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UPA: Back to the Future — Part 2

Gene Deitch continues his tales of adventures with UPA.

An excerpt from Gene Deitchs book, How To Succeed In Animation (Dont Let A Little Thing Like Failure Stop You!).

Read UPA: Back to the Future Part 1 from the beginning.

Bert & Harry Piel almost stirred up a controversy as Aryan Bert. The series of commercials won Deitch his second NY Art Directors Club Gold Medal in 1953.

Bert & Harry Piel almost stirred up a controversy as Aryan Bert. The series of commercials won Deitch his second NY Art Directors Club Gold Medal in 1953.

We did the first commercials ever with Saul Steinberg, working with him personally. I was dazzled at the chance to visit my cartoon idol in his wondrous clock and rocking chair filled apartment. The spots were for Jell-O Instant Pudding, of all things, but they won me my first New York Art Directors Club Gold Medal.

Our biggest commercial success was in the long series of Bert & Harry Piel beer spots. The beer was dreadful, but the commercials boosted its sales phenomenally. (When Piels finally switched to another ad campaign, the company quickly collapsed!) The characters and dialog were actually created by Young & Rubicam writer, Ed Graham, and were voiced by the phenomenal Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding, Bob & Ray, but my design and direction of the series won me my second NY Art Directors Club Gold Medal and a lot of career points. The most hilarious fall-out was from the original name of the series, Harry & Bert. A woman viewer wrote a scathing letter to the Piels Beer company, castigating them in a fierce diatribe for their fascist advertising campaign about Aryan Bert! The company flipped out, and were demanding we immediately cancel the series, until we saved the situation and our hides by simply reversing the order of the names to Bert & Harry.

The most run TV spot of all is the NBC color peacock, which Deitch animated in the 50s. © 2003 NBC, Inc. All rights reserved.

The most run TV spot of all is the NBC color peacock, which Deitch animated in the 50s. © 2003 NBC, Inc. All rights reserved.

Producing the first animated version of the NBC color peacock, in those days long before any sort of digital enhancement, we tried every which way to achieve the required maximum color brilliance on film. I went shopping in a theatrical supply house and got some color gels of the kind used over Broadway stage lights. Using the bottom lights of our Acme animation stand, normally for shooting pencil tests, and working with our experienced photographer cameraman, Wardell Gaynor, we achieved a stained glass window effect, which did the trick. There was no easy computer coloring in those days! The animated NBC peacock, only five seconds long, was probably the most run TV shot of all. It was shown at the beginning of every color broadcast for years. The following program is brought to you in living color! I assigned an unknown but brilliant young composer, Irwin Bud Bazelon to write the NBC color musical theme. The royalties made Bud a rich man and a lifelong friend.

Then we did the original opening titles for Alistair Cooks landmark Omnibus show, and we had to devise in-camera tricks to get the drama needed for that. The Omnibus opening won me my third New York Art Directors Club Gold Medal.

I am especially proud of two of my UPA-NY films, produced in 1952-3, both now obscure to the point of invisibility. One was a custom made 2-reeler for The American Heart Association, called Pump Trouble. My good friend, writer Bill Bernal, the same who first brought me to UPA in Hollywood, helped me with the story, for which we cribbed some ideas from Citizen Kane. Cliff Roberts did the design, and Grim Natwick and Duane Crowther were the animators.

Cliff Roberts models for Pump Trouble (1952).

Cliff Roberts models for Pump Trouble (1952).

As it was to be my first longer film project, and a chance to show my stuff, I went all out to get just the right people onto the project. Through a talent agency we sent out a call for the best voice actors in New York, and soon our waiting room was full of voice men and women. The most unlikely looking was a young stand up comic and illusionist who was then doing nearly all the voices on the Howdy Doody Show. That already put him down in my estimation. But I gave him a chance. After going over the story with him, I asked which of the eight characters he though he could do. He then tried one after the other, including the women parts. He was Allen Swift, and he actually performed all eight voices. After hearing him, I sent all of the other applicants home. Allen not only did all of the voices for Pump Trouble, but for countless other of my films over the years, and became my closest personal friend. I am happy to say he still is. Incidentally, the only voice on the Howdy Doody Show that Allen did not do was that of Howdy himself. Buffalo Bob Smith said no one could do Howdy but himself. But Smith had a heart attack, and there was no Howdy voice for the next days show! Allen took a recording home of Smiths highly personalized Howdy Doody voice, and studied it overnight. He went on as Howdy in the next show, and continued to do it, along with all the other voices, for a year while Bob Smith was convalescing. No viewer ever noticed the difference!

Dynamic music was created for Pump Trouble, by the then blazing Spanish composer, Carlos Surinach, who later performed it as a concert piece. The film was a big success for the Heart folks and for me at that time. I probably have the only surviving 16mm print, which I keep on a heart-lung machine.

