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Annecy, 'Au Revoir'

Longtime Annecy attendee Cima Balser shares her memories of the festival's Golden Years.

Cima Balser (l) laughs with husband Bob and Zdenka Deitch, while son Trevor looks on, in 1973. All photos courtesy of Gene Deitch.

We've just received a book of splendid photos taken in Annecy last June 14, 2007, at John Coates/TVC's 50th and Graham Ralph-Jerry Hibbert/HRA's 25th Anniversary Dinner. There are many old (sic) faces in the history of both companies represented in these photos. But certainly not all, and this has led me to a rather long flashback

… to June 26, 1962, the very first time we went to the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

What a continuous thrill that was. Our first glimpse of those snow-topped granite mountains overlooking that turquoise crystal-clear lake, complete with resident swans gliding to and fro under bridges leading to the gardens on the shore filled with giant chestnut and willow trees drooping into the water.

But that was all we saw of Annecy that first year, and as I recall it wasn't until the third time we were there that I finally found the old town, with its colorful ancient buildings, and discovered the canals, with their overflowing flower boxes hanging from every bridge and railing, and even more swans swimming leisurely up and down on their way back to the lake.

Because from the moment we arrived, we were either walking from the Imperial Hotel -- and imperial it certainly was -- along the lake to the Casino, to meet the filmmakers -- most for the first time, having memorable meals, and seeing films, almost nonstop.

We did break the schedule when the festival organized a day excursion, beginning with a boat trip to the far end of the lake, where a bus was waiting to take us to a nearby mountaintop for a lavish picnic of local hams and sausages, cheese, giant tomatoes, and bowls of bursting ripe cherries. And lots of wine, of course.

There was barely enough time when we returned to change -- yes, in those days we dressed for the evening screenings, and get back to the Casino Cinema, to sit through several hours of animation from around the world. Note: There were no selection committees at that time, and any and all submitted films were screened. This was welcomed by all of us, hungry as we were to see what the rest of the world was doing.

The only trouble was that the Casino Cinema was rather small, there was no air conditioning, and, since all those who were in the Special Guest category were delegated to the preferred balcony, which was even hotter with even less air, some of us, especially those who were also subject to jet lag, were led to doze off, and occasionally to snore.

Though they never stopped being animation heroes to the Balsers, Faith and John Hubley soon became old friends.

One night I was sitting next to Pete Burness, and, soon enough, he did nod off and huff a couple of times before wife Juana nudged him. He was truly upset and couldn't stop apologizing -- "I just can't imagine how I could do this, I really want to see these films" -- until I told him he was not the only one, and if he were to listen carefully he'd hear other truncated snores as the evening wore on.

When the films finally ended each evening, usually after midnight, sometimes even later, we all went next door to the Casino, not to play roulette, but to gather around cognacs and discuss the merits -- or lack thereof -- of each and every film we had seen.

Some of the names I remember from that first year -- John and Faith Hubley, whom we had met at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 when they presented their Moonbird, and when we could hardly contain our thrill at being able to sit on the beach and talk about animation with our veritable heroes. And now, to think that they remembered us as old friends.

Gene Deitch, whom we had also met years before when he was director of UPA in New York -- now married to wonderful Zdenka, living and working in Prague, and that first year in Annecy was the beginning of a long and close friendship, often meeting in Annecy, to share all the fun.

Les Goldman immediately became a good friend, as did Laura and Jim Hiltz, Jimmy Murakami, and Bobe Cannon -- who was so humble, and told us how shocked he was: "Gee, my kids don't even know what I do, and here I have local people chasing me down the street to ask for my autograph. They not only know all the films I've made, but even who worked on them!"

Ernie Pintoff was there with one of his very funny films; from Canada, David Verrell, Al Sens, Norman McLaren and Maurice Blackburn, who did the music for Norman's films; Alexandre Alexeiff and his partner Claire Parker; June Foray; Harry Hess and his tiny Italian wife, Tina (very proud of the few English words Harry had taught her: "Oh, shit" and "Goodbye!"); Joy Batchelor and John Halas, who told Bob that he included him in his latest book, which made Bob very happy indeed.

