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How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 13: Don’t Give Your Right Name!

Fats Waller once said that, and another blues man sang, "It Must Be Jelly, ‘Cause Jam Don’t Shake Like That!'" There really was a man named Jam -- Jam Handy -- and he ran a 500-person studio in the then gloomy city of Detroit. It was an amazing adventure working there, in that most amazing, little-known but heavyweight studio. I directed my first film there, nearly had my tender career nipped, and discovered John Lee Hooker. 1949-51.

JHO was a large outfit, over 500 Christian Scientist souls, virtually an adjunct to the then mighty General Motors Corp, doing all of that behemoth's sales training films. It was a company joke that there was a secret tunnel between The Jam Handy Organization on East Grand Boulevard, and the General Motors Building. But JHO also did motivational movies for the U.S. Military, stop-motion and animated TV commercials, and every sort of worthy, establishment propaganda film.

In this rich atmosphere, I was ushered into a meeting room, seated in the center, and ringed with all of the top executives and creative department heads.

"Gene, we've heard you are one of the hottest young animators in Hollywood!"

I actually felt somewhat offended. I couldn't let them think I was a lesser light than I actually was!

"But I'm not an animator!" I said, proudly proclaiming the truth.

Talk about dead silence! Talk about ice-formation! I didn't have to be clairvoyant to be able to read the mind of everyone in that room. "What? We just paid this boy's train trip across the country, and he's not an animator???"

An instant too late, I suddenly awoke to the fact that I had committed the cardinal crime of any job applicant: Never, ever, admit that you can't do anything!

So then followed my panic back-peddling: "Um, er, well, I must explain that in our work, the generic term "animator" is applied to anyone in the profession. I am specifically a production designer, but of course I can animate."

Were they going to buy that? I tell you now that I had at that time never animated a scene in my life. I had scribbled animated stick figures in the margins of my junior high school mathematics books, idly flipping them as I failed math. But I hadcarefully watched the master animators work at UPA. I had spent my lunch hours and after-work hours sitting at the studio Moviola machine, running their brilliant animation backwards and forwards. I knew the principles, and I could draw. I had come to Detroit assuming and hoping that I would immediately dazzle them with my advanced design concepts, and would craft stunning movies for them. So what was my first assignment? To animate a TV commercial!

Back to luck: My luck was that the animation standard at Jam Handy was antediluvian rubber hose stuff that was 30 years out of date even in 1949. Remember what I told you about building a house? Or doing any job? Step-by-step. With basic talent or skill, and observation, any intelligent person can figure out how to do any job. I knew the principles. I could draw. I could act. So I got my dialog reading from the film editor, and I squashed, and I stretched. I plotted my arcs. I anticipated. I followed through. I lip-synced. They thought it was the best animation they'd ever seen. It was better than any animation I had ever done before. (None!) I kept the job. They moved my family. I soon directed my first film there, and within a year I was the head of the JHO animation department.

So that's the secret! Never admit you can't do anything! Brazen it out! Analyze the problem, and you can figure out how to do it!

As The Jam Handy Organization was one of the more obscure corners of movie making and animation production, and there may be no one left around to tell you about it, I will. It was a truly amazing place, run by this crusty old devout Christian Scientist, with the top echelon mainly made up of the followers of that faith.

"Organization" was the proper name for the place. It was the classic paternalistic and slogan-saturated work place. Above every "member's" desk was a framed list, titled, for example: "Gene Deitch, duties and responsibilities: 1. Reports to Grant Harris, studio producer. 2. Creates and organizes animation projects. 3. Acts as director and scenarist of animated films 4. Co-ordinates the work of the animation department. 4. Consults with the leaders of other branches for projects combining live-action sequences. 5. Co-works with story department where required. 6. Consults with musicians, actors, and technicians for the completion of his projects... etc. etc. It didn't include helping to clean the men's johns, or organizing studio softball teams, but it might have. I got a kick out of these framed duty lists, and I imagined that should a worker come in drunk or zonked from lack of sleep, and wonder what in the name of heaven he was doing there, all he had to do was swivel his chair and read the sign!

