9. Bill Bernal

“Gene, I wish you 30 more years of good luck!”

Of all my friends and benefactors, Bill Bernal was the closest for the longest time in my adult life. Bill meant much to me. There was no one quite like him. On one level, some thought he was forever a child. What he had of a child in him was what most people sadly lose: ENTHUSIASM!

Bill was a world-class enthusiast. He always knew the latest movie, the latest play, the latest book, the latest record, the best restaurant, and the freshest talent. I had the supreme good fortune to be one of his early enthusiasms. In 1946 he brought me to UPA, and my animation career began.

Anyone who came in contact with Bill would have his or her life lifted in some way, turned on to something perhaps never previously known about.

Bill seemed to know about everything that was going on.

I cannot think of Bill in terms of death. For me he personified life. No one can say that Bill did not live life to the fullest. Bill enjoyed! He enjoyed everything. He savored everything, and when he was with me he infected me with his savoring.

In his last letter to me, dated September 23rd, 1991, Bill wrote:

“Gene, my life has slowed down to a snail’s pace … I am back to one-finger typing … I am on a liquid diet for four months I have not drunk or chewed anything. It all drips into my stomach through a tube.” (Bypassing Bill’s famous tastebuds!!!) “It takes me almost a whole day to absorb about 2800 calories. More later. Love to Zdenka XXXXX, Bill”.

But there was no more. That was no life for Bill Bernal. That last letter was more depressing to me than the subsequent confirmation of his death. It meant he was already dead, and that was impossible for me to imagine.

Way back in 1946, when I was working for CBS Radio and moonlighting on The Record Changer magazine, I was allowed free advertising space for rare jazz records I was craving. One of them was a 1928 Victor recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Sidewalk Blues,” Jelly’s records were my latest passion, and this was one of his great ones.

I received a postcard from a person named William Bernal, saying he had the record and would be willing to trade it Amazingly, his address was within walking distance of where I lived in Hollywood.

I gave him a call, told him my name, hastily put together a few of my own duplicates I would be willing to trade, and loped to his house, breathing hard as he opened the door.  His first words to me were, “Are you the same Gene Deitch who draws “THE CAT” in the Record Changer? I know some people who are looking for you!”

Those were life-changing words, but they didn’t yet sink in. I was eager to get that Jelly Roll disc! Bill’s house was fairly hotsy-totsy Hollywood. His wife was story editor at MGM, and earned good money. Bill was a free-lance writer of more modest means, but he did well enough to have the first custom-made “High-Fidelty” record player console I had ever seen, a magnificent piece of furniture housing and then mammoth 12” speaker capable of booming out those elusive bass tones which most people didn’t think even existed on old jazz records made in the 1920s! So this Bill Bernal was on the cutting edge of what I was just dreaming of.

We happily traded records, and he then repeated that he was currently working with people whom he said were looking for me. He was at the moment writing a script for a sponsored animated industrial film to be produced by this small new studio of progressive former Disney animators, who were pioneering some radical new ideas about animation concept and design. The knockout news for me was that they were all jazz fans and readers of The Record Changer magazine, and admirers of my drawings! 

Bill said they had no idea where I lived, and would have to look locally for the new assistant they needed. But they’d set an unusual, almost impossible  condition: they wanted someone who would be a potential animator, but who had no experience working in any of the existing animation studios! They wanted someone “unspoiled” by the  current animation clichés! Seeing the radically stylized drawings I was experimenting with in the Record Changer, they thought I’d be perfect for them. But noting that the magazine was published all the way across the continent, in Fairfax, Virginia, just on the edge of  Washington, DC, they assumed that I lived there, and they couldn’t afford to move me to Hollywood. Bill flashed excitement. He was raring to tell his colleagues that the man they sought lived just a few blocks  away!

I’ll get to that studio story in other chapters. It’s clear that it was Bill Bernal who opened his front door that led directly to my career in animation. We didn’t work together right away, but we did immediately become personal friends and record-collecting buddies. I have no photos of Bill from those earliest days, but I can give you a good clue if you remember the original TODAY host, Dave Garroway. Bill looked much like him – tall, clean-shaven, sandy haired, affable, enthused.

Because his writing assignments required travelling, I didn’t often see Bill during my developing years at UPA, as it was newly named.  By 1949, I’d been hired by the Jam Handy Organization, which offered me a chance to become a director.  I left my natal UPA studio, and moved with my wife and two kids to Detroit. Bill became a cherished but dimming memory.  Then, one day in late 1950, I was called to the Jam Handy personnel office and shown what appeared to be a passport photo of a elderly-looking white haired and bearded man.  The photo was labeled,  „Arthur W. Bernal.“

„Do you know this man, Gene?“  The personnel director asked.  „He’s applying for a job with us, and gives your name as a reference.“

I studied the photo, but thought, no.  This „Arthur Bernal“ guy might be a relative who got my name, but he’s Arthur, and he’s much older than Bill.   I couldn’t risk endorsing someone I didn’t know, so I walked out of the office, shaking my head in puzzlement.  Half-way back to my own workplace, it hit me like a bomb blast, and I rushed back.  There was a „W!“

Wait!  Is his middle name „William?“

It was that close that I very nearly ratted on the guy who got me into UPA and animation!  I had to knock myself out with apologies, shouting how great and creatively dedicated was my dear friend Bill Bernal!  He got the job.  I would have had to slit my wrists in remorse if he hadn’t!  Bill Bernal and I were together again, working in Detroit! It had been PayBack Time.

