Christopher P. Lehman
August 13, 2016 posted by Christopher P. Lehman

Popeye the Jim Crow Man: Segregation and the Fleischer Studio in Miami

Miami-FleischerStudies of the Max Fleischer Studio’s years in Miami make note of the city’s strong ethnic segregation. They tell of the Ku Klux Klan’s intimidation of Lou Fleischer for entertaining the African American performer Cab Calloway at his Miami home, and they discuss how the city’s intense anti-Semitism affected studio employees.

These examples, however, show the Fleischer Studio employees merely as victims of Jim Crow. The overlooked part of the Miami years is how well the Fleischer staff passed as “white,” because they gained access to very important “whites only” parts of Miami.

For example, most of the staff lived in exclusive parts of the city. According to the 1940 census, animator Al Eugster stayed in the all-white McAllister Hotel. This facility later became infamous after professional baseball desegregated, because the hotel refused to house African American players during spring training. Background artist Anton Loeb, musician Sammy Timberg, and Fleischer himself lived in Miami Beach. At the time African Americans in Miami could not enter Miami Beach unless they had police passes or police-approved identification cards, and they were not allowed in Miami Beach after sunset. The “whiteness” of the studio employees kept them out of where the city restricted African Americans.

Harvey Deneroff’s dissertation “Popeye the Union Man” provides a harrowing story of the African American part of Miami–officially known as Overtown but also called “Colored Town” and “Niggertown.” Max Fleischer’s two African American employees, likely domestics, were forced to live there,and one of them died because of it. According to Clarence Taylor’s book Black Religious Intellectuals and Robert Powell’s book We Own This Game, Overtown lacked public recreational facilities, adequate schools, adequate sanitation, running water, and indoor plumbing; and diseases like tuberculosis were rampant there.

Fleischer’s move to Miami placed segregation by skin color into the facility’s activities. As of 1940, not one single African American in Dade County worked professionally as an artist, and the Miami Art School did not enroll African Americans. Thus, when Fleischer hired art students and experienced local artists, African Americans were not part of the available labor pool. Thisexclusion meant that every film that the studio (and its successor Famous Studios) produced in Miami was a product of Jim Crow in the most literal sense.

POPEYE ALADDINONE SHEETThe studio’s early triumphs were also shaped by segregation. The color “Popeye” film Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp was one of the studio’s first cartoons completely made in Miami, and the film premiered in Miami Beach at the Sheridan Theatre. Months later Miami Beach hosted the debut of the studio’s first feature-length film Gulliver’s Travels in two venues–the Sheridan and the Colony. However, the aforementioned segregation there prohibited African Americans from viewing any of these premieres.

In addition, the premiere of Gulliver’s Travels gave the Fleischer staff an opportunity to hobnob with local segregationist officials. On December 23, 1939, the Motion Picture Herald reported that Governor Fred Cone, Senators Claude Pepper and Charles O. Andrews, and Congressman Arthur Patrick “Pat” Cannon were expected to attend the film’s opening. Also, according to the December 19 edition of The Film Daily, Miami’s mayor and the president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce co-hosted a luncheon for Fleischer and Paramount employees in celebration of the premiere. Over two hundred civil leaders attended the banquet.

Thus, the city bestowed honor to the studio in the midst of its debilitating Jim Crow policies against African Americans. The culture began to rub off on studio employees themselves. Shamus Culhane recalled in his autobiography Talking Animals and Other People that maids could be hired for fifty cents per day. The 1940 census shows that staffers Seymour Kneitel and Sam Buchwald had live-in African American domestic servants. Kneitel employed Victoria Holmes, aged twenty-seven, and Buchwald hired Suzie Barnhill, aged twenty-three. Incidentally, Buchwald’s maid connected the studio to professional baseball. Her husband was David Barnhill, who at the time played in the Negro Leagues for the Miami Ethiopian Clowns. Ten years later he joined the Minor League team The Minneapolis Millers, and one of his teammates was future Major League player Willie Mays.

