“When I worked with animators, I was told it was an honored tradition to play pranks on their peers. Since I was always gullible, trusting and took things seriously, I was often the victim of some of these pranks. I certainly never felt honored.”
In a 1940 Atlantic Monthly magazine article about the Disney Studio, writer Paul Hollister described the Disney Studio as “the only factory on earth where practical jokes are part of the production line”.
“Ward Kimball was the sort of entrepreneur of these types of activities,” remembered animator and production designer Iwao Takamoto but he was not. Most people might be most familiar with Takamoto for his many contributions to the Hanna-Barbera Studios cartoon series including designing the characters in Scooby-Doo, The Jetsons‘ dog Astro, Penelope Pitstop and many other memorable (and not as memorable like The Hillbilly Bears) characters.
However, Takamoto got his start in animation at the Disney Studios when he was barely twenty years old and had just been released from a California internment camp for Japanese-Americans.
In the camp, he met several artists who gave him some art training. One of them, a former art director, recommended that Takamoto look for work at the Disney Studios because he said “it was a liberal place when it came to hiring” meaning that he would not be judged for being Japanese.
“I think that’s what made the Disney Studios so successful,” recalled Takamoto in a 1995 interview. “There was no prejudice about race. Everyone who worked there took people at face value as to whether they could do the job.”
When he joined the Disney Studios as an assistant animator to Milt Kahl in 1945, Takamoto said that he “had no idea what animation was about. I learned on-the-job, picking up a little from some of the great animators like Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, and Frank [Thomas] and Ollie [Johnston].”
He was so well liked that, of course, he became a victim of a Disney animator prank.
Just before he turned 21 years old, several animators invited him to join them for a drink to celebrate the upcoming event. They went to a local bar and started downing martinis.
“They asked me to have a martini with them and I told them I didn’t know anything about martinis,” Takamoto said. “I learned that martinis have olives and the olives are kept in a jar with a sort of brine juice from the olives. What I didn’t know was that they had poured that juice from the olives into a martini glass and chilled it.
“They handed me the glass and said, ‘Here’s your first martini!’ I drank it and it tasted sour and bad but I tried to appear sophisticated and cool. I said, ‘Nice’. Then they all laughed and let me in on the gag and got me a real martini for my birthday that was much better.”
Takamoto even got involved with a few pranks himself.
He and fellow animator Stan Green played a prank on animation legend Marc Davis, known for many achievements, including his work on Disney villainesses Maleficent and Cruella De Vil.
Davis was sitting at his desk in deep concentration on some project that was giving him some trouble. Takamoto and Green took up positions on opposite sides of Davis’ open doorway that led to a hallway. Green began the prank by walking in place, slowly increasing the sound as if someone were walking toward the door.
Davis heard the sound and waited to see who was walking down the hall when they passed by the open doorway. Green stopped and Takamoto took up the same rhythm on the other side of the open doorway so it sounded like the footsteps were walking away.
Davis was dumbfounded. He hadn’t seen anyone pass the open doorway. Eventually, his curiosity got the better of him and he went to the door to look but Green and Takamoto had heard him get up from his chair so they hid. When Davis got to the doorway, he looked both ways but saw no one in the hall and puzzled over the “ghost” he had heard.
Takamoto also remembered another prank played on a newly hired animator at the Disney Studios when someone brought in an attachment meant to make Christmas lights blink on and off.
“Back then, we had to use a standard light bulb instead of a fluorescent tube under the light board of an animation desk,” Takamoto recalled. “As luck would have it, we had a new guy working on his light board that day, so they hooked up the blinker attachment without him knowing. He pulled the switch and the light went on. He started to draw and the light went off. He just waited patiently. The light went back on and he continued to draw.
“The light went off and he stopped again. It got to the point where he actually timed the thing. Every time the light went on, he hurried like crazy and would draw as fast as he could, expecting that the light would go off…which it did. But he’d wait until it came back on, so he could go back to drawing. To watch him scramble like that…his reaction was great.”
Takamoto saw no harm in these pranks.
“Today, animation is a serious business,” he said. “Back then, it was a business that was, in itself, a cartoon. It was a constant series of people acting like kids.
“I thought it was cool to work with people like that. They were my role models. They could be like that but also be real sophisticated. A lot of them were always dressed in the ‘high style’ of the Hollywood elite.”
At the Disney Studios, there was a huge layoff of animators after the opening of Sleeping Beauty (1959) because Walt Disney was seriously considering never making another animated feature and cutting out doing animated theatrical shorts.
Takamoto joined the newly opened Hanna-Barbera Studio in 1961 that was having huge success doing television animated series. He worked there for more than 30 years, eventually becoming vice-president of Creative Design. He died in January 2007.
Courtesy of Mark Christiansen, here is a rare pilot from 1970 of Hanna-Barbera’s primetime TV cartoon series, Where’s Huddles? “What you’ll see are full color storyboard drawings by Iwao Takamoto, Jerry Eisenberg and Willie Ito that were filmed and set to a complete soundtrack in order to demonstrate to CBS what the series would look like. Some of the character voices were changed once the series went into full production. Any glitches or imperfections you notice were on my original source tape. Overall, the quality is pretty good. Enjoy! Includes the vocal talents of Cliff Norton, Mel Blanc, Paul Lynde, Nancy Kulp, Joe Besser, Don Messick and Allan Melvin.
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