Saturday 1 September 2012

The Stillborn Cartoon Studios

Theatrical cartoon shorts flourished on the West Coast for about three decades. Walt Disney was the leading animation studio, of course, but Warner Bros. (né Leon Schlesinger) arguably had the most popular characters. MGM garnered piles of Oscars. Walter Lantz can be considered an ‘A’ lister, thanks to Woody Woodpecker and lots of TV exposure starting in the late ‘50s.

Then there were places like Ub Iwerks, who petered out in the ‘30s. The Harman-Ising studio got fired by both Schlesinger and MGM in the same decade. And the Mintz studio went through a takeover followed by a revolving door of Columbia management turmoil until it died in the late ‘40s, the front office deciding to contract its cartoons from UPA.

And then there are those that tried to get into game and failed for any number of reasons. One reason was there were only so many studios prepared to release short subjects. Another was the impending war. And perhaps the biggest was it took a while to make any money off cartoons. Unless a company had a thick wallet to begin with (Lantz, for example, shut down for a bit when Universal refused to advance him money) the future couldn’t possibly be bright.

Bob Stokes was one who tried. Stokes had worked for Harman-Ising, Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney but decided in 1940 the time was ripe to make his own theatrical cartoons. Boxoffice magazine of September 14, 1940 contains the following:
STOKES-EDMONDS PRODUCTIONS files incorporation papers and announces plans to produce a series of one-reel Technicolor cartoons starring a semi-human five-year-old girl, “Sassy Sis.” Bob Stokes, former Walt Disney employe, as president, Paul Edmonds, at one time an agent and personal business representative for Boris Morros Productions, is vice-president and treasurer. Herbert T. Silverberg is corporation counsel. Schedule calls for production of 13 one-reelers during the coming year for a major release now being negotiated.
A similar story was contained in the Motion Picture Herald, with a mention that the George R. Bilson office would handle press relations. Stokes-Edmonds got a copyright on Sassy Sis on December 11, 1940. The U.S. Government copyright catalogue lists it under paintings or designs for works of art; presumably the company copyrighted some model sheets. And they went hunting for a voice for Sis. Louella Parsons revealed who it was in her column of September 11, 1940:
If the offers made Shirley Temple were put end to end they would reach to New York and back. The latest and one of the most interesting is made her by Bob Stokes and Paul Edmonds to merely lend her voice to the cartoon character of “Sassy Sis.” In the event the offer is accepted Stokes, who was formerly key man at the Walt Disney studios, says that Shirley, who is now at the awkward age, would keep her contact with the public and not be seen until she is a little older. The character of “Sassy Sis.” is a five-year-old girl who will appear in a series of 13 cartoons made in color. Shirley’s voice is of course known to millions.
But that’s where the trail ends. What happened to his company? What happened to Stokes? Someone out there likely knows. About all I can tell you is during the war, he served with the Photographic Science Lab, Art & Animation Division, USMAS Anacostia. He died in Riverside, California on February 17, 1980, age 71.

Most of the sizeable studios in the late ‘30s-early ‘40s had animation deals wrapped up. The biggest exception was United Artists, which had been distributing Disney cartoons for three years until 1937 and then avoided animation until signing a deal with the Sutherland-Moray studio in 1944 for a stop-motion series. But it wasn’t through a lack of trying.

Walter Winchell’s column reported on May 19, 1937 that U.A. was working on a deal. Then Boxoffice magazine reported on June 19 under the headline “36 on United Artist List With 18 ‘Skippy’ Shorts”:
To replace the Walt Disney short subjects, which will be released by RKO, UA will have 18 “Skippy” cartoons in Technicolor, based on the familiar cartoon strip by Percy Crosby, which Crosby will produce in Hollywood. The Skippys will be released starting August 15, the start of UA’s selling season.
Boxoffice of July 3, 1937 added:

THE FIRST “SKIPPY” UA SUBJECT READY NEW YORK—“The Dog Catcher,” first of nine animated subjects in Technicolor based on Percy Crosby’s “Skippy” newspaper cartoon strip produced for the United Artists 1937-38 program, has been finished by Mayfair Productions in Hollywood. Norman Stevenson is the general manager of Mayfair and several artists formerly employed by Disney are now working for the new company. The Skippy subjects will be released early in UA’s selling season which starts August 15. The company has five completed Disney cartoons ready for release, with no date set.