The studio relocated to New York in 1943, but the Miami era lingered through some of the new films from Famous Studios. Employees created fictional domestic servants for stars Little Lulu and Little Audrey, whereas the “mammy” image had rarely appeared in the studio’s work before the move to Miami. Also, a southern hire named Larz Bourne, who began as an in-betweener in Miami, rose to the rank of writer in New York. He penned episodes of the “Screen Songs” revival of 1947-1951, and he set many of those films in the South. One of them–The Funshine State–focuses on Florida.

23 Comments

  • Fascinating! Thanks for posting.

  • This is amazing and harrowing history. I’m sure that they all appreciated New York after that.

    • I hope they did. I don’t want to think any of them (non-black) came off thinking they had it best down in Miami after that.

      Of course this Betty Boop cartoon is hard to get out of my head, and this was before the move to Miami I think. You just feel dirty after watching it, knowing someone laughed at it 80 years ago.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dSBg-JJpbU

  • There’s a double edge to this Jim Crow situation that to be fair should be considered. It may not have been so blatantly and purposefully discriminatory regarding the exclusion of “Black artists” as it was that this was not a profession that many of them pursued at the time. This has been substantiated by Floyd Norman who went to work for the Walt Disney Studios in 1958. While this was a difference of 20 years, the conditions of Jim Crow was still in effect in various parts of the country and were being challenge by The Civil Rights Movement by this time.

    But it is certainly clear that the culture in Miami was restrictive. It should not be taken that because Max Fleischer chose to relocate to Miami that in doing so he was supporting these policies. It is doubtful that he gave this consideration. Even if he had moved to California, similar issues of discrimination would have been felt, but not to the degree of the Jim Crow south.

    • These are important details to remember, It wouldn’t surpirse me if there wasn’t a big interest in art among the Black community at the time due to such a need not existing.

    • “To be fair”, I question the logic of your “double edge” theory.

      You completely overlook the debilitating psychological effect of living in a society replete with racism against you, and how it limits your perception of what you can achieve. You have absolutely no way of knowing how many people of color in 1940 would have wanted to pursue animation as a profession if given any reasonable hope of attaining it, so your argument is specious.

      I would argue that, for a black artist living in that era, it would have been tremendously hard to pursue something that you regard yourself as having NO chance of getting, and so, many potential candidates wouldn’t have even bothered trying. So, to answer the question of which comes first, the lack of will or the racism – the answer is clearly: the racism.

    • Of course, the same billy-club “justice” that enforced Jim Crow was what Max Fleischer and Paramount were counting on to keep union organizers out of his studio; ironically with (according to Culhane and others) notoriously racist and anti-Semitic (!) Willard Bowsky as Max’s number one suck-up.
      Paramount always seemed to be the least racially sensitive of all the major studios, for example, a blackface minstrel show serving as the climax to the mid-50’s “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, the showcase film to introduce their new Vistavision wide screen system.
      Of course, some of this might be attributed to the advanced age of Paramount’s executives; by the 60’s, their ages averaged 83, and they were spending more time feuding with each other than making pictures.

  • One of the more interesting Color Classics — when you know the background of what was going on in Miami — was the 1940 Hunky & Spunky effort “Snubbed by Snob”. For kids, the highlight is Pinto Colvig’s singing as the constantly irritated bull, but the story of the cartoon is a not-so-veiled shot at southern racism at segregation of the era, including Montgomery’s mother’s line “Don’t you know better than to consult with those … those donkeys!

    There wasn’t any doubt with mom’s southern accent (with Colvig also doing the voice) what the word ‘donkeys’ was being used as a substitute for, and definitely not in a supportive manner. The ‘big lips’ gag image at the iris out makes for an unfortunate finish, but the cartoon overall is an interesting historical curio to the Fleischers’ time in Miami — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vputVDaYxfU

    • The mare in SNUBBED BY A SNOB says “consort,” not consult. Regardless, seeing a “racial” reference can be a personal read and not necessarily what is really there. It is simply a social distinction between the “ass-umed” superiority of horses compared to donkeys, even though they are species related. This sense of class distinction applies to many people regardless of race. There is no real attempt to make an “ethnic” distinction through these animals. And animal characters are universal because they are separate from humans and their ethnic definitions. Of course the introduction of a specific type of voice can give that reference as in the case of the “Jack Ass” character voiced by Eddie Murphy in SHREK . But in this case, the racial distinction is really not deliberate.

