John Sparey’s Letters Part Two

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Hi Everyone!  I’m very pleased with the high quality of response I got to my last post on John Sparey. Thanks to Charles Brubaker, Daryl Boman, Bob Jaques, James Tim Walker, Bruce Woodside, Scott O., Keith Scott, Bronnie Barry and David Nethery, the comments were really good! Bruce Woodside had the most meaty essay, refer back to the comments on the last post to read it.

The cartoon above was drawn by John Sparey in response to an embarrassing incident that happened to me on my 21st birthday, that summer of 1969. Mike Sanger and I went to a local bar at lunch to get my first legal drink to celebrate. I didn’t have a driver’s license yet, since I didn’t know how to drive and didn’t learn until 1970. When the barkeep asked to see some photo ID, the only card I had to show was my Mickey Mouse Club card which I got in 1955 (picture above). I flashed the card, and the next thing I knew, I was out on the pavement. Of course, Sanger got a tremendous laugh out of it, and when we got back to the studio, made sure everybody knew what an ass I’d made out of myself. As I recall, John didn’t react at all, but an hour or so later, presented me with the cartoon above. I wonder if John ever tried to crack the humor magazine market, he really had a talent for the one-liner gag cartoon.

In this letter he wrote in 2004, John talks about his final job in animation, his retirement, and then proceeds to critique the last 6 or 7 Disney “flat”, as he called them, animated features. John could be quite an acid critic, and I can still hear his tone of voice as I re-read his letters. He always sounded almost unemotional, yet sophisticated, as if wearing an invisible lorgnette on his nose, with his head held high, looking down at you. Remember, none of the opinions expressed are mine, nor necessarily of this blog, but Mr. Sparey’s alone: (By the way, Bruce, John mentions you in this letter.)

April 7, 2004

Mark,

I saw the L.A. Times article in which they firmly planted their tombstone on the history of flat animation, but I waited to see “Home On The Range” before making any kind of response. When Bill Schultz, at Film Roman, put me on a “call when needed” status, (like never) I mentally summed up my M.P. retirement benefits, social security, IRA and 401K savings (yes, Film Roman had a 401K plan) and began retirement wheels rolling. However, the Union put me on their “available” list. I got one phone call from a company I had never heard of. And they had never heard of me. They asked me to bring in my portfolio. Portfolio?!! My last portfolio when I started at Disney was a scrapbook of my college cartoons. The rubber cement holding them in place had dried up decades ago. Most of my jobs since then linked from one to another. Our conversation was brief.

I got another call from Richard Rich (Nest Anim.). On the recommendation of Bakshi alumni such as Steve Gordon and Bruce Woodside, I was asked to help finish “The Swan Princess”. So my last three months of work were on the board, rather than telling others how to do it. June 30 will be the tenth anniversary of my final work day. “Swan Princess” had seemed like a worthy contender, but Disney took care of that by reissuing “The Lion King” on its opening day. Sadly, although the first two sequels escaped briefly into a few theaters, neither came up to TV standards. A few years later, Rich came out with another disappointing feature (which I forget) made in partnership with another company (which I forget). This was followed by the preschooler parody of “The King and I”, in partnership with Rankin and Bass.

Incidentally, for all I know, “Swan Princess” may have been the last animated feature to have all of its animation completed in the L.A. area. The crew included people from every decade of my career, dating back to Gordon Bellamy and Sheila Brown from the Disney fifties.

From my Bakshi days, I have though of Rankin and Bass as “Rank and Base”. When “The Hobbit” turned up on TV while “Lord of the Rings” was still in production, Ralph found the precise Arthur Rackham illustration that they had used for their ugly Bilbo model. (Where is Paul Coker when you need him?)

But enough about me.

It was good to learn from the article that some of the “good guys” such as Floyd Norman and Tom Sito, are still in there trying. You probably know the story of how Floyd almost got into the B.G. Dept for “Sleeping Beauty” on the strength of one painting—until somebody got a look at him.

I made a point of seeing “Destino” during its brief December release. If the final rendition was anything like the original concept, I think that Walt made the right decision. I noted that its copyright was 2002. When I spent time in the Art Props Dept. at Disney between features, I came across photostats of Dali storyboards, but all I remember is the image of ants crawling out of a hand. Yes, that was in the short, but without any Dali look. Overall, the picture looked as if it had been done on several different continents, without much coordination. My primary after image is of figures flitting off into the distance. And of course it contained some of Roy’s required computerized BG movement. But I hope that Roy will still win his duel with Michael Eisner.

If “Home On The Range” is truly the end of the line, at least the genre didn’t go out with a whimper. I thought it was far better than much of the recent crop. I only objected to all those sharp points on the cows’ muzzles. In the crowd of names in the credits, I only managed to snag two onetime co-workers: Dale Baer and Renee Holt. If you don’t know (but you probably do) Renee was once one of Rudy Gernrich’s shaved-head Unisex models. I also spotted a couple of names that could be younger generations: Hester and Aardal.

If I ever have a chance to see “It’s The Cat”, I trust that my reaction will not be as negative as it was to “Destino”. But then I only know your personal style from over thirty years ago.

For me, the last truly satisfactory Disney flat was “Tarzan”, even though each of the lead characters appeared to have been designed for a different project.

Hedda Hopper’s newspaper column once made reference to “Monstro, the Singing Whale from ‘Fantasia’”. Of course, “Fantasia” was whale-free until the invasion of the space whales in “Fantasia 2000”. Incidentally, I find the current United Airline commercials more diverting than the Hirschfeld-influenced “Rhapsody In Blue”, which seemed like an effort. Not knowing your contributions to the feature, I shall refrain from further comment.

Other features? “Treasure Planet” was the “Ishtar” of animation. The grotesque animation was overwhelmed by those massive sailing space ships. “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” was for lovers of mechanical contraptions. “Lilo and Stitch”? Sort of mushy. “Brother Bear” seems hardly worth making—in the spirit of “Spirit”. “Ice Age” was nice. If “The Road To El Dorado” was meant to evoke Hope and Crosby, the corporate choice of voices seems to be disastrous.

Judging from the trailers, “Shrek II” looks like the giant gorilla for the year. The computerized “Garfield” moves his lips. That used to be a Jim Davis No-No.

I thought that “The Triplets of Belville” was Oscar-worthy.

I could go on.

John S.

Sadly, I don’t think John ever got to see “It’s ‘The Cat'”, he probably would have been critical of it, but he liked me, so he would have pulled his punches. I have many more letters that John wrote, mostly describing his retirement adjustments and his ordeal when he passed out in his apartment for several days, unable to call anyone on the telephone for help. We’ll post those as we go along. The response to the last post would indicate that you would like to read the letters, and I’m sure John would have appreciated being recognized.

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In Felix this time, from 4/27 to 5/3/36, you could call the story line, “the cat came back”. Felix eludes the racketeers several times, with the old reliable tail substitute and balloon escape gags, but winds up back in the racketeers’ clutches, courtesy of Snobbs the butler. Meanwhile, Danny Dooit is frantic, and wants Felix back home. In the Sunday, I love the extra cats that Otto creates here, “Copy Cat”, who is a ringer for Krazy, and “Fraidy Cat”, a cute little white cat. Otto must have liked “Copy Cat”, as he brings him back for an encore in the last panel.

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In Krazy, from 10/14 to 10/19/1940, Offissa Pupp is a pooped cop and his doctor prescribes “a rest” for him. Herriman has a field day with the pun, “arrest” and “a rest”, and gets a whole week’s worth of strips out of it. Even Krazy lands in jail.

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Patrick seems to be channeling his inner Lucy this week, in the strips from 7/18 to 7/23/1966. “You’re Standing on my Shadow!”, etc. seem to be appropriate for Lucy to scream at Charlie Brown, at least the early Lucy. In the 7/23, Elsa’s deadpan remark: “One seldom sees such dedication”, seems to strike a Linus tone. Overall, though, Patrick seems as Mack Sennett to Schulz’s Hal Roach. There is a lot of hitting (WAP), screaming and general mayhem that Schulz used extremely sparingly. More next time, many Patrick strips yet to come. Thanks again, folks, for your great comments, enjoy reading!

5 Responses to “John Sparey’s Letters Part Two”

  1. Hi Mark. I enjoyed your interview on the Animation Guild site and I appreciate you reprinting Sparey’s letters. I was only aware of him due to the Fritz drawings that Mike Barrier published in Funnyworld in his long article on the making of Fritz.

  2. Again, I appreciate the letters.

    Ah, driver’s license. Despite being 21 I still don’t have a license. I made it a point to get a regular ID, tho, and so far I’m not interested in drinking yet (man, what a boring guy I am, huh?)

  3. Dana Gabbard says:

    You asked in comments on The Stripper’s Guide abiout comic strip collector Ernest McGee–I found these photos of McGee posted on Flickr by his great-nephew, who sadly reports some (but not all) of the collection was lost in a fire…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/frostylime/3701942030/

  4. Mark says:

    Hi Mark, Charled and Dana,
    Thanks for your comments! Charles, you’re not boring, but sensible. Drinking is very overrated, as I found out. Don’t ever drink and drive, I did, but was lucky not to have an accident. Mark, I’m glad you like John’s letters, more to follow. Dana, thanks for the McGee links, terrific photos and what a collection he must have had. Just about as large as Bill Blackbeard’s, I suppose. I had the pleasure of seeing some of Mr. Blackbeard’s collection in person, it was so huge that I literally got lost in the stacks of bound newspapers he had.

  5. GoodFoodForThought says:

    Just who the heck cares about Lucy Van Pelt? Every time I see her treating either Charlie Brown or Linus like peons, the very first thing that comes to mind is the B-word.

    I, myself, have never even seen “Patrick” before, until I already just came onto this site (gave me a TON of laughs, whereas, with Peanuts, forget it.) Oh well, thank God for the zaniness in “Patrick” here. 🙂

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