The Late Great Willie Pyle

On June 2nd at 8am, my friend Willis Pyle died of a heart attack in his New York City apartment.  Willie was 101 years old, but was sharp and witty to the end.  I was told that he was doing fine up to 2 minutes before his last breath.

WPyleMBelcher1Willie joined Disney in early 1938, after the release of Snow White, but still early enough to be invited to the famed wrap party at the Norconian hotel.  Here he is dancing “The Big Apple” with Snow White model and Babbitt love, Marge Belcher.

Willie never had to work his way up from shorts.  After being a traffic boy in the Hyperion studio annex, he was picked up by Milt Kahl to assist on Pinocchio.  There Willie cleaned-up and added breakdown drawings of Kahl’s extreme poses, including the scene in which Jiminey gets dressed while running late. Jiminey runs late





On Fantasia Willie drew the cupids.  On Bambi he was known within the studio as a deer specialist – though he also drew Flower and Thumper. Willie’s shared a room with Vip Partch, one of many assistant rooms in the unit of Kahl and Ollie Johnston.

In 1941, Willie took part in the Disney Strike, mainly, he said, because his friends were striking too.  WPyleStrikeListHere’s a page from the list of picket shifts with Willie’s name included.

Willie ended up at Fort Roach, aka the First Motion Picture Unit, a branch of the U.S. Air Force that produced films for the military.  Willie worked beside Warner Bros. animator Norm McCabe, Disney strikers Bill Hurtz and John Hubley, and Disney non-striker Frank Thomas.  Frank and Willie would carpool every morning to Fort Roach. There Willie worked on shorts starring “Trigger Joe” and designed the main character for 1944’s “Camouflage.”

Willie’s bio is extensive, and his life was fascinating, but this is where I will choose to leave you.  Because more than his accomplishments, the Willie I knew was a dear, dear friend.  He never bemoaned his age or anticipated his own end, he just constantly reiterated how lucky he was.  It was so easy to be with him.

I genuinely loved the man.  Without even trying, he taught me how to move through life with good humor and grace, and for that I’ll forever be grateful.    So long, Willie.



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Letters of Termination

Seventy-five years ago today, Art Babbitt was fired from Walt Disney Productions.

It was Tuesday, May 27, 1941.  Babbitt was coming in from lunch and the security guard apologetically  handed him an envelope containing two letters.  “Bad news, Art,” he said.  Babbitt cleverly asked for a chance to collect his personal belongings, and so a guard remained with Babbitt as he picked up his car and drove it in front of the animation building.  Babbitt deliberately took his time as he carried his things out of the animation building to his car, while onlookers gathered by the hundreds.

Below are copies of those two letters.

BabbittLetterDisney01   Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 11.19.22 PM

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The Guild Vies for Disney Animators

SCGIn March 1941, the Screen Cartoon Guild (later the Screen Cartoonists Guild) was doing its hardest to attract Disney artists.  Other studios were already signed up, like MGM, George Pal, and Screen Gems (Columbia).  And Schlesinger (Warner Bros) was already in negotiations.  According to a topical article by entertainment writer Martin Quigley Jr., Disney cartoons were the most popular short subject in theaters, animated or not.

The Guild elected Art Babbitt (animation dept) as chairman of the Disney unit, Phyllis Lambertson (ink & paint) as vice chairman, Dave Hilberman (layout) as secretary, and Sam Armstrong (backgrounds) as treasurer.

SCG meeting01

This flyer was not hanging up at the Disney studio, but rather distributed in the mail to Guild members.  The Guild began waving carrots at the animators in the form of cheap figure drawing sessions.  For members only, it would be a way to build community among Guild constituents, and entice new ones with the chance to “develop themselves in their craft.”  The event on flyer has Babbitt’s touch all over it.  It was Babbitt, after all, who organized the first figure drawing sessions for Disney artists back in 1932.  It is my guess that he and the Guild president Bill Littlejohn collaborated on forming these sketch sessions.

SCGmeeting02This event, organized by Littlejohn (an MGM animator), offered education about the Guild and all things union.

The tone of both these papers encourage dissemination.  And why not?  The Disney employees who were still leaning on the Federation of Screen Cartoonists (the bogus company union) would now get a chance to hear, objectively, what unions are about.  The speaker, a Samuel Kalish, is not a Guild member; he is a government employee.  The labor branch of the U.S. government, both federal and local, was still relatively new.  President Roosevelt put a system in place and hard-working Americans were encouraged to learn about it.

When this document reached Babbitt’s mailbox, he began talking about it and events like these to his coworkers.  Of course it was against company rules to discuss union matters on company property and on company time, but that did not stop Babbitt.

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Babbitt Cameo in The Reluctant Dragon

reluctant+dragon-+benchley+and+kimball-1Do you remember that scene in The Reluctant Dragon in which Robert Benchley watches Ward Kimball draw some original Goofy animation?

