The Truth about Dave Hilberman

Let’s get one thing straight.

Walt testifying at the HUAC hearings, 1947

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.

Hilberman beside John Hubley, Disney Strike 1941

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 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 and 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 includes 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 newsled to the creation of the Federation of Screen Cartoonists, the company union co-created by Art Babbitt and Disney VP Gunther Lessing.

Hilberman as seen from a non-striker’s car. Disney Strike, 1941

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 characters 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.

Hilberman with a “scab” effigy, Disney Strike 1941

“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.

A UPA story meeting for “Sparks and Chips” with Zack Schwartz (below) and Steve Bosustow (right), 1943

[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.]

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“Picket Lines in Paradise”

Read my feature article for American History Magazine on Art Babbitt and the Disney Strike, “Picket Lines in Paradise.”  You’ll find it in the June 2017 issue of the magazine.

It has been a couple months since the issue hit the stands, giving, I hope, enough people a chance to go out and buy the issue themselves.  Now, enjoy for free!

You’ll find exclusive research culled from various sources.  A footnote list in the ish would have been an additional page and a half.  I guess, well, you’ll just have to trust me on the sources.  As a general rule for this project, I stick to sources from the 1930s and 1940s whenever I can.  Memories from 30 or 40 years after the fact are just not as reliable as a courtroom testimony or a secretary’s transcription.

Stay tuned – more exciting stuff to come.

Posted in 1941: The Disney Strike, miscellaneous | 1 Comment

Gunther Lessing – a backstory

Gunther Lessing

Lessing

Gunther Lessing is often mentioned as a key player in the Disney strike.  As Walt Disney’s Vice President and Chief Legal Counsel, he certainly held influence.

In the mid-1930s, Lessing had an affable relationship with Art Babbitt.  In December 1937 and January 1938, they collaborated to create Disney’s bogus company union, the Federation of Screen Cartoonists.   But by 1941, Lessing was blamed by both strikers and non-strikers for the prolongation of the labor dispute, and as the only thing that stood between Walt and a union compromise.

The most circulated factoid of Lessing’s past was the story that he worked alongside Pancho Villa.  But there’s much more:

Pancho Villa

Dapper Pancho Villa

Born in 1886 from a German-Jewish father in Waco, Texas, Gunther Lessing graduated from Yale law school in 1908 at the top of his class. He left to work in El Paso (near the Texas-Mexico border), and established himself as a “high-priced lawyer.” In January 1914, Lessing began working with two powerful entities: the Mutual Film Corporation (which had just signed D. W. Griffith to produce Birth of a Nation) and the leader of the Mexican revolution, General Pancho Villa. Lessing brokered an exclusive $25,000 film contract between the movie studio and the outlaw. His footnote in the Mexican revolution was a source of pride that Lessing later shared with his Disney colleagues.

However, Lessing had his secrets. In 1917, after he opened a law firm with two partners in El Paso, he was sued by his own employee, an attorney named Eugene S. Ives. Lessing had contracted Ives to handle a case in Arizona for $350. Ives had worked to successfully reduce their clients’ bail by $1,000. After the case was complete, Ives demanded a higher fee from Lessing, and brought him to court. His grounds were what is known as “quantum meruit” – a deserved compensation that goes beyond a legal agreement. Ives could only offer self-serving declarations as evidence, and he lost the case, even under appeal.Lessing V Ives

(The Ives v Lessing case set the stage for Babbitt’s 1941 civil suit against Disney.  After the strike, Babbitt sued the company for unpaid bonuses.  He lost the case under the same clause – that any excess amount to his salary was not stipulated in his contract.)

Although Pancho Villa was assassinated in 1923, Lessing stayed close with the Mexican revolutionaries.  He witnessed actress Dolores del Rio participate in the rebellion of late 1924/early1925. Del Rio was a Mexican silent film diva, and one of the first great foreign-born stars of Hollywood.

