I am pleased to re-post my first guest blogger Betsy Baytos. Betsy is an animator, and an expert in dance, specifically the art of eccentric dance. Tonight, August 5, Betsy is presenting The Choreography of Comedy at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles. I very much wish I could be there. HERE IS A LINK to the event, in case tickets are still available. And HERE IS A LINK to a great introductory video that I am unable to embed. but is great fun. Scroll back through my recent posts to see more videos of eccentric dancers.
When I was first hired as a trainee at the Disney Studios at age 18, I had no idea how animation worked. But my early background in dance proved to be a bonus while working with my mentor, the great Eric Larson, one of Disney’s ‘nine old men’. Not knowing any better, I would physically work out the movement, (always dance), for the required personal tests. This instinctive ability to translate my extreme flexibility into cartoon characters, was a match made in heaven, and I was soon hired as a full-time in-betweener on ‘The Rescuers’ while assigned to a veteran animator that best suited my style, the amazing Cliff Nordberg (Three Little Pigs, alligators in Peter Pan, Evinrude in The Rescuers,etc.), renown for his most over-the-top, character-driven animation in our most memorable animated cartoons.
Walt Disney doing a few steps with Buddy Ebsen.
I had just discovered and was studying eccentric dance and immediately saw a powerful connection. What astonished me most, was the process in creating character, building a gag and making a step funny, was virtually parallel between the eccentric dancer and the animator. Their language was identical! I could not wait to get back to Disney and tell Eric, who only chuckled and mentioned these dancers were a staple of animators, as inspiration for many animated characters from its early beginnings. It made perfect sense, as Winsor McCay, an early pioneer in animation, toured the vaudeville circuit in 1906 as an animated chalk talk act, followed in 1914, with a stage performance teamed with his Gertie the Dinosaur, at that time ground-breaking, as one of the first developed personalities in a cartoon. Sharing the bill with the top eccentric dancers and witnessing their cartoonesque, exaggerated movement, must have ignited ‘character’ ideas as it had many other aspiring animators. I had to learn more and was stunned when learning my ‘eccentric’ mentor, Gil Lamb, turned out to be the spot-on model for Disney’s Ichabod Crane in “Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ and Buddy Ebsen, for Disneyland’s ‘Country Bears’. The link was getting stronger, as Disney artists Ken Anderson and Joe Grant spoke of the tremendous influence Chaplin had in animation. Grant himself, began a career as a Keystone Cop and had used Eddie Cantor and Charlotte Greenwood often as models. The prolific animation historian and writer, John Canemaker, clarified this analogy with his great Documentary short of Otto Messmer, who first translated Charlie Chaplin into an animated character.
As animation reflects our times, Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ character was introduced the same time as the animated personality was evolving, and much of Chaplin’s movement was soon emulated by Messmer’s early Felix the Cat character. Vaudeville was a treasure chest of eccentric dancers and visual comedians and a bounty for animators to use as reference in their ‘character’ work and still is. I was still processing all this when the amazing Dixieland Band, the Firehouse Five, comprised of animators Frank Thomas, Ward Kimball, and other visiting musicians, began playing outside the commissary during lunchtime. I could not help myself and began executing a rip-roaring charleston on the black-top. At first, a shock to the Disney employees trying to eat lunch as well as the animation staff, it opened up a life-changing opportunity, animation choreography! I was soon working with Don Bluth on ‘Pete’s Dragon’, and dancing as the dragon ‘Elliott’ in the parking lot while tapping into the eccentric ‘character’ process with a foam tail pinned to my arse. I worked again with Bluth in ‘Banjo’, soon after. It was here that Disney allowed me to take an unprecedented ‘leave’, to tour in Will B. Able’s ‘Baggy Pants & Co.’ Vaudeville/Burlesque Show, followed by Jim Henson’s ‘Muppet Show’, upon pleading how this rare opportunity, would only strengthen my animation, which it certainly did!
Upon returning to Disney, I was thrilled to work on my alter-ego and hero, ‘Goofy’, the consummate eccentric dancer, in ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol’, and then, again teamed with animator Cliff Nordberg, began work on ‘The Fox and the Hound’, animating the owl ‘Big Mama’, and using the broadest character movement we could possibly conjure. It wasn’t long before the great animator Andreas Dejas called me in NY, to stage the ‘character movement’ in ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’. I was one step closer to bringing the eccentric style back into the animated cartoon.
I continued to animate and illustrate, while researching and studying eccentric dance, and when I made the decision to make this documentary, it was vital to film the animators themselves, discussing the eccentric dancer’s role in the evolution of animation.
Many are represented well in ‘FUNNY FEET’…Richard Fleischer, son of Max Fleisher and a renown Director (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Dr. Doolittle) spoke of his uncle Dave Fleischer, a great comic dancer in his own right, as the model for the first rotoscoped character (1915), ‘Koko the Clown’. Richard spoke of his sister, (then dating a young Ray Bolger), ‘eccentric dance’ act where she popped on and off the screen, and how his father, who loved eccentric dance, most likely modeled Olive Oyl from legmania dancer Charlotte Greenwood. Animator Myron Waldman’s interview details watching vaudeville/burlesque shows while creating Betty Boop and Popeye, and how Cab Calloway was the model for the ‘old man in the mountain’ and other characters.
Chuck Jone’s interview was wonderful, detailing how he studied Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Keaton, but professed how Groucho’s walk became a signature in creating Bugs Bunny!
Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston spoke a great deal about the physical comedians influence in their own work, specifically citing Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Red Skelton, and Buddy Ebsen. Ward Kimball elaborated on always searching for new walks and how animator Art Babbitt’s defining 360-degree walk for Goofy, made him a star, and how Steppin’ Fetchitt and Keaton played an enormous role in the development of Goofy’s ‘character movement’ and personality.
Joe Barbera, of ‘Hannah Barbara’ provided incredible details on teaming Gene Kelly with Tom & Jerry, and later, on their ground-breaking collaboration for ‘Invitation To The Dance’. Al Hirschfeld, the renown NY Times caricaturist eloquently spoke of observing, then capturing in line art, all the great eccentrics that graced the NY stage, and how Bolger specifically, was inspired in his own movement by Hirschfeld’s illustrations.
And the tradition continues, as the next generation of animators,(Andreas Dejas, Eric Goldberg and others) understand the importance of observing and tapping into these great ‘cartoon’ eccentric dancers. It all came full circle when the talented animation Directors John Musker and Ron Clements (Aladdin, Little Mermaid) approached me to bring the eccentric tradition into their next animated feature, ‘The Princess and the Frog’! I was thrilled to have the opportunity to again work with a wonderful animation team, and especially, to introduce this history, a precursor to their own work, to the next generation of incredible hip hop, break-dancers today.
The surprise was instantaneous and I pushed them hard to capture the extreme movement necessary for animation. The reaction of the Cal Arts animation classes I instructed, was the same.
‘FUNNY FEET’ can help me imagine a dream to strengthen the relationship between dance and animation, training the two genres to inspire each other once again!