“The Impossible Takes Longer!”
I was lucky to have started in animation at UPA in the mid 1940s. It was the most exciting animation studio in America. I never gave a second’s thought of ever leaving. To me it was animation heaven stocked with creative gods, a hot bed of political lefties with revolutionary ideas. But there was just that one catch: Gods don’t usually retire. I was surrounded by titans, who assured me that I could possibly make UPA director within ten years! I was born eager, and that was enough of a reason for them to slow me down. But after just three years running in place, fate gave me a lift-off.
This “Credit” will be a long one, as it turned out that what happened to me next nearly nipped my career in the bud, while simultaneously fertilizing it. Here’s the inside story:
Bill Murray was a pioneer maker of teaching films who spent the WW2 years as head of the Lockheed Aircraft Visual Aids department, making training films for the workers in the giant Inglewood, California Lockheed plant. Murray was a real pro. He pioneered the automatic stripfilm projector, which used a subsonic tone to cause an electric relay to pull down the next film frame. He introduced me to the rudiments of scripting and filmmaking, and also assigned me to make a weekly comic strip on workplace safety habits that was circulated in the factory. I called it “The White Elephant,” which was supposed to be a useless creature. Five years later, after the war ended and Murray became a film director at JHO, the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit. He urged the management there to hire me as an animation director. Thus I left UPA and was pulled up one frame in my career – a personal parallel to Bill Murray’s automatic stripfilm projector. As much as a deadhead outfit the Jam Handy place was, I prospered there.
I did so well there, that even though it was in the McCarthy Red Witch Hunt era, and I was accused of being a communist, because of some misread social activities in Hollywood. The Jam Handy management stood by me until I was cleared of the charges. It was Bill Murray who got me there, gave me my chance to direct my first professional film, which ironically was a paean to capitalism, titled, “Building Friends For Business!”
The Jam Handy Organization, a massive Detroit sales-film factory, and booster of conservative capitalism, was probably the most boring film studio on the planet, but thus ripe for a creative injection. Bill had been putting my name before his new bosses, as someone who could rejuvenate the ultra retro JHO animation department. I knew nothing of it, and was amazed when I got a letter from Jam Handy, offering me a job as animation director!
Murray had grossly exaggerated my status at UPA. To check me out, JHO sent one of their senior cameramen, who happened to be doing a shoot in L.A., to interview me. Murray told me on the phone to just show him some 16mm prints of UPA films, and explain my role in making them. In truth, my role was minimal, and my name was not yet on any UPA film credit titles.
I did my best to appear reasonably honest in my claims, but I was pretty good already at talking the UPA talk – one of the main things I’d already learned. I wished those films were really mine! They were great enough to inspire this JHO cameraman to give me a triple-horn fanfare of a recommendation.
Thus fell into my lap the Big Chance, but also a great dilemma: Should I leave the UPA nest of creative incubation sooner than I was ready to fly on my own? Or should I just wing it, and attempt to fake my way to directorial heights? Bill Murray had felt stymied by the JHO animation department. still doing rubber-hose retro stuff. He remembered me from our Lockheed days, and sold the JHO bosses on hiring me, without realizing that I had never actually animated, let alone directed, anything! Murray assured me that I could do it, because Jam Handy animation was stone-age, and almost anything modern would knock their socks off!
I went to John Hubley and Steve Bosustow for advice, half-hoping they would talk me out of it, because I was so “valuable” to them. But instead they told me to “take the offer and run with it,” and, more vaguely, that if I made it on my own they would welcome me back as a director! Hah! UPA was hanging on a financial thread, and Steve was likely relieved to have one less financial burden. Whatever – I was gung ho for the challenge, and my then wife Marie thought that having a job with a big and financially sound company was less nerve-wracking for her than my uncertain future with down-at-the-heels UPA. We already had our second son, Simon, and we were living on the edge.
What in fact I was offered was a one-month trial. The JHO poobahs were not about to pay household moving expenses and train tickets for a family of four from L.A. to Detroit, and renting a Motown house for us, without knowing for sure what I could do for them. I was to come alone to Detroit first and face the inquisition. My only chance was to flash my UPA lingo and hope for the best.
