Saturday 19 December 2020

Grant Simmons

He worked for Walt Disney, animated for Tex Avery and brought Spider-Man to the small screen.

Yet Grant Simmons is one of the many pretty much unsung people who worked in the Golden Age of theatrical animation. Perhaps it’s because he died in 1970 before animation historians were getting untracked interviewing as many people as they could.

We’ve found one interview with him, comparatively early in his career. The Deseret News of Salt Lake City published a little biography of him on June 15, 1943. Simmons’ Utah connection was his parents were from there and he had gone to Brigham Young University.

The 1930 Census shows Simmons working in a bank, and he was still doing it when he married in January 1937. This story talks about how Simmons moved on from Disney to Columbia/Screen Gems. It is hard to say which cartoon at Columbia was his first; Film Daily mentions him in its review of The Dumbconscious Mind, released October 24, 1942, calling it “amusing and skillfully animated.”

BYU Student Scores As Animator
Grant Simmons Leaves Disney For Screen Gems, Inc.
By Norma Jean Wright

(Deseret News Hollywood Correspondent)
HOLLYWOOD — (Special)— Grant Simmons is an Animator at Columbia's Cartoon Studios called Screen Gems, Inc. . . and is the chap who did (and got screen credit for) the Elephant Ballet in the "Dance of the Hours sequence for Walt Disney's "Fantasia" . . and likewise was screen credited on Disney's "Dumbo" for the clown sequence! But before that he was a red-headed kid who played tough basketball for Manchester L. D. S. Ward when that team offered rough competition for anybody. He used to come around my quarters with the rest of the gang and raid the icebox. And his wit and sense of humor revealed itself then in the dozens of cartoons he made of everybody he knew, and some of them were not very complimentary.
That was the thing that carried him into Disney Studios and cartoon animation. When he finished high school at the John C. Fremont School, Grant went up to the BYU and studied art under the late Professor Eastman. But he had to quit . . because money doesn't grow on trees . . came back to Los Angeles and went to work for the Bank of America. Which was quite out of Grant's line, but he stayed there for three years—spending all his spare time and evenings . . attending art classes and drawing humorous cartoons of everybody at the bank.
Then one day in 1937 he sent some of those cartoons over to Disney Studios—and a few days later he was called in for an interview. That ended Grant's days at the bank—and started his days with Disney. They put him to work on "Snow White" as an apprentice . . and from then on he went up. Soon he became a full-fledged Animator—and worked on dozens of those short bits of entertainment we've all enjoyed. He also wrote a couple of "Pluto" shorts and animated them.
To animate a cartoon film the Animator must draw hundreds of little cartoons (with the action of each just a little different) so that when they are photographed in continuity the character moves. To be able to do this the cartoonist must thoroughly understand the movements and characteristics of the animal or person being animated—or if it be a created character, he must rely on the play of his imagination to get the most amusing performance from the character. Of course all cartoons are highly exaggerated versions of the true subject. So that the imagination of the cartoonist (Animator) is the thing that either makes or fails to make the film amusing. In the matter of imagination Grant Simmons excels! He is capable of making anything funny . . . so that his work in cartooning is highly humorous and charming.
Grant was with Disney for five very successful years. But soon after "Fantasia" was finished (about two years ago) Columbia Studios offered Grant an advanced opportunity in their newly organized cartoon studio Screen Gems, Inc., under the producership of Dave Fleisher—and Grant accepted. There they whip out twelve Technicolor and eighteen black and white shorts a year with newly created characters for each picture. However, the continued pressure of the war has changed things somewhat so that for the duration it looks as thought they will do very little besides training and instruction films for the U. S. Army and Navy. But that won't stop Grant. He'll make those funny too—if they don't watch out.
Grant was born in Pima, Arizona, a little, town in the Gila Valley—a son of Wallace and Wilmarth Hundley Simmons, both formerly of Provo . . . and is the second child of a family of six. When Grant was eight years old, later, in 1920, the family moved to Los Angeles and settled In Manchester Ward—where Grant's father presided as Bishop for a number of years. Grant is married to Bessie Graham, a neighborhood sweetheart, and they have a three-year-old daughter Arlene . . . and live in an apartment in Hollywood.

Columbia closed its Screen Gems studio in November 1946 and a tickle of cartoons was released until 1949. Simmons’ last short for Columbia was Lo, the Poor Buffal, released November 4, 1948.

Meanwhile, at MGM, changes were going on in the Tex Avery unit. In January 1946, Preston Blair was taken out and handed his own unit with Mike Lah. Animator Ray Abrams went with him. This is likely when Simmons was hired. The first cartoon with his name on it was Li’l Tinker, released May 15, 1948; Louis Schmitt’s models for that cartoon (originally called Smellbound) are dated June 5, 1946.

He liked to give characters big teeth. You can see it in a number of shorts, including the scene at the top of this post from Avery’s Garden Gopher (released in 1950).

