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Animated Characters: Sequence 2 – My New York Times Part 2

Animator, director, character designer, teacher, and writer Nancy Beiman concludes her 2-part story – complete with dead body - on her introduction to 'commercial' animation, when she snagged her first job, at Jack Zander’s Animation Parlour in NYC, while still managing to graduate Cal Arts, in the third of an ongoing series of articles - and eventual blog - she’s penning for AWN.

The Body in the Window Seat
Continued from Part 1, “If You Can Make It There”

Jack Zander’s original studio, Pelican Films, became a “front” as soon as he founded it in 1954. He hired artists and story men who were blacklisted from the feature and short film studios during the Great Red Scare.  Anyone in film or television who was even suspected of being a Communist or had their name listed in the 1950 publication “Red Channels” was suddenly unemployable. Animators were particularly suspect because animation communicated without language and was believed to be aimed mainly at children. UPA director John Hubley was blacklisted in 1952. He moved to New York and founded Storyboard, Inc., a commercial studio. Commercials had no credits, so artists banned from theatrical films could work safely in New York.

After I read about Jack in a history of the movie blacklist, I thanked him for being one of the era’s good guys along with Shamus Culhane, who also hired banned artists.

Jack’s incredulous response was “Shamus Culhane couldn’t draw his ASS!” And that was his last word on the subject.

By 1980 the crew at Zander’s was mostly veterans of the Terrytoons, Bakshi, and Famous Studios. One of the older assistants, Ellsworth Barthen, worked for the Fleischer Studio in Miami on Gulliver’s Travels in 1939. Jack also hired some of his Hollywood colleagues including Preston Blair, Emery Hawkins, and Aurelius (Aurie) Battaglia.

The studio was a great place for us younger animators to learn the history of the East Coast animation studios from people who were there.

Some of the artists had marvelous names. In addition to Aurelius Battaglia there was Lucifer (Lu) Garnier, John (Johnny Gent) Gentilella,  cameraman Bill Goshgarian, and Orestes Calpini, my nomination for the most poetically named animator.

Zander's Animation Parlour moved to 18 East 41st street after the studio’s lease was not renewed at the Young and Rubicam building. The new location was a 21-storey office building built in 1914. It had a beautiful glazed white and blue terra cotta façade. Despite its lovely exterior the place had seen better days. Bits of terra cotta would sometimes detach from the building and crash into the street. Fortunately, no one was ever hit.

18 East 41st Street  was also the site of a strange 1930 death which we all knew about, and which oddly foreshadows my story.  

Our first location was on the seventh floor.  I got my own small office. The studio was staffing up for the Gnomes television special.

Additional space was needed for the cleanup, inbetween, and ink and paint departments. (Most of the animators worked at home; Dean and I worked in-house). The second floor was rented, renovated, and redecorated. Juan Sanchez, a staff inbetweener, was asked to help tidy the place up when he had free time. Then he found something.

Animation and Old Lace

One day Dean Yeagle came into my office, all smiles. “Guess what Juan found in a window seat on the second floor?” We had both seen the hilarious 1944 comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, so I immediately answered, “There’s a BODY in the window seat!”

Dean’s smile faded. “How did you know?”

As I sat there with my jaw dropped, production manager Al Martino (no relation to the singer) leaned into the doorway. “Did you hear about the body Juan found on the second floor? It’s cremated. It’s in a can. He didn’t know what else to do so he brought it to me, and I said, “It’s LEAKING! The lid was open! So we put it in a plastic bag, and he took it home.”

The phone number of the crematorium and the name of the can’s occupant was written on the lid, so Juan telephoned and inquired if the facility had a return policy.

They hung up on him.

He then looked up the can’s last name in the telephone directory and received a similar response after each call.  Finally he phoned the police and reported that he had found a body.

The New York City Police Department classifies any found body, in any condition, as a possible murder victim. Juan’s call was transferred to a Homicide detective in the Major Cases Bureau.

The Homicide detective became rather agitated when Juan explained that he had taken the body he found home on the subway with him.

It took a while for Juan to get the Homicide detective to understand that the body was cremated, had a name, and was in a can.

The Homicide detective then stated firmly that their department did not want Mrs. D any more than the crematorium did.

So Juan brought the can to the local police precinct. A policeman took it and said that in his 30 years on the force, he had never had a case quite like this one. And that, if no one claimed Mrs. D, Juan would get to keep her. New York City police officers have a rather basic sense of humor.

The policeman called the studio the next day to inquire if Juan worked there. I presume that Al Martino gave them an affirmative answer, because he continued to work there.

Eventually the police found out that the woman died of natural causes in 1969.  Her ashes were delivered to her boyfriend or lover, who died a few years later.

We never found out how the cremains got into a small white portable “window seat” and remained in what had been a live-action film studio until 1979, when the cartoonists moved in.

But since it was not the first time that a dead body had been found in that building, most of us took it in stride. Mrs. D was eventually returned to her daughter.

Jack Zander, a practical man, saw no reason to get rid of a perfectly good window seat. It was portable, so he had it brought up to the seventh floor and put outside the studio entrance so that people could sit on it while waiting for the elevators.

I saw assistant animators Eddy Cerullo, Mike Baez, Joe Gray, and head of Ink and Paint Irene Cerdas sitting on the bench after work that same day. I smiled brightly and said “Oh, that’s the bench that Juan found the dead body in.”

They popped up like Jack-in-the-boxes.

Jack had it removed the next day since everyone preferred to stand and wait for the elevator.

I’d like to thank Juan Sanchez for sharing and fact checking his side of this story.

Nancy Beiman's picture

Nancy Beiman has been animating, directing, storyboarding, designing characters and writing while female for nearly 50 years. She likes cartoons.