Sunday, January 18, 2009
Breakfast with Shamus
When it comes to all-time treasures of New York animation, Shamus Culhane is high on the list. I'm sad to say that the only time I met Shamus he was wheelchair bound and in the last months of his life. The occasion was at Jerry Beck's gala 1995 event to celebrate Famous Studios. In the mid to late 1960s, Shamus had briefly headed up Famous Studios before the torch was passed to Ralph Bakshi shortly before the studio folded.
Howard Beckerman was kind enough to introduce me to Shamus. I remember I had to lean in close to hear him- so weak was his voice at the time. I complimented him on his Woody Woodpecker cartoons. "Ski for Two" is my favorite Woody Woodpecker cartoon," I reported. "Everyone only wants to know about my Woody Woodpecker cartoons," he replied, before he asked me if I'd read his books. I explained I hadn't, but promised that I would buy them straight away. I kept my promise and soon bought a copy of his first a book, a memoir of his days in animation called, Talking Animals and Other People.
There's bits in the book that have never left my head, such as:
-Shamus's notion that the union squashed work opportunities in NY and were actually destructive to the local industry. Not to mention his on-going war with union business manager Pepe Ruiz (who at age 86 was run over and killed by singer Wilson Pickett!). Real life is always stranger than fiction!
-The huge pay cut he endured to snag a job at Disney at which he had to virtually start over from scratch and be trained with the latest crop of newbies coming out of art school.
-The time he had to confront an animation saboteur who was hiding his work at the Ub Iwerks studio.
-His bizarre description of working with "Three Little Pigs" director Burt Gillette at the Van Buren studio in NY.
-His rise to heading up his own million dollar animation studio in NY in the 1950s, which banged out tons of commercials in NY's golden age of Advertising. Mad Men, anyone?
Now, bear in mind that I first read this book at the height of my Marx brothers mania. Knowing the time Shamus was active, I wondered if there would be any Marxian encounters in the book. Imagine my surprise and delight when Shamus casually mentions that he was married to Maxine Marx, the daughter of Chico Marx! Wowsa!
The main impression I had at the end of the book was what a survivor Shamus was. And, we need survivor stories now-a-days more than ever. Shamus is long gone, but he lives on through his memoir. I liked to read it over a bagel and coffee, calling it my "breakfast with Shamus." I think I'm due to read this book for the fourth time. There's plenty of room at the breakfast table. Won't you join us?