FANTASIA’S 80th Anniversary – and a 1975 interview with Art Babbitt

The premiere of Walt Disney’s FANTASIA at New York’s Broadway Theatre on November 13, 1940.

November 13 marks the 80th anniversary of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  It is my favorite Disney film.

How I wish I could have attended the 1940 premiere at New York’s Broadway Theatre – the first time those now-familiar Technicolor animated visualizations of eight classical music scores were screened with “Fantasound,” a pioneering dimensional soundtrack system.  What a thrill it must have been.

John Canemaker interviewing the great animator Art Babbitt, on June 4, 1975, NYC.

During my years as an animation historian, I’ve met and/or interviewed numerous artists who worked on the film (such as Joe Grant, Richard Huemer, Ollie Johnson, Bianca Majolie, Lee Blair, John Hench, Ken Anderson, Les Clark, Preston Blair, John Hubley, Bill Peet, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, Ken O’Connor; and several artists’ family members, including Sylvia Moberly-Holland’s daughter; Vladimir Tytla’s widow;  John Parr Miller’s brother; James Bodrero’s daughter; Oskar Fischinger’s widow and daughters.

Art Babbitt (1907-1992) was a brilliant animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and Dumbo, as well as key scenes in Fantasia.  Late in his career, I got to know him quite well and interviewed him privately and in public venues numerous times when he was a star animator on the feature, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977), the subject of my first book (The Animated Raggedy Ann & Andy). 

 

 

Three photos of Art Babbitt during the interview, age 68 in 1975.

To celebrate Fantasia, as well as Mr. Babbitt’s long, influential and controversial career, I offer the transcript of my first wide-ranging, freewheeling, unedited interview with him on June 4, 1975 – typos, misspellings and Art’s candid opinions and rueful wit galore.  Transcribed by me from my battered old Panasonic cassette tape recorder.  I also offer the edited version of the interview that was subsequently published in a 1975 issue of Millimeter Magazine.

My friend Carol Millican, gifted animator and friend, recorded the session in photographs.

The original transcript of my interview with Art Babbitt. Click on image to open.
The edited version published in Millimeter Magazine, 1975. Click on Image to open.
A 1970 letter from Babbitt when he was head of the commercials department at Hanna-Barbera studio.

 

A November 1972 drawing by Art Babbitt of the dancing mushroom characters the animated in FANTASIA in 1940. Click image to enlarge.

 

The camera layout drawing used by Babbitt for the choreography of the final scene of the mushroom dance. Click image to enlarge.

 

A pastel concept drawing by Elmer Plummer for the mushroom dance in the Nutcracker Suite sequence. Click image to enlarge

 

Another Nutcracker Suite dance sequence animated by Art Babbitt using thistle and orchid dancers. Click image to enlarge.

 

 

In FANTASIA’s Pastoral Symphony sequence, Babbitt animated the giant gods Zeus and Vulcan. Here are two layout drawings by Ken Anderson of Zeus’ first appearance. Click images to enlarge.

 

Assorted 1940 FANTASIA books, illustrated with art from the film. Click image to enlarge.

Thanks to Jake Friedman for his help with this article.

Update:

Two readers of my Facebook page noted that Art Babbitt strongly defended his turf — namely, the animation of the mushroom dance in FANTASIA — when it was challenged by two colleagues who claimed it as their own, namely Jules Engel and Elmer Plummer, former Disney artists who later taught at Cal Arts.

Submitted below, for the historical record, are two hand-written, hotly articulate letters to me from Babbitt, dated 23 and 27 February 1976.  I was, at the time, animation editor at Millimeter magazine.

Letter from Art Babbitt, dated Feb. 27, 1976. Click image to enlarge.

 

Subsequent letter from Art Babbitt, dated Feb. 27, 1976. Click image to enlarge.

The matter generated enough controversy that it prompted Jack Hanna, another Disney studio alum who was also a Cal Arts instructor, to write this to me:

“I had nothing to do with the mushroom dance. But I like mushroom soup!”

 

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John Lennon Sketchbook – 1986

Today, October 9, is John Lennon’s 80th birthday, and it is still hard to believe that in just two months we will mark the 40th anniversary of his death. 

Above and below, two cel setups from the animated short JOHN LENNON SKETCHBOOK.

