One of his foremost employees, Tex Avery, had recently suffered from an on-the-job prank and lost his eye on account of co-worker Charles Hastings (click here for the detailed story). Yet Tex rebounded, showing both an unflagging spirit and a surplus of ambition. Perhaps thinking that Universal owed him something in the wake of the accident that impaired him—or maybe just inspired by a number of animators who had previously jostled to produce the Oswald cartoons—Tex made a serious play at Walter’s position overseeing animation at the studio.
There seems to be plenty of stories from the Golden Age where producers present themselves as hopelessly clueless to the artists who report to them, so let this be another in that fine tradition. A Universal executive named Henry Henigson was a longtime production manager for owner Carl Laemmle. Henigson kept an eye on Lantz’s expenses, but he seemed a bit theatrical or pretentious in how he dealt with meetings, often summoning Walter to first watch him get lathered and shaved.
The credit here goes to Joe Adamson for this material. He taped a number of interviews with Lantz in 1981 in order to gather information for his authorized biography. These recordings now reside at UCLA’s Arts-Special Collections archive. For this particular anecdote, I place the year of this event around 1934, and here is what I transcribed from the spoken words of Walter Lantz himself:
“I got a call one day, while Tex was working for me, from Henry Henigson. He was the studio manager. He was the one I told you about, remember, about spending too much on the pencils and paper. Anyway, I didn’t know whether Henry Henigson liked me or not. I’d go into the barbershop sometimes while he was getting a shave and reading the [Hollywood] Reporter, and he knew I was in there. He wanted to see me in the barbershop. And I’d sit there, Christ sakes, til he got through shaving and then when he got good and ready he’d say, “Oh, hello Lantz, I want to talk to you about those pencils” or something as silly as that; pictures are costing too much; you use too many pencils; you gotta watch that and cut corners. I spent all my life out there.”
“Well, anyway, one day he calls me into his office and says, “Walter, I had a son of a bitch in my office here who works for you, and he says he can produce pictures for a bit less money than you can.” And I said, I don’t know, is it somebody from the outside? “Yeah, his name is Tex Avery, and I was just about ready to throw him out of the office. I just don’t like the idea of anybody coming in and trying to take somebody else’s job, especially when you’re doing so well.”
“[Tex] wanted to take over the department. He even went in there with a cost sheet, a breakdown. Henigson said, “Show me the cost sheet.” He said, “Here’s what we can make pictures for.” So after that I didn’t let him go. No, I kept him for a while longer, and that’s when he contacted Schlesinger and went over there. Because I liked Tex, you know, and I couldn’t have done a thing like that [made him leave Universal].”
That of course is the grist that makes it so interesting to speculate about their return working together twenty years later, when he left MGM and worked for Lantz again in 1955. My last post elaborated on that, but it is interesting to hear it as recorded by Adamson. Avery was, according to Lantz, the only person he ever employed whose terms had to be negotiated by legal representation. He apparently despised Avery’s lawyer and grew impatient with the dealmaking. Yet, in this excerpt, Walter bemoans the impasse in 1955 that ended their business partnership:
“If Tex had stayed with me, I think Tex would have been a millionaire today. If Tex had been with me, he would have been a partner in the business because I thought an awful lot of him. I would have brought him right into the business. But poor Tex, he was so money conscious.”
Of course, so too was Walter. His resulting wealth and success remain a tribute to his prudent business sense. However, it is interesting to note that there is a third overlap between these two legends—Avery and Lantz—and that is the author Joe Adamson, who provided each man his most consequential book-length treatment, the only ones which appeared within their lifetimes. After he wrote Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, published in 1975, Adamson wrote The Walter Lantz Story. And the introduction to that book is by director Frank Capra, who incidentally also had a pivotal moment in his early career that spun at the mercy of the very same Universal executive: Henry Henigson.