In fact, the place was loaded with helpful signs, mottos and exhortations. One I remember showed a large block of ice, held up by iceman's tongs. (They still had iceboxes then.) Large letters informed us that "IDEAS ARE LIKE A BLOCK OF ICE. THEY MELT IN TRANSIT!" Do keep that in mind. It was claimed that the famous motto, "The difficult we do right away - the impossible takes longer," was coined at Jam Handy. I wouldn't dispute that.

You old time animators will be interested to know that the nominal head of the Jam Handy Organization's animation department during part of the 40s and 50s was old Max Fleischer himself! Jam had him on retainer, assuming Fleischer's name would add class to the joint. Max actually showed up once during my two-and-a-half year stay at JHO, presumably called in to look at my first film, "Building Friends For Business." We had a pleasant chat, and I never saw him again.

The studio's greatest claim to animation fame up to that time was the original animated version of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." It was so early, in fact, that it didn't even incorporate the hit Christmas song of that name, which was apparently written later.

One of the great features of JHO life was the annual 4th of July Picnic. The staff numbered about 500, so real big-time picnics were staged in a country setting. Jam himself went all-out for these picnics. It was all part of his grand paternal plan. There was plenty of food and root beer from barrels, greased pig chases, kissing booths, volley ball, fireworks, and of course, pep-talks. Jam himself displayed his great condition and commonality, playing volleyball with the underlings, er, "associates." Great stuff.

The head animator when I came on board was chap named Ted Vosk. I didn't know from Slavic in those days, but I soon learned that there was a large Polish city named Hamtramk, plopped like a huge wad of poppy seeds right smack in the middle of the Detroit coffeecake. Many of the JHO staff were of Polish extraction. Ted Vosk was a refugee from the old Fleischer studio, still passionately devoted to early-20s "rubber-hose" animation. His name hasn't appeared in any list of Fleischer greats that I have seen, but he was the star animator at Handy's. He is the very one, who after seeing some of the outrageous UPA-influenced design I was importing into JHO animation, and sizing me up as a post-pubertic upstart, who advised me, "Gene, when you've been in animation as long as I've been, (10 years at the time), you'd know you can't get away with that sort of stuff!" However, I did get away with it.

Jamison Handy himself was already (to me) an old guy when I was there, and he reigned rather than ruled over the JHO roost. The actual creative head honcho was Grant Harris. He was also a Hollywood import, and was supremely self-confident. He never doubted for an instant that he was right in all of his thoughts. I didn't reach that level of creative authority until years later, but I did learn from my relations with Grant that a certain humility is necessary to get the most from your staff. A director, and certainly a studio creative director must be clear and definite in his or her conceptions, but still there must be room to accept the ideas of others, as long as they fit into the perceived pattern. Even when I later did become creative director of large studios, and even as director of individual films, I never got over the awe I felt when I walked through the studio. I said to myself: "My God, all of these people are working away on a project set up by me!      Their livelihood depends on my being right!  I am committing my client's money!" I gave a lot of though to what I was doing. I had to believe that I was right! right!

It amazes me that I manage to be mentioned in most of the animation history books, and yet the largest portion of my work over the past 50 years is either obscure to the point of invisibility, or never even got out the door. Much of it is children's films, tucked into cozy little school libraries, and of virtually no interest to animation film buff historians. And so it is with the first film I directed. It was a paean to capitalism, produced at Jam Handy, - the quintessential capitalist film studio, and titled,"Building Friends for Business." Now what history of animation mentions that film? And yet it was in early UPA style, and I herewith show you the one surviving set up from that first film I ever directed.

Scanned directly from a recently rediscovered cel setup.

As with any young director's first film, I went out of my way to dazzle, and I took extraordinary risks. In order to smoothly suggest the development of businesses and technology from the birth of the USA, I devised a panorama background that unrolled out to 19 feet in physical length. (I forget how long it ran, but it was several minutes.) As it slowly panned under the camera, Paul Revere galloped through on his horse, carrying one of his teapots, oil wells were dug and began pumping, carriages animated into automobiles, villages grew into towns and cities, etc. It alarmed the hell out of the JHO animation cameraman, Larry Lippman, but he shot it at one go - no intercuts - and everything worked. There wasn't a dry seat in the house when the brass screened it.

