Chapter 12: 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 had carefully 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.