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Disney on Strike! Part II

August 2019

The Wonderful World Beyond Disney: by Ronald Milligan After the Walt Disney Strike of 1941, things were never the same for animation, cartoons and, above all, for the artists who created them. They left the wonderful world of Disney, embarking on voyages into the vast unknown of creativity. The first major outpost in their journey to bold new worlds was a fledgling animation studio of their own making. Change is good, although the reasons for such change are not always happy or even desirable. Had those creative artists remained working at the studio of Walt Disney Productions, they would likely have been required to conform stylistically to the aesthetic designs of Walt, and to the variations in mediums upon which he focused. And when Walt focused, he focused, in a laser sense. The set-up between Walt and worker was akin to Egyptian artists working for the Pharaoh! The exodus of these artists from Walt Disney proved to be an expansion of the universe of cartoon animation. We now take too much for granted the myriad ways in which any animated character behaves, talks, laughs and grants to us the fun of fantasy. This unique gift of entertainment was born of trouble aplenty where the Disney strikers were concerned.

United Productions of America, better known as UPA, was the fledgling animation studio that was destined to become the most direct by-product of the Disney strike. This group of creative artists also formed the most distinct response to the Disney animation style. Founded in the wake of the immediate Disney downsizing after the strike, this studio began life with many former Disney employees producing films for American manufacturing industries and for U.S. government and military training programs. UPA eventually secured a contract with Columbia Pictures to produce a wide variety of very successful theatrical shorts called the Jolly Frolics. All of the UPA animated shorts had a distinctive 1950s vibe. These features included the critically-acclaimed Mr. Magoo theatrical series. In 1954 and 1956, Mr. Magoo would win Academy awards for the UPA studio.

An Honorable Mention of Achievement goes to a long-time favorite of the Milligan household: the 1952 animated short Madeline. Ludwig Bemelmans wrote and illustrated this book that was published in 1939. The story begins: “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. . . “ This 1952 UPA production was the earliest appearance of the Madeline character in animation. This charming "short" was nominated that year for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Subject. Alas, the adorable Madeline lost to a Tom and Jerry cartoon! Madeline would appear in other animated adventures, but, unfortunately, none of those shorts were produced by UPA.

By the 1960s, the UPA studio produced the syndicated television series involving Mr. Magoo and Dick Tracy, as well as animated television specials which included Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol. Their hey-day could be considered those two decades, the 1950s and 1960s. The UPA studio can best be remembered for pioneering the style of limited animation. This minimalist technique was widely used in the 1960s and 1970s as a cost-savings measure, but it was originally intended as a stylistic alternative to the growing trend (particularly at Disney) of recreating cinematic realism in animated films. Many of the UPA artists believed that animation did not have to be a painstakingly realistic imitation of life, and they felt that the medium had become constrained by efforts to depict too much reality.

Walter Disney liked reality in cartooning — and lots of it. The more over-done the drawing was, the better. Disney demanded so much reality for a cartoon that the final product created an entire new level of fantasy! This “aesthetic” would not work in all types of animated story-telling. The phenomenal success of the UPA in the 1950s is a testament to the truism that, in art as in life, one size, or style, does not fit all! The UPA animation style was soon adopted by other television cartoon studios, such as Hanna-Barbera Productions. Over time, a plethora of low-budget, cheaply-made cartoons effectively reduced television animation to a commodity. This economic development, in part, popularized the notion that animation is created only for children rather than as a medium for any age group to enjoy. Animation, at its best, appeals to both child and adult. The animation industry was now going against the original objective of the UPA to expand the boundaries of animation and create a new style for the medium.

This cycle repeats itself often in the world of art: reaction to the established standard then becomes the standard against which the newest artist reacts, or rebels. Faced with fierce competition from other animation studios, UPA permanently closed their animation operations in 1970. This time of American economic decline forced this commercial art industry to concentrate its marketing on the Japanese “Giant Monster” in the United States! Although its chapter in animation history had come to an end after almost 30 years of prolific productions, the UPA studio had more than capably served as a creative way station for many former Disney artists on personal journeys to greater artistic achievements. One such animation vagabond was Bill Meléndez. Born in Sonora, Mexico, Meléndez was hired in 1938 as an animator at Walt Disney Productions. He was just 22 years old and fresh out of the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Bill worked as an animator on the post-Snow-White films Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.

