Coar-Toon Rehash
February 14, 2022 posted by Bob Coar

TRANSFILM – The Biggest Little Studio

There is an old adage about crisis creating opportunity. Crisis also creates necessity. One of the things necessary in 1941 was the production of military training films to prepare American troops headed towards war. Two men who stepped in to fill that void were William Miesegaes and Walter Lowendahl, the founders of Transfilm.

Walter Miesegies was born in England. His father, a Dutchman, represented Shell Oil in the London office. Walter attended the finest schools in England and Switzerland before becoming an executive for various shipping firms incorporated in Holland. Miesedaes was in Indonesia, exporting rubber and sugar, when he began shooting amateur films of the local scenery. His travelogue ON THE ROAD TO ACAPULCO was screened at the Guild Theater in New York City. Miesegaes lived in Manhattan by 1940, as war planes sent by Nazi Germany rained bombs down upon the citizens of London.

During 1941 William Miesegaes decided to make training films for the U.S. military. To that end he brought in Walter Lowendahl, who’d been a short films producer at M-G-M in Hollywood for the last five years. They incorporated Transfilm with Miesages as president, renting space in the Pathe Exchange Building at 35 West 45th Street near Times Square. The U.S. Office of War Information set up in the same building. Executive Vice President Lowendahl enlisted in the Army Ordinance Pictorial Section. Transfilm turned out hundreds of films supporting the war effort in conjunction with the Army Signal Corps. Peace was restored by the end of 1945.

Transfilm needed a new mission if it was to contiue. Fortunately, in 1946 the Federal Communications Commission ruled that television networks could charge advertisers for air time. Transfilm hired military veterans trained by the Signal Corps to make TV commercials. What they needed to do was expand, so they bought 35 West 45th Street and took over more floors.

The Pathe Exchange Building had been constructed in 1920 by Pathe, which kept offices next door at 25 West 45th in the Century Building. Twelve stories tall, the new Pathe building contained fireproof storage vaults and projection rooms. An enclosed walkway spanning the alley at the fourth floor level connected it to the Century Building. Personnel from Famous started using that walkway in 1942. While the bulk of Famous was in the Century Building, their opaquing department was across the alley in the Pathe Exchange. Famous also used Pathe’s projection rooms. Ted Eshbaugh’s studio was at 35 West 45th as well. RKO Pictures absorbed Pathe and inherited the edifice, selling it to Transfilm in 1946. Henceforth, 35 West 45th Street would be known as the Transfilm Building.

On Transfilm’s other flank at 45 West 45th Street sat the Hearn Building, where tenant Willard Pictures used animation in TV commercials. Jack Zander, once manager of M-G-M’S animation department, ran the show for Willard. Zander is credited with creating the first fully animated TV commercial in 1947, a spot done for Chicklets Gum. That same year Transfilm hired Robert Klaeger to oversee production. Bob Klaeger had supervised editing in the Signal Corps. He had Jimmy Tanaka of Famous and Bob Blanchard from Terrytoons do a bit of work for Transfilm.

During 1948 Jack Zander was hired away from Willard Pictures to head Transfilm’s new animation department under Klaeger’s direction. Jack Zander’s and his cameraman William Nameth both served in Army animation units during the war. Nemeth’s brother Ted ran a little studio in New York with his wife, experimental animator Mary Ellen Bute. That trio started out in Los Angeles, mentoring a young Jim Henson. In 1949 Eli Levitan joined Zander’s team. Levitan started penciling for Fleischer Studios right out of high school, joining the camera department after it became Famous Studios. Eli Levitan focused on special effects for Transfilm. Fleischer/Famous stalwart Edith Vernick passed through.

Jack Zander on the job (above), while his crew (opposite, left) is hard at work.