JHO was a large outfit, over 500 Christian Science souls, virtually a satellite of the GM behemoth, doing GM sales-training films. It was a company joke that there was a secret tunnel between The Jam Handy Organization on East Grand Boulevard, and the General Motors Building nearby. They also did motivational movies for the U.S. Military, stop-motion and animated TV commercials, and every sort of worthy establishment propaganda film. I used to see their dead-head stuff at our high school assembly hall screenings!
I could feel the death-row atmosphere as I was ushered into a dimly lit chamber, seated in the center, and ringed with a committee of top JHO executives and department heads.
“Gene, we’ve heard you are one of the hottest young animators in Hollywood!”
I actually felt somewhat offended. I couldn’t let them think I was a lesser light than I actually was!
“But I’m not an animator!” I said, proudly proclaiming the truth.
Talk about dead silence! Talk about ice-formation! I didn’t have to be clairvoyant to be able to read the mind of everyone in that room. “What? We just paid this boy’s train trip across the country, and he’s not an animator???“
An instant too late, I suddenly awoke to the fact that I had committed the cardinal crime of any job applicant: Never, ever, admit that you can’t do something!
So then followed my panic back-peddling: “Um, er, well, I must explain that in our work, the generic term “animator” is applied to anyone in the profession. I am specifically a production designer, but of course I can animate.”
Were they going to buy that? I tell you now that I had at that time never animated a single scene in my life! I had scribbled animated stick figures in the margins of my junior high school mathematics books, idly flipping them as I failed math. But I had carefully watched the master animators work at UPA. I had spent my lunch hours and after-work hours sitting at the studio Moviola machine, running their brilliant animation backwards and forwards. I knew the principles, and I could draw. I had come to Detroit assuming and hoping that I would immediately dazzle them with my advanced design concepts, and would craft stunning movies for them. So what was my first assignment? To animate a TV commercial!
Back to luck: My luck was that the animation standard at Jam Handy was antediluvian rubber-hose stuff, that was 30 years out of date even in 1949. I remembered a parable about building a house, or in fact doing any job: Step-by-step! With basic talent or skill, and observation, any intelligent person can figure out how to do any job. I knew the principles. I could draw. I could act. So I got my dialog reading from their film editor, and I squashed, and I stretched. I plotted my arcs. I anticipated. I followed through. I lip-synced. They thought it was the best animation they’d ever seen!
It was better than any animation I had ever done before. (None!) I kept the job. They moved my family to Detroit. I soon directed my first film there, and within a year I was the head of the JHO animation department.
So that’s the secret! Never admit you can’t do anything! Brazen it out! Analyze the problem, and you can figure out how to do it! “Learn by doing!”
At a jazz record party in Detroit, I met the 19-year-old Cliff Roberts, who was decorating Detroit restaurant menus with his brilliant graphics. I found him just in time to help me break new ground at this frozen studio. I was handed a stock script, and a voice recording by one of their usual monotone narrators, plus their typical stock documentary music, leaving the new-boy team of Deitch and Roberts to pep up the hack material with a saucy new look, trying to put into practice something of what I’d learned from Bill Hurtz, simplified UPA-ish style. The resulting film, a paeon to idealized capitalism, called BUILDING FRIENDS FOR BUSINESS, was a studio sensation, and I was launched in 1949 as a genuine animation director! I was soon to be chief of the JHO animation department.
As The Jam Handy Organization was one of the more obscure corners of movie making and animation production, there may be few left around to tell you about it. I’ll try. It was a truly surreal place, run by that crusty old devout Christian Scientist, Jamison Handy, with the top echelon made up of followers of his faith.
“Organization” was the proper name for the place. It was the classic paternalistic and slogan-saturated work place. Above every “member’s” desk was a framed list, titled, for example:
“Gene Deitch – Duties and Responsibilities:
1. Reports to Grant Harris, studio producer.
2. Creates and organizes animation projects.
3. Acts as director and scenarist of animated films.
4. Co-ordinates the work of the animation department.
5. Consults with producers of live-action sequences.
6. Co-works with story department where required.
7. Consults with musicians, actors, and technicians for the completion of his projects… etc. etc.
It did not include helping to clean the men’s johns, or organizing studio softball teams, but it might have. I got a kick out of these framed duty lists, and I imagined that should I come in drunk or zonked from lack of sleep, and wonder what in the name of heaven I was doing there, all I had to do was read the sign over my desk!