“Skippy” may have been the biggest bust in cartoon short history, even more so than Republic’s flirtation with Bob Clampett in the mid-‘40s. United Artists planned to mount a huge push. Our friend Ted Watts points to the book American films in Latin America: The Case History of United Artists Corporation which reveals the following:
Mayfair Productions obtained the franchise to film the cartoons. Crosby had the right of approval and some characters in the first filmed cartoon had to be re-drawn several times before he okayed them. Mayfair was headed by E.C. Simmons, managing director Kenneth McLellan, Norman Stephenson, formerly associated with Disney and by Mr. [Bill] Nolan, the head animator. … The company, with the latest and best mechanical devices, was housed in the UAC Studio and staffed with 4 animators. … [m]any organizations specializing in film animation approached 130 UAC but only Skippy gained its interest. The contract with Mayfair Productions called for the making of 9 films. The negative cost was estimated at no less than $35,000. Additional prints, advertising and other distribution charges were expected to total $60,000.
United Artist’s publicity department talked to its exchanges about a 300 to 400 foot Technicolor trailer, gag advertising stills, and feature stories about Crosby “whom we will build up in the same way we did Walt Disney.” There was even a “Skippy Merchandising Bureau, which is an organization similar to the Kay Kamen Co. handling the Mickey Mouse merchandise.”

The Motion Picture Herald reported the first cartoon was shown to United Artists executives. The National Board of Review magazine that year included a short blurb:
SKIPPY. Percy Crosby’s Skippy, saving the dog from the dog-catcher. Rather different from other cartoons. United Artists.
So what happened?

Boxoffice magazine tells the story on January 15, 1938.

Sell Mayfair Productions Assets at Creditors Meeting All assets, including furniture, materials, supplies, equities and conditional sales contracts of Mayfair Productions, which was organized in early 1937, to produce a series of movie shorts based on the “Skippy” cartoon character, were sold this week at a creditors’ meeting conducted by Benno Brink, referee in bankruptcy. Mayfair held contracts with United Artists for the delivery of two “Skippy” cartoons and had delivered one of them.

Oddly, the one Skippy cartoon was copyright May 9, 1938 by Mayfair Productions, which was supposed to be out of business.

It’d be interesting to learn who else besides Bill Nolan was working for Mayfair. He’s credited with inventing the rubber-hose style of animation in New York in the early ‘20s which was becoming passé toward the end of the ‘30s. Nolan had a parting of the ways with Walter Lantz in 1936.

Oh, to learn the fate of any prints of the cartoon. Unless they’re hiding in a U-A vault somewhere, or Percy Crosby kept a copy and it was passed down to his family, it doesn’t appear any survived. Too bad.

Animation had its A-list and B-list studios and it appears they had at least two that are mere footnotes in cartoon history.

A 2021 UPDATE: Eric Costello has sent along this note on 17 April 2021:
I've actually found an instance where a theater showed one of the United Artists/Mayfair Productions "Skippy" cartoons, the only one that was actually produced, entitled "The Dog Catcher." The Loew's Premier Theater in Brooklyn had it playing on a bill with "The Shopworn Angel" and "Devil's Party" August 25-29, 1938. Which is a bit strange, since this was over a year after the cartoon was produced, and some seven months or so after Mayfair's assets were sold in bankruptcy.
Jerry Beck says a copy exists in the collection of the Library of Congress. So now we know.


  1. As far as I know Xenia Demattia(likely an inbetweener, or inker), and Dick Bickenbach, also worked at Skippy as well

  2. "Doria Morroa Productions" looks like a typo of some kind, maybe an error in transcribing notes. It does, however, suggest "Boris Morros Productions," run by the music director/Russian spy/FBI counterspy (busy, wasn't he?) which produced Laurel and Hardy's "The Flying Deuces" and Fred Astaire's "Second Chorus," two public-domain favorites on dollar-store DVDS.

    1. Jeff, thanks for your good eyes. You are correct. This was an OCR error and I've fixed the copy.