From the Allen Swift connection, the Kagran Corp., producers of the phenomenally successful NBC Howdy Doody Show, gave us an assignment to do a test film about Howdy. It was a chance to do my first purely entertainment cartoon. My best buddy Bill Bernal and I worked up a story we called, Howdy Doody and His Magic Hat. It was designed by Cliff Roberts, and animated, (paper cut-out style), by Duane Crowther. We reveled in the opportunity; while at the same time did everything possible to make our film look as different as possible from what we all considered to be a grotesquely ugly puppet and an unspeakably cornball kid show. Cliff, Duane and I gleefully subverted it and went all out to make it a true UPA film.

Kagran accepted the result coolly, but we were proud of it, and I still am, though I havent seen it in years. (My later producer Bill Snyder lost my only print.) I will recount the storyline here from distant memory, in the slim hope that one of you might have a clue as to where a copy could be obtained.

A gaudy cowboy, wearing a bejeweled 10-gallon white hat is riding a bucking bronco. Howdy is watching with admiration. If he only had that hat, he could ride a bronco too. Suddenly a gust of wind blows the hat off the cowboys head. Howdy chases after it. The hat swirls off into a deep forest. It lands on a dejected eagles head, and instantly, the eagle is transformed into our national symbol. Then the hat blows off again and lands on a sleepy lions head, and he is transformed into a heraldic icon, etc. The hat finally lands on Howdys head, and he is now full of confidence. He rides the bronco, but again the wind blows away the hat. Can he do it without the Magic Hat? He does it.

The film surfaced once on UPAs pioneering color TV serial, The Boing-Boing Show, and then sank from sight forever. I would give hugs and kisses, and a good deal more substantial to anyone who could come up with a print of that one, my first entertainment cartoon! In 30 years of trying, I have been unable to track it down.

It is devastating to me, as I write this, that Bill Bernal, Grim Natwick, Bud Bazelon, Duane Crowther, Cliff Roberts and others are gone. All of them did so much to make me look good.

Our TV commercials were the first ever shown at the New York Museum of Modern Art. I suppose that MOMA show was our greatest moment actually a month-long-moment. It was in 1954 when the museum, just down the block from our Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street studio, presented the month-long series of screenings of our films. Steve of course showed up for the opening, and gave me a glorious introduction. So all was splendid.

Introducing each daily screening was a kinescope film of the nationwide CBS-TV show, Lets Take a Trip, which was a visit to our UPA-NY studio. I was the guide on the show that featured Sonny Fox and two tykes named Pud & Ginger. That kinnie is another lost film I would love to see again. (MOMA has staged shows of my films twice more, the latest was in 1996, titled A Tribute to Gene Deitch and Rembrandt Films, but of course the one in 1954 was the one that put us on the map.)

We rode high in New York, but yet slid the financial slopes. Steve continuously siphoned our TV commercial profits to support the artistic efforts of the Hollywood studio, and we were entirely dependent on UPA-Hollywood for our rent and paychecks. We had to lock ourselves in the office every payday, hoping to God wed receive the checks before the staff would beat the door down. What we did receive were almost daily peptalks from Steve on the flexible Dictaphone belts, which came in the mail. No e-mail in those days either, but we got lots of vocal advice from Steve on those belts!

Fred Crippen, who was brought in by Cliff, was a fabulously funny guy on paper, but had a difficult time expressing himself verbally. When he got excited about something, he became almost inarticulate. During one of the many frustrating long-distance phone calls to Steve Bosustow, Fred became increasingly agitated, flailing toward the telephone, blurting out syllables, and wanting me to let him get in his two-cents worth. It was so hilarious, that I attempted to jot down Freds half of the exchange as closely as possible:

Look, Steve... I mean you gotta... theres a... I mean, Man, how much?... When are we?... Look, this place... All of us... I mean, were all... Its gotta... Christ, Man you know... Christ!...

Oh shit! He hung up, still heatedly cursing under his breath. I guess I told him! he said.

Somehow, we survived. Of course, no one outside the studio knew anything except of our roaring success. We were at the corner of 53rd and Fifth, with a Fifth Avenue address. (The building went down a few years later, supplanted by the shiny 666 5th Avenue Building.)

The UPA idyll came to an end under the pressure of Senator Joe McCarthy. I had survived at JHO, but John Hubley was squeezed out of the Burbank studio. Steve did little to save him. In the studio I idolized, originally built on left-wing camaraderie, there was less honor than at the JHO temple of the right. I was depressed. My illusions about UPA faded.

Hub went on to set up Storyboard, Inc. When my idol took me out to lunch and invited me to join him, I felt it was my greatest moment. He who had so easily let me go to try my own wings, in 1949, was now calling me back to his nest in 1954. So I left UPA once again, this time for good. But six months later the dream was shattered again. Hub really didnt let me do anything. He did everything himself. I got the feeling that he had hired me away from UPA just to get revenge against Steve Bosustow, who he felt had fed him to the red-baiting wolves.

But there was no going back. I took up an offer from Robert Lawrence, who ran a large all around commercial studio in New York. It was good money, but it wasnt UPA. Then, after only a few weeks, the biggest door of all opened for me, and through it walked a man named Newt Schwin. He was sent by CBS television to find me and make the offer I could not refuse!

To read more about the production of these classics, visit Genes online book.

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 Hubleys 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 more than 40 years with the Prague animation studio, Bratri v Triku.