THE DISNEY INTERVIEW
All images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney Characters are TM and © The Walt Disney Company.
Words and photographs are © Mel Birnkrant.
Throughout my only childhood, life in the great Motor City, seemed dull and ordinary to me. Even though, my body managed to thrive, some would say, too much, in the humdrum world around me, my heart remained in that enchanted land, beyond the silver screen, designed and animated, so exquisitely, by the great artists who worked for Disney. Sadly, while I was all too quickly growing bigger, the magic spell the films of Disney wove after the War, was slowly growing smaller. And, by the time I was a teen, the films that these amazing artists made were not quite what they used to be. Nonetheless, I still wanted to work for Disney.
Although, my parents were mystified by the passion that was driving me, they allowed me to be the author of my own destiny, and essentially let me do my own thing. Reflecting on those times, it now occurs to me that they were doing the same. My father was busy building chain stores, and napping frequently, while my mother played canasta with “the girls,” eight times a week. So they were relieved that I could entertain myself, and not ask them for anything, apart from pocket change.
When I graduated from Hampton Elementary school, I was six foot four and overweight. With this, and other strikes against me, I felt that I was failing dismally at mastering the going style in my community, conformity. Nonetheless, I was aware that perhaps to compensate for the dirty trick heredity had played on me, God had given me an ample share of what, in those days, passed for talent. Much like the riddle of the chicken and the egg, all my life, I wondered what came first, my slightly above average art ability, or my obsessive love of Disney. I always knew that one led to the other, but, to this day, I could never decide, in which order.
In 1951, between the eighth and ninth grade, I spent my thirteenth summer at the National Music Camp at Interlaken Michigan, as the first and only camper in their history to attend there for their art program alone. My art teacher at Hampton Elementary School had single-handedly initiated and orchestrated this unprecedented opportunity, without consulting me. And, although, this unexpected development took me by surprise, I went along with it. Up to that time, the few art classes at Interlaken had been just a secondary add on, intended to enhance the curriculum of the mostly young musicians who spent their summers there. Now Mrs. Anderson, who, over the course of the previous eight years, had watched my progress in activities that ranged, from finger painting to making Easter baskets out of clay, convinced the National Music Camp that they should expand their offerings to include full time art majors... beginning with me.
Every camper in my cabin played an instrument. They spent their days rehearsing, and their nights performing in the orchestra. Therefore, every evening, while all my fellow campers were on stage, I sat alone, listening to the concert that took place in a rustic orchestra bowl, silhouetted against one of Interlaken’s two lakes, nestled deep within in a grove of trees. The event was often breathtaking. On some occasions, the music was accompanied by a glorious sunset. And on the Fourth of July, when the 1812 Overture was played, the twilight sky, above the trees and lake, was illuminated by a spectacular fireworks display.
Throughout most days, while my cabin mates were practicing, in tiny isolated huts, scattered through the forest, I spent my spare time doing drawings. Most of these were based on images from Disney’s latest offering, Alice in Wonderland. The film premiered that summer. Bummer! Being in camp, I couldn’t see it. But pictures from the movie had appeared in magazines, and I diligently copied these. I loved the styling of the characters, and made drawings of everyone, from Tweedledee and Tweedledum to the Walrus and the Cheshire Cat. I pinned these to the cabin wall, adjacent to my upper bunk, transforming my personal environment into a kind of Wonderland. It seemed as if, wherever I went, Walt Disney went with me.
When this somewhat lonely summer was over, I entered high school. There was a technical high school in Detroit, called, "Cass Tech.” It was an ominously ugly building, in a lousy neighborhood, and dauntingly far from where I lived, but all the artistically talented kids in Detroit attended high school there. I chose to attend brand new and nearby Mumford High, instead.
In the four years that followed, the students of Cass Technical High School, combined, would win 75% of all the Scholastic Art Awards in Detroit. Meanwhile, yours truly, the kid who didn’t go there, won the other 25%.
Everyone attending Mumford was required to suffer through at least one art class. This endless parade of the disinterested was punctuated occasionally by a few rare young ladies, who had a knack for drawing horses, usually, on the margins of their textbooks. That was about as good as it got, for Jim. And then along came a kid, yours truly, who eagerly elected to take every art course on the menu, and some that were invented for him. I joined the Art Club, from day one, and faithfully stayed after school to help create the scenery for every high school production, from “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” to “Pygmalion.” Mr. Siddal, designed all the scenery, and a handful of students, myself included, assisted him. The results were always impressive. Here is a scene from “You Can’t Take It With You,” as seen from Mumford’s balcony.
