So, it was agreed.
With my mother in hospital my father needed my help. Therefore I would leave the M.O.W. immediately and start working for my father in his small animation studio.
They were sorry to see me go at the depot, they said.
But they’d get over it, they added with a laugh!
You should have seen the piss-up Uncle Pat organized for my send off! There was even a raffle with a side of beef (that fell off the back of a truck) as 1st Prize. Because of Pat’s renown, not just M.O.W. men but workers of every stripe from all over the North Shore showed up. The Poenamo Hotel public bar was packed! Ha ha! That was the night that Pat punched Ben! Oh, how I wished I’d seen that! Right in the middle of one of Ben’s racist rants, for Ben would say anything to anybody at anytime, Pat reared back and hung one on him that laid him flat!
“I don’t care if he is the depot looney!” thundered Pat. “Nobody talks to me like that!”
Which was true. Nobody in their right mind spoke to Pat like that.
I missed it because I was in the men’s room on my hands and knees making a call to Ruth on the porcelain telephone at the time.
“Ru-uth!” I croaked as I chundered down the line. “Ru-uuth!”
Ye gods! How I hate to vomit. And oh! What shame I suffered, or would have suffered if I’d been sober enough to feel shame at the time.
That would come later, Shame and its spiteful companion, Remorse.
I’d like to be able to say that I made, at Pat’s insistence, a suitably moving farewell speech to my gathered workmates and raffle ticket holders that afternoon, but all I could do by then was drunkenly mumble incoherently and stare down at the floor, while Pat, who enjoyed speechifying, said a few words for me. I think. I can’t remember because I was as drunk as a fart by then, and had to call Ruth twice more before they finally carried me out of there!
After all, I was only eighteen. What did I know about drinking?
Nothing, that’s what.
Mick drove me home, so he told me later. I was passed out in the back. Our wives Ethne and Olive were waiting when we got home, very disappointed. We were all supposed to go out to dinner together, to celebrate my new career. They’d even got a babysitter, but now we couldn’t go because I was intoxicated.
Beer, it’s not always your friend.
After yet another call to Ruth (where did it all come from?) I collapsed into bed and thought to myself as the room spun dizzily round and round;
“I wonder what my destiny as an animator will be?”
So I left the rough and tumble world of workingmen and the worksites to become an apprentice of film animation, working with my father in his tiny (one man) studio.
My lifelong journey as an artist had begun.
The studio was located on Anzac Ave in downtown Auckland, a little up the hill on the right in a large office building. Lounsbery-Ewing Productions dad called his studio, after his mentor and friend from his Disney days, John Lounsbery.
My dad had learned animation from this great genius of the art.*
Now though, instead of a genius of animation at his side, my dad had me.
I began working with my father and to the surprise of us both, we enjoyed it. Not the animation part, it was no surprise that I’d enjoy that. Sure, it wasn’t easy, but I liked to draw, and was naturally persistent and patient, essential qualities in the manufacture of hand-drawn movies. I soon became obsessed with it, as all animators do. To see and hear your character think and speak onscreen is quite an intoxicating experience. An experience one never tires of!
And oh! The thrill of the rare occasions when one gets it right!
Plus, I’d always loved cartoons.
So I found it was fun.
No, the surprise was not that I liked animation, the surprise was me and my dad getting along better, for since coming to New Zealand a few years before we’d always been at loggerheads. I was fourteen when we immigrated and found New Zealand strange and hostile at first. I suppose you could say that at the time I was a rebellious, awkward kind of son.
I’d left home and gotten married since then, had worked among men and learned a few things, even if I was still only eighteen-years-old.
My father had learned a few things, too. He’d adapted to New Zealand and started a successful animation studio. He’d also lost a friend and partner, maybe when he needed her most, for my mother was desperately ill and would never recover.
Yes, a lot can happen in a couple of years. Maybe I’d grown up a bit since leaving home, and maybe my dad had grown some too.
After all, we never stop growing, do we?
Of course, animation was not unknown to me. Back in California as a boy I had watched my dad animate at his desk at home, flipping the drawings as he sketched up a scene. It was like watching magic. I’d stare up at him working, asking question after question until Dad showed annoyance, reminding me hadn’t I some schoolwork or reading to do?
Because, although I hardly realized it at the time, it takes powerfully intense concentration to animate with any chance of success.
(Oddly, I rarely connected my father to the wonderful magic of the Disney animated movies that he worked on, until years later when we attended a family screening of The Jungle Book at the studio prior to its national release. I was so proud when I saw my father stand upon the stage among the other gods who had created it. A beautiful moment that thankfully I was old enough to comprehend at the time… and appreciate all my life.)
I’ve always loved to read. Even as a boy a book to me was a special thing. My father was sympathetic and he would often, when he worked for Disney and had access to the reference library at the studio, bring home a rare volume of animation art or an out-of-print edition of some movie star’s biography for me to read. He brought me books of all kinds from the studio. Books about artists, actors and comedians. Technical books about drawing and anatomy. Books about the moguls, the con-men and the hustlers of Hollywood, as well as the great artistes of the cinema.
“Thought you might enjoy this one,” he’d quietly say, as he handed me a volume on Selznick or Hitchcock or Chaplin.
“Have a look at the check-out card,” he’d add with a smile.
I’d open the book and pull the card from its little pasted-on envelope. ‘Property of Walt Disney Studios’ was printed across the top. A strange sense of excited privilege would come over me as I read the names, scrawled in soft black pencil on the stiff yellow card, of those who had previously checked-out this very book. Checked-out and signed for it as if they had been mere mortals like you or me! Clark, Davis, Johnston, Kahl, Kimball, Larson, Lounsbery, Reitherman, Thomas,** or even the boss himself, signed simply, Walt.
The book I held became imbued with mystery and glowed with special magic for me, knowing that these giants of animation had touched it with their own hands, read it with their own eyes, spilled in it with their own coffee!
What knowledge had they gleaned from it, I wondered?
Had reading this book helped them to greatness?
If I read what they read, would I learn what they had learned?
* Mr Lounsbery was one of Disney’s original Nine Old Men. My father worked at Disney from 1959 until 1967.
** The complete Nine Old Men.