Floyd Norman-Race and Disney
‘Legend’ Floyd Norman keeps busy with books, TV shows
By Donna Beth Weilenman
FLOY NORMAN FIRST WAS INTRODUCED TO WALT DISNEY’S CARTOONS when he was a young child in Santa Barbara. His mother took him to see “Bambi” and “Dumbo.”
“Snow White scared the hell out of me,” he said — but he couldn’t get enough of the movies.
By the time he was middle-school age, Norman knew what he wanted as a career: to work at Disney’s studio.
When he was fresh out of high school — and with the help of a friend who got him an appointment — he walked into the studio, portfolio in hand, for an interview.
Norman didn’t get hired that day. Instead, he got some good advice: “Go to school.”
But that Saturday morning interview was a memorable experience. “It was like entering Wonderland,” he said. “The place was empty, but I was inside! It was magical!”
Norman listened to the advice and entered the Art Center College of Design, the four-year Pasadena school. But he didn’t finish because two years into his classes he got a call to come work for Disney.
“I was shocked. I thought they had thrown my name in the trash,” Norman said. He dropped out of school immediately and started work the next Monday.
FLOYD NORMAN, here at the Disney Family Studios in San Francisco, was the first African American hired as an animator by Disney.
Donna Beth Weilenman/Staff
That was February 1956. Now Norman, 75, is a Disney legend, a veteran of the studio that launched his career.
He lampoons his experiences in widely followed panel gag cartoons, published in books and on-line. He is an oft-requested speaker, making a recent Bay Area appearance this month to speak to fans at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
And he stays busy, despite the current trend of hiring younger employees.
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NORMAN SPEAKS AFFECTIONATELY of the animation innovator he calls the Old Man.
Walt Disney was strict, and demanded the best of his employees, Norman said. He was gruff, but always fair, he said.
New hires — and Norman was the company’s first African-American artist — weren’t put to work right away. “They put you through a lot of training — a month — just learning how to do the job.” Those who excelled were hired; everyone who trained in Norman’s class got jobs, he remembered.
Their first work was in television, creating short animated segments for the Mickey Mouse Club. Norman still can sing Jiminy Cricket’s song about encyclopedias — or another number, “I’m No Fool” — without missing a beat.
The new artists didn’t mingle with the actors and actresses, “but you’d see them on the lot or in the hallway. That was exciting for a young kid,” he said.
After a year of working in television, he said, “They finally deemed me worthy,” and he hit the big time — feature films. His first assignment was “Sleeping Beauty,” in 1957.
“They used teams of animators. It was all done by hand, and there were thousands of drawings,” he said. Most of his work can be seen when the three good fairies — the bossy Flora, the bumbling Fauna and the feisty Merryweather — are on the screen. “Of all three, Merryweather was the most charming. She was chubby, round and had an attitude. She was a real favorite.”
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, two of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” as the studio’s core of animators and directors were nicknamed, told Norman they had studied older women before designing the flying trio.
“They learned how they moved. They’re cute. They bounce around, they take short steps,” Norman said. When he was drawing for the movie, he often thought about his own grandmother and how she moved and acted. And he learned from his mentors to be very observant and to use what he was seeing.
“It was an education for a kid like me.”
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NORMAN HAD HOPED he would make his mark as a Disney animator. But in the 1960s, he was assigned to the story department. The studio’s ace story man, Bill Peet — who had been with Disney since the 1930s — had argued with Walt Disney about the direction of a new movie, the adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”
Norman said Disney contended Peet’s vision was too dark. Peet’s response? “I quit.” Disney’s answer, “Get me a new story crew.”
But a lot of the other veterans “had packed up their spurs,” Norman said. The studio had to look to its new blood to fill the department.
Since the beginning of his employment, Norman has drawn little panel gags and put them up on walls. “I had them all over the studio,” he said. “I was drawing gags because they were funny.”
Maybe that’s what got him noticed, since his style was similar to the way the story department draws quick illustrations of a scene, translating words on a script into the first visuals.
