By December 1959 the cartoon studio United Productions of America (UPA) had almost completely lost the collective personality it had cultivated in its one and one-half decades of existence. Of the original staff, only Steve Bosustow, who had served since the beginning as executive producer, remained at the studio at the time. His colleagues had left, one by one, either through resignations or firings. Meanwhile, Columbia Pictures stopped distributing UPA’s films to theaters. The distributor’s last commitment to the studio was the release that December of the feature 1001 Arabian Nights, which stars UPA’s marquee character Mister Magoo. One of the promotional efforts from UPA for the film demonstrated that the studio’s internal dissolution changed its politics about ethnicity.
Bosustow promoted the movie in New Orleans by giving a talk at Tulane University on December 11th, 1959. The school’s Fine Arts Committee hosted the lecture, in which he spoke about the creative process of animation. He noted that cartoonists introduce story ideas to their psychiatrists, discussed the weaving together of animation and psychology, and stressed the importance of strong plots to cartoons regardless of their aesthetics. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper of December 12, he likened the contemporary cartoon’s story to a “one-act play.” Thus, stories, especially for cartoon shorts, had to be “solid.”
At the time Tulane University was a “whites only” institution. The school opened Bosustow’s lecture to the general public, but none of Tulane’s students in attendance were African Americans. Consequently, Bosustow’s speech in a segregated facility represented a 180-degree turn from UPA’s roots in challenging Jim Crow. The studio depicted segregation as the rickety train “Jim Crow Special” in its 1944 cartoon Hell-Bent for Election. Two years later UPA argued for “equal opportunity” and an “equal chance for a job” in Brotherhood of Man, and it illustrated scenes of integrated hospitals and neighborhoods to punctuate its points.
Ironically, the Orpheum–the theater premiering the movie in New Orleans–allowed African American customers but restricted them to balcony seating. Neither UPA, Columbia, or Bosustow provided a comparable promotional event at a location of exclusively or primarily African American patronage. By speaking only in a “whites only” institution, Bosustow tacitly suggested that he prioritized attracting European American customers to watch his film. Whether African Americans saw the feature at inconvenient seats in the Orpheum or did not see the film at all appeared inconsequential to him and to his studio and distributor.
Ultimately, his pitch to European Americans did not help matters. 1001 Arabian Nights generated a lukewarm theatrical attendance, and critics offered mixed reviews. Within days of the movie’s debut, according to Adam Abraham’s book When Magoo Flew, Bosustow began seeking a buyer of his share of the studio. In the final days of UPA’s theatrical era, the studio compromised its ideological commitment to integration to keep itself afloat. At the expense of African Americans, Bosustow gambled–and lost.