I’d like to remember him with an account I wrote of my working with Yoko Ono in 1986 on JOHN LENNON SKETCHBOOK, an animated short based on Lennon’s personal drawings. It was written for the Sept/Oct 1987 issue of How magazine. Click on the cover image below to read the article:

Although the four-minute film was never released theatrically, it is available on YouTube:

Design and characters based on drawings by John Lennon
Animation produced and directed by John Canemaker
Executive Producer: Yoko Ono
Copyright © 1986 Ono Video

This autographed record album was a gift from Yoko and Sean, after we finished production on JOHN LENNON SKETCHBOOK.

 

Imagine.

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ALFRED BENJAMIN HUNT:
Color Comic Strip Pioneer

Winsor McCay – His Life and Art, my biography of the innovative pioneer of comic strips and animated films, has been revised twice since Abbeville Press first published it in 1987.   In the 2005 Harry N. Abrams edition and, again, in the current 2018 CRC Press/A Focal Press Book edition, I updated and expanded the text to include new information about McCay that had come to my attention in the last three decades. 

I am particularly pleased about one informational addition in the new CRC/Focal Press edition, concerning a gentleman I first described, in 1987, as merely “a Mr. Hunt of the [New York] Herald  color department.”  His name had come to my attention in the margin of an original Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strip board, on which Winsor McCay  penciled an instructional message in non-photographing blue pencil:

Mr. Hunt,
This is a snow forest. All the trees and foliage are snow. Plenty of purple and blue tones. The only bright color will be in the costume of the figures.  An orange sky. The rest all pale blues, pinks and purples. Creme colored [indecipherable] with cold blue shadows.

Mc.

(The strip,  which was published on January 21, 1906, had Nemo tunneling through snow while being chased by a polar bear.)

The New York Herald color department was located in an Italianate building at 35th Street and Broadway modeled after the Palazzo del Consiglio in Verona.

I figured Mr. Hunt was one of the so-called “artists in zinc,” a master of the Ben Day printing process which allowed shading on color pictures for reproduction in the Herald.  It was an intricate, labor intensive artistic/mechanical/chemical operation that lent McCay’s Little Nemo and other Herald Sunday comic strips the most subtle, stunningly beautiful array of colors ever seen in early news print. 

The vast press room in the basement of the Herald Building allowed passersby on Broadway to peer through the tall glass windows and see news being made. Click to enlarge

I later happened upon an April 20, 1914 Herald article,“Exhibit of Color Print Art Pays Tribute to Work Done by the Herald”, which describes in detail the problems of etching on plates of zinc to achieve gradations of light and shade or tone. 

The etcher on copper, after great labor, is able to produce this effect with the needle . . . The Ben day process consists in placing a fine meshed, inked screen over the parts of the plate to be shaded and then making dots by passing a roller over it. That portion of the plate which is not to be printed on is protected by a gamboge solution. The screen is regulated by a delicately adjusted gauge, manipulated by a thumb screw, and the ground may be light or dark as the operator thinks best.  It is in the various modifications of the process, the placing of dots and lines in greater number where deeper color is desired, and in the soft blending of tones that the artist-artisans of the Herald plant excel.

An informative article on the color print process at the NY Herald, published on April 20, 1914. Four of the colorists, including Alfred B. Hunt, head of the department, are not identified. Click to see full article.

Four colorists appear in as many photographs.  Unfortunately, the men pictured are not identified, though their intricate jobs are described in detail and their “high skill” praised:

[The artists in zinc] have to foresee what the effect of the various color combinations will be when the final proof is made, because often four or five different plates are used in the preparation of one color page.  The harmony of colors depends much upon the ability of the makers of the plate. The slightest variation in tone may destroy the conception of the artist and produce an effect that would be harsh and coarse.  The men of the Herald color department turn out plates of exceptional excellence, and yet rapidly enough to meet every requirement of newspaper speed.  

I wondered if Mr. Hunt might be among these four men.  Perhaps he was a foreman who collaborated with McCay on color choices for the Nemo strip.   Pity, I thought, not to know something, anything, about his job, background and personal life.  I feared he and his co-workers, who participated in creating such beautiful graphic imagery, would remain as anonymous to history as the artisans of ancient Egyptian monuments and craftspeople of Chartres.

