More Disney Pranking

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I never know what topic will capture the attention of MousePlanet readers. Sometimes I will write a column that I think will spark comments and kudos, and there is just the sound of tumbleweeds.

Other times, I will write a column that I think may be of just casual interest but still has information that needs to be documented and it will surprisingly capture people's interest.

I recently wrote a column about the pranks played by animators at the Disney Studios that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that readers loved. So, today, here are a few more stories of fun and games at the Disney Studio during its Golden Age.

Disney Legend Ward Kimball kept a detailed diary from his time at the Disney Studios.

In 1941, Sterling Silliphant, who was then the publicity director at the Disney Studios and then went on to fame and fortune as a top screenwriter on projects like the television series Route 66, contacted Kimball and his friend, legendary animator Fred Moore, to do local Saturday kiddie matinees at two different theaters and draw some Disney characters.

Kimball and Moore talked their friend, animator Walt Kelly, who would later go on to create the comic strip "Pogo," to be the emcee. Kelly agreed, but only if he could get a few drinks in him to overcome his shyness.

Here is an excerpt from March 22, 1941 of Kimball's diary of the results:

"Kelly, Fred and Kimball meet at 11:30 a.m. at the Blue Evening for bourbon and sodas. We could hardly navigate when we left for the Stadium Theater on West Pico for the first show. Met Silliphant and theater manager.

"We went on after a Donald Duck short. Lots of kids in the house. Kelly droned on and on with unrehearsed doubletalk as Fred and I drew Disney characters. Kelly gave us a lot of asides which broke us up.

"Kelly, at one point, said to the audience, 'I suppose you are wondering why Ward is wearing a railroad conductor's hat. Well, he's got a bald spot on the back of his head, and we told him to put black paint on it, but he refused and wore a hat instead.' The kids clapped and liked our act.

"We did the same routine again at the Fairfax Theater, to a better reaction. We were more sure of ourselves. The lights were hot and I was sweating. The kids would yell things like 'Draw Donald the Duck! Draw Snow White!'

"We told Kelly that if the little bastards wanted us to draw Snow White, steer them away, because she was hard to draw. So when they'd yell for Snow White, Kelly would turn to us and say, 'Gentlemen, we have another request for you to draw Donald Duck.' We got to laughing so hard that we would break our chalk, and I guess it became pretty obvious we were drunk.

"Everything seemed to be going fine until a small bottle of gin fell out of Fred's pocket when he was rummaging around for a piece of chalk. This brought the act to a quick close, and I remember at the time, during the ensuing excitement, the manager running out on the stage and saying, 'You boys have got to get off! This is no good for the youth of America!' Throughout it all, Kelly stuck to the mike telling Irish jokes."

As I mentioned in the previous column, to alleviate the tedium and stress of producing thousands of drawings that varied very little from one page to another under tight deadlines, the Disney animators found different ways to blow off steam.

One of the popular activities during the late World War II years for the animators at the Disney Studios was to shoot houseflies out of the air with rubber bands. This activity took skill, patience and a steady hand.

Influenced by the military aviators fighting the good fight, the animators created their own tiny "fly" symbols and would put them onto the sides of their moviolas to indicate their "kills," just as fighter pilots would add a symbol to the side of their planes.

Paper cups filled with water were pinned to the backs of chairs so that when an animator leaned back, the cup tipped up and water poured down the back of his neck. There would be races down the hallway rolling film cans. When it was raining, the noontime sports activity would reconvene inside the hallways where flying footballs might knock over lamps and other objects.

"Ward Kimball was the sort of entrepreneur of these types of activities," remembered animator and production designer Iwao Takamoto, who recalled that the killing of flies with rubber bands eventually escalated into rubber band shootouts in the halls.

Most people might be most familiar with Takamoto for his many contributions to the Hanna-Barbera Studios cartoon series including designing the characters in Scooby-Doo, The Jetsons' dog Astro, Penelope Pitstop and many other memorable (and not as memorable like The Hillbilly Bears) characters.

