Milt Schaffer had the golden pencil. As the principal artist for a famed Walter Lantz Productions story duo during World War II, he capably planned and drew quite a number of cartoons. The other half of that duo, Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, was in theory the “story director,” according to Schaffer, but if Bugs was the outright alpha then Milt was at least the diligent beta whose talent was the quiet engine that kept those storyboards rolling along.Director Shamus Culhane described the two men in his book Animation: From Script to Screen by noting that “Milt tried manfully to present me with stories that made sense by the tenets of the Disney organization, an approach that Bugs rejected with a derisive stream of tobacco juice.” Schaffer had been working at Disney, but in the wake of the 1941 labor strike there he found himself without a job after the terms of negotiations were settled.
Lantz knew what a keen talent Schaffer was and he hired him at the beginning of 1942, just as the United States was formally entering the war. At that point, the story team included Chuck Couch too, but it seems that Couch was moved aside after only a month or two. For the next four years, all the cartoons at Lantz were dreamed up by Hardaway and Schaffer, taking shape in a series of story panels, mostly drawn in black pencil, though often with some colored pencil embellishments.
Hardaway roughed in some poses and was known for inventing painfully corny puns and crazy characters, but Schaffer was the superior artist of the two. Culhane felt that Schaffer was a mitigating presence who kept Hardaway’s coarser instincts in check. Despite that opinion, Schaffer himself never expressed any discontent about working with his story partner.
In fact, judging from this excerpt from a 1981 interview by Joe Adamson, he found their collaboration to be productive and useful: “Not everybody works that way, but it was—coming out of entertainment stuff—it seemed quicker when you worked with two people. You could knock this stuff around and then it was just faster, and you’re trying everything instantly; instant trial of every idea and then it plays back or it doesn’t, so that’s why a lot of people worked that way.”
There was an interesting dynamic that soon came into play, with Culhane taking a lot of creative liberties with the material that proved divergent from the boards on account of his experiments (some inspired by Eisenstein and other film theorists). For a much fuller presentation of this conflict, be sure to visit the Laband Art Gallery in Los Angeles, where my exhibit Woody Woodpecker & The Avant-Garde is in the final week of its run. As a continuation of the book passage above, Culhane noted:
“After we made a few pictures together, we managed a truce. I recognized that Bugs did have a raw kind of humor, and Milt could manage to eke out a story line most of the time; and both accepted the fact that my fast cutting was being enjoyed by the audience. We managed to put together several better-than-average cartoons.”
Schaffer even described Hardaway as “grumpy and sardonic” and also “hard-nosed” against Culhane, but they seemed to make an agreeable story team. If anything, Hardaway—who was a conservative veteran of the First World War—viewed Schaffer more favorably than the artistic and political liberals in his midst: Culhane and his creative co-conspirator Art Heinemann (who later worked at UPA).Dick Lundy once described Heinemann with a dismissive suggestion that he’d had a “bohemian party” down at the beach “with liquor.” It might be the sort of thing for which, three decades later, someone would cry out: hippies! Heinemann was a terrific stylist and layout artist. He was instrumental in one of the re-designs of Woody Woodpecker and his camaraderie with Culhane gave the director the confidence to be more experimental, surely to Hardaway’s chagrin.
During their four years developing stories together, Milt Schaffer ultimately wanted to return to Disney, and on one occasion he had seemed to have the chance, but Lantz put the kibosh on his exit. Lantz’s secret card that allowed him to retain the deeply talented Schaffer was a “war priority” status that kept studio employees from easily switching jobs. Then, by 1946, with the war won, Schaffer exercised his right to go back to Disney.
A lot of classic Lantz cartoons owe a debt to the collaboration of this story duo, yet one of the more bizarre stories involves the very beginning of their work together, just after Chuck Couch had departed and they were still working in a concrete structure on the Universal lot, with a necessity to move to the Lantz studio’s new location along Lankershim Boulevard, according to Schaffer:
“So when it was finished we just moved up there. I remember when we were gonna move we had a brand new story up on the boards—there would be like three of those boards—and so on Saturday they said put everything you got in a box. So Bugs and I unpinned the story and we put a rubber band around everything and we gave it to Gladys and we said, look, we don’t want to just lay it in this cardboard box, let’s put it in the safe, so she did.”
Of course, what seemed like the safest place to put those storyboards did not pan out that way. Everything (pencils, erasers, sharpeners, supplies) that Bugs and Milt put into those boxes turned up delivered to their new office space, but when they opened the safe—voila!—the boards for the entire cartoon were simply gone. Did someone take them, thinking they were valuable because they were kept inside a metal safe? No one ever found out and they were never recovered.
Said Milt Schaffer (which rhymes with “safer”): “I had to sit there for the next two weeks and redraw everything from memory.” And, I’ll bet that when he left the studio and went back to Disney in 1946, he took all his valuables in nothing more than a plain box.
Next week is the final week to see Woody Woodpecker & The Avant Garde. The exhibit closes November 20. Admission to the Laband Art Gallery is free. Open Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 4:00. The staff photograph above, with attention on Bugs Hardaway and Milt Schaffer, is courtesy of Michael Barrier.