How at the age of 22 I lucked into the den of geniuses. Who they were. What it was like. Why they let me in. Why I left.
Sure, I always drew pictures as a kid. I am left-handed. I made little kid newspapers, using carbon paper, hectograph gelatin, and mimeograph stencils. I put up a bed sheet on the wall, and made a slide projector out of a shoebox, with a toilet paper tube and a magnifying glass as a lens. I made little comic strips. Then for Christmas, I got a new-fangled two-lens paper strip projector. With itX I could make simple two-position animations. Finally, I got a hand-cranked toy16mm film projector and little loops of Mickey Mouse cartoons, which I ran backwards and forwards to study. Everything I did, as a little kid, all those things, the drawing, the writing for an audience, the love of technical gadgetry related to putting on a show, all eventually came together to prepare me for becoming an animation director. But how to actually get there? When I grew up, needing job, there was a cartoonists' union. You couldn't get into if you didn't have a job in the industry, and you couldn't get into the industry if you weren't a member of the union. So how do you get around "Catch-22 obstacles?"
Luck!. My luck was that the leaders of UPA were all jazz fans, and during the mid-1940s I was doing cartoons and graphics for an obscure jazz magazine, called “The Record Changer,” which they all read, My further luck was that one of the key men at UPA, Bill Hurtz, just happened to be president of the cartoonists union. My greatest luck was that the UPA people liked the graphics I was doing for the magazine, and wanted to hire me as an apprentice designer!
I'd been a jazz fan from the age of 15. My wife and I had no money for a social life, so in 1945 we opened our little Hollywood bungalow every Friday night for come-one-come-all jazz record sessions. I was and still am a traditional jazz fanatic. After doing odd illustration jobs, and a stint as a one-man art staff in a tiny L.A. ad agency, I finally landed a solid job as assistant to the art director of CBS Radio in Hollywood. There, I gained experience in typography and graphic design. Doing artwork for The Record Changer was a labor of love and no money, but I was running wild, cribbing styles from the best illustrators of the time, learning from them.
CBS at that time had one of America's greatest graphic designers as its art director, William Goldman. Just for one thing, he created the famous CBS "eye" logo, still in regular use as the company's icon. Good graphic design pervaded the company and its subsidiaries. Columbia Records featured the work of James Flora, whose wild graphic explosions strongly influenced my stuff for CBS Radio and my covers and cartoons for The Record Changer. I carried over his influence to the gag cartoons I also did for the magazine. I created a fanatic jazz lover character I called "The CAT."
There was nothing in the magazine that indicated where I lived. UPA wouldn't have located me, nor I them, if it weren't for a remarkable coincidence. One of the features of The Record Changer was its classified "want lists" of rare jazz records. White neighborhood record shops of the post-war period hardly ever stocked true jazz, so I put in a "want" for a Jelly Roll Morton disc I'd been lusting for, and I soon received a postcard from a guy right near me in Hollywood. He had the record! In a flash I was knocking on the door of William Bernal, a remarkable man who was to become my closest friend and co-worker for the next thirty years. As soon as he opened the door and I flashed the postcard and announced my name, he said, "Are you the same Gene Deitch that draws for The Record Changer? I know some people who are looking for you!"
It turned out that Bill was a writer, and was at that moment doing a story for the UPA studio! He told me that John Hubley and others admired my work. My work! These were genius creators, and I was a novice designer cribbing right and left from other greats! This was an astounding gift of luck for me.
So there you have it: be prepared for a lucky break whenever it surfaces. A door opens at least once for everyone. The trick is to be ready and willing to walk through it, and to be good enough not to be thrown out again. I managed. If you can't do it right off, at least try to fake it until you can!
All UPA could promise me was temporary work as an apprentice. That was all the Cartoonists Union of that time would allow. It was June, 1946, and those were the rules. I could only be a part-time apprentice. But Steve Bosustow, the great spell-weaver, put his hand on my 22-year-old shoulder, and said, "Gene, we are going to mold you into the first pure UPA director!" They had gotten it into their heads that anyone who'd worked for Disney, Warners, MGM, Columbia, or the rest, were "spoiled." They wanted young raw meat, which they could cook to their own recipe. They liked my work, and they seemed to think I was "The One." I was enough enthralled to give up my good steady CBS Radio job for the less-than-certain chance to become the first "pure UPA" man. My wife was not thrilled with the move.
