Your childhood does mark you.
I loved Popeye as a kid and I wound up being an animation nut. So much so that I edited and publoished two magaines on the subject and started researching the life and career of animator and inventor Max Fleischer for a book that has proven to be my Holy Grail.
Non-fiction writers, especially reporter types such as me, aren't suppoed to be artists. One of my journalism professor argued that journalism itself is not a "profession" such as law, medicine and enginneering. Journalists, he said, were craftemen...like artisans turning out pots. Some are better looking than others, but if you follow the rules of construction each pot will be adequate. They, like a properly written story, will serve their purpose.
Now I don't go along with this theory, but I do know that over the years the words "creative" and "reporter" seldom go together in many people's minds. They do in mind, but I'm prejudiced.
Therefore I do not have any of the usual artistic excuses that I've heard about why my book on Max hasn't seen print.
Recently I put together the following essay as an explaination about the book. It's a cautionary tale about the nature of trying to get something in print.
Several of the reporters on my staff recently had some time on their hands while they were waiting for calls back from interview subjects and they did what many people now do for giggles – Google their own names and the names of people they know.
When they Googled my name, “G. Michael Dobbs,” they were surprised at one of the results – a posting on a classic animation forum by a fellow Fleischer named Ray Pointer about my activities as a writer authorized by Richard Fleischer to put together a biography of his father, the animation pioneer Max Fleischer.
Pointer closed the section of the post that dealt with me with the statement, “According to the Fleischer Estate, they never heard of ‘G.’ Michael Dobbs.”
Wow. What a neat and tidy way to negate all of the work I’ve done and marginalize my efforts to put the Fleischer Studio into the historical context it deserves. I wonder why Pointer felt it necessary to do so?
And what was the business about the quotation marks around my first initial?
The statements Pointer made were borderline libelous as they imply that I somehow misrepresented myself. Therefore I believe it be necessary to explain my relationship with Richard Fleischer and this project.
The important disclaimer
Let me begin this posting with a simple statement: I have nothing against Richard Fleischer and I will be ordering his book on his father. It’s his father’s story and he has a right to tell it.
Richard gave me a shot. I did my best under the circumstances and despite the fact that I haven’t made a dime on Max Fleischer, I regret nothing. I’ve spent thousands of my own dollars and it’s been worth it.
And I’ve begun once again to work with the material and have about 10,000 words of a book about the Fleischer cartoons and their creators – not an authorized biography.
Working on this project gave me the opportunity to meet people whose work made a major impact on me as a kid. My friendship with animation director Myron Waldman and his wife Rosalie is one that I will treasure the rest of my life.
Through my magazines Animato! and Animation Planet I told part of what I had learned in several well-received articles. The Betty Boop issue was the single-best selling issue of Animato! published by my former partner and me and the Popeye issue generated a nice mention on Entertainment Tonight by Leonard Maltin and a major story in the Fort Worth Telegram by Michael H. Price that was syndicated by other dailies.
Of course by then I had long stopped calling myself the “authorized” biographer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The innocence of youth
While I was in college (University of Massachusetts, class of 1976) my love for the classic Fleischer cartoons re-asserted itself when I attended a screening of a compilation film released by a company named Crystal Pictures in 1975. The Fleischer Popeyes and Superman cartoons played a prominent role in my childhood memories.
Little had been written about the Fleischers and I decided to undertake a book on them. Ah, the innocence of youth!
I had sent a letter to Dave Fleischer in June of 1976 and in August I found an address for Max’s widow and wrote her how I would like her permission to write a book on her husband and his brother Dave.
Dave replied first saying he was too busy to speak with me about a project as he was preparing a new animated feature based on the myth of Pandora’s Box.
Richard’s son, Mark, wrote back on Sept. 5, 1976, giving me a green light and I was elated. Mark suggested that I contact Vera Coleman, Max’s long-time secretary, as his grandmother had not been feeling well.
“She also feels that she doesn’t remember enough about the business and sequence of events to be of much help,” he wrote.
I forwarded an outline that I had assembled based on my knowledge up until that point to Coleman.
However a letter that came to me on March 1, 1977 that at first caught me off guard.
“Dear Mr. Dobbs,
“Your letter to Mrs. Vera Coleman has just been turned over to me. I’m sorry for the delay in answering but I have been in England until just a few days ago and Mrs. Coleman was waiting for my return.
