Animator Gene Deitch (August 8, 1924 – April 16, 2020) passed away Thursday of natural causes (unrelated to the current corona virus pandemic). For the last 25 years (or so) I was very proud to have been his friend.
His life’s work and his personal journey was quite incredible. Luckily he documented much of it himself – In a book about his romance with Prague and life with his beloved Zdenka, on this blog in several posts and for AWN, which published his career biography. Deitch posted much about his career himself – and Cartoon Brew has a concise tribute that covers most of the bases.
I can’t recall the exact day and year I met Gene, but I’ll never forget our first conversation. I was at the Museum of Modern Art, probably in the mid-1990s, upstairs in the film programming offices (I think this must be around 1995, it might have been earlier). Gene was visiting someone there and I had heard he was in the room. I introduced myself to him telling him I was his “biggest fan” and he laughed at the thought – and even questioned me (“What do YOU know about my career?”). This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I told him of my admiration of his era at Terrytoons, and that I had screened several of them at MoMA in 35mm CinemaScope – and how they blew my (and the audiences) mind. Although he dismissed that part of his career then, he was as interested in hearing my thoughts about those shorts as I was enthused to have an opportunity to interview him about them.
We stayed in touch ever since. I’d met him at Annecy one year; another year I drove to San Francisco to meet up with him there (and to visit the Disney Family Museum with him); he’d visit LA (staying with his friend (and later mine) Bob Balser (of Yellow Submarine) in Marina Del Rey. I mounted two tribute shows to Gene in Hollywood – one at the Egyptian Theatre (that garnered a huge front page story on Los Angeles Times Calendar), and another at The Cinefamily. I did panels with him when he was Guest of Honor at the San Diego Comic Con. I lobbied for and eventually co-produced the Deitch Tom & Jerry collection for Warner Home Entertainment. My biggest thrill was being able to present him with a Winsor McCay Award for lifetime achievement at the Annie Awards in 2004.
I told you I was his biggest fan – he kidded me about that for years, but he eventually acknowledged that I earned that honor. Gene felt some kind of kinship with me and stayed in touch regularly, especially over the last ten years. While he had previously dismissed much of his work in the US (pre-1959), I think he came to see and appreciate what others saw. He was an artist who had the rare opportunity to make personal films within the system (Howdy Doody’s Magic Hat at UPA; his Terrytoons, including Tom Terrific), within commercial product (think the Bob & Ray Piels Beer campaign), and a series of shorts in Prague (from Munro on), finding joy in adapting to animation other’s works, other artists styles, for Weston Woods.
He thrived in animation, doing it his way, at a time (the 40s and 50s) when making such films was costly and the equipment wasn’t portable. And at a time (the 1960s, 70s & 80s) when the industry itself was dying off, Gene was a steadfast supporter and advocate for the craft. And seemingly never at a loss for a job.
It sounds like a cliche, but Gene was “full of life”. Enthusiastic about life, art, jazz music – he was an eager first adopter of the latest technology, from tape recording back in the early 50s to the internet in the 2000s. His love for Zdenka was total.
Gene, you did it. You had a great life. Speaking for everyone who ever loved one of your cartoons, your work will live forever. Speaking for everyone who ever met you, you will be missed.
Below are a few odd images Gene shared with me – and in tribute I will share with you.
(Thanks to Adam Snyder. And all my love to Zdenka)