Chapter 11: The UPA Experience
How at the age of 22 I lucked into the den of geniuses. Who they were. What it was like. Why they let me in. Why I left.
Sure, I always drew pictures as a kid. I am left-handed. I made little kid newspapers, using carbon paper, hectograph gelatin, then mimeograph stencils. I put up a bed sheet on the wall and made a slide projector out of a shoebox, with a toilet paper tube and a magnifying glass as a lens. I made little comic strips. For one Christmas I got a rare two-lens paper strip projector. With it, I could make simple two-position animations. Finally, I got a hand-cranked 16mm projector and little loops of Mickey Mouse cartoons, which I ran backwards and forwards to study. I did all those things - and all those things, the drawing, the writing for an audience, the love of technical gadgetry related to putting on a show, all eventually came together to prepare me for becoming an animation director. But how to start? There was a cartoonists' union you couldn't get into if you didn't have a job in the industry, and you couldn't get into the industry if you weren't a member of the union. So how do you get around "insurmountable obstacles?"
Luck!. My luck was that the leaders of UPA were all jazz fans, and during the mid-1940s I was doing cartoons and graphics for an obscure jazz magazine they all read, called The Record Changer. My further luck was that one of the key men at UPA, Bill Hurtz, just happened to be president of the cartoonists union. My greatest luck was that the UPA people liked the graphics I was doing for the magazine, and wanted to hire me as an apprentice designer!
I'd been a jazz fan from the age of 15. My wife and I had no money for a social life, so in 1945 we opened our little Hollywood bungalow every Friday night for come-one-come-all jazz record sessions. I was and still am a traditional jazz fanatic. After doing odd illustration jobs, and a stint as a one-man art staff in a tiny L.A. ad agency, I finally landed a solid job as assistant to the art director of CBS Radio in Hollywood. There, I gained experience in typography and graphic design. But doing artwork for The Record Changer was a labor of love and no money, and I was cribbing styles from the best illustrators of the time, learning from them.
CBS at that time had one of America's greatest graphic designers as its art director. William Goldman. Just for one thing, he created the famous CBS "eye" logo, still in regular use as the company's icon. Good graphic design pervaded the company and its subsidiaries. Columbia Records featured the work of James Flora, whose wild graphic explosions strongly influenced my stuff for CBS Radio and my covers and cartoons for The Record Changer. I carried over this influence to the gag cartoons I also did for the magazine. I created a fanatic jazz lover character I called "The CAT."