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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2 thoughts on “FANTASIA’S 80th Anniversary – and a 1975 interview with Art Babbitt”

  1. John,
    Thank you for bringing the 80th Anniversary of Fantasia to my attention.
    Like you, FANTASIA is my favorite Disney film as well. Yet I am perhaps unique, though not alone, in the fandom of Fantasia.
    Oskar Fischinger’s biographer, Dr. William Moritz, was my uncle, and as such I had the privilege to see most, if not all, of Oskar’s films, prior to ever seeing Fantasia. It wasn’t re-released until about 1973 or ’74. It was then that I was able to see what I call “Oskar’s fingerprints”, being all over the Toccata and Fugue, in D minor sequence, which opens the film. There were lots of times, from 1969 onward, where I would be with Bill, up at the Fischinger house with Elfriede.
    What I found fascinating was the letter to you from Art Babbitt, about the possibility of there being any original cells, still in existence, from Fantasia. While I would like to think so, they would be highly prized, if not in a museum. As you know, a lot of animation cells from that era, were washed off and reused. Unless some one in the Animation Department had grabbed a few, along with the backgrounds, as each sequence was photographed, the chances of them surviving is not all that good. Maybe there is an archive of them at Disney, but whose to know?
    Did you ever locate any?
    My favorite sequence, besides the T&F, was the La Giaconda, with the ballet of Hippos, and later the Crocodiles. Truly, the funniest sequence in the whole film.
    Something I have, that has survived all these years, even if the records did not, is the full-color book of scenes from the film that came with the soundtrack album! One of the frames is of the Mushroom Dance, that Art Babbitt worked on!
    Something that always bothered me was that there was no on-screen credits, either at the beginning or at the end, of the animation and art directors and the sequences they worked on.
    That would have been nice, even if Fischinger had had his name removed from them.

    One question I have, from an historical perspective is, has the theatre in NYC that had the premier of Fantasia, survived? Or did it fall to the wrecking ball years ago?

    There was a rumor I had heard about, that when Oskar left Disney, that he left behind sketches that were later used for the Blue Fairy’s wand. This was even mentioned by Elfriede, but she had no proof of it.
    Something I know he did leave behind, was his knowledge of syncing the animation to the music. He was the Master of it!

    Again, many thanks!

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