The Disney artists were filmed for this movie around March 1941, during the height of union discord at the Disney studio.  All the artists featured in the film are loyalists, future non-strikers.  This includes Ward Kimball, the ad hoc ambassador to the animation department.

The animation for this pencil test itself was done by Woolie Reitherman, assisted by Babbitt’s assistant, Bill Hurtz. Goofy Reluctant Dragon









Personnel director Hal Adelquist testified in court that this was Reitherman’s animation.

Adelquist on Reluctant DragonAnd Bill Hurtz testified that he was brought in from Babbitt’s unit to clean up Reitherman’s work.

Hurtz on Reluctant DragonBut the single drawing that we see Kimball drawing of Goofy ….

Reluctant Dragon - Babbitts Hand










… that is Babbitt’s drawing and Babbitt’s hand.  He was asked to put on Kimball’s shirt and sit under the camera drawing his specialized character.   He so testified below:

Babbitt Reluctant Dragon

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Babbitt Boycotts his Boss

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 12.03.17 AMWhether you’re loyalist or whether you’re on the verge of striking, if you’re a Disney employee in early March 1941, you’ve got to hand it to Babbitt — this man has some serious moxy.


Art Babbitt

Babbitt had been frustrated as hell with the FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS, which was the Disney company’s attempt at a management-controlled union.  First the company refused to negotiate with the Federation, and then the company only wanted to negotiate with the Federation under terms that served its own purposes.  At no time did a conversation between the Federation and the management lead to actual negotiations.  The Disney workers were not getting what they wanted – which included a clearly-stipulated pay schedule.  So Babbitt abdicated his position as Federation chairman and joined the bonafide independent union, THE SCREEN CARTOON[ISTS] GUILD.  The GUILD was recently successful with organizing the animators at MGM.  Babbitt became the chairman of the Disney unit of the Hollywood-wide GUILD.

3-3 Lessing headshot

Gunther Lessing

Bear in mind that the common thread in all this is NOT Walt Disney himself.  Walt left the mantle of these labor relations to his VP and chief attorney, GUNTHER LESSING.  It was Lessing who co-formed the Federation with Babbitt.  It was Lessing who condoned the suggestion to fire all the cameramen in the IATSE union.

On Wednesday, February 26, Lessing received a letter on his desk from the GUILD, dated the previous day.  In summary, this letter threatens Disney with a national boycott. And it’s sent directly to – not Walt Disney, and not Roy Disney but – Gunther Lessing.

Feb25 Guild Letter to Disney



Lessing immediately called Babbitt into his office looking for an explanation.  “Mr. Babbitt stated that neither the Unit nor its officers or executive committee had approved the letter, knew nothing of its issuance, [and] that the letter did not express the sentiments of the Disney Unit of the Guild.”

Lessing asked Babbitt if he thought this method of a boycott was fair.  Babbitt replied that he didn’t know what to say.

Lessing then held a conference on the same day, with other Disney management and Babbitt.  And Babbitt told them exactly what he had told Lessing earlier.

Lessing telephoned Howard Painter, the legal counsel for the FEDERATION and member of its administrative committee.  Lessing asked Painter what the FEDERATION planned to do “to counteract the effect of these grossly unfair tactics on the part of the Guild…”  Painter pointed out that if Babbitt and his committee had nothing to do with this boycott proposal, it appears that the left hand of the GUILD doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.  Painter began drafting a letter ….

Then on Thursday, February 27, Babbitt told the Disney management a different story — that the boycott resolution was approved by 25 members of the Disney unit of the GUILD before the letter was mailed!

On Saturday, March 1, Painter wrote a letter sharing this exchange with the broader managerial and/or Federation officers.

Mar 1 Letter from Painter Disney Federation

And shortly thereafter, the posters appear at the Disney studio disparaging the GUILD – and Babbitt in particular. There’s this:

Feb 27 Disney Boycoot Federation GuildAnd also this:

March 2 Disney Federation flyerSo now we’re getting into the first week of March, 1941, and Babbitt is actively conspiring against his employer.  He’s a trickster, stirring the pot, and I imagine he’s getting a kick out of subverting their authority.

It is reminiscent of the pranks Babbitt used to pull as a teenager in Sioux City.  At sixteen, Arthur and his cohort used to sneak into the rich part of town at night and secretly switch the contents of each ice ice box that sat on every back porch.  They also climbed the school’s fire escape to sneak into an upstairs window, and they placed a single pool of water on every chair in each classroom.

But now that Babbitt is 33, he’s trying to cut the Federation down to size through any means necessary.  This marks the beginning of the “David and Goliath” story of Babbit v. Disney.  It would coalesce in the weeks ahead and into 1942, and it will last the rest of his life.