There were comic aspects, working there, but also one historic success: I was the first person to record John Lee Hooker, borrowing the studio’s newest piece of advanced technical equipment, the earliest portable reel-to-reel tape recorder!
Fats Waller once sang, “It Must Be Jelly, ‘Cause Jam Don’t Shake Like That!'” There really was a man named “Jam,” Jamison Handy — aging when I worked there, but still roaming the halls, cheering on the staff with his inspirational slogans: “Ideas are like a block of ice. They melt in transit!” “The difficult we do right away; the impossible takes longer!” “Have fun while getting it done!”
You old time animators will be interested to know that the nominal head of the Jam Handy Organization’s animation department during part of the 40s and 50s was old Max Fleischer himself! Jam had him on retainer, assuming that Fleischer’s name would add class to the joint. Max actually showed up once during my two-and-a-half year stay at JHO, presumably called in to look at my first film, “Building Friends For Business.” We had a pleasant chat, and I never saw him again.
The studio’s greatest claim to animation fame up to that time was the first animated version of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” It was so early in fact, that it didn’t even incorporate the hit Christmas song of that name, which was apparently written later.
One of the great features of JHO life was the annual 4th of July Picnic. The staff numbered about 500, so real big-time picnics were staged in a country setting. Jam himself went all-out for these picnics. It was all part of his grand paternal plan. There was plenty of food and root beer from barrels, greased pig chases, kissing booths, volley ball, fireworks, and of course, pep-talks. Jam himself displayed his great condition and commonality, playing volleyball with the underlings, er, “associates.” Great stuff.
The head animator when I came on board was chap named Ted Vosk. I didn’t understand any Slavic language in those days, but I soon learned that there was a large Polish city named Hamtramk, plopped like a huge wad of poppy seeds right smack in the middle of the Detroit coffeecake. Many of the JHO staff were of Polish extraction. Ted Vosk was a refugee from the old Fleischer studio, still passionately devoted to early-20s “rubber-hose” animation. His name hasn’t appeared in any list of Fleischer greats that I‘ve seen, but he was the star animator at Handy’s. When he saw some of the outrageous UPA-influenced design I was importing into JHO animation, and sizing me up as a post-pubertic upstart, he advised me, “Gene, when you’ve been in animation as long as I have, (10 years at the time), you’d know you can’t get away with that sort of stuff!” However, I did get away with it, and still am.
Jamison Handy himself was already an old guy when I was there, and he reigned rather than ruled over the JHO roost. The actual creative head honcho was Grant Harris. He was also a Hollywood import, and was supremely self-confident. He never doubted for an instant that he was right in all of his thoughts. I didn’t reach that level of creative authority until years later, but I did learn from my relations with Grant that a certain humility is necessary to get the most from your staff. A director, and certainly a studio creative director must be clear and definite in his or her conceptions, but should still be open to consider the ideas of others, as long as they fit into the perceived pattern. When I have a film in work, I say to myself: “My God, all of these people are working away on a project I set up. Their livelihood depends on my being right! – And I am committing my client’s money!” I give a lot of thought to what I’m doing, and hope to hope that I’m right!
In my very first film as director at JHO, BUILDING FRIENDS FOR BUSINESS, I went out of my way to dazzle my colleagues. In order to smoothly suggest the development of businesses and technology from the birth of the USA, I devised a panorama background that unrolled out to 19 feet in physical length. (I forget how long it ran, but it was several minutes.) As it slowly panned under the camera, Paul Revere galloped through on his horse, carrying one of his teapots, oil wells were dug and began pumping, carriages animated into automobiles, villages grew into towns and cities, etc. It alarmed the hell out of the JHO animation cameraman, Larry Lippman, but he shot it all at one go – no safety-net intercuts – and everything worked. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house when the brass screened it.
