Skill. Craft, Art, Dedication. What more could I ask for?
These two men came from opposite sides of the Earth, overlapping in Prague. Al Kouzel first joined me at UPA/New York in the 1950s, as a production designer, starting in the same animation layout function as I had. He came with me to CBS-Terrytoons, where he worked on THE JUGGLER OF OUR LADY, and JOHN DOORMAT, then to Gene Deitch Associates inc. as designer, doing the preliminary design work on MUNRO. He then came to work with me on the Popeye and Krazy Kat projects, etc. in Prague.
He had the perfect knack of adjusting his style of drawing to each of the authors we worked with. As that was my own specialty, I regarded Al as the closest to what I attempted graphically. He also shared my interest in the technicalities of film construction. Al was a man of great education and sophistication, always working to find the common touch.
Milan Klikar was a young assistant animator in Zdenka’s Prague animation studio when I arrived in 1959. He was quickly interested to work with me, wanting to adapt to the American style of animation. Milan was an art school graduate, and a gifted painter. He grew into being one the most brilliant of the Czech animators in the studio, and did key scenes in many of my early Prague films. I trained him in production layout and scene planning. He was diligent, and well organized. Both Al and Milan later became directors in their own right, but sadly, illness took them both. I sorely missed them, After Milan, I never took another steady assistant. I just did fewer films.
Al Kouzel actually fell in love with one of Zdenka’s assistants, but backed away from it, in consideration of his wife, who was a sensitive and eccentric woman from another European country. She never learned of his Czech affair. Al returned to America to work with Eli Bauer (Chapter 30.), but went into decline, as did his Czech lover. They both died broken-hearted.
Milan had a happy marriage, which was actually put together by Zdenka! He had managed to get a trip to Italy, and was strongly taken with the country, its art and architecture. His chances to go abroad again were crushed by a jealous studio production manager who was a strong communist Party member. When I tried to invite Milan to go with me on a working trip to Italy, this miserable apparatchik reported to the passport authorities that Milan was planning to stay abroad – to illegally emigrate.
In the communist era, the worst personal crime against a colleague – or anyone – was to make an unsubstantiated accusation of that kind. Suspicion was enough. There was no way to prove you would faithfully return from a trip abroad. So as in most cases of that type, Milan was refused permission to travel with me. I never spoke a word to that accuser again, even though he was in the studio , and I had to look at him nearly every day.
But luck finally came Milan’s way. We happened to have a visit from a half-Italian, half-Czech young woman who lived in Bari, the “heel” of Italy. Her mother had immigrated there, married to an Italian man. The girl was named Enrica Todesco, and she became fascinated with her Czech heritage. On her visit, Zdenka introduced her to Milan, who was a very good-looking young blonde man. (fanfare!) They fell in love and married, not only bringing happiness, but the advantage that to be married to a foreigner was the one sure way to be allowed to travel to the West. So being married to an Italian citizen, Milan had the extreme good situation of being able to freely travel back and forth. He continued to work with me, and also gained working experience in Italy, learning the language, making him immediately a more valuable animator. Even with this success, I never spoke a word to that accuser. In communist-run Czechoslovakia, his was the unpardonable sin.
Milan and Al were two of my most valued associates, always giving me exactly what I envisioned on each project, and beyond that both becoming close personal friends. We shared much together, in the ups and downs of events all around us. You’ll find their names on the credit titles of many of my films; their names certainly belong in this book!
Al Kouzel and Milan Klikar, one American, and one Czech, were in turn my closest helpers, each for several years, and they actually overlapped in Prague!