Saturday, 17 August 2019

The Troubled Composer

He was a cartoon music composer who saved a life and took another.

His own.

Eugene Poddany is probably best known to classic cartoon fans for his scores for Chuck Jones at MGM in the 1960s. Poddany’s incidental music for How the Grinch Stole Christmas may have been his major achievement when it comes to animation. Jones was impressed. He told author Robert J. McKinnon “Gene Poddany worked very closely with Ted [Geisel aka Dr. Seuss] and did an outstanding job composing the score and arranging and orchestrating the songs.”

Jones knew Poddany before the two were hired by Walter Bien in 1963 to make cartoons. Poddany had been Carl Stalling’s copyist at Warner Bros. more than a decade before. When Stalling needed emergency surgery for a brain injury and then five weeks to recover, Poddany scored five Warners cartoons— “Room and Bird” (Freleng), “French Rarebit” (McKimson, frames to the left), “The Wearing of the Grin” (Jones), “Leghorn Swoggled” (McKimson) and “Lovelorn Leghorn” (McKimson), all released in 1951. But his career extended to other cartoon studios and outside of animation.

Eugene Frank Poddany was born in Hardin in Northern China on December 30, 1919 to Frank and Tatiana Girgilevich Poddany. His father was a Czech who made musical instruments and later became a prop maker at one of the Hollywood studios. The family arrived in the U.S. in August 1923 through Seattle and settled in California.

Tragedy hit the Poddany family. Gene’s younger brother James, age 5, was hit by a car and died of a fractured skull in 1924. A short biography attached to his papers at the University of Wyoming states he “graduated from Hollywood High School in 1937. He studied music composition and orchestration with Ernest Toch and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. In the early 1940s he toured Europe while directing a classical orchestra. When he returned to America he started writing music for motion picture cartoons.”

Poddany’s military record reveals he was employed as a clerk by the May Company when he enlisted in 1941. He spent two years in the Army during World War Two.

Poddany was on a trip to Oregon in 1947 when he saved a boy’s life. The United Press reported:
Tourist Saves Boy From Drowning in Columbia
PORTLAND, May 26. (UP)—A California tourist was credited today with saving 12-year-old Harley Jacobs from drowning in the Columbia River Saturday when the boy fell from the Interstate bridge.
Vanport sheriff's deputies reported the lad told of Eugene Poddany, 24, Hollywood, Calif., jumping fully clothed from an excursion boat to hold him above water until the two were pulled from the river.
At Warners in the early ‘50s, Poddany was the third man in the music department behind Carl Stalling and arranger Milt Franklyn. He had a chance to become the first man at the well-paying industrial studio, John Sutherland Productions. His music scores can be heard on such enjoyable propaganda cartoons as A is For Atom (1953), It’s Everybody’s Business (1954, with Les Baxter), and Your Safety First (1957?). Poddany next got work with Clarence Wheeler at the Walter Lantz studio and was soon getting screen credit for scores, starting with The Ostrich Egg and I (1956), with his name showing up occasionally until 1962.

Poddany also wrote music for some Capitol children’s records, including “Woody Woodpecker and the Scarecrow” and “The Noisy Eater” with Jerry Lewis. He created some cues for the Capitol Hi-Q library but they were later replaced with other music for some reason. Poddany wrote a piece for flute, cello and piano performed by the Los Angeles Flute Club in 1956, and a modern classic piece called “Reflections,” which was performed by a small women’s group in Brentwood, California in 1959. He began sculpting in stone in 1956, according to the Valley News of Van Nuys in 1974 when it reported on one of a number of his displays in the ‘70s.

