The True Tale of Terrytoons.
My short but dramatic Terrytoons tenure has been well enough documented, but here I’d like to credit the names of those who helped (and/or hindered) that tipping point in my line of cartoon film work.
After the short and disappointing stint with my idol, John Hubley, I was quickly hired as an “Idea Man,” by Robert Lawrence Productions. No sooner had I settled into Lawrence’s Manhattan studio, thinking up my first, dimly remembered ideas for him, when a gent named Newt Schwin rode up on his virtual bicycle. Newt was from the Schwin bike family and an executive at CBS FILM SALES, INC., the merchandising section of CBS Television. He told me that CBS had recently purchased the Terrytoons animation studio, lock, stock and Mighty Mouse, and they were offering me the position of Creative Director, to replace Paul Terry! Terrytoons was then the largest animation studio in America, still producing. Even Disney was off animation at the time. CBS realized that Terrytoons was probably the worst animation studio in America, but they were hungry for cartoon programming. It was basically the tremendous Terrytoons library of cartoon films they were after, none great, but usable until decent new product could be developed up to the CBS standard. Based on my UPA/New York reputation, they wanted me to do that for them. It was the opportunity of a lifetime!
How could I turn down such an offer and such a challenge? But how could I just walk out on Lawrence after only a few weeks? My first credit in this chapter should go to Bob Lawrence, who, though disappointed, immediately realized that this was the closest thing to destiny in the life of a cartoonist, and he gave me his blessing.
But there was “a slight obstacle” blocking this highway to dizzying destiny. Newt delicately mentioned that I would need to meet the Terrytoons studio manager, William Weiss. So he drove me up to the New Rochelle studio, assuring me that this was merely a polite formality. But meeting Weiss was like being introduced to a Mafia godfather with a pistol on his lap. He came across as a semi-literate thug, almost bragging about his dubious methods of keeping the animation staff in line, etc. etc. On the way back to Manhattan I sadly told Newt that I could never work for such a man. Trying to hold onto me, he explained the following:
When Paul Terry sold Terrytoons to CBS he insisted that Bill Weiss be granted tenure for five years. CBS management clearly saw that Weiss was a dinosaur, and would be a drag on progress. It was against CBS policy to give tenure contracts to executives, but Terry had demanded this concession as a condition of the sale. This news made it clear that I would have no chance against this dragon, unless I had an equal 5-year guarantee.
Newt told me sadly, that it could not be done. They regretted being forced to grant it to Weiss, but as an alternative he, Newt, would be assigned as a Terrytoons board member, and would attend every weekly management meeting, to protect me against Weiss, and that we would sweat out the five year Weiss contract until it would be possible to dump him. In the meantime I would have full CBS support for my production plans.
My problem was that I was drooling to have this job. I went along with this risky verbal promise. It did work for the first year… until Newt Schwin himself, as a crackerjack TV show salesman, got an offer he couldn’t refuse, and after a lame apology to me, he pedaled off to less poisonous pastures.
No new Deitch protector was assigned to our meetings. I realized that my Terrytoons days were numbered. My success would be Weiss’ doom, and he had to get rid of me well before his contract would expire. The first thing he did was to change the venue of the weekly meetings to New York, knowing that I would be too busy to make the train ride each week. On his part, he never failed to tell the CBS brass how my new style films were going over budget. Obviously, new methods required experimentation, and new characters in movie cartoons have always needed years to gain popularity. The average movie theater viewer might see one or possibly two Clint Clobber cartoons in a year, whereas a short time later TV cartoon characters were seen once a week, and even daily, so their celebrity came quickly.
The stinger was something Newt Schwin never told me, and possibly never knew about himself, something I was told too late to save me from falling into Weiss’s trap. It was revealed to me by the TT story veteran, Tom Morrison, and I’m revealing it here for the first time!
In the early days of Terrytoons, according to Morrison, Paul Terry had a partner, Frank Moser, whom he wanted to dump, so he could gain total ownership. Terry sued Moser, accusing him of financial finagles, and pushed his young accountant, William Weiss to testify against Moser in court, actually to commit perjury. In order to buy his silence in any counter suit by Moser, Terry promised Weiss a significant share of any sale of the studio in the future. Over the years, Terry repeated his promise to Weiss, thereby keeping him silent and subservient. This is what Tom Morrison told me:
When the time finally came, Terry secretly made a deal with CBS that would allow him to welch on his promise to Weiss by throwing him a 5-year tenure bone! No one – not Weiss – not anyone at the studio knew that Terry was in fact negotiating to sell the studio to CBS. When it happened, and when Terry came into the studio to pick up his personal things, Tommy Morrison, who was one of the other studio staff who was promised to “be taken care of” in the event of a sale, spotted him leaving, and ran up to him.
