A Tribute (and Farewell?) to Gertie the Dinosaur: Part Oneby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Dinosaur Gertie’s Ice Cream of Extinction food and beverage location at Disney Hollywood Studios (DHS) in the Echo Lake area was built as a tribute to Gertie the Dinosaur, the very first animated cartoon star, as well as the first one who defined character (or personality) animation.
Once Mickey’s Sorcerer’s Hat has been fully removed, one of the next items currently on the list for destruction is reportedly poor Gertie herself, so I thought we should all take another look at who Gertie was and why she was at the park.
There is a plethora of misinformation out there that needs correction about Gertie, especially when writers try to explain why she sits blissfully in Echo Lake at DHS and was so prominently featured in early publicity about the “movie park.”
Gertie celebrated her 100th birthday last year and no one, including Disney, really seemed to take much notice but, yet, without her and her loveable animated antics, animation might have remained a simple “trick film” novelty and eventually faded away like other film novelties.
A pantheon of legendary names that represent early animation, including Paul Terry, Max and Dave Fleischer, Pat Sullivan, Otto Messmer, Richard Huemer, Shamus Culhane, I. Klein, and Walter Lantz, among many others, have publicly admitted many times over the years that seeing cartoonist Winsor McCay and his vaudeville act with the animated film of his playful “Diplodocus” dinosaur was what inspired them to get into the animation business.
In November 1914, McCay, in conjunction with William Fox’s Box Office Attractions Company (the forerunner of Twentieth Century Fox), later released a short black-and-white silent film to movie theaters of his vaudeville act. It included a live-action prologue and epilogue and with intertitles that showed McCay’s on stage dialog.
That film continued to be shown sporadically over the years and, sometime around 1919, the teenaged Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks saw it in a Kansas City, Missouri, movie house and were awestruck.
“Ub saw a cartoon that would change his life forever,” says the book The Hand Behind the Mouse co-written by Iwerks’ granddaughter Leslie Iwerks. “The film was Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McCay."
“[It] remains a revolutionary and remarkable film, even today, for its ability to generate emotional pathos from the simple animated line," the book continued. "The concept of combining live action and animation would become one of Ub’s greatest fascinations.”
McCay’s film even inspired the great comedian Buster Keaton. For his 1923 film The Three Ages, Keaton told his writer Clyde Bruckman, “Remember ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’?… The first cartoon comedy ever made. I saw it in the nickelodeon when I was 14 (animation historian Donald Crafton pointed out Keaton was probably closer to 19). I’ll ride in on an animated cartoon.”
In the film, using stop motion clay models, Buster made his entrance on the back of a brontosaurus that was reminiscent of Gertie.
Winsor McCay was an extremely prolific and talented artist. Today, he may be best known for his color Sunday comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (about a young boy who falls asleep and finds himself in a fanciful world) that he wrote and drew, but he also produced hundreds of editorial cartoons, advertisements, and other comic strips as well as being a top-ranked act on the Vaudeville circuit.
In 1906, he began his career on the variety stage with a routine where on a large easel and with orchestral accompaniment, he did a highly popular “lightning sketch” act where he quickly drew freehand everything from funny caricatures to his own comic strip characters.
In addition, he developed a fascination with animation after seeing his young son’s flipbooks.
McCay did not create the first animated cartoon (although he often claimed that he had), but certainly the first ones that demonstrated remarkably fluid movement and characterization. McCay’s lines not only moved, but established an emotional connection between the audience and the cartoon characters who seemed to think and feel like real people, especially because of their direct eye contact with the viewer.
In addition, McCay established a process for doing animation (including key drawings, effective registration of images to prevent “jitters,” the concept of “cycling” action that reused drawings, and more) that would later be refined by others, like Disney, into what became the standard way of producing animation.
McCay never applied for a copyright or patent on any of his techniques. He wanted others to explore using animation to tell stories. He said, “I desire no patent or copyright on it as I believe that such a process should be open to universal use, just as the discoveries in medicine are made known.”
