17. Duane Crowther & Y.K. Smith

An “iconographic” convergence.

Besides being a natural-born great animator, Duane Crowther was our UPA/New York intellectual “Trendmeister.”  He was the one in our studio who discovered and introduced us to Salinger’s “Catcher in The Rye,” and Walt Kelly’s POGO, and just about every hot new thing that surfaced in the early 1950s. Duane was so in-the-know that I was often intimidated, feeling uninformed when talking with him. As was Grim, I was too wrapped up in the excitement of my work, and not much interested in anything else.  I was what was later called a “Workaholic.” Duane was a “Bookaholic”, and seemed to have read everything. We all assumed that he had an IQ number that was through the roof.

With Duane on my staff, along with Grim Natwick, Cliff Roberts, Fred Crippen, Chris Ishii, and even Richard Williams for a while, I had a crew of geniuses who all amplified my conceptions and my reputation!  In the case of Duane, I can’t even take credit for hiring him.   It was when Ted Bethune, our original background painter went home to Canada that a historic transformation of the studio was set in motion.  About that time, Abe Liss, who Steve Bosustow had first appointed as Director, fell out with him and was fired.  I never knew why. Abe went on to do well in another studio. I was suddenly elevated to be the overall Creative Director, and faced with my first crisis, to find a worthy designer and background painter to replace the suddenly gone Ted Bethune. In those early days, we had to give Steve first choice on staff hiring, so I immediately put in a transcontinental phone call to Burbank, not so routine in those days.  In order to minimize costs, Steve’s method of communicating with our east coast unit was by so-called Dictaphone belts, which arrived in the mail almost daily, full of Steve’s pep talks.  But this was an emergency, requiring “live” communication.

“I need a background painter right now, Steve! Who can you send me?”

“Hold on a minute, Gene.”  He put his hand over the telephone mouthpiece, but even so, I could hear his muffled voice, saying, “Can you paint backgrounds?”

It seems that I caught Steve just as he was talking with an eager young staffer gung-ho to join the New York studio  “I’ve got a guy right here for you who can do it,” Steve assured me.  “He’s single, and can be on the train by tomorrow!”  I was skeptical…

In a couple of days, a handsome 20-year-old with bright black eyes showed up. He painted the worst backgrounds I’d ever seen.  But I couldn’t throw back a guy that Steve sent me. “What else can you do?” I plaintively asked.

“I have this 3-minute reel I animated at UCLA when I was 19,” he said. I led him to the projection room with no real hope. His animation was amazing! I was bowled over! A natural born animator had been dropped onto my lap! He became one of my stars. He was Duane Crowther.

I’ve read that animator/collector Mark Kausler has the only known print of Duane’s amazing student film, called BLUM BLUM, in which as an untrained beginner, he exhibited ideas anticipating the UPA genre.

With Grim Natwick to help hone him, I had two great animators on my staff, each at the opposite end of the age scale!  They both share credit for our major successes of the 1950s. Also, still with no background painter, I was now free to hire Cliff Roberts!

When Cliff, and later, Fred Crippen, came to the studio, they and Duane became a buddy trio, and not only made great contributions separately and together, but became the studio savants and seers, as well as the premium fun mongers.  All of them, including Grim, were present at our great 1984 reunion party I wrote about in the previous chapter.

Duane’s range of interest was wide. He alerted me to something remarkable right in our studio that I and most of the others of us had not even been aware of.   It was about a bright older woman in the studio working with Bill Bernal in client contact. Her name was Helen Smith, who was full of spreading “the gospel” of her husband, known as Y.K.Smith.

We met with Y.K., as he wanted to be called. He was a remarkable man in many ways. His “Gospel” was preaching against the evils of DDT, which he claimed would poison us all, yet in those days DDT was widely publicized as the savior of mankind.  Y.K. and Helen had a small farm in upstate New York, where they practiced what they called “Organic Farming.”  I figured that everything in nature was “organic,” including us!  Y.K. pointed out that he meant vegetables and animals grown and fed completely naturally without chemical fertilizers, hormones or insecticides. So why am I writing this when you already know it? Because it was in 1954 when I visited Y.K. and Helen’s spread, fifty-seven years ago as I write this, when the term “organic,” the advertising buzz-word on more and more of today’s food packages, was unheard of, as it’s used today.  Y.K. was a true pioneer.

I had a thrilling preview a half-century ago when I drove into the Smith’s little farm. As I turned into the front gate, I passed a large tree that seemed to be blooming large white flowers.  At the sound of my car passing, all of the “flowers” suddenly flew off the tree! They were chickens!!!  I had never seen a chicken fly! I didn’t know that chickens, with unclipped wings, could fly!  That I learned from Y.K. Smith. I can’t find him on Google or Wikipedia. but I swear he was real.

Interest of the mantra of Y.K. Smith was just another facet of the broad intelligence of Duane Crowther, who happened to be in my estimation one of the greatest natural born animators of all time, who miraculously appeared to embellish my films!

Duane died tragically in 1998, from a long debilitating illness that first cruelly robbed him of the spark that had made him Duane, and then finished him off.

You can see here Zdenka, me, Wardell Gaynor, Duane Crowther, Cliff Roberts, my son Kim, and only the top of Grim Natwick’s head, rear left, in a murky photo from our 1984 reunion Lunch.
Wardell Gaynor and Duane Crowther at our 1984 reunion.

This is the last letter I received from Wardell.


Duane in 1987, the last photo I know of.

10 thoughts on “17. Duane Crowther & Y.K. Smith

  1. Wardell Gaynor is my grand dad.. from his Son who is not mentioned in his letter. My fathers name is Marc Gaynor. He grew up in foster care. Marc is biracial unlike his other two sons. Finding this made my day i wish i knew more about his work and him. I only met him once at the end of his life. If you have any information on him or my grandmother Betty Combs please contact me. My name is Andrella Gaynor.

    • Wardel was a great person, who overcame systematc racism by doing good work and proving his worth. He was my most helpful, skilful, and dependable colleague in the UPA New York animation studio!

  2. WOW! Imagine my surprise at finding this article – quite by accident – here on Rfotofolio. I worked with Duane and with Abe Liss and Cliff Roberts and Al Kouzel at Transfilm in the 50s. Worked with Johnny Gent [Gentilella] and George Singer at Famous Studios. Almost every name above was familiar to me and left me awash in nostalgia. And my husband Tony Creazzo was on staff with all these UPA guys. Art done by Cliff and by Fred Crippen hung on our living room walls. What a delight to have it all brought back to me so very unexpectedly. Thank you..

      • Gene Deitch – how happy to have your response. I, of course, knew of you. I did a bit of free-lance work for UPA in the mid 1950s, but started at Famous in ’53, then worked for Shamus Culhane and then Transfilm and later was Abe Liss’ first production manager. So delighted to have found this site and to have heard from you. Thank you. Wondering where you are located now. I am about 40 miles north of NYC in Brewster, NY.

  3. Duane left a hole in my life when he died, the same as Cliff. He sure was a great animator who seemed to have only one mentor, Grim Natwick, whom he met in NewYork AFTER he had made that student film that revealed his natural born abilities.

  4. Gene, Thank you SO much for all this about Duane. I have LONG admired his work and am glad to see that everyone can now enjoy learning more about him.

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