Howard Beckerman New York animator interview – Page 2

Inspired by the goings-on at Terrytoons, young Beckerman took an evening class in animation at a local New York college, much to the Terry artists’ bemusement who couldn’t figure out why anyone who worked all day in an animation studio should want to study the subject in his own time.

The class instructor, Irving Spector, informed Howard of a job going at Famous Studios for an inbetweener paying $5.00 more than he was getting at Terrytoons ($30.00).

He leaped at the chance and, despite the “one big happy family” atmosphere and Paul Terry’s “Dutch Uncle” approach to juniors, Howard departed for pastures new, much to Terry’s chagrin.

Situated right in the heart of New York at 25 West 45th Street was the now legendary Famous Studios, a product of Paramount Pictures after the even-more-legendary Max Fleischer had sold his own studio due to financial difficulties. The other big studio in New York was Ted Eshbaugh’s, just down the road at 35 West 45th, which had been the source of inspiration for young Howard a few years earlier.

Famous was managed by ex-Fleischer’s chief animator (and son-in-law), Seymour Kneitel, along with two Fleischer production managers, Isadore Sparber and Sam Buchwald, and employed the best percentage of Fleischer’s former artistic staff.

Here on 45th, since 1942, they fulfilled a contract inherited from Fleischer for Superman and Popeye cartoons as well as creating a wealth of new characters such as Casper and the friendly ghost, the giant duckling Baby Huey, a cat and mouse duo named Herman and Katnip, and the Rochesteresque crow called Buzzy among others.

Howard Beckerman describes the studios as being classier than Terrytoons, but lacking their laid-back friendly atmosphere… almost akin to an old-fashioned accounting firm.

Their equipment, in contrast to Terry’s “kitchen table” approach, seemed to be all inherited from the master… and Fleischer patented too! For example the desks were of Max’s devising; a light-box with “gooseneck” lamp combined and a disc that only worked by using top pegs with a metal bar that clamped the drawings to the pegs, plus another underneath so that the drawings could slide off easily without tearing.

These desks became collectors’ items, so-much-so that when Famous loaned out the surplus to artists working at home (which was often the case) not all of them were returned to where they belonged.

Famous was the largest studio in New York, occupying two floors with the artists kept downstairs and cameras with screening room upstairs. The cameras (four or five in all) were yet another inheritance from Uncle Max, two of which were specially built horizontal lathe-bed type, all holding 16 field and 10 field. One was used strictly for pencil-tests, and though it was a vertical stand it had no provision for trucking in and out.

The camera department, like the women inkers and painters, was in a separate building divided by an old iron fire-escape and considered “No Man’s Land” to young inbetweeners like Howard. He solved the problem by persuading Irv Spector to take his animation class on a field trip to see over the studio at night.

Like the cameras and women, many things were kept from Howard. Not so much out of vindictiveness but from an old fashioned notion that the artists didn’t need to get involved with cameras or to even see a screening of their own pencil tests.

This “Victorian” image was inescapable as you entered the studio and were confronted with an antiquated time-clock where everyone had to punch-in (another relic from the days of Uncle Max?) and a Union bell that rang for lunch, coffee breaks and when it was time to go home.

Beckerman recalls a moment of real Victorian melodrama when Izzy Sparber gave a public dressing-down to another Fleischer “inheritance”, a dancer known as “Pop”, Jack Williss. Williss, a friend of the Fleischer brothers originally hired as a dancer to help time difficult movements with characters in the features, had worn out his usefulness and taken to drink. Obviously having ignored previous warnings, when Sparber caught him with another bottle he was dismissed on the spot with a hearty “Get out!” falling short of “…and never darken my doorstep again!” in front of the other artists. As an impressionable junior, Howard found this a bitter pill to swallow, but nevertheless in keeping with other Famous out-dated practices.

Life at Famous wasn’t all straight-laced and stern-faced.., they weren’t without their pranksters; putting limburger cheese on the light bulbs, hot-foot gags or pasting cardboard cowboy spurs onto the victim’s heels just as he was about to go out, and so on.
To pacify the artists, Famous Studios was the first to induct “piped” music throughout the offices via a receptionist skilful enough to change records between typing.

One could always rely on the local talent when animators got tired of hearing the same tunes, they ‘drowned it’ out by moaning, singing off-key, blowing horns, ringing cow-bells and generally showing their displeasure, much to the amusement of the spectators.

The animation at this particular studio was high grade and could match Disney’s any day. Howard recalls doing some inbetweening for Steve Muffatti’s Land of Lost Witches (1951) where intricate detail on some watch characters was required, involving perfectly oval watches with tiny, spindly arms and legs.

This perfectionism has also been borne out by another young Turk at the time, when Lee Mishkin grumbled he did not know which eye was the correct one to draw shut when animating Popeye, he was informed by his elders that things were much tougher in the “old days” when the exact number of Betty Boop’s curls had to be drawn.., otherwise you suffered!

On a less painful note, Famous would encourage employees to participate in the current production by sending around a synopsis of the story and offering a cash prize for punny titles.

Howard Beckerman ‘s moment of glory was a title suggestion for a cartoon featuring Popeye and Olive holidaying at a summer camp where Bluto is the lustful camp instructor… Vacation with Play (1951), for this he received the tidy sum of $5.00.

Having spent two years at Famous under his teacher and mentor “Spec” Spector, young Howard Beckerman received an ill-timed “Call-up” in 1951 and had to leave the studio in favour of the armed services, returning to Paramount’s cartoon division in 1966 when things had changed drastically… unfortunately, not for the better.

Famous Studios, by now, was the sole property of Paramount; renamed, not unsurprisingly, Paramount Cartoons.

All three partners had since died, Seymour Kneitel being the last in 1964, now comic artist Howard Post was in charge of the studio.

Howard Beckerman arrived with Shamus Culhane’s outfit when he was called upon to breathe life into a dying art form… theatrical cartoons… without spending too much money. He was instructed to resuscitate the ongoing series; Honey Halfwitch a child witch remnant of Casper the friendly ghost and Sir Blur, a medieval Mr. Magoo… as if such a thing were needed.

Culhane’s tenure at Paramount was predictably short-lived due to rising costs, sinking standards, and the arrival of the conglomerate corporation of Gulf and Western who took over Paramount and quickly discovered there was no need for animated cartoons, theatrical or otherwise.

Child prodigy, Ralph Bakshi, succeeded Culhane’s little group and managed to sink the entire department without trace within a matter of months, destroying everything but Bakshi’s ego as, in later years, he went from success to success from the highly controversial Fritz the Cat (1971) to Lord of the Rings (1978), et al.

Unlike Ralph Bakshi’s up and down career, Howard Beckman diligently carries on, delving into every aspect of cartoonery from animation and comic strips to teaching and even writing about the subject he knows best, outliving two of New York’s most prominent fun factories; Famous Studios and Terrytoons.

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Printed in Animator Issue 28 (Autumn 1991)

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