Chapter 11: The UPA Experience
There was nothing in the magazine that indicated where I lived. UPA wouldn't have located me, nor I them, if it weren't for a remarkable coincidence: one of the features of The Record Changer was its classified "want lists" of rare jazz records. I had put in a "want" for a Jelly Roll Morton disc I'd been lusting for, and I soon received a postcard from a guy right near me in Hollywood who had the record! In a flash I was knocking on the door of Bill Bernal, a remarkable man who was to become my closest friend and co-worker for the next thirty years. As soon as he opened the door and I flashed the postcard and announced my name, he said, "Are you the same Gene Deitch that draws for The Record Changer? I know some people who are looking for you!" It turned out that Bill was a writer, and was at that moment doing a story for the UPA studio! He told me that John Hubley and others admired my work. My work! .These were genius creators, and I was a novice designer cribbing right and left from other greats! This was an astounding gift of luck for me.
So there you have it: be prepared for a lucky break whenever it surfaces. A door opens at least once for everyone. The trick is to be ready and willing to walk through it, and to be good enough not to be thrown out again. I managed. If you can't do it right off, at least try to fake it until you can!
All UPA could promise me was temporary work as an apprentice. That was all the Cartoonists Union of that time would allow. It was June, 1946, and those were the rules. I could only be a part-time apprentice. But Steve Bosustow, the great spell-weaver, put his hand on my 22-year-old shoulder, and said, "Gene, we are going to mold you into the first pure UPA director!" They had gotten it into their heads that anyone who'd worked for Disney, Warners, MGM, Columbia, or the rest, were "spoiled." They wanted young raw meat, which they could cook to their own recipe. They liked my work, and they seemed to think I was "The One." I was enough enthralled to give up my good steady CBS Radio job for the less-than-certain chance to become the first "pure UPA" man. My wife was not thrilled with the move. John Hubley took me under his wing as his protégé, and put me together with Bill Hurtz, to learn — not merely animation layout - but UPA-style production design. Hurtz taught me the nuts and bolts of animation construction, and Hub was my creative inspiration. Bill Hurtz was a great raconteur, teacher, and animation historian. He filled me in on the Disney history that I had missed. He taught me everything there was to know about peg holes, pan bars, field guides, camera planning - and he was by no means short on artistic conception - how to stage scenes to expand the meaning and dramatic flow of a film. I still feel that everything I know about any of these things, I first learned from Bill Hurtz. From Hub, I learned new ways of looking at, and thinking about things - how to expand the vision that a camera provides. He had a supreme sense of character development and story-telling - always in fresh, new ways.
I looked, I listened, and I worked hard at it. I was watching when Mr. Magoo was born. Eventually, I got to be Bobe Cannon's production designer. I was surrounded by geniuses. It was clear enough, even to naïve me, that Steve's grand promise was mainly wind, designed to keep my salary low, and yet my hopes high.