John Hubley took me under his wing as his protégé, and put me together with Bill Hurtz, to learn - not merely animation layout - but UPA-style production design. Hurtz taught me the nuts and bolts of animation construction, and Hub was my creative inspiration. Bill Hurtz was a great raconteur, teacher, and animation historian. He filled me in on the Disney history that I had missed. He taught me everything there was to know about peg holes, pan bars, field guides, camera planning - and he was by no means short on artistic conception - how to stage scenes to expand the meaning and dramatic flow of a film. I still feel that everything I know about any of these things, I first learned from Bill Hurtz. From Hub, I learned new ways of looking at, and thinking about things - how to expand the vision that a camera provides. He had a supreme sense of character development and story-telling - always in fresh, new ways.
I looked, I listened, and I worked hard at it. I was watching when Mister Magoo was born. Eventually, I got to be Bobe Cannon's production designer. I was surrounded by geniuses. It was clear enough, even to naïve me, that Steve's grand promise was mainly wind, designed to keep my salary low, and yet my hopes high.
Hell, I was thrilled to the gills to be even a minimum part of that group. It was one of those occasions where you knew you were in a place and time of historic importance. I am sure they all knew they were into something big, and that it was only a question of time before fame and fortune would bless us. Only a little thing like poverty was standing in our way.
UPA was born at a time before cynicism set in to our culture. We all really believed. Of course, as the first outsider brought into the hallowed circle, I believed most of all. I was in the company of titans, and I knew it. Just 22 years old, and I was having my boyhood dream come true, to actually be working in a real movie cartoon studio - no - an animation film studio. UPA was not only creating a basically new approach to animation, but also upgrading the nomenclature. Bill Hurtz was not a mere "layout man," he was a “Production Designer!”
Here was a small group of men and women who were onto something brand new - working on the idea that any form of graphic art could be animated. Out with the "house styles" of Disney, Warners, MGM, or Paramount! Every film was to be approached as an entirely new adventure, its graphic style, mode of animation, music - every element - growing out of the particular story. This seems obvious enough today, but in the early and mid-forties - in a commercial studio - it was a cosmic idea.
John Hubley especially, was an original thinker. Here’s one example from a later period that illustrates the point: We were walking down the street together in New York, and John was telling me his conception for an assignment he had from CBS Radio, which was trying desperately to hang onto its advertising sponsors against the then new onslaught of television. How can you use a powerful visual medium such as film, to sell a strictly audio medium? John had a brilliantly original idea: “Suppose,” he said, “you have a camera that visually photographs only sounds? What you will see on the screen are only things defined by the sound they make, and only when they are making the sounds, after which they imited!Meets The Eye,” produced for CBS Radio in the mid-1950s. It told a story on film only through the use of visualized sounds. It was in the end a losing battle for radio. Perhaps Hub's film only proved the superiority of a visual media, but I thought it was a genius early attempt to sell the evocative quality of sounds! That conversation that influence my entire career! It made me understand the true and deeper function of movie sound!
The most common misconception about the UPA creators was that they favored "limited animation." What they actually endeavoured was to get the most that really mattered onto the screen, in spite of miserly budgets. So the emphasis was on ideas - story - rich design, drawn from the greatest painters, designers, and illustrators of the world, present and past - evocative soundtracks - and good animation. Some of the greatest animators alive worked on UPA films: Chuck Jones, Art Babbitt, Bill Littlejohn, Bobe Cannon. They had to use fewer drawings ("limited animation"), but superb timing and acting. That was un-limited!
The UPA idea was gestated during WW II where the U.S. Army Signal Corps had set up a unit to produce animated training films at the old Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California. A phenomenally talented group of dedicated refugees from the 1941 Disney strike were holed up there, held together by Frank Capra. They were safe from combat duty, but doing greater good with their brilliant propaganda films, including the notorious "Private Snafu" cartoons. (Presumably, the brass either didn't know or chose to ignore that the character's name, was an acronym of the soldiers' lament, "Situation Normal, All Fucked Up.")