Simmons worked on every cartoon in the Avery unit (including the period Dick Lundy was directing while Avery had some emotional time off) until it was closed in March 1953. He and Ray Patterson (of MGM’s Hanna-Barbera unit) formed a partnership to produce animated commercials for TV. Then they were also hired in June by Walter Lantz (Variety, June 16, 1953) , who had decided to increase both his commercial and theatrical production. Simmons and Patterson made two shorts with unknown animators for Lantz—Broadway Bow Wow’s (released in 1954) and Dig That Dog (released in 1955). One background in the former plants references to Avery, technical supervisor Bill Garrity, camera technician Mickey Batchelor and “Grantray.”

The pair also worked with animators Mike Lah and Stan Walsh on the half-hour U.S. Information Service cartoon Tom Schuler—Cobbler Statesman. There are conflicting reports as to when this propaganda film was made by Curt Perkins’ Sketchbook Films, but it aired on television on July 26, 1954, so it was either 1953 or ’54.

By that time, Patterson and Simmons hooked up with a New York-based producer who also branched out with a Canadian subsidiary based in Toronto. Variety reported on July 21, 1954:

Robert Lawrence Productions, N.Y. based telepix commercials and industrial producer, has set up its own animation company on the Coast in association with Grant Simmons and Ray Patterson. New company, Grantray Animation Inc., will work in conjunction with Lawrence on the latter's commercials in cases where combined animation and live-action and complete animation are called for. Lawrence said the outfit was formed because of a growing trend toward animated commercials on the part of sponsors and agencies. Equally important for the future, he said, are color commercials, where animation gives a greater degree of color control than live-action tint footage. Move is another indication of a trend among producers to set up their own animation facilities.

By 1957 “Lawrence” was added to the name of the company, with Patterson functioning as president and Simmons as secretary-treasurer (that banking experience came in handy). The same year, the company acquired larger quarters on La Brea Avenue to accommodate live-action production. It also began to win awards. In 1958, the company won top prize in a contest conducted by the Brewers’ Association of American for a spot for Grain Belt Premium beer. Another for Minneapolis Gas won at the First American TV Commercials Festival and Forum in 1960. There were others.

The studio apparently attempted its own series. What appears to be a pilot episode for Planet Patrol was directed by Simmons around 1960 and has been restored. You can read about it here, especially Mike Kazaleh’s expert history.

Grantray-Lawrence was also hired by other cartoon producers. If you see either Patterson’s or Simmons’ name on a cartoon in the early part of the ‘60s, they were subcontracted to make it. Two series were Dick Tracy and Mr. Magoo (both 1960) for UPA. They also worked on part of the debut episode of The Jetsons (1962) and other projects for Hanna-Barbera.

A larger job came in 1966. Variety reported on March 23rd:

Getting in on the swing to kiddie camp, RKO General reports it has bought for $1,000,000 a package of 105 6 1/2-minute color cartoon segments of Marvel Comics cartoon characters from Krantz Films. Already in production at Grantray-Lawrence Studios, Hollywood, the package will be programmed on RKO General's tv stations in New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston and Memphis. Producer is Robert Lawrence.

Robert J. “Tiger” West, who had been with the pair since 1953, was upped to vice-president, with Sid Marcus and Don Lusk directing with Simmons and Patterson. A long-term lease was signed for new production facilities at Universal City Studios. Then Simmons, Patterson and Lawrence signed another deal with Krantz Films in January 1967 to animate 20 half-hour Spidermans to air on Saturday mornings in September.

But then it suddenly ended. Grantray-Lawrence closed in 1968. Its death doesn’t seem to have been noticed by the trades at the time. Patterson, who lived until 2001 and into the era of interviews by historians, simply said “We trusted the wrong people.”

Simmons banged on Friz Freleng’s door. He was hired in 1969 to direct the TV cartoon series Here Comes the Grump and also piloted a couple of DePatie-Freleng’s theatrical shorts. Simmons also directed some episodes of the Saturday morning Doctor Dolittle animated series that aired on NBC starting in September 1970.

He could do no more. Grant Alden Simmons died in Los Angeles on October 31, 1970 at the age of 57.

Someone loves putting together compilations of classic animators’ work, and has done it with scenes by Simmons. I can’t speak for the veracity of the identification but enjoy some fun animation.

My thanks to Kathy Fuller-Seeley for her great assistance on this post.


  1. I love this article about Grantray-Lawrence. Someone posted on Facebook a while back wondering what type of impact Grantray-Lawrence would have made on the industry if the company hadn't gone out of business. The Marvel Superheroes series was probably the lowest animated series on the air budget wise, but it's popularity proves that content is king even if the series isn't fully animated.

  2. Hanna-Barbera fans would certainly recognize Robert "Tiger" West's name--He ran the xerography department at H-B for nine years immediately following his tenure at Grantray-Lawrence.

  3. I had the chance of meeting Robert "Tiger" West in London, U.K., way back in 1990, where he was working as a production coordinator at a studio called Hollywood Road on the ill-fated feature "Freddie as F.R.0.7." (a.k.a. "Freddie the Frog). This was, I guess, his final job in animation before retiring.