Montréal-born Leo Salkin started his career at age 19, after graduating from Hollywood High School, at Walter Lantz on March 3, 1932. Hired as a cel washer at $17.50 a week, he also helped out with camera. He learned ink and paint on the job, while studying “inbetweening on my own time.” This was in the depths of the Great Depression, so for him “to get any sort of job in 1932 was an astonishing feat.” Along with learning how to animate, he “learned about gags. As a matter of fact, there was no way you could have avoided learning about gags: They were the life blood of the place.” He later wrote about his experience at Lantz as a gag writer for The Art of the Animated Image: An Anthology, edited by Charles Solomon and published by the American Film Institute; the book is out-of-print, but his article, “Working for Walter Lantz in the 30’s: A Reminiscence,” has been posted online by Animation Resources.
Salkin then moved over to Mintz, where he worked on Krazy Kat and Scrappy cartoons, followed by a stint at Disney. He stayed there until after the 1941 strike, when he walked the picket line, at which time he was earning $60.00 a week. He left Disney for Columbia Screen Gems during Frank Tashlin’s brief but fabled reign and did a short stint at MGM animating under Tex Avery. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he went to New York to work for ventriloquist Paul Winchell in the early days of live TV. In 1948 he was hired as a writer by Jerry Fairbanks Productions, a well-established producer of live-action theatrical shorts that was segueing into TV.
In 1949, Salkin returned to Disney as a writer and animator, famously adapting Ellis Parker Butler’s classic short story, Pigs is Pigs, into the 1953 Oscar-nominated cartoon directed by Jack Kinney. His memoir of this experience, “Disney’s Pigs is Pigs: Notes from a Journal, 1949-1953” was published in the AFI’s Storytelling in Animation: The Art of the Animated Image, Vol. 2, edited by John Canemaker, which is also out-of-print. This was followed by his best known credit as an animator, the “We Are Siamese, If You Please” sequence in The Lady and the Tramp.
He was signed on as a writer for UPA’s short-lived The Boing Boing Show TV show for CBS; later he worked for the studio on Mr. Magoo’s 1001 Arabian Nights feature. (Needless to say, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Magoo, who he was said to have been modeled on.) In 1959 he co-wrote the Emmy-winning The Alphabet Conspiracy (Frank Capra Productions), a live-action show with animation, done as part of the popular Bell Laboratory Science series. In 1961, he worked for Format Films as an associate producer and writer on The Alvin Show. (Animation Resources has posted the complete storyboard for the show’s pilot episode, which was probably done by Salkin.)
In the 1970s, he formed his own studio, Leo Salkin Films, during which time he directed the Emmy-nominated half-hour CBS TV special, The 2000 Year Old Man, with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. He was also very proud of the TV commercials he did for Sunkist Oranges. Salkin created a new ad campaign for their navel oranges, which then had a reputation of being too tart; rather than disguise this fact, he played it up, greatly boosting sales.
My chat with Salkin is not particularly informative in terms of the chronology of his career, but he does make some interesting comments on the problems of running your own studio. He notes one does everything from story and layouts to directing and running errands. It’s “almost the equivalent of washing cels.” Also, as a layout man [I end up] revising what I did as a storyman.” He adds what he needed was a producer. However, “If I’m a producer I’m going to yell.”
I should add that in 1958 Salkin published Story-Telling Home Movies: How to Make Them (McGraw Hill) (now out-of-print) and was given a Winsor McCay Award by ASIFA-Hollywood for lifetime achievement in 1983.
Next week: Manny Gonzales.