“No one else can do Howdy!”
Soon after UPA/New York was set up in the fall of 1951, we had an offer for a major project for The American Heart Association. They wanted a two-reeler that would entertainingly alert people to the realities of heart disease. It was a major challenge, but could have been deadly dull.
My oldest friend and colleague, Bill Bernal and I were then both of the opinion that CITIZEN KANE was the greatest movie ever. We hit upon a story idea that would unblushingly swipe the concept and structure of KANE, and form it into a cartoon documentary of a guy who’s life has led him to believe he was doomed to die of a heart attack. We named our hypochondriac protagonist “Cordell Pump,” and thus the title, PUMP TROUBLE. I put my big guns on the project, Cliff Roberts on design, Grim Natwick and Duane Crowther, animating, and found a great dynamic Spanish composer, Carlos Surinach, for the music.
My storyboard called for 8 speaking parts. Our studio secretary, Hedy Cramer, put out a call to the major talent agencies to send their best voice actors to audition for the parts. When the day arrived, our reception room was buzzing with the best voice talent in New York, all shooting gags at one another. I ran each one of them individually through the storyboard, asking them to choose which of the 8 characters they’d like to tryout for, and they each did well with one or another of the parts. I was recording the auditions, to later make my choices. The last waiting actor was a slightly pudgy gent with thinning hair, named Allen Swift. At the time, he was doing kooky voices on the Howdy Doody Show. When Swift got his turn, he pointed to one of the characters on my storyboard that he thought he could do. His take on the character had me laughing so loudly that I didn’t realize that he started to also do one of the other voices. It too was great. “I think I could also to this one,” he said calmly in his naturally quiet voice.
You guessed it. Allen Swift ended up doing all 8 voices so perfectly that I sent all the other men and women home. That was how we met, and Allen became my best friend to the end of his life.
During those PUMP TROUBLE rehearsals, we also got to talking about his work on the Howdy Doody show, which was the biggest children’s show on American TV, and was NBC’s flagship demo of their color system. As much as I admired Allen as an actor and person, I couldn’t help telling him that I thought the Howdy show was the king of Kitsch. He didn’t disagree, but the show provided him with a good living. He said that maybe he could convince the show’s producers to give us at UPA a chance to demonstrate how our artsy design could notch up the show’s class. They went along with the idea, I think, for another reason. Their puppeteer and production staff were pushing for a bigger share of the pie, so it’s possible that the producers’ greed was leading them to consider dumping the actors and going for animation. That in itself would certainly not be cheaper, but would allow endless reruns and syndication, which was then just getting started. So they gave us a chance to do a pilot. We definitely ran amok with the chance, redesigning their ugly but beloved Howdy Doody into a UPA-ish design character. We convinced ourselves that they would love it.
They hated it! They destroyed the negative. It was not their Howdy! We ultimately rescued one print. But that’s another story. Still another blow to Bob Smith’s ego was that when he had a heart attack and had to be out of the show for a hear, Allen Swift quickly and easily continued the Howdy Doody voice on the show, in spite of Smith’s repeated claim, that “Nobody else can do Howdy!:
What was important to me was that our film didn’t ruin my new friendship with Allen, who went on working with me for nearly the next 40 years. Allen did voices for many of my UPA, Terrytoons, Gene Deitch Associates commercials, Rembrandt Films projects, feature shorts, and series pilots. He did voices for my MGM Tom & Jerry cartoons, for many projects in Prague and other European countries, and for Weston Woods. He was my Number One voice man until his health failed.
Allen was also a masterful painter, and a collector of art; a man with wide interests and talents. He’d been a successful stand-up comic. He was a truly brilliant painter and prolific writer. “Ike” had many interests, and tried several side businesses in case his cartoon voice work should ever give out. It never did until close to the end.
I’ve just heard from his widow, Lenore that he was able to finish his own book of personal memoirs before his fatal illness, and that she will be publishing it. It will surely be of great interest to many of his admirers and friends as well as all those with an interest in creative arts. Allen was not just a “voice man,” he was a thorough artist and thinker! He also wrote several plays. He starred in one of his own plays on Broadway, titled CHECKING OUT, about a man who orchestrated his own death. Ironically, Allen actually did that! That’s a story I will leave to Lenore to tell!
Even though I’m the perpetual techie and gizmo man, it was Allen who led me to computers. I was holding back, but his enthusiasm roped me in, and from then on – it was 1984 – we both became addicts of the “Constant Upgrade Syndrome.” Sadly he didn’t live long enough to follow my conversion from the Windows cult to Appleism. We did become constant co-Skypers nearly up to the time of his devastating death. It was the closest of friendships of 55 years! He called me “Yootch” – from the Brooklyn dialect shortening of Eugene – and I called him “Ike,” from the street talk version of Ira, his birth name – Ira Stadlen.
His roots were in Romania. And once from a visit to me in Prague, during the communist period, he continued on to his ancestral land. It was devastating to him to see what might have been his fate. “They have no choice!’ he said to me when he returned. For him the symbol was in a vegetable shop in Bucharest, where all there was to sell were a few shriveled potatoes.
“Ike” had many interests, and tried several side businesses in case his cartoon voice work should ever give out. It never did until close to the end. He was a truly brilliant painter and writer.
Allen believed, as I do, that just plain “fast-walking” is the best and easiest exercise; no equipment or fancy shoes needed. I agree, and I still do it. At 88, I still walk faster than most people on the Prague street, (but of course they don’t realize I’m racing them!) Whenever I visited Allen in New York, we fast walked in Central Park each morning. But the last time he visited me in Prague, there was an unexpected event that predicted his death.