“As you probably realize we receive many requests for the kind of cooperation you are seeking from people interested in writing a book about the Fleischer family. We have never cooperated for several reasons, the main one being in all cases the lack of professional writing ability. A perfect example of this is the Leslie Carbaga book…The unfortunate outcome, however, was that Carbaga went ahead with his book but without the cooperation of the Max Fleischer family, which is ninety percent of the story, the book turned out to be a completely distorted and lopsided affair full of inaccuracies and slanted so as to denigrate my father. It is interesting to note that Carbaga has subsequently realized his error and wishes he could rewrite the book.
“Another reason we have not cooperated thus far has always been the idea that either my sister [Ruth Kneitel] or myself would one day write the story. More and more this seems increasingly remoter and we have just about given up that idea.
“I have read over your material and your outline carefully and I feel that perhaps you are the most qualified person I’ve heard from to take on this assignment. I would be able to make available to you a vast amount of material that has never been seen or utilized in any biographical study. However, I think it would be proper that if a book such as you contemplate writing with out cooperation should be published there should be a profit participation for us.
“Please let me know how and if you wish to proceed.”
It was signed by Max’s son, Richard Fleischer.
Needless to say I was over the moon. It looked as if I was given the green light by a guy whose work I admired – I’m still of the opinion that Richard Fleischer is a very under-rated director – on a dream project.
The nitty gritty
Still there were details to discuss and in a letter dated April 20, 1977, Richard made it clear that the project he would authorize would be a biography of his father and not a book that would present Max and Dave as equals. He also wanted a fifty-fifty spilt on the profits from the project.
I wrote back that my intent was to feature Max and that the split was fine. I was in no position to bargain and again, it was his family’s story, not mine.
On May 10, 1977, Richard wrote back saying he was “much relieved” by the contents of my letter and answered some questions I had posed about the whereabouts about various people who had worked at the studio.
He also sent a “to whom it might concern” letter stating that I was authorized by the Max Fleischer family to write a biography.
I subsequently made an appointment with Ruth Kneitel who lived in New York. She was very gracious and talked about her father and showed me a wide variety of artifacts, which she allowed me to photograph. She also gave me information about Myron Waldman and how I should contact him.
After our meeting, Ruth looked over my outline and made some factual corrections.
I take the plunge
I was working in a department store at the time by day and writing freelance articles at night – a full-time journalism job hadn’t come my way as yet. However I chased down people as best I could for telephone interviews and spoke with animator Grim Natwick in April, 1977. I interviewed composer Sammy Timburg during this early period as well as singer Lanny Ross who provided the singing voice for the prince in Gulliver’s Travels.
I wrote British director Richard Williams about the Fleischer Raggedy Ann short ¬ William has finished his own feature on the classic children’s story and wrote back in a letter dated Jan. 20, 1977:
“When we started ‘Raggedy Ann,’ we bought a print of the Fleischer colour short from 1940 and ran it at our first animation conference with Art Babbitt, Emery Hawkins, Tissa David, John Kimball and Corneilius Cole. We were appalled and although we may not have been altogether successful in getting Raggedy Ann as we wanted her, I hope to God we did better that they did! I must say I do like a lot of Fleischer’s work but he really missed on Ann. Here’s hoping we don’t.”
I took my slides of Ruth’s memorabilia and put together a presentation which made its debut at the late Phil Seuling’s – the father of all comic book conventions – Tenth Annual Comic Art Convention in July of 1977 in Philadelphia. The reception was excellent and I felt that I was on my way. I organized several screenings of Fleischer films and spoke about my research.
When the chance came to work for a company that provided reader teachers for private schools, I took it, thinking this was a way to be closer to the New York area. I exploited the locations of my three assignments in New York City, Baltimore, and Annapolis in the period of Oct. 1977 through April 1978 as best I could.
During this time I interviewed Popeye’s voice Jack Mercer, long-time Fleischer employee Edith Vernick, animator John “Wally” Walworth, and director Myron Waldman. I went to the Library of Congress, while in Maryland and the Lincoln Center library when in New York.
To a person, everyone was pleased to speak with me. The fact that Richard has given me his blessing opened many doors.
