“Gene, I will never speak to you again!”
The 24-year-old Jules Feiffer showed up at our UPA-New York studio in about 1953. His stuff was already great, and he was already “persnickety.” He claimed to be influenced by UPA and William Steig, same as I. He wanted a job with us. I wished I could hire him, but like so many great creators who knocked on our door, he had the impression that our New York UPA branch was there to create original projects, when in fact Steve Bosustow had planted us in New York with the single purpose of making money for the Burbank parent studio by doing TV commercials and custom productions, with subjects controlled by our clients.
Jules was predominantly a writer and a cartoonist with a highly personal style. He wasn’t a “studio man,” as we all were, willing to adapt to various design styles for commercial productions. I tried him out as a potential assistant on my then budding comic strip, “TERR’BLE THOMPSON!,” but even there, he bent it into his own style, which I, (perhaps foolishly), rejected. So nothing worked for him at UPA/NY. But just two years later I became the fever-pitch creative director of CBS-Terrytoons, where I had an entirely different mandate: to lead an animation revolution. Among my first acts was to hire Jules Feiffer! He was just the man to help me instill new life in that moribund studio. I put him in the story department, along with my other new recruits, Al Kouzel, Eli Bauer, and studio stalwart, Larz Bourne. The atmosphere was also charged with great external creators such as R.O. Blechman, and Ernie Pintoff. Jules’ first work for me was on my story team for “Tom Terrific!” He made sharp contributions to the stories and dialog.
Then I set him up to create an entirely personal project. He came up with a great idea involving a group of feisty kids, with writing on a level with the just emerging Peanuts strip. I suggested ragtime piano music for the series, naming it, “Easy Winners” after one of my favorite Scott Joplin piano rags. That tune would be the title melody. Jules developed the stories, design, and dialog for the projected series. I found a wonderful woman actor to record the voices, and we got as far as a pencil reel of animation for the first pilot episode. It was great pure early Feiffer; his first personal animation project!
But it was late in my Terrytoons days. I was bounced out of there before I could get Easy Winners into production. Equally dismayed, Jules also left Terrytoons, and the potentially great Easy Winners became Hard-Losers.
I did not give up on such a unique talent as Jules. I set up my own studio in Manhattan, Gene Deitch Associates, Inc., and hired Jules to create a series of promotional cards, to be mailed out once a week to all of the New York ad agencies and other potential animation clients. Not feeling that I needed a prestigious Eastside Manhattan address to overload my operating costs, I took space in a cheap loft in the Sofia Storage building way over on the West side. I hired Jules to make a series of promotional cards for me to announce my new studio. Jules came up with a great idea, a parody of the hugely successful high end AT&T ads in Fortune and other classy magazines, which were titled “Great Ideas Of Western Man.” Jules used wicked caricatures of me under the title, “Great Thoughts Of Western Man.” (All 12 cards are reproduced below.) Those cards were mailed out, one each week, and were a tremendous send-off for my studio, and, as it turned out, they were an even greater boost to the career of Jules Feiffer!
His satiric cartoon panel, then labeled, “Sick,Sick,Sick” appeared only in the Village Voice, appealing mainly to Village liberals and Hippies. But the top ad agencies in New York pinned our GDA cards on their bulletin boards as they were received each week. The agencies responded with work for my studio, and the cards simultaneously introduced them to the genius of Jules.
Work came rolling in to GDA from Eastside to Westside! The next step for us was to move up to movie-theater cartoons and TV serials, and once again my great hope was Jules Feiffer. Just before our Terrytoons days, Jules had created a wonderful parody story of military bureaucracy he called “MUNRO.” It was about a four-year-old boy who was mistakenly drafted into the US Army. The central idea was that as it was against Army policy to induct men of four, the Army, rather that admit an error, insisted that he could not possibly be four! With that mind-set the story spun out a flood of hilarious bureaucracy gags. Luckily, Jules had created the story before joining Terrytoons, so it belonged to him, and I was able to contract the film rights for my studio, where I expected that staffer Al Kouzel would direct.
Having the Terrytoons story department experience, Jules himself had reworked MUNRO into animation storyboard form. I pinned up his storyboard on my office wall, waiting for an angel to fly in and feather it with dollars. The angel who actually appeared was the debonair William L. Snyder, who offered to finance the production of MUNRO if I would personally direct the production in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he had the previous year contracted for an animation facility.
Al Kouzel did work up the production layouts, working closely with Jules and adhering precisely to Feiffer’s drawing style. I recorded my 3½-year-old son, Seth, as the voice of Munro, and my then wife Marie as his mom. I recorded the TV comic Howard Morris as the narrator, mimicking the voice of “Archie, The Waiter,” of the Duffy’s Tavern radio show.
I took all of this preparatory material to Prague, and directed the animation production there with the talented “Trick Brothers” studio staff. MUNRO cheered us all by winning the 1961 animation Oscar! What a great start!
It was over 40 years later that I had another chance to work with Jules, who had gone on to the heights of fame, as he wrote in his name-drop-rich memoir, “Backing Into Forward.” I’d spent those 40 years doing theatrical comedy shorts, some movie projects, and many children’s films, mostly for Morton Schindel’s Weston Woods organization. When Mort sold Weston Woods to Scholastic publishers I retired from it, after completing my adaptation of William Steig’s “SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE,” and went on to other children’s film productions.
