Chapter 14: The Terry-fying Challenge
Terrytoons. Here was my locale that most interests the animation historians. So now I finally have the chance to tell it like it really was. I name names -- all the names, and print the pix. And all the production details about Tom Terrific. I tell you what I did and what I tried to do - a "renaissance" - a total make over... and I tell you why it failed.
Paul Terry, in 1955, had suddenly sold his Terrytoons studio and vast library of schlock cartoons to CBS-TV, who began looking for a new creative chief to "revitalize" the studio. In the spring of 1956 they came to me. Why, I didn't know, and I certainly didn't ask. It was the dream challenge of every red-blooded 100% American boy animator; a chance to remake the world's worst animation studio into the best. It turned out to be my greatest failure. Yet it was at Terrytoons that I created my most famous cartoon character, Tom Terrific.
I was so dazzled by the CBS offer that I completely overlooked two totally depressing facts. Fact One: What CBS really wanted was that vast library of 650 schlock cartoons. Mighty Mouse! Heckle & Jeckle! Gandy Goose! Farmer Alfalfa! Dinky Duck! Kiko the Kangaroo! The Terry Bears! Puddy the Pup! Little Roquefort! Names that reverberated like punctured tin drums in the annals of animation! Fact two: The studio manager, one William Weiss, had a tenure contract as his only pay-off for a life of toadying to Paul Terry. And he, Bill Weiss, would have the job of juggling those ancient cartoons into weekly kiddie shows on CBS-TV.
Whereas I was given the golden job of turning a loser cartoon studio into a winner; complete freedom to reinvent Terrytoons, to make a creative "renaissance!" A sure winner, right? Wrong! I never had a chance. I couldn't fly, but like the bumblebee, I didn't know it, and I flapped my wings anyway.
There were 18 blank CinemaScope screens to fill each year for 20th Century-Fox. (This was still the mid-20th century, you understand.) And there was the parent company, CBS, which would be using us as their source of animation programming. We had it made.
Except for a few negative factors: When I was first recruited by CBS, they delayed as long as possible taking me out to the Terrytoons studio, until they felt sure I would accept the job. It was clear to them that I would be dismayed, and turned off when I finally was introduced to Bill Weiss. They were right. The moment I met him, I sized him up as a crude and cultureless dead-hand. He regaled me with tales of how he was screwed by Terry. Bitterness! I reluctantly opted out. This was not a man I wished to work with.
Schwin had downplayed Weiss's position, describing him as a "business manager" of minor importance, and that I would have CBS support continuously in weekly staff meetings, which Schwin would always attend. I tried to protect myself by declaring that I would only take the position if I had a secure written contract. I was told that "nobody at CBS had a contract." I was carefully soothed into acceptance of the risk. I later found out that Weiss did have a five year contract! It had been a condition of sale insisted on by Terry, who used that device to get out of his earlier promise to cut in Weiss on a portion of his sale payment from CBS, so from their point of view it somehow "didn't count." I considered Weiss a hateful and reactionary element, but in my enthusiasm for creating something great at Terrytoons, I dropped my guard.
While I was necessarily investing the company's money in projects I believed would in time raise the Terrytoons image, Weiss was simply and cheaply packaging the old schlock library into the Mighty Mouse Show, and the Heckle & Jeckle Show. Easy money - and quick.