Soon after the strike of 1941, Meléndez was released from Disney. He was not out-of-work for long when he found a job at Warner Brothers Studio. There he served as an animator for various Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Unfortunately for this graphic artist, the W-B studio went through its own down-sizing phase in 1948. Meléndez thereafter worked at UPA, crafting cartoons and TV commercials. After another decade of solid production work in animation and TV "adverts", Meléndez, in 1963, founded his own studio in the basement of his Hollywood home. Two years later, in 1965, cartoonist Charles Schulz was approached by television executives about creating a Peanuts television special. Schulz recommended the hiring of animator Bill Meléndez. The creator of Peanuts later stated that Meléndez was the only person he trusted to turn his popular comic creations into television animation. Schulz had collaborated with Meléndez many years earlier on a commercial spot for the Ford Motor Company. The magical results of this later collaboration between Schulz and Meléndez was A Charlie Brown Christmas and every other subsequent Peanuts animated special.

Bill Meléndez was the complete package: he drew as well as provided the vocal effects for Snoopy and Woodstock for all of those Peanuts specials. His “voice acting” was first recorded in his own studio, in the home basement. Those recordings were then mechanically “sped up” at different speeds — on a tape recorder — to VOICE the two different characters lacking human language skills: a dog (Snoopy) and a bird (Woodstock). Meléndez had not initially intended to perform voice-acting for those two characters, but Charles Schulz would not abide the idea of a beagle, His Beagle, uttering human dialogue. From personal experience, I can vouch for the reality that the beagle possesses communication skills superior to humans, and perhaps, at times, even higher quality thinking!

A graphic artist named P. D. Eastman created some of my (and especially my dear wife’s) all-time favorite children’s books. Eastman wrote and illustrated the award-winning Go Dog Go, The Best Nest, and Are You My Mother? as part of the Beginner Book series that gained popularity in the early 1960s. “Phil” Eastman was yet another Disney refugee. He’d been employed by this studio from 1936 through 1941. The year of the strike marked the definitive ending of his tenure with Walt. Eastman was a big union guy, actively participating in the organizing of the Disney strike. This cartooning artist had worked with story board sketches, animation and production design. His salary was probably toward the lower end of the pay scale at Disney, but those ages-old “creative differences” were bound to rear their aesthetic ugly-heads sooner or later. One look at any of his children’s books and you can see the unique flair for whimsy that the Disney concepts did not encourage.

Before he was drafted by the U.S. Army in 1942, Eastman worked briefly at the Warner Brothers cartoon unit with the animation legend Chuck Jones. Jones was the creative force behind many Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes cartoons. The versatile Jones also created a number of memorable characters, including Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. Although Eastman’s time at Warner Brothers was short, the connections he forged there with other animators would prove to be invaluable in the months and years ahead. Once Eastman was officially in the Army, he was assigned to the animation section of the Signal Corps Film Unit. During World War II, this unit produced the informative and dramatic documentary film, Why We Fight, directed by Frank Capra. Its animation section at this time was headed by Captain Theodor Geisel. This artistic fellow later became known as Dr. Seuss. The creatively technical Signal Corps Film Unit turned out many films for the orientation and training of newly enlisted soldiers. With the help of Eastman, Geisel soon became schooled in the marvels of animation.

This creative military crucible produced the highly effective training film series for the Army: Private Snafu. The goal was to help enlisted men learn how to be brave but effective soldiers through animated cartoons and supplementary comic books. Those materials drove home the messages through simple language, racy illustrations, mild profanity, and subtle but powerful moral messages. Basically, Private Snafu did (almost) everything wrong. His negative example (or examples) taught the basic lessons of military life: secrecy, disease prevention, and proper protocols.

The powers-that-were in Washington had asked the U.S. Army to give Walt Disney the first crack at producing Private Snafu. Evidently, the Department of War and the Department of Labor did not communicate well, if at all, about Mr. Disney and how he did, or did not do, business. The Warner Brothers animation studio under-bid the Walt Disney Productions by a two-thirds amount and subsequently won the government contract. In his bid for this U.S. government contract, Walt had requested exclusive ownership of the character, and all merchandising rights. Even then, the tchotchke-element of marketing animation was a powerful force within the Disney brand. The irony of this situation between Disney and the Department of War was not lost on the good men and former Disney employees serving in the Signal Corps animation unit! Thus it was that Private Eastman introduced Captain Geisel to their new private contractor of animation for this military film project: Warner Brothers. The lead artist was Chuck Jones.

The noble mission of Private Snafu constituted a collaboration of multiple talents, offered by some of America's best patriots. This synergy of creativity and technical prowess was a common occurrence in the war effort that proved to be far from common, as in ordinary. After the war, Eastman worked at UPA as a writer and storyboard artist for the Mr. Magoo theatrical shorts. His legacy to the excellence of literacy for children lives on through the genius of his illustrated Beginner’s Books.