Delores Del Rio

Delores del Rio

Mexico’s government was overthrown in 1926, and in July 1927, Lessing signed a four-year contract as del Rio’s personal attorney. Working in Hollywood with Mexican citizenship, she would need a lawyer to sort through any visa complications, should they arise.

For a time, Lessing and del Rio had a good working relationship. She, Lessing, and their mutual spouses – Jaime and Loula – attended Hollywood parties. Around this time, Lessing first met with Walt Disney, a young cartoon producer who just lost the rights of his previous creations to Charles Mintz.  In approximately 1928, Lessing began working for Walt as a part-time legal consultant. It was Lessing who helped Walt protect the copyright of Mickey Mouse from predators similar to Mintz.

Lessing continued to work for del Rio in various capacities, including handling her and Jaime’s divorce in 1928. However, immediately after the stock market crash of October 1929, del Rio’s life took a turn. In early December, del Rio was shocked by her ex-husband’s premature death from surgery complications. Later that month, in an emotional and financial haze, del Rio cut short Lessing’s contract. She paid him $4000 for his services rendered. But Lessing sued her anyway, for “lack of gratitude and appreciation,” and the $31,000 balance of their contract.

Lessing’s financial straits were a little more secure than most. On January 1st 1930, Walt Disney hired him full-time as the company’s chief legal counsel.

As bad blood turned rancid, del Rio reached out to help Lessing’s young wife, Loula. Loula accused her husband of turning her 10-year-old son against her. She also accused Lessing of abusive behavior – when losing bridge games at parties, he would throw water in her face or drag her around by her ear. In July 1930, Lessing sued del Rio for encouraging Loula to divorce him. During the separation, as Lessing sent Loula and his stepson a paltry $40 a month, del Rio helped support them.Lessing del Rio

In court, Lessing testified to having protected del Rio against theoretical bits of bad publicity. He went on to openly discuss those very bits, rattling off example after example of her overt sexuality and sexual proclivity. This public lawsuit vilified del Rio as a “home wrecker” in the press. According to del Rio’s biographer, “Lessing’s legal action seemed designed to destroy her.”

Lessing won a $16,000 settlement against del Rio in December 1931. Loula was granted her divorce from him in April 1932.

In all the press about the del Rio case, the name “Gunther Lessing” was never linked to the Disney Company. The Disney artists remained oblivious to Lessing’s sordid connection with this empowered movie starlet. And that’s just how Lessing wanted it.

 

Sources:

  • MichaelBarrier.com/Home Page/WhatsNewArchivesMarch15.html (Lessing’s Jewish background)
  • The Yale Law Journal Volume 18, p442 (top of his class)
  • Sizer, Mona D. Texas Bandits: Real to Reel, p5
  • Brégen-Heald, Dominique. Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada During the Progressive Era, p242 (footnote #72 to pp242-246), citing NY Daily Mirror 1/14/14, p58, and other sources. The president of the Mutual Film Company, Harry Aiken, hired Frank N. Thayer to represent the company; Thayer was a “Wall Street banker.” (Sizer, Texas Bandits: Real to Reel, p5)
  • The Yale Alumni Weekly, XXVI No1, 1917. The firm “Jackson Isaacks, & Lessing” was located in suite 605 of the newly-constructed Martin Building at 217 N Stanton St.
  •  Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the Territory of Arizona, Volume 19, 1/1/19. pp209-210; The pacific Reporter: Vol 168, p506, “Civil No. 1558 filed 11/8/17, “Ives v. Lessing”
  • Lessing v. Gibbons, Civ. No 9320, First Appellate District, Division Two. 5/6/35, p1 (“Gibbons” was del Rio’s re-married name)
  • NLRB case 10603, Lessing’s testimony p857
  • The official fan club for the Walt Disney Company: https://d23.com/a-to-z/lessing-gunther/
  • Hall, Linda. Dolores del Rio: Beauty in Light and Shade, pp 130-143
  • http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0215825/bio.
  • Lessing’s start date c/o Walt Disney Archives.
  • “Dolores Del Rio Denies Wrecking Lawyer’s Home,” Chicago Daily tribune, 7/21/30
  • “Wife Wins Divorce from Poor Loser,” Oakland Tribune, 4/19/32, p15. (Here her name is “Lolla.”)
  • “Calls Actress Home Wrecker,” San Bernadino Sun, 7/24/30, p1
  • “Hollywood Lawyer is Awarded $16000 in Judgment Against Dolores Del Rio For Services.” San Bernadino Sun, 12/16/31, p3

 

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Wise words

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“Never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

                – Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, November 9, 2016

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Dumbo! During Labor Unrest!

