Animation History
October 28, 2013 posted by Jerry Beck

The Jam Handy Building

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I had an incredible time last weekend in Detroit Michigan, presenting a screening at the Detroit Institute of Arts and visiting with Steve Stanchfield. Let me say again that if you can get to Detroit anytime before January 5th, I highly recommend you do so. The current animation exhibit Watch Me Move is a must-see. The weekly film programs of classic animation are expertly curated and guest speakers they have lined up – Leslie Iwerks (Nov. 2nd), Paul Dini and Alan Burnett (Nov. 16th) – are great (I should know, they are all friends of mine).

Jam-Handy-side170One of the highlights of my trip was a little tour of Detroit by Steve, along with Mary Dixon (aka “Mary in Ann Arbor” to you Stephanie Miller fans). Of course, for animation fans no trip to Detroit is complete without a “visit to mecca”: the sacred holy land that is the “Jam Handy” building.

Of course, the building today is a shadow of its former self (click thumbnails below to enlarge). The good news is that a local support group, Detroit Soup, has purchased the building and intends to rehabilitate it into a community arts space. They are still calling it “The Jam Handy” so I can only hope the will restore the signage on the building (if you squint you can still see the ghosts of the Jam Handy lettering on the blue marquee).

The building is a shrine to classic cartoon animation – and a landmark location in film history. Who worked there? Max Fleischer, Gene Deitch, Rudy Zamora, Roy Williams, Jim Tyer to name but a few. What films did they make? Usually commercial, industrial and educational shorts – and many for nearby General Motors. Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer was one of their few theatricals. Below are several of the Chevrolet/Nicky Nome pictures Handy produced between 1936-1938. Heck, they’re as good as anything Ted Eshbaugh or Amadee Van Beuren were producing just a few years earlier… and most enjoyable in their own right.

So here’s to the historic Jam Handy Building – may you continue to survive, and go on to inspire others with your legacy of excellence.

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12 Comments

  • During what years was Jam Handy in business, and did they occupy this building the whole time?

    • I know the company lasted into the 70′s but I believe by then they weren’t doing much with animation anyway, but if Ray Pointer happens to show up here, he’ll correct me or further on the question asked.

    • The Jam Handy Organization was established in 1924, the same year as the merger that created General Motors. It was the result of Mr. Handy’s being fired from the Bray Studio in what amounted to a breach of contract when Bray got into litigation issues over patent infringements and his breach with Goldwyn when he contracted for more films than he could deliver.

      Mr. Handy was a two-time Olympic swimmer from The University of Michigan. He came from a family of Journalists associated with the Chicago Tribune. Following his Olympic triumphs, he was offered positions for corporate sales due to the value of his name. Because of this, Bray hired him as Vice President of Industrial films, and he acquired many valuable automobile accounts. When Bray dismissed him, Handy took his accounts with him. For two years he operated Diamond Productions in Chicago. He told me once that during this period Walt Disney worked for him for a week and they had to fired him because he didn’t draw well enough. While this does not seem to follow the official Disney Timeline, it is an interest story, typical of the sour grapes attitude that permeated at the company.

      The Jam Handy Organization became a total presentation/advertising company, producing demonstration films and stage shows for fairs and conventions. They expanded their animation department in the 1930s, and Mr. Handy proudly declared how they obtained the licenses for cel production from his former employer, John Bray. From what I was told, they had what was considered a large department consisting to two divisions, one for theatrical cartoon animation and the other devoted to Technical Animation. The two divisions were in constant opposition to each other, and there was a lack of stability in managing the two for more efficient operation of production until the arrival of Max Fleischer in 1942. Those remembering Max there said aside from his state of illness, had noting but complimentary things to say about how he brought stability to the department, understanding the methods for approaching the production of educational and industrial films. When Max left in 1953, Gene Deitch had already been there two years and affected a major revolution that they were still talking about when I came there nearly 50 years ago. I was thrilled to pieces being around everything I’d seen in books and was now able to touch and work with, being asked to do various things from one day to the next. It was on the job training in the old studio system on a small scale. That simply does not exist any longer. But that short exposure was something I will always remember.

  • oh my GOURD! These films are fantastick!!

  • What? No Ray Pointer?

  • IT WOULD BE WONDERFUL TO HAVE ALL THE JAM HANDY’S CHEVROLET ADS AND MAX FLEISCHER’S RED NOSE REINDEER SHORT IN ONE OF STEVE’S THUNDERBEAN FUTURE RELEASES.

    • Perhaps for what it is. But the RUDOLPH film, while it served its purpose for Montgomery Ward, it was a poor reflection of the quality of animation the company had been producing. It is an indication of how budgets were being cut after World War II even for industrial films. This is where the design and stylization approach that Gene Deitch brought in in 1951 gave rebirth to Jam Handy’s animation department.

  • Jerry, it’s articles, photos and video clips like these that keep me returning to Cartoon Research again and again.
    THANK YOU.
    I’m delighted you got to visit the historic Jam Handy building!
    Sincerely,
    William Carroll
    Denham Springs, Louisiana

  • Jeez- they had few scruples about recycling a number of elements straight out of the Fleischer Betty Boop feature into “A Coach for Cinderella”

    • Robert, I think you are mistaken in your perception. I don’t know what you refer to as recycling from Fleischer on A COACH FOR CINDERELLA. Frankly, it’s not very well drawn, and the direction a bit meandering. But they had the ego of the Chevrolet sales people, so the goal was to satisfy the client. Frank Goldman, Max’s best friend directed this one. The sequels were farmed out, which is obvious since the animation in those is superior. A RIDE FOR CINDERELLA has animation by Jim Tyer, by the way. This I know for a fact. I am not certain about his working on JUST IMAGINE since this does not look like his work to me. JUST IMAGINE was produced during the period that Max Fleischer was head of the Animation Department, and he brought in several of his New York animators on several productions because most of the Detroit animators at Handy’s were not very good. The stop motion in JUST IMAGINE was done by Frank, by the way.

  • For the record, that is NOT the “Jam Handy Building, ” folks. It was only one of them. That was the sound stage. There were offices upstairs were some of the writers were. The majority of the operation was spread out in five more buildings on both sides of East Grand Boulevard the next two blocks down towards Hastings. At the time, the Boulevard had an Elm lined median dividing east and west bound traffic. There were also 12 foot lawns reaching out from the buildings. The Animation Department when I knew of it was on the second floor on a two story building two blocks down from the sound stage. It was located in the back half. They had four Oxberry Master Animation Cameras located on four places in the room. There was a long table with a T-Shaped shelf over it with electrical outlets all along the edge. There were additional electrical outlets hanging from the ceiling. There were two entrances on the south and north ends of the room. The north door would be closed then film was projected in there, the screen being on the north wall. The screen had a graph on it showing the degree of cropping for projection and television transmission. This they used to determine the amount of cutoff they had and also determine whether artwork shot outside of the film aperture would be cropped because of an error in layout or faulty camera direction. In 1970 they moved the department across the street to a taller building and into a rather depressing area that looked like something you’d find at a refinery or paint factory. They had a few rooms there, and only one camera set up in a room to itself. The staff had been laid off, and came in working freelance. Joe Petrovich was head of this non-existent Animation Department by this time. He eventually left and went into business with Skip Sharron in 1972 with a little studio in Royal Oak called “Cartoon Factory.” My arrival at the Jam Handy Animation Department was when it was on its last legs. But nevertheless, I was there. So was Max Fleischer!

  • DOWN THE GASOLINE TRAIL is an earlier one you should see. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SfIe56gpcU

    By the way, I have that black and white still taken from the side parking lot of the sound stage.

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