Zander soon boasted a dozen artists at his unit. Dan Gordon, Morey Reden, Dot Scabell, Red Auguston, Harvey Patterson, and the great Emery Hawkins were there. Margaret Sessa, coming off seven years with the Signal Corps, signed on. George Ottino supervised production of television commercials. Ottino had animated for Famous Studios, Videart, and Film Graphics. Emery Hawkins jumped over to Archer Productions. Willis Pyle joined Zander’s crew.

Abe Liss, former head of UPA’s New York branch, joined Transfilm. One trade journal refers to Liss as Vice President in Charge of Animation, while another article lists him as CreativeDirector. Transfilm engaged in aggressive sales techniques, partnering with Louis de Richemont Associates to corner the teleblurb market. Transfilm had more than a hundred employees by 1953, spread out around five floors of their building. One floor, fully air-conditioned, contained two newly built sound stages.

Of course, Shell Oil was a client, and several U.S. Government agencies. Transfilm contracted with Dutch stop-motion animator Joop Geesink’s Dollywood Studios. Their collaboration on General Electric’s 1954 industrial film THE STORY OF LIGHT earned much critical acclaim.

The New York animation staff more than doubled to thirty artists. Duane Crowther left UPA to be among them. Jack Zander departed to found Pelican Films. Abe Liss took charge of Transfilm’s animation department, bringing in Les Goldman as production manager. Goldman had done that job for Tempo Productions, continuing on there after Dave Hilberman sold Tempo and it became Academy Productions. But Les Goldman soon went to Hollywood to work with John Hubley at Storyboard.

Abe Liss was distracted by a project his private company was doing with CBS and would soon be gone as well. Bob Klaeger tapped George Ottino to be supervisor of animation, with John Cuddy as his assistant production manager. Cuddy’s previous film associations included Loucks and Norling, John Sutherland, and Cineffects. He’d started with Max Fleischer, and worked on color planning and animation for GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, and several Popeye shorts. Cuddy specialized in technical animation and stop-motion photography. Transfilm restructured. Slidefilms became a separate division under Pud Lane. Back in 1932 Pud Lane had animated for Master Arts on a cartoon titled SING ‘EM BACK ALIVE. Lane’s slidefilms also employed animators.

Transfilm installed a thirty thousand dollar, custom-built animation stand. Willis Pyle went over to Academy. Duane Crowther went to Bob Lawrence Productions. Artists often moved about the growing number of general service studios doing animation in New York. Ottino’s staff contained able, experienced people: Frank Bucaria, Tom Knitch, Sal Butafuoco. Ben Farish, and Keith Robinson. Steve Muffati joined Transfilm’s ranks in April of 1955.

Steve Muffati was a top hand. He’d directed cartoons for Van Beuren Studios two decades earlier, turning down an offer from Walt Disney. Instead, Muffati stayed in New York at Fleischer Studios. A no-nonsense guy, Steve Muffati served as a military policeman at Army bases in Texas and occupied Germany. After the war he animated for Famous. Bill Hudson, who’d also worked for Fleischer and Famous, joined Muffati at Transfilm.

Walter Miesegaes extended the firm to Europe. Dave Hilberman was sent to the London office. Hilberman’s old partner at Tempo, Zach Schwartz, was sent to Transfilm’s new stop-motion facility in Munich, Germany. In Holland Joop Geesink continued making stop-motion commercials for clients such as Beechnut Gum, Heinz Ketchup, and Goebel Beer. Staff writer Joe Forest was made a creative director to liaison with Geesink at Dollywood.

When Continental Can sponsored the public service cartoon MAN OF ACTION, Digby Turpin, an artist for Halas & Batchelor in London directed it. Steve Muffati was lead animator. MAN OF ACTION was meant to inform the public about dangers caused by urban blight. It got a lot of air time on television. The voice of the Devil’s stooge, a demon itself, sounds much like Ray Walston. This might be, since Walston worked a couple blocks away on Broadway, making a name for himself as the Devil in the play DAMN YANKEES.

