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How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 15: 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. And all the production details about Tom Terrific. 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.

Paul Terry, in 1955, had 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 money for them. 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 himself. 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.

I also personally designed a new Terrytoons logo. The original Terry-toons 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, 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.

CinemaScope

When I was given the opportunity to become the creative leader of the reborn CBS-Terrytoons studio in 1956, the greatest lure were those 18 blank CinemaScope screens for 20th Century-Fox that had to be filled each year!

At first thought, it seemed to be the most wonderful opportunity and challenge any animator could wish for. I was at the cusp of my career as an animation director at that time, and combined my passion for making movie cartoons with an equal passion for pushing the technological envelope. Of course, I had no idea of what an explosion of animation technology would be coming 45 years later in our present age of 3D CGI. But then, CinemaScope seemed to be the current Big Thing.

It was only after I got into it that I realized the downside. Soon after I got started working with this format that I was faced with some depressing truths;

Number One, it became obvious that the real reason CBS bought Terrytoons was not because they wanted to convert that musty old studio into another UPA and raise the level of animation creativity... Not exactly. What they really wanted was the vast library of previously produced mediocre Terrytoons cartoons to fill their small screen programming.

So the goals of CBS, 20th Century-Fox, and Deitch were all at odds.

  • 20th-Century Fox were the inventors of CinemScope and insisted that Terrytoons should henceforth all be produced in that format, and thus give their cartoons a box office edge, promote the CinemaScope format, and thus 20th Century-Fox.
  • CBS wanted cartoons to be produced that could run on TV. So they insisted that all the essential action be within the central portion of the screen — within the limited TV field - and that the wide sides of the screen could be cut off without losing the essential action.
  • I wanted to exploit the entire wide screen area to bring an added dimension to movie cartoons, and to widen their effect.

Obviously, these three divergent goals could not be successfully reconciled -- but it did not stop me from trying!

But the creative benefits of the very wide screen were markedly diminished by the limitations. We could not even use the most fundamental dramatic camera moves,rotating angle shots. The moment we would rotate the camera, the wide edges of our animation field would swing out of camera range! We could only rotate the camera at very small field sizes where we would lose image sharpness. So basically, we could only handle straight-on shots.

Another limitation was the same as in live-action CinemaScope movies. The very wide screen favored long shots, and made close ups jarring. It drastically limited the most basic element of our craft: film editing. We had to stay with longer running shots, with action within the frame, and limit cuts and close-ups. So with all the conflicting demands of TV and distributors, CinemaScope was more a hindrance than a blessing.

In spite of all this, I did my best to fight it. I was determined to sneak as much benefit as I could from the CinemaScope format I was stuck with, and that was probably one of the things that soon led to my undoing at Terrytoons.

As I remember, there were just two films that gave me a chance to really exploit the wide screen format, the Dinky Duck film, "It's a Living," and the R.O. Blechman story, "The Juggler of Our Lady."

Dinky Duck was the only standard Terrytoons character that I ever used, and just that one time. With the story that Tommy Morrison, the story staff and I created, we had a chance to do a satire on the old Terrytoons shtick, and to call direct attention to the CinemaScope screen shape. I still think it was an effective satire.

When I first saw R.O. Blechman's little book, "The Juggler of Our Lady," with every word, including the title and copyright notice hand written in Bob's tiny and shaky style, I thought that here was the greatest opportunity I would ever have to really work the CinemaScope format, playing off those tiny timorous figures against the vast expanse of that very wide screen! But it was the toughest sell I ever had — not only to convince Bill Weiss of the value of such a film to the studio's image, but also to get Bob to let us do it.

Blechman was well aware of the Terrytoons product, and was terrified we would convert his little juggler into Mighty Mouse. I was literally on the phone with Bob every night for nearly a year before he finally relented. I assured him over and over again, that we would be absolutely true to his story and faithful to his graphic style. My ace card was Al Kouzel, one of the finest artists who ever worked with me. I knew that I could rely on Al to perfectly get Bob Blechman's images unscathed onto the big screen. Al was a talented and dedicated artist who worked with me for many years in many locations, even in Prague. He was able to get Bob's confidence.

It was a prodigious undertaking, and Bob himself came into the studio to work with Al on the layouts. I monitored and guided the visual staging development each day. I knew this had to work and bring us needed prestige, or I would be finished immediately.