But — “the gods smile on film historians,” wrote animation historian and author Donald Crafton in his seminal book, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898 – 1928.   Or, as Tennessee Williams put it, “Sometimes – there’s God – so quickly.”  

In late November, 2011, I was surprised by an email from Carmen and Jennifer Armstrong, two sisters who knew of my McCay biography.  They wanted advice on the value of a collection of color proofs on tear sheets from the New York Herald newspaper’s Sunday color comics, a family legacy from their great-grandfather —  Mr. Alfred B. Hunt. 

Alfred Benjamin Hunt (1854 – 1947) was a pioneer in the Ben Day process of hand color work used in newspapers. He headed the color work department for the New York Herald comics and magazine sections for 28 years (1896 – 1924).

“[He] was a colorist (I think they called them),” Carmen Armstrong wrote.  “For the Herald in NYC.  He did the coloring for the Little Nemo in Slumberland and other comics. He saved every proof that he did at that time.  They are the size of a full page of the NY Times.”

Thanks to the generosity of the sisters Armstrong, I learned a great deal about the formerly mysterious Mr. Hunt when I visited their Long Island home that December, as well as the identity of two of his colleagues  on the Ben Day process, depicted in the 1911 Herald story: Al Heatherington and Louis Kreamer, Sr. :

Al Hetherington, one of the Herald colorists “Laying the Tint.”
Louis Kreamer, Sr. “Painting Out Tints.”

Alfred Benjamin Hunt was born in 1854 on Clarkson Street, Brooklyn, the son of Benjamin Hunt and Hannah Flower Hunt, both natives of England. 

In 1886, at age 32, Hunt married the former Lilian Butler and they lived for 47 years in a house they owned on Macon Street, Brooklyn. They had a daughter named Iola. His wife died in 1933.

When Hunt was three, the family moved to Brookside Avenue, Freeport, Long Island, where his father operated a nearby farm.  During the Civil War, the Hunt family lived in Freeport, where young Hunt attended school in Roosevelt. When he was a youth, the family moved back to Brooklyn.  Hunt was a graduate of the Academy of Design at Cooper Union, New York City, and began his career working in the printing industry.

It is not known where this group photo was taken of Hunt as a young man, standing in the back row, third from right. It may have been a lithograph studio where he gained on the job experience in the Ben Day process, which was introduced in 1879.

Alfred B. Hunt indeed worked directly with Winsor McCay on the magnificent Little Nemo in Slumberland series, from its beginning in October 1905 (Hunt was then age 51 and McCay age 38) until McCay joined Hearst’s papers in June 1911.

Hunt also supervised color choices and processes for Johnny Gruelle (1880 – 1938) and his Sunday comic fantasy strip, Mr. Twee Deedle, about a magical wood sprite who befriends two human children.  The beautifully drawn whimsy, which dips into surrealism on occasion, was the winning entry in a 1910 New York Herald contest that sought a replacement for Little Nemo, when McCay left for Hearst. 

Mr. Twee Deedle ran for four years from 1911 to 1914, until it was abruptly discontinued by a new Sunday editor.  The Herald publisher, James Gordon Bennett, noticed the omission while traveling in Europe.

“What became of Twee Deedle? cabled Bennett.

“Discontinued by Sunday editor,” was cabled back.

“Discontinue Sunday editor,” was Bennett’s succinct reply. 

Mr. Twee Deedle lived another four years.

In 1918, Johnny Gruelle created beloved Raggedy Ann, whose stories, and those of her brother Raggedy Andy, quickly became a publishing and merchandising bonanza for the cartoonist.

A  Bonham’s catalogue, for a December 11, 2013 sale of Mr. Hunt’s collection of Herald color proofs, described Mr. Hunt’s work:  “After the illustrators brought in their black and white drawings and paintings, Hunt would then apply watercolor to black and white proofs to guide the printers in the final Ben Day color scheme.  Among the artists and cartoonists Hunt worked with were Harrison Fisher, Arthur I. Keller, Winsor McCay, Thomas Nast, R. F. Outcault, W. A. Rogers and Dan Smith.  Included are many of the Christmas supplements and a large number of the weekly “Fluffy Ruffles” pages written by Carolyn Wells and illustrated by Wallace Morgan.”

After 28 years at the Herald, Hunt left at the time of its merger with the New York Tribune in 1924. He was 70 years old, but then worked at the Boro Engraving Company, Brooklyn, until he finally retired in 1941 at age 86.