But Poddany was a troubled man, who ended his own life in a murder-suicide attempt. Here is the story from the Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1984
Friend Shoots Doctor Then Kills Himself
By EDWARD J. BOYER and H.G. REZA
Times Staff Writers
A retired surgeon was shot and seriously wounded Saturday by a family friend who then shot and killed himself after the doctor went to the gunman’s Silver Lake home to calm him, police reported. Paul Grigorieff, 67, was in critical condition after surgery at Queen of Angels Hospital for multiple gunshot wounds. His assailant, Eugene Poddany, 64, was found dead, apparently of self-inflicted gunshot wounds, in his apartment at 2036 Griffith Park Blvd.
Officers on the scene said neighbors heard two shots from within the apartment shortly after the 3:30 p.m. shooting of Grigorieff and said it appeared that Poddany had killed himself.
Emotional Problems
Police said Poddany had a history of emotional problems. Grigorieff and a woman friend of Poddany had gone to the gunman’s apartment at about 10 a.m. to persuade him to seek psychiatric help, officers said.
Witnesses said they heard gunshots and saw Grigorieff stagger out of the apartment and onto the street, where he collapsed.
Grigorieff yelled, “I’ve been shot,” and then two more shots rang out from the apartment, said Arthur Fredette, owner of a nearby restaurant.
Paramedics quickly arrived and began treating the doctor while police cordoned off the area and evacuated nearby apartments.
Officers used a bullhorn to get Poddany’s attention, but in vain. SWAT team members entered the apartment shortly before 5 p.m., only to find the gunman dead.
If you’re like me, you’re shaking your head over what you’ve just read. He used his creativity to try to bring enjoyment in the world. It’s sad to see mental illness took away his own enjoyment. I can’t help but think of Disney’s fine cartoon composer Frank Churchill, who took his own life in 1942.

Poddany, to me, wasn’t in the A-list group of animation composers. But he wrote and arranged some music that worked in tandem with the action on the screen, and that’s probably the best way to remember him.

10 comments:

  1. Poddany's MGM scores definitely were more effective on the Tom & Jerry series than the ones by Dean Elliott and Carl Brandt, and as with Milt Franklyn at Warners, he was immersed enough in the Stalling style so that the differences were barely noticeable. But it would be interesting to know what happened between the time Jones last used him, for 1970's "Horton Hears a Who" and the murder-suicide 14 years later.

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  2. What a fascinating and saddening article. My first encounter with the name Eugene Poddany came when I was 7 years old. He had written songs for a book titled "The Cat in the Hat Songbook." I was a Seuss nut at the time, and my older sister had just learned piano, so she played the songs as we sang along. After hearing Poddany's beautiful score for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," I have never understood why Jones threw in his lot with the blah-sounding music of Dean Elliott.

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  3. i think Eugene Poddany is certainly an underrated composer at that, so he was of Czech & or Russian origin after all! thanks for the information Yowp! also i didn't know he was working at the Warner bros Cartoon Studio was he a musician at the studio perhaps?

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    1. He was a music copyist which, I gather, involves copying the arranged scores for the musicians.

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  4. Thank you for sharing all this research and information. People like Poddany are great artists, maybe not as heralded as some. Clearly life dealt him some barriers that prevented us from ever knowing how much he might have accomplished and how much more renown he might have had. I agree that someone should not suffer so much when they've given so much to others. Another one of his works was the music for "The Cat in the Hat Songbook," which was published in book form and recorded by RCA. It's on Spotify (https://open.spotify.com/album/5D6EK5DiMp1pGra5Y8BAWh). I've also posted the stereo soundtrack to Horton Hears a Who on my YouTube page because it was only released once on CD and never again. There really is a difference between his scores and the others for Seuss and Jones specials.

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  5. He also wrote the theme for the CBS Saturday morning "TOM AND JERRY" showcase in 1965.

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  6. I agree with J Lee and Greg Ehrbar. The two Foghorn cartoons he scored will always stand out to me: "Leghorn Swoggled" for its upbeat, whimsical arrangements of standards like "Puddin' Head Jones" and "Huckleberry Duck", and "Lovelorn Leghorn" with the fascinating choice to NOT use "Powerhouse" over Miss Prissy's Rube Goldberg contraption.

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  7. Remember his work in " Room and Bird ', one of the many Sylvester and Tweety parings. Have seen his name on many credits. Sorry that his life was troubled enough to end it the way he did.

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    1. Errol, I agree. I just came across this article now...sad..glad to read it..anyway..Thad, I,too, agree with Greg and J.Lee!

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  8. I knew Eugene as Uncle Eugene. He gave me my first job. I took care of his vacation house for $2 a week. In the summer I would mow the lawns and keep the weeds under control. In the fall I would do get the place ready for winter. He spent a lot of time at our home when he was up. He gave use a real nice carving he did of a fish. Few knew of his art skills, he taught me how to carve but after he died I never did any more. I was a teenager when he died and I could not understand why he did what he did. In a way he saved my life when I was thinking of hurting myself but understood how much it hurt me when he died and I didn't want to do that to anyone else. I wish I understood more about him. Thank you for this post I did not know much of any details of what happened.

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