Besides the graphic fidelity, there were the other filmic elements to co-ordinate — the music and the narration. I had to work with the long-time Terrytoons musical director, Phil Sheib, a fixture in the studio for many, many years, who had ground out hundreds of ossified and clichéd musical scores for the standard Terrytoons of old. I spent hours working with him and assuring him that I would allow him to break out of the Paul Terry restrictions he had been working with for so long. Paul had insisted that if he was paying for a 30-piece orchestra, he wanted every musician to be playing all the time! That forced those wacky, overblown arrangements you hear on the typical Terrytoons. Phil was a former piano player for silent movie theaters, and developed a heavy-handed cornball output. But he truly surprised me by showing that he was in fact a great musician who, being set free, could create spare, funny, and lovely film scores. I think his "Juggler" music is the best thing he ever did, and it was just a woodwind quintet!

I like to think that my greatest inspiration for the film was in the choice of Boris Karloff as the narrator. I was jeered at for choosing this typecast movie monster for such a delicate story as "The Juggler," but I had a hunch, from hearing him speak on the radio, and realizing that he was actually a gentle and cultured Englishman. I immediately felt that he was the one, and when I contacted him, he was eager to do it, and breakout of his stereotyped monster image.

These two films worked, but as I said, the successes were exceptions. I realized once again that all this CinemaScope stuff, or any other high tech gizmos, were merely superficial, and that the only thing that really counted would be strong stories and fresh characters, and that was my basic endeavor, and the only factors these cartoons could be judged by. Here are a few that I tried:

John Doormat: A new character they were already working on was named "John Doe," a harrassed husband; a completely stock character. I felt right off that the name, "John Doe," meaning the average man, was uncopyrightable, too generic, and didn't say anything to indicate his character, a browbeaten husband. So I changed his name to John Doormat, which was at least an original name, and it did describe the character. Al Kouzel created a new model, and directed.

Clint Clobber: Terry had a long running series called "The Terry Bears," and the voice of the Daddy Bear was Doug Moye, a big and aggressive black cameraman at the studio. Doug was a funny guy to talk with, and he had a great booming voice. I felt that the Bears were really an old fashioned concept. In my attempt to quickly develop new characters, and still hoping to make use of Doug's voice, I created an overweight apartment house super, who underneath his grumpy exterior was a man in love with his job and his seedy apartment house. We made a special Terrytoons promotional film with the character. I named him "De Witt Clinton Clobber," with Doug Moye doing the voice. I really liked Clobber, and with Morrison and the other story guys we began to develop and deepen the character. Recording sessions for the new Clobber films proved out that even with his funny deep voice, Doug Moye simply did not have the acting talent to put across the emotion the character now required, so I brought in my old friend and colleague Allen Swift to take over the voice. Understandably, Doug's feelings were hurt. I knew was treading on sensitive racial territory, and it was touchy trying to convince Doug that the decision was purely a case of acting requirement.

Tom Terrific: Right in the first year, I got a call from the office of CBS' Captain Kangaroo show. They were informed about us, and wanted a new animated serial created for the show, and they needed it quickly. I was invited to have lunch with Bob Keeshan, (Captain Kangaroo), and his business manager, Marvin Josephson, at the posh Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. I was surprised to see that the "old" Captain was a crew cut young man of 32. Over the years, he needed less and less make up! But right then, he needed a strong new cartoon character. While I was still creative director at UPA I was writing and drawing a daily and Sunday comic strip for United Features Syndicate on the side, titled, "Terr'ble Thompson!" It was about a little boy who had his "Werld Heddquarters" in a tree house, and who was called upon by the great figures of wrld history to help them solve varjious desperate problem. I had to give up my comic strip just before I joined Terrytoons, but I still owned the copyright. I decided to throw it into the Terry pot, assuming I would be there forever. I reworked it of course to fit the needs of animation, and created the new characters of Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, and Crabby Appleton, Rotten To The Core, who were not in the original strip. Terr'ble Thompson became Tom Terrific.