There was a formal reception the opening night at the Palais de l'Isle, the ancient prison, "securely" situated in the middle of a canal, surrounded by water. It had been restored as a very interesting cultural venue, and as we gathered there we were presented with what we would soon take for granted, a seemingly endless supply of good champagne with canapés and pastries, French culinary artwork at its finest. As expected, the animators were no slouches at working their way through all that was available.

If we were lucky and the sun was shining, we could swim at the Imperial lakeside or, as in later years became a custom, rent a pedalo or two or three, pedal out to the middle of the lake, and jump off. The icy water was shocking, but we were young and overly exuberant, and our hearts survived.

Other customs evolved through the years -- again, only if we could squeeze time between projections: two or three designated shoppers would collect a modest amount of francs and, just before closing time at 12, rush to the nearby boulangeries, charcuteries, fromageries and green grocers, to round up fresh warm crusty bread, creamy cheeses, all kinds of deli delights, small thin paper bags of local peaches, apricots, and berries, and, of course, good bottles of wine.

All this we would consume either on the lush grass park beside the lake, or on board one or more of the motor- or rowboats for hire by the hour. Our albums are filled with photos showing us all hamming it up, full of food and fun.

In 1962, George Dunning won the Grand Prize for The Flying Man and was the star at the closing reception.

That would keep us fortified through the afternoon projections until one of the early evening receptions -- either official -- later when Zagreb hosted the alternate year's festival, they were notorious for their Slibovitz parties -- or an ASIFA gathering --or perhaps the Mayor, wearing a red sash, inviting us all over to the city hall (Hotel de Ville) for welcome speeches -- how honored they were to have us there -- with a resident choir performing in the background as we stood around sipping the local wine and munching the pastries. I remember so well Gene Deitch being duly impressed, saying, "I'm not used to people treating animators as anything but a bunch of bums..." -- or just the Russians wanting an excuse to bring out the vodka they had brought with them and get as many non-Russians as blotto as possible. My, how they could down the stuff without falling over. Over and over they would try Bob, who could almost stay upright as long as they, which he contends accounted for their always unanimously voting for him whenever there was a board election.

It was too often a rush to get back to the hotel to change, and too many times we had to forego dinner at the Casino in order not to miss the very first film on the evening program.

That was the year that John and Faith Hubley showed their Of Stars and Men. We had noticed that the French audiences were not restrained in any way from showing their regard for each film. As well as wild applause, there were equally loud boos, and worse yet, the sound of stomping feet walking out and slamming the door as loudly as possible.

Each filmmaker, when their film was projected, was obliged to sit in the balcony box, which we all rapidly named "The Hot Box," and take a bow -- to either applause or boos, and in this case the boos were heartbreaking. John and Faith bowed and then exited as quickly as possible. I still firmly believe this is one of the most important and beautiful animated films ever made, and we tried to assuage their deep disappointment, and assure them this was a film for all time. Alas, it has been forgotten, which is a loss to all of us.

George Dunning won the Grand Prize for The Flying Man, and was the star at the closing reception. More champagne, more elaborate nibbles, delirious dancing (David Verrel: "Come, let's dance, I have to express myself." Bob insisting we do the Toreador Dance, and I, moaning, "Do I have to be the bull again?") It was certainly an exciting culmination of a very exciting -- first, for us -- festival.

It was already daylight when we walked back to our hotel at 5 a.m.

So, of course, we were understandably eager to return to Annecy the following year, 1963. By then, Alan Shean and Dean Spille were working with Bob at Estudios Moro in Madrid, and they and their families, including Alan's father, Larry, joined us at the festival, June 6-10. We also convinced Santiago Moro to attend. Annecy's fame was obviously being acknowledged, and Jacques Forgeot, owner of Cineaste Associe, in Paris, with Dick Roberts, his resident American. Paul Casalini, Ellie Bogardus (another resident American), with her Jean Marie, were there from Milano. And that year, Chuck Jones joined Hubleys, Les Goldman, Gene and Zdenka Deitch, George and Fay Dunning, Jimmy Murakami, Pete and Juana Burness, Bill and Fini Littlejohn, June Foray, Buf Nerbovig, Laura and Jim Hiltz from the Netherlands, Al Kouzel, and, of course, the Eastern countries were well represented.

Bill Littlejohn was among those who joined the Balsers at Annecy in 1963.