What is interesting about "Building Friends For Business," (black & white, 1950), is that it is also the first film designed by Cliff Roberts. I would say that my biggest success in the two years I spent working in Motown was my discovery there of two young geniuses, Cliff Roberts and Fred Crippen. Cliff was a rolypoly, gag-spouting jazz fan who showed up at our weekly record sessions, which we carried over from Hollywood. He loved to bang on things to the rhythm of our jazz records, as did I, and we loved to spend the nights hand-drumming together. It also turned out that he was a precocious graphic designer, so good that I got him hired as my assistant at JHO. Fred Crippen was a chunky blonde kid, a friend of Cliff's, who had a great talent for visual gags, and quickly learned to animate. Cliff and Fred both later joined me in New York at UPA, and ended up as writers for H&B.

But while still at JHO and still on a roll, I wrote and directed "The Mite Box," a simplistic trifle about how church contributions bring color into the gray life of poor African natives, (my first experiment with color film), "Roger Windsock," for the US Air Force, and a film for the Otis Elevator Company, announcing the first computer controlled lifts. Talk about obscure films!

I finally got a real professional animator into my department, Rudy Zamora, possibly the only mainstream animator who ever worked at the place. He was a touchy heavyweight whom I dared not cross. Nobody dared rile Rudy! But we got along fine, and had a good time working together. He animated my second important JHO film, "Roger Windsock," which featured a little boy who was so gaga over airplanes that he actually sprouted wings. That one was more than a little influenced by UPA's "Gerald McBoing Boing," another little boy with a physical problem. The movie extolled the wonders of the Age of Flight.

Just at the moment I was flying highest at JHO, I was suddenly called into the personnel office. A lieutenant colonel of the United States Navy was standing there in full uniform, and he handed me an envelope. On it was written, "Eugene Merril Deitch, For His Eyes Only." What the hell???

While he and the JHO personnel chief patiently waited, I carefully opened the envelope.

Inside was another envelope, and on it was also written,"Eugene Merril Deitch, For His Eyes Only."

Inside that, a crisp letter unfolded, bearing the seal of the United States Industrial Employment Review Board, declaring that I was to be denied access to work on films the United States Navy had in production at the Jam Handy Organization, because "it has been determined" that I was a member of the Communist Party, an organization dedicated to the overthrow of the government of The United States of America by force and violence.

One moment I had been the fair-haired boy, (I had gorgeous hair then), of JHO, and the next moment I appeared to be finished. There I was, with my career just taking off, and suddenly faced with a forced landing.

"This is absolutely not true!" I implored.

The officer spoke dryly. "Your case has been thoroughly investi-gated. We are not saying you should be fired from your job here. We are simply saying, that as a customer with security priorities, we refuse you permission to work on our films."

How neat. They weren't asking JHO to throw me out, they were just making it impossible for me to be fully useful to my employer, and this was 10 years before I got to the land of Franz Kafka!

"I will appeal this decision. It is a terrible mistake!"

"You may appeal if you want to, but you will have to pay your own expenses to Washington for a hearing. However, it will be useless. These decisions are never reversed!"

Right. The true McCarthyist approach to democracy! But I did manage to get through to the JHO leadership, and they graciously agreed to withhold any mention of this to other members of the staff. They found a way to have my assistant handle the "secret" stuff, and gave me a month to attempt a reversal.

I did get an address from the officer, and wrote for a hearing. "The Industrial Employment Review Board," was located in the Pentagon, in Washington D.C.

It was a gloomy train ride to Washington, and this is getting to be a gloomy tale for a book about movie cartoons, yet there is a large lesson in it.

The average animator doesn't usually get invited to the Pentagon, at least not these days. Being led through this 5-sided center of warriors is suitably cheerless. It is not just one pentagon, but several, one inside the other, something like - you should excuse the simile - a set of Russian dolls - anyway a labyrinth, and my first thought was, "will I ever find my way out of this place?" After being locked behind layers of security doors. I was led into a rather small room, filled to the brim with high-grade military officers from all branches of the U.S. armed forces, all sitting around a long table, the same shape as, and only a tad smaller than the room itself. This was the Industrial Employment Review Board. What startled me the most was the high stack of documents on the table in front of each member. "Could all of those papers be about me?"

