Friday 11 March 2011

A Few Words From Jerry Eisenberg, Part One

Iwao Takamoto once wrote it was difficult to get Jerry Eisenberg to stop talking. Iwao was wrong. It’s easy. You just hang up the phone. The only thing is, quite a bit of time may pass between the time you pick up the phone to the time you put it down. In my case, it was two and a half hours and Jerry protested he could have told me a lot more. I’m sure he’s right.

Jerry is a veteran of the Golden Ages of theatrical and television animation, having worked during the tail end of the former and close to the outset of the latter. Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, Jonny Quest, Dastardly and Muttley, Scooby Doo; he worked on them all. And a lot more. His connection with animation reaches back to the ‘30s through his father, Harvey.

The two of us chatted via phone last night in an interview that jumped back and forth through studios and time periods. It’s a little more disjointed than I like. I tried to focus on the making of cartoons we touch on here on the blog but we ended up discussing a pile of different things. Unfortunately, not as much of it dealt with personalities as I’d like and Jerry couldn’t remember some things. There are arcane, clinical questions about the making of cartoons which don’t make for exciting reading. And some of what he had to say is, no doubt, very familiar to readers.

Transcribing a two-and-a-half hour interview is a challenge, so I’m going to do it in pieces. Historians may cringe because it won’t be word-for-word. Parts of answers are repetitive or Jerry tries to recall and doesn’t quite get there. We chatted about personal stuff that’s not germane to the blog. So you won’t be reading that.

This is the first 15 minutes of the interview where Jerry deals with his pre-Hanna-Barbera work.

Yowp: How was it you ended up at the Hanna-Barbera studio?

Jerry: I went from art school. I was only in art school for about a year and a half and I had to go to work. My father, who was a cartoonist [Harvey Eisenberg], he and Joe Barbera both lived in Brooklyn, they met each other at one of the studios, became friends and used to go to work together.
I needed to get a job, so my father called Joe over at the MGM cartoon studio in Culver City and arranged for an appointment for me. So I went with my portfolio and Joe hired me as an apprentice in-betweener in the animation department. So that’s how I started.
Seven months later, MGM decided to close the cartoon division. So I was out of work for about four months and then I got a job as an in-betweener at the Warner Brothers cartoon studio. They had three units. Friz Freleng had one, Chuck Jones and Bob McKimson. I really liked what Chuck Jones’ unit was doing, him and Mike Maltese, the writer. And he had great animators. When this one assistant animator [Willie Ito] left—he was going to Bob Clampett’s studio which was called Snowball in those days—so his animator asked for me, which was great. That’s right where I wanted to be. So I started assisting Ken Harris. It was great to work with him. I must have been about 19 or 20 or something, and he was probably in his 50s, but he seemed so young. He was just a really neat person. He used to tell the other guys that I talked to him like we were the same age.
Since I’d already had my seven months experience with Joe Barbera [at MGM], I remember Joe called me when I was at Warner Bros. and he offered me a job to start in layout, that’s what my father was, a layout man. That always interested me, layout, design. But my father said “Why don’t you stay at Warners a little bit longer and learn a little bit about animation?” So I took his advice, and I’m glad I did.
I finally left Warners because I wasn’t getting enough animation. Once in a while, Ken would leave me a little scene to do or Phil Monroe, who was running the commercial unit which they added to the studio—I remember getting to animate on one or two of the Charlie the Tuna commercials—but I just had an itch to get into the design and layout.
Actually, I worked one week of my vacation [at Hanna-Barbera] and I loved it, so when I came back to work I gave my notice and went to Hanna-Barbera.

Yowp: Did your dad encourage you to become an animator or was this something you wanted to do on your own?

Jerry: I don’t remember whether he was encouraging me. I mean, I liked cartooning. In high school, I used to do sports cartoons. I even did sports cartoons for The Los Angeles Examiner; they had a high school page. It was through them that when I was a senior they awarded me a scholarship to Chouinard. But, no, I was very interested actually in advertising design and industrial design and I still am. But I love the cartooning and I have no regrets. I used to think periodically ‘Wow, how fortunate I am to make a good living drawing silly pictures.’ ‘Cause, you know, it’s rough out there for most people; not everybody likes what they do.

Yowp: At MGM, how many drawings would an in-betweener be responsible for?

Jerry: Well, it depends on the length of the scene. Let’s say a scene is comprised of about 50 drawings. The animator will do the key drawings which would probably amount to maybe 10, 11, 12 drawings. The assistant animator would then clean those up and then add more drawings. And the in-betweener does roughly half the drawings. So I would do 25.

Yowp: I gather you were working with both units, Mike Lah’s and Hanna-Barbera’s.

Jerry: Yeah, at MGM, Bill and Joe would have their unit. I think at that point, they became producers; they were running the studio. There was Mike Lah’s unit. Tex Avery wasn’t there. He had already left before I worked there. In fact, he had his own little commercial studio. I did some freelance work for him, some in-betweening.

Yowp: That was at Cascade?

Jerry: Before that, he had a little office in West L.A. I remember it was up on Santa Monica Boulevard right near the Mormon Temple, ‘cause I remember going there to pick up and deliver. Then he moved over to Hollywood, Seward Street, which is where Cascade was. In fact, that’s where Bob Clampett put together his studio.

Yowp: A bunch of the MGM cartoons at that time were in Cinemascope. Did you have to in-between differently, considering the size of the screen?

Jerry: I don’t remember doing any work on anything in Cinemascope. I think there was stuff done before I got there. There was a feature called Invitation to the Dance with Gene Kelly. It was live action and animation but I didn’t work on that.