At Mumford High School, my art instructor, James Siddal became my savior and salvation. Throughout high school, and after, he was my friend and mentor. His talented wife Dorothy was an artist too. Together, they were the only artists that I knew. And, even though, they had three charming children, they welcomed me into their family. Jim, who I always referred to as Mr. Siddal, was God’s gift to me. Ironically, he was equally thankful to find among a student body of two thousand typical teenagers, at least, one who had a modicum of talent. Thus, I became his “raison d’etre.” The hope that he would have students, like me, was why he became a teacher to begin with.
Over the course of four years at Mumford High, I came to be regarded as the school’s artist in residence, and my dream of working for Walt Disney was common knowledge. While many of my contemporaries were convinced that I really would work for Walt Disney, I secretly feared that any chance of this actually happening was just a farfetched fantasy. Nonetheless, Mr. Siddal, who was not a fan of Disney, took my ambition seriously, and did everything he could to dissuade me. That would not prove easy; four years of his arguing, failed to move me. “Mel, Disney is a thousand people, all trying to make their combined efforts look like the work of one, Walt Disney, who takes all the credit! You will be just a small name, among many, that flashes momentarily across the screen.”
“I don’t care if my name doesn’t appear anywhere! I just want to be there!” I replied.
This subject of conversation became an ongoing debate between us, one that we engaged in playfully. Looking through the yearbook, the other day I came across a photograph that rekindled the memory of one of these humorous exchanges. A rather elaborate jest. Members of the Art Club were helping Jim create the decorations for an upcoming variety show. There were two huge horizontal panels that measured four by twelve feet.
Mr. Siddal invited us to paint a spontaneous mural on each. These would be suspended above the stage. The subject matter could be anything we wanted. He suggested we surprise him. Three members of the club combined their talents to work on one, while I did the other on my own. I seized this opportunity to to rib Jim about Disney by whipping out a panoramic scene, depicting characters that I had committed to memory three years before. OY! Well, what did he expect from me? I knew this would both annoy and amuse him.
Speaking of the yearbook, It was a given that I would be the art director in my senior year. For reasons that I have never been able to figure out, the the book that, like the school, itself, was only four years old, was titled the “Capri.” Why it was named after an island in Italy, beats me! I inherited the name from the year before, but the lunar theme was my own. With each topic dividing page, the new moon grew a little fuller and another building was added, Until, on the final double page spread, the school was complete, and the moon was full.
The end pages were two cut away views of the front and the back of the school. These were prime examples of the artful way I circumvented the fact that I couldn’t draw. They embodied a principle that I have intuitively embraced all my life: “Whatever you do, make it look intentional!” So I adopted a highly stylized style, reminiscent of the look one saw in UPA cartoons, or that awful Disney copy of them, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.”
The highlight of my senior year at Mumford was a puppet show, produced by Mr. Siddal’s Art Club. The story “we” chose to adapt was one that no one in the group had read, or heard of, except me. So, I was selected to write James Thurber personally, and ask permission to transform his “Thirteen Clocks” into a puppet show. He said OK! And by some miracle, I ended up in the lead role, creating and manipulating the lead character, The Duke.
I dove into this project with gusto. This was my chance to be Bil Baird. I believe Thurber was blind by the time he wrote The Thirteen Clocks, so he could not illustrate it himself, in his inimitable style. Therefore, the book was illustrated by Marc Simont, who offered little more than a glimpse of the main character. I found this frustrating. But, on the other hand, this gave me latitude to interject my own interpretation, in which I tried to emulate the stylized look of Bil Baird, as much as I was able. Because the character wore a patch, moveable eyes were off the table, but I managed to animate his eyebrows, which was a feature that I much admired in Baird. Here are the only three illustrations Thurber’s book offered me to work from, followed by my own interpretation.
The production, itself, was really great! We filled the Mumford auditorium for two showings. And some real talent went into the writing and the prerecorded acting. The Mumford Drama department was excellent and quite professional. Articles appeared in the Detroit papers, and clear across the country.
As that final year of school began, our would-be graduating class was given a Math Exam. Of course, I failed it miserably! Therefore, I would have to take a remedial course in math, and remain in Mumford High, until I passed. This was Devastating! It meant that in order to take the remedial class, I would have to drop an art class! And so it was I went into see my counselor, Mr. Alvey, who I had never met or spoken to before. I was shaking with emotion, prepared to beg and plead.
There are no words to adequately convey the impact of that meeting. After a lifetime of aspiring and dreaming, in a few stunning minutes, my life sustaining fantasy was about to become reality.