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The Fake Disney Union Strikes HARD

A Federation membership card from 1939

A Federation membership card from 1939

Federation Membership card 1941

A Federation membership card form 1941

By February 1941, the fake Disney union, the company-run FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS, was under threat.  Rounding the corner was an actual independent union, the SCREEN CARTOONISTS GUILD.  The GUILD had already signed up the animators of MGM.  Around Feb 6 [or Feb 15 – sources vary] the GUILD held a mass meeting.  After Dorothy Parker read a speech, Art Babbitt took the mic and publicly discredited the FEDERATION.

On February 4, the National Labor Relations Board – the same department of the U.S. government that had certified the FEDERATION – began investigating the GUILD’s charge that the FEDERATION was in fact an illegal company union.

Although union activity on company grounds is against the National Labor Relations Act (section 8, subsection 2), the FEDERATION posted bulletins throughout the Disney studio.  Here are a few from February alone.

Feb 3 Federation Disney Feb 4 Federation Disney Feb 5 Federation DisneyNotice that the FEDERATION is not only trying to reinforce its position as the sole union legally designated by the Labor Board, it also tries to disparage independent unions, like this single incident in San Francisco.  Still, it’s not enough to repel people from the GUILD.   After the GUILD’s huge meeting in the second week of February, the FEDERATION pulls out even more stops:

Feb 8 Federation Disney Feb 9 Federation Disney Feb 10 Federation DisneyThe FEDERATION touts itself to be “clean, fair and organized” and has “definite contractual aims” that seem in line with what the average GUILD member wants. The GUILD members consider it smoke and mirrors.  The FEDERATION had been promised negotiations once before, and then company management said they had no use for unions.  In two years, the FEDERATION had earned no negotiations for the employees.  The GUILD, meanwhile, had been organizing other studios (most recently MGM) for months, and earned them union contracts.  This was a union that could get things done.

Feb 14 Federation Disney Feb 15 Federation Disney

Though labeled an “impartial chairman” of the FEDERATION, attorney Anthony O’Rourke’s salary during February, March, April and May of 1941 was not impartial.  Fifty per cent of his salary was gleaned from Disney management, and 50% came from the Federation budget.  In November, O’Rourke was hired full-time by the Disney company as the director of labor relations.  “The strike hurt the company!” he would later protest in court.   Not the words of an impartial chairman at all.

Feb 16 Federation DisneyThe “contract” – though tempting – is still at the whim of the studio.  Almost too little too late.  Besides its arbitrary sliding scales, and there is still nothing set in place for the top earners.  It does not satisfy GUILD members.  But don’t take my word for it – take a look for yourself at the images below and consider what you would do if you were offered this new salary plan at the Disney studio in February 1941.

Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p1 Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p2Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p3 Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p4

Disney Salary Plan Feb 1941 p5

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The Fake Disney Union

As noted in the previous post, the fake (i.e. company-based, non-independent) union was called the FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS and was formed collaboratively Between Disney’s vice president/head lawyer Gunther Lessing, and top animator Art Babbitt.  Executive officers include president Art Babbitt.  Lessing initially insisted it act as a loosely knit social organization rather than a bona-fide union.


March 7, 1938

March 7, 1938

The first bulletin of the Federation

The first bulletin of the Federation

In July 1939, the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. designated the Federation as the sole union for Walt Disney Productions.  The meeting location noted in this bulletin is Babbitt’s personal home address.

Federation Disney 03

By the fall of 1939, the FEDERATION has an election for new officials.  Disney cartoon director Bill Roberts is now president (while Babbitt is vice president), and the Federation is calling itself “A bona-fide independent union.”

Federation Disney 04

At the same time, the SCREEN CARTOON GUILD  (later known as the Screen Cartoonists Guild), an actual independent union under the Brotherhood of Painters, Decorators, and Paperhangers, begins targeting other animation studios throughout Hollywood. Included are Walter Lantz Productions (Woody Woodpecker cartoons) and Leon Schlesinger Productions (Bugs Bunny cartoons)Federation 05 SCG

By January 16, 1941, the GUILD is targeting Disney employees, handing out leaflets like this one, and holding an information session at a nearby hotel.

By the end of January 1941, the FEDERATION‘s attorney, Anthony O’Rourke, sets in place an “impartial machine” (i.e. guaranteed system of impartiality). It’s a tactic to win more supporters.  This memo reminds the reader that the Federation was lawfully designated Disney’s sole union.

Disney Federation of Screen Cartoonists Jan 30 FSC

A bulletin for January 30, 1941’s Thursday meeting of the FEDERATION.

Disney Federation Screen Cartoonists Jan 30

Even if you have already signed up for the Guild, simply signing this pledge card for the FEDERATION will revoke your Guild membership. Easy as pie!

Federation Pledge Card

And by February 1941, it gets even crazier! … To be continued…

Posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, 1941: The Disney Strike, miscellaneous | Leave a comment