Let’s get one thing straight.
In 1947, when Walt Disney spoke to the House of Un-American Activities Committee during the country’s hunt for Communists, he named only four names.
Three of those names were business managers of the Screen Cartoonists Guild – the union that brought the Strike to his studio in 1941. Walt said it was only his opinion that those three men may have been communists.
The fourth man was a layout artist at his studio named Dave Hilberman. Hilberman was also one of the strike leaders in 1941. Walt said he was certain Hilberman was a communist. And Walt was correct. But Hilberman wasn’t always a Communist, and I’m not sure if he (or any particular American Communist) was necessarily Un-American.
Born and raised in 1911 in Cleveland, Ohio, Hilberman attended the Cleveland School of Art for three years before joining the Cleveland Play House, working mostly as stage crew. Soon he became friends with some locals who were members of the John Reed club, an association of “leftwing artists, writer, musicians, part of the anti-fascist movement then.” At 21 (in 1932 , the year Art Babbitt joined Disney) he traveled with them for a one-week trip to Communist Russia. He extended his stay for six months, earning money by working backstage at a theatrical trust which operated three Leningrad theaters. Hilberman experienced that in the 1930s, the Communist party was one of the few organizations fighting for racial equality.
“Between scenes, a white and Negro character appear at opposite ends of the proscenium arch and sing tunes as overtures to the next scene,” he wrote during that time. “…Between acts the Negro singer came out to the audience and made a direct appeal to them to fight against race discrimination.”
All around him he encountered groups of workers in every craft and factory who were selected for their speed, efficiency, and also their devotion to Communism. Those in the group were awarded certain privileges like special ration cards for free meals.
Hilberman also enrolled at the Leningrad Academy of Art, a state-sponsored school that paid its students with a monthly stipend and included free housing and art materials. In Russia, Communism provided state-run arts programs the likes of which Hilberman had never seen.
When he finally returned to the States, he told a local reporter that “he finds America dull and lifeless… In Leningrad there was more fun and laughter… Here, he finds, people are too serious-minded.”
Hilberman entered the Cleveland School of Education and graduated with a bachelor of science in art education. He took a job as an art teacher at East Tech, becoming the dramatic director in two branches of the Council Education Alliance. He was designing scenery for the Cleveland Play House when he was selected to join the Disney studio during the company’s nation-wide search for talent for Snow White. Hilberman was recruited in July, 1936 with about 40 other artists. Disney considered his art training in the Leningrad Academy of Art to his credit.
His starting salary was $20 a week, a rate lower than in other Hollywood studios for an entry-level position. It was around that time that Hilberman joined the Communist party.
In December 1937, it was Hilberman who picked up the issue of Time magazine that publicized Willie Bioff’s plan to overtake every Hollywood craft. This act and this news led to the creation of the Federation of Screen Cartoonists, the company union co-created by Art Babbitt and Disney VP Gunther Lessing.
Hilbmeran worked as a personal assistant to Bill Tytla before moving to the layout department. As a layout artist, he worked closely with the animation director to design the background, the block the character blocking, and the color of each scene. By early 1938, he was earning $90 a week as a layout man. He was the first production layout artist to start on Bambi. By 1940 he supervised six novices. When it came to talking with management, including Roy Disney, Hilberman acted as the spokesperson for the 40 other 1936 recruits.
That summer in 1940, the company had mass layoffs. (The war in Europe was cut off part of the market.) Everyone was on unsure footing.
One of the casualties was a close friend of Hilberman, a talented layout artist named Zack Schwartz who had helped shape the look and feel of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as well as the rest of Fantasia. The thought of losing this talented friend was more than Hilberman could handle, and he beseeched his superiors to reconsider. Hilberman later said that he told them,
“‘He and I could handle the stuff the other fellows are doing and it would cost the unit less.’ The powers that be wouldn’t hear of it. There was a situation where, having satisfied the director with the quality of your work, having [people] pitching for you, it still didn’t count. Which meant that you had absolutely no job security. This created a real uncertainty and a fear among the people.”
The layoff of his friend tore Hilberman apart. The Disney studio had been a great place to work when the economy was booming, but now that he had grievances, there was no one who would hear them. There was no single voice that could bargain collectively with the management on behalf of the employees. There was no bona fide union.
In September 1940, Herb Sorrell (business manager of the Hollywood Painters union and representative of the Screen Cartoonists Guild) made contact with Hilberman. Word had reached Sorrell that Hilberman had been a mouthpiece for the group of artists when they had to confront management.
“I was not at all sure at that time that Disney artists wanted to unionize,” Hilberman later said. He invited a dozen coworkers to his Beechwood Canyon home and pitched them the benefits of an independent, industry-wide union. He was shocked by their enthusiastic responses.
After some library research on labor leadership, Hilberman learned what his first move should be: If most employees at the workplace wanted to be represented by this union, he needed proof. This required printing hundreds of blank membership cards naming the Screen Cartoonists Guild as their bargaining agent.
Acquiring signatures would take time, assuming a majority was possible at all. One by one he passed the blank membership cards out to his colleagues at Walt Disney Productions, and low-level artists unhappy with their contracts and craving job security began signing up. Those that came back with a signature he forwarded to Sorrell and Screen Cartoonists Guild president Bill Littlejohn.
Every cartoon studio had its own unit at the Guild, and Hilberman became Secretary of the Disney unit. Art Babbitt was the Disney unit’s chairman.
When the Strike hit the studio on May 28th, 1941, Hilberman was 29 years old and at the forefront. He made speeches into the loudspeaker and rallied the 315 artists outside the studio gates.
He sought a culture of artistic freedom, the kind he experienced in Russia. Though he couldn’t achieve it at the Disney Studio to his standards, it was shortly thereafter that he helped found UPA – and artistic freedom began anew.
[sources include John Canemakers’ 1979 interviews with Hilberman, back issues of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the 1942 NLRB case Babbitt v. Walt Disney Productions.]