Monday, December 05, 2005

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.

18 comments:

Marky Mark said...

MUCH better! The new colors etc are much easier on the eyes!

FYI - if you'd like to allow anon comments (so people don't have to REGISTER just to say hi) see instrux on my blog.

And today I went out for Chinese - CASHEW CHICKEN, YUM! With that magical ingredient, CELERY!

Well, I'd "talk Fleischer" with you, but you already know all I have to say on the subject.

Mike Dobbs said...

I think you're straying over to the dark side with these posts on celery.

But I still love you.

The black background just didn't work.

Kip W said...

Hi, Mike! I used to see your byline on "Koko Comments" (correct me if I'm thinking of somebody else), and once in a blue moon I collaborate with Harry McCracken on an article. Glad to see your name again.

What did they think of the revised Cabarga book?

SRBissette said...

Great intro to your new project, Mike -- thanks for sharing. As for talking Fleischer, let's get you to the CCS this coming semester...

Don't you hate getting chain emails? Jeez, there's three of 'em in my box this morning, and from folks who should know better.

SRBissette said...

BTW, as the partner in Mike's planned St. Martin's book on adult animation, I can vouch for the accuracy of everything Mike says herein. Mike's been one of the best friends a man could ask for in this world for many, many years, and this Fleischer project has always been near and dear to him.

It took me over 15 years to find a publisher for my cannibal movie book, and I never found a home for a once authorized book on Radley Metzger and his films (like Mike's situation with Richard Fleischer, I couldn't blame Radley when he decided to pursue other avenues, though I gave it my best shot). It's taken Tim Lucas well over 20 years to get his Mario Bava book into print, and that's in the home stretch; Mike has already dedicated more than that to his Fleischer book.

Finding a home for any project with the mainstream publishing community is an uphill battle, with or without an agent. Kudos to you, Mike, for sticking it out, and your are most certainly owed a written online apology by you-know-who for you-know-why.

Mike Dobbs said...

Yes, ineed I'm that "Mike Dobbs" whose column on the Fleischer Studios first appeared in Mindrot ( I always loved that name for a fanzine on animation) and then in Animato! which I co-owned for about five years.

Kip W said...

I had an article in the final Animania. I was sorry not to see any more issues after that, especially after the run Mruz had up to that point.

Jerry Beck said...

Hi Mike!

I'll plug your blog on Cartoon Brew -- maybe it'll drum up interest in your Fleischer book (and if you ever get it going please consult me on information and rare images).

I worked with Lori Stein of Layla Productions on three books (LOONEY TUNES & MERRIE MELODIES, I TAWT I TAW A PUTTY TAT and THE 50 GREATEST CARTOONS). I had no idea she was discussing a BETTY BOOP book with you or anyone. She never mentioned such a project to me.

I know that Mark Langer has also been working on a Fleischer history for over 10 ten years now. I have no idea where his project is going.

I hope you will post more information about Fleischer history on your blog. I look forward to reading it!

Michelle Klein-Hass said...

Heya. Good to see you have entered the Internet age.

It's been quite a while.

You can see what I'm up to at http://www.toonmag.com/ , http://cartoongeeks.blogspot.com/ , and if you aren't afraid of flaming Liberal politics and the musings of someone back in College during middle age, my personal blog at http://www.msgeek.org/ .

Too bad you got screwed out of the Fleischer book. I wonder what it would have been like had they stuck with you.

Take care,
Michelle

Duck Dodgers said...

I hope you'll post some of the results of your research online !

Thanks for analyzing the work of the Fleischers !

This studio , as well as the man behind it , would deserve more space .

Ray Pointer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ray Pointer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ray Pointer said...

Nine months ago, I received the above posting from Mike that was the result of a response I made at Golden Age Cartoons forum. The discussion was about Richard Fleischer's biography on his father, OUT OF THE INKWELL: MAX FLEISCHER AND THE ANIMATION REVOLUTION. During the course of this thread, Michael Dobbs was metioned with an inquiry about whatever happened to the biography that he was writing. My original response was "according to the Fleischer Estate, they never heard of "G." Michael Dobbs." This was stated by the attorney for Fleischer Studios, Stanley Handman.