Alfred Hunt, late in life, pointing at artwork as he confers with an unidentified man. This photo may have been taken at the Boro Engraving Company.

Hunt moved back to Freeport in retirement, living at South Long Beach Avenue.  His hobby was gardening, laying out and planting vegetable and flower gardens at his home, a continuation of his love of color, this time in three dimensions.  Mr. Hunt was the oldest living member of the 23rd regiment of the National Guard, at the rank of sergeant.  He was on active duty on many occasions, and received an honorary membership in the Veterans Association of the regiment. He was affiliated with the Williamsburgh Congregational church, Brooklyn, and the Tompkins Avenue Congregational church.

Alfred B. Hunt had only been ill a week when he died on June 23, 1947 at a Rockville Centre convalescent home at age 92.  

Carmen and Jennifer Armstrong generously allowed me to copy family photographs, newspaper clippings, and their large collection of original, color-test page proofs, and I am very grateful for their kind support.   

These exciting, full-size newspaper pages included over fifty mint-condition Little Nemo in Slumberland color sheets from 1905, 1908, 1909, 1910, and more than 150 full-size color sheets of Johnny Gruelle’s comic strip series Mr. Twee Deedle, among other artists of the period, including an original R. F. Outcault drawing of Buster Brown and his dog, Tige.

I was able to include some of the new biographical information about Alfred B. Hunt in the CRC Press edition of Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, but it was not possible to include  photographs or extra artwork.  

This post, and the illustrations in the gallery below will, I hope, rectify that omission by filling in some gaps of about the art and skill of Mr. Hunt, a man who participated in the development of a new art form and helped bring into the world enchanting beauty.

Gallery:

The Little Nemo in Slumberland and Mr. Twee Deedle images here are taken directly from Alfred B. Hunt’s original page proofs, which preserved the vibrant colors of the Ben Day process.

A colorful July 31, 1909 page proof of Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay, an episode when Nemo and friends visited a zoo on Mars. Click to enlarge.
A close-up of the Nemo-on-Mars page shows the Ben Day dots and subtle gradations of the vibrant colors. Click to enlarge.
The Martian “Freckled Chump” held captive for 600 years and in his place by a spike in its tail reflects McCay’s angry mood and frustration working at the Herald; he was already plotting his escape to Hearst’s papers in June 1911.
In this October 23, 1910 page proof, Nemo and friends, flying on an airship en route to New York, pass over the New Jersey Meadowlands and encounter giant mosquitos, known in vaudeville comedy routines and McCay’s second animated film, How a Mosquito Operates (1912) as “Jersey Skeeters.”
Above and Below: Close-up views of the mosquito episode’s beauty in design, draftsmanship, composition and exciting color choices, combined with the horror of the threatening bloodsuckers. Note the printing registration plus-sign in red and blue circle on the bottom of this color test page.
Click to enlarge.
Johnny Gruelle’s delightfully whimsical Mr. Twee Deedle of September 03, 1911, a comic strip showcasing cinematic staging and animation, delicate but assured draftsmanship, and painterly colors. Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Like many cartoonists, including McCay, Gruelle often re-used ideas; here are two beautiful illustrations from his 1917 book, My Very Own Fairy Stories, telling once again the transformation tale of “The Ugly Caterpillar.”

Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.

Information courtesy of:

The Collection of Carmen and Jennifer Armstrong

Nassau Daily Review-Star, 24 June 1947: “Alfred Hunt, 92 Dies; Color Print Pioneer”

Special to the Herald Tribune, Rockville Center, L.I. 23 June 1947 “Alfred B. Hunt”

New York Herald, Mon. 20 April 20, 1914: “Exhibit of Color Print Art Pays Tribute to Work Done by the Herald.”

Addendum  

Bonhams – 11 Dec 2013 auction of Alfred B. Hunt collection:

Winsor Zenas McCay (1867-1934).  Little Nemo in Slumberland. 

59 Color Printer’s proofs Sunday “Comic Section.”  The New York Herald 1905-08 sold for US$ 5,250. inc. premium.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, pen and ink on illustration board, final panel signed “Silas” (pseudonym for McCay). 

Full-page cartoon for the “Comic Section,” The New York Herald, April 27, 1913.  A pride of lions fight over a captured man.