However, Takamoto got his start in animation at the Disney Studios when he was barely 20 years old and had just been released from a California internment camp for Japanese-Americans.

I probably should have mentioned him in last week's column on Disney and Asian-Pacific heritage. In the camp, he met several artists who gave him some art training. One of them, a former art director, recommended that Takamoto look for work at the Disney Studios because he said "it was a liberal place when it came to hiring" meaning that he would not be judged for being Japanese.

"I think that's what made the Disney Studios so successful," recalled Takamoto in a 1995 interview. "There was no prejudice about race. Everyone who worked there took people at face value as to whether they could do the job."

When he joined the Disney Studios, Takamoto said that he "had no idea what animation was about. I learned on-the-job, picking up a little from some of the great animators like Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, and Frank [Thomas] and Ollie [Johnston]."

He was so well liked that, of course, he became a victim of a Disney animator prank.

Just before he turned 21 years old, several animators invited him to join them for a drink to celebrate the upcoming event. They went to a local bar and started downing martinis.

"They asked me to have a martini with them and I told them I didn't know anything about martinis," Takamoto said. "I learned that martinis have olives and the olives are kept in a jar with a sort of brine juice from the olives. What I didn't know was that they had poured that juice from the olives into a martini glass and chilled it.

"They handed me the glass and said, 'Here's your first martini!' I drank it and it tasted sour and bad but I tried to appear sophisticated and cool. I said, 'Nice'. Then they all laughed and let me in on the gag and got me a real martini for my birthday that was much better."

Takamoto even got involved with a few pranks himself.

He and fellow animator Stan Green played a prank on animation legend Marc Davis, known for many achievements, including his work on Disney villainesses Maleficent and Cruella De Vil.

Davis was sitting at his desk in deep concentration on some project that was giving him some trouble. Takamoto and Green took up positions on opposite sides of Davis' open doorway that led to a hall. Green began the prank by walking in place, slowly increasing the sound as if someone were walking toward the door.

Davis heard the sound and waited to see who was walking down the hall when they passed by the open doorway. Green stopped and Takamoto took up the same rhythm on the other side of the open doorway so it sounded like the footsteps were walking away.

Davis was dumbfounded. He hadn't seen anyone pass the open doorway. Eventually, his curiosity got the better of him and he went to the door to look but Green and Takamoto had heard him get up from his chair so they hid. When Davis got to the doorway, he looked both ways but saw no one in the hall and puzzled over the "ghost" he had heard.

Takamoto also remembered another prank played on a newly hired animator at the Disney Studios when someone brought in an attachment meant to make Christmas lights blink on and off.

"Back then, we had to use a standard light bulb instead of a fluorescent tube under the light board of an animation desk," Takamoto recalled. "As luck would have it, we had a new guy working on his light board that day, so they hooked up the blinker attachment without him knowing. He pulled the switch and the light went on. He started to draw and the light went off. He just waited patiently. The light went back on and he continued to draw.

"The light went off and he stopped again. It got to the point where he actually timed the thing. Every time the light went on, he hurried like crazy and would draw as fast as he could, expecting that the light would go off…which it did. But he'd wait until it came back on, so he could go back to drawing. To watch him scramble like that…his reaction was great."

Takamoto saw no harm in these pranks.

"Today, animation is a serious business," he said. "Back then, it was a business that was, in itself, a cartoon. It was a constant series of people acting like kids.

"I thought it was cool to work with people like that. They were my role models. They could be like that but also be real sophisticated. A lot of them were always dressed in the 'high style' of the Hollywood elite."

At the Disney Studios, there was a huge layoff of animators after the opening of Sleeping Beauty (1959) because Walt Disney was seriously considering never making another animated feature and cutting out doing animated theatrical shorts.

