Tag Archives: walt disney

Drawn Together

Joseph Barbera, who was born 100 years ago today, and Ub Iwerks, who would be turning 110, shared a common birthday, the same profession (animation), and both became half of partnerships which forever changed the history of animated entertainment.

Barbera (pronounced Bar-Bear-Ah) was half of the enormously successful Hanna-Barbera Productions team that in 30 years brought over 3000 half-hour episodes of animated programming to television. Their roster of shows included The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, The Huckleberry Hound Show, and Scooby-Doo.

Born on this date in 1911 in Manhattan to Sicilian immigrants, Barbera discovered a penchant for drawing early in life, and for many years worked for animators in New York. In 1937, he was lured to California by MGM where he sat next to a young Californian animator named William Hanna.

The two would develop the Tom and Jerry franchise in 1940, and would oversee the production of 114 shorts featuring the cat and mouse team over the next 17 years. Along the way, the animated duo would be nominated for 14 Academy Awards, winning seven, and appear in some noted live-action films, like Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly.

After the MGM brass abruptly closed down their animation division in 1957, Hanna and Barbera created their own company, with Hanna getting top billing by winning a coin toss.

The two men had quite different personalities. Hanna was a homebody, but Barbera liked the nightlife, and included several celebrities among his roster of friends. But together they formed the rarest creature in business: the perfect partnership. It was said that in all the decades they worked side by side, that hardly a cross word ever passed between the two men.

The name Ub Iwerks isn’t well known outside of animation circles, but it should be, as he is largely responsible for the creation of a character you may have heard of named Mickey Mouse.

Ub, a child of German immigrants, was born in Kansas City ten years to the day prior to Barbera, and like his younger colleague, would later form a partnership with another young animator that would alter popular culture.

The animator in question was, of course, Walt Disney, who worked with Iwerks at the same commercial art firm in Kansas City. In 1920, the two formed a partnership called Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, which, had it succeeded, may have made Iwerks a household name.

Instead, the firm dissolved and Walt migrated west to create animation, eventually bringing Ub out to work at Disney Brothers Productions, of which Iwerks received a 20% share of the partnership.

Walt and Ub formed a successful animation team, with the visionary Disney creating stories, and the machine-like Iwerks bringing Walt’s vision to life by creating as many as 600 drawings a day!

The men first struck gold, or at least thought they did, with the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But after Oswald was lost in an ownership dispute with Universal, the two men collaborated on a new character named Mickey Mouse, born of a combination of Walt’s vision and Ub’s steady hand.

Disney and Iwerks, like Hanna and Barbera, had very different personalities, with charismatic Walt contrasting sharply with Ub, who had a serious disposition and was shy around women.

The success of Mickey brought an end to the Disney-Iwerks collaboration, as Ub – chafing under the workload and lack of credit he felt he was getting from Walt – left to form his own animation studio, which folded a few years later.

Iwerks would eventually return to Disney, but as a worker, not a partner, having sold his 20% share of the Disney empire back to Walt, thereby costing his heirs billions in future equity.

Joseph Barbera and Ub Iwerks, through talent, hard work, and (at least for a time in Ub’s case) successful partnerships, created some of the world’s most beloved animated characters, leaving behind legacies of laughter.

Thanks, guys and “Happy Birthday” to you both.

 

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Meeting ‘God’

Comedian George Burns, who died 15 years ago today just after turning 100, had an amazing 90-year career.  After starting out in vaudeville, he and his wife Gracie Allen enjoyed successful runs in radio, film, and television as the comedy team Burns and Allen. After Gracie died in 1964, George continued working, winning an Oscar at the age of 80, and whimsically portraying the Supreme Being in 1977’s Oh, God!

I met George Burns on two occasions. “Met” is actually too strong a word – encountered would be more accurate.

The first encounter took place at LAX when an escalator malfunctioned and he stumbled on top of me. I helped him up, made sure he was okay, gave him a knowing nod after recognizing who he was, and we went on our merry ways.

The second took place at the spot where you can find him today: Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.

I was supposed to be in church that morning because the religious college I was attending at the time required that I go, but was powerless to make me happy about it. I made an appearance, but when I saw a jerk that I knew mount the podium to deliver the sermon, I grabbed a friend and bolted for the door. 

My friend knew that I liked to explore cemeteries to find the permanent homes of the famous and infamous and had always wanted me to give him a tour of Forest Lawn. It seemed like a perfect place to hide out for a couple of hours from the all-seeing eyes of the church police, so we drove to Glendale.

I took my friend around to the graves of all the biggies at the top of the hill – Walt Disney, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy – and then went inside the mausoleum to introduce him to lots of other folks, like Nat King Cole, Alan Ladd, Clara Bow, and George Burn’s late wife and comedy partner, Gracie Allen.

We exited the building and turned the corner, and for the second time in my life, I literally ran into George Burns.