Two daily "Terr'ble Thompson!" daily strips from April, 1956

In adapting TT to TT, a great deal of simplifying was necessary, and also, a purely animation device. Whereas Terr'ble Thompson was an adventurous little boy, who just ran energetically into situations that needed to be saved, I felt that Tom Terrific needed to have something magic about him, that would take advantage of the possibilities of animation. I was always fascinated with metamorphosis, so I decided that Tom had the ability to quickly change his shape into any kind of form that could solve the problem at hand. I also gave him the sidekick I had not yet introduced into the comic strip, Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog, an anti hero who was neither mighty nor wondrous, except in the eyes of his loving master. Tom gave Manfred credit for every idea that he himself thought of. Manfred was only interested in food and sleep. Hey, he was a dog, wasn't he? The cost and production time restrictions were formidable, and in those early days of drawn TV material for children, those problems were usually solved by eliminating animation, and going for paper cut-outs that moved like puppets. I wanted to use as much real animation as possible, taking advantage of the large Terrytoons staff of animators, and save money on the everything else. I went so far as to eliminate opaquing the cels, letting Tom and the other characters be transparent, and making the backgrounds simple enough so it wouldn't matter. I wanted to get the greatest possible dynamics out of the soundtrack - mainly the voices, as we also had to keep the music to a minimum. We used an accordion, (which I hated, but it gave us a mini-orchestral sound,) and that was about it, except for plenty of sound effects, and using, probably for the first time on TV, a Trinidadian steel drum. Then I worked out every imaginable way to stretch out the animation time. With Tommy Morrison, I created a Tom Terrific song opening, to start off each episode. Taking a cue from the old Saturday movie serials, at the end of each episode, we made teaser previews, and at the beginning of each following episode, we made recaps of what happened yesterday. The previews and recaps were printed as negatives to separated them from the actual story sections. With all of those gimmicks, we were able to almost double the effecting playing time of most of the animation. The most cruel deprivation was that we couldn't do Tom Terrific in color. The Captain Kangaroo show was still in black & white, and no one seemed willing to look ahead during the mid-fifties. If the Tom Terrific material had been produced in color, it might still be running somewhere till today. After all, old animation never dies. Now it is fondly remembered, but that is all. But facing up to the crudity of the productions, perhaps it lives best in memory, and I am in fact delighted that so many people to remember it, and the name Tom Terrific does.

Just for fun, as I am writing this, in February, 1999, I looked up the name Tom Terrific on Yahoo! I was amazed to find there were 15,471 sites listed! Fifteen thousand four hundred and seventy one references!!! Of course approximately 99% had nothing to do with my serial, but it floored me how the name Tom Terrific has entered the language! There is an auction site offering Tom Terrific production drawings, picture books, and comic books, labeled, "extremely rare!" I'll say!

I also saw an article in Time magazine about Tom Cruise, which was headlined, "Tom Terrific!" Famous baseball star Tom Seaver also got the "Terrific" nickname, as apparently have many Toms in the world.Most amazing of all, in the year 1999,over forty years after TT went on TV, a box of Safeway generic Raisin Bran cereal had a "match-the-dog-to-its-owner" puzzle on the box, and among the pairs were Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog and Tom Terrific! Though the films were in black & white, the Tom Terrific comic books were in color, and at least I can show you how he would have looked on color TV:

Well, I am delighted that a name I made up has become a household phrase, but not so delighted that no one has actually revived the original serial, (which would require colorizing, I suppose), nor attempted a new version. Perhaps my Tom Terrific, which was after all a technically crude production, lives best as an icon of nostalgia for those who were raised with it on the CBSTV Captain Kangaroo show. Who knows if it would be tough enough for today's kids; Crabby Appleton would have to be REALLY rotten to the core!

Even if it were to be revived, I would doubt very much that I would be brought into it. After all, I created it as a CBS employee and have no rights in it. CBS did give me a golden handshake for it when I left Terrytoons, but it was peanuts by today's standards. So it was just another failure...

The lesson for animators: Always insist on copyright ownership of characters you create! Easier said than done. It wasn't possible when I worked for CBS-Terrytoons, but today it would be a must.

Silly Sidney: Sidney was originally the "sick, sick, sick" elephant character in a Tom Terrific episode. I had drawn an elephant with a fat trunk, that he sucked on like an overgrown baby. Lional Wilson, who did all the voices for TT, had a funny Ed Wynn(The old "Texaco Fire Chief" radio comic) voice take-off for Sidney, and we decided to make him a new Terrytoons character. His film, "Sidney's Family Tree" became and extremely rare Terrytoon, actually nominated for an Oscar! And of course it was my own first nomination... I thought! The morning after the nomination was announced, Bill Weiss was waiting for me in the Terrytoons parking lot as I drove in to work. As I got out of my car, he strode up to me and said, "Gene, I want you to understand that if Sidney wins the Oscar, I will be the one to pick it up!" I could hardly restrain an ironic laugh. Weiss wanted to catch me before I got inside the studio and received congratulations from the staff! If it hadn't been clear before, it was then: Weiss was my enemy. Sidney was continued after I left, my most successful Terrytoons theatrical character, with 19 films.

