Our LoveLife Manager
(See Lulka LIVE at the end of this “credit!”)
“I won’t give the Communists one day more than I have to!”
The very first Czech citizen I met when the airplane door opened onto the Prague airport tarmac on Saturday, October 10.1959, was a woman 15 years older than I. Was this the woman Bill Snyder predicted I was going to fall in love with? I was 35 years old, and she 50, but she did turn out to be our very best friend until the day she died at age 100.
On that Saturday in 1959, when she came loping out to meet me as I cautiously descended the aluminum stairs that had been wheeled up to the tiny 2-prop plane, she breathlessly uttered the words of greeting to me that became our gag line for years:
“Mr.Deitch..(pant-pant!)…If-you-think..(pant-pant!)…that-you-will-be-taken-from-the-airport…(pant-pant!)…directly-to-prison, (pant-pant!) It’s-not true! WELCOME TO PRAGUE!”
She was Ludvíka Kopečná, (Lood-veeka Ko-petchna), better known as “Lulka,“ (Loolka), who actually was the secretary of Zdenka Najmanová, (Nye-mahnova) who was a production chief of the “Brothers-in-Trick” animation studio unit, Bill Snyder liked to call, “The Snyder Unit.” As it happened, it was Zdenka whom I DID fall in love with! But that’s further down the road of this story. On that Saturday of 1959, Zdenka Najmanová refused to give up her weekend to meet me. She sent her secretary, Lulka, to do the task. But I knew none of that at the time, suddenly becoming aware that I had been suckered into the bowels of a communist trap, and, (too late), and asking myself, “Gene, What the hell am I doing here?”
Lulka’s opening gag-line did serve to calm my nerves somewhat. She walked me through customs, answered all the questions, flashed some official papers, which I assumed justified my presence in the country, and retrieved my suitcase, all in the rapid fire demo of a language I didn’t know even existed…Shortly we were outdside, and there he was! William L. Snyder in person, wearing a trim fedora! Lulka took our photo, which is the official birth certificate of my second life, reproduced here!
Soon we were in a faded Škoda car, appearing to be something like a 1937 Chevy, only tinnier, rattling along pot-holed roads, past blocks of dingy grey identical apartment buildings, to the center of Prague, all the time Lulka and Bill cheerfully filling me in about how beautiful was this historic city. I couldn’t yet tell, as the view was so heavy with smog. How it looked was foreign, and even as we drove up to the Alcron hotel, I felt I was in a 1935 Warner Bros. spy movie. The man at the reception desk even looked just like Peter Lorre…“Your papers are not in order!”
Well. They were, but I was not used to the idea of showing my passport when checking in to a hotel. It was retro, but comfortable enough, and I felt better the next morning after sleeping off the 6-hour time-warp involved in getting here. My room phone rang to anounce that Lulka would be picking up Bill & me for a Sunday morning walk around Prague.
I had my Bolex wind-up movie camera with me, hoping there was no law against photographing on the ground, as it had been from the air. The 16mm footage I shot that foggy October, 1959 morning was 50 years later edited into the documentary film, “For The Love of Prague,” as a 16mm glimpse of our early adventures in this “Far Away Land.”
You can see that historic film attached to 42 “Zdenka,” NEXT!… It runs nearly an hour, so have your popcorn ready. It has never been seen before outside the Czech Republic!
On that day, 52 years ago at this writing, the shots I took were meant to be shown to my American family and friends as images of my “10 Days Behind The Iron Curtain.” 10 days were all that I’d signed up for, and agreed to with Snyder. I had no idea that those10 days would grow to more than 52-years-and-counting, writing this in 2012!
Prague revealed itself to be a magical movie set, as Lulka pointed out the main sights. “In this building my father had a cosmetic shop, stocked with soaps and creams made in his factory on the edge of town. But when the Communist Party came to power in 1948, they confiscated it all, and we became poor.” I was amazed she was telling me all of this so bluntly. But I supposed there were no microphones on the streets. “On this corner I used to play jacks with my girl friends, There is the school I went to. And in this building I worked at my job with Czechoslovak Filmexport, before the communists threw me out, because I came from a capitalist family. Then I was allowed to take a job in the cartoon film studio because it was not considered so politically sensitive!”
Amazing stuff. Lulka’s whole life seemed to have taken place in such a small area! As I grew up in America, our family never lived in the same place more than four years. I explained to her how Americans often moved to where the opportunities were. “We have to stay where the authorities want us to be,” she said, matter-of-factly. I noticed that when passers-by saw my large movie camera, they shied away.
We passed shop windows mainly full of portraits of Lenin, Stalin, and current Czech Communist Party leaders, but very few actual goods for sale. Quick food shops did show trays of attractive-looking open sandwiches and little sweetcakes in their windows. But clothes and shoe displays, as well as the clothes and shoes we saw walking all around us, reminded me of my boyhood in Chicago, as did the smell of coal smoke in the air. Similar deja vue was the window of a housewares shop, with old-style vacuum cleaners, irons, toasters etc. right out of my 1930s Depression era days. Finally, we arrived at the edge of the magnificent Vltava River, which I’d heard of by its German name, “The Moldau.”
