EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a new series of columns that will appear here twice a month (on Saturdays) that will delve into the archives of Walter Lantz Productions. It is written by one of the true experts on the subject, Tom Klein. I met Tom years back, when he was cataloging the Walter Lantz archive at UCLA. He’s gone on to pen many scholarly articles on Lantz, was a consultant for Universal Cartoon Studios during the production of 1990s Woody Woodpecker series and served as the Director of Animation for Vivendi-Universal’s educational software division. He is currently Chair of the Animation program at Loyola Merrymount University in Los Angeles. We couldn’t be in better hands to learn more of the story behind Walter Lantz Productions. – Jerry Beck
Any Cartoon Researcher, after gathering enough history on a studio, starts to wonder what was it like to be there? The effect of all that random knowledge about a place, all those anecdotes and all its wild animation, is to get a sense about the everyday hustle and bustle of its moment-in-time, with the added goosebumps of knowing what was yet to come.Just imagine being at the Universal Cartoon Department, as it was formally called, in 1933. It wasn’t yet the Walter Lantz studio, but it was edging closer to being that way. Lantz was the co-director with Bill Nolan of the post-Disney Oswald cartoons. He had a private office, but he still kept a desk in the animator’s bullpen, usually working alongside them in the race to meet deadlines.
In the back corner were two young rising talents: Tex Avery and La Verne Harding. He was a boisterous Texan asserting himself as a creative force and she was quietly proving that women could draw just as well as men. Harding was the pioneering first female animator in Los Angeles; Avery was a natural gagman developing his signature style here, both on paper and as a ringleader of pranks.
To his left was Charles Hastings, the man who would soon shoot Tex in the eye with a paperclip, causing so much ocular trauma that his vision only worsened. By the time Avery parted ways in 1935, he was blind in his left eye. Some would say this forever changed his mood, driving him to be more ambitious and then in later years withdrawn, but in ’33 he was filled with youthful charisma. He was handsome, barrel-chested, and still had his hair.
Lantz’s hair was even thinner, and he was surely under a lot more stress than the outward appearance of this spirited animation room might belie. Universal was beset with cronyism and diminishing profits. In the 30s Universal Pictures would have collapsed had it not been for the success of its monster movies. The rest of its slate was underperforming, including the slowly down-trending Oswald cartoons.
Lantz had to keep re-negotiating the contract extensions for the series to continue. He did this by reducing costs each year. Additionally he was jostling against rivals, and to survive he became adept at the producer’s art, winning concessions and cutting backroom deals. Bill Nolan had been indispensible when he joined in 1929, but by 1933 there was tension: Nolan was too expensive to keep around.
He dealt with it through a kind of creative isolation. His animated sequences are bizarre, even by the standards of Oswald cartoons, and they often didn’t relate well to the flow of gags from the younger animators. Yet he remained a legend from New York for his prodigious output, though increasingly his work just looked like old-fashioned 1920s visual anarchy. He resisted adapting to the new method of planned animation that was becoming industry-standard.
Nolan drank only moderately and generally wore a gray sweatshirt to work. His biggest indulgence might have been that he had two desks, so that he could turn his chair and draw at a secondary workspace just behind him. Ed Benedict was his assistant, working next to him at the very front of the room.
Benedict was one of the earliest artists that Walt Disney hired, but in a regrettable decision this was the year he jumped ship to work for slightly more money with Lantz. Here he was cleaning Nolan’s eccentric sequences. He lit his cigarettes and soldiered on, with a growing awareness of what he had left behind to join Universal.
He had gotten some art training while at Disney–Walt would send the studio artists down to the Chouinard School for Friday evening classes–and Ed tried to spark some of that same fervor here. He and Fritz Willis set up life drawing sessions every Wednesday night and 10-15 people would show up. However, it wasn’t like the experience at Disney and in time it petered out. At Universal, there was no ambition from management for the artistry to get better.
When I took a visit to Ed’s house in Carmel, California in March 1995, I was eager for the kind of details that would provide me more answers to what was it like there? And in pursuit of that, I asked him, “Where did everyone sit?” Ed at that time spoke in the slow labored breaths of a lifelong smoker. He was in his 80s and he was bemused by the question. I think he judged it not worth all that breath to scratch at such a trivial memory.
To me it wasn’t trivial; this was texture. Ed was surely a good sport in obliging me. He started sketching a room layout to see if he could remember. It was like a puzzle coming together, but eventually he had a working version of the desk arrangement from shortly after his arrival, a sixty-year reach back into his memory banks that’s been one of my personal treasures as a Lantz studio historian.
Over the last two decades, I have often looked at this seating chart to “see” how things might have played out there. It helps me understand how things spatially related and where exactly things happened in this main workroom of Universal animators.
For example, it even gives some insight into the blinding of Tex Avery in one eye. From the seating chart it is apparent that Hastings worked slightly behind him, across and to his left. That will be the topic of my next blog post, so I leave you simply with this cliff-hanger ending, moving forward a year, with Hastings pulling back that paperclip under tension of a rubber band, squaring up for a shot at Tex.
Look for these new entries at least twice a month about the studio managed by Walter Lantz, back to the days when the boys all called him Walt. Yes, the other Walt, in charge of that same Oswald.