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The Lost Studio Of Romer Grey

by Michael Mallory

A cel featuring Binko the Bear Cub from Hot Toe Molly. All illustrations are courtesy of Rollin & Margaret Nesmith/Binko Animation Art.
There are few gaps and mysteries in the history of the animated cartoon. Even lost cartoons are well-known enough to be documented, and while recent animation archaeology has turned up some undeniable treasures, very few true surprises have been unearthed which makes the story of the lost studio of Romer Grey all the more intriguing.

Never heard of Romer Grey? Don't feel bad, you're not alone. The son of Western writer Zane Grey, Romer Grey's career consisted chiefly of adapting his father's works for film and writing some Western stories of his own. In fact, his cartoon studio, which was up and running for barely a year between the summers of 1930 and 1931, seems to be the only of his ventures that was not fed on oats. Still, the Romer Grey studio deserves a place in the history of animation, not for the cartoons it produced (only two of which were completed, though never exhibited), but rather for providing entry into the business for a number of artists who would go on to rank among the industry's all time greats.

The Start Up
The talent roster Grey managed to assemble for his studio reads like a Golden Age who's who: Preston Blair, Pete Burness, Ken Harris, Jack Zander, Bob McKimson, Tom McKimson, Cal Dalton, Bob Stokes, Al Gordon, Paul Allen, Stanley Overton, Lou Zukovsky, Volney White, Andy Partridge, Frank Powers, Bob Simonds, Bruce Smiley and Riley Thompson. For many of the artists, several of whom (like Romer Grey himself) were barely out of their teens at the time, it was their first experience with animation.

An animation drawing by Tom McKimson of a eunuch from Arabian Nightmare.

With financing coming from Romer's mother, socialite Lina Grey, who presided over a fund-raising luncheon to raise the initial capital, Romer Grey Pictures, Ltd. was officially launched in the spring of 1930, and set up shop in the garage in the back of Zane Grey's palatial estate in Altadena, California, just north of Pasadena. From there the 20 year-old entrepreneur prepared to take on the likes of Disney, the Fleischers, Walter Lantz, Charles Mintz, Paul Terry, and the upstart operation that had just been assembled by Hugh Harman, and Rudy Ising for producer Leon Schlesinger.

Possessing no artistic ability himself, Grey hired Volney White to supervise the studio and lured brothers Tom and Bob McKimson away from Disney, where they had been assisting Norm Ferguson and Dick Lundy, respectively. Despite their youth, Tom was 23 and Bob just 19, the McKimsons had more experience than most of the Grey staff and guided the hands of the newer animators, some of whom were recruited directly from local art schools.

"I remember Pete Burness and I were sitting around the lobby of the Chouinard School one Saturday morning and the phone rang," says veteran animator Jack Zander. "A Miss Smith answered, and after hesitating a moment, turned to us and said, 'Are you fellows animators?' We really didn't know what an animator was, but having nothing better to do, we said, 'Yes!' She said [into the phone], 'I happen to have two of them right here and I'll send them right up.' She gave us the address and we went out, jumped into my car and off to Altadena. I remember that we didn't have too much difficulty in convincing Romer that we were the men he needed. He was desperate."

Another young artist with no prior animation experience who answered the call was Preston Blair, who, like Zander and Burness, was hired on the spot and went to work in the Grey garage. In a 1992 interview, the late animator recalled: "One time Zane Grey, the old master, came out to the studio and looked it all over. His idea was that everybody there had a great deal of imagination and he wanted to meet people with imagination. He came out in the backyard to see what the hell was going on."

A Forgotten Bear Cub
What was going on was the attempt to make an animated star out of one Binko the Bear Cub, a cheerful little guy with a globe head, tiny ears and a button nose, all of which combined to create more than a passing resemblance to Mickey Mouse. Four cartoons were planned and at least partially drawn: Arabian Nightmare, Hot Toe Molly (which might have been a take-off on Van Beuren's Hot Tamale, released in the summer of 1930), Binko the Toreador and Sand Witches.