He later stated to a newspaper colleague who was urging McCay to copyright everything he had invented for the process of animation, “Any idiot who wants to make a couple of thousand drawings for a 100 feet of film is welcome to join the club.”
Unlike other animators, who like magicians, wanted to keep secret the process of doing animation, McCay willingly revealed how it was done because he saw himself as a craftsman. In fact, McCay financed his animated films (including paying his later assistant John A. Fitzsimmons) from his own earnings as a newspaper cartoonist.
McCay spent much of the fall and winter of 1910 working on the 4,000 drawings needed to animate characters from his "Little Nemo in Slumberland” comic strip for his Vaudeville act.
For his act, he would draw a sketch and then on a huge movie screen beside him that sketch seemed to magically spring to life. He introduced this routine in April 1911 and it proved so popular he immediately began doing a second film titled The Story of a Mosquito (sometimes called How a Mosquito Operates), that was ready by January 1912.
McCay partnered with the Vitagraph Corporation of America, one of the top film distributors of the time, to do a filmed version that included a live-action framing sequence, to release his first two attempts at animation to a wider audience around the country.
Audiences had never seen anything like it, and some suspected it was all done with some sort of puppetry or hidden wires or even with little people in costume. McCay decided he needed to do something so outrageous that people had to accept that it was a series of drawings.
During the summer of 1912, McCay was telling interviewers that his next animated film would include dinosaurs.
“I have already had a conference with the American Historical Society looking to a presentation of pictures showing the great monsters that used to inhabit the earth,” McCay told a film trade magazine. “There are skeletons of them on exhibition and I expect to draw pictures of these animals as they appeared in real life thousands of years ago and show them as they trampled their way through dense jungles, ate a stump or pulled down a tree or had a battle with others of their kind.”
McCay was supposedly inspired by a dinosaur skeleton put on display in 1905 at the American Museum of History in New York. It was the first such creature to be reconstructed and displayed to the public and was identified as a Brontosaurus. In actuality, it should have been more properly identified as an Apatosaurus excelsus.
For reasons known only to McCay, even though he used this skeleton as the foundation for Gertie, he referred to his cartoon dinosaur as a Diplodocus, which is another sauropod genus entirely.
McCay began production in earnest on “Gertie” during the summer of 1913. He hired a next door neighbor, John A. Fitzsimmons, a 20-year old art student, as his assistant.
Fitzsimmons primary responsibility was the mind-numbing task of carefully retracing the background from a master drawing 6-inches by 8-inches onto thousands and thousands of pieces of rice paper in Higgins black ink. The rice paper was thin enough so that Fitzsimmons could easily see through it to trace. Neither of McCay’s previous two films had backgrounds.
During the production of “Gertie,” McCay not only continued to draw his elaborate Sunday comic strip, but also drew for William Randolph Hearst’s newpapers’ daily editorial cartoons and more than two-dozen short-lived daily comic strips like "It Was Only a Dream," "As Our Ancestors Played It," "According to Webster," "It’s Great To Be a Husband," and "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend."
Where did the name Gertie come from since it seems a little out of the ordinary? Animator and director Paul Satterfield (interviewed by animation historian Milt Gray in 1977) was an art student in Atlanta, Georgia when he met and talked with McCay who was performing with “Gertie” in a theater there in 1915. Satterfield relayed the following anecdote:
“He told us how he happened to get the name Gertie. He heard a couple of ‘sweet boys’ out in the hall talking to each other and one of them said, ‘Oh, Bertie, wait a minute!’ in a very sweet voice. He thought it was a good name, but wanted it to be a girl’s name instead of a boy’s, so he called it ‘Gertie.’”
Over the months, McCay drew roughly 10,000 drawings of the characters by his own account to make approximately five minutes of animation. There were no schools or books that taught animation so he had to invent a method to do animation.
“When [Gertie] was lying on her side, I wanted her to breathe and I could come to no exact time until one day I happened to be working where a large clock with a big second dial accurately marked the intervals of time.
“I stood in front of this clock and inhaled and exhaled and found that, imitating the great dinosaur, I inhaled in four seconds and exhaled in two,” McCay recalled.
