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Guess who worked for Disney?

Jim Hill

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Guess who worked for Disney?

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Hey, kids! Sorry to have fallen off the map for so long. Back in early November, I took a brief trip down to Orlando to dig up some new stories for the site. I started right back for New Hampshire to file my report about the latest doings at Walt Disney World but ... well ... I knew I shouldn't have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.

Forgive me for slipping into Warner Brothers-ese there. I realize that mostly you read about Disney on this site. But I've just got to tell you folks about this incredible show that's currently airing on PBS: "Chuck Jones: Extremes and In- Betweens, A Life in Animation." This "Great Performances" special does a superb job of summing up the career of an animation giant. If you love toons, check out this link and find out when this wonderful 90 minute special is next playing on your local public television station.

Why should Disneyana fans get all excited about a TV special that covers the career of a guy who turned out toons for Warner Brothers? Just listen to who turns out to sing Chuck's praises: Master Disney animators Glen Keane and Eric Goldberg, Pixar's resident genius John Lasseter, "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, "Lion King" director Rob Minkoff. Plus Robin Williams, Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Ron Howard, Leonard Maltin, Stan Freberg, June Foray ...

These folks -- just like me -- are huge fans of Chuck Jones' work. They eloquently describe the influence that Chuck's masterful cartoons have had on their careers. How his skillful sense of staging and split second timing of gags inspired them to become better at their craft. The special uses ample excerpts from Jones' incredible cartoons to illustrate the stories Keane, Goldberg et al tell. I guarantee that you'll learn a lot -- and laugh a lot -- once you sit down to watch this great show.

If there is a flaw to this wonderful show, it's that the program doesn't touch on a truly intriguing moment in Chuck's career: that four month period in 1953 when Jones left Warner Brothers to go to work for Walt Disney.

You heard right. Chuck Jones at Walt Disney Studios. Working on "Sleeping Beauty" no less.

Strange but true, kids. The story goes something like this. Jack Warner -- owner of Warner Brothers Studio -- became convinced that the 3D format was going to do to traditionally made motion pictures what talkies did to silent pictures: which is change the industry overnight. (Don't believe me? Check out Page 277 of Chuck Jones' excellent autobiography, "Chuck Amuck." published by Avon Press in 1989. ) So -- to come up with the cash he'd need to change the entire studio over to making 3D films -- Jack knew that severe cuts were in order. That's why Warner decided to shut down the studio's entire animation unit.

So in early 1953, Jones -- along with dozens of other talented Warner Brother artists -- suddenly found himself out on the street. Since he had a family to feed, Chuck placed a call to the only other major animation operation in town -- Walt Disney Studios -- and asked for a job.

Even back then, Jones had a reputation for being a great animation director. So -- right after his phone call -- Chuck received an invitation to come over to Burbank and join the team at Disney Feature Animation. Chuck arrived on the lot in late July 1953. And then ... nothing much happened.

What went wrong? To be fair, the summer of 1953 was a really bad time to begin working at Disney Feature Animation. All the jobs on the studio's next animated release -- 1955's "Lady and the Tramp" -- had already been assigned. So Chuck found himself looking for something to do on the feature that was supposed to follow "Tramp" : 1959's "Sleeping Beauty."

The trouble was that -- at the time -- the "Sleeping Beauty" project had really hit the skids. The story guys just couldn't come up with a way to breath life into Charles Perrault's tired fairy tale. Plus Walt's insistence that the film use the music from Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" ballet had saddled the project with an unnecessarily ponderous tone. Disney's development team labored mightily to turn this ungainly source material into a fun animated film. They kept hoping that Walt would show up and tell them how to fix the story.

But Walt was too busy to be bothered with any animated projects that summer. He was putting all his time and energies into selecting a suitable site for Disneyland. It wouldn't be 'til August 'til Disney finally decided to buy that orange grove in Anaheim.

So picture poor Chuck Jones. He had dreamed all his life of working for Walt Disney Studios. Many of his early "Sniffles the Mouse" cartoons were obvious attempts to ape the artistry and stylings of Disney's "Silly Symphonies." And here he was, finally a really-for-real employee of the Mouse Factory. Only no one could find anything for him to do.