After a long string of seemingly unconnected questions about my activities in Hollywood, it finally came out what they were driving at. "Look, Mr. Deitch, we don't have to beat around the bush. We have information that you held regular Communist Party meetings in your home." What? Now it all was clear.

In our slightly above-the-poverty-line existence after the war, my first wife and I, being intense jazz fans, had evolved a very cheap weekly social event. What extra money we had went for jazz records, very hard to come by in those days. Those were our substitute for cigarettes. We had a terrific collection of ancient 78 RPM jazz records, and a suitable pre-pre-stereo record player, so we started having Friday night kaffee-klatches and jazz record sessions. As I was then doing my jazz cartoons for The Record Changer magazine, I ran a small ad, reading, "all you CATS in the los angeles area... you're invited to marie & gene deitch's regular Friday night record sessions." At our little Hollywood bungalow on Westbourne Drive, my wife would whomp up a large pot of beans and weenies, and we brewed a tank of coffee. Everyone who came gave 50 cents to defray expenses, and contribute to our current favorite candidate - always a Democrat... We met a lot of new people that way. They were all fans of traditional jazz, but some were certainly political radicals, even communists. There was some political talk, especially having to do with Negro rights, because we were all champions of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, and King Oliver.

So it was a great relief to realize what those generals and admirals had gotten a hold of. I tried to be jolly, and to patiently explain to them the essentials of the above true story. It went over like a lead balloon.

"Mr. Deitch, are you telling us that you allowed perfect strangers to come into your home?"

I could tell right away that these guys were definitely not jazz fans. How in the name of Buddy Bolden was I going to convince these men that we did exactly that; opened our house each week to perfect strangers, just to listen to jazz records, and not to plot the overthrow the U.S. Government by force and violence? I went over the story from every which way, trying to get them to understand a glimmer of what goes on in the heads of young jazz fanatics.

Even when they seemed on the verge of half-way believing me, they came on with the typical poison pill of that time: The List.

"We have a list here of those we suspect of being communist agitators, who regularly visited your home. Will you please look over this list carefully, and tell me which of them you knew?"

That was it. I expected that I was sunk. I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there were names I knew. I did my best not to react.

"Sirs, even if I might recognize some names on this list it wouldn't mean that I thought they were subversives. Even by saying I know someone could mean I was making some sort of accusation. I traveled here from Detroit at my own expense for the purpose of defending myself. I'm willing to talk about myself, even if I think that it is wrong that I must do so in order to save my career, but I am not willing to talk about anyone else."

I wrote all of this down when I returned from Washington, so I can be sure that is what I said. I assumed I was cooked. After several more tries to get me to at least admit I knew anyone on the list, they let me go, and told me I would be informed of their decision by registered letter within one month. It was probably the longest and gloomiest month of my life. Sure enough, 30 days later a registered letter appeared in my mailbox.

"The Industrial Employment Review Board of the United States Department of Defense informs you that the decision to deny you access to film projects they have or might have in production at the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit, Michigan is hereby reversed." It seemed an agonizingly long eye-span just to get to that last lovely word!

My only guess of the reason for this deliverance was that they must have figured that I was too young, naïve, and nutty to be any real danger to the security of my country.

The affair could have nipped my animation career just as it was budding. The actual truth was that I had indeed been an intense left winger in my teens and early twenties in Hollywood, though never an active communist, and I of course knew that some of our jazz session guests might have been actual communists. I had hoped that my early political orientation would not surface at JHO, which was all-out-right-wing conservative - almost an annex to the mighty General Motors Corp. So it was terrifying and obviously job-threatening. Having privately smirked at what I saw as a jingoistic outfit, I now had to be grateful that the Christian Science veneer did steer the leaders of the company toward tolerance. At least they were not willing to peremptorily dump me until a case against me was proven. I was grateful for their fairness, and dedicated myself to do the best job I could for them. I wasn't at all converted to the worship of Big Business, but I learned that if you have a wife and kids, and the need to make a living, you have to make a fundamental choice. If your beliefs are strong enough, you must take a stand and say to hell with the establishment. But I found that nothing was that clear. Though I despised the McCarthy witch-hunters, I had been equally turned off by the communists I had known in Hollywood, with their rigid and mindless Stalinist acceptance. I learned right there, that finding any creed to believe in unquestioningly is a tough call. There is no substitute for independent thinking.