It was off-season, with few crowds, so we were actually able to fast-walk across the famous Charles Bridge – solid stone. As we neared the “Old Town” end of the bridge, Allen suddenly tripped on a loose stone, fell hard and rolled to a stop. I was horrified, but he quickly sprang to his feet, brushed himself off, and said, “Don’t worry! I’m an actor, trained to fall realistically without injury!”
I cannot forget that incident when I know what happened a year later in New York. I was not there. One morning, about to start out for his regular morning walk, he bent over on the sidewalk just outside his West 57th Street door, to attach the leash to his little dog’s collar. As he told me later, he suddenly lost consciousness and fell heavily onto the concrete sidewalk, quickly awakening in excruciating pain. He had experienced just about the worst thing that can happen to an elderly person, a broken hip. We were both nearly the same age, and my own doctor gives me the repeated admonition: “Don’t fall down!”
“Ike” did, and the resulting immobility led to increasing debilitating problems, a need for a walker, then a wheel chair, and mainly just sitting and snoozing. He kept his creative processes as long as possible, but ultimately got worn out, and I lost my long time dearest friend. Here is part of a letter I wrote to his daughter, Maxime at the time of his death:
„My Ike. There are no words at a time like this, and yet words are all we have left when our dearest friend is gone. Allen Swift – Ira Stadlen – “Ike,” as I knew him, is not anyone I ever wanted to say goodbye to. We ultimately got to calling each other “Ike” and “Yootch.” “Yootch,” he informed me, was the Brooklyn street name for a kid unfortunate enough to be named, “Eugene,” the name I suffered with as a kid. But in our “Golden Years,” we settled into our kid talk names, “Ike” and “Yootch,” Ike was like my brother.
This is not just about anybody. It is about my best personal friend for 58 years, now inexplicably gone. He was the last of my American buddies; my very closest buddy. Even though physically distant for 50 years, hardly a year went by without a visit to his and his wife Lenore’s 57th Street apartment, nor a day go by without email and most recently Skype visits. He and Lenore had their honeymoon in Prague. We were connected on every level, personally, professionally and as fellow Earthlings with joined feelings on a wide ranges of topics. Allen introduced me to computers in 1984, and we developed our digital skills in tandem. We even were fellow voters for the best movies each year. We had many musical and art interests in common. We created many projects together. (Se a short list at the end of this letter.) We were even nearly the same exact age; both born in 1924, just a few months apart. Yet he eventually had the worst luck; his fall, and all of the terrible and painfully deteriorating health problems that followed.
“The man of a thousand voices” who used many of them in my films, is silenced. There was still so much he wanted to do. Even in our last online talk, he was telling me he wanted to resume his writing. He was optimistically planning to visit me in Prague, spring 2011.
Now it’s up to me to help ensure that his name remains alive, and right now, with our earliest mutual projects able to be seen around the world, is my chance to do that.
Do watch for PUMP TROUBLE and DEPTH STUDY on this blog and on www.cartoonbrew.com to see how we started together, and FLEBUS, to hear the great Allen Swift in his vocal prime!”
Here is the obit on cartoonbew.com
“Gene Deitch just informed us of the passing of his long-time personal friend Allen Swift. Swift (born Ira Stadlen) was best known for voicing numerous cartoon characters including Simon Bar Sinister (in Underdog), Odie on King Leonardo and most of the voices for the 1960’s underwater puppet show Diver Dan. Swift was also well-known for hosting the Popeye cartoon show (September 10, 1956 to September 23, 1960) on WPIX in New York City. Swift did the majority of the voices in Rankin/Bass’s Mad Monster Party, and supplied character voices for the NBC Howdy Doody Show. He was Tooter Turtle and Clint Clobber. He did voices in Richard Williams’ Raggedy Ann and Andy and John Dilworth’s Courage The Cowardly Dog, as well as in Gene Deitch’s 1960-61 group of Tom and Jerry cartoons (especially memorable in Dickie Moe). In tribute we re-post the Deitch-Pintoff Terrytoon classic Flebus, with all voices by Allen Swift (above) and one of Swift’s Popeye children’s records (as Captain Allen Swift). We grieve with you Gene. We lost one of the greats today.”
Here are some of the projects we did together…Several never made it to the public, (We seemed to be either ahead or behind the curve!), but yet each represents a joyous collaboration:
PUMP TROUBLE (For The American Heart Association)
SECOND SIGHT SAM
CLINT CLOBBER (20th Century-Fox releases with CBS-Terrytoons)
GASTON LE CRAYON
TALE OF DOG
IT’S A LIVING!
DEPTH STUDY (for CBS-Televison)
Captain Folger Coffee Commercials
PJ Tootsie, The Candy King (TV commercial for Tootsie Roll Candy)
Samson Scrap & Delilah series
Tom & Jerry series for MGM. TALL IN THE TRAP, DICKIE MOE, HIGH STEAKS,
DOWN & OUTING, THE TOM & JERRY CARTOON KIT, etc.
Big Sam & Punky
Sam Shovel, Private Eye
THE DUFFERS (THE BLUFFERS)
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (for Weston Woods/Scholastic)
Allen, Ira, Ike, and his wife, fellow actor Lenore Loveman, had a magnificent two-story apartment on West 57th Street, which was always a roost away from home for Zdenka and me, on our frequent visits to New York over many years. Allen Swift certainly did well with our professional relationship, some work being quite lucrative for him, but it was I who benefited the most from the skill and entertainment value that his voice work enriched my films. So this chapter is my “screen credit” to him.
Even with our later physical distance, our continuous contact by mail, phone, email and later Skype, kept us together – always in touch.. That is an irreplaceable loss for me.
Allen put his all into a wide range of character voices.