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Everybody has to start somewhere ... An affectionate look back at Disney's "Bullpen"

Everybody has to start somewhere ... An affectionate look back at Disney's "Bullpen"

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If you were a young animation artist having scored your first job at the Walt Disney studio in Burbank, CA, it was more than likely you would report to your new workspace in the original Animation Building. It would be a large office known as"The Bullpen."

The "Bullpen" was the first office you encountered when you entered any wing of the Animation Building. It would seat at least seven or eight animation artists, each with their own desk. It was the animation equivalent of the secretarial pool in the modern office environment. It was a training ground for the young artists as well as a resource for the animators needing their scenes in-betweened. Every young artist dreamed of moving out of the "Bullpen" and occupying a seat next to a real Disney animator. In time, they might well be the animator in that coveted window seat. The ultimate dream -- of course -- was to eventually have a private office. Only Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas and the other animation masters were accorded such special digs.

My first "Bullpen" was 1F-1 on the first floor of the Animation Building. And though this was fifty years ago, it still seems like yesterday. My office mates were a crazy collection of cartoon types eager to make their way in the animation business. Each had their own quirky story regarding the path that led them to the Disney studio and ultimately a lifetime career in the cartoon business.

Let's start with Rick Gonzales, the young artist seated by the door. He had traveled from Texas with his mom to apply for this job, and was delighted to be at Disney. After the completion of "Sleeping Beauty," and the subsequent downsizing, Rick moved on to Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears where he became a top character designer. Sadly, Rick passed away a few years ago, ironically not long after returning to Disney. Ending his career where it had begun so many years ago.

Rick Gonzales
Photo by Floyd Norman

My desk was between Rick's and a guy next to the window named Jacques Charvet. A talented artist, Charvet had come from France to begin his artistic career at Disney. An odd turnabout since most Americans would consider Paris the ideal place to study art. Passionate and outspoken, Charvet loved to argue about any subject introduced. He was affectionately known as "The Crazy Frenchman."

John Leslie was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and occupied the next window seat. John bore an uncanny resemblance to the late actor, James Dean, and was continually kidded about his appearance. He even wore a leather jacket like the troubled Hollywood teen idol. Since this was the un-politically correct fifties, all felt free to bag on each other. Leslie, a true Scotsman, was continually accused of being tight with money. He even bought one of the first VW Beetles because he could save on gasoline.

John Leslie
Photo by Floyd Norman

Sam Jaimes was seated at the far window, and claims to have gotten his job by simply stopping by the Disney lot one day on his way home. Sam lived in Arizona, and was headed for the highway when he spotted the Walt Disney Studio. On a lark, he thought he would stop and see if artists were being hired. They were, and Sam's career in animation lasted over fifty years.

 Sam Jaimes and the lovely Lois Blumquist, one of the few female  artists in those days
Photo by Floyd Norman

Vernon Riek occupied the next desk. Vern was a funny guy with a very dry sense of humor. Though he liked animation, Vern dreamed of a career as a comic strip writer and artist. He had developed a strip about a frantic father raising two rambunctious boys entitled, "Heir Raising." Recently married, who knows what Vern might have accomplished had his career not suddenly and tragically been cut short. Preparing for work one morning, Vern was shaving and fell to the floor, dead of a heart attack. He was only in his early thirties.

Finally, Ruben Apodaca occupied the other corner of the office. A tall, good-looking guy, Ruben had his eye on a young assistant from D-Wing. We told Ruben to get over his shyness, and speak to the attractive young woman even though she was our supervisor. Luckily, Ruben and Doris finally began dating. After his years at Disney, Ruben made a name for himself as an animation instructor, mentoring a new generation of animators. Though both my dear friends are gone now, they worked in the animation business for many years and have two wonderful grown children.

As you can imagine, it was often entertaining to share an office with this wacky group. We discussed everything from art, women, and -- politics. Our European colleague, Jacques Charvet was incensed that (as he put it) *** were upstairs. He was referring to the consultants, Dr. Werner Von Braun, Willy Ley, Heinz Haber and others working on Disney's space films. Charvet had fought in the French resistance in Europe, and was not pleased with the warm welcome these Germans were being given at the studio. But our discussions were not always so weighty. We often discussed the merits of the animation styles of competing studios such as Warner Bros, MGM and UPA.