Resuming my full role as head of the JHO animation unit, I was plunged into the development of a film for the U.S. Airforce, to be aimed at recruitment. It would be shown at schools, with the idea of instilling the romance of flying into their little heads. Mass air travel had not yet taken hold, but was clearly on the horizon, and we were all dazzled by airplanes. In my first wartime job, I had been a parts-catalog illustrator at North American Aviation, in Inglewood, California. I learned to read blueprints, and to draw detailed aircraft parts assemblies in such a way that the thousands of unskilled employees could see how to put them together. Though it seemingly had nothing to do with animation, the understanding of technology I gained in this work was extremely valuable to my later career. Besides peering at blueprints, I also was able to walk through the plant to see how the actual parts were attached to actual planes. Through the din of constant riveting and stamping of aluminum sheeting, I saw the great planes of World War II being assembled. The two main products of the plant were the magnificent B-24 Billy Mitchell bomber, and the elegant P-51 Mustang fighter. What a gorgeous plane that was! I definitely caught the airplane bug, and so I was very enthusiastic about the Air Force film I was about to make at JHO. Still under the UPA influence, I thought about Gerald McBoing-Boing, the parable of a little boy with an extreme speech impediment. "He couldn't speak words, he went 'boing-boing" instead!" It's a basic of movie cartoons that there has to be something extreme about a character. Donald Duck and Daffy Duck both rose to fame on the weird sounds of their twisted tongues. Some kind of impediment or physical extreme has to be there. So I just extended this idea, and created a little boy whose passion for airplanes caused him to actually grow little wings from his shoulder blades. I called him Roger Windsock, "Roger" from the airplane pilots' standard response of understanding, and "Windsock" from the cloth tube that flutters from poles at airports. Rudy Zamora mainly animated the film, but I never saw it finished. This time, my tenure at JHO was interrupted by good news!

I got a phone call from Steve Bosustow that kicked my adrenaline. He was flying to Detroit to see me! (There it was! The age of air travel had actually come into my life!)

The fact that the prez of UPA would fly across the country to see me, the former apprentice, gave me a gratifying boost. Somehow, word of my accomplishments in the bosom of big business had made its way back to my true home studio. My old boss, Bill Murray, the leading live action director at JHO, continued to be my booster, and felt that my light would eventually go out, if indefinitely hidden under the Jam Handy bushel. He had kept UPA informed of my progress. Again luck. It's great to have the right kind of friends!

When Steve arrived, he told me more of what he only had sketched out on the phone; that UPA had decided to open a New York branch in order to cash in on its reputation, and go for the now burgeoning TV commercial market.

He knew the lure of the Big Apple with UPA was something I could hardly refuse, even though his offer came with a catch. I was now a genuine animation director, having personally directed five longish films, and many TV commercials. But Steve had committed to Abe Liss as director, and he offered me only the second position as the New York studio production designer.

Then there was money. I couldn't consider even the lure of returning to the nest and glamorous Gotham without a substantially higher income. Manhattan living costs were something else than in the Detroit suburbs.

The classic Bosustow touch was next. He put his fatherly hand on my shoulder once again. Earlier, it had been to suggest that I was being groomed as the next UPA director. This time, it was a plea for my acceptance of poverty and a lower position: "Gene, you're a Marxist, aren't you?"

There I was, in the city of Detroit, where I had been accused of being a Marxist - a threat to my existence, and now I was expected to be a Marxist and accept a low salary as a comradely act for the UPA "commune." It was hard to keep a straight face.

But hell, you know what I had to do, and so did I. I went along with it, because the promise of glory was obviously there. Steve was willing to transport me, my wife and kids, and my worldly goods to a lovely apartment in Westchester County, New York, and place me in the founding cadre of UPA-NY.  What would come of it was up to me!

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