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Red-Hot Jazz = Red Menace?!

As the school year comes to an end, Pamela Kleibrink Thompson reminds us that being a good employee is elementary in its simplicity! Just follow these easy guidelines.

An excerpt from Gene Deitch's book, How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

Gene's jazz cartoons for The Record Changer magazine in the late 1940s caught the eye of UPA and Big Brother.

Gene's jazz cartoons for The Record Changer magazine in the late 1940s caught the eye of UPA and Big Brother.

Just at the moment I was flying highest [in 1950 as newly-hired animation department chief] at [the Jam Handy Organization industrial animation studio in Detroit], I was suddenly called into the personnel office. A lieutenant colonel of the United States Navy was standing there in full uniform, and he handed me an envelope. On it was written, "Eugene Merril Deitch, For His Eyes Only." What the hell???

While he and the JHO personnel chief patiently waited, I carefully opened the envelope.

Inside was another envelope, and on it was also written, "Eugene Merril Deitch, For His Eyes Only."

Inside that, a crisp letter unfolded, bearing the seal of the United States Industrial Employment Review Board, declaring that I was to be denied access to work on films the United States Navy had in production at the Jam Handy Organization, because "it has been determined" that I was a member of the Communist Party, an organization dedicated to the overthrow of the government of The United States of America by force and violence.

One moment I had been the fair-haired boy (I had gorgeous hair then) of JHO, and the next moment I appeared to be finished. There I was, with my career just taking off, and suddenly faced with a forced landing.

"This is absolutely not true!" I implored.

The officer spoke dryly: "Your case has been thoroughly investigated. We are not saying you should be fired from your job here. We are simply saying, that as a customer with security priorities, we refuse you permission to work on our films."

How neat. They weren't asking JHO to throw me out, they were just making it impossible for me to be fully useful to my employer, and this was 10 years before I got to the land of Franz Kafka!

"I will appeal this decision. It is a terrible mistake!"

"You may appeal if you want to, but you will have to pay your own expenses to Washington for a hearing. However, it will be useless. These decisions are never reversed!"

Right. The true McCarthyist approach to democracy! But I did manage to get through to the JHO leadership, and they graciously agreed to withhold any mention of this to other members of the staff. They found a way to have my assistant handle the "secret" stuff, and gave me a month to attempt a reversal.

I did get an address from the officer, and wrote for a hearing. "The Industrial Employment Review Board," was located in the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C.

The average animator doesn't usually get invited to the Pentagon, at least not these days. Being led through this 5-sided center of warriors is suitably cheerless. It is not just one pentagon, but several, one inside the other, something like -- you should excuse the simile -- a set of Russian dolls -- anyway a labyrinth, and my first thought was, "Will I ever find my way out of this place?" After being locked behind layers of security doors, I was led into a rather small room, filled to the brim with high-grade military officers from all branches of the U.S. armed forces, all sitting around a long table, the same shape as, and only a tad smaller than the room itself. This was the Industrial Employment Review Board. What startled me the most was the high stack of documents on the table in front of each member. "Could all of those papers be about me?"

After a long string of seemingly unconnected questions about my activities in Hollywood, it finally came out what they were driving at. "Look, Mr. Deitch, we don't have to beat around the bush. We have information that you held regular Communist Party meetings in your home." What? Now it all was clear.

In our slightly above-the-poverty-line existence after the war, my first wife and I, being intense jazz fans, had evolved a very cheap weekly social event. What extra money we had went for jazz records, very hard to come by in those days. Those were our substitute for cigarettes. We had a terrific collection of ancient 78 RPM jazz records, and a suitable pre-pre-stereo record player, so we started having Friday night kaffee-klatches and jazz record sessions. As I was then doing my jazz cartoons for The Record Changer magazine, I ran a small ad, reading, "all you CATS in the los angeles area... you're invited to marie & gene deitch's regular Friday night record sessions." At our little Hollywood bungalow on Westbourne Drive, my wife would whomp up a large pot of beans and weenies, and we brewed a tank of coffee. Everyone who came gave 50 cents to defray expenses, and contribute to our current favorite candidate -- always a Democrat... We met a lot of new people that way. They were all fans of traditional jazz, but some were certainly political radicals, even Communists. There was some political talk, especially having to do with Negro rights, because we were all champions of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds and King Oliver.

So it was a great relief to realize what those generals and admirals had gotten a hold of. I tried to be jolly, and to patiently explain to them the essentials of the above true story. It went over like a lead balloon.

"Mr. Deitch, are you telling us that you allowed perfect strangers to come into your home?"

I could tell right away that these guys were definitely not jazz fans. How in the name of Buddy Bolden was I going to convince these men that we did exactly that; opened our house each week to perfect strangers, just to listen to jazz records, and not to plot the overthrow of the U.S. Government by force and violence? I went over the story from every which way, trying to get them to understand a glimmer of what goes on in the heads of young jazz fanatics.

Even when they seemed on the verge of half-way believing me, they came on with the typical poison pill of that time: The List.

"We have a list here of those we suspect of being Communist agitators, who regularly visited your home. Will you please look over this list carefully, and tell me which of them you knew?"

That was it. I expected that I was sunk. I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there were names I knew. I did my best not to react.

"Sirs, even if I might recognize some names on this list it wouldn't mean that I thought they were subversives. Even by saying I know someone could mean I was making some sort of accusation. I traveled here from Detroit at my own expense for the purpose of defending myself. I'm willing to talk about myself, even if I think that it is wrong that I must do so in order to save my career, but I am not willing to talk about anyone else."

I wrote all of this down when I returned from Washington, so I can be sure that is what I said. I assumed I was cooked. After several more tries to get me to at least admit I knew anyone on the list, they let me go, and told me I would be informed of their decision by registered letter within one month. It was probably the longest and gloomiest month of my life. Sure enough, 30 days later a registered letter appeared in my mailbox.

"The Industrial Employment Review Board of the United States Department of Defense informs you that the decision to deny you access to film projects they have or might have in production at the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit, Michigan is hereby reversed." It seemed an agonizingly long eye-span just to get to that last lovely word!

My only guess of the reason for this deliverance was that they must have figured that I was too young, naïve and nutty to be any real danger to the security of my country.

You can read more about Gene's career in the world of animation in How To Succeed In Animation (Don't Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!). An AWN exclusive.

Gene Deitch is one of the last surviving members of the original Hollywood UPA studio of 1946 and the instigator of the CBS-Terrytoon "renaissance" of 1956-1958. He was also: Animation Department Chief of the Detroit Jam Handy Organization, 1949-1951, Creative Chief of UPA-New York, 1951-1954, Director at John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc. New York, 1955, President of Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. New York, 1958-1960, Creative Director for Rembrandt Films, 1960-1968, and star director for Weston Woods Studios, Inc., Weston, Connecticut, 1968-1993. He has worked for over 40 years with the Prague animation studio, "Bratri v Triku."