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How To Succeed in Animation

Chapter 17: GDA, Inc. Fate Comes Calling

Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. -- possibly the most insignificant animation studio in the history of peg-holes, but MUNRO was born there, and it became my way-station to an entirely new life. Perhaps I am the first "Born-Again Animator!"

Deitch’s dream project was Samson Scrap & Delilah, but he wouldn’t sell out to Screen Gems.

The personal manager of Bob Keeshan — Captain Kangaroo — at that lunch at the Plaza Hotel in 1956 was Marvin Josephson. He was still a boyish, freckle-faced youngster of about 30, smoking a cigar and exhaling confidence. He was already the manager of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and other leading CBS personalities. After the Terrytoons disaster he became my personal manager, spinning dreams of millions for me.

The first task was to find backers for a studio to have the glorious name, “Gene Deitch Associates, Inc.” Marvin took 15% of my income, and took over the payment of my personal household bills. He did a lot of things, but not what I had expected: to find backers and clients for my new studio. “I am not an agent,” he declared. I was learning, but still a babe in the business woods.

I figured I could manage my grocery bills myself, and walked into his office and told him I really didn’t need a personal manager. I assumed that he, who had all these famous, gold-plated clients, would surely be happy to get rid of me. But he was furious! He made out that he was losing a potential Walt Disney. The thing is, I had no such illusions. Josephson went on to head the biggest personal management operation on the planet. I just pooped along, alone.

In 1958, my best friend, New York actor Allen Swift and I concocted an animation property named Samson Scrap & DelilahSamson Scrap was a dedicated junk man. “Better Things For Better Living Through Junk,” was Samson’s twist on the DuPont slogan of that time. Delilah was his lady horse, pulling Samson’s wagon, loaded with castoff treasures, to the magical garden of rusted stuff that was his junkyard. Two boys, living in what appeared to be the slums of Queens, named Pinetop and Washboard, (named after two of my favorite bluesmen), were Samson’s devoted acolytes, seeing in Samson’s treasure of trash the makings of unlimited new fun constructions. (Harking back to the days when kids still made their own toys!)

We felt we had the makings of the perfect animated series, exactly at the time that Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera were getting into it. We took the idea to Screen Gems, the branch of Columbia Pictures devoted to the budding TV syndication market. Screen Gems was headed by the legendary hardball producer, Ralph Cohn, who also handled H&B.

Cohn went for our idea immediately. The wicked gleam in his eye told us that he saw a chance to have a counter weight against Bill and Joe, who he stated were “getting too big for their britches.”

The H&B product at that time was limited to Ruff & Reddy and Huckleberry Hound, but those boys had already found the cheap production road to riches, well beyond their britches of the time. Anyway, Ralph presented me with a contract the thickness of your average phonebook. My lawyer waded through it and assured me that my grandchildren might see a few nickels from it, (in their maturity). In return for ten grand to produce three six-minute pilots, the contract gave Screen Gems rights to the next six properties we might create! One can easily understand why H&B got out from their clutches at the earliest opportunity.

Well, as much as we yearned to get Samson Scrap & Delilah into the Big Time, we reluctantly said no thank you, and thus H&B made the millions and not us. So it goes.

But I did land a large consulting contract with the Madison Avenue ad agency, Cunningham & Ross for their Folgers Coffee account, and that gave me the base to get my company set up. So Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. moved into an upper floor of the Sophia storage building on Manhattan’s west side. Jules Feiffer made a brilliant series of promotional mailing pieces, (several reproduced in this book) and we were off to a grand start.

Also from my Terrytoons staff, Al Kouzel became my staff director and George Singer head animator. With Allen Swift. I created a character named Captain Folger for our first series of commercials, and the storyboards for Samson Scrap & Delilah and Jules Feiffer’s Munro went up on my office wall, waiting for some rich angel to fly in and feather them with financing. That was the real goal of GDA, inc. I’ve told this story before in my book of memoirs, For the Love of Prague.

While awaiting cash-heavy angels, my little group was relegated to the bread and butter business of TV commercials. I was not at all happy being the president of a company. I am no businessman, and the weight of responsibility was unnerving, even though we started with some lucrative contracts. What I wanted to do were story films, which I had so much fun doing at Terrytoons. The bitterness of my expulsion made even my name, glistening over the door of my own studio seem a bringdown, and nixing what had seemed like my ticket to the Big Time with Screen Gems, just added to my funk.

Into this gloom materialized William L. Snyder. He did not at all look like your average angel. He was 40 years old, prematurely gray, wore a striped seersucker suit and expelled paralyzing clouds of smoke from his illegal Cuban cigars. His most penetrating features were his Paul Newman-blue eyes. He was a man who could talk anybody into anything, as I was soon to find out. He exuded confidence, enthusiasm and charm. He referred to himself as “beautiful,” and considered himself irresistible, and a mover and shaker in one body. He had earlier phoned, claiming he had been looking for the best animator in New York. I didn’t inform him that he possibly had the wrong number. What he had was an unappealing proposition.

“I have some animated films in production,” he began, “but they’re in trouble, and I’m told you’re the only one who can straighten them out.”

“If you mean you’ll assign your films to my studio, I’ll gladly look them over and decide if we can do what you want done with them.”

“That’s the only catch,” he said, delicately drawing on his stogie. “The work has to be done in my facilities.”

“Well, that’s out. As you can see, I’ve got my own studio to keep busy. I can’t undercut my staff by directing films elsewhere. Anyway,” I said, “I have no interest in kibitzing to another animator’s films!”

He kept after me. Showing up nearly every day for a couple of weeks. “Look,” he insisted, “These are very interesting children’s films, beautifully done, but they just don’t have the timing and pizzazz that I need.”

But what I wanted to do were the two projects pinned to my wall. My phone rang, and, as I spoke, I noticed Snyder was looking over the two storyboards. The moment I hung up he turned toward me with an offer he was sure I couldn’t refuse.

“I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do,” said Snyder, exhaling another numbing cloud of smoke. He then proceeded to make me the Golden Proposal: “If you will help me with my films, I will finance your Munro and Samson Scrap projects. You can direct them, and if they don’t come out the way you want, you can throw the film in the garbage, and keep the rights.

“Why shouldn’t they come out the way I want?” I asked.

“Well, it is barely possible that you may not like the way the animators in my facilities do them. If I back the films, they must be produced in my facilities.”

“So just where are your facilities?” I asked, succumbing inevitably to Snyder’s persistence, but hoping it would at least be within walking distance or a short taxi ride from my GDA studio.

"In Prague," he said, coolly examining the "Munro" storyboards at closer range.

Prague? I was incredulous. My mind flashed back to my Army days in World War II. I'd done my basic training at Camp Gruber - which looked just like it sounded - in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Look at the map: Just a few miles to the south-west is a poke town named Prague, where we used to go to a bar while on weekend leave. 

"Come on!," I hooted, at last catching on that this was some sort of gag. "You're not going to tell me that you have an animation studio in Prague, Oklahoma?" 

"No, no!" Now he thought I was the one who was joking. "My studio is in Prague, Czechoslovakia. 

"What??!! Isn't that one of those communist countries?" I had, after all, heard of the country whose betrayal at Munich had precipitated World War II, and which ultimately fell into the red clutches of the Soviet Union. "I am certainly not willing to go there!Finito!" But he wasn't about to give up now. 

"It's not what you think! There are some great people over there, and this has nothing to do with politics. They need hard currency; I need films. It's strictly business. They've even set up a special 'Snyder Unit' to do my films. 

In the years leading up to that fateful day, Bill Snyder had been a marginal distributor of 16mm films, specializing in the educational and institutional markets. This was long before video. After World War II, he began scrounging around Europe, looking for bargain films he could acquire for U.S. distribution. He had a special love for puppet films, and had been looking for some in Munich. "The very best puppet films," he was told, "are by Jirí Trnka of Czechoslovakia. But unfortunately, no one can go there." 

That was all Bill Snyder needed to hear: that there was somewhere he "couldn't" go. The challenge was irresistible. But he soon found he could hardly even telephonethere. In fact, it took all day to finally arrange a call for the following day to Czechoslovak Filmexport, the official state-run film trade organization. His smooth talking and broad hints of Big Money actually elicited a business visa-the first, Snyder later claimed, issued to an American since the Communists seized power in 1948. 

The great man first arrived in Prague in 1955. He screened films for days, buying many. He had excellent taste, and had good results with the magical puppet films of Jirí Trnka, along with several other cartoon gems. They sold well in the school and library market, and some did well in art house movie distribution, receiving rave reviews. Seeing that he had stumbled onto a good thing, and beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel of existing films, he wondered if the Czechs might actually produce new films for him, on order. For as beautiful as those early Czech classics of animation were, they were not American in character or pace, and their U.S. distribution possibilities were limited. It was clear the Czechs could do beautiful work, so why not do it on stories supplied by Snyder?

One of the why-nots was that this was a "socialist" country with a "socialist" cultural agenda. Why should they lower themselves to produce bourgeois stories for "imperialist Amerika?" But when Snyder mentioned what he would pay for such work, ideology quickly took a back seat to pragmatism. Actually, it was peanuts for Snyder, but even a few dollars were hard to come by in Czechoslovakia during the 1950s.

So it was arranged for Snyder to visit the animation studio. It was called the "Brothers in Trick" studio, and still is today. This strange name is a play on the European tradition of calling animation films "trick" films. Playing with this, one of the leading animators of the studio, Zdenek Miler (pronounced Mill-air) drew three little curly-haired boys wearing striped T-shirts as the studio trademark. In case you've ever wondered why T-shirts are called T-shirts, it's because they are made of cotton tricot. So the "tricot brothers" formed a visual pun for a group who made "trick" films! 

On the big day William L. Snyder, with his self-assured American bearing, his bright blue eyes, and his incredible seersucker suit, was to visit the Klárov studio, waves of whispered excitement pulsed through the "temporary" wooden structure. (The building actually had a sign on it, "TEMPORARY STRUCTURE," though no one there could remember when it had been put up.) After the grand tour, he took a long puff on his cigar in the office of Vojen Masník, the studio manager. "OK" he announced, "if you'll set up a unit for me, I'll guarantee a minimum of eight films per year at $5,000 each. Very big deal.

These people had never met anyone like Snyder. With no idea whether or not he was kidding, they promptly appointed a young woman named Zdenka Najmanova as head of the "Snyder unit." She picked the best people for her crew, and three floors were commandeered in a building on Maxim Gorky Square that once housed the Prague stock exchange, long since abolished by the Communists. 

Back in New York, Snyder now needed stories to produce. So from his East 59th Street office he ducked around the corner to the Doubleday Bookstore, at that time on 5th Avenue. He happened to have very good taste. He bought three "Madeline" books and "Fifi," by Ludwig Bemelmans, "Many Moons" by James Thurber, "The Smiling Prince" by Crockett Johnson, "Anatole" by Eve Titus, and several other children's picture books of equally high quality. 

In those days there existed only a minuscule 16mm school and library market for films based on children's books, so acquiring the film rights was a simple matter: Snyder simply opened each book to its title page, noted the publisher, and gave them a ring. They were thrilled that some fool was willing to invest money in a film version of their books. Realizing that a film could increase book sales, they were naturally eager to give Bill the rights, often for as little as fifty bucks each! 

He sent the books back to Zdenka in Prague, where she and her staff set diligently to work. When the filmed results started coming in, Snyder saw that it was indeed beautiful work: the animation was smooth, graphically following the style and color of each book, and was accompanied by lovely original music. There was, however, one unexpected problem: The films lacked pace, timing, rhythm. They were ponderously slow. At that moment it dawned on Snyder that he had forgotten one thing" to hire his own director.

While I was away in Prague, my GDA staff reassured me that they were working hard, by sending me these Polaroids. That's Al Kouzel brandishing the "GDA" flag, Ken Drake, my production manager, on his back guzzling a water cooler sized "tequila, and you can spot George Singer leering at a girlie magazine. All in good fun, but the sad part for them was that my trip to Prague signaled the end of my studio...

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