“Paul!” he gasped, “I just read in this morning’s paper that you’ve sold the studio to CBS! Is that true?”
“It’s none of your goddam’ business!” said Terry and walked out, puffing on his cigar. He did not share a single cent of the millions he got from the sale!
In his effort to reneg on his long-time promise to divvy any sale money with Bill Weiss, Terry got himself off the hook by insisting in his sales contract with CBS, that Weiss be given a guaranteed 5-year tenure.
All of that, and the gangster methods common in Terrytoons’ early years, when film prints were often lowered out the window, away from contesting partners coming with police to claim ownership, made my situation crystal clear. Tom Morrison himself, who filled me in on all of that, had been nursing his own bitterness at being cut out after all his years of low-paid service. He claimed to be rooting for me. But with the history of such ruthlessness, bitterness, and self-preservation, I was the one to be sacrificed.
With the clear realization that a state of war now existed between Weiss and me, I felt that my only hope was for a big success of Tom Terrific, now in the final stages of editing. If TT would strike gold it would be difficult for Weiss to unseat me. But he had an uncanny instinct for self-preservation, and had spies among several of the old timers whom he’d convinced that I was planning to fire them. I was not. I just put all my efforts into getting Tom Terrific out and on the air. If a TT success could then be built on, and I could last until Weiss’ mandate ran out, I might survive. But Weiss also realized that TT could be a hit. He had to act to pre-empt before TT was aired. He had prepared the way with his propaganda that my budget overruns, (which he could easily manipulate), and my far-fetched ideas, (which he could not understand), would bankrupt the studio. All of that went down well enough with the CBS brass, who just didn’t want to be bothered with unrest in their insignificant cartoon studio. All I could do was attempt to cross the finish line before Weiss moved on me. Tom Terrific did become the most successful thing I ever did, but sadly it was after I was out.
Tommy Morrison was actually very helpful to me during my time at Terrytoons. He was a genuinely good writer, never able to do his best under Terry. We worked well together, and I felt I had his support. However, in the clutch, as far as I know, he did not stand up for me.
Frank “Sparky” Schudde, the studio production manager, who made everything work, was extremely helpful to me, and outwardly friendly. He was in Weiss’ office when the bomb was dropped on me, and he meekly backed his boss. He was clearly brought into Weiss’ office specifically for that purpose. That sealed my fate. I was naively shocked at the betrayal, as he’d previously given me every indication that he was on my side.
I always knew that the competent and seemingly sinecured old timers like Connie Rasinski, Art Bartsch, Ed Donnelly, and Manny Davis, all highly skilled, but ossified drudges, were unhappy that I had landed on their airstrip, upsetting their comfortable lives. Only the marvelously maverick animator Jim Tyer, drove full speed onto the highway I was opening up. My “new gang,” Jules Feiffer, Al Kouzel, Ray Favata, and Eli Bauer, fully backed me, but they were equally targeted by Weiss, and they all left.
Phil Scheib. The long-time tightly reined-in composer, who did his best work for me, Larz Bourne, the great professional gagman, and skilled animators, Johnny Gentilella, Bob Kuwahara, Vinnie Bell, and others, all helped me.
It was a tragedy that a bug-eyed monster was able to pull the plug on such a well-positioned outfit, and allow it to go down the drain in a desperate knee-jerk attempt to save his own scabby skin. It was just before the technology and marketing revolution that would change everything, but which he could not understand nor foresee. The death of Terrytoons was his doing.
OK, without such an outfit to work with, I was forced to lower my sights, to do what was do-able. Yeah, another door opened for me, leading to a smaller and more remote garden, a new wife and a new life. I won my Oscar and grew some nice little animated flowers, and did well enough financially, but I’ll never get over the idea, that given half a chance at Terrytoons, I could have caught the tech tidal wave and surfed into the future Big Time. But Newt Schwin welched on his promise, and left me easy prey to two cigar smoking predators. But would I have been happier? I doubt it, as I’m happy with what I was able to in the following years, kick-started by the Oscar-win just a year later. But that doesn’t let Newt Schwin entirely off the hook. I hope he had good luck in his new job.
See Michel Sporn’s take on the Terrytoons logo here ))