I would say that my biggest success in my two years at JHO was the discovery there of Cliff Roberts.. Cliff was a rolypoly, gag-spouting jazz fan. He loved to bang on things to the rhythm of my jazz records, as did I, and we loved to spend the nights hand-drumming together. We became buddies, but it was his way-ahead design talent that made me hire him at JHO. He later joined me at UPA/NY, and later ended up as a writer for Hanna-Barberra.
While still at JHO and still on a roll, I wrote and directed “THE MITE BOX” a simplistic trifle about how Catholic church contributions bring color into the gray life of poor African natives, (my first experiment with color film), “ROGER WINDSOCK,” for the US Air Force, and a film for the Otis Elevator Company, announcing the first computer controlled lifts. Now obscure films.
I finally got a real professional animator into my department, Rudy Zamora, possibly the only mainstream animator who ever worked at the place. He was a touchy heavyweight whom I dared not cross. Nobody dared rile Rudy! But we got along fine, and had a good time working together. He animated my second important JHO film, “ROGER WINDSOCK,” about a kid so entranced by airplanes that he actually sprouted wings. That one was more than a little influenced by UPA’s “GERALD McBOING-BOING,” another little boy with a physical problem. The movie extolled the wonders of the Age of Flight.
Just at the moment I was flying highest at JHO, I was suddenly called into the personnel office. A lieutenant colonel of the United States Navy was standing there in full uniform, and he handed me an envelope. On it was written, “Eugene Merril Deitch, For His Eyes Only.” ——-What the hell???
While he and the JHO personnel chief patiently waited, I carefully opened the envelope. Inside was another envelope, and on it was also written,”Eugene Merril Deitch, For His Eyes Only.”
Inside that, a crisp letter unfolded, bearing the seal of the United States Industrial Employment Review Board, declaring that I was to be denied access to work on films the United States Navy had in production at the Jam Handy Organization, because “it has been determined that you are a member of the Communist Party, an organization dedicated to the overthrow of the government of The United States of America by force and violence.’
One moment I had been the fair-haired boy, (I had gorgeous hair then), of JHO, and at the next moment, I appeared to be finished! There I was, with my career just taking off, and suddenly faced with a forced landing.
“This is absolutely not true!” I implored.
The officer spoke dryly. “Your case has been thoroughly investi-gated. We are not saying you should be fired from your job here. We are simply saying, that as a Jam Handy client with security priorities, we refuse you permission to work on our films.”
How neat. They weren’t asking JHO to throw me out, they were just making it impossible for me to be fully useful to them. (And this was 10 years before I landed in the land of Franz Kafka!
“I will appeal this decision. It is a terrible mistake!”
“You may appeal if you want to, but you will have to pay your own expenses to Washington for a hearing. However, it will be useless. These decisions are never reversed!”
Right. The true McCarthyist approach to democracy! But I did manage to get through to the JHO leadership, and they graciously agreed to withhold any mention of this to other members of the staff. They found a way to have my assistant, Jim Fekete, handle the “secret” stuff, and gave me a month to attempt a reversal.
I did get an address from the officer, and wrote for a hearing. “The Industrial Employment Review Board,” was located in the Pentagon, in Washington D.C. It was a gloomy train ride to Washington, and this is getting to be a gloomy tale for a book about my “Credits!” Yet there is a large lesson in it.
The average animator doesn’t usually get invited to the Pentagon, at least not in those days. Being led through this 5-sided nest of warriors is suitably cheerless. It is not just one pentagon, but several, one inside the other, something like – you should excuse the simile – a set of Russian dolls – anyway a labyrinth, and my first thought was, “will I ever find my way out of this place?” After being ushered behind layers of security doors. I was led into a rather small room, filled to the brim with high-grade military officers from all branches of the U.S. armed forces, all sitting around a long table, the same shape as, and only a tad smaller than the room itself. This was the Industrial Employment Review Board. What startled me the most were the stacks of documents in front of each member. “Could all of those papers be about me?”