    • To the true historian, “context” is everything, and J. Lee has clearly taken the context of everything going on in the story and how it is presented into consideration when coming to the obvious conclusion that this cartoon is clearly making a point about racism. His interpretation is far from being a “personal read”, but more of an educated observation, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree and applaud.

  • Great article, Christopher.

    I only had a mild impression that the Fleischers experienced this kind of culture confrontation, and imagined that it caught them off guard somewhat. I further wondered if the atmosphere in Miami was a consideration (among others, likely) that prompted them to move back to NYC.

    • I’m not sure if segregation played a direct role in the return to New York. I can only imagine, however, how Lou Fleischer and the other studio employees who loved jazz must have felt to be so far away from the Cotton Club or to have the Klan policing their interactions with African Americans.

  • Shamus Culhane told me the prevailing attitude at the Fleischer Studio was American first and everything else as far back as possible. Most of us have experienced some form of discrimination be it over age, color, sex and/or sexual persuasion. I have found the only answer is not to hate. We have a super abundance of haters. My Dad applied the Irish school of discipline regularly to my backside. I wanted it to end but knew if I used violent means I’d become what I hated. I found the answer at 13 in the power of laughter. I engineered the biggest beating my poor father ever gave me. Just before he struck I started to laugh. The harder he struck the louder I laughed. He beat and beat and beat until he could beat no more. More importantly, he never beat me again. I had felt no pain. I had not a mark on my backside. I had beaten him completely and thoroughly without using violence. I have read Booker T. Washington’s UP FROM SLAVERY, as well as the writings of Frederick Douglas, W. E. B. Du Bois and others. It seems to me that more love and forgiveness is demanded from Black people than from any other color of the human spectrum. I use the word spectrum because I do not recognize race. There is one race, the human race. It comes in a variety of shades. You are welcome to disagree but I see us as one family. I regret that the fighting between Max and his brother cost them their studio. I hope this human family can come together before it costs us our planet. Needless to say, one of my favorite cartoons is GORILLA MY DREAMS. That’s how we change the world for the better.

  • I want to congratulate CARTOON RESEARCH on having published this truly informative article about the history of people of color as it relates to the animation industry. I also specifically want to praise Christopher P. Lehman for doing an incredible job of research and for bringing some much-needed light to this dark period of both animation history and the history of this country. This is what “cartoon research” is all about. Bravo!

  • Super interesting post. The Fleischer Studio building still remains practically untouched at 1701 NW 30th AVE Miami Fl 33125-1118. I went there twice to take pictures.

  • Interesting article. I had no idea how segregated Miami was back then, especially considering how diverse it is now.

    • It’s certainly a genrational thing. Of course the civil rights movement contributed greatly to that diversity we see today. Miami certainly sounded like such a different place 80 years ago than they do today.

    • Not just Miami, but much of the South. I remember visiting relatives in Savannah Georgia in the early 60s and seeing the separate drinking fountains downtown.

  • Great post! I always wondered whether the Jim Crow crap of that time had an effect on the Famous cartoons of the 40s.

  • Well, Christopher, I hope you see this, though it’s days after posting. This is a very interesting article. I’d rarely approached the Fleischer Story from a racist angle. I imagine the Fleischers and many of the Jewish animators were just glad it wasn’t them being picked on. (Such is life.) Chris, have you ever looked into doing a long piece, or even a bio, on Matt Baker, the great African – American artist from the Golden Age of Comics?

    • Thanks for your feedback. I have not considered writing about Matt Baker, but I am intrigued. Also, I should clarify that I don’t consider the Fleischer staff racist. I was just looking at how the studio benefited from being on the “white” side of the color line in Jim Crow Florida.

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