Sold for US$ 10,000 inc. premium

Johnny Gruelle (1880-1938).  Mr. Twee Deedle. 

196 color printer’s proofs Sunday “Comic Section,”  The New York Herald 1911-1914 sold for US$ 2,000 inc. premium.

Bonhams – 09 Aug 2016 (The Summer Sale):

Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928). 

“A Bad Cat,” pen and ink on Bristol board. Half-page cartoon for “Comic Section,” The New York Herald . Sold for US$ 62 inc. premium.

Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928).  “The girl, a dog, and her mother’s hat.” Sold for US$ 1,750 inc. premium.

Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928). “Buster Brown,” pen and ink on Bristol board. US$ 4,750 inc. premium.

Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928) “Buster Brown and Tige.” US$ 4,375 inc. premium.

Richard Felton Outcault (1863-1928) “Buster Brown in Mischief Again.” US$ 3,500 inc. premium.

 

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The Art of Kathy Rose

Kathy Rose is among the world’s most original visual/performance artists. She suffered a fall last month, but is making good progress, according to her family.

A unique and beloved member of the independent animation filmmakers who began working in the 1970s, Kathy has continually developed her art through the years in startlingly beautiful ways, expanding, as she explained, “the image out of the flat screen to become an integral physical part of color and fantasy in a sculptural domain.”

In tribute to her artistry, and with high hopes for her speedy recovery, here is my article on her remarkable career published in the Jan/Feb 1995 issue of Print magazine (click on image below for link to article):

And here are two original animation drawings by Kathy Rose from her 1978 film, Pencil Booklings, a gift of the artist. (Click to enlarge)

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HANDS to Premiere Nov. 7 at The Wexner Center for the Arts

I will be returning to The Wexner Center for the Arts, at Ohio State University in Columbus on Thursday, Nov. 7, at 7:00pm, for the world premiere of HANDS, my 17-minute, hand-drawn animated adaptation of a story from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). The film follows Wing Biddlebaum, a lonely former schoolteacher whose hands led to a scandal that drove him from his previous town and life’s calling.

Following the screening, I will discuss and demonstrate my process of animating the film. A display of original artwork used in the making of HANDS will be on display in The Wexner Center’s lower lobby from October 21–November 10.

HANDS was supported through a 2016–17 Wexner Center Artist Residency Award.

For ticket information, see https://wexarts.org/film-video/hands

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Steve Brodner – A Must-See
Exhibition at SVA Chelsea Gallery

John Canemaker and Steve Brodner at the opening reception, October 10, 2019.

Steve Brodner is an Honoré Daumier for our troubled times.

The avenging spirit of the prolific French cartoonist, who mercilessly roasted 19th century politicians and society, like pigs on a spit, lives on in Brodner’s drawing instruments. His pen and brush are razor-sharp weapons, lancing 21st century boils of fetid political animals.

The Court of King Donald I, 2017, watercolor.

Like Daumier, Brodner is a master draftsman. No matter how ugly the people being caricatured are, or how dastardly their deeds, you cannot take your eyes away from Brodner’s compelling and strangely beautiful imagery. He offers superb elegance of line, strong poses and clarity in his visual storytelling, to convey his powerful messages: empathy for innocent or hapless victims; disgust for villainous, stupid men and woman who abuse their power.

Bush and Bugs, 1991, ink.

Animation plays a powerful part in showing the psychological side of the characters he depicts. Former CIA man George H. W. Bush removing his head, releasing hundreds of “bugs” escaping in a torrential spray; his son, George W. Bush as Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, attacking Saddam Hussein and giving rise to an endless army of jihadists; Jimmy Carter, in four sequential drawings, floating into a question mark; Donald Trump in mid-comb-over, revealing a Nazi swastika embedded on his bald dome; Rush Limbaugh as a cigar-smoking buttocks.

Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 2004, watercolor.
Under Trump’s Comb-Over, 2015, watercolor and digital.

Perfect visual metaphors, all!

Earth to Washington, 2008, watercolor and gouache.

Brodner’s style often uses wild exaggeration, a far-out distortion, reminding me of the 16th century anamorphosis paintings, which could only be deciphered with an anamorphic mirror or lens to correct the distortion. Somehow, sans mirrors and lenses, Brodner maintains the look of the person and their personality.