After a long string of seemingly unconnected questions about my activities in Hollywood, it finally came out what they were driving at. “Look, Mr. Deitch, we don’t have to beat around the bush. We have information that you held regular Communist Party meetings in your home.”
What? Now it all was clear.
In our slightly above-the-poverty-line existence after the war, my first wife and I, being intense jazz fans, had evolved a very cheap weekly social event. What extra money we had went for jazz records, very hard to come by in those days. Those were our substitute for cigarettes. We had a terrific collection of ancient 78 RPM jazz records, and a suitable pre-pre-stereo record player, so we started having Friday night kaffee-klatches and jazz record sessions. As I was then doing my jazz cartoons for The Record Changer magazine, I ran a small ad in it, reading, “all you CATS in the Los Angeles area… you’re invited to Marie & Gene Deitch’s regular Friday night record sessions.” At our little Hollywood bungalow on Westbourne Drive, Marie would whomp up a large pot of beans and weenies, and we brewed a tank of coffee. Everyone who came gave 50 cents to defray expenses, and contribute to our current favorite candidate – always a Democrat… We met a lot of new people that way, including the young Pete Seeger. They were all fans of traditional jazz and American folk music. Some were certainly political radicals, perhaps even communists. There was some political talk, especially having to do with Negro rights, because we were all champions of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, and King Oliver.
So it was a great relief to realize what those Pentagon generals and admirals had gotten a hold of. I tried to be jolly, and to patiently explain to them the essentials of the above true story. It went over like a lead balloon.
“Mr. Deitch, are you telling us that you allowed perfect strangers to come into your home?”
I could tell right away that these guys were definitely not jazz fans. How in hell was I going to convince these men that we did exactly that; opened our house each week to perfect strangers, just to listen to jazz records, but not to plot the overthrow the U.S. Government by force and violence? I went over the story every which way, trying to get them to understand a glimmer of what goes on in the heads of young jazz fanatics.
Even when they seemed on the verge of half-way believing me, they came up with the typical poison pill of that time: The List.
“We have a list here of those we suspect of being communist agitators, who regularly visited your home. Will you please look over this list carefully, and tell me which of them you knew?”
That was it. I expected that I was sunk. I glanced at the list, and sure enough, there were names I knew. I did my best not to react.
“Sirs, even if I might recognize some names on this list it wouldn’t mean that I thought they were subversives. Even by saying I know someone could mean I was making some sort of accusation. I traveled here from Detroit at my own expense for the purpose of defending myself. I’m willing to talk about myself, even if I think that it is wrong that I must do so in order to save my career, but I am not willing to talk about anyone else.”
I wrote all of this down when I returned from Washington, so I can be sure that is what I said. I assumed I was cooked. After several more tries to get me to at least admit I knew anyone on the list, they let me go, and told me I would be informed of their decision by registered letter within one month. It was probably the longest and gloomiest month of my life. Sure enough, 30 long days later a registered letter appeared in my mailbox.
“The Industrial Employment Review Board of the United States Department of Defense informs you that the decision to deny you access to film projects they have or might have in production at the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit, Michigan, is hereby reversed.”
It seemed an agonizingly long eye-span just to get to that last lovely word! My only guess of the reason for this deliverance was that they must have figured that I was too young, naïve, and nutty to be any real danger to the security of my country.
The actual truth was that I had indeed been an intense left winger in my teens and early twenties in Hollywood, though never an active communist, and I of course knew that some of our jazz session guests might have been actual communists. I had hoped that my earlier political orientation would not surface at JHO, which was all-out-right-wing conservative – almost an annex to the then mighty General Motors Corp. So it was terrifying and obviously job-threatening. Having privately smirked at what I saw as a jingoistic outfit, I now had to be grateful that the Christian Science veneer did steer the leaders of the company toward tolerance. At least they were not willing to peremptorily dump me until a case against me was proven. I was grateful for their fairness, and dedicated myself to do the best job I could for them. I wasn’t at all converted to the worship of Big Business, but I learned that if you have a wife and kids, and the need to make a living, you have to make a fundamental choice. If your beliefs are strong enough, you must take a stand and say to hell with the establishment.