Another notable member of the Signal Corps animation section during World War II was the background artist Maurice Noble. Any film animation basically unfolds in front of the background scene, which forms the unsung hero of the storytelling arc. It is the primary job of any art director to determine this artistry that fundamentally sets the mood for the movie. A Disney scout recruited Noble to work at that studio in 1934. Noble accepted the job because it paid $10 more per month than what he was earning at the local department store. At Disney, he was assigned work on backgrounds for the Silly Symphonies. He progressed to creating various design elements on Snow White. Those efforts were followed by drawing background illustrations on other Disney features, most notably the Rite of Spring sequence in Fantasia, and the Pink Elephant scene in Dumbo.

Noble joined the Disney picket line in 1941; his office was subsequently moved to a room formally used as a broom closet. His assignments dried up, and he was laid off. At this point, Noble enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Signal Corps. He worked with Geisel and Eastman on the Private Snafu films, and he illustrated pamphlets, flyers, ads for war bonds and other promotional materials. After the end of World War II, Noble was hired by Warner Brother studios where he became a very successful art director. Today, his art design has achieved cult status. The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote shots, and the cultural icon What’s Opera, Doc, all derive their unique graphic style from his superb art direction. Noble later re-teamed with Theodore Geisel in the 1960s, developing drawings for that other notable TV Christmas Classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

One final mention must be made of a man named Hank Ketcham. In 1937, this Seattle-native dropped out of college after his first year at the University of Washington. He hitchhiked to Los Angeles, hoping to work for Walt Disney Productions. Ketcham did eventually land a job at Disney, working on the cartooning of Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi and several Donald Duck shorts. After the strike of 1941, Ketcham exited the studio to become a photographic specialist with the U.S. Navy Reserve. Once he was discharged from the Navy, he settled in Carmel, California and became a freelance cartoonist. Ketcham was working in his studio one day in October 1950 when his wife, Alice, burst into the room. She announced the news that their four-year-old, Dennis, had wrecked his bedroom, instead of taking his nap. "Your son is a menace," she shouted. The rest is comedy history.

The creation of a brand-new comic strip began that day. Within five months, 16 newspapers were carrying the adventures of Dennis the Menace. By May 1953, the daily cartoon strip, as well as a full strip on Sunday, were published in 193 newspapers in the United States and 52 abroad. This cartooning legend more than endures to this day as a result of the inspired work of the former assistants of Hank Ketcham and through his son Scott Ketcham. Dennis is still distributed to over 1,000 newspapers in 48 countries and in 19 languages — not to mention the syndicated TV show, live-action movies and tons of merchandising products. At this point, Dennis the Menace could outlive the newspaper! In our current world of mega-entertainment conglomerates, we are, on a daily basis, photo-bombed by the packaging of the ever-more impersonal Disney, Inc. In stores it is all but impossible to escape the Labels of Disneyana on boxes of cereals, cookies, crackers, junk foods, fruit roll-ups, bottles of beverages, or anything that can fit into the Disney lunch box. In fact, if you notice, the Goldfish cracker form on the paper packaging includes a Mickey-cracker. The Mouse has also found his way into the package! The latest labels proclaim that this year — 2019 — heralds a celebration of the birth of the Mouse. The 90th birthday of Mickey Mouse is announced just about everywhere!

The dues paid, union and otherwise, by those imaginative animators who left the world of Disney because of the 1941 strike, those contributions have been all but forgotten. Those illustrators, cartoonists, designers, and animators were gifted people with pencils in hand and visions in mind and courage at heart. They were the parts and pieces of the vital engines that first fired up the Magic Kingdom over 75 years ago. They then left the world of Disney to create even newer worlds of graphic art in animation.

The big-bang of animation and cartoon might have been the Strike of 1941 that expanded the vast cartoon universe within and outside of Disney. The little boat whistle that the Mouse gave to the world in 1929 grew into the Lion King that roared, but let us not forget the men and women who long ago walked out on the world of Walter Disney. Their comic strips and cartoons and playfully-drawn characters even further refined and defined the art of animation. Banished from that magic kingdom were the artistic spirits of many talented individuals who dreamed of pictures that could tell stories for all the world to see and hear. It is a richer universe because of their gifts that fascinate, inspire, enchant and charm us all. Even the Mouse would happily announce that their birthdays deserve celebration too. Cake and ice cream for all!


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