Transfilm’s twelve minute info-toon STOP RHEUEMATIC FEVER, created for the U.S. Public Health Service to be distributed by the National Heart Association, utilized a simplicity of graphic style that some said even surpassed the highly acclaimed UPA. Steve Muffati brought his protégé Phil Kimmelman to Transfilm for OPPORTUNITIES UNLIMITED, financed by LIFE and FORTUNE magazines. OPPORTUNITIES UNLIMITED concerned middle-income consumers. Ben Farish, Bill Hudson, and Keith Robinson also animated on that film from designs by Howaed Kakudo. Eli Levitan and newly arrived Harvey Plasterik handled camerawork.

Then Muffati and Kimmelman were gone to the short-lived Chadwick Animation, Incorporated. Keith Robinson went to UPA. Burton Freund showed up at Transfilm. He’d worked in Hollywood under Frank Tashlin on DAFFY DITTIES, was with the CBS art department for a New York minute, then Cineffects. Burt Freund left within a year to freelance for Jack Zander at Pelican Films.

Transfilm opened a Hollywood branch at 8255 Beverly Boulevard. Offices in Pittsburgh and Chicago followed. IBM sponsored A MOON IS BORN in 1957 to advertise how their computers helped man-made satellites perform. It was all technical animation as part of a newsreel.

POPULAR MECHANICS Magazine featured an article on Transfilm’s commercial production in February of 1957. Things began to go a bit sideways. Bob Klaeger started his own studio at 1600 Broadway, taking George Ottino with him. John Cuddy was put in charge of animation at Transfilm. New talent arrived – Carl Cucinotto from Hubley’s Storyboard – Sara Tsuruoka from Film Graphics – Al Schirano from Academy. Bill Hudson had found a home at Transfilm, and was next in line for John Cuddy’s job.

With such a skilful entourage in hand it’d curious that Walter Lowendahl went elsewhere for the next industrial toon. When Standard Oil requested an entertaining look at the history of harnessed energy, Lowendahl sent ENERGETICALLY YOURS to the London office, where Dave Hilberman supervised Ronald Serle’s designs. Animation got done by two other companies. Quartet Films, where Les Goldman was an owner, handled half under Art Babbitt. Bill Melendez directed the rest at Playhouse Pictures. The Guild Theater premiered ENERGETICALLY YOURS to New York audiences in early 1958.

Walter Lowendahl was drifting away from Transfilm. In 1959 he took a seat on the board of Dynamic Films. Les Goldman, still a principal at Quartet in Hollywood, acted as director of advertising and public relations films for DYNAMIC. John Cuddy decided to go work for Shamus Culhane. So Bill Hudson became Transfilm’s animation supervisor. His team in 1959 included animators Gordon Whittier, Paul Halliday, and Jack Dazzo. Culhane’s spitfire production manager Ruth Gench came aboard to Transfilm, as did designer Dolores Cannata. Walter Lowendahl got appointed executive vice president with Dynamic Films.

The Buckeye Corporation, an Ohio based manufacturer of poultry and livestock feeding equipment, started buying general service studios that did animation. Buckeye acquired Transfilm and Caravel Pictures, combining them as Transfilm-Caravel. With that merger came Caravel’s modern studio space in Manhattan at 20 West End Avenue. Transfilm-Caravel absorbed Bob Klaeger’s operation, bringing him back into the fold. Jack Semple, long-
time Caravel animation supervisor, assumed that role as Bill Hudson moved on to open Animex, Incorporated with Ben Farish. Bill and Ben soon reorganized as B&B Animation.

Wylde Films, owned by Fred Levinson and Robert Bean, was scooped up as part of Bob Klaeger’s Transfilm-Caravel division. Hal Silvermintz designed TV spots there before going off to help found Stars and Stripes Productions Forever. Dolores Cannata and Jack Dazzo were at Elektra Films working for Abe Liss. Elektra signified the future, as Transfilm faded away. Klaeger’s division limped on with Marvin Friedman as V.P. for animation, and Al Califano supervising operations. Transfilm-Caravel turned out a couple more industrial films for the U.S. Government.

