Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

A blog dedicated to the making of the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Studio on the Edge

First in a four part series

      How did UPA, the animation studio once regarded as the pinnacle of artistic animation, end up as a factory for TV animation?  Rumors and half truths about what actually happened circulated within the animation industry for so many years that they became conventional wisdom.  Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom contained some disparities and it became a question that I felt needed an answer as I delved deeper into the story of the UPA studio and Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.  To answer that question, it was necessary to examine over a thousand pages of documents in the Los Angeles County Superior Court records.
      In the original draft for the book, I had posited that four people were responsible for the production of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol-UPA studio chief Stephen Bosustow, executive producer Hank Saperstein, producer Lee Orgel and director Abe Levitow.  Although Bosustow had not been involved with the actual production of the special, decisions he had made years earlier created the situation that eventually led to the film’s existence.  During the book rewriting process, it was determined that those actions “behind the curtain” were not germane to the story of the making of the film and the material was excised. 
      However, I felt it was a fascinating insight into the clash of business and art, not to mention the clash of wills and have chosen to make it available to others as a cautionary tale about the business side of art.

Trouble in paradise 
     As the decade of the 1950s came to an end, there were a number of elements which conspired to challenge the future of the UPA studio, not the least of which was the market for theatrical animated cartoon shorts was rapidly disappearing.   Television had been making inroads into the animation industry and that trend had begun to accelerate in the late 1950s.  The collapse of the theatrical market during that period had essentially closed that revenue stream to UPA.  As devastating as that loss was, it may have been a mixed blessing as the shorts were a financial drain for the studio, being consistently and chronically over budget.
     What paid for the over budget shorts was UPA’s television commercial division.  Years earlier, UPA had branched out from theatrical shorts at their main Burbank studio to open TV commercial production offices first in New York in 1951 and five years later in London, with plans to open yet another office in Chicago.  Apparently 1955 was the financial high point for UPA as the studio boasted of record profits that year and by 1956, television commercials were providing nearly half of their gross income (i).  Although the New York office had been a roaring success and was highly profitable, it was never autonomous and the income it produced was siphoned off to keep the Burbank operation afloat (ii).  That kind of bookkeeping, along with the increased overhead of numerous branches and other management missteps began to compromise the financial health of the studio and in 1958, the New York office closed, followed shortly by the London facility.  The Chicago office never materialized. 

Stephen Bosustow
     It seems that financial issues had always dogged the studio, perhaps not unreasonably for a studio built almost solely on the strength of its artists rather than business acumen.  During the early days of UPA’s existential struggles, stock ownership had been exchanged for weekly paychecks.  When Columbia Studios agreed to distribute their films, paychecks became more regular but the studio was still paying less than the competition.  In 1952, twelve animators walked off the job over the lack of wage increases.  The trade-off had always been artistic freedom but the low pay and lack of raises had begun to rankle many of the staffers.  When Gene Deitch was solicited to join UPA in the New York commercial operation, Steve Bosustow put his hand on Deitch’s shoulder and said, “Gene, you’re a Marxist, aren’t you?” (iii)   It was a clever way to keep a lid on labor costs, appealing to his artists’ left wing sympathies.  Matters weren’t helped when it became apparent to UPA Vice President Herb Klynn and a number of other staffers that while Bosustow was keeping a lid on their wages, he was running personal expenses, like a new swimming pool, through the company coffers.        

      Adding a final straw to the studio’s woes at this time, was the release of UPA’s first feature, 1001 Arabian Nights (featuring their star character, Mr. Magoo), which failed miserably at the box office.  The studio had been banking on the film’s success to dig it out of its financial hole; instead it only worsened the company’s dire predicament.

Herb Klynn
     In October 1959, twenty six artists and administrative personnel left the company, some apparently so angry they preferred to resign via Certified Mail rather than face Bosustow in person.  The timing of their departure was not coincidental.  Herb Klynn, as Vice President, was in a position to see where the company was headed and neither he nor many of the other UPA staffers liked what they saw.  The group had decided to take their fate into their own hands and through the efforts of former Klynn assistant and now head of sales, Henrietta “Hank” Jordan, the group had concluded a deal with Ross Bagdasarian (the writer, creator and performer of Alvin and the Chipmunks) to produce the animated series, The Alvin Show under the banner of their newly formed company, Format Films.    

    Things were looking pretty bleak that fall for Stephen Bosustow and UPA.  The theatrical shorts distribution contract with Columbia had expired mid-year, their first and only feature had bombed at the box-office, most of the staff had just deserted and there were no major projects or contracts ahead to keep the studio afloat.  Word got around that UPA was in serious trouble.  The man who would seemingly come to the studio’s rescue was someone who knew nothing about animation but a lot about selling, Henry G. Saperstein.

(i) "Look, No Humans in Boing Boing Show Making TV Bow Today", Cecil Smith, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 16, 1956
(ii) How to Succeed in Animation, Gene Deitch, p. 65
(iii) How to Succeed in Animation, Gene Deitch, p. 60

Next Thursday,  A New Direction


Anonymous said...

Very informative,but I spoke to Jerry Hausner via phone in 1990, did you know that Jim Backus only was paid about $300.00 a year to do Mago0! And when Saperstein took over the company , Jim Backus asked for a raise and Saperstein tried to fire him and replace him with Paul Frees. But Saperstein realized that this would be a disaster so he thought against it.Frees was and still is one of the greatest voice actors ever , but Jim Backus was irreplaceable! The Mag0o Admirer

Darrell said...

I can't speak to that amount but I was told by the person responsible for the checks that Backus asked for and received double scale rather than residuals. Thanks for the information!

Tim Lones said...

Fasicnating Information..The UPA story would be a great book all by itself!

Darrell said...

Stay tuned, it gets juicier.

Scott said...

Great stuff! Thanks for sharing the info. I agree, it would make a great book!

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

I have fond memories of "The Alvin Show" and would love to see it again. I'm not surprised to learn of its UPA connection.

Thanks for further information on UPA history.

Darrell said...

Unfortunately, there is only one episode released on DVD:

Once again, the animation isn't much to speak of but the color styling (by Jules Engel) is worth noting.

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

I found some Alvin on YouTube and still think they're clever and charming partly because of the limited animation. Here's a good example with very minimal backgrounds: