The Bill Tytla Animated Pogo Special That Never Was

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In Newsweek magazine for February 16, 1953, there was a big feature article on the Disney Studios and their latest animated feature film Peter Pan (1953). At the end of the article, Walt Disney had told the writer that the next animated feature after the upcoming Lady and Tramp (1955) would possibly be "either Beauty and the Beast or Walt Kelly's Pogo the possum".

According to those who knew him, Kelly was horrified when he read that sentence. Not only had he not had discussions with the Disney Studios although perhaps his syndicate had been contacted, he felt that Disney would not be able to capture the subtle spirit of his comic strip.

In addition, he knew that Disney overpowered the original creator so that James Barrie's Peter Pan became Walt Disney's Peter Pan with the Disney version being the most prominent and dominant in public culture. It was the same concern that author P. L. Travers had when Disney wanted to purchase the rights to her stories about Mary Poppins.

It was not that Kelly disliked Walt Disney or the Disney Studios, since he had worked there for five years before leaving to work for Western Publishing's line of DELL comic books where he created Pogo and his friends. It was Walt Disney himself who had given Kelly a recommendation to Western Publishing editor Oskar Lebeck.

On May 25, 1960, Kelly wrote a letter to Walt Disney regarding his time at the studio: "Just in case I ever forgot to thank you, I'd like you to know that I, for one, have long appreciated the sort of training and atmosphere that you set up back there in the '30s. There were drawbacks as there are to everything, but it was an astounding experiment and experience as I look back on it. Certainly it was the only education I ever received and I hope I'm living up to a few of your hopes for other people."

Kelly worked at Disney from January 6, 1936 to September 12, 1941. Among other things he did animation on Gepetto inside Monstro the Whale in Pinocchio (1940), Bacchus drunkenly riding his donkey in the Pastoral Symphony sequence of Fantasia (1940) and the ringmaster in Dumbo (1941).

In addition he worked on the little boy character in The Reluctant Dragon (1941) and in the animated short The Little Whirlwind (1941) when Mickey Mouse is running from the larger tornado, he had a copy of The Bridgeport Post his hometown newspaper blow into Mickey's face temporarily obscuring his vision.

He formed a close friendship with animators Ward Kimball and Fred Moore and kept up correspondence with them even after he left the studio. While working at Disney, Kelly also met the legendary animator Bill Tytla who animated Stromboli the evil puppeteer in Pinocchio, Chernabog the demon in Fantasia and Baby Dumbo in Dumbo. Like everyone else at the studio, Kelly was in awe of Tytla's work that is still inspirational today.

Ukrainian American animator Vladimir Tytla usually referred to as "William" or "Bill," was considered an undisputed master of "personality animation," where characters seem to think and react as believably as flesh-and-blood actors. He brought an emotional power to anything he animated and constantly strove for perfection in his work.

So perhaps it was not surprising to circumvent the possibility of a Disney animated feature that in 1958, the two former Disney animators tried to produce an animated hour-long television special using Pogo and his friends.

Kelly's Pogo comic strip was syndicated to newspapers from 1948 to 1975. Set in the Georgia section of the Okefenokee Swamp in the southeastern United States, the daily and Sunday strip shared the adventures of several funny animal characters including Pogo who was an opossum, Albert Alligator, Churchy LaFemme the turtle, Beauregard the hound dog and Porky Pine the porcupine among others.

The strip was notable for many reasons including its use of a distinctive rural southern dialect and various malaprops and grammatical creations. Kelly used the characters not just for typical gags but to comment on the human condition including pollution and eventually drifted into some sharp political commentary since he had previously been a political cartoonist before creating the strip.

Pogo became a reluctant candidate for president in the 1950s.

In a series of strips, Pogo became a very reluctant candidate for President but never campaigned in 1952 and 1956. As a parody of Dwight Eisenhower's famous campaign slogan of "I Like Ike", Pogo supporters adopted "I Go Pogo" a phrase Kelly later used as a book title for a compilation of the strips. It also appeared on lapel pins.

Harvard held a campaign rally in 1952 for Pogo's bid for the presidency and it degenerated into chaos and was officially deemed a riot. Kelly was highly lauded not just by his cartooning peers but by the world at large. His strip appeared in nearly 500 newspapers in 14 countries and the strips were reprinted in over sixty different books.