I explained to Mr. Alvey that I had failed the math exam, and I was, not only, bad at math, but always would be. He pulled out and perused my record: “Algebra: D! If you are so bad at math, how did you get an A in Geometry?” I explained that was, because “the teacher was amazing. I not only got an A, but she gave me that grade, in spite of the fact that I had failed every exam. On the other hand, I was often the only one in class who could do the logic flawlessly, step by step. But I couldn’t add simple numbers like 5 and 7, without making a mistake, and I always came up with the wrong answer, on a test.”
Then, I passionately proclaimed that “Art Class means everything to me, and I will never need math, anyway, to do what I want to do in life.”
“What do you want to do in life?” he asked.
The question hit me like a ton of bricks. It was so bluntly put. I could hear that I was almost stuttering as I uttered the words, “I want to work for Walt Disney!”
“Where are they located?” he inquired, while, at the same time, he was reaching for the phone.
In a voice that resembled Porky Pig, I muttered, “Bu - Bu - Bu - Burbank California,” while his finger was dialing 411.
“Burbank information, please…..Yes, I would like the number of the Walt Disney Studios!” He reached for a pencil and paper and wrote the number down. If a 17 year old could have a coronary, I was about to have one, then. He hung up the phone, and, instantly, picked it up again, in order to dial the number. As I held my breath, he introduced himself to the person on the other end, and explained that he was a high school counselor. Then he said “We have a young man here who is talented. He would like to work for Disney. Could I arrange for an interview?” In the course of the back and forth that followed, he glanced up at me and asked, “Can you go to California?”
“Yes! Oh, Yes! We are going there this August!” Half the Birnkrant family had migrated to LA. My parents and I had planned to visit there, during the upcoming summer vacation. Surely, Fate was on my side, that day.
And so, an actual appointment was arranged. “Oh, and, by the way, bring a portfolio of your work!”
How many emotions can a person experience in one second? 24, like the frames in an animated cartoon? I am sure I was establishing a record: Elation, Relief, (at getting out of that math course) Gratitude to Mr. Alvey, Fear of failure, (I knew I had nothing impressive to put in a portfolio) Excitement, Weightlessness (a rare feeling for me) and all these emotions took a back seat to the overwhelming euphoria of sensing that I was standing on the brink of fulfilling my short life’s Lifelong Dream.
A time arrives, from time to time, when something happens to shift the gears inside one's brain, and, suddenly, they see their life for what it is, and isn’t. And at the moment of that phone call, that is what was happening to me. Sometimes, fish, feeling rambunctious, jump high enough out of the water, to look down, momentarily, and realize how small the pond they rule in, really is. And that, too, is what was happening, for the first of many times to follow. I looked down and perceived that the world of Mumford High was merely a small bucket, or more appropriately, a tea cup, no, make that a thimble-full of water, compared to the vast ocean that was Disney! This was my chance of a lifetime! Could I rise to the occasion? Would I sink or swim? In the busy months that followed, I scrambled to assemble something that might pass as a portfolio.
Meanwhile, upon hearing the “good news”, Mr. Siddal went into panic mode. He upped his efforts to dissuade me, and finally, one day, something that he said got through to me. One of his anti-Disney rants hit home.
“How can you stand the eyelashes?” he asked.
“What eyelashes?” I replied.
“The long seductive eyelashes, fluttering on every goldfish, bird and bunny!”
I remember the moment; we were standing in the art room, at the time. Once he had gotten my attention, he continued to deliver an impassioned dissertation, pointing out the cloying cupids with their little bare behinds, shaped like valentines, and every element of the cute and cutesy side of Disney.
As I stood there in this setting, so matter of fact and ordinary, a doorway opened up to me and revealed the saccharine sweetness, and cloying cuteness of Walt Disney. I really hadn’t zeroed in on it before. Everything about Disney looked OK to me, when I was little, and now, in later life, I was focusing on other things: great bat winged creatures, perched atop Bald Mountain, the Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus, Zeus, Vulcan, and Dianna, flying horses, drunken donkeys, who were, admittedly, vulgar and corny. But I could gladly step into that World of Magic, in spite of the eyelashes and lipstick, on everything, from butterflies to Bambi, and Centaurettes who looked like bare chested bobby soxers. And I was intent on becoming a stately Centaur, or a horny little Satyr, stomping on the grapes, or even jolly rotund Backus, guzzling wine, and ignoring all the rest
And so, I buried this newly noticed element of cuteness in the deepest recesses of my mind, where it fermented, while I desperately dug through the refuse of my history, seeking scraps of debris, out of which I tried to weave a convincing visual story, one that would show me to be worthy to devote my life to Disney.