For a while the studio ran smoothly, so much so that Grey attempted to expand the operation by abandoning his father's garage in favor of a building located on Beverly Boulevard, near Vermont, in Hollywood. But with no income to offset the capital outlay (there is no confirmation that Grey had any kind of distribution deal in place), it was not long before problems arose. After a while, paychecks for the artists stopped coming, though the more resourceful among them found a way to fight back.

"A few blocks away [from the studio] there was a drug store that had a counter that served lunch," the late Tom McKimson recalled in 1992. "We got the idea that, if Romer's not going to come up with regular payments, we would go down there for lunch and we'd charge it to him. And we did. A half-a-dozen of us would go there at lunch time and order a hamburger or soup or whatever, and charge it to Romer. Well, this was fine for about a month or so, and then Romer's mother saw those bills coming in and cut us off."

By July of 1931 the studio had two completed Binko cartoons ready to be duped, but Romer's interest was flagging. On top of that, the producer was informed that fifty-thousand dollars was required to keep the operation afloat, and that, apparently, was too much even for Lina Grey. Binko the Bear Cub, the cartoon character who would never be, was finished, and the studio disappeared into obscurity. So did Romer Grey, who died in 1976 at the age of 66, his chief claim to fame still that he was the son of the great Zane Grey.

The Lingering Legacy
For the young animators, it was a different story. Virtually all of them remained in the business and not a few would achieve places on the industry's A-list. Volney White would relocate to Terrytoons in New York; Paul Allen would move on to Disney and become a "Duck Man," specializing in Donald Duck cartoons; Bob Stokes would animate for Ub Iwerks; Cal Dalton would become an animator and director for Schlesinger; Preston Blair would become one of the most respected animators in the business through his work for Disney and Tex Avery; Ken Harris would go on to be Chuck Jones' lead animator; Pete Burness would eventually be a creative force at both UPA and Jay Ward Studios; Jack Zander would animate in the Hanna-Barbera unit at MGM and later head up his own commercial studios; Bob McKimson would achieve renown as a Looney Tunes animator and director; his brother Tom would work in layout at Warners before becoming art director for Western Publishing; and Lou Zukovsky would shorten his name to Zukor and eventually become a fixture at Filmation.

An animation drawing by Robert McKimson featuring Binko the Bear Cub from Arabian Nightmare.

For decades, nothing of the Romer Grey Studio survived except distant echoes in the memories of some veteran animators. Moreover, it would have remained unknown except for a spectacular discovery in 1990. While working in the basement of the Zane Grey house, a plumber and one time sketch-artist named Rollin Nesmith uncovered the entire remains of the Romer Grey Studio, including exposure sheets, detailed production records, a musical score, a handful of cels and thousands of animation drawings, many in full color, which were packed away in boxes and regarded as junk by the house's then-owner. (Unfortunately, no trace of film was found.) Rescuing the artwork and records from destruction, Nesmith has spent the last decade cataloguing and archiving the material, bringing Binko the Bear Cub back into the light for the first time in sixty years.

Critical assessment of Binko cartoons is virtually impossible, since no film has survived. Jack Zander, who with Lou Zukor is one of the two remaining Grey staffers, remains wryly dubious as to what their quality would have been. Still, many of the animation drawings found in the Grey basement are brimming with life, character and humor, and some, such as the chorus of fey, feline eunuchs from Arabian Nightmare, take gleeful advantage of the pre-Production Code freedom that animators of the time enjoyed.

In the final accounting, it is unlikely that the Grey cartoons would have posed a serious threat to either Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop. But if the business sense and determination of Romer Grey had been equal to the talent of his young animation staff, Binko the Bear Cub might have joined the lower-tiered, but still respectable ranks of Cubby Bear, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Flip the Frog.

Instead, Binko stands as one of the few real surprises of animation history.

Michael Mallory has written over 100 articles about animation, past and present, for such publications as Comics Scene, Animation, In Toon, Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Millimeter. He is also the author of the book Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.