By 1964 the company faded away. Robert H. Klaeger Associates hung around for a couple years in the Transfilm Building with Mickey Dubin, an executive who pops up in several animation studios, as vice president of sales. Klaeger also had a Hollywood branch at 5451 Marathon Street. Wylde Studios survived as a separate entity at 53 East 25th Street until becoming a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox in 1969.

Walter Lowendahl stayed with Dynamic Films. His wife Lisa Howard blazed a trail as one of early television’s few female news reporters. Walter Miesegaes seems to have retired with his wife, a former actress. As Mary Blackwood she’d been in a few movies. Transfilm originated as a way of supporting the war effort and went on to become the east coast’s most profitable commercial studio, serving the private industries those armed forces protected.

10 Comments

  • Bob Klaeger’s hiring of background artist Bob Blanchard in 1947 coincides with the eight-month strike at Terrytoons. I wonder if any other striking artists from the Terry studio contributed to the growth of Transfilm at this time.

    In its publicity materials, Transfilm seems to be presenting itself in a conspicuously patriotic light as a supporter of the military and a friend to big business. So it’s ironic that the company actually had blacklisted artists on its payroll during the Red Scare. When Abe Liss was at UPA he engaged Maurice Rapf, who had worked as a screenwriter on Disney’s “Song of the South” and “So Dear to My Heart”, and Sam Moore, a founder of the Radio Writers Guild who had written for shows like “The Great Gildersleeve”. It was the first paid employment for either man since they had been blacklisted. Liss brought both Rapf and Moore with him to Tempo and Transfilm, then finally to his own company Elektra, so he evidently thought highly of their work. Transfilm’s clients would no doubt have been alarmed to learn that they were paying a former Communist Party member like Rapf to write and direct their corporate films. But as Faith Hubley observed: “TV commercials had no credits. Therefore blacklisted artists could work in advertising.”

    Abe Liss, incidentally, co-wrote (with Dr. Seuss) the Private Snafu cartoon “Snafuperman”.

  • I was under the impression that the FCC had authorized television commercials in 1941, not 1946, hence the Botany Lamb animated commercials that appeared around that time.

  • ERIC – From what I’ve gathered, prior to 1946 sponsors ads were considered part of the show itself, as a way around the issue. 1946 opened it up for businesses other than the sponsor to buy time.

    PAUL – Abe Liss is an interesting guy. We were born in the same city. Wasn’t he an artist for the OSS?

    • We have Abe’s (at least ONE of his) animation disc.

  • Transfilm-Wylde was also involved with the Nutty Squirrels cartoons.
    https://tralfaz.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-story-of-nutty-squirrels.html

    Yowp

  • Thanks to Bob Coar and Jerry Beck for publishing this informative little article about Transfilm. My mentor and friend Duane Crowther used to talk a little about Transfilm and mentioned Bob Lawrence productions to me several times. Duane really hopped around the New York animation scene a lot in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

    • I’ve been wanting to connect with you for a while, since Bob Camp first gave me your name at a ComiCon. There will be more Duane Crowther to come in the series on General Service Studios.

      • Thanks Bob, an easy way to connect with me is through my blog: itsthecat.com/blog. You can leave any comments you want over there. Your history of the freelance New York scene is much appreciated, though it must be difficult to research. Los Angeles free-lance would also be hard to chart. I was part of that scene for seventeen years! We were all competing against each other, but also curiously united at the same time. Our lack of Union representation was one unifying factor, another was that it could be a long dry spell between jobs; we needed shoulders to cry on at those times. All the best, Mark

  • This is a great article. Thank you Bob and Jerry!

  • Thank you for giving us this historical info on these great animation figures . I was lucky to meet Mike Law ,Duane Crowther,and Fred Calvert thru my father Fred Crippen the owner of Pantomime Pictures he was A good freind and a buisness associate with them .

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