UPA: Back To The Future — Part 1

UPA again, and this time as creative chief! Bosustow beckoned and I was beamed to the Big Apple, the city of my youthful dreams. "If you can make it there" etc. And I made it. Here are the vital statistics of that Golden Age studio.

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

Clearly, the lure of UPA again had me dazzled. I took another chance. By 1951 UPA had achieved a tremendous artistic and critical if not financial success. Tee Hee had replaced me as Bobe Cannon's designer, and together they had come up with one great film after another, exploring new graphic and story-telling ideas. Bill Hurtz had designed Gerald McBoing Boing and directed James Thurber's story, The Unicorn in The Garden. Hub had launched Mister Magoo and directed the landmark classic, Rooty Toot Toot. UPA was now Big Time.

Within two years, UPA had come back to me. Steve Bosustow had decided to open a branch in New York, 3,000 miles closer to Madison Avenue, to be able to latch on to the blooming market of television commercials. He flew to see me in Detroit, and made me the offer that indicated I was no longer an apprentice. I was so thrilled to be called back to the fold, and to be sent to New York, that I agreed to back off from my so recently acquired director status, and to start as production designer in the founding cadre of UPA-NY.

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Abe Liss, director; Gene Deitch, production designer; Grim Natwick, animator; Don McCormick, assistant animator; Ted Bethune, background painter; Barbara Baldwin, ink & paint supervisor; Wardell Gaynor, camera; Stan Russell, production manager; Ed Cullen, business manager; Hedy Cramer, secretary. (Not all are in the above photo.)

We came in with a hail of publicity, and were expected to lure the Madison Avenue bucks on the basis of the UPA name, which by now had sparkles shooting off it in all directions. We opened with a very nice bang.

There may have been a reason why Steve sent Abe to New York that I didn't know about, my having been off in the Detroit outlands for two years. But from the very beginning, Steve began to undermine Abe's position. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. Steve began to criticize everything Abe did, and after only a few months he was out. Steve named me creative director, and, of course, I didn't fight it. I enjoyed a real blossoming.

Ted Bethune, the background painter, was a Canadian, and wanted to go home. That presented us with our first crisis, and I got on the phone several times with Steve, imploring him to send me a replacement. Orders were coming in, and we didn't have a background artist. As my desperation mounted, Steve put his hand over the mouthpiece, but I could still hear him ask someone, "Can you paint backgrounds?"

"Uh-oh," I thought. "What are we going to get?" Shortly, a handsome 20-year-old with bright black eyes showed up. He painted the worst backgrounds I had seen up to that time. "What else can you do?" I asked plaintively. I could not throw back a fellow Steve had sent me.

"I have this reel I animated when I was 18," he said. I led him into the projection room with no real hope. The animation was sensational. Here was a natural born animator! He became my star. He was Duane Crowther.

I solved the background and design problem by getting permission to call in Cliff Roberts and Fred Crippen from Detroit. I began to have a group of talented people around me that made me look very good. Here is how our staff developed, with the inevitable departures and arrivals:

Barbara Baldwin, ink & paint supervisor Howard Beckerman, assistant animator Bill Bernal, sales and story collaboration Peter Cooper, camera Hedy Cramer, secretary/receptionist Ed Cullen, business manager Fred Crippen, animator and designer Duane Crowther, animator Tisa David, assistant animator Gene Deitch, creative director Ken Drake, production manager Marvin Friedman, design and layout Steve Frankfort, designer Lu (Lucifer) Guarnier, animator Wardell Gaynor, cameraman Jack Goodford, designer and director Chris Ishii, designer and director Edna Jacobs, inker & painter (and studio sex-object) Irwin La Pointe, incredibly eager and efficient production assistant Don McCormick, studio manager (originally an assistant animator) Grim Natwick, animator Cliff Roberts, designer Pat Ward, ink & paint supervisor Bard Wiggenhorn, animator

Even George Dunning worked with us for a while before taking off for London.

My sincere apologies to any I have forgotten, and my great thanks to Marvin Friedman, whose sharp memory reminded me of some on the above list. He even remembers my garish plaid shirts, and the exact way I hired him. (The dummy asked for the minimum wage!) He didn't mention my daring and ridiculous attempt to raise a beard. It just wasn't done in those days, and nearly cost me some clients!

Marvin also remembers the surprise visit to our studio of Ernie Kovacs, the great conceptual genius of early comedy television. We had a large UPA logo in our window facing 5th Avenue, that attracted Kovacs' attention, and he was waving at us. Marvin signaled him to come up, and he did, giving one and all a great kick.

Meeting and working with the great Grim Natwick was a revelation. I had been previously unaware of his existence, and was charmed by his laconic manner and amazing stories. Just now, after the recession in 2001, I'm reminded of something Grim Natwick told me when I first got to know him at UPA-New York in 1951. He said, "In the early '30s I was making really good money in animation, and I didn't even know there was a Depression on until my family began writing me and asking for money!" Of course. During the Depression of the 1930s people's only escape from the grim reality was going to the movies. Times were bad, but animators had work!

We UPA-New Yorkers quickly became the darlings of the Madison Avenue ad agencies, and created some of the early classic TV commercials.

Continue with the second part of the article in UPA: Back to the Future Part 2.

To read more about the production of these classics visit Gene's online book now.

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 Hubley's 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 over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."

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