Takamoto joined the newly opened Hanna-Barbera Studio in 1961, that was having huge success doing television animated series. He worked there for more than 30 years, eventually becoming vice-president of Creative Design. He died in January 2007.

I've mentioned before that there is a new book out that prints the previously unpublished autobiography of storyman Homer Brightman during his time at the Disney Studio.

As much as I like the book and recommend it, as always there were stories that ended up on the cutting-room floor and do not appear.

Disney Director Jack Kinney, best know for his work on the Goofy shorts, had a funny story about pranking Brightman, who considered himself something of a comedic actor.

Brightman's comedic storyboard pitches always brought laughter from his audience, once prompting Walt to lean over to a secretary and ask, "Are you laughing at the story or Homer's performance?"

Her reply was "Homer."

In 1988, Kinney wrote about a prank at Brightman's expense:

"One hot, quiet night, for want of something better to do, we started a rumor with Homer Brightman as the patsy. We told him that Walt wasn't going to have time to do Mickey on the radio [for the "Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air" program which turned out to be correct] and was looking for a substitute.

"Homer fell for it and went around all the next day practicing the high falsetto: 'Hello, Minnie, Hi Pluto,[laughing)] heh, heh, heh…'

"We convinced Homer he was a natural and set up an audition starting at 7:30 p.m. The mic was turned on and the audition began…with the entire Story Department hiding out upstairs in the next building, catching the act through the windows.

"Stuart [Buchanan, the person in charge of casting voices] was in the booth. After each reading, he would emerge and offer suggestions like 'That was fine, Homer, but we need more action in the reading, so could you hop up and down when you read the lines? Okay, take 23…'

"Homer hopped. Stuart would say, 'Homer, you're out of mic range, would you hold the mic as you jump? Take 37…'

"By 10 p.m., Homer was exhausted, sweating and pooped, but still game. Hop, hop, hop. 'Hello, Minnie. Hi, Pluto. Heh, heh, heh!'

"Stuart came out again. 'Hold it, Homer. Now your socks squeak.' So Homer is struggling pulling off his shoes and socks and Stuart says, 'We'll try it again when we have more time.'"

Disney storyman Ted Sears once visited Knott's Berry Farm, but was appalled that the Old West saloon did not serve anything alcoholic. Sears was still peeved when his wife insisted they make a reservation at the restaurant for them and their two friends. Grumbling, Sears made the reservation and was told there would be short wait of 20 minutes for the famous fried chicken and boysenberry pie.

Sears decided to get his revenge by writing a phony named to be called. Roughly 20 minutes later, over the loudspeaker, the name was repeated over and over. The name that Sears left? "Byrdchitte" which sounds different when said aloud.

At the Disney Studio, Sears was thumbing through a phone directory and came across a name he fell in love with immediately and dialed up the person:

"Hello? Is this Gisella Werberserk Piffl?"

"Yes, it is. How can I help you?"

"I'm an old friend of your brother's. We were classmates at Cornell."

"Oh, I'm afraid you have a wrong number. My brother did not go to Cornell. He graduated from Princeton."

"I'm so sorry," replied an extremely apologetic Sears. "You must be some other Gisella Werbersek Piffl."

Some pranks were not newly created gems but often repeats of childhood ideas. During work on the animated feature Pinocchio, many late nights were spent at the Disney Studios. One of the assistant directors was Lou Debney who was called "Whitey" because he always wore white pants.

One late night, he collapsed into a nearby chair for a quick nap and one of the young animators put warm water in a film can, slid it toward Debney's arm that was hanging over the side of the chair and gently put Debney's hand into the water. Shortly afterward, the expected result that most school children know would happen was very noticeable on his white pants.

These things even happened when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were running the animation department. A very talented animator who was also known for being extremely shy showed up one day to renew his contract dressed in a full gorilla outfit and wearing roller skates. He roller skated down the hall to the office, signed the contract and roller skated away without saying one word.

Those are stories for another day.