Detail of the gallery’s wall collage.

Steve Brodner is being honored with a spectacular exhibition of 50 years of his amazing art — “The Master’s Series: Steve Brodner” — now through November 2, 2019 at the SVA Chelsea Gallery (601 West 26th Street, New York City).

It is a must-see celebration of a modern genius of graphic communication and a crusader for truth and justice in America’s latest Dark Age.

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Alex Da Corte’s “Marigolds”

John Canemaker and Alex Da Corte at the September 20 opening celebration of Da Corte’s exhibition Marigolds Private Artist Walk-through at Karma Gallery. A giant dimensional neoprene (synthetic rubber) carrot-flute looms.

Run, don’t walk, to Karma Gallery (188 East 2nd Street & 172 East 2nd Street) to see ALEX DA CORTE’s exciting new show, Marigolds, now through November 3. Link here.

Da Corte discusses his art with Karma Gallery guests in front of a dimensional broken pumpkin.

Alex Da Corte’s immersive art is often grand in scale and complex in concept: gorgeous color-saturated installations in large spaces, and provocative, elegant videos express the artist’s obsessive desires and interest, such as fantasy, horror films, sex, pop culture, and comic books, cartoons, and animation.

Comic book sources (above and below) for Da Costa’s neoprene imagery are also displayed.

Marigolds is a walk-through puzzle, with subliminal messages to be deciphered on multiplane levels. “Decoding or seeing something that may not be readily present,” Da Corte comments. The viewer must “dig deeper. It is a call for empathy.”

An enigmatic word search puzzle greets visitors with a hidden message.

Karma will publish a fully illustrated catalog of the exhibition, which will include newly commissioned texts by animator and historian John Canemaker and writer Tausif Noor, as well as the eponymous short story Marigolds by Dr. Eugenia Collier.

A giant blue boa based on Saint-Exupery’s famed drawing of a hat which, The Little Prince explains, is really a snake digesting an elephant. Behind, a blow-up of an M.C. Escher painting.

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Marge Champion’s 2012 Visit
to the NYU Animation Program

In continuing celebration of dancer/choreographer Marge Champion’s 100th birthday earlier this month, I am posting a video of her February 2012 visit to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she met with animation students and discussed her early work with Disney on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia, as well as her long career in film, television and on stage.

This was her second generous appearance at NYU, the first being in 1994. Ms. Champion, born on September 2, 1919, was a vivacious, charming and articulate 92-year old who delighted her student audience for an hour and eight minutes. We are fortunate that it has been preserved for posterity.

Click here to link to the video. (PASSWORD: nyuanimation)

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Happy Birthday,
Marge Champion!
At 100 Years, You’re Still
The Fairest One of All

At the September 1994 Katonah Museum of Art opening of Vladimir Tytla: Master Animator, Marge Champion and exhibit curator John Canemaker mimic the cel and background behind them of Snow White shooing the seven dwarfs – John being the eighth dwarf, “Lengthy.”

“Celebrate what every decade gives to you, not what it takes away.”

On September 2, Marge Champion, the legendary and beloved dancer/ choreographer, begins a new decade in her life — this time as a centenarian. 

The advice quoted above, which she often dispensed to me and other friends through the years, will undoubtedly hold firm as she enters a new life journey.  Marge will also, I feel sure, be accompanied by her enormous reserves of positive energy, kindness, down-to-earth practicality, and, most important, a great sense of humor about herself and life in general.

 She was born Marjorie Belcher in 1919, the daughter of Hollywood dance instructor Ernest Belcher.  Her earliest experience in film was in the mid-1930s when she was a teenager.   As many of her fans know, she was the live-action reference model for the princess Snow White in Walt Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937. 

LIFE magazine, April 4, 1938. Marjorie Belcher is revealed as the model for Snow White.
ALso from LIFE, Marge with the model for the Prince, dancer Louis Hightower.

Eventually, Marge gained international fame performing with her husband, the dancer/choreographer Gower Champion (1919-1980), in a dazzling series of MGM musical films.  Their featured roles in Show Boat (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), Give a Girl a Break (1953), among other films, led to lucrative engagements at top nightclubs and early television variety show appearances.  They even had their own TV series in 1957.