This year the opening reception was held at the "Don't Mess With Me" historic old Chateau, at the top of the hill overlooking the town, lake, and facing the mountains on the other side. It was well fortified, with massive stone walls, and the only thing missing was a grand moat, which it might very well have had in a ancient times. Now, however, it is just another grand venue, and once inside the formidable gates, across the long and wide cobbled courtyard lined with flaming flares, one enters rather cold, forbidding stone chambers, leading no doubt to lower dungeons, but up the circular stone steps there is a huge hall, with the requisite walk-in fireplace, window seats, and space for the most elaborate receptions.

More steps, and there are any number of rooms, which are now used for exhibitions. This year, after listening to more welcome speeches -- they were still very honored to have us there -- and more champagne, canapés, and pastries, we wandered in and out of rooms full of Lurcat tapestries and antique Spanish art.

The next day Les invited us to a memorable lunch at the Imperial, and I don't use the word "memorable" lightly. Paté en croute, followed by mousse de poisson, followed by roast beef with sautéed endive, followed by a selection of cheeses, most of which we had never seen, let alone tasted before. Dessert was a moist golden cake topped with coffee and vanilla sauces.

We lingered over coffee served with tiny chocolates. Les said he had a very depressing winter, and the only thing that kept him hanging on was the thought of going to Annecy.

We told him the memory of this lunch would surely get us through any number of stressful days.

Alan Shean (l) and Dean Spille, the writer/designer and background painter, respectively, of Bob Balser's Sombrero, which opened the festival in 1965.

And that year we took our first trip on the téléphérique, which literally scales the side of the granite cliff to get to the top of the mountain, where, once you've recovered, you're in for one spectacular view.

Once again, there were screenings morning, afternoon, and night; receptions; long conversations critiquing each and every film; and basking in the very special camaraderie that existed between these animators from all parts of the world.

The only disappointment the following year was that from June 10th to the 15th, it rained every single day. The official picnic was cancelled, and we all scurried around in the same damp clothes, shivering and wondering why we didn't bring more sweaters. So we probably saw even more projections, because that got us out of the rain. And, of course, there were the seemingly never-ending receptions. Jacque Forgeot from Cineaste Associe hosted a party at 11:30 one night, and I'm not quite sure when we sloshed back to the hotel.

And after the awards reception at the Casino, the Hubleys gave a memorable (ask any of those who were there) party at the Imperial Hotel, and it was definitely 6:30, way past dawn, when we got back to our hotel.

June 17-22, 1965, was a special year because Sombrero, the film that Bob directed and animated, Alan Shean wrote and designed, and for which Dean Spille painted the backgrounds, for Estudios Moro, was shown the first night. We all celebrated at the Mayor's Reception at the Palais d'Isles, and it was now becoming not only a wonderful opportunity to see what was being done in animation all over the world, but to see all the returning and new filmmakers who were becoming very good friends. Add Frank Braxton, Bob Gribbock, Jim Pabien, and Charlie Jenkins from London.

There were more press conferences -- Annecy was becoming more well known. There was another official boat trip which included a lunch of "fritures du lac" -- platters of tiny fried lake fish. Receptions, swimming in the lake, special exhibitions at the Chateau, an homage for Bobe Cannon, and Bob and his team won the publicity award for one of their films.

Humble Bobe Cannon was shocked to be chased down the street by admiring fans who knew every detail about his films.

That called for a very special celebration. Balsers, Hiltzs, Spilles, and Sheans hired a motorboat to take us across the lake the three-star Michelin "Pere Bis" for dinner. We docked -- the boat would wait to take us back to town -- and walked up through the garden, across the terrace filled with mulberry trees in bloom, into the elegant dining room, all of us trying very hard to look as if we weren't at all impressed. We did not succeed.

This was to be a monumental splurge -- the prix fixe was 50 francs each -- (at that time, around $10, which was a fortune to pay for dinner) and Bob announced the wine would be his treat. The sommelier suggested a white wine to start -- and when I took my first sip it tasted kind of funny. No wonder, I had never had anything that good.

Now picture this -- some pretty heavy animation-trained sluggers, daintily sipping, not chugging, to make the one bottle last through two courses: the mousse de foie de volaille aux herbes and the soufflé de truite aux queques de l'écrevisse. For the poularde braisse à la crème d'estragon, with riz creole and fonds d'arichaut, and salade, we had one bottle of a delicious red. That too was a strain, but we politely sipped accordingly. We finished with glace and coffee, and being the sports that we were, we sent a coffee down to our boatman.