After the post was on the GAC board for several weeks, I received an angry Email from Mike, whom I had not heard from in 15 years. Seeing that he was confused and upset about my posting of this remark, I edited my original posting to say, "unfortunately" according to the Fleischer Estate, they never heard of 'G'. Michael Dobbs." The qualification of this statement is just that, as it is most unfortunate.

Having been involved with this subject for many years, I have a tremendous feeling for what Mike was trying to do. But there are many unanswered questions in Mike's actions at this point in time.

Why did Mike take so long to post? In light of my prompt and thoughtful response to him, why did he not include my responses, as I was most astonished and upset at the way he took the entire matter?

The fact is that the Fleischer attorney did make this statement, and it was stated in front me and my associate when were were negotiating an A&E BIOGRAPHY Special two years ago.

And while Mike has devoted a great deal of time and effort to this area of interest, his anger and disaapointment is misdirected, while justified. As I stated in my reply to Mike, "It is indeed unfortunate that the very people you were dealing with should deny knowing you. I know you, and this is something I do not deny." This response was not posted here.

The name Michael Dobbs is rather common, and I can understand some sensititity over its use by someone
making a living in the Journalism field. Since I've known him, Mike has used Michael Dobbs, Michael G. Dobbs, and later G. Michael Dobbs.
My use of quoatation marks around the "G" had no intention other than to emphasize it appart from the other forms that Mike's name has taken. This was not meant to imply that I was discrediting him in any way, nor is it related to the statement from the Fleischer attorney. Unless there is evidence that this statement has damaged Mike in any way, there is no issue of slander or libel.

According to definition, slander is a deliberate intention to publish a false and malicious statement about a living person.
There was nothing false or malicious contained in this remark. And while I may regret having reported on it, it is all the same true, ironic as it may seem. Accordingly it only supports Mike's story about the frustrations associated with publishing his book.

I understand Mike's frustrations while trying to establish an awareness level of the contributions of Max Fleischer as a major animation pioneer. In this he is to be commended. But the fact is that there have been several others who have been doing this for many years. I happen to have been one of them and have been in the forefront for 35 years, possible longer than anyone, and certainly as long as Leslie Cabarga. That is one of the reasons why Mike contacted me, and I was most happy to lend my assistance because of our mutual regard for the subject. Mike also seemed to have the educational and professional credentials required for publishing which adds to this frustration.

Over the years in our respective ways, we have come forth with our own results. In MIke's case, it was his KOKO COMMENTS in the former MINDROT/ANIMANIA magazines, as well as Mike's own ANIMATO MAGAZINE.

Others have asked me over the years why I have not written a Max Fleischer book. The reason is that I was realistic enough to know that I did not have the creditials as an author--a fundamental issue in the eyes of Ruth Kneitel and Richard Fleischer. My area of expertise has been as a film maker, and so my concentration has been primarily on the production of a documentary. But over the years people have come to me and much of my research has gone into the text of a few books.

Not only have I contributed to the text of THE FLEISCHER STORY, and last year's ANIMATION ART, but I have also resurrected many of the classic OUT OF THE INKWELL films and repackaged them on DVD to be rediscovered and studied by present day animation and film history students. These things I have done without authorization from Richard Fleischer.

Mr. Fleischer has seen the rough cut of my documentary, and approved of it, stating the I told the whole story fairly and accurately. But after presenting the budget we are still in "Development Hell" after dealing with A&E two years later.

Again, it was indeed unfortunate that Richard had a change of heart in his support. But I fail to understand why this should have prevented the book from being published anyway. The evidence of an approval letter from Richard Fleischer would have been enough to establish credibility with a publisher. And considering that many other things have been published about Max Fleischer without authorization, the question is why didn't you go ahead anyway? Leslie Cabarga did, and with all its flaws, it continues to be the only comprehensive book on the subject. Now that we have Richard's book we have another point of view that is more personal, giving insight to Max Fleischer as a person rather than a clinical review of his professional trimuphs and failures, which have already been written about repeatedly.

So the inevitable questions that I hate to raise are, why haven't you come forth with anything after all these years, Mike? Why did you wait six months after Richard's book was published to bring this up? And why did you wait nine months to post this blog after I responded kindly to you and addressed your issues? What is to be gained by this?

