Chapter 13: UPA: Back To The Future
Producing the first animated version of the NBC color peacock, in those days long before any sort of digital enhancement, we tried every which way to achieve the required maximum color brilliance on film. I went shopping in a theatrical supply house and got some color gels of the kind used over Broadway stage lights. Using the bottom lights of our Acme animation stand, normally for shooting pencil tests, and working with our experienced photographer cameraman, Wardell Gaynor, we achieved a stained glass window effect, which did the trick. There was no easy computer coloring in those days! The animated NBC peacock, only 5 seconds long, was probably the most run TV shot of all. It was shown at the beginning of every color broadcast for years. "The following program is brought to you in living color!" I assigned an unknown but brilliant young composer, Irwin "Bud" Bazelon to write the NBC color musical theme. The royalties made Bud a rich man and a lifelong friend.
Then we did the original opening titles for Alistair Cook's landmark Omnibus show, and we had to devise in-camera tricks to get the drama needed for that. The Omnibus opening won me my third New York Art Directors Club Gold Medal.
I am especially proud of two of my UPA-NY films, produced in 1952-3, both now obscure to the point of invisibility. One was a custom made 2-reeler for The American Heart Association, called "Pump Trouble." My good friend, writer Bill Bernal, the same who first brought me to UPA in Hollywood, helped me with the story, for which we cribbed some ideas from "Citizen Kane." Cliff Roberts did the design, and Grim Natwick and Duane Crowther were the animators. As it was to be my first longer film project, and a chance to show my stuff, I went all out to get just the right people onto the project. Through a talent agency we sent out a call for the best voice actors in New York, and soon our waiting room was full of voice men and women. The most unlikely looking was a young stand up comic and illusionist who was then doing nearly all the voices on the Howdy Doody show. That already put him down in my estimation. But I gave him a chance. After going over the story with him, I asked which of the eight characters he though he could do. He then tried one after the other, including the women parts. He was Allen Swift, and he actually performed all eight voices. After hearing him, I sent all of he other applicants home. Allen not only did all of the voices for "Pump Trouble," but for countless other of my films over the years, and became my closest personal friend. I am happy to say he still is. Incidentally, the only voice on the Howdy Doody show that Allen did not do was that of Howdy himself. "Buffalo Bob" Smith said no one could do Howdy but himself. But Smith had a heart attack, and there was no Howdy voice for the next day's show! Allen took a recording home of Smith's highly personalized Howdy Doody voice, and studied it over night. He went on as Howdy in the next show, and continued to do it, along with all the other voices, for a year while Bob Smith was convalescing. No viewer ever noticed the difference!
Dynamic music was created for "Pump Trouble," by the then blazing Spanish composer, Carlos Surinach, who later performed it as a concert piece. The film was a big success for the Heart folks and for me at that time. I probably have the only surviving 16mm print, which I keep on a heart-lung machine.
From the Allen Swift connection, the Kagran Corporation, producers of the phenomenally successful NBC "Howdy Doody Show," gave us an assignment to do a test film about Howdy. It was a chance to do my first purely entertainment cartoon. My best buddy Bill Bernal and I worked up a story we called, "Howdy Doody and His Magic Hat." It was designed by Cliff Roberts, and animated, (paper cut-out style), by Duane Crowther. We reveled in the opportunity; while at the same time did everything possible to make our film look as different as possible from what we all considered to be a grotesquely ugly puppet and an unspeakably cornball kid show. Cliff, Duane, and I gleefully subverted it and went all out to make it a true UPA film. Kagran accepted the result coolly, but we were proud of it, and I still am, though I haven't seen it in years. (My later producer Bill Snyder lost my only print.) I will recount the storyline here from distant memory, in the slim hope that one of you might have a clue as to where a copy could be obtained.