My Early Santa Barbara Years

If I were writing a bio, I’d probably be telling stories like this. Stories about my early life growing up in Santa Barbara.

I’ve always believed in hard work. I learned my work ethic from my grandparents, John and Emma Davis. They were amazingly resiliant and resourceful especially considering the social conditions in America at the time. Once they arrived in Santa Barbara in the twenties they set about doing whatever they could to earn a living and better their lives. My grandparents began by cleaning the homes of the wealthy townsfolk. It didn’t take long before they were able to purchase property and build their own home. Later, they opened the Davis Hand Laundry and took in washing in the rear of their home. In time, my enterprising grandparents opened a restaurant called The Deluxe Southern Kitchen. They worked, they saved, and they invested. In so doing, they taught me the value of work and I’ve never forgotten it.

I’m amazed at todays young people who have absolutely no idea what they plan to do with their lives. I’ve always known what I wanted out of life. Plus, there were so many things that fascinated me I could have chosen any number of careers. Of course, number one was always art. I knew I wanted to be an artist. When I was a young kid I remember lying on the floor in my grandmother’s living room looking at a magazine. I was too young to read so I asked my grandmother to tell me the name of the familiar signature next to the artwork. I’ll never forget hearing the the name Walt Disney. A name that would have a profound affect on the rest of my life. Once in middle school I had a choice of going to study hall or the library. It was an easy choice. The library was a treasure trove. A space filled with books. Could there even be another choice? The quiet spring afternoons in our middle school library helped shape my life. I learned so many things and I fell in love with many of them. One day, I happened across a book on motion pictures. It told how movies were made and it detailed the entire filmmaking process. I found it fascinating. I had been a moviegoer all my young life but now something clicked inside my head and I realized I wanted to make movies. In truth, I became totally obsessed with the idea of telling stories using the medium of film. It was a passion I would never lose. Of course, I would need a movie camera and I couldn’t afford to buy one. I knew my parents didn’t have the money to waste on such foolishness, so, I went to my grandmother with a plan. Emma Davis was an amazing woman in many ways, but she also pocessed incredible vision. It was as though she saw my future even before I did. My grandmother made it possible for me to buy my first 16mm movie camera (the film resolution was better than the crappy 8mm) and even helped me build my animation camera stand to photograph my cartoon art frame by frame. Who would have thought that a Missisppi grandmother would understand the quirky business of cartoon making and help me launch my career in animated film production?

My film making ventures continued into Santa Barbara high school where I suggested our class make a documentary film as part of our civics course. Of course, it was my scheme to get the school to finance our movie. Our short student film had a very long title. “An Exchange Student in an American High School” and it detailed the arrival of European students visiting America for the first time. The motion picture was completed on budget and on schedule. All the students involved in the making of the film had a grand time working as script writers, set designers, photographers and editors. Once I graduated from Santa Barbara High School there was little doubt I would be headed for Hollywood.

My grandmother, the amazing Emma Davis. She totally supported my goal of becoming a Disney animator, and even helped me create my first animated films as a child. I owe her everything.

My grandmother, the amazing Emma Davis. She totally supported my goal of becoming a Disney animator, and even helped me create my first animated films as a child. I owe her everything.

Meeting With Mr. "C"

I wanted to like the guy, I really did. In many ways his growing success was an inspiration to all of us. His career was moving at top speed and in short order he would be gaining superstar status. After all, he was playing the top Vegas night spots, along with concerts and comedy albums. Now, a prime time television show and an animated cartoon special would be added to his portfolio. I considered it an honor to be associated with the talented entertainer because in many ways he was paving the road to success for all of us. Being around actors and entertainers was hardly anything new for me, but this guy was incredibly successful and his popularity was soaring. I couldn’t help but be just a little bit excited about meeting the star in person.

