Suspended Animation #295
It was the animation studio and entertainment company that most people have never heard of when the history of animation is discussed. Tom Carter Productions was founded in early 1981 by Tom Carter who was a former Disneyland entertainment employee who “struck it rich” in the investment field.His business encompassed a travel agency, a security alarm company, an investment firm and Tom Carter Productions which was to focus on the development of an animated feature film called Huck’s Landing about Huckleberry Finn’s adventures with a cast of Disney-esque animals.
Carter primarily made his fortune through “factoring”, basically purchasing unpaid bills for a small percentage like from doctors awaiting slow medical insurance payments. Doctors received immediate cash and Carter then made a significant profit when the bill was paid in full.
His mistake was that he starting selling shares to “investors” in this part of his business promising to make them a fortune that led to an investigation into “investment fraud” since it was similar to a pyramid scheme. The studio closed almost overnight with a trail of bankruptcy councils, legal activity and more. In 1990 Carter began serving a jail sentence.
However, back in 1981, the future looked bright. Carter’s business plan in addition to the animated feature and other projects like comics and animated theatrical shorts also included Huck’s Landing Regional Theme Parks which would utilize the Huck’s Landing characters.Each complex would consist of approximately 10-20 acres of property and would include water slides; miniature golf course; arcade area; children’s play island; river raft ride; an old fashioned paddleboat restaurant and many other activities depending on each designated area.
The first one was planned for Las Vegas. In addition would be The Huck’s Landing Resort Project designed to include a hotel; theme park; shopping center; golf course and many different themed elements.
It would all generate from the animated feature that would be handled by Phil Mendez who was also interested in promoting and producing his own animated project based on a character called Kissyfur.
Mendez set up a studio on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City and brought on Leo Sullivan and Floyd Norman to develop a storyboard. That initial story told how as a child Huck was accidentally dropped overboard into the Mississippi River and was rescued by Old Mudd the turtle and had to deal with an evil Quadroon, river pirates, river rats and more.
Carter liked the visuals but not the story. It went through several different versions but never quite gelled. Carter’s main headquarters was in Newport Beach and that staff began to question the lack of progress on the feature while the animators seemed to be spending their time finishing Mendez’s Kissyfur theatrical short.
The animation team moved to a larger building in Burbank close to the airport. Carter wanted more input into the film. Mendez gave up his claim to Huck’s Landing and Carter gave up his claim to Kissyfur. Mendez left and was briefly replaced by Leo Sullivan.
Carter’s Newport team came up with a new story that Carter liked. The story was now about a gigantic riverboat disaster with Huck as the only survivor. He grew up in the wild basically raised by animals. When he sees another riverboat he makes a raft and heads to a nearby town to reconnect with other humans.
Once there, a fire causes him to remember his past including the man who created the ship’s disaster, a distinguished man called “Baron”. He is chased through the river country where his animal friends come to his rescue. It is Huck who finally overcomes the villain and bidding farewell to his friends goes back to civilization.
Any similarities to Disney’s animated feature The Jungle Book (1967) was intentional. Gerry Ray was brought in to direct the feature and Carter decided the entire operation should be moved to Newport Beach.The music was written by Don Dorsey and Adam Bezark. Dorsey had worked at Disneyland but also for musician Quincy Jones who thought the score was one of the richest ever produced for an animated film.
Scott Shaw! was in charge of the Saturday morning crew and comic book division. He worked with Mike Sekowsky, Floyd Norman and Dawn Miller. Among those projects was Alex in Wonderland where a young boy falls into his television set. Another proposal was about an obnoxious whale and his inept hunter. Even a comic strip featuring the characters from Huck’s Landing was developed.
Carter would often shift work suddenly to something he considered important, setting up a disjointed work schedule in terms of developing the feature. In addition, he would have new ideas frequently that he demanded be incorporated into projects.
He tried moving in multiple different directions so nothing ever got completed and the public never saw anything other than a brochure for potential investors. At one point, he considered making the feature in 3-D. Some tests had animation that composited hand-drawn and painted cel animation over real miniature sets, much like the process in some Fleischer Popeye cartoons.Carter moved everything again into a building in Irvine that was luxurious with glass ceilings in the lobby, an elegant staircase, fine wood furnishings, a full kitchen, swimming pool, numerous potted plants and even a sauna.
Things came crashing down on the 1983 Thanksgiving weekend when a local newspaper published a story about Carter being investigated. Employees were phoned and told to extend their holiday on the following Monday. Then they were told to come to the building and pick up their personal belongings.
Some also picked up other things like computers, recording equipment, furniture and more. Artists were allowed to take some samples of their artwork for their portfolios.
Most people would never see the high quality material these artists had produced over the years. Several other studios expressed interest in a number of Carter’s ideas but the legal entanglements prevented any of them being continued elsewhere.Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson said that they felt the final script was one of the strongest stories they had ever seen and captured the spirit of classic Disney animated features. Don Bluth felt the same.
Gerry Ray was diagnosed with cancer during the production and offered to withdraw. Carter and his team agreed to keep him in charge as long as he felt well enough to do so. Ray was convinced once he got out of the hospital he would continue but he passed away without knowing the turmoil that was happening at the studio.
Tom Carter Productions employed many familiar names including Ray Aragon, Chuck Harvey, Michael Humphries (background painter), Chris Bailey and others. My friend and former writing partner John Cawley was a significant contributor to Tom Carter Productions and shared many stories with me, most unprintable.
He was the Director of Animation Services responsible for setting up the animation studio and comic book divisions in Orange County. He oversaw the creation, development and production of the feature film Huck’s Landing, a TV special, a Saturday morning series, comic books and newspaper strip at the original Burbank studio and the Newport Beach studio. He was a co-writer of the feature, and contributing writer to the comics. Once things fell apart, he was hired by Don Bluth as head of public relations and created the fan club.
Today, Tom Carter Productions has been forgotten by most people. Those few who remember it have some interesting stories.
For instance, in 1982, Carter entered into discussions to purchase Harvey and its library of characters like Casper, the Friendly Ghost. He passed on the deal when he discovered the film library was tied up for another five or more years so the only way he could generate revenue was to go into production on new material.
SPECIAL THANKS to John Cawley for providing all the images used in this post.