Saturday, 19 August 2017

A Tale of Turkisher

He’s the guy Carl Stalling didn’t talk about.

Stalling told Milt Gray in an interview published in 1971 that he composed for the Ub Iwerks studio for parts of 1931 and 1932 before returning in summer of 1933 and staying until the studio closed in 1936. Stalling said he had no assistant at Iwerks; he did everything including the arranging.

So who, then, is Art Turkisher?

In the photo of the Iwerks studio above, published in Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic, you can see men standing in front of pillars. The one on the right is Stalling. The one on the left is Turkisher, who received music credits on (as best as I can discover) six Iwerks cartoons, all released in 1934.

The Brave Tin Soldier, April 7
Insultin’ the Sultan, April 14 (Willie Whopper)
Reducing Créme, May 19 (Willie Whopper)
The Queen of Hearts, June 25
Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, August 10
The Valiant Tailor, October 29

It should be noted some Iwerks cartoons didn’t have a music director in the on-screen credits, such as the first ComiColor short, Jack and the Beanstalk, released December 23, 1933. In a few cases it is likely because, as music historian James Parten has pointed out, the background music consists of phonograph records (eg., 1935’s Balloonland).

It turns out Turkisher was far more than a music composer and eventually had several different, and diverse, careers. Unfortunately, his obituary in a Palm Beach, Florida newspaper reveals little. It is two lines long and says nothing about his life. It only mentions survivors and that he died after a long illness on January 30, 1993 at age 79. He and his wife Irma “Judy” Turkisher had been living in the little city of Atlantis.

The longest bit of background I’ve been able to find about him comes from the Poughkeepsie Evening Star of February 23, 1940, announcing a concert:
The Paeff Quartet for Strings and Piano, which will be heard on Tuesday night, Feb. 27, at the Jewish Center, 54 North Hamilton street, is the only ensemble of its kind in this country devoted to the piano quartets of the classic and contemporary composers. The concert is scheduled to start at 8:15 o'clock. . . .
L. Arthur Turkisher, cellist and composer, has toured throughout this country as soloist with the major symphony orchestras. A graduate of the Institute of Musical Art in New York, he brings a great wealth of knowledge to the music, at hand. He recently discovered the Shostakovich quartet and arranged for its premier performance on Royale records.
But thanks to government records, a few clippings and city directories, we’re able to piece together a bit more. Laci Arthur Turkisher was born Christmas Day 1913 in New York City to Edward and Helen Czukor Turkisher. His parents came to the U.S. from Hungary in 1907. His family was musical. Arthur’s father was a cellist, music teacher and composer, and crafted stock scores for silent cartoons. Interestingly, the 1940 Census has his father living in Miami with the occupation of “Musician, sound studio.” It is tempting to think Edward was working on the Fleischer cartoons, especially since he and Fleischer composer Winston Sharples both worked on the score of a documentary 10 years later.

Turkisher was performing in public when he was almost 15, giving a violin recital in 1928, according to the New York Herald Tribune of December 16th that year. But more germane to our tale is a listing in the 1933 New York Directory, which gives Turkisher’s occupation as “employee, Fleischer Studios, Inc.” Turkisher was assisting Lou Fleischer in the music department with scores. By that time, Grim Natwick had left Fleischer’s to animate on the West Coast for Iwerks. Berny Wolf, Al Eugster and Jimmie Culhane followed. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that one of them suggested to Carl Stalling or Iwerks himself that he hire Turkisher. However it happened, Turkisher was at Iwerks’ Beverly Hills studio the following year.

Why did Turkisher leave Iwerks? Of Mice and Magic states that some staff members were laid off in 1935 while others quit because of tight money. Producer Pat Powers pumped a lot of promotional money into the Disney-imitating ComiColors, but prints were rented on a state’s right basis, meaning the Iwerks studio couldn’t expect the kind of money for them as it would receive from a release by a major, theatre-owning distributor (such as MGM, which handled Iwerks’ Willie Whopper shorts). It could be that Turkisher left at that time, but the answer may be lost in the past. Whatever the reason, the studio closed in 1936. In May 1937, he was back in New York where he married Irma Jurist. Her father Simeon was, for a short period after World War Two, a copyist for Paramount’s Famous cartoon studio; afterward the father and daughter were both caught up in the HUAC investigations. It would appear that Art and Irma divorced prior to 1944 (her passport that year lists her as single) and at some time, Turkisher married someone else named Irma (who went by “Judy”).

Besides a few cello concerts, the only other musical reference to Turkisher I can find after departing Iwerks is in the June 1943 edition of the Radio Mirror, which reprinted the sheet music for one of his songs.

Turkisher enlisted in the U.S. Navy in April 1943 and rose to the rank of Radarman, First Class, before being discharged in October 1945. The Manhattan City directory of 1949 discloses that Turkisher was in the diamond business; he moved to White Plains by the early ‘50s where he and his wife enjoyed golf (she potted a hole in one) and he was involved in a minor car accident in May 1965. Soon after this, there are several newspaper stories stating that Turkisher was now running a 64-car fleet of taxis out of the Bronx; the New York Times of January 16, 1968 reported the cab company had been organised by his father-in-law, and that Turkisher took it over upon the old man’s death in 1953, giving up his jobs as a diamond importer and film editor/producer in the process.

When he and his wife retired to Florida is unknown.

There’s little to say about Turkisher’s work at Iwerks. Much of his first cartoon was done in verse. The huge success of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” in the Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs seems to have inspired studios to plunk original songs in their cartoon shorts in the hopes it would mean a wolf-like financial windfall. The opening lyrics for Turkisher’s tune:

Hammering away at his desk all day
Sits a toymaker working on his toys.
Soldiers bright and neat
Now the set’s almost complete
So to bring lots of fun to little boys.

Those lyrics aren’t exactly Disney calibre, are they? And all they do is mimic what the audience can see on the screen. Turkisher includes “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” in the score, as well as “Taps” when the spirits of the soldier and his girl-friend rise to Toy Heaven after being burned.

In Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, there’s a nice folk music feel in places, with Turkisher including a guitar (and, I believe, a celeste) in the orchestrations. Again, part of the cartoon is treated as an operetta, with some dialogue almost being sung. He tosses in the NBC chimes twice strictly as a pop culture reference as there is nothing about radios on the screen. The first minute and a half of Reducing Créme features variations on the opening title theme. Turkisher seems content to let his melodies play out; when the shrunken Willie is chased by the cat on the table, there’s no change in tempo or orchestration, a kind of rhythmic dance piece just carries on whatever the action is on the screen, then it’s back to the Willie theme before nice little percolating tune when the cat is after Willie on a roller skate.

In essence, Turkisher’s music is for strictly for mood; no wonder Iwerks or Powers or maybe Stalling thought it was just as easy buying records and playing them in the background of future shorts. Still, it’s no worse than some of what was being composed for cartoons in 1934, a period of animation whose scores deserve wider examination.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I'd never even heard of Art Turkish. I always thought Stalling only worked at Disney and Warner Bros and other non-animated jobs.