Marge and Gower Champion’s performances, both on screen and in person, endeared them to audiences around the world.  Critic John Crosby described them as, “Light as bubbles, wildly imaginative in choreography, and infinitely meticulous in execution.  Above all, they are exuberantly young.”

One of my favorites of the couple’s screen performances is a surreal faux-ballet in the live-action 1955 musical, Three for the Show (1955).  

To the classical strains of Swan Lake, Jack Cole’s sardonic choreography presents a most un-Snow White-like Marge as a distraught, jealous, elegantly gowned murderess (the number runs from 37:53 to 44:26).  Both Gower and Marge are wonderful in the over-the-top piece; but Marge displays a wide range in this parody of Hollywood musical numbers:  she’s sexy, athletic, funny and technically perfect.  

 On her own, Marge created dances for films (The Day of the Locusts), theatre (Stepping Out; Grover’s Corners) and television; her choreography for the TV special Queen of the Stardust Ballroom won her a 1975 Emmy.

I was introduced to Marge Champion on May 5, 1981 by Art Babbitt (1907-1992) at his wife Barbara Perry’s opening of her one-woman show, Passionate Ladies, on Broadway.  Art, a great Disney animator, met Marge during Snow White’s production and became her first husband, briefly.  “Our marriage bumped into a career,” he once said of Marge’s desire to excel as a performer.  He wanted a housewife, instead of a shooting star.

LIFE magazine Dec. 13, 1937 – 6 color film frames from SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.

Some years later, Art married Barbara Perry (1921-2019), a gifted dancer and actress, who often performed with the Champion’s in films, nightclubs and television projects.  They were all show biz friends.  Laughing, Marge once recalled to me the day Barbara phoned her out of the blue to say:

“You’ll never guess what I’ve gone and done.”
“What?” said Marge.
“I’ve married your old husband!”

Through the years, Marge shared with me many anecdotes about her life and career, privately, but often publicly in interviews on film and stage.  She was candid in discussing the tragic death of her third husband, director Boris Sagal (1923-1981).  She held on to long friendships with artists she met at Disney, such as master animator Vladimir Tytla and his wife Adrienne; and for years she sent money to help sustain the designer Ferdinand Horvath and his wife Elly. 

 Her memories of her varied and fascinating career were always sharp and accurate, including her earliest experiences at Disney.  She recalled, for example, the small, unadorned stage at the Disney Studio, where for two or three days a month for a couple of years, teenaged Margorie Belcher improvised mime/dance movements that were shot on film.  Wearing a long skirt, she moved, danced and emoted as Snow White, sometimes dancing with “gooney, really tall” musicians and animators pretending to be dwarfs.   

A blow-up of a film frame of Marjorie Belcher as Snow White at the wishing well.

               “The animation supervisor [Ham Luske] would show me the storyboards,” she explained, “a crude set, props, and they had the [soundtrack] playback . . . It was like Mickey [Rooney] and Judy [Garland’s musical films] — let’s put on a show!  They’d show me this stuff and turn me loose and I’d do it.”

The animators and Walt studied the films, noting the timing of Marge’s actions, studying her pose-to-pose movements, the way her dress and hair moved in every scene.   

Four rotoscoped (traced) images from a film of Marjorie Belcher as Snow White entering a scene (#74) and ascending a staircase (#201-361).

Preferred takes of Marge’s image were traced frame-by-frame (“rotoscoped”) as a guide to aid the animators in transferring her image to their drawing boards and ultimately the silver screen.  For example, the sequence where Snow White runs through a dark forest of grasping tree branches and clinging vines.  To aid the animators, Marge acted frightened and improvised a run through a forest mock-up — a clothesline hung with dangling ropes, which she pushed aside while running. 

Marjorie Belcher demonstrates “Snow White running through the forest in terror.”

“When I finally saw the finished product,” she says, “I realized that every single movement was mine.”  Her pay was “the magnificent sum of $10 a day.” 

Marge in a special Snow White costume for publicity photos.
An original cel of Snow White from The Courvoisier Galleries, San Francisco, 1937.

But she enjoyed the experience, comparing the studio to a high school or college campus.   On camera Marjorie Belcher often mimed to the singing of Adriana Caselotti, who provided the princess’ unusual voice.   One animator couldn’t resist jumbling and recombining their names into a playful burp: “Margiana Belchalotti.”

Marge posing with a drawing of Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy.