The animation project that would have focused on Pogo running for president was in development for roughly five years, ending in 1962 because Kelly had some health issues at the time. Tytla later developed some health issues as well about four years before he passed away in 1968.

Many planned animated projects never develop to final production but information about this one seems to have been lost to history despite extensive correspondence about it between Kelly and Tytla.

Most Kelly fans know that there were three animated Pogo projects that were produced:

  • The Pogo Special Birthday Special (1969) a half-hour television special produced and directed by Chuck Jones with input from Kelly about a surprise birthday celebration for Porky Pine;
  • We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us (1970), of which only 13 minutes of this half-hour film about air pollution, animated by Kelly and Selby Kelly themselves, was completed in color pencil with the storyboards for the film inspiring the first half of the book by the same title;
  • I Go Pogo (1980) a feature film done in clay stop-motion animation with Pogo running for president that was only released directly on video and shown on HBO.

However, the charm and popularity of Kelly's Okefenokee Swamp denizens was a tempting property to develop into animation, as even Walt Disney himself knew as early as 1953.

After leaving Disney in February 1943, Tytla worked as a director at Terrytoons and Famous (doing Little Lulu and Popeye cartoons) cartoon studios. In 1950, he turned to directing commercials for television and worked on roughly two thousand of them for Tempo Productions, Academy Pictures and finally his own William Tytla Productions Inc. in New York.

In 1957, Kelly had discussed producing some type of animated Pogo film and had contacted producer Mike Todd, the husband of Elizabeth Taylor and the producer of films like Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), who was interested. Kelly had also contacted Tytla, who was based in New York, to handle the animation not only because of Tytla's talent, but because Kelly was also based in New York so could easily oversee what was being done.

In a letter dated November 7, 1958, Kelly wrote to Tytla:

"The doctors have been over me with a fine-toothed rake lately and have advised me to drop any extra activities. I had to tell Mike Todd that it would be impossible to work out the Pogo deal. I'm sorry to have brought your hopes to any possible high pitch. Hope you'll forgive it and maybe the future will find us doing something or other. Meanwhile, continued best wishes, good luck and thanks for your time."

Todd had actually died in an airplane accident earlier in 1958, so perhaps it was his estate that Kelly was communicating with by this time to cancel the project.

Yet, roughly a year later, the project again was seemingly "on" again with Kelly writing to Tytla on October 20, 1959:

"I have not peddled Pogo around and do not intend to try much more than what you are currently engaged in. I have a high opinion of the work and do not feel that exploitation in the usual manner will add prestige to something which up to now has not been put into the commercial field."

Accompanying the letter was an authorization certifying that "William P. Tytla is authorized to represent POGO for possible television and film projects for the period of one year from the above date."

Tytla immediately put together a presentation folder, and, on December 28, 1959, Kelly wrote: "The presentation folder was very well done and I, too, hope it gets some place. Sometimes I worry about the amount of additional work this all may mean, but console myself with the thought that at least, if it happens, it will be fun."

The presentation folder included color and black-and-white artwork of Pogo and the other characters on every page; a one page description of how Pogo is now "a household word" and a little about the strip itself; a one page description of Kelly accompanied by laudatory quotes about him from important people; and a one page description of the accomplishments of Tytla ending with a statement from Kelly himself that "only Tytla can bring Pogo to life on film". It was stated that Kelly would write the film.

The main page described the proposed production:

"The one-hour TV film in color will be produced by William Tytla Productions, Inc. William Tytla will serve as producer of Pogo.

"Richard Saunders is a producer at Tytla's. He has spent the past twenty years working with the outstanding people in the theatre, radio and TV as actor, writer and producer. He has worked with John Houseman, The Theatre Guild, Margaret Webster, Lindsay and Crouse and for five years was executive assistant to Alfred de Liagre Jr. Saunders will work with Bill Tytla in producing POGO.

"POGO will cost approximately $350,000 for a fully animated TV film in color running 52 minutes in length. A precise budget and schedule will be submitted to the client for his analysis and approval. POGO will take approximately eight months to one year to complete."

Saunders had a long-distance telephone conversation on January 6, 1960 with executives from 3M, an American multinational company, with a formal presentation scheduled for February. During the call, there was also a discussion about using Pogo in an extensive campaign promoting the special with Kelly granting limited use on January 12, 1960. Unfortunately, 3M decided to pass on the project for undisclosed reasons, but probably cost.

