Chapter 17: Prague, A Change Of Life.
In 1959, the Prague animation studio was a barely-noticed smudge in the world map of animation. In fact it was one of the great studios of the time, but darkly closeted behind the Iron Curtain. I was just summarily dropped into it, and was totally unprepared for what I found.
After signing me up and explaining how to obtain a passport, Snyder once again took off for Prague. I had accepted this weird offer only as a chance of getting my two pet projects produced, that was all. My plan was to do the absolute minimum of messing with these people's films, get my own projects into production, and then get safely home, the sooner the better.
When Snyder arrived in Prague, he hastened to convey his "good news" to studio production manager Zdenka Najmanova.
"Darling," he said, placing a reassuring hand on her sturdy little shoulder, "I am bringing you the best animation director in America to show you how to improve these films."
Zdenka was so thrilled with this news, she promptly resolved not to speak to me. I can only imagine the torrent of nasty Czech words that must have cascaded through her head. The thought of some smart-assed American hotshot hobnailing over her finished movies created in her a generous serving of advance hostility.
My plane touched down in Prague on Saturday, October 28, 1959. I was armed with a contract between myself and William L. Snyder, "doing business as Rembrandt Films," which included, at my insistence, the clause: "Deitch shall not be required to remain in Prague for a period of more than 10 days." I wasn't taking any chances - though of course I had no idea what a joke this clause would turn out to be.
After settling in at the weird and musty Alcron hotel, the spy-equipped hotel for foreigners, I was taken to the animation studio, located in a building that once was the Prague stock exchange until the communists crashed it. The studio's "Snyder Unit," was located on the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. No elevator.
During those first days, I screened some of my UPA films for the staff. I needed to show them that I was really a professional, and that my advice was worth listening to. After that, I seemed to get increased respect, and was no longer viewed as a troublemaking interloper. That made things a lot easier.
The great moment came when I was finally able to get my own two film projects started. When explaining the storyboard to the staff, I tried to act it out, as I usually did to my own UPA, Terrytoons, or GDA staff. What was hilarious in this case was that it all had to be translated.
I would enthusiastically act out the scenario, and each time I came to a gag point, there had to be a pause for translation. Then, everyone would laugh at the gag. It was like seeing a movie that was 20 seconds out of synch! It was talk-pause-laugh, talk-pause-laugh, talk-pause-laugh, throughout the entire demonstration!