Gaston LeCrayon: A parody on an exuberant, flamboyant, but untalented French artist. Eli Bauer drew the ultimate model for him. I originally wanted to call him "Gaston le Garbage," pronounced as a French word, "Gar-BAZH," but Weiss nixed it.

Foofle. Foofle was my original character, based on my own clumsiness, and of course descending from a long line of pantomime, loser-type characters. One day, only because some important visitors were coming, I was unusually wearing a necktie, and while leaning over the moviola, my tie became threaded into the sprocket wheel, yanking me downward and almost knocking my teeth out. This was hilarious enough to get me started on a disaster-prone character. Anyway, I had the reputation around the studio as a clumsy, arm-waving enthusiast, dangerous to be near. When I entered a directors's room each morning for discussion, he would automatically move his coffee cup out of harms way. So was born in my mind, Foofle, and Eli Bauer refined my original sketches of him. The character continued after I left, but they turned him into a bear. Years later, in Prague, I redeveloped the idea for Paramount, and called my new character Nudnik. We made 12 episodes for Paramount theatrical release. The first one was nominated for an Oscar. When theatrical cartoons died, Nudnik languished in a dark vault for 25 years, but has been revived and packaged by Sunbow Entertainment as "Gene Deitch presents the Nudnik Show." It is now in the process of being sold into international syndication. Stay tuned.

Flebus Flebus was created by Ernie Pintoff, another new talent I had recruited. He came in from UPA Hollywood. He originally called the character "Willy," but I didn't think that name funny enough. On my way to work one day I heard a talk on my car radio about the disease, Phlebitis. Never having suffered from the pain of that ailment, I thought the word was funny, and suggested the name Flebus as a funny and original non-sequiter name. Ernie suddenly left the studio while the film was still in the early pencil test stage, so I had to take over and finish it according to the color models Ernie had left. Jim Tyer did some of the funniest animation in the film, and of course it was a totally new image for Terrytoons. Weiss hated it.

Ernie was a "Rara Avis" in the Terrytoons studio. He had little to talk about with the majority of the old guard, and pretty much kept to himself in his little director's cubicle.

He always had his trumpet with him at work, and would play the blues, while waiting for inspiration. Of course I didn't care how crazy or other-worldly he seemed to the older animators. What was important to me was the new breath of creativity he brought to the place. One animator with whom he bonded, and who caught the challenge Ernie presented, was Jim Tyer. Jim did the key animation on Flebus.

I was saddened when Ernie suddenly decided to leave. I took over the Flebus project, and even over Bill Weiss's dead body I was determined to see it brought to completion just as Ernie had laid it out. I still feel it was one of our landmark productions at CBS-Terrytoons (1957).

It was the CBS name and image that drew me to take up the offer to join Terrytoons, One of my first jobs after WWII was as assistant art director at CBS Radio in Hollywood. They had a magnificently modern building, and the highest graphic standards in the business, guided by their great art director, William Golden, designer of the famous CBS-eye logo. I was proud to work for CBS. I had always held them in awe. Times change, and they let me down at Terrytoons, siding with Weiss, a man of the past, rather than with the promise of the future I was building for them.

With the mighty CBS backing us, we were easily in a position to be ready for the possibility of prime time animation when the time came. We coulda bin a contendah, with something on the level of The Simpsons. We actually had in preparation, at the time of my ouster in 1958, a brilliant serial being worked up by Jules Feiffer. It was about a group of tiny kids with large perceptions, forty years in advance of The Rugrats. I was a great fan of ragtime music, and had a ragtime musical theme planned for them, so I named the serial after a Scott Joplin piece, The Easy Winners. But as with me at that moment, it was a loser - a great loss for the development of TV animation. I don't say this with any satisfaction at all, but Terrytoons did decline and die, perhaps for a variety of reasons... "apres moi."

In 1958 Jules Feiffer drew a marvellous gag storyboard for a "documentary on the aging Tom Terrific." I rescued it from his Terrytoons office wall. It has never before been published, and I present it here for the first time.

On the gratifying side, the July 29th 2002 issue of TV Guide magazine proclaims Tom Terrific to be among the "50 Greatest TV Characters Of All Time!"

I am in fact delighted that so many people do remember it, and that the name Tom Terrific does live on.

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