Jules, after his long-time satiric cartoon successes and a big-time career writing major film and stage play scripts, had set-backs from those lofty regions, and settled into my world of children books. Paul Gagne, producer of the new Weston Woods division of Scholastic, wanted to adapt two of Jules’ children’s books to the WW roster, but couldn’t get to him. Paul asked me, as Jules’ long-time colleague, to approach Jules personally. So on our next trip to New York, Zdenka and I went to visit Jules in his Riverside Drive apartment. It was a happy reunion, and Jules quickly agreed to grant Weston Woods film rights to two of his children’s picture books, which I would direct. And so it came to pass that in 2002 Jules Feiffer and Gene Deitch were “together again!”
The two chosen Feiffer books were “BARK, GEORGE!” a funny shaggy-dog joke, and “I LOST MY BEAR,” Jules’ first children’s picture-book, about a little girl’s search for her lost favorite stuffed toy animal, written expressly for his daughter Halley, when she was a tiny girl. So we were off again! I returned to Weston Woods, and had a great time adapting these two richly conceived books for the screen. Jules had loosely drawn the “BARK GEORGE” illustrations with a broad-tipped felt pen, with the characters over plain solid color backgrounds. It’s about a confused puppy that doesn’t know how to bark, and thus of course needs psychiatric help. I found a talented young British cellist and composer, Lucy Fillery, working in Prague at the time, who had just the right touch for this light-hearted story. She gathered a few musician friends, and we recorded them in a basement room on the outskirts of Prague; a “live” recording – no synthesizer tricks. And we got some brilliant animation from our Czech stars. It’s a small-scale, very funny film, which won us several festival prizes. It can be found as a steady seller in the Weston Woods catalog.
“I LOST MY BEAR” was our chance for a major production. Jules’ book was richly illustrated, and I went all out for an equally rich animated short. The jazz score was produced by one of my favorite Prague composers, the double-named Zdenek Zdenek.
The one fateful stumble involved finding the right voice for the 7-year-old girl who tells the story. Jules was insisting that I record his daughter Halley, for whom he had written the book when she herself was 7 years old. But she was 20 when we were given the book to adapt, and had a voice far too deep for the role. I wanted a real 7-year-old, with a natural charm, not an adult imitating a little girl, and certainly not a speeded-up track that would produce that hokey “Munchkin” sound. I could appreciate Jules’ wish to have his daughter perform the voice for an animation version of a story he wrote specifically for her. She had grown to be a credible actress, but now had the voice of a grown-up. I had to think of the effectiveness of the film for our child audience, and the Weston Woods policy of authenticity. This was to be a film for all children; not an audition reel for Halley Feiffer! I wanted a natural little girl voice, and I believed that Jules would understand and approve something that had the fresh sound of a true little girl. It was here that the “tech-savvy” Gene Deitch found himself fatefully outside the curve. I zagged when I should’ve zigged, and I lost my long-time friend!
I had taken a chance, and went to the International School of Prague, a large English-speaking school loaded with children of American diplomats and business executives; many bright and talented kids. I found several charming second graders, just the right age, who could do the job, and one in particular who was perfect! I recorded her and was delighted with her performance. I sent the disc to Jules, hoping he would see the light. Instead he phoned me from New York, and without a pause, shouted, “Gene, I will never speak to you again!” and slammed the receiver.
I had “betrayed” him! Our 40-year friendship and collegial relationship went down in flames, just like that! I tried calling him back, hoping at least for a reasonable discussion of the several factors involved, but he again slammed the receiver as soon as he heard my voice. There was never a chance, nor ever a further word between us. The iron door had slammed in my face. It was Proud-Papa Jules, trashing misguided-me.
The ironic capper to this dreadful story is that almost immediately afterward, I was told of a new computer program called “ProTools,” which had the amazing ability to raise the pitch of a recorded voice without increasing the speed, thus avoiding the hokey “Munchkin”sound! Had I known of ProTools, I could have avoided the loss of Jules’ friendship. Instead, I had to throw out my true little girl recording, bite the bullet, and go to Halley. So it came to pass that you will hear Halley’s Protooled voice on my production of “I Lost My Bear,” but I’ve not heard the voice of my old colleague Jules Feiffer as I write this, nine years later and counting…
Reading Jules’ auto-bio book, “BACKING INTO FORWARD,” much becomes clear. I was happy to find that Jules did not press the Delete button on me, even though he has avoided personal contact. He recounts his early relationship with me, omitting totally his dissing of me when referring to our relationship in his witty and otherwise frank autobio. In his scatter-shot name-dropping of the cultural elite he moved among, he drops my name with a noiseless thud.
We have some ego faults in common, but I cannot match his genius as a writer nor his facility in cartooning, nor his monumental self-esteem, nor his need to hobnob with the famous. (In his book he refers to his own fame more times than I could count, and he seems to have set a world record for name-dropping.) However, I personally experienced that he is indeed a true genius, and certainly one of the people who played a vital role in my career, for which I freely credit him. But does he credit me for giving him his first film work? Is there yet hope he will move out of his long-time snit, and say hello to me once again?