I purchased a portfolio, and began to fill it up, which wasn’t easy! I even borrowed some artwork that I had given to my girlfriend, Marcia Nelson, for her birthday. I included a Christmas seal design, featuring the star of Bethlehem that won a contest and was published, as well as a greeting card design that won another prize. I figured this was a good move, as both had religious themes that conveyed my touch and go flirtation with Christianity. And I also knew that the Disney Studios had a reputation that was not exactly kosher. The card was also a good addition, as it was rendered in the modern look of U.P.A. cartoons, and the abstract BS style that hid the fact I couldn’t draw.
But more was needed. I realized that much of my early artwork would, actually, work against me. Seeing it anew, I didn’t dare include it. Therefore, one project that I undertook, for the occasion, was to render one of the sets I had designed for the Thirteen Clocks, in miniature, like a scene in a toy theater. Then, I painted it in the realistic style of the backgrounds that one saw in Disney films. I tried to convey lighting effects, as if the street lights were glowing, and the entire scene was bathed in blue-white moonlight. I managed to succeed, to some degree; and I really enjoyed doing it, as attempting this level of realism was something new to me. I also engineered it to operate like a Pop-Up Book, so the stage could fold down flat to be transported in the portfolio. Then, when set upon a table, it popped right up, on its own, to stand alone.
Last of all, I Disconnected the Duke’s head, almost as an afterthought, and took it with me to California. The two strings that animated the face were left in place. Bringing that head with me proved to be a good thing, for that, more than anything, turned out to be the reason that they hired me.
I disliked Los Angeles. My parents and I had traveled there by car, eight years before, when I was nine. The week long journey across country had been a great adventure. And also terrifying, whenever my dad did the driving. Thank God, he slept in the back seat most of the time, while my mother took the wheel, and I sat beside her, playing the role of map reader. Along the way, we visited all the natural wonders: Mount Rushmore, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone, where Old Faithful was still blowing faithfully, once an hour, every day. En route, we stayed at primitive facilities, rustic tourist cabins, full of spiders, and motels that might have been run by Norman Bates. But the scenery was wonderful, until we arrived at the outskirts of LA. I’ll never forget it! After this long journey, I had been expecting something like the Emerald City, instead, we beheld an endless ocean of adobe. Los Angeles appeared to be a sea of bland beige buildings, with foliage that resembled sagebrush and tumbleweed, sparsely scattered in-between. As if to ease the ugliness, a dense blanket of smog obscured everything.
Now, returning to California, at the age of seventeen, this time by plane, nothing had changed. One would think that I would love L A, for everything seemed to be manmade, and covered in a thin veneer of fantasy. I think what bothered me most about it was how shallow and superficial everything appeared to be, including all my relatives. We visited my father’s brother Harold in San Bernardino, where my cousin Billy and I went skinny dipping at midnight, in his illuminated pool. Harold was the only one of the Birnkrant baker’s dozen of thirteen children as tall as me. He was the only shred of evidence that I might actually be linked genetically to the Birnkrant family.
One day, during our stay, my mother and I, along with half a dozen aunts and cousins, piled into two vehicles, and headed off to Disneyland. Everything there was brand new. The park had been open for just six weeks, and much of it was incomplete. What I saw there surprised and disappointed me. The magic in the Magic Kingdom appeared to be only skin deep. A sprinkling of pixie dust on everything had failed to make it levitate. We journeyed down the Amazon, in a boat controlled by underwater chains, bedeviled by artificial animals, and rubber hippos, spitting water. These somewhat creepy creatures were fascinating, mainly because they were more unrealistic than convincing. The ride turned out to be a journey deep into the uncanny valley.
The fantasy rides, were even more disappointing: Snow White, Peter Pan and Mr. Toad. They all turned out to be, essentially, the same old spook house rides I knew from the Michigan State Fair. In each of these, one traveled in a Disney decorated cart that jerked its passengers around in the dark, while scary things jumped out at them. But, in this case, the standard skeletons and spooks had been replaced by a crocodile and Captain Hook. The element of these unattractive attractions I disliked most was that fact that everything was painted in the five basic shades of Day-Glo: chartreuse, green, orange, red, and shocking pink. These grossly garish colors glowed in the pitch darkness, eerily energized by a deep purple haze of ultraviolet light.
As the day wore on, I realized that what I hoped to find at Disneyland simply wasn’t there. And the magic of Walt Disney remained, where it had always been for me, only on the silver screen.
The highlight of the day, and saving grace, was an inconspicuous concession stand, where tens of thousands of animation cels were practically given away. Just before the Second World War, the Courvoisier Gallery had framed and mounted selected cells, and offered them as works of art. In order to enhance the value of those selected, all the other thousands of cells from the same movie had been destroyed. Now fifteen years later, Disney was letting the public do the choosing, themselves, and selling cels that once might have been considered garbage, for just two dollars each. And I went absolutely crazy!