New ideas were born and toilet-trained in this no-holds-barred, non-commercial haven, and after the war, they held together in a shoestring outfit burdened with the name, "Industrial Film & Poster Service," organized by Zack Schwartz and Dave Hilberman. The "films" at first were just filmstrips, rolls of still frames. Being strong Unionists and political Liberals, their first real animated movie was a rousing vote-booster for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sponsored by the CIO union, and titled "Hell-Bent for Election". They wanted to call themselves "United Films," but someone else already had that name. So almost as a gag, they built that name up to heroic proportions: "United Productions of America!" It was a weighty moniker for a tiny group of 12 guys and gals whose only size was in their ideas.
By 1946 Zack and Dave had split. An obscure assistant animator from Disney, Steve Bosustow, managed to come up with some money, and he became president of UPA It was a tight, hungry band. Here is my memory of the entire staff in June 1946, when I was first hired:
- Steve Bosustow, president/producer
- Ed Gershman, business manager
- John Hubley, creative leader/storyman/director
- Phil Eastman, storyman
- Bill Hurtz, production designer
- Joyce Weir, staff animator
- Selby Daly, assistant animator
- (Animation greats, such as Bobe Cannon, Chuck Jones, Bill Littlejohn, Art Babbit, worked as externists.)
- Herb Klynn, background painter
- Jules Engel, assistant background painter
- Ade Woolery, production manager
- Gene Deitch, apprentice production designer
- Barbara Baldwin, ink & paint supervisor
- Maxine Davis, secretary extaordinaire
We were installed in a tiny loft at the corner of Selma and Vine streets in Hollywood. It was the Otto K. Oleson building.Oleson was the supplier of all those huge Klieg lights that waved through the sky during Hollywood movie premiers. The top floor was unusual in that the hallways between the rooms were roofless. Whenever it rained, we had to stuff wads of drawings under our shirts, and dash with them from room to room!
This humble workplace reinforced one of my favorite theories, developed over the years: "The worst working conditions often produce the best work." When UPA began to prosper, and a great architect was commissioned to design the new studio building in Burbank, things were never the same. The studio promptly began to lose its "brothers and sisters together" joy. Financial pressures, the need to place blame, and huddled conspiracies, began to force splits.
I found this ironic situation repeated over and over during my career. >>> Bad conditions tend to hold people together. <<<. Elegant surroundings, great offices and impressive furniture lead to pushing and shoving for prime locations and status. But the UPA of the Otto K. Oleson building had no such problems. It was Poverty Productions, and had a fantastic creative cohesion. The basic UPA conceptions bloomed within that building!
They were still doing Air Force Flight Safety films when I came in. The most famous was "Flathatting," about the dangers of showing off by flying too low. It was one of John Hubley's early masterpieces, along with the Dover Boys, and other films that used biting humor and advanced graphics to teach safety. Earlier they had done "Brotherhood of Man," the first film to use a Saul Steinberg-style character. Everything was creatively and politically exciting. I was thrilled to become a small part of this group, and to work on films of such groundbreaking importance. Among the early films I worked on were the Flight Safety series.
I got my first chance to do layouts and design on my own on a pilot for “Dusty of The Circus,” on which I used a then new technique of drawing directly on frosted cels with Ebony pencils, eliminating inking. It was an early low-cost production experiment.
It was the most thrilling time of my career, when it was barely budding. I sat at an animation desk right beside Bill Hurtz, who lectured me non-stop as we worked, filling me in on the Disney Studio history, which I had missed. Bill taught me the tight integration between the technical and artistic construction of a film. He knew the hows and whys, and I have spent the rest of my career doing my best to apply them. Bill was not only a master of his art and craft, but a thorough teacher and marvelous storyteller.
I mentioned that the UPA guys were jazz fans and refugees from Disney. Some of Disney's top animators were also jazz musicians, most notably Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas. So was George Bruns. They had an informal jazz band they called the "San Gabriel Valley Blue Blowers." The Blue Blowers came over one magical night in 1947, and we had a jazz recording orgy in the UPA projection room. I was an amateur recordist and had a primitive disc recorder. It was before tape. A vibrating needle cut a spiral groove on a glass disc coated with plastic Those old 78 RPM recordings have a special value today, because the trombone-playing Ward Kimball also owned an antique fire engine, and later renamed his group "The Firehouse Five plus Two," launching him into a parallel career as a dixielander.