Fifty ways to say “no”
I started sending out my outline and quickly found that publishers in the late 1970s and early ‘80s could care less about Max Fleischer and his role in animation history. And I knew that I needed to do serious interviews with Richard and Ruth.
Ruth replied to my request in April of 1979 and stated that she didn’t give interviews any longer, and although I pleaded with Richard – I still have a Western Union “Mailgram” from the summer of 1979 I sent to him ¬– there was no interview forthcoming from him.
I got the impression that until I got a serious bite from a publisher Richard wasn’t going to give me the time I needed. Although irksome, I rationalized it as a by-product of dealing with a guy who was jetting around the world making movies.
So, I continued on with interviews with people such as Hal Seeger who worked at the studio as a teen to Alden Getz, who played a role in the bitter strike. I also met with animators Shamus Culhane and Joe Oriolo and spoke on the phone with Al Eugster.
And I kept sending out the outline, which I would revise periodically for the next nine years. Interestingly enough, one re-occurring theme in the rejection notices was that editors wanted a book on Popeye and Betty Boop and not on Max.
There were also several false starts from smaller publishing companies that initially accepted the book and then backed out.
The end…or not?
My career had taken an interesting course. After the teaching job, I sold ads for a local daily newspaper and then landed a reporter’s job at another daily. That led to an editor’s job at another daily. I then spent five years on local talk radio as an evening drive time host. A gig as the program supervisor for a historic house museum followed. When the city cut the funding for the job, I was hired as the manager of a new independent first-run theater in our area.
I continued to write freelance articles and columns on my Fleischer research.
Through 1988 I continued my research. I had stopped communicating with Richard as I didn’t see the point unless I had good news. In September of 1988 I learned that Richard was working with Layla Productions on a book. The book packaging company was seeking a writer and I wrote a long letter to Richard asking for the chance to work on the project.
“You certainly have been tenacious about the Max Fleischer book and I certainly commend you for that. But I’m sure you will understand when I tell you that ten years without attracting a publisher doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the future of your project,” he wrote back on Sept, 12, 1988.
Ouch! But he did give me another chance. Lori Stein, president of Layla Productions wrote me on Oct. 13, 1988, that Stanley Handman had given her my letter to Richard and that she was interested in collaborating with me. I set up an appointment to see her in New York.
She had worked on a book on the Warner Brothers cartoons and wanted to do something similar for the Betty Boop cartoons. She had a very impressive mock-up of some laid out pages, but I dropped a bomb that she hadn’t considered. She wanted to do an opulent full-color book and I told her only one Betty Boop cartoon had been in color.
The book never went forward.
My last efforts were an exchange with a publisher in 1989 as well as a meeting with a literary agent who wanted me to write the book in a narrative style. At that time, I was tired of rejection, tired of people asking me when the book was coming out and tired of people wondering who was Max Fleischer.
So, I gave up. I never wrote Richard Fleischer. I’m sure he figured it out.
When my former partner and I bought Animato! in 1992, I though that this would be the vehicle for sharing some of my research. As I said before, the articles I wrote were well received and that was quite gratifying.
When I folded Animation Planet – because of the dwindling ad base and increasingly unfavorable distribution deals – I had planned another lengthy Fleischer piece.
A book on the rise of adult animation I had planned with a writing partner almost got a contract at St. Martin’s in 2000. A change in editors doomed that project. It would have had substantial material on the Fleischer shorts.
So here we are in 2005 and I really want to write this book. I’m the managing editor of a group of weekly newspapers serving over 120,000 readers in the Springfield, MA, area. I write about animation every chance I get – I did a lengthy interview piece with Joe Dante on the Loony Tunes movie and another on Bill Plympton.
But the Fleischer material still calls to me. It needs to be written. It will be written. It won’t be the book I envisioned in 1976, but it will be entertaining and informative. Thanks to e-publishing I know it will be in print.
Now what about the “G?”
So Ray Pointer, with whom I exchanged research material, takes exception to my name. Well, the “G” stands for my first name “Gordon.” I have always gone by my middle name and since there was already a very good writer named “Michael Dobbs,” I went by “G. Michael.”
Now, Ray I think it’s time for a nice contrite apology because I deserve one.
All the best to everyone else reading this post – I’d love to “talk Fleischer” with anyone.