Disney and the Mob: Willie Bioff

walt-disney-willie-bioff-01-techinicolorLet’s talk about the mob for a minute.

There was a man named Willie Bioff.  He was a member of Al Capone’s gang, as was his partner, George Browne.  They were both top men of the Hollywood stagehands’ union, the IATSE (International Alliance for Theatrical Stage Employees).  Browne, a tall Irishman, was the national head; Bioff, a stocky Russian man, was the head of the southern California branch.  In the 1930’s, Bioff’s name became  synonymous with Hollywood labor corruption.  In the eyes of the Disney company, this man had the potential of being both villain and hero.

04 Nov 1955, Phoenix, Arizona, USA --- Original caption: Phoenix, Arizona: This is a copy photo of Willie Bioff, famous Chicago mobster of the Al Capone school. He was blown to bits today in Phoenix, Arizona, when he stepped on the starter of his truck and the vehicle exploded. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBISSo who was Willie Bioff?

Born in Odessa around 1900, young Willie Bioff moved with his family to the outskirts of Chicago.  In 1922, he was charged with pandering – i.e. running a speakeasy/brothel – for mobster Jack Zuta, but he never served his jail time.  In early 1933 he was arranging to limit the poultry market in Chicago (i.e. making sure some chicken vendors didn’t sell their wares, and getting a cut of those who did).  Then he met George Browne.  In 1933 Browne was a card-carrying member of the IATSE.  They figured out if they could get enough projectionists from a local movie theater chain to threaten a strike, the owner would pay them off.  To their reasoning, it would cost the theater more to endure a strike than to grease their palms.  A lot more.  Tens of thousands more.

introducinggeorgeebrowne_largeOne of Al Capone’s top wiseguys, Frank Rio, got wind of this and enlisted them to the gang, kinda by force: It was either join Capone and get protection and a percentage, or drop it all together and get squat.  So Bioff and Browne stayed on.  In 1934, Rio helped  Browne get elected as the national head of IATSE, and Browne hired Bioff as his West Coast representative.

Now Bioff and Browne did what they were doing before – threatening strikes for stagehands and projectionists unless theater owners and studio heads paid up – except on a much grander scale. In 1935, RKO and Leow’s paid Bioff and Browne $150k.  In 1936, Bioff moved to Los Angeles, where he ran a Studio Basic Agreement meeting.  It was there that representatives from every movie studio committed to paying him a total of $500k over two years.  In 1937 RKO and Leow’s paid him $100k.  By the end of 1937, IATSE local 37, the Hollywood branch of IATSE run by Bioff, had spent two years taking $200k from mere members in dues alone.

Whether this was blackmail (Bioff did this against studios’ wishes) or bribery (Bioff cooperated with studios to disenfranchise union members) is still a debate.  In either case, Bioff had built up a reputation around Hollywood as the leader of both the absolute largest, and most corrupt, Hollywood union.

The way Babbitt tells it in 1942 is like this:  It was in November 1937.  His friend and colleague (and fellow liberal) Dave Hilberman showed him an article in Time magazine about Bioff increasing his hold on Hollywood unions.  At the time Hilberman was an animation assistant under Babbitt’s best friend, Bill Tytla.  Babbitt wanted to stop Bioff and the IATSE from signing up anyone in the Disney studio.  At the behest of Bill Garity, the production control manager, Babbitt went to the top of the top: the business head and Walt’s brother, Roy O. Disney.

Roy pointed Babbitt to Gunther Lessing, the studio’s head legal council, board member, and future vice president of the company.  Together Lessing and Babbitt formed a group called the FEDERATION OF SCREEN CARTOONISTS.  For Lessing, this was an attempt for an informal social organization just to block the Bioff.  For Babbitt, this was a chance to create a union to represent the Disney employees.

Blocking Bioff seemed like a great idea: renown columnist Westbrook Pegler published an exposé on Bioff in November 1939 that solidified his villainy in the public eye.  This exposé, in part, led to Bioff’s and Browne’s federal indictment on May 23rd, 1941.

For Disney unionists, things went to shit in 1941.

The FEDERATION’s true position – keeping the management’s best interests at heart – became abundantly clear by early 1941.  And a bona fide independent union, the SCREEN CARTOONISTS GUILD demanded union representation for the Disney employees.

And then the Disney strike hit on Wednesday, May 28, 1941.

According to many strikers, the energy of the first month of the strike was light.  There were hopes for a quick outcome, and there was trust in the company.  After a month, though, there was a serious shift.

Bioff was granted a delay of his trial in Washington, as well as permission to return to Los Angeles temporarily.  Why?

In a twist befitting a scripted soap opera, the GUILD went into a negotiation meeting the evening of July 1 with Roy Disney, Gunther Lessing, and sitting between them was… Willie Bioff.  Roy and Bioff had drafted a settlement deal at Bioff’s ranch earlier that day (some report the previous day), with hope that the strikers would sign.
Babbitt remembered, probably on June 30, being “asked” to get in a car and being driven to Bioff’s ranch.  There was Roy, Lessing, Bill Garity, and Bioff himself.  Bioff made him a generous offer individually: a hefty payout to just disappear – to take a permanent camping trip, and continue to receive paychecks.  Babbitt refused.  “I already have more money than I know what to do with,” he said.

Besides Babbitt, the Guild negotiation committee included Dave Hilberman and Herb Sorrell.  Sorrell was the business representative of the Guild’s parent union, the Moving Picture Painters Local 644, as well as the Disney Strike’s business manager.
walt-disney-willie-bioff-05The meeting began with discussions about back pay, and re-hire discrimination, although there were “many inquiries as to why Bioff was in the picture.”  Bioff attempted to dictate the terms of the final contract, and also demanded that Hilberman leave the negotiating committee.  The Guild left the meeting understanding that an agreement would be further negotiated in the Roosevelt Hotel, a frequent meeting spot for the Strike.  Then the company reps returned to advise the Guild that the meeting would not continue in the hotel – but at Bioff’s ranch.

Sorrell called a halt – and addressed  the strikers en masse in a huge meeting, to a “thunderous ovation.”  They voted unanimously to take no part in any negotiations that included Willie Bioff.

The next day an ad appeared in the daily industry trade paper, Variety:

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-7-29-16-pmOn July 3, Roy Disney was left with no alternative but to contact Washington DC.  At the end of his rope, he requested a federal arbitrator to settle the Strike once and for all.

Arbitrators arrived at the Disney lot.  The final agreement between Walt Disney Productions and the Disney Strikers was signed on July 30, 1941, with no help from Bioff.  On September 16, work at the Disney company resumed.

So yes, the Walt Disney company briefly had dealings with an indicted felon – the very felon they were trying to defend against.  Bioff and Browne were convicted for extortion on November 6 and sentenced to ten and eight years behind bars, respectively.

The Disney studio was able to eventually bounce back, as did Bioff, for a time.  In 1942 he agreed to cooperate with federal investigators to lessen his sentence, and he was released in 1944.  He joined the witness protection program, and moved with his wife to Phoenix under the surname “Wilson.”

Then on the morning of November 4, 1955 Bioff turned the ignition of his car in the driveway and blew up.  The mob had finally caught up with him.

[For more on Bioff, check out Shadow of the Racketeer by David Witwer.]

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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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