But I found that nothing was that clear. Though I despised the McCarthy witch-hunters, I had been equally turned off by the communists. I certainly knew some communists in Hollywood, with their rigid and mindless Stalinist acceptance. I learned right there, that finding any creed to believe in unquestioningly is a tough call. There is no substitute for independent thinking.
Resuming my full role as head of the JHO animation unit, I was plunged into the development of a film for the U.S. Airforce, to be aimed at recruitment. It would be shown at schools, with the idea of instilling the romance of flying into their little heads.
Mass air travel had not yet taken hold, but was clearly on the horizon, and we were all dazzled by airplanes. In my first wartime job, I had been a parts-catalog illustrator at North American Aviation, in Inglewood, California. I learned to read blueprints, and to draw detailed aircraft parts assemblies in such a way that the thousands of unskilled employees could see how to put them together. Though it seemingly had nothing to do with animation, the understanding of technology I gained in this work was extremely valuable to my later animation career. Besides peering at blueprints, I also was able to walk through the plant to see how the actual parts were attached to actual planes. Through the din of constant riveting and stamping of aluminum sheeting, I saw the great planes of World War II being assembled. The two main products of the plant were the magnificent B-24 Billy Mitchell bomber, and the elegant P-51 Mustang fighter. What a gorgeous plane that was!
I definitely caught the airplane bug, and so I was enthusiastic about the Air Force film I was about to make at JHO. Still under UPA influence, I thought about GERALD McBOING-BOING, the parable of a little boy with an extreme speech impediment. “He couldn’t speak words, he went ‘boing-boing” instead!” It’s a basic given of movie cartoons that there has to be something extreme about a character. Donald Duck and Daffy Duck both rose to fame on the weird sounds of their twisted tongues. Some kind of impediment or physical extreme has to be there. So I just extended this idea, and created a little boy whose passion for airplanes caused him to actually grow little wings from his shoulder blades. I called him Roger Windsock, “Roger” from the airplane pilots’ standard response of understanding, and “Windsock” from the cloth tube that fluttered from poles at airports. Rudy Zamora mainly animated the film.
I didn’t remain at JHO long enough to see it completed. This time, my tenure at JHO was interrupted by good news! I got a phone call from Steve Bosustow that kicked my adrenaline. He was flying to Detroit to see me! (There it was! The age of air travel had actually come into my life!)
The fact that the prez of UPA would fly across the country to see me, his former apprentice, gave me a gratifying boost. Somehow, word of my accomplishments in the bosom of big business had made its way back to my true home studio. My old boss, Bill Murray, the leading live action director at JHO, continued to be my booster, and felt that my light would eventually go out, if indefinitely hidden under the Jam Handy bushel. He had kept UPA informed of my progress. Again luck. It’s great to have the right kind of friends!
When Steve arrived, he told me more of what he only had sketched out on the phone; that UPA had decided to open a New York branch in order to cash in on its reputation, and go for the new burgeoning TV commercial market.
He knew the lure of the Big Apple with UPA was something I could hardly refuse, even though his offer came with a catch. I was now a genuine animation director, having personally directed five longish films, and many TV commercials. But Steve had committed to Abe Liss as director, and he offered me only the second position as the New York studio production designer.
Then there was money. I couldn’t consider even the lure of returning to the nest and glamorous Gotham without a substantially higher income. Manhattan living costs were something else than in the Detroit suburbs.
The classic Bosustow touch was next. He put his hand on my shoulder once again. Earlier, it had been to suggest that I was being groomed as the next UPA director. This time, it was a plea for the acceptance of poverty: “Gene, you’re a good Marxist, aren’t you?”
There I was, in the city where I had been accused of being a Marxist – a threat to my existence, and now I was expected to be a Marxist and accept a low salary as a comradely act for the UPA “commune.” It was hard to keep a straight face.
But hell, you know what I had to do, and so did I. I went along with it, because the promise was obviously there. Steve was willing to transport me, my wife and kids and my worldly goods to a lovely apartment in Westchester County, New York, and place me in the founding cadre of UPA-NY.