Now, I’m not a big guy, but compared to me, George Burns in his eighties was a Smart Car next to a Hummer. (It was like the time at Warner Bros. when I rounded a soundstage, and bounced off John Goodman like a pinball.)

Luckily, he was none the worse for wear, and gave us a quick “Hello, boys,” before heading into the building to visit his beloved Gracie.

After he walked away, my friend turned to me and said, “See what happens when you talk me in to cutting church? God himself shows up!”

I stop by Forest Lawn from time-to-time to check in on George and Gracie. They are now entombed together with Gracie’s name listed first, since George wanted her to finally get top billing.

 


Remember To Drop the “E”

  

It’s about time for Hollywood to pat itself on the back again at the annual Academy Awards show in a couple of weeks, and this year, like most, sees several first-time nominees in the pack.

It must be incredibly exciting to earn a chance at walking away with Hollywood’s highest honor even once.

But can you imagine what it feels like to be nominated for an Oscar 45 times?

Me neither. And in truth only three men in history know this feeling: producer Walt Disney with 59 nominations, and composers John Williams and Alfred Newman who are tied for second-place with 45 nods each.

Alfred Newman, who died on this date in 1970, was for forty years one of the most respected composers in Hollywood. (It’s easy to find yourself adding the middle initial “E” when discussing Alfred Newman, but as any “Mad Man” knows, the “what me worry” character is actually named Alfred E. Neuman.)

Newman composed scores for over 200 films, and took home the Oscar nine times for such works as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Tin Pan Alley, The Song of Bernadette, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Call Me Madam, The King and I, and Camelot. Newman was nominated for an Oscar every year between 1938 and 1957 – an incredible streak of twenty years in a row!

Newman was considered to be a musical prodigy from the age of five when he first took up the piano. He soon began playing on the vaudeville circuit and at the age of 20 began a decade-long career playing on Broadway. Newman followed his friend Irving Berlin to Hollywood in 1930 and was soon working with Charlie Chaplin as the musical director on City Lights. By 1940 he was contracted to 20th Century Fox studios where he conducted the famous fanfare, a variation of which (recorded by his son David) still introduces Fox films to this day. While at Fox Newman also created the Newman System, a method of synchronizing scores to films that is still in use.

Newman continued working until 1970, when he concluded his illustrious career by scoring the film Airport. He died on February 17, 1970, exactly one month before his 70th birthday.

Newman left a powerful lasting legacy of music, both on screen and through his family. His brothers Lionel and Emil scored nearly a hundred films between them, and sons David and Thomas, and daughter Maria, have another couple of hundred scoring credits, with ten Oscar nominations for Thomas. Nephew and I Love L.A. composer Randy Newman has also won an Oscar, and grandnephew Joey has a host of scoring credits to his name as well.


1/21 and Done

Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer

If you happen to be famous, you may want to stay in bed today.

Who knows? Maybe it was the stress of having just made it through the holidays and knowing that there were less than 350 shopping days until the next Christmas that did these folks in. Whatever the case, the 21st day of January has historically proven fatal to a large number of entertainers.

This dark trend began in 1895 when David Burbank died on this date. While not much of an entertainer himself, dentist and rancher Burbank owned the land that now houses the lots for Warner Bros., Walt Disney, and NBC.

The first film star to pass on this date was beautiful silent actress Alma Rubens (b. 1897) who died from complications from drug addiction in 1931. Canadian-born actress Marie Prevost (b. 1898) met a similar fate six years later due to alcoholism.

On this date in 1938, French magician and cinematic pioneer Georges Melies passed away in Paris. Twelve years later, British dystopian author George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903) died from tuberculosis.

In 1959, two Hollywood notables passed on the same day – one old, one young. The elder victim was epic film director Cecil B. DeMille (b. 1881) whose death overshadowed the news that day that thirty-one-year old ex-Our Gang member Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer had been shot during an argument over a hunting dog. The two were buried a few hundred feet apart in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Western actor Al “Fuzzy” St. John, who got his start in silent comedies with his uncle Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, died on this date in 1963. Actress Ann Sheridan (b. 1915) died four years later from cancer.

Death took a holiday until 1984 when the scythe again swung twice claiming the lives of actor and Olympian Johnny Weissmuller  and Soul singer Jackie Wilson.

Cecil B. DeMille

Actress Susan Strasberg died on this date in 1999, followed three years later by actress and singer Peggy Lee.

Other notables who passed on this date include baseball hall of famer Charlie Gehringer in 1993, Chicago television personality and original Ronald McDonald portrayer Ray Rayner in 2004, and Chi-Lites vocalist Robert “Squirrel” Lester in 2010.

January 21 was also the death date for two actors on the world stage. It was on this date in 1924 that communist leader Vladimir Lenin died in Russia. This happened exactly 131 years after King Louis XVI lost his head in 1793.