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This week marks the 75th birthday of one of my favorite films of all time, Dumbo (1941).  Amazing, right?  Watch it today and it feels as timeless as ever.  And not faux “timeless,” but actual, bonafide timeless.  This film could have been made this year (ok, minus a couple details).

Although Art Babbitt worked at Disney between his military discharge in 1945 and his resignation in January 1947, it was his 1941 work on Dumbo that was his real Disney swan song.  He was the lead animator on Mr. Stork, the Western-Union-style singing delivery boy.  His final assignment was the clowns silhouetted against the circus tent, talking about hitting the big boss for a raise.

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Babbitt said he based Mr. Stork on his voice actor, Sterling Halloway.  (Halloway would go on to be become a legendary Disney voice actor, appearing most famously as Winnie the Pooh.)

A couple years ago I was visiting the Disney animation building, and an animator came in praising Babbitt, but calling his work on Mr. Stork less skillful.  As a matter of fact, Babbitt was going through an “Animator’s Block” at the time.  He would say later that he was lacking confidence, and was becoming increasingly reliant on live-action reference.  There was less caricature in some of his animation.  It looks more stiff.  You can see it it Baggage Buster.

Most significantly, Dumbo was also concurrent with labor unrest at Disney.  Babbitt was singled out at the studio as the instigator (“Not unrightfully” – Roy E. Disney), and the studio fought back. Usually, when Babbitt finished a scene, there would be more assignments waiting for him.  In March 1941, he found himself with none.  According to Babbitt, he called Walt’s office from his desk.  Walt said, “The trouble with you is that you’re so hard to get along with, none of the directors want to work with you.”  Babbitt didn’t buy it.  So he approached each director – Wilfred Jackson, Dick Lundy, Norm Wright, Perce Pearce, Gerry Geronimi – and asked them if they had any trouble working with him.  They all said no.  Over lunch, production supervisor Ben Sharpsteen told Babbitt, “We argue about what is going into the scenes, but you turn in a good result, and that is what I’m concerned with.”

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES BUT WHY WASN’T THE STORK SCENE DELIVERED?
Animation casting director Hal Adelquist was in charge of handing scenes from directors to animators.  He and Babbitt had been friends – Hal spoke at Babbitt’s wedding to Marge Belcher – but they had quibbled over union matters.  The Stork sequence that Adelquist gave Babbitt wasn’t being completed, and he approached Babbitt.  He knew Babbitt was involved in other “projects” – namely, recruiting for the Screen Cartoonists Guild, the independent union.  Babbitt argued that his delivery on the Mr. Stork assignment had nothing to do with his union activity.  Adelquist was skeptical – too many other artists complained to him about Babbitt talking to them about union matters on company time.  There was a six-week backlog of work from Bill Roberts waiting for Babbitt to pick up.  Here’s part of a conversation March 12, 1941:

ADELQUIST
…complaints have come to me that you personally have been going into the rooms and talking to the boys during working hours.

BABBITT
Yes, I’ve done that.  I don’t deny it.  But when I go into a room… like Bill Tytla… I see him every day… I never stay more than five minutes.  Same with Les Clark…  

ADELQUIST
You understand what I mean…

BABBITT
Both [attorney] Bodle and [field examiner] Yager in the Labor Board have cautioned me, so I have been extremely careful.

ADELQUIST
If the boys do drop into your room during company time, I would appreciate your telling them to make it after business hours.  We are in such a condition right now that the thing we need is production.  We need it so badly that if we don’t get it, there won’t be any unions.