It would be our first meeting on the Warner Bros. studio lot where the prime time television show was being filmed. Of course, we had made many visits to the Beverly Hills office for meetings, but the famous comedy star was seldom available for a sit down. His busy schedule had him on the road and meeting time was limited. For now, his new television show would keep him in town for a while, so we took advantage of the situation to discuss our plans for upcoming projects. My partner and I entered the darken soundstage and an assistant ushered us to a large trailer parked inside the stage. If you’re familiar with the world of show business you already know that a trailer is a special space reserved for those who have obtained star status. As we were shown to a small room, the star was already in a rather intense conversation with the director of the show. Their meeting quickly ended and the director headed back to the set. We imagined the issue had been settled and now it was our turn. The famous comedy star was taller than I had imagined and he leaned back in his chair as he puffed on a large Cuban cigar. The plumes of smoke might have annoyed some, but my dad was a cigar smoker so I was more than used to it. The star wasn’t rude, but there was no time for chit chat. We immediately got down to business and quickly hammered out the agenda. Having often watched the comedy star perform on stage, I suppose I was waiting for a little lightness in our conversation. Perhaps a joke or a funny comment concerning what we were hoping to do. However, there was none of that and our meeting rapidly concluded with, “take care of it,” or get that stuff done!” It appeared the star needed to get back to work, so there was little time for graciousness. This never struck me as unusual in any way. After all, celebrities are often not the same person they appear to be on stage or screen.

You’ll gain no further insights here because I have absolutely nothing to say concerning the star’s current difficult situation. I will say that from this initial meeting on the Warner Bros. studio lot so many years ago I regretfully found the star remarkably unlikable. And, I do not say this lightly, because it’s my nature to like people immediately. Even people I’ve never met before. However, something made me uncomfortable. Something nagged at me after each meeting with the famous celebrity. I truly wanted to like this guy - and he should have been my inspiration. Further, I don’t want to say he didn’t do good things on occasion, because he could show incredible generousity. However, he didn’t strike me as a good person. Sadly, my initial instincts were correct and it now appears the once well loved comedy star has proven himself to be incredibly unlikable.

On occasion, we would meet in his dressing room on the Warner Bros. Studio lot. The meetings with the funny man could never, ever be called fun.

On occasion, we would meet in his dressing room on the Warner Bros. Studio lot. The meetings with the funny man could never, ever be called fun.

Art Center College of Design

Let’s pretend I’m writing a biography and I take you back to the days before I began my career at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. My first visit to Disney took place a few days after my high school graduation. A dear Santa Barbara friend, named Gordon Wormal had a connection inside the Disney Studio and I was given a rare Saturday morning interview. After a look at my humble portfolio and a brief, yet friendly chat I was given some good advice. “Kid,” the Disney people advised, “Go to art school and first learn how to be an artist.”

The advice was sound. After all, I thought I knew a thing or two about drawing and painting after being one of the better artists in my high school art class. That smugness quickly came to an end once I began my studies at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Art Center College of Design had a reputation for being one of the finest art schools in the country. Its graduates usually went on to illustrious careers in automotive design, illustration, and photography. I remember arriving at school on a Saturday afternoon for my student orientation. In the no nonsense introduction to the school the instructors promised nothing but hard work. A career in commercial art was to be taken seriously. The speakers made it clear that Art Center College of Design was not a babysitting service for rich kids. Should you expose yourself as a slacker, you risked the chance of being unceremoniously booted out of the prestigious institution. Then again, things were different in the fifties. Today, many “art schools” are only too happy to collect the fat tuitions paid by well–heeled parents. The kids may eventually gain art degrees but sadly most are only marginal when it comes to talent.

Attending Art Center was an incredible experience. The school was located on Third Street in the fashionable Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. Money was tight and I didn’t own an automobile. The Red Car still ran in those days and it was my connection between east and west Los Angeles. I then took a trolley up Vermont Avenue to Third Street. It was very efficient and cost very little. Did oil companies really conspire to put an end this effective method of public transportation? Some seem to think so. Not long after, the Red Cars and trolleys were trashed and the rails ripped out of the city streets. Today, Los Angeles remains snarled in traffic and at the moment there appears to be no solution in sight. In any event, I arrived early on my first day of school with my big green toolbox full of art supplies. I remember the audible “gasp” in my first life drawing class when the shapely female model dropped her robe and stood before us in the altogether. In time, these things would become routine as we settled into our studies and the serious business of becoming a proficient commercial artist began. I sat next to many students who would go on to successful careers in the art world. One of my classmates was the soft spoken, Ralph McQuarrie. McQuarrie was the amazing illustrator and concept artist who would one day visualize the "Star Wars" universe for George Lucas. He was a brilliant artist and I had little doubt he would go on to a successful career.

