Today, we look into the career of animator/director Al Eugster!
Alfred Julius Eugster was born on February 11th, 1909 in New York City to musician Julius Eugster and Hedwig Feigel, both of German descent. Between 1915 and 1919, Julius passed away when Eugster was a young child. By 1920, his mother remarried to a baker named Charles Schmitz. At 16, Eugster performed odd jobs at the American Radiator Company before he went to Pat Sullivan’s studio, which produced cartoons starring Felix the Cat. The studio offered a dollar more than his salary at the Radiator Company ($10 a week), and Eugster was hired as a “blackener” on April 1925.At Sullivan’s studio, Eugster’s task was to ink the animator’s pencil drawings and fill in the black areas with a brush, erasing the pencil lines in the process. “That was a mean job, if I had a large job to blacken in,” Eugster said to John Canemaker. “That was sort of monotonous—blackening, but it was part of cartoons, so I accepted it.” According to Mark Mayerson, Eugster recalled drawing for the Felix the Cat Sunday comic strip on one occasion, usually handled by Messmer or Jack Bogle. While he was working at Sullivan’s, he attended night classes at Cooper Union.
Eugster left Sullivan’s studio in April 1929 and was hired at Max Fleischer’s studio as an in-betweener. He was promoted to full animator by February 1930. Much of his early animation in the Fleischer Talkartoons appears geometrical and resembles a heavy Felix influence; he animated the entirety of the Screen Song Strike Up the Band (released September 1930). In Sky Scraping (released November 1930), Eugster animated a sequence where two hod carriers rhythmically walk along steel girders suspended in the air. Shamus Culhane explained the complexity in Talking Animals and Other People, “The planning of the perspective for each girder was so complicated…Al had to paste sheets of paper over his drawing board…He just sat there day after day, completely absorbed and happy, drawing vanishing points.” Eugster soon became one of the key animators, along with Culhane, Berny Wolf and Grim Natwick, who developed Betty Boop as the central character of the Talkartoons and later starred in her own headliner series.
In 1932, Eugster moved to the West Coast and went over to Charles Mintz’s studio to work on the Krazy Kat cartoons. Ben Harrison and Manny Gould acted as producers of the series, credited in many of the films. In an interview with Michael Barrier, Eugster mentioned Harrison “wrote the stories…and gave out the work to the animators,” while Gould “was animating, mostly, rather than working on story.” His was at Mintz only a year, after which he migrated to Ub Iwerks’ studio, where he animated on the Willie Whopper cartoons. Eugster worked with Culhane again as an animator/co-director on the ComiColor cartoons. (Both names are credited in the first five entries in the series, released in late 1933 and early 1934.)Meanwhile, a significant wave of talent from New York flocked to Walt Disney’s studio in 1934 and 1935. Eugster was hired on May 17, 1935, with Berny Wolf and Shamus Culhane following him shortly after. In the films he animated for Disney, he was assigned to scenes of Donald Duck, who co-starred with Mickey Mouse. This gradually designated Eugster as a specialized “Duck man,” animating Donald in the Mickey series and his new series of solo cartoons, which were in production by early 1936. For Mickey’s Amateurs (1937), he submitted the gag of Donald taking off his disguise—after previously been given the hook for his failed onstage performance—and brandishing a machine gun at the audience, determined to finish his recitation of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. Eugster not animated the scene in the film and received a $5 bonus. He was not limited to animating Donald; in several films, Eugster also handled scenes with Pluto.
In early 1937, Eugster was given scenes to animate for Disney’s first feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, the “bed-building” sequence he worked on was cut from the film. Only a small amount of footage from other scenes is used in the finished film. Unlike his friends Berny Wolf and Shamus Culhane, Eugster did not advance to feature production. He continued animating on the Donald Duck series in such films as Donald’s Lucky Day, Beach Picnic and Officer Duck (all released 1939). Though he certainly contributed to Donald’s maturity as a star character, Eugster gave considerable mention to Dick Lundy and Fred Spencer for their contributions in a letter to JB Kaufman.Besides the radiant location, Max Fleischer’s studio in Miami offered large salaries for their staff as they were in production on their first feature Gulliver’s Travels. Eugster left Disney’s studio on March 18, 1939 and relocated to Florida. He worked as an animator on the feature. When Culhane left Disney to work for Fleischer, he picked Eugster as one of the animators in his unit. The two used their former Disney training to aid other animators for the theatrical shorts. The Culhane unit, with Eugster as animator, gave cartoons such as Popeye Meets William Tell (1940) and Two for the Zoo (1941), starring Gabby from Gulliver, a polished West Coast essence compared to the other units.