Thurl-ly Entertaining

Thurl and Tony.

Everybody knows the song You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch from the Dr. Seuss animated Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! And everyone also knows that it was sung by Boris Karloff … which of course, makes everyone wrong.

The booming bass belonged to Thurl Ravenscroft, whose voice is familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes commercial or waited in an attraction line at Disneyland.

Thurl Arthur Ravenscroft, the man with the great name and even greater voice, was born in Nebraska in 1914 and migrated to California during the Great Depression seeking a career in interior design. He got talked into trying out for a singing role at Paramount and soon became one of the most sought-after vocalists in Hollywood, performing regularly on radio shows with a group called the Sportsmen Quartet. After a stint in World War II as a navigator flying courier missions across the Atlantic, Ravenscroft returned to music, performing with the Mellomen, who sang backup for many of the stars of the Big Band era, including Bing Crosby and Spike Jones. His voice appeared on several hit songs, including Rosemary Clooney’s 1954 number-one single, This Ole House. Ravenscroft also released several solo singles during this time in hopes of becoming a pop star, but it never panned out. This hardly mattered since he had more film, television, and soon, theme park work than he could handle.

Ravenscroft’s film career began in the early 40s, where he briefly appeared on screen in a few roles, including Lost Canyon with Hopalong Cassidy. But it was in the soundtracks, most often in Disney films, where Ravenscroft’s star would fully shine. His long association with Disney began in 1940 with Pinocchio. He would later lend his pipes to songs and sounds in Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and One Hundred and One Dalmations.

After Disneyland opened in 1955, Ravenscroft’s voice could be heard in Country Bear Jamboree, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Disneyand Railroad, Mark Twain Riverboat, It’s a Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and most notably in the theme song Grim Grinning Ghosts in the Haunted Mansion. (His likeness appears as a singing hologram on a bust in the cemetery, which many mistake for Walt Disney.)

In 1952, Ravenscroft was cast as the voice of Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s Frosty Flakes cereal. It was a role he would play over 500 times until his death in 2005, making the catchphrase “They’re gr-r-r-r-r-reat!” familiar to millions.

How the Grinch stole Christmas! came in 1966, but due to an omission in the credits, many believed the film’s narrator, Boris Karloff, actually sang its signature song. This was a mistake that Dr. Seuss and producer Chuck Jones later tried to correct in a full-page ad in Variety.

Ravenscroft became a "Disney Legend" in 1995.


The Mime and the Mouse

Chaplin & Disney.

I saw my first Charlie Chaplin film on a vintage hand-cranked Mutoscope at the Penny Arcade on Main Street USA during my first trip to Disneyland. It was an appropriate place to dip my toe into the Chaplin waters, which soon became an immersion, because Charlie Chaplin and his character, “The Little Tramp,” were major influences on Walt Disney, and on his animated character Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney was a young man in Missouri when Chaplin first hit the silver screen in 1914. Young Walt idolized the Englishman entering several Chaplin impersonation contests in Kansas City. Years later, after choosing animation for a career and relocating to Southern California, Disney turned to his idol for inspiration in the creation of a new character.

“We felt that the public, and especially the children, like animals that are cute and little. I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin – a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”

(“How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life”)

In the 1930s Disney and Chaplin became business partners for five years when all of the Disney shorts were released through Chaplin’s company, United Artists.

Their paths crossed often in Hollywood and in remote sites like the Lake Tahoe region where Chaplin filmed the opening of The Gold Rush in 1925. Disney came to the same spot a few years later to invest in what is today known as the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. One of the highest peaks at the resort is named Mt. Disney, which is next to the setting where a line of prospectors climbed to the gold fields in Chaplin’s 1925 epic.

The Santa Clarita Valley contains sites related to both men.

Disney bought a ranch in Placerita Canyon in the late 50s that is today known as Golden Oak Ranch. It has been used in dozens of productions for the company, including Spin and Marty from the Mickey Mouse Club. The company plans to expand the facility into its second major California studio complex over the next few years.

Chaplin also spent time in the SCV going back to 1923 when he filmed The Pilgrim in the Saugus Train Station. A dozen years later he returned to film the final scenes for Modern Times on Sierra Highway.

Modern Times premiered on February 5, 1936 in New York and made its West Coast debut a week later at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Before the show, the crowd was entertained by a Walt Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon. Disney inserted a note into the program to honor his childhood hero that said, “In appreciation of the pantomimist supreme whose inimitable artistry and craftsmanship are timeless.”

It was signed, “Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney.”

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BTW, we will be honoring the 75th anniversary of the release of Modern Times in the SCV on February 5, 2011 by placing a historic plaque at the site of the final scene. We will be hosting a Chaplin Festival in Newhall that weekend, which includes a screening of The Pilgrim in the Saugus Train Station where part of it was filmed. Keep in touch for details.