That month, Babbitt finally received a new sequence  – but one that would normally be given to “lesser animators.”  They were NOT of main characters, and they lacked subtle acting nuances.  It was “Sequence 16,” the Clown Silhouette scene in which they decide to hit the big boss for a raise.

The sequence had originally been given to animator Berny Wolf, who animated the first scene of the Clown Silhouettes as they disrobe and begin pouring their bottle (Sequence 14).  By contrast, the sequence of the Ringleader in silhouette getting ready for bed was animated by  Walt Kelly.  Just scroll up and look at where Wolf and Kelly sit in the opening credits — nowhere near “Animation Director” Art Babbitt!

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BUT WHY WAS THIS SCENE GIVEN TO BABBITT?

In mid-March, Ben Sharpsteen had a conversation with sequence director Bill Roberts, telling him that it was hard getting work for Babbitt.  There were not enough scenes available.  Roberts decided to assign the entire Clown Silhouette sequence – Sequence 14 and 16 – to Babbitt, but Babbitt did not pick it up.  Babbitt told Roberts’s secretary that he had to go back and fix a previous assignment.  It was another few weeks before Babbitt could start on Sequence 16. In that time, Berny Wolf tackled Sequence 14.

Once Babbitt began on Sequence 16, his delivery was slow.  Roberts sent his assistant down to Babbitt’s room to find out why.  Babbitt told Roberts’s assistant that his mind was elsewhere.  He speedily completed the second half of the sequence – but one must wonder, what was going on in Babbitt’s mind at this time?  Getting a lesser sequence, did he feel that his days were numbered?  Did the unionism cause his “Animator’s Block” with its distractions?  Or did his “Animator’s Block” provoke his unionism, as a means of job security? babbitt-boards-clowns-dumbo

According to Roberts, there was no ulterior motive in giving Babbitt that sequence.  They had a pressing schedule, and the sequence had to get done.  There was a studio-wide grading system for each assignment.  The grade effected salaries and bonuses.  Roberts gave Babbitt an “A-” rating for this scene.  As Roberts said, “An ‘A’ is progressive; the animator adds something to what is being animated.  An ‘A-‘ is when the animation is what you normally expect.”  Babbitt had earned an “A” rating on all his previous animation.

AH, BUT HITTING THE BIG BOSS FOR A RAISE – WAS THAT STRIKE-TALK?

dumbo-silhouettes-972x1024John Canemaker asked Babbitt that very question in July, 1975.  In March 1941, Babbitt was indeed a union rep for the Screen Cartoonists Guild, and he was given this scene in which the characters are solely motivated to get a wage increase.  Babbitt’s response:
“People attached political significance to what happened there.  You know, ‘Let’s go on strike’ and so on.  We weren’t thinking strike at the time.  In fact, there never would have been a strike if it hadn’t been forced on us.”

Disney Strikers handbill,  6/27/41

Disney Strikers handbill, 6/27/41

Babbitt himself never asked for a raise in his salary.  Every raise he earned at Disney was bestowed voluntarily by the studio.  It was the following month, in April 1941, that he had an altercation with Walt and asked for a $2 raise for his assistant.  The Screen Cartoonists Guild’s main demand was merely representation at the studio.  When the strike hit on May 28, it was as a result of sudden terminations and the studio’s refusal to discuss it.  As the strike wore on during the summer, it became about other causes, including wage increases for all.  But at the time of the Dumbo’s Sequence 16, “hitting the big boss for a raise” was just not a thing.

For the nine weeks of the Strike, while the 300+ artists picketed, inside the studio gate the loyalists were completing Dumbo for Walt.  I absolutely love the characters in that film – Dumbo, Timothy, Mrs. Jumbo, Mr. Stork, even the crows – and there’s something almost poetic in that Dumbo and all of his friends were only finished under duress of the Strike.

Posted in 1941: The Disney Strike, Dumbo, Labor | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

WPyleDrawing

 

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