A year later I was called back to UPA, to join the establishing team of the New York studio.  Within a few months I was offically titled its creative director and able to build the staff.  We were set up to do custom production and TV commercials, and couldn’t justify a full-time writer, so I brought Bill from Detroit to New York as  a combination sales rep, publicity man, and writer. During our years together at UPA/NY, Bill did a whirlwind job of establishing my reputation. I owe him BigTime!

During the remarkable month in 1954 when the Museum of Modern Art was presenting a daily screening of my UPA animated TV commercials, Bill and I were having lunch in the museum restaurant.  It was my 30th birthday, and he said to me, “Gene, I wish you another 30 years of good luck!“  Well, it’s 57 years since that day as I write this, and Bill’s wish for me is still running well… much of my good luck began with him.

Over the years we wrote many scripts together, notably the nearly lost, „Howdy Doody And His Magic Hat,“ the style setting „Pump Trouble,“ and the Golden Records script, „Terr’ble Thompson!“  Bill was my tireless promoter. Even after I left UPA to become Creative Director of CBS Terrytoons, he always found a project he could join me on.  We were a team, professionally and personally.  Bill came up with solutions sometimes magically, precisely because he had so many interesting and useful friends.

One project offered to us at UPA in 1954 seemed to be out of our range. A children’s book publisher came up with an idea that if they could get a 16mm film made from a book, and show it in schools and teachers’ groups, it could promote the book’s sale. That idea was highly prophetic, but I didn’t know it at the time. The book was, titled, HOORAY FOR HOMER, about a boy whose, home-run in a school baseball game was crucial for the team and for himself.  The amount the publisher could pay for it was far too little for any kind of animation.  I had an idea how something graphically interesting could be done, but we were not technically set up for it.  I thought that if we could prepare large scene paintings, designed in such a way that a movie camera could scan over them, move in, pan, cut to details, all timed to a brilliant music and voice track, that an exciting film could be made without any actual animation. There was a brilliant designer we’d used on several of our TV commercial spots that I thought would be great for this. His name was Paul Jennings. He suggested colored pastels & chalks, good for filling large areas with brilliant color; graphically rich. It all seemed potentially great, but there was no space in the New York UPA studio to do it, and we were not knowledgeable in live-action filming.

Once again, Bill Bernal was the source of talent from the edges. He had befriended a man of many parts from the South, who had a wide range of creative ideas and abilities, but seemed to just be rattling around in the background somewhere. He was a balding and bright-eyed guy of sharp perceptions, who had acquired the nickname, “Bat.” Bat Anderson.

According to Bill, Bat was a fellow who could do anything.  Getting to know him, I quickly came to believe that Bill was right.  Bat quickly outlined to me exactly how he could shoot “HOMER.”   Among other talents, it came out that Bat was an experienced documentary cameraman. He knew how to get his hands on 16mm camera equipment, lights, dolly tracks, and even knew of an empty apartment in uptown Manhattan, which we could rent cheaply, and set up the equipment to shoot our film.,  So we were off on a completely new type of production for us. It worked out well.  Everyone was happy. The film was praised by the client. Bat did a smooth job of tracking Paul’s brilliant artwork according to layouts and scene planning by Duane, and under my direction.   The downside is that I’ve  lost track of who the client was, and I have no idea if or where our little film exists. I will be delighted if anyone can turn up a print or video of our early “iconographic” experimental film, HOORAY FOR HOMER!

Bat Anderson quickly became another member of our quirky but endlessly interesting galaxy of friends orbiting around Bill Bernal.

Even when I moved to Prague Bill and I continued.  He came to work with me on a writing project during my earliest days here, the 1960s, still deep in the communist era. He too became fascinated with Prague; yet another enthusiasm! His exuberance was a hit with the studio animators, teaching them to dance the Twist!  Bill was full of all the forbidden Western lore they were so eager to hear about.  He roamed Prague on his own, taking in the architecture, and finding his way about, unfazed by the language problem.  One day, after climbing the 110 steps up to the castle, he craved some chewing gum, and spotted a small vending machine labeled. „GUMA.“   He put in a coin, and was puzzled by the small round disk-shaped item that emerged.  After carefully unwrapping and opening it out, he had to laugh. He’d purchased a condom!  „Guma“ is the Czech word for „rubber.“  Chewing gum was just one of the many things then completely absent here.