I was a bright-green, naïve kid. I was the one who was sent on a studio chase to borrow the non-existant "cel-stretcher," when one was needed to increase the length of panorama artwork. I was the one who laughed at all the sophisticated jokes by the big guys, even if I didn't get the obscure points.
I was eager. I worked hard. I believed in everything UPA stood for. Unfortunately, the projects didn't often overlap. I was regularly laid-off at the end of every film. I had to go home and wait for the phone to ring. It was usually a month on, and two weeks off. With two small sons, I was a nervous wreck. I had given up a steady and secure job at CBS for this dreamlike and vaporous existence.
The essential barrier to my being a regular was Union membership. In those days the Cartoonists Union was a closed shop, with Catch 22 as its basic code: you couldn't be a Union member without a regular job in a contract studio, and you couldn't get a regular studio job if you didn't belong to the Union. I needed an "exception," and my next great piece of luck was that at that very time Bill Hurtz was president of the Union! Fortunately he liked and believed in me, and was able to get me the needed exception. I got my Union card, and was upped from from temp to tenure. I was able to be a small part of the first Columbia Pictures "Fox & Crow" cartoons, and the birth of Mister Magoo.
In the twisting labyrinth of time and acquisitions, Magoo blundered his way into the camp of the enemy! In 1998 The Walt Disney Studios released a morosely misguided live-action feature film version of Magoo. What a tragic comedown! The UPA studio was set up by Disney-haters, who had left Disney to establish their own "anti-Disney" approach to animation. But ultimately, UPA's most successful character was usurped by that very empire!
By the time I made full-fledged production designer on my own, Bobe Cannon was in the studio full time, and I became his designer, still on the Flight Safety series. We were on the verge of the greatest UPA period, but in 1949, before it reached full bloom I received an unexpected offer that required a wrenching decision.
After my discharge from the Air Force in 1944, but with the war-effort still on, I was working in the Visual Aids department of Lockheed Aircraft. My boss was a man named Bill Murray. He developed the first automatic filmstrip projector. We also made simple 16mm training films and other visual aids for the wartime aircraft factory workers. After the war, Murray had taken a job as film director for an distant commercial film company, The Jam Handy Organization, in, of all places, Detroit, Michigan. There really was a man named Jam Handy, Jamison Handy, and his large organization had a tight and profitable connection with General Motors. They produced all the GM sales-promotion films. Murray was successful with them, but his films suffered from the primitive quality of the Jam Handy animation department. He kept up a propaganda blitz with Jam that JHO needed fresh blood. He had heard that I was with UPA, and he built me up as a bright young animator. So, out of the blue, another door opened for me.
I received a letter from JHO, offering me a job. Ordinarily, it would have been laughable. Was I, having achieved my boyhood dream of a job in a Hollywood animation studio - THE Hollywood animation studio - going to swap Hollywood for Detroit? But Bill Murray urged that this would be a chance for me to spread my wings, and become a director. It was true that I was in UPA, that I had gotten into the Union, and that I was Bobe Cannon's layout man - er, “Production Designer” - but I could see that it would be years before I could ever hope to be a director at UPA. The studio was constantly on the verge of financial collapse, and there was John Hubley, Bobe Cannon, and free-lance directors of the highest level all around me. How could I ever make it in the midst of these gods? I talked it over with Hub. I was secretly hoping he would plead with me. "Don't leave us, Gene! Your future is here!" No such luck.
He valued me, he told me, but advised me to take the offer. Sooner or later I would have to fly out of the nest, and here was the chance to shine on my own. He assured me that I would always be welcomed back if it didn't work out. Could I risk that?
*NOTE: My Record Changer magazine cover drawings and "CAT-toons" of the 1940s and 50s became collectors’ items. By 2013, Fantagraphics publishers of Seattle, Washington, had put all of my cover designs and CAT cartoons in two beautifully printed book editions, titled, “THE CAT ON A HOT, THIN GROOVE,” first in hard cover and later in soft cover. Now available on Amazon.com.