Yes, that was another memorable year.

And as we look back, each and every one was memorable...

... For all the old friends who, like us, were loyal fans, and returned every, or almost every, year, and the new friends we made, also soon to be regulars, from around the world...

... For all the wonderful films we got to see.

... For the always warm welcome we received from both the officials and the people of Annecy. They continued to generously provide us with interesting excursions, picnics, receptions, special exhibitions in the Chateau, the Palais, and later in the Bonlieu Center. There was even one time that the city was having serious budget problems, and alerted ASIFA that they could not financially support the festival that year. However, when the local people and merchants found out, they raised the money themselves to make sure the festival would take place!

... For just the pleasure of being in Annecy, surely one of the most beautiful towns in the world, both for its natural beauty, and for the care taken to preserve the canals and the old town. It has been called La Ville Fleurie, because of the gorgeous flowers everywhere. (Think not only geraniums, daisies, etc., but also enormous and fragrant peonies.) The shops, whatever they sell -- chocolates or gowns -- display each item as one would a valued artifact in a museum. The open markets dazzle with their piles of pungent local mountain cheeses, cured hams and sausages, fruits and vegetables. Passing all the stalls I often felt like a heroin addict in a field of poppies.

And, of course, the fine restaurants. By the end of each festival we might have been underslept, but we were most definitely overfed.

(Clockwise from left) Zdenka Deitch, Yolanda Valas, Cima and Bob Balser, and Gene Deitch wait for another unforgettable Annecy meal.

There were, of course, major changes as the years went by. In 1965 it was decided to have the festival every other year. Alternate years were at first to be either in Mamaia, Romania, or in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, but the logistics in Mamaia turned out to be more than a bit daunting (and we do have some pretty funny stories about that), so Zagreb became the "even year" venue.

Then the city demolished the perfect Art Deco Casino and cinema on the park, widened the street between the park and the Place Bonlieu by removing the divider with its fountains and lovely flowers, and built the Centre Bonlieu, with a large lobby, grand theater, smaller cinema -- both gratefully air conditioned -- galleries, offices, a library, exhibition spaces, and shops. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but certainly there were more and more people coming each year, and, soon enough, two and three sessions of each program were needed, even in these larger areas, to accommodate both the local public and the growing number of foreign guests.

Another important change was organizing a selection committee to screen all the entries, and only those films that were chosen were included in a specific number of programs. Of course, this led to many very disappointed filmmakers, and one year Bob organized a special showing of "Films Refuse." As it turned out, quite a few did seem to warrant being "refused."

Certainly not because of this, but, in 1987, Bob was asked to be on the selection committee, which required him to be in Annecy in March (there was still snow on the mountains, cold but very beautiful) for a full week of seeing dozens and dozens of films, and, as expected, sometimes judgment fails. He reported that Frédéric Bach had made a beautiful film, but the committee didn't want to accept it because it was almost 30 minutes long, which meant they would have to eliminate two or three short films for that time slot. Bob insisted, and eventually it was accepted. It was The Man Who Planted Trees, and won the grand prize.

The directors of the festival changed through the years, and each one more or less redefined the structure of the festival. However, when John Halas was president of ASIFA, during his long tenure it was virtually the ASIFA festival, which took place in Annecy. ASIFA was "definitely" in charge. ASIFA determined who could be officially authorized to join and attend, and which, if any, other festivals would be recognized to be under its auspices. John had the resources, the time and energy, intense interest, and true dedication, to give it the international stature it deserved.

There were elections, executive and general board meetings, and even though the Eastern countries had their own agendas, this was one of the few places where open dialog was not only admitted, but encouraged, and edicts were considered and voted upon without too many international upheavals, although I do remember one year when there was quite an uproar over proxies. The Russians didn't quite understand what they were, and certainly didn't want to accept proxies the people from Hollywood were submitting, which left Les Goldman and Bill Littlejohn more than a bit miffed.

Eventually John was replaced. MIFA, the marketplace, was organized, adding to the festival experience by offering a showcase for all the new equipment and materials available for the latest techniques, with everything from paint and cels to computers and high-tech software, along with producers pitching their pilots for series and feature films... Even a talented young Finnish composer, Tuomas Kantelinen, has had a booth with CDs of scores he has composed for films.