While I share your love and passion for Fleischer Animation, I might want to ask you to reconsider your motivations.
We must not become too carried away that during the course of the battle we fall on our own swords. We must be prudent in what we report so not be be guilty of the very issue of libel and slander that was assumed.

Again, while I am sorry that my reporting of a true statement was offensive, it is nevertheless in support to the entire scenario your reported, and only adds sympathy to your case. But the use of my name to imply any negation of your efforts is the result of an overeaction and nothing more.

Mike Dobbs said...

In response to Ray Pointer:

When I first read your post on the animation web site earlier this year, I was quite taken back. What the hell have I ever done to you to compell you to cast me in a bad light?

After I e-mailed you I put the whole subject on the back burner. I have a lot of responsibilities at work and a deadline to meet on a book on animation (more about that later).

Frankly I had never intended to get this blog. I don't cruise the Internet very much unless it is work related as I seldom have the time.

However when a friend of mine became a blogger and I had to register for a blog in order to send him comments, I thought "What the heck?"

So that's why it has taken the time it has to put my comments up on the Web. And considering that your remarks are floating around on the Web, I thought it would only be fair for me to post a defense of myself.

I deal with issues of libel every work day. I supervise five reporters who work on four weekly 'papers. I've taken courses on libel and one of the key points made by libel lawyers is that repeating a libelous statement does NOT absolve you from guilt.

That is why I was upset about what you chose to write about me. Why bring my name into a discussion about your dealings with Richard Fleischer? That is why I posted my response here.

I have detailed the chronology of events in my efforts to publish work on the Fleischer Studio. I did indeed publish some of my work in my two magazines. I have not profited from my efforts not have I ever tried to capitalize on them in a misleading way.

The publisher with whom I am working cancelled my Fleischer project because of Richard's book. As I said in the post I have no ill will toward Fleischer.

The reality of my situation is this: I want to get as much of the information about Max Fleischer I've gathered out to the public because the men and women who created those wonderful cartoon deserve as much credit as they can get.

So will I publish Fleischer material on the Web? I'm sure I will, but I don't want it to put any future book at risk. As much as I like the Web, I'm old-fashioned enough to want to see my work in a more tangible medium.

Steve DoggieDogg said...

Aside from some factual errors, which can be explained by the lack of availability of the films at the time the book was written, I find Leslie Cabarga's book to be an excellent account. He gets the overall picture right, more than any other writer since. Leonard Maltin's account in Of Mice & Magic is great too.

Fleischer, Disney, MGM and Warners have been covered. The book that is REALLY needed is a fair account of the Paul Terry Studio. If ever there was a studio that was poorly served by animation historians and distributors alike, it's Terry. Unfortunately, it may be too late to assemble the research, and the public just isn't aware of Terry any more.

See ya
Steve

Ray Pointer said...

Just as Fleischer was being rediscovered 33 years ago, I think there is hope for Terry since the material is completely fresh for a new audience. The trouble again is obtaining the films. While I've uncovered some of the silent works, there is so much more that is mixed up in the entire complicated process that is the same problem affecting many of the Fleischer cartoons. But let's not underestimate the sheer will for it to happen if we want it badly enough.

Didier Ghez said...

Michael,

I believe there is a way to publish your book that is cheaper than "vanity press" and more "traditional" than e-publishing.

I recently started publishing a series of books called Walt's People that collects the best interviews conducted with Disney artists by respected Animation historians. (check http://www2.xlibris.com/bookstore/bookdisplay.asp?bookid=27491 for more information).

Contributors to the project include Robin Allan, Paul F. Anderson, Mike Barrier Jim Korkis, Charles Solomon, Dave Smith and many others. The project is non-profit and a labor of love that aims to give wide access to important research material that has been hidden for years in drawers and private archives.

The reason I mention all this is that the book is published using a print-on-demand service called Xlibris (www.xlibris.com) The positive side of this is that you publish a real book, without inventory, with a really small investment and with an extremely professional result. The only drawback is that the book can not contain any illustrations outside of the cover illustration, without driving the costs way up.

Just a thought.

By the way, did you ever interview any artists about their work at Disney during the course of your research?

Happy New Year.

Didier

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