On February 17, 1960, Kelly requested from Tytla an original drawing that could be auctioned off for a charity devoted "to a cellular exploration that can lead some day soon to freedom from worry about the effects of epilepsy on children. I was thinking I'd get up $100 or so on my own. I don't like to put the arm on you but to me, this is personally meaningful. In any event, God Love and meet them deadlines."

The POGO project continued to generate interest but with no company willing to put up the necessary money. On January 5, 1962 on stationery from the Frank Garlasco DANIEL Restaurant on 53 East 54th Street in New York, Kelly hand-wrote: "Dear Bill: This letter is a release to you to negotiate as you see fit for the production of POGO films for television or motion picture use. It is my understanding that the proceeds from such productions will be on a 50/50 basis. This agreement is non-transferable. Walt Kelly." It was also signed by Tytla and then Kelly added by the signatures: "This is for All Time. WK."

On March 19, 1962, Tytla wrote to Lee Goldman of Quartet Films, Inc. in Hollywood:

"On Friday, we had a nice meeting with Walt Kelly and he seems very enthused over the prospect of getting this into production. Very definitely, Walt will have to be consulted on anything of a musical nature, since the musical part will play an important role in this project. When it comes to casting for voices, Walt feels very strongly as to what they should sound like. During our meeting, Walt mentioned his desire to do a storyboard. Lee, we're very happy about this progress. As soon as we have a storyboard, we will contact you."

In 1962, Tytla had taken a sabbatical from his company and was in Hollywood at Warner Brothers directing the animation on The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964) since live action filming had begun on the back lot in July 1962. However, he was still actively trying to get the POGO project started.

He wrote to Kelly:

"Just a 'quickie'. A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with two important Leo Burnett Agency men – one, Wendell Williams of the Hollywood office; the other Lee Bland from the Chicago office. The lunch was very pleasant and they seemed very interested in the POGO project. I asked that they write you – did one or the other do it? Hoping that you are comfortably ahead of your work schedule, also hoping like mad that you're getting a Pogo storyboard ready for a presentation."

Kelly responded on August 8, 1962:

"The press of work continues and there's no vacation in sight. A number of acute personal problems have siphoned off the remaining time. Inasmuch as the summer is about done and you should be back here for the fall, why not put off additional planning until then? Please reassure Bland et. als (sic) that I am interested but there's only one of me right now. Maybe by September or October I may grow a third hand."

Tytla wrote to Bland on August 14, 1962 summarizing Kelly's letter and assuring Bland that Kelly was still interested and to get in touch with Tytla the next time he was in Hollywood.

Bland responded August 21, 1960:

"Many thanks for updating us on Walt Kelly's status. All is well and we shall stand by. Push the plunger when ready to reconvene and we'll shake all three of Walt's hands. I trust all is going well with you on the feature. Next time I'm out your way, we'll experiment with some smog-cutters."

By the beginning of November 1962, over one-third of the character animation on Limpett had been completed but there was still much more left to do, delaying Tytla's return to the East Coast until the very end of December.

By then, Kelly had decided to abandon any further work on the animating of Pogo and his friends. There seems to be no further correspondence between the two men about the project although they remained friendly. Kelly continued to send annual Christmas cards as well as autographing an original daily Pogo strip to Tytla's daughter Tammy.

Tytla shifted his attention to an original feature he developed entitled Baron Moushausen and Mousthuselah, the Two-Thousand-Year-Old Mouse. He offered it to Disney in 1964, but it was rejected as being "prohibitively expensive in the area of television and it does not have enough broad family entertainment appeal to qualify as the basis for a feature film."

According to his wife Adrienne, Tytla died in his studio, in his bed, in his sleep sometime during the night of December 29, 1968, at the age of 64, although the death was not recorded until the following day.

Kelly, of course, continued to produce his comic strip and work on other projects until he died in 1973.

Sadly, this Pogo animated special was never completed and any artwork or storyboard that was created for this project seems to have disappeared over the years.

Of course projects that never get made always seem more magical and perfect in memories of what might have been rather than if they had gone into actual production and had to confront unrealistic deadlines, budget and talent restrictions, compromises, interference by network executives and other annoying factors that were standard at the time.

Even the memory that such a project was ever considered and had frustratingly gotten so far along before it was abandoned seems to have disappeared from history. Fortunately, the finest individual work of both former Disney animators Tytla and Kelly still survive today for all to enjoy.