My early assignment was on the Mickey Mouse Club doing the Jiminy Cricket "I'm No Fool" series. My boss was a gregarious young assistant animator named Rolly Crump. Rolly had an outrageous sense of humor that was often displayed in funny drawings of the Disney characters doing some unexpected Disney things. Rolly was like a big brother to me and showed great patience as this young newbie struggled to learn the Disney ropes. In time, Rolly Crump was transferred over to what was then known as WED Enterprises, the unit that did theme park design for Disneyland. Crump was discovered by no less than Walt Disney himself, who regularly prowled the hallways at night, curious as to what his staff was up to. Rolly had been building little rotating pinwheels out of colored paper, and his office was filled with these little gadgets driven by the building's air conditioning system. Some might consider such ingenuity a stroke of genius. Walt sure thought so.

 A very young Floyd at his desk in 1F-1 in the original  Animation Building

Even though fifty years have passed, I can still remember the assignments that came my way in the "Bullpen." I was given Donald Duck scenes animated by Volus Jones, Bob Carlson and Al Coe. I did Inbetweens for the talented Cliff Nordberg on "Our Friend The Atom." I helped complete scenes for Jack Parr and Jerry Hathcock on many of the Disney shorts. Another great guy I worked for was John Sibley, an incredible animator who could move anything on paper. These guys were not considered Disney's elite, but all were darn good animators, and worthy of more respect than they ever received.

As expected, the artists in 1F-1 moved up the animation ladder to more advanced assignments. We were replaced of course, by a new group of animation newbie's who, like us, were eager to become Disney animators, story artists, and the like. Leaving the "Bullpen" was a graduation of sorts. It was a moving up and moving on since not all in our little group decided to remain with the Walt Disney Studio as a career.

The "Bullpen" was the Disney artists' first step in becoming an animation professional. It was a training ground as well as a community. Working in the "Bullpen" was not unlike being in a college dorm. Some of my colleagues became friends for life, and some I never saw again. It was the beginning of my career in animation at the Walt Disney Studio. A very special beginning this animation old-timer will not forget.

Did you enjoy Floyd's column today that looked back on his days in Disney's "Bullpen"? Well, if so ... Then you should be aware that Mr. Norman has three (count 'em -- three!) great collections of his cartoons currently on the market. All of which take an affectionate look at his career in animation.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's excellent www.cataroo.com web site) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to the Afrokids.com website.

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  • great new story!
    and it spares us from endless PIRATES box office projections! yay!
  • Loved this story. Thank you very much. Can't wait to hear more stories from Floyd Norman!
  • Thanks, Floyd!  Great article.
  • Thanks for another great story... this is what seperates JHM from the AICN of Disney.  Although I know little about the history of Disney animators and artists, I am struck by the diversity present in these pictures.  Disney animated features have always given me the impression of open-mindedness and acceptance... maybe having a team that represents a lot different experiences reflects that...
  • Thanks for the article, Mr. Norman!  It sounds like you worked with a great bunch of people and had a lot of fun doing so!  It's also neat hearing (or reading) that you worked on "I'm No Fool" and "Our Friend The Atom"!!!  Great stuff!
  • I've been a loyal follower of this website for a number of years now. This was the first article that forced me to register just so I could say "WOW!!! a Terrific article"!

    Thanks so much for sharing a bit of your history Mr. Norman
  • Floyd is a wonderful artist and is always very open and willing to talk to and encourage the younger talent.  Im grateful that he has become one of those mentors that he speaks so highly of in this article.
  • I have to agree with MrTumnus.  I have also lurked for quite awhile and was really moved by Mr. Norman's article.  It really came through that he enjoyed his job, cared for the people he worked with and cares about those he now mentors.  I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.
  • Thanx for the time capsule, Floyd. You are a treasure of the animation industry, and we are lucky you share your wealth.
    I'm going to suggest that Clay interview you on the Animation Podcast.
  • Great article, I can't wait until the next one comes along.  Mr. Norman you add a definite sense of style, prose and professionalism to JHM.  Thank you for your time and energy.
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  • Whoa! That was a very pleasing article! Cant wait for more! But as for all you 40-year-old guys obsessed with Disney who are fighting over stupid company whereabouts, shut up, go feed your family. Or get one, but seriously, get a life. Disney made alot of money, whoppiii! Seriuosly, I'm glad for them. Jim Hill does write negatively sometimes, but he doesn't hide the truth, he doesn't sugarcoat things. And like I said, Get a life...

    P.S. Whatever happened to the early morning article on "pirates" box office?
  • Thumbs up, Floyd. ;)
  • Once again, Floyd knocks it out of the park with a great article. Perhaps his best yet. Floyd should really write a book about his early years at Disney. I'd buy it in a heartbeat.
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