After having been assigned over the years to seven Roman Catholic parishes in Kansas City, Missouri, I was assigned one year ago to a church in St. Joseph, Missouri. Kansas City, as students of animation know, was the starting point for many animators, not the least of whom was Walt Disney. Following my interest in animation, I was able to find, in Kansas City, relatives and acquaintances of Rudolph Ising, Clarence (Ducky) Nash, and even the lady who first rented space to Walt Disney when he came to town! It was here that I made connections with famed Disney animator, Ollie Johnston. But St. Joseph, Missouri? Though only fifty miles north of Kansas City, I sadly concluded that I would not be so lucky in this historic old town.
St. Joseph was the home of the Pony Express and stands on the banks of the Missouri River. It was the jumping off point for wagon trains heading west in the 1880s and boasts many beautiful, old antebellum homes along tree- lined parkways. But animation history? No, I concluded, there would be no rare finds to uncover here, but I was wrong! After an article appeared in the local paper about my interest in animation, a lovely lady called to inquire whether I knew that Grim Natwick lived only a stone’s throw away in the small town of Chillicothe, Missouri. I was, of course, ecstatic. Grim Natwick – the name bespeaks the whole history of animation. It starts in the early days of animation in 1916, and his association with Greg LaCava, and the Hearst organization in New York, and continues through his work with the Terry Studio in 1918, and the Disney studio in the 1930s. It was at Disney that he worked on Silly Symphonies shorts and was chiefly responsible for animating the character of Snow White in the first full-length animated feature, with no less than five assistants. His remarkable career includes his most famous creation for Max Fleischer – Betty Boop, whose face is still seen all over the world. His work continued through the 40s, 50s, 60s, and into the 70s, with anybody who was anybody – Ub Iwerks, Walter Lantz, and the UPA, organization. In the 1970s, he was persuaded by Richard Williams to come out of retirement and teach animation at the Richard Williams studio in London. After such an exciting life, now Grim was to be found only 85 miles away in Chillicothe! I sent him some articles I had written on various phases of animation (including several articles from Animator) and promised I would call. On July 21, 1989, I called him and set up an appointment to see him in two weeks.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to the phone faster,” he said, “but you see I’ll be 99 next month.”
We talked quite a while, and he mentioned that he had just returned from a St. Lousi Art Gallery where they were featuring the animation art of Betty Boop for sale.
I drove to Chillicothe on August 4, 1989, and met with Grim in his modest duplex. Grim, though a bit shaky on his feet, is a delightful storyteller and he needs no coaxing to share his background and insights into the history of animation. As we talked, my eyes wandered around the somewhat cluttered room. I picked up a copy of an old book titled Ether and Me, written by Will Rogers, with illustrations by Grim Natwick. It was published in 1927. He talked nostalgically of watching Will Rogers and Walt Disney playing polo:
“We used to be invited to Will Rogers’ ranch, now a public park. He held big annual dinners there. He was quite the polo player. Polo was really in vogue in those days. It was pretty hard on the riders. There was a Russian kid who came over, named Tytla. He became a great animator for Disney. He had kind of a composite imagination that spawned characters surely resembling the way his grandparents used to look, and he brought that look, not only to the Disney dwarfs that he animated, but also to Stromboli, in the Disney picture, Pinocchio.”
Grim showed me copies of sheet music covers he had drawn in the late 20s. The songs, such as “LaGuapa Muchacha” and “Anne d’ Amour” may have slipped into oblivion, but his renderings of tall, sophisticated women still had a great charm and elegance. They at once reminded me of the illustrators Howard Chandler Christy and Cole Phillips, who specialised in illustrating women for magazine covers such as Life, Saturday Evening Post, and Colliers, here in America in the 1920s. Grim recounted that at one time he thought his future lay in being a magazine illustrator:
“It was after high school graduation that I enrolled in the Chicago Institute of Art. At that time, I was working in the same building as a commercial artist from St. Joe. I did some work for him, filling in here and there. He was a nice enough fellow and helped a great deal. I had drawn a song cover for a friend and he took it down to some publisher. As a result, the song covers ended up paying for my education. I got paid $10 a cover, and after awhile, I found I could make my own living. I suppose I drew about 100 song covers. The man that I drew for – a music publisher named Talbot -provided me with a room and tried to throw a little extra business my way. It was a great room. I could look out and see the whole city beneath me. this was during World War One, and I remember one day the French military coming up the street in their smart blue uniforms. I didn’t realize until a few months later that I would be in a uniform myself. My three brothers also served in World War One and each of them was slightly wounded in France. I was amazed when I got into the army and found out the number of soldiers that couldn’t even write their names. I was assigned to Camp Grand, Illinois, not a very exciting place, but I met a lot of interesting people there. They made me the mailman because the previous mailman couldn’t read nor write. Our company was getting prepared to go to Europe, and to get us in shape, they made us do an eight-mile march. Well, that was pretty rough going. I had had an operation for appendicitis a month or two before going into the army and my stomach lust went all to pieces on that hike. The captain called me in the next day and told me to, ‘Get the Hell out of here,’ because he didn’t want any sick men in his company. Actually, it didn’t matter too much because in two weeks the Armistice was signed and I never got into the war after all! I was mustered out and bought a new suit of clothes. My stomach was still bothering me, so I spent a winter up home in Wisconsin, and then went back to Chicago. My old office had been taken over by a lady artist and her three daughters, and I was out of work.