schwin would always attend. I tried to protect myself by declaring that I would only take the position if I had a secure written contract. I was told that "nobody at CBS had a contract." I was carefully soothed into acceptance of the risk. I later found out that Weiss did have a five year contract! It had been a condition of sale insisted on by Terry, who used that device to get out of his earlier promise to cut in Weiss on a portion of his sale payment from CBS, so from their point of view it somehow "didn't count." I considered Weiss a hateful and reactionary element, but in my enthusiasm for creating something great at Terrytoons, I dropped my guard.

While I was necessarily investing the company's money in projects I believed would in time raise the Terrytoons image, Weiss was simply and cheaply packaging the old schlock library into The Mighty Mouse Show and The Heckle & Jeckle Show. Easy money -- and quick.

Obviously, producing new cartoons, and especially trying to create new characters and raise the standard of quality, money had to be spent. The archival shows Weiss was patching together cost virtually nothing to get on the air, and they were getting amazingly good ratings. I was doing 20th Century-Fox Cinemascope cartoons for an increasingly weakening theatrical market, with only a long-range hope of creating enough films to go onto television. Weiss was juggling and switching ancient cartoons from the vault, so as to make each week's installment seem like a new show. Clever.

So while I was working my tail off making a "renaissance," Weiss was taking the train each week to CBS headquarters downstream in Manhattan, and making it clear to the brass just who was spending their money and who was making their money. I was cooked long before I knew it.

Weiss, along with virtually all of the 125-member staff, had resented my being there in the first place; a young outsider brought in as creative chief instead of one of the long-suffering staff. I am sure that Weiss was working on my ouster from the day I arrived. It took him just over two years to accomplish it.

I inherited a studio full of disgruntled, underpaid old veterans who had been led to believe by Terry that when he eventually sold the studio they would all get a cut. This was especially the case in respect to Bill Weiss. He told me himself that Terry had promised him 10%. In fact, no one got a nickel. Terry negotiated the CBS deal in secret, and just took the money and ran.

The morning it was announced, Tommy Morrison approached Terry saying, "Paul, I just read in the paper that you sold Terrytoons to CBS for $5,000,000! Can that be true?" "That's none of your goddam business!" said Terry. He then put on his hat and walked out. With all this bitterness, I was just another blow to the veterans' position. Many thought I would be firing them all, and they would be out in the cold. No champagne for my arrival.

Terry had years earlier purposely relocated the studio from New York City to New Rochelle, specifically to get out of the cartoonists' union jurisdiction, and thus hold down wages. Having heard about all this, I had actually pledged myself not to dump anyone. As old-hat as many of them were, I was determined to reform them, not replace them. Nevertheless, I was perceived by Weiss to be a threat to himself personally. He was right. If I had been successful at Terrytoons, I would have thrown him out. But he got me first.

The person I most wondered about when I got there was Paul Terry. What kind of a guy was he, to have such a low standard of work, and such low regard for the people who worked for him? The animators told me that in the early days he used to go around the studio, from animator to animator, carrying a ruler. He would measure each animator's stack of drawings, and when the pile was high enough, he'd say, "That's enough, put a The End sign on it!"

It took a long time for Terry to show up to look me over. But he did not linger to look at the newly decorated studio. He invited me out to lunch at his exclusive club, and drove me there and back in his big Cadillac. He could barely fathom what I was doing, but he was full of advice, namely that I should create a character based on Charles Lindbergh, "the greatest hero of all time." He seemed unaware that by the mid-50s few knew much about Lindbergh except that his baby was kidnapped. Terry was by that time pretty much out of it, and believed that the style and humor of the early part of the century was still valid. Perhaps he was right, but I didn't think so at the time. He was mainly delighted to be a millionaire, and how he had outfoxed everyone at the studio. A strange old dodo, of very moderate appeal.

I did have the studio remodeled, and had work areas rebuilt to create a better atmosphere. It was basically a huge barn, a scooped out former movie theater. All the workers -- animators, inbetweeners, inkers and painters -- were all lined up in rows in one huge mass. It was dark and dingy. CBS gave us money for a spruce up, to their standards. I had the place painted, and provided at least cubicles for the animators, and little rooms for the directors, so there would be a modicum of privacy. Not everyone was thrilled with that, but they soon got used to it, and I think they did like it.

Jules Feiffer's original model sheet for The Easy Winners.

Jules Feiffer's original model sheet for The Easy Winners.

I also personally designed a new Terrytoons logo. The original Terrytoons logo, with musical notes, was part of the studio's old cornball image, and one of the first things I did was to create a logo that would reflect a new image. I think the design is self evident, a reference to the smiling, movie-screen-shaped Greek theater mask, with the word "Terrytoons" scribbled as its hair.

My overriding goal was to reinvent Terrytoons -- to create a new reputation; to win the support of the disgruntled staff; to revise, where practical, films in production, without interrupting workflow; and mainly to rebuild the story department, bringing in fresh talent such as Jules Feiffer and Al Kouzel, and to inspire Tommy Morrison, Larz Bourne, Eli Bauer and others already on the story staff; to venture into fresh territory. I spent most of my own time in there with them; it all had to start with story and characters.

Continue reading about Gene's time at Terrytoons now.

Want to hear more of Gene's wisdom on story and a thousand other topics? Then read How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!) exclusively on AWN.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946, the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958, Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, Creative Director of CBS-Terrytoons, 1956-1958, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993, and has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."