Studies 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.
The 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.