McCay drew 64 drawings of Gertie inhaling and 32 drawings of her exhaling to get one cycle. To save on “pencil mileage,” McCay created the animation concept of “cycling," which meant refilming the same set of drawings for a continued action.
“I only drew her breathing once,” McCay said, “but I photographed that set of drawings over 15 times.”
Gertie made her first appearance at the Palace Theater in Chicago in February 1914 as part of McCay’s Vaudeville act, that still included the lightning sketches and a screening of the "Mosquito" film.
At the end of the film, McCay was standing on the apron of the stage dressed in his black cutaway tuxedo but holding a huge bullwhip like an animal trainer might have to handle a lion or tiger or elephant. McCay engaged in some “patter” with the audience, then drew a sketch of Gertie on a large easel and told the crowd he was going to introduce them to “the only dinosaur in captivity.”
With a crack of his whip, the movie screen sprang to life and McCay coaxed the shy Gertie to poke her head from out of her cave from behind some rocks in the distance. She had the personality of a curious puppy or small child, despite her massive height and girth. As she walks toward the audience, she casually picks up a rock off the ground with her mouth and eats it, as well as gobbling down an entire tree.
McCay commands her to do a series of tricks including lifting her legs one at a time and bowing to the audience. She is momentarily distracted by a sea serpent in the lake, and McCay cracks the whip again to regain her attention. However, she resents being pushed into performing and lunges forward to snap in the direction of McCay. Reprimanded by McCay, she bursts into tears.
To show no hard feelings, McCay offers her a treat of an apple (identified as a pumpkin in the Fox film because it would make more sense in terms of proportion but an apple was easier to “palm” on stage to hide from the audience) that he seems to toss up at the screen. On the screen, Gertie catches it in her mouth and delightfully devours it, then decides to lie down and take a nap during which she occasionally scratches herself with the tip of her tail.
Her rest is interrupted by a four-winged lizard flying overhead and then by a woolly mammoth named Jumbo, who she mischievously grabs by the tail and tosses into a nearby lake. In triumph, she does a little dance that ends when the annoyed Jumbo, still in the lake, uses his trunk to spray her with water.
Gertie retaliates by picking up a large stone and throws it at the mammoth who is quickly swimming away. Thirsty from all this activity, she takes a drink from the lake and soon drains it completely dry with the ground beneath her at the water’s edge starting to give way.
Finally, it appears as if McCay walks into the animated scene himself as a miniature caricature in tuxedo and carrying the same type of whip, steps into Gertie’s open mouth and is gently lifted and set down on her back. He bows and Gertie carries him off screen.
Supposedly, there was also a short curtain call where Gertie returned on screen and bowed again to the audience.
During the presentation, she responded to McCay and to the audience as if she were a live performer, thanks to McCay’s precise timing. The film is filled with little bits of natural action, like she licks her lips and smiles after gobbling the tree trunk. It was an interactive experience and charmed every audience.
Some hecklers in the audience were initially skeptical.
“When the great dinosaur first came into the picture, the audience said it was a paper-mache animal with men inside of it and with a scenic background," said McCay in 1919. “As the production progressed they noticed that the leaves on the trees were blowing in the breeze, and that there were rippling waves on the surface of the water, and when the elephant was thrown into the lake the water was seen to splash. This convinced them that they were seeing something new—that the presentation was actually from a set of drawings,”
Reviewers praised ‘Gertie’ for its originality, humor, and cleverness and you can see the Fox film version.
Gertie the Dinosaur might not have been officially the first animated cartoon, but it was without argument the first animated cartoon of any consequence. Its huge success should have been the springboard for happiness and good fortune for Winsor McCay and the beginning of an amazing career in animation.
It wasn’t. The rest of that story and more next time: Learn how newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst prevented McCay from performing with Gertie; how a competitor released a fake film to take advantage of the situation; what Walt Disney said to McCay’s son when he hired him to recreate his father’s act for his weekly television show; the secret stories behind Dinosaur Gertie at DHS and what may be taking Gertie’s place at the park; as well as the never-completed sequel to the cartoon.