Bill was sad to leave Prague, and constantly tried to work up new projects. At one point in the 1970s he formed a production company he called Firebird Films. He had actually met Igor Stravinsky, who graciously allowed him to used the first notes of his Firebird Suite as the Firebird Films fanfare. Bill was also a close friend of two of my close friends, Jim Flora and Pete Seeger. He obtained rights for us to produce Jim’s story, „Leopold, The See-Through Crumbpicker”, and the song Pete wrote with his father, „The Foolish Frog.“   These two films are now part of the Weston Woods library, an homage to my old friends, Jim, Pete, and Bill.

Bill’s second wife was the vivacious Barbara, a talented photographer who  documented our family in the 1950s.  They had an intense and stormy relationship, two bright and beautiful daughters, and a loud divorce. Barbara is still living in California, and now calls herself “Brontë Bernal.”

Not only did Bill read everything, see everything, and hear everything;   “Mr. Enthusiasm,” but he was also a gourmet cook, and master drink mixer, producing martinis he labeled as beyond “dry.”  He called his martinis “crisp!” He introduced me to a wide sophistication, but in no way debauchery. I was grateful that he was not a smoker, and that his most scandalous creation was the world’s most intense chocolate cake. He was appalled that many chocolate cakes had strawberry jam spread between the layers.  “My cake is all chocolate!” he proclaimed, “All dark chocolate, and moist!”  Bill Bernal was only interested in superlatives!

His passion for food and enjoyment of restaurants eventually led him to a new persona.  He landed a columnist spot on the New York Daily News under the imposing nom de plume, “Stendahl.” And was able invite us to his favorite restaurants, which laid on dinners for us gratis, bringing on dish after dish for tasting and delectation.  Bill was then in his heaven. As Stendahl, he wrote a “Spicy” cookbook. To him, that meant intensely flavorful. He included Zdenka‘s recipe for the traditional Czech dish called, “Svičkova,” marinated beef & Czech dumplings.

Maybe it was all the rich food and martinis that got him, but something brought him down to a frail wraith.  He was unrecognizable when we last visited him in hospital.  My glass is half-empty without his presence…

As I write this in my Prague studio, this photo of Bill holding his book hangs before my eyes.

Bill Bernal as food/restaurant master, “Stendahl”
Bill with Zdenka in front of a favorite New York restaurant – April 1973.
Happily pouring wine with 3rd wife, Janet & guests – December 1976

8 thoughts on “9. Bill Bernal

  1. Interesting. I didn’t know that it was Bill who led you to UPA. In the 1970s I sort of inherited Bill and we planned a few things together. He was writing his “Stendahl” restaurant review column and, lucky me, we had our business lunches in some very nice restaurants. He eventually lived not far from us in Queens, NY. History repeats. Since you’re the one who hired me at UPA, you will certainly be mentioned when I tell of the important people in my life in my memoir where I can say,”Thanks!”
    Howard

  2. Hi Gene,
    So wonderful to read about your relationship with my father, especially since much of the stories you tell happened before I was born. There is much I don’t know about my father’s early life as he was not much for reminiscing about the past – as you know, he was always on to the next great book, next great meal, etc. He indeed had a hunger for life. He loved new adventures even if it just meant walking down a new street. Unlike most people who prefer the familiar, my dad eagerly sought out new foods, new music, new cultures and new interactions. He was the least xenophobic person I have ever known. Sadly, I don’t remember Kim and Simon. But if either live in New York, I would welcome the chance to sit down for coffee. And, of course…. I am still hoping to make a trip to Prague. Let me know if your kids are planning a visit and perhaps my sister and I can join up for an extended-family reunion. Also, I have quite a few reels of film from my father (in metal tins) that I inherited after Janet’s death. Many have no labels and I have no way of watching them. I have hesitated spending the money to make them digitial as it is expensive and I have no idea what is on them. Do you know anyone in New York who has the old equipment for showing these films? I have two sizes of reels.
    Keep up the writing! It is wonderful and fascinating!
    Much love,
    Lindsay Bernal (Bill’s youngest daughter)

    • It’s a joy to hear from you, Lindsay, and it would be an even greater joy to have you visit Zdenka and me in Prague! Those tins of film you refer to present a fascination. Are they labeled with titles? Love, Gene & Zdenka

  3. This is great. I remember going to that apartment, you mention above, one Saturday and watching Bat Anderson woking on Homer. I was startled how all business he was that day compared to his jolly demeanor on days he visited our house. And, of course, I remember Bill Bernal. He always took a lot of time with me and Simon. One time he gave me a subscription to Record Research, [a latter day Record Changer type magazine.] He blew Simon’s mind when he told him he used write for Tales and even gave Simon a double he had of a 1929 issue that He’d written the cover story for. Did he swap you that copy of The Sidewalk Blues?

      • I used the side, from youtube as a plug for your blog on my facebook page. I also posted the shot of you with “Cat” glasses. I’m still getting comments. It is heading for a record breaker on our page.

  4. Pingback: The Cast, in order of appearance: | genedeitchcredits

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