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Thursday, January 03, 2008

THE DISNEY OF THE EAST

It was December 1978. I was a senior in the first class of the California Institute of the Arts’ Character Animation Program. And I was heading home to New Jersey for winter break.
I’d recently visited the Richard Williams L.A. studio to interview Art Babbitt. Assistant animator Jim Logan spoke highly of a New York studio called Zander’s Animation Parlour. “Talk to my old boss, Jack Zander, when you are back there, and tell him I sent you,” he said.
They were a busy studio. I was asked to come back a week after reporting for the original interview.


So that is how I found myself sitting for a second time, in the same outfit, carrying my most recent pencil tests in my Dad’s old briefcase, in a decidedly odd office. Odd to anyone except an artist, that is. Red flocked velvet wallpaper would not be out of place in many animation studios. This one, however, was located in a very posh Madison Avenue building. I found out later that the red wallpaper and the name “Zander’s Animation Parlour” were designed to suggest the ambiance of a San Francisco whorehouse. It was the first hint of the owner’s sense of humour.
Jack Zander’s art director was the first to view my reel. Student work was not highly regarded then (no one in the East had heard of Cal Arts.)


One minute into the reel, the art director stammered, “Who did this?”
“I did.”
YOU did THIS? ExcusemebutIthinkI’dbettergogetJack!”
A minute later a small, neat man with graying hair, a goatee and moustache, and horn rimmed glasses moved quickly into the screening room. He watched about a minute of the three minute film which was actually still running.


“I’ve seen enough”, he barked. “Stop the projector. Sit down. Draw me something!”
I drew him a sheep. Jack looked at it for a minute.


“Come to work for me now—we’ll pay you. Why the hell do you want to go back to school?”
“My mother will be standing on the doorstep with a gun if I don’t have a degree in a few months.”


So the upshot was that Jack Zander hired me for a week in December 1978. He then made a deal with Jack Hannah of Cal Arts to let me graduate early, and I started fulltime as an animator at ZAP in May, 1979.

Zander’s Animation Parlour produced advertisements for Hamm’s Beer, the Dime Savings Bank, Conoco Oil, Crest Toothpaste, and many other large accounts of the time. Full animation was in vogue and the shorts were lavish and beautifully produced. Zander was also directing a television special, THE GNOMES, and I’d walked in just when they were starting production.
Jack Zander was the type of studio head that has become a rarity today: he’d been an animator himself (animating Jerry Mouse on the first seven TOM AND JERRY cartoons) and he hired people for talent. I could not have picked a better studio to start out with. For one thing, the standard of animation and production there was actually higher than that of many feature studios of the time. The atmosphere was informal yet professional, colleagues were supportive, I could live on the salary, deadlines were reasonable, and the work was fun.


How many studios can make that statement today?

Jack was invariably impeccably groomed and I remember he wore the best men’s cologne I’d ever smelt. I never had the nerve to ask him what brand he used. I was also surprised to hear that he was already in his seventies—he appeared much younger and his appearance never seemed to change in subsequent years.
Despite the neat appearance he had a wicked sense of humor. There was an American Primitive portrait of a sour-faced woman holding a small posy hanging directly over the toilet in the studio bathroom, so that any man using the facility would meet her disapproving gaze. The grey flannel companies that shared the building hated having a cartoon studio as a neighbor.


Jack was an avid motorcyclist, with the most expensively turned out BMW cycle I’d ever seen. He insisted I ride it during one studio party at his home in Pound Ridge. I managed to stay on it for ten feet, coasting. Jack rode that bike on a regular basis until he was nearly ninety. Once he took a spill on a patch of grass and knocked out one of his front teeth. Instead of hiding this until a replacement was found, he went around showing the space off to everyone, clients included.

Jack was actually used as a model for a character in an animated show made by people who obviously had never met him. The program had two young animators, one female, one male, confronting Hollywood-era “Pop” and showing him how cartoon violence was Out and socially responsible animation was In. The reality was somewhat different. The following loosely-remembered dialogue took place between Jack, me, and director Dean Yeagle.

Me: “How come we can’t tear his arm off?”
Jack: “You CAN’T do that! CBS would never let us air it.”
Dean: “You got to have all the fun doing those Tom and Jerry cartoons, how come WE don’t get to have any fun?”


Eventually the Madison Avenue types got the landlord to agree not to renew Zander’s lease. We needed to move anyway since the Gnomes project meant that the studio was expanding beyond the minute premises we enjoyed on Mad Ave. So we moved around the corner to 18 East 41st Street, an attractive terracotta-faced building that came with interesting surprises such as the body in the window seat that was found by assistant animator Juan Sanchez. But that’s another story.

Thanks for giving me my start, Jack, and for showing everyone how to have fun and run a successful studio at the same time.

Jack Zander died just before Christmas, 2007 at the age of 99. A memorial service will be held in Pound Ridge at his home on January 26, 2008.

2 comments:

Meredith said...

Absolutely lovely story. Thanks for sharing.

Nancy said...

He was quite a guy. I just wish I'd had the sense to interview him.