In September 1940, Eugster received a a job offer from MGM’s animation department. He returned to California and secured an apartment, but went back to Miami by December. It seemed that producer Fred Quimby did not keep the position available for Eugster. Back at Fleischer’s studio, he was switched to Tom Johnson’s unit to work on the second feature Mr. Bug Goes to Town. Later, Eugster became a “head animator” on the Popeye cartoons Fleets of Stren’th and Baby Wants a Bottleship. The latter was the final Popeye cartoon produced by Max and Dave Fleischer. By 1942, the two brothers surrendered their studio to Paramount, now renamed Famous Studios.At Famous Studios, Eugster continued as a “head animator” on the Popeye cartoon A Hull of a Mess (1942), a competition between Popeye and Bluto over a government contract to paint Navy battleships that boasts sharp comic timing. Many of Famous Studio’s animators were being drafted or enlisted in military service during World War II. On May 11th, 1943, Eugster enlisted in the Army Signal Corps. While he conducted his military service, he freelanced in comic book work by 1944 and in the summer of 1945, pencilled stories for Jason Comic Art that featured three kittens named Tick, Tack and Toe. He was released into civilian life on September 30th, 1945 and returned to Famous Studios about a week later. Aside from his studio work like many other animators at Famous, Eugster drew a few more comic book stories in the 1940s, submitting his pages to Charles Biro (“Drabby and Droopy”) and Otto Messmer (“Felix the Cat” and “Herman and Sherman”).
At Famous, Eugster animated in Orestes Calpini’s unit, then for Dave Tendlar, and in a special unit handpicked by former Disney animator Bill Tytla on Irish-themed Noveltoons with leprechaun characters (1947’s The Wee Men and 1949’s Leprechaun’s Gold). After Calpini left Famous, Eugster took over his spot and became a “head animator” once again. He is credited on Butterscotch and Soda (1948), the first in the Little Audrey series, a replacement to Little Lulu. (Audrey previously appeared in Santa’s Surprise a year earlier, de-facto directed by Myron Waldman. Eugster mainly worked on the Screen Songs, with a few Popeyes on occasion; since the Screen Songs consisted mostly of blackout gags and a “sing-a-long” portion, those cartoons could be produced much faster than the other Famous cartoons.
During the early 1950s, Eugster continued to direct the “sing-a-long” cartoons, which changed its banner to “Kartunes.” He is also credited as a “head animator” in two outstanding Famous cartoons: the 1952 Herman and Katnip cartoon Mice Capades, arguably the best of the series with a macabre story by Irv Spector, and Popeye, the Ace of Space (1953), which was filmed in 3-D. In the ‘50s, Eugster noticed the impact of UPA’s bold, graphic stylization in animated cartoons and designed his films in a similar fashion. Dante Dreamer (1958), in particular, exemplifies the modernized look that took hold at Famous in the late 1950s—not just in Eugster’s cartoons, but in other units as well.Animation studios in New York that specialized in TV commercials competed with the theatrical cartoon firms, since they often paid higher than theatricals. Eugster left Famous for television animation in 1957. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Eugster worked for various studios, either on-staff or freelance. These included Pelican Films (headed by Jack Zander), Animation Central (where he became head of the company in 1959, a position which lasted less than a year), Joe Oriolo’s studio on the Felix the Cat television cartoons, and with Paul Kim and Lew Gifford.
Eugster returned to theatrical animation when he joined Paramount Cartoon Studio in 1964 as an animator, working under directors Howard Post, Shamus Culhane and Ralph Bakshi. Howard Beckerman, who worked as an animator and character designer during the period said Eugster would “come in, sit down, lay out his cigars next to his pencils, line them all up and go to work.” Howard also shared a practical joke played by Culhane, when he came in and “mixed up” all of the pencils and cigars on his desk while Eugster was away. When he arrived back to his desk, Eugster rearranged the items and resumed his work, naturally without resentment to Culhane’s mischief.Though theatrical cartoons began to wane, the studio attempted to use different ideas in their later shorts. Eugster animated the entirety of My Daddy the Astronaut (1967), directed by Culhane, narrated by a small five-year-old child, with a crude drawing style to match. Culhane shared in his autobiography that Eugster “faced the same problem that had stumped [designer] Gil Meret—how to draw with naïveté, while using his expertise to keep the action funny. He succeeded very well, adding some subtle touches of his own, while presenting what seemed to be a very primitive animation.” Later in 1967, Paramount’s animation department folded and Eugster went back into television commercials for a brief stint at Pelican.
In early 1968, Eugster returned to Kim and Gifford and became their key animator. He remained throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He worked on commercials, interstitials for Saturday morning television programming and several segments for Schoolhouse Rock, created by George Newall and Tom Yohe. Among those are “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” (America Rock) and “Electricity, Electricity” (Science Rock). Eugster worked on the Professor Rutabaga segments of the short-lived Drawing Power (1980-81), also by Newall and Yohe. In 1982, he animated on three short segments featuring Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips, which is often known as Computer Rock.
Eugster retired from the animation industry in 1987. During his time at Kim and Gifford, and in his retirement years, Eugster served as a link to the silent era of animation, the early period of Max Fleischer’s sound cartoons, the creative zenith of Walt Disney’s studio and Fleischer’s studio in Miami. His many interviews with scholars and historians gave a strong insight into its past. He passed away on January 1st, 1997 in Los Angeles.
On a last note, I should not neglect Mark Mayerson’s “Remembering Al”, first published in Animation World Magazine just after Eugster’s death.
(Thanks to Mark Mayerson, Michael Barrier, Eric Costello, Bob Jaques, Howard Beckerman, Thad Komorowski and Joe Campana for their help.)