But at the same time it has created a divide between the business people and the artists, and too often the twain just doesn't seem to meet.

And because of MIFA's focus on animation as "industry," it was decided that a market every two years was not enough to keep up with its needs and the industry trends, and the festival returned to a yearly calendar.

Nicole Salomon (left, with Bobe Cannon and Bob Balser) has been an integral part of Annecy from the beginning, as well as an ASIFA stalwart.

Unfortunately, the first year it coincided with the Zagreb festival, which rightfully upset many in the animation world. Since then the dates do not conflict, and one can now attend both festivals.

Perhaps it was due to the overwhelming presence of MIFA, which had no need whatsoever to incorporate ASIFA in its activities -- nor did CARTOON, once that was organized with entirely different objectives -- that somehow ASIFA, which was responsible for organizing and supervising and promoting the Annecy Festival for so many productive and golden years, but which never seemed to be able to generate enough funds to finance its activities, has now been relegated to a very minor adjunct to the festival.

It's saddening to see its physical location moved year after year, from a small booth in the lobby to the lower level, and from there to whatever corner or alcove is available for its reduced activities. Nicole Salomon, who from the very first festival has been an integral and persistent part of both the festival and ASIFA -- first as the secretary of the jury, and then for many years as secretary of ASIFA -- now dedicates herself only to ASIFA and, of course, her devoted animation students.

Nicole was also responsible for what became a Sunday-after-the-festival tradition in those Golden Years, of inviting all of the filmmakers still there the day after the festival closed, usually a Sunday, to her beautiful home for a picnic, which might include a large barbecue, or a mammoth paella, with quantities of wine to toast to yet another eventful Annecy Festival.

We are very grateful to have been part of those Golden Years, stretching back to 1962 -- from when our son was an infant, and I found myself changing his Pampers in front of the Chateau before boarding the bus taking us on yet another excursion, to the years in which I had to give him his final exams in our hotel room, so that he wouldn't be penalized for missing the last days of school.

But finally, just last year, we realized that Annecy no longer belonged to us, nor us to it. It isn't that we miss the "Old Casino" buildings; the Centre Bonlieu certainly fills the city's and the festival's needs for a cultural center, and the old Imperial Hotel, which was destroyed by a fire, was rebuilt in stunning Art Deco style. No, what we miss is the intimacy of the Casino years, and the elegance of the old Imperial. We miss the wonderful old brasserie in the front terrace of the Bonlieu, which is now given over to another fast food gathering place for fast fooders.

Peter Foldes, without his entourage of admirers.

The flowers are gone from the festival's cinema. There is no daily bulletin with film schedules, interviews with filmmakers, festival gossip. The awards ceremony is now a facsimile of a TV comedy show. The festival has grown too large for the town to provide those wonderful excursions and official receptions, and few can afford anything like those old "drinking parties."

But most of all we'll remember and miss our friends through the years. The stars, like Bob Godfrey, always surrounded by groups of fans laughing at his nonstop repartee; Gianalberto Bendazzi, with his encyclopedic knowledge of film history; Peter Foldes, the genius followed by an entourage of lucky admirers; Yoji Kuri, who for several years fascinated us all with his wonderfully imaginative films; Alfio Bastiancich, the great Italian enabler; our Scandinavian friends, with whom we were always certain to have a lighthearted, fun time; our Dutch party-givers; the Japanese contingent, led by their cheerleader Sayoko Kinoshita; the intense and brilliant Eastern countries, and, of course, our dearest English, Spanish, and Portuguese co-workers.

However, rather than this being simply a nostalgic lament, what we also feel is that, just because this festival no longer belongs to us, but to the over 6,000 participants this last year -- with many of that number being students, we really are pleased. How could our small group way back in 1962 have ever imagined that this festival and our animation world would have become so grand -- and still growing?

And surely, 30 or 40 years from now, these same students will look around and tell whoever is listening how really wonderful the Annecy Festival was way back in 2007.

So, without shedding a tear, we say au revoir, Annecy.

Cima and Bob Balser went to Europe on a sabbatical in 1959 and are still there (now part-time). Bob freelanced as an animator/director/producer in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, England, Egypt, Turkey, and Spain, where, from 1971 until 1996, he had his own studio. Cima was by his side, looking over his shoulder, and writing about it whenever she had the time.