Saturday, 19 November 2016

Bill Sturm

Many of the artists of the Golden Age of theatrical animation toiled without a lot (and, in some cases, any) recognition of their work. It’s sad to think how many could have been interviewed about their careers so their memories could be preserved.

A few were the subject of stories in local newspapers, written by reporters who weren’t, by any stretch, animation historians. I’ve stumbled across several that have been posted on the blog. Here’s another one.

I only recognise Bill Sturm’s name from Popeye cartoons made by the Fleischers in the ‘30s. He also got in at the start of network television to open a commercial animation studio in New York City. He, Shamus Culhane, Lee Blair, Lars Colonius, UPA and a few others chugged along during the ‘50s. Among Sturm’s clients toward the end of 1955 were Bristol-Myers, Ex-Lax, Salada Tea, RCA and Nabisco; some of their commercials may have been live action. The Press-Republican in Ticonderoga, New York spoke with Sturm. Perhaps not surprisingly, he started in animation in the silent days. It’s a shame the photo accompanying the story was scanned so poorly from a photocopy. Forgive the writer for butchering Pat Sullivan, Winsor McCay and Earl Hurd. This was published May 26, 1979.

Area man gives half century to animation

PLATTSBURGH — When Bill Sturm talks about his 57 years in the animated cartoon business he has a tendency to reflect wistfully about some of the stories and madcap scenes created by his pen, a penchant not too surprising for a man who had a part in giving life to some of the most memorable cartoon characters of the last half century.
Temporarily retired at 72, and living on Route 9 just south of Plattsburgh, the man who still calls "Popeye" his main character recounted some of the tales of his years as an animator from Hollywood to the Big Apple.
“I started in 1923 with the J.R. Bray Studios in New York City. We had many innovators and little of the sophisticated machinery,” said Sturm. Actually he started well before that, working while still in high school with the legendary Pat Williams [sic] on Felix the Cat.
Pointing out that in those days almost all of the animation work was done in New York City, he recalled that a fellow named Disney ventured east around 1927 and stole everybody, or almost everybody, from the major animation studios. “He offered me a job but I turned it down. I had never heard of the guy,” recalled Sturm, categorizing that move as the biggest mistake of his lifetime though he ended up with the famed Disney many years later.
But missing that chance with Disney didn't leave the talented Sturm exactly out in the streets. Shortly thereafter he signed on with the Max Fleischer Studios and began his love affair with Popeye, Betty Boop, Koko the Clown and many others, During the next twelve years he also had a hand in the creation of the famous “bouncing ball” cartoons and in the awesome $6,000,000 epic “Gullivers Travels” that has delighted millions of children and adults alike.
“Animation is the kids' language,” relates Sturm. No where was that language more in evidence than at the Disney Studios in Hollywood where Sturm arrived shortly before World War II. Here he left the irrascible sailor Popeye to direct his skills to the lovable Pluto, among others, and made the switch successfully evidenced by the Academy Award won in 1941 by “Lend a Paw,” the first Pluto picture he worked on.
Sturm calls Disney a genius and attributes much of his sucess to his committment to take the money made from his animated features and pour it back into subsequent productions. "Disney got more money for each feature and owned his own characters while the others did not,” explains Sturm. He adds that the arrival of the famous Mickey Mouse watch actually saved the Ingersoll Watch Company from extinction. “In those days the income from the cartoon features went right back into production but Disney's wealth mushroomed from the product endorsements and tie-ins.”
The arrival of the War found Sturm in the Navy doing decidedly un-Navylike chores, creating animated training films for use in industry and the armed services, an aspect to the animation business that remains substantial to this day. “The trick is to disguise the dreary or mundane angle of such a film and to make it enjoyable, then you can make your point,” he explained.
That ability served him well at the conclusion of the war when he ultimately formed his own studio in New York and continued making industrial pictures and public relations films along with TV commercials for the infant industry. He ruefully admits that his inexperience in such uncreative fields as accounting and business management proved costly, and the financial manipulations of one of his principal backers left him in 1962 with no studio and some impressive debts. Undimmed, but certainly wiser, by that development, he continued at his trade for other companies in New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. The last couple of years before coming to the Adirondacks in 1978 were spent teaching animation and creating Bible teaching films at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, an experience that has left him with a deep committment to teaching animation in general and to Bible related films in particular.
Harkening back to the early days of his career, he fondly recalls the men who worked with him, many of whom developed into household names such as Walter Lance [sic], Jack Mercer and Mel Blanc. He related that the voice of Woody Woodpecker, created by Lance, was actually done by his wife.
Sturm also reminisced about an encounter with a Wall Street printer with whom he commuted to New York in 1950. “This fellow told me about the first Xerox machine and actually showed it to me in this basement,” recalls Sturm, adding that the evolution of the Xerox machine has had a profound effect on the animation business. “I could have purchased the stock then at $1 a share, and while I was really impressed with the machine at the time, finances with my own studio were just too tight to gather the $1,000 I would have liked to invest.” As a postscript to that story he explains that 1,000 shares bought then would now be worth about 3.8 million dollars.
Many of his contemporaries back then had a great affinity to taking bottled spirits and he recounted an incident involving Windsor McKay and Earl Heard, two prominent cartoonists who are considered pioneers in the field of animation.
“One Saturday afternoon they got drunk and came back to the empty studio in New York. They piled up all the desks and the office equipment and painted tiny foot steps along the mountains of furniture, up the walls and across the ceiling,” he remembered with a laugh.
Sturm explains that he would like to teach animation but restrictions in New York State make that difficult because of lack of accreditation. But his retirement plans sound like enough to tire a much younger man. "I am hoping to open a studio in Willsboro with Robert Arnold and Sid Couchy," said Sturm. The 72-year-old man with the heart and imagination of a child would like to involve area seniors in some of his projects and judging by past experience, things should start popping down south when "Popeye" takes pen in hand and sets his fertile mind to work.


  1. I saw one of the animated films Sturm made for Bob Jones, "For All the Right Reasons," which was shown by recruiters from BJU who visited my school. It depicted a high school grad (driving an anthropomorphized VW Beetle) searching for a college to attend. All the "brand-X" colleges were depicted as hotbeds of sin or full of crazy hippie types, and only BJU was the right one (of course).

    1. Oh, and the recruiters told us that Sturm used to work for Disney (no mention of Fleischer, though) and was then on the Bob Jones faculty.

  2. Sturm also was an animator on the Jam Handy "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", but I don't know whether he worked there or was just moonlighting like Shane Miller and Joe Stultz.