So Chuck sat in his office and waited for an assignment. It's been rumored that -- during this period -- Jones did some of the early concept sketches for Malificent's goons. Given the zany appearance of the sorceress's minions in the finished film, it's not too hard to imagine that Chuck's unique drawing style had some influence over the final look of these "Sleeping Beauty" characters. But no one I've talked at Disney Feature Animation has ever been able to provide me with definitive proof that Jones actually designed Malificent's goons. So this story -- entertaining as it might be -- will unfortunately have to remain in the rumor column.

What is known is that -- after four months -- Chuck got tired of idly sitting around the Mouse Factory. He was also reportedly upset with the salary he received at Disney: $360 a week. This was the exact same amount that Jones had been paid when he was working at Warners. Given how eager Disney had seemed to hire on his talents 'way back in July, Chuck had expected to receive some sort of raise when he came on board in Burbank. No such luck. Walt had personally called Jack Warner to find out what Jones had been paid prior to leaving that studio. And that was the salary that Disney agreed to pay Chuck once he started work at Feature Animation.

Speaking of Jack ... by the fall of 1953, the head of Warner Brothers Studio had finally realized that 3D films were not going to revolutionize the industry. It was now obvious that 3D movies were just a passing fad. And -- since the exhibitors were already clamoring for new Looney Tunes -- Jack thought it would be prudent to start up the studio's animation unit again.

So Warner sent out word in mid-November that the studio would be getting back into the toon business as of January 1, 1954. He offered to take all of his old animators back at their old salaries. To get Jones to return to Warners, Jack offered his star director a measly 40 more dollars a week -- bumping his salary up to $400 a week. Tired of twiddling his thumbs at Disney, Chuck jumped at Jack's offer.

And that's how Chuck Jones' illustrious career at Walt Disney Studios ended. Four months of employment -- with nothing tangible to show for that time in Burbank.

That wasn't Jones' last dealings with Walt, however. In his second memoir ("Chuck Redux," published by Warners Books in 1996), Chuck revealed that -- when he was just beginning his career in animation -- he wrote a letter to Walt Disney. This was in the early 1930s, mind you, right after the release of "The Three Little Pigs." Jones wrote to Disney himself, saying how much he admired the "Pigs" short. To Chuck's surprise, Walt wrote back.

This personal letter from Disney allegedly expressed the hope that Jones would continue to work in animation and that -- perhaps someday -- his work would be good enough to inspire the people at Disney Studios. Little did Walt know that -- some 60 years later -- his wish would come true.

Jones was reportedly very proud of that piece of paper. He "carried it around in my back pocket and showed it to everyone until I wore it out."

On a more touching note, in November 1966, Chuck -- then an Academy Award winning director -- dropped Disney Studios to pay a social call on Walt. He was told by Disney's secretary that Walt was across the street at St. Joseph's hospital getting a check-up. (Little did anyone realize that this trip to the hospital that would reveal the lung cancer that eventually did Walt in.)

So Chuck wandered over to the hospital and found Disney alone in his room. Walt seemed in a reflective mood and -- grateful for the company -- these two animation giants reminisced for a while. Eventually, Jones turned the conversation toward that letter he'd gotten from Disney some 30 years early and how much it had meant to him. Chuck then asked him what it was that had compelled Walt to personally answer that note from some kid just starting out in the animation business.

Walt replied that "It's wasn't difficult. You were the only animator who ever wrote to me."

Disney died six weeks later. Chuck Jones -- now 88 years old -- is still going strong. He regularly churns out images of his classic Warner Brothers characters, which his daughter Linda offers through her Chuck Jones Studio Galleries. (To learn more about the artwork offered through the galleries, visit the Chuck Jones site.) And soon, a character that Chuck has created exclusively for the web -- Thomas T. Wolf -- will come to life as part of a 13-episode online series offered exclusively on Warner Bros. Online and Entertaindom.

So "That's not all, folks." The magic and genius of Chuck Jones lives on. So check out that PBS "Great Performances" special and then ponder that great "What if."

What if the Walt Disney Company actually had found something exciting for Chuck Jones to do back in the summer of 1953? What sort of impact would Chuck have had on Disney's Magic Kingdom?

I'll say this much. "Sleeping Beauty" would probably be a hell of a lot more fun to watch.

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