Faking My Way Up the Hollywood Ladder

As my 1953 Plymouth station wagon burns rubber through hundred-plus degree Arizona heat, a killer headache has overtaken me. The mother of them all. I’m numb. And oblivious to what I’ve gotten myself into as I head for New Mexico, where I’ve signed on as animation director for Bandelier Films.

Animation director? I’m thinking, Wasn’t I just a lowly apprentice? Sacked from MGM after a year on Tom & Jerry cartoons? And now an animation director?

One great thing creativity brings is the ability to ignore the inner gremlin warning of our middling talent, while we shoot for the moon.

Actually, it’s been a year and a half since Tom & Jerry and I’m antsy to do more than carve lines between other people’s lines (which is what apprentices do). I want to create those lines and feel the magic, as absurd big-nosed characters flow from my pencil and parade across the paper. Never mind that my skills are still, ”limited?” Never mind that the only animation I’ve completed has been a seven-second commercial in which a little Scotsman pops from a cash drawer and declares, ”Hoots, mon, somebody saved!” (For which I received $65).

That’s Hollywood. If, like me at twenty-six, you’re no Orson Welles, or haven’t mastered your craft, you can always kick yourself upstairs and head straight for entrepreneurship.

Lines from a TV commercial I’d worked on accentuate my throbbing headache; in the spot, a frustrated Chinese toddler is trying to eat Jell-O with chopsticks, while an announcer, in stereotypical Pidgin English, explains the child’s dilemma. Politically gta 5 hack cheats incorrect today, in 1957 Madison Avenue thought this cute.

I spent a year at that ”videoblurbarie” (Daily Variety lingo). Along with a raise to $75, I got to preview our finished commercials and let a smidgen of the staff animators talent rub off on me.

After resting in the cooling shade trees along Oak Creek Canyon the headache has abated and I’m on Route 66 again, whizzing past rickety compounds with gaudy painted letters advertising ”Live Snakes! Gila Monsters!” Or trading posts that peddle blankets and ”Genuine Navajo silver.” Genuine? Here I am, wondering how I’ll fake it in Albuquerque, how I’ll parlay my meager experience into running an animation department.

I ruminate over my months after MGM, working as an assistant. When animator Art Babbitt (famous for having developed Disney’s Goofy.) handed me an inch-thick stack of drawings for, say, a Western Airlines commercial, I had to squint to find anything to do, because in a sequence of three hundred drawings Art had completed all but half a dozen.

This was no more creative than at MGM. Frustration mounted.

All over America, stress Visit here like this leads stifled egos to blow their coworkers away. In Hollywood, it only turned me into a chain smoker and pushed me into seeking a better opportunity.

And how? Well, tooting my animation horn beyond credibility I had walked into the Helen Edwards Agency in L.A. and signed up. Helen, a businesslike, middle-aged professional, hustled jobs for folks seeking work in advertising. She had nothing, so I went home and forgot about it.

A month later I was still an assistant, drawing lines between lines. Borrrrring! Helen called. ”I’ve got a job here, Dan,” she said cheerfully, ”Animation director for a film company in New Mexico. It starts at. . . ” ”I’ll take it!” ”. . . one twenty-five a week. And after you’re there for ninety days, and. . . ” ”When do they want me to start?” ”. . . they’ll reimburse your moving expenses, up to two hundred fifty dollars. They want somebody ASAP.” ”Sounds great.” ”Uh. . . you are an animation director, aren’t you?” ”Absolutely.” So goodbye lines between lines. And here I am, heading down 66. A twilight haze hangs over the Rio Grande Valley and the lights of Albuquerque twinkle in the distance.

Bob Stevens, owner of Bandelier check here Films, is a loud, glad-handing but pleasant huckster. Along with Bandelier, he owns Robert Stevens Advertising, a company he founded in 1948, two years after mustering out of the Army. Bob tours me through the studio. Three rooms; one for myself and another artist, a dark room with a jerry-rigged animation camera stand, and a long, narrow room set up for the dozen dollar-an-hour inkers and painters (who trace and paint an animator’s pencil drawings) Bob confidently expects to hire, ”now we’ve got a big Hollywood animator on board,” he bellows, as he claps an arm around my shoulder.

Next, I met Doyle, a rangy Texan and the studio’s art director. He’s been figuring out how to make characters move by studying a Walter T. Foster instruction book, How to Draw Animated Cartoons. And he quickly lets me know how delighted he is I’ve been hired, since ”I kind of only know about half way how to do this, Dan.”

I also discover that the ”department” consists of two people: Doyle and me. So much for cracking the whip over a couple dozen animators, assistants, background artists and inkers and painters.

But if my fancy has flown, Bob’s hasn’t. He has plans. Big plans. He’s mass mailed a flyer promising ”a fully animated twenty-second TV commercial for $495.” Including a round trip airfare to Albuquerque to view the finished product! Though it will take me days to grind out the animation and another two weeks for it to be completed, Bob reasons that with the wages he’s paying (he never cops to them being skimpy) he’ll just about break even. ”Anyway,” he brags, ”I’m building for the future.”

In a way, with little background in the field and with only a novice animator (me) signed on, Bob is doing the same kind of thing on a business level that I’ve been up to as a cartoonist: blundering ahead and taking a chance.

By now, several of his local newspaper and radio accounts have stuck their big toes into television waters. Since, like Doyle, I ”kind of only know half way how to do this,” I take a deep breath, plunge in, and just do it. What Bob and Doyle don’t know is that when they aren’t looking I peek into my own trusty copy of Walter T. Foster’s How to Draw Animated Cartoons. (A book I’ve had since age sixteen.)

Within three months, and even with my middling skills, Bob’s $495 blue plate special has justified him upping the ante to $695. (Still including the round trip.)

Six months along I’m to my ears in animation. We hire more helpers. Resumes and sample reels pour in.

January 1959. I’ve become fairly puffed up. Have been doing a great job, I decide, of humbugging my way along as an animation director. Though mediocre, my work is so much better than what Bandelier had turned out before, that even with a seasonal slowdown I figure it’s time to ask for a raise. I’ve also been agitating other employees to knock on Bob’s door and demand more money. Squeamish about check here risking their jobs, however, they decided to wait to see what happens when good old Dan blunders into his office. So I swallow hard and. ”Uh, Bob, I’ve been thinking… it’s seven months now, we’re doing more important work, you’re up to over two grand for a minute of animation and I thought, well, maybe you could squeeze out another twenty-five dollars a week. You see, I — ” ”Gee, Dan, sorry. Wish I could, but as you know we’re in a slow period. Never sure when it might pick up again and I’m squeezed to the wall. Maybe in six months.” He smiles indulgently, then, ”Anything else?” I sigh, and then vaguely mumble that if that’s the case I’m not sure I’ll be sticking around. ”Your choice,” he replies, picking up the phone to make a call.

So with the family packed into the car, it’s back to L.A. Back to making the rounds of animation studios. But at the moment there’s no work to be had. And there I sit, in the spare room of my mother’s house where I’ve temporarily camped the family. And the phone rings. Bob Stevens is on the line. He has a TV spot for me to animate. Just the drawings, Bandelier will take care of ink and paint and camera. Not a word about firing me. No ill will, no recrimination. Simply a pleasant voice offering me four hundred bucks for a one minute commercial. Two weeks to create all the drawings, based on a storyboard he’s about to put in the mail.

That comes to two hundred a week. I’ve got my raise!