The load that they had dumped that day was all from “Lady and The Tramp.” Each sheet of painted acetate had been attached to a piece of colored cardboard by two staples, one in each upper corner, and that was that! Trying unsuccessfully to exercise self-control, and not let this event become a bacchanal of greed, I limited my selections to one iconic image of each of the main characters in the movie. These included Lady, Tramp, and all their pups, as well as the two dogs who lived next door, and the many mutts that they met in the dog pound. The best cel of all was an incredible view of the two Italian waiters who sang “Bella Note.” Although, I was turned off by Disneyland, this high adrenaline event told me that I was still a Disney Maniac!
The next day, we attended my zillionaire Uncle Michael’s birthday party. He built and owned the buildings occupied by every Monkey Ward store in the country. And, although, he was no hillbilly, he lived in a house in Beverly Hills that was identical to the one that would eventually be occupied by the Clampett family. Here is a photo of yours truly, standing by his pool, the day before the interview. The photograph is telling. After a childhood of being out of it and overweight, I had finally succeeded in acquiring an almost human shape, and I could nearly pass for normal. Unfortunately, the ridiculous shirt I was wearing, graphically diagramming how to butcher meat, gave the game away.
The following day, August 24th, 1955, was my interview. My parents and I drove to the Disney Studio. We ate lunch in “the commissary,” which proved to be a variation of the Mumford High School lunchroom. Then, while my parents waited, I picked up my portfolio and headed for the interview. I can’t recall who interviewed me, but, just last week, I discovered that his first name was "Bob." Halfway through the interview, he got up and brought somebody else into the room to meet me, and see my work. It was not, alas, Walt Disney. They agreed that they would hire me. I was to start, as everybody did, as an inbetweener. Inbetweeners fill in the gaps in the animation cycle, between the drawings by the head animator and the assistant animator. That’s where everyone begins. It is like a rite of passage. But they made it clear that they saw other possibilities for me. And it was the decapitated head of the Duke that led them there. They disclosed the information that Disney was just beginning to develop what would be called “animatronics,” and they could envision me in that department.
Then, they took me on a tour of the studio. What I saw is now a blur. But I do vividly recall one room, in which the walls were covered in a thousand bins. Each numbered drawer had a glass window, displaying a different color, ten thousand shades of colored powder that, when mixed with water, became the paint, with which the cells were colored. The lady in attendance wore a white lab uniform. I asked if I could see the Character Model Department, which was where I had imagined myself working. I learned, to my disappointment, that it had been eliminated. Henceforth, each specialized head animator would be responsible for creating his own new character. As the tour continued, it became stunningly clear to me that every aspect of a Disney movie had become far more specialized than I imagined when Mr. Siddall said to me, “a thousand artists all trying to look like the end result was done by one.” Seeing how far this had developed, and how small each member of the team's contribution might be, was a wakeup call for me.
It began to dawn on me that, perhaps, I didn’t want to work for Disney, after all. What I really wanted was to BE Walt Disney!
Back in Bob’s office, he gave me an application to fill out at home, instructing me to complete the form, and bring it with me, when I appeared to begin working. I explained that I been accepted by the University of Michigan, and I had to decide what to do next. School began there in a few weeks. Should I accept the job that they were offering … or…(I was thinking) … go to college and return to Disney, after I furthered my education? They told me there would be a job for me, whenever I was ready. Deep in my heart, I knew that I would never be. I knew that I would not be coming back again.
It was so strange that when I finally saw the Disney Studios in person, saw the throngs of workmen, trudging to the commissary, tin lunch boxes in hand, it reminded me of nothing quite as much as our school trip to the Ford factory. And I could feel the dream that had sustained and nourished me, throughout my often lonely childhood, dematerializing. It wasn’t crashing, but, more or less, evaporating. The fading vapors rose and gathered momentarily, to form a small cloud that briefly hovered in the air above me; then, propelled by the gentle breeze of a thousand eyelashes fluttering, slowly floated away, and ceased to be.
Looking through an old album, the other day, I came across that actual application, which I kept, but never completed. And for the first time, I noticed, in the upper right hand corner, a tiny note, written in pencil. It revealed the date of the interview, 8/24/55, along with the words: “Return to Bob.” That’s how I recalled his name.
And so, I walked away from Disney, and left the dream that had sustained me, throughout my childhood years, behind me. I never looked back, nor did I have any regrets. It felt like I had dodged a bullet! And, as for Mickey Mouse, from that moment forward, he never crossed my mind again.