Disney and his team were so pleased with Marjorie’s performance, they next hired her as the reference model for the ethereal Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940).   For Fantasia (1940), she became the stand-in for a huge, but dainty, tutu-clad hippo ballerina.  She also directed eleven young women, from her father’s dancing school, as a chorus of Sally Rand fan-wielding ostriches and bubble-dancing pachyderms.  “We did stuff with balloons,” she said.

Marge Champion visits NYU Animation students, December 7, 1994. Demonstrating Snow White’s hand gestures to (l-r) Sam Levine (now Executive Producer, Disney Television); Sue Perrotto (now Director of Miles From Tomorrowland Disney Jr.), and Eugene Salandra (now Storyboard Artist Disney TV).
In the background, student Michael Dougherty (now Director, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS), with Eugene, John and Marge.

A certain memory of Marge stands out to me:   it happened at the 2007 Platform International Animation Festival, one of the best American animation festivals ever, thanks to Irene Kotlarz, the imaginative organizer. She invited me to interview Marge Champion on stage after a screening of a restored print of Snow White, honoring the film’s 70th anniversary.    

At the 2007 Platform Animation Festival, Marge discusses her teenage self posing as Snow White.

Early in the day, Marge, a thorough professional, insisted that we check out the theatre and stage where we would converse that evening.  “I never step foot on a stage I don’t know,” she explained. 

That night, we sat together in the audience, Marge watching the movie she’d made over seven decades ago; me watching and listening to her delighted reactions and whispered comments.  It was a lovely, strange feeling to sit next to Snow White, as she watched herself on the screen.

On screen, as Snow White was awakening from the Prince’s kiss, an usher summoned us backstage to prepare for our on-stage conversation.  In the dark, separated by a giant screen on which animated cartoon characters played their final scenes, with music swelling loudly on the soundtrack, Marge bid me goodbye as she was guided by flashlight across the stage, behind the giant movie screen.   She would make her entrance after my introduction from the opposite side of the stage, as rehearsed. 

Platform Animation Festival, June 2007, Portland, Oregon. After a screening of SNOW WHITE and Marge and John’s on-stage conversation, Marge spoke to Ava Jenkins, artist Ward Jenkins’ daughter. Photo by Ward Jenkins.

While waiting for the film to end, I had the privilege to experience a wonderful, time-tripping sight.  On the huge movie screen, a gigantic Princess kissed gigantic dwarfs goodbye, and a gigantic Prince carried her to his horse,rode into a shimmering sunset toward a castle emerging from mist, while a chorus with full orchestra sang “Someday My Prince Will Come.” I could see all that on the huge screen. Then, stepping to the left I saw Marge, age 88, way across the stage exercising, stretching, getting herself ready to meet another audience, as she did at Disney’s little sound stage, or New York’s posh Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, or the London Palladium, as she did before facing MGM’s Technicolor cameras, or audiences in Leningrad and Moscow.

Step to the right – there she was again as Snow White.

Step to the left: a little lady, a true professional, preparing herself to meet the public, to give the folks a great show.

And she did.

Well into her eighties, Marge continued dancing. She is seen here with Donald Saddler. Click here to read full article.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARGE CHAMPION!

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Vladimir Tytla, Milt Kahl and Pinocchio at The Wexner Center

On Thursday, October 18, I will be speaking at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, about one of Walt Disney’s most remarkable animated features, Pinocchio (1940).

Fresh on the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney spared no expense in creating a sumptuous showcase of his studio’s capabilities in animated storytelling.  And his animators set out to outdo their own previous achievements by taking on the challenge of making the animation as vivid as possible.

I’ll be focusing on the work of two of Disney’s master animators on this film, Vladimir Tytla and Milt Kahl.  Through a close analysis of several of their scenes, we will see how these virtuoso artists brought to life the characters of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and Stromboli.

With many behind-the scenes images of the production, you’ll get a taste of the state of the art of Disney animation, circa 1939-40.  My talk will be followed by a screening of a restored print of Pinocchio, courtesy of the Walt Disney Company.

Date:  Thursday, October 18, 2018
Time: 6:30pm, book signing; 7:00pm, lecture and film screening

Location:
Wexner Center for the Arts
1871 North High Street
Columbus Ohio 43210

For tickets and information, click here

 

 

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