Leaning against the iron railing, we could see the immense stone statue of Stalin looming high over the river. “We don’t see it!” muttered Lulka. But right before us, atop a hill on the opposite bank, was the complex amalgam of ancient buildings and churches which comprise the Prague Castle. In pointing this out to us, Lulka told the entire Czech story:
“Our castle is called ‘Hradčany.’” It was begun to be built over a thousand years ago, and for hundreds of years our early Bohemian Czech kings lived there. Then, after a great battle in 1620, the country was taken into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and for 300 years an Austrian Emperor sat in the castle. Finally, in 1919 democratic Czechoslovakia was created, and a Czech president, Tomáš Masaryk, lived there. Less than 20 years later, the country was invaded by Nazi Germany, and Adolf Hitler crouched there. Then there was the Second World War. At the end, democracy was restored, and the second democratic president, Eduard Beneš lived in the castle. Only three years after that, the communists staged a coup, amd for 21 years we’ve had communist presidents in our castle….” With a deep sigh she turned to us and said, “But through all of that, the castle is still there….” Then Lulka lowered her voice, and said, “We have to believe that this too shall pass!”
I can never forget the look that came over her face – a kind of hopelessness, indicating she didn’t actually believe what she’d just said. She’d also told us that the Soviet Union had a tight grip in Czechoslovakia, and that America would never go to war against The Soviet Union! No, this time they all believed they were stuck. In fact, it took 20 more years from that day, to the year 1989, that independence began to swell again, and a democratic Czech Republic was born.
But back on that day in 1959, it was a colder reality. I was there to do a specific job, and the next thing on my program was to be taken to the animation studio. So Monday morning, Lulka was once again at the Alcron, waiting for us to come downstairs. It was just one tramstop to Gorky Square, riding on an ancient streetcar with a clanging bell, driven by a woman wearing a huge grimy glove to operate the brass control lever. Great fun. Lulka pointed out the building in the corner of the square, next to a neo-classic structure that in the old capitalist days was the stock exchange. It still had the bronze letters “BURSA,” on it, a Czech variation of the French word, “BOURSE.” So the animation studio was ironically nicknamed, “Bursa,” even though one staff member loved to recite for me his one English phrase, “I have no money!”
The studio was on the 5th & 6th floor. No elevator. Snyder demonstrated his vigor by taking the stairs two at a time. “Much easier this way!” he claimed. So already, I learned something new! When I reached the top, two-at-a-time, I was not all that much out of breath. Snyder was right! But hell, I was only 35, and had actually stepped into my second life, though I didn’t yet suspect it.
I’d read our American articles about communism, with regimented workers, marched to work; harangued and indoctrinated. Now I heard that in many factories it was partly true, and that even in this cartoon studio there was an attempt at indoctrination; regular sessions of talks about Marxism-Leninism. But this bunch of animators were dedicated to ignoring all of that, and were somehow getting away with it. Lulka shepherded me around the studio, introducing me to everyone, and also to the ubiqutous “Kava Turk,” Turkish coffee, the nearest thing to instant coffee that then existed in the country. But it was actially just finely ground coffee that left a muddy layer at the bottom of cup. Too hasty a gulp gave you a mouthfull o grounds.
The problem at hand was for me to “rescue” the seven films Snyder already had in production, three MADELINE books and THE HAPPY LION by Ludwig Bemelmans, Crockett Johnson’s THE FROWNING PRINCE, James Thurber’s MANY MOONS, and Eve Titus’ ANATOLE. All premium picture books for children. The Czech animators had followed the brilliant graphic styles of all the books perfectly. The problem was the timing. Czech pacing was more leisurely, and lacked the American pizazz that Snyder felt the US market would demand, so he hauled in me to pep them up. With Lulka’s translation, and the patience of the obviously miffed Czech director, they could all be easily tightened. But what had lured me here was the promise to get my own projects into production. I already had pinned up my SAMSON SCRAP and MUNRO storyboards on their wall, using a box of pushpins I’d brought with me from my own New York studio. The animators gathered around to look at the storyboard, but were equally interested in the aluminum pushpins – another wonder from the West; easier to use than their ordinary thumbtacks!
When I acted out my storyboards for the staff, each time I came to a gag point, I had to pause, so Lulka could translate. At each pause, they all laughed. It was like seeing a movie with the soundtrack about 20 seconds out of sync – talk-pause-laugh, talk-pause-laugh!
Somehow it worked, and we we were off to a positive working relationship, though I realized that I could never be accepted by these animators without speaking their language. I finally did, but it took years.
After Zdenka enveloped my life, Lulka became our closest friend and confidant, helping Zdenka to write her coded love letters to me when I was away in the States, and arranging our trysts when I was here. (She made her apartment available to us!!!) She translatied my storyboards for the animators, ultumately witnessed our wedding, and shared our lives up to the time of her death at nearly 100.
But she stopped being Zdenka’s secretary exactly on the day she became 62 and eligible for her pension. She said, “The Communists took everything from me. I won’t give them a single day more than I have to!” She got her satisfaction by drawing a pension for more years than she had actually worked! To know more of our life with Lulka, you’ll have to read my my book, For The Love of Prague.
Now for a brand new great discovery! A video interview with Lulka, has just been found! It was shot by our visiting friend, Norwegian filmmaker Odd Geir Saether in 1992, when Lulka was 83 years old! So now it’s possible for you to meet her in person! Enjoy our treasured friend and confidant from our past; just a few minutes with us together in her former apartment on Ostrovni (Island) Street, in Prague’s Old Town. The film clip begins as Odd Gier asks Lulka how she began to work in film. Her answer is a delicate way of saying that the communists threw her out of her job in the Czechoslovak Filmexport organization, because she came from a “burguois capitalist” family. (Her father owned a large cosmetic factory in the old “First Republic” days.) She found refuge in the animation studio, where she became Zdenka’s assistant. So here is “Lulka” at 83, in 1992…