    One weekend we were shocked to read about a terrible murder in Los Angeles. Suddenly, it appeared that real life had taken on the appearance of a sleazy pulp novel or television crime show. The police were investigating the death of a young woman. The woman was employed by our school and lived in the nearby Wilshire district of Los Angeles. A party celebrating the completion of a painting by one of the students was held at her home that weekend. Eager to garner headlines, the newspapers concocted a name for the crime and tried to fold the Art Center painting into the narrative. Of course, one thing had nothing to do with the other. In time it was proven that the painting by the art student had absolutely nothing to do with the woman’s untimely death. Such was the crime scene in fifties Los Angeles.

    I continued on at Art Center College of Design and took classes in illustration, painting and perspective. Remember, no one taught animation in those days. The cartoon business, including Disney Studios, was hardly respected as a real job. Yet, the most important lesson I learned at Art Center College of Design was discipline. We were not only taught to be artists - we were taught to be professionals. Professionals did solid work and delivered it on time. We attended Art Center College of Design to learn how to earn a living. Free spirits waiting for the muse to strike had clearly come to the wrong place. I never did earn a degree at Art Center College of Design. While waiting to begin my third year, I received a phone call from The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. However, that’s another story.

Art Center College of Design provided my artistic foundation. The school was located on Third Street in Los Angeles and was my home before moving on to the Walt Disney Studios. 

Art Center College of Design provided my artistic foundation. The school was located on Third Street in Los Angeles and was my home before moving on to the Walt Disney Studios. 

Revisiting The Smurfs

Recently, I was asked a few questions about an animated show I had worked on years ago. It was fun to remember my early years with an amazing cartoon property called, The Smurfs. At least that's what they were called in America. When Hanna-Barbera began their initial collaboration with the Belgian cartoonist, Peyo I was simply another artist in the layout department. Scott Shaw! and I began working with producer, Gerard Baldwin. Early concept work had already begun and we were brought in to prepare the TV series for production. Scott and I were familiar with the Europeon comic, although we had never met Peyo and his associate, Mr. Delaporte. Peyo spoke no English and our French was quite awful. Somehow, we managed to understand each other. I suppose it was because we were all artists. At the time, Scott Shaw! and I had been serving as layout supervisors although we were hardly old masters. In truth, many of the guys on our team could have run artistic circles around us. They were old gentlemen who had worked at studios such as Disney, Fleischer, UPA and Warner Bros. In truth, they had forgotten more about animation than we would ever learn.

At the time, Hanna-Barbera was a Saturday Morning Cartoon factory with many shows in production. That meant there were many animation units each working on their own television series. The Smurfs were simply another television show that would be added to the mix. At the time, no one had any idea how successful the American version of The Smurfs would become. The Hanna-Barbera management were notorious penny-pinchers always focused on production budgets. Even though the initial series debut was stellar, the executives were determined to fire our producer. Gerard Baldwin had done an amazing job in bringing Peyo’s creation to American television audiences. As a reward for his hard work, the studio was determined to sack Gerard Baldwin and even came to me in order to garner reasons for his dismissal. I hated this kind of studio politics and refused to cooperate with the management. In truth, I fought with Hanna-Barbera’s management on a regular basis. I don’t say this as a knock to either Mr. Hanna or Mr. Barbera. I have a great deal of respect for these gentlemen and for the most part, we got along swimmingly throughout my time at the studio. In time, the show would pass on to a series of producers. I continued to work on The Smurfs long after I had departed Hanna-Barbera. The show was always fun to work on, and it managed to remain on the air for another ten years. An amazing run for any animated series. As expected, the network couldn’t help contributing odd changes from time to time. This was annoying, of course, but NBC was eager to squeeze as much milage they could out of their considerable investment. I don’t recall a favorite episode during my time on The Smurfs, but it remains a delightful show that entertained a lot of people over the years.

Jokey Smurf was voiced by the wonderful June Foray. Jokey always had a surprise for you.

Jokey Smurf was voiced by the wonderful June Foray. Jokey always had a surprise for you.