Yowp: Was Jack Nicholson at MGM when you were there?

Jerry: Yeah, I met Jack. He was like our messenger boy. We both joined the MGM basketball team because he loved basketball, liked to play it, so did I. When they closed the studio, one of our actor friends on the team had gotten a contract at 20th Century Fox. He wanted to form a team over there and there wasn’t much interest among the employees at 20th so Jack and I and two or three other fellows from the MGM team joined our old friend Gardner and we played there about three, four, five years. Later on, at Hanna-Barbera, I formed a team.
So that’s how I met Jack. We played ball together...and went different directions. I remember him telling me at MGM one day, there was the Player’s Ring Gallery up in West Hollywood. It was a theatre and they also had acting classes. And he said “I’m going to go there and take some acting classes.” And I said “Oh, that’s interesting.” Years later, I took some acting classes but I didn’t do anything at that time.

Yowp: What year was it you arrived at MGM?

Jerry: Either ’56 or ’57.

Yowp: They shut down in ’57 and you were out of work.

Jerry: I was out of work about four months and I got hired at Warner Bros. They were on the southeast corner of the main lot in Burbank. They had a nice building there.

Yowp: You were in-betweening for all three units. Did the directors work differently in how they handled their cartoons?

Jerry: I couldn’t really tell. You know, after a cartoon was finished they would screen it for everybody. I guess I liked the artwork that was done in Chuck’s cartoons. Friz did some wonderful things. He had a great writer called Warren Foster. But I just kind of preferred Chuck’s unit. I could stop by his office. He was like a teacher. He would spend time, he would show me things. He was very helpful.

Yowp: Guys like Friz and McKimson had a reputation of sending back animation they didn’t like to be redone. Did that happen with the in-betweening, too?

Jerry: I don’t think so. Probably they wouldn’t wait until the in-between stage ‘cause that was like the final stage, you would work clean. I think they would probably, maybe, when it was in the assistant animation stage where everything could still be kind of rough. They would do what we call the pencil test, you would just film the pencil drawings. They could do that also after the in-betweens were done but I don’t remember stuff being sent back. Especially when I worked for Ken Harris. He was so good, I don’t think he ever had anything sent back.

Yowp: What year did you replace Willie when he went to Snowball?

Jerry: I would say that was maybe late ’58, early ’59.

Yowp: Do you recall which cartoons you assisted on, maybe the first one?

Jerry: That’s a tough question. It would have been a Roadrunner cartoon or a Pepe LePew. That is so far back. My memory’s a little bit fuzzy, unfortunately. You know, years ago, I used to think “Why don’t I keep a daily or weekly diary?” and I wish I would have. There are so many things I forget.

Yowp: Chuck’s unit would have had Dick Thompson animating and Benny Washam...

Jerry: ...and Abe Levitow. And Abe used to do such great caricatures of me and Corny Cole. Corny was Dick Thompson’s assistant. And, somehow, he paired the two of us up. I saved a bunch of those things.

Yowp: Was Bob Bransford assisting at that time?

Jerry: Yes, he was Ben Washam’s assistant, unless Bob was Abe’s.

Yowp: I know Tom Ray came along.

Jerry: He had worked at MGM well before I did. In fact, he and my father worked together many years ago at MGM. There were four of us assistants. Now, I’m having trouble remembering who the fourth one was.
Mike Maltese was the writer, Phil DeGuard was the background painter. Joe Barbera hired Mike Maltese and Warren Foster, I remember that happened maybe ’58 or ’59. What a coup. He got two of the best cartoon writers. And they would draw their scripts. You know, most of the cartoon writers in those days could draw, and they would do like a storyboard script.

Yowp: I’m presuming Joe didn’t make an offer to Tedd Pierce or maybe he felt Tedd had his personal problems to deal with that didn’t make him a good hire.

Jerry: You know, it’s funny, I had many opportunities over the years to ask Joe Barbera about that and I never did. Oh, Tedd, he was just a terrific person. He and Mike Maltese used to entertain all of us at coffee break time. They were great.

Yowp: But I’ve read that two of them had a falling out at one time.

Jerry: Well, maybe the falling out happened before or after I was there
[Yowp note: it was before]. Of course, when I left, the studio closed the cartoon division at Warners in, I think, ’62, because I left in ’61.

Yowp: Dick Thomas and Bob Givens were in McKimson’s unit and they went to Hanna-Barbera about the same time.

Jerry: Oh, Bob Givens, he was a good layout man. A nice fellow. He finally retired but when I went back to work in ’97 at Warner Bros at the newer TV division, Bob was there. A couple of the oldtimers were there and they were in their early 80s.

click here for Part Two


  1. Great interview! It's especially nice to get some insight about Termite Terrace in the later years. The info about Bob Bransford (probably the most obscure animator to ever receive credit in a Chuck Jones cartoon) is also welcome. Bransford was the only animator who worked for Jones then Larriva, joining the Larriva unit (along with Virgil Ross) after the animation debacle that was Larriva's pilot Roadrunner.

    Looking forward to Part Two!

  2. He assited KEN HARRIS?! Thats quite an honor for him to have. Ken is one of the greatest animators who ever lived.

    This is a terrfic read! I eagerly await his statemnts about working at Hanna Barbera. He worked with some pretty interesting people, like Jack Ozark and John Boeresema, right from the get go. I'm sure he has lots of great stuff to say.

  3. Zartok, unfortunately, as you'll see, Jerry had little to say about specific animators, other than he worked with them. Though I did learn Bill Keil's name is pronounced "Kyle."