He originally wasn’t happy with the new job. But he found himself in the middle of the movie, drawing Baloo the bear, Kaa the snake, Shere Khan the tiger and the young boy Mowgli. He developed a sequence in which Kaa tries to hypnotize Mowgli a second time.
“There was a lot of funny business in the tree,” Norman said. He showed his work to Disney, who decided to put a song in the sequence.
Norman never expected to be sitting in the studio, listening as Sterling Holloway — who had provided voices to Disney characters he had seen as a child — sing the melody for his sequence.
“I kept asking myself, “‘How did this happen? How did I get here? This is amazing — a moment in your life when dreams come true.”
Walt Disney died in 1966. “An era had come to an end,” Norman said. “The studio would never be the same.” So Norman and another artist, Leo Sullivan, formed one of the first animation studios owned and operated by African Americans: Vignette Films. “I liked the way it sounded,” Norman said.
The studio lasted seven years, producing programs that described the positive contributions black Americans had made to American culture, beginning with films they sold to the Southern California school systems, because few others were telling those stories.
He sent a photographer, Eddie Smith, to the South to film a dramatic young preacher, Dr. Martin Luther King. But Norman had done some of his own camera work, capturing the mid-1960s Watts riots using a camera he had bought from Walt Disney’s brother, Roy.
“We never knew what we were getting into,” Norman said, describing the heavy workload for little money. “I was the boss. It’s great — you do everything, and that’s what made it so fascinating. I drove films to the lab. I was everything from producer to the messenger boy, and I don’t regret a day of it!”
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AS THE MONEY DWINDLED, Norman realized he needed a steady job. He returned to Disney.
He went to work on “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and later on “Robin Hood” — at least for a while. “I got fired off that movie,” he said. “I look at it with pride and joy.” He left the studio and was immediately hired by Hanna-Barbera, staying until Disney called him three times to ask him to return as a writer of its comic books and strips, and offering him the ultimate prize: “You can do what you want.”
Norman wrote for most of the classic Disney characters in those books and strips. He kept the legal department busy, too — not because his work was in poor taste or risque, but because Disney is a target. “People are always trying to sue Disney,” he said. “I was getting into trouble without trying.” One gag he wrote about Goofy using a satellite dish as a bird bath brought the ire of a satellite company.
He returned to animated features when Disney decided to animate “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Norman recalled, “You’re making a cartoon of Victor Hugo? If you’re crazy enough to do that, I want in!” From there, he bounced around until Pixar Studios asked Disney for additional staff because most of its employees were working on “A Bug’s Life” while trying to get the sequel to “Toy Story” off the ground.
“No one wanted to go,” Norman said. Pixar wasn’t the gem it’s considered today, so only Norman and another Disney employee, Kirk Hanson, headed north to the Bay Area. “Now everyone wants to go to Pixar.”
Pixar put Norman and the others in the thick of three-dimensional and computerized animation. “I think we worked on everything, from the first act in Andy’s room to Al’s Toy Barn and Barbie. I had a ball. Pixar was small and freewheeling then.
“I remember having coffee in San Rafael. The breeze was coming off the Bay and the sun was shining. Everything was perfect. I love the Bay Area.” He stayed long enough to finish “Toy Story 2” and work on “Monsters, Inc.” as well.
But his wife, Adrienne, found the Point Richmond and San Rafael temperatures chilly, and Norman returned south to Disney, spending time on “Wild Life,” a movie that was never finished, then switching to “The Tigger Movies,” before working in Disney’s direct-to-video department, nicknamed “Twos” because most were sequels of theatrical movies and had the number “2” in their names.
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“THEN I GOT A SURPRISE,” Norman said. “I had been aging. I wasn’t aware of it.” But Disney staff were, and told him that at 65, he should be retired.
It surprised many of his colleagues, who have noticed that Norman usually is on top of the industry’s technological advances. But Norman doesn’t look to the past. His focus is on the future.
He credits Walt Disney for inspiring that, because Disney was an innovator, pressing forward with animatronics for his theme park exhibits despite primitive equipment, and with plans for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), the progressive planned development he had envisioned for his employees that later Disney executives turned into a shopping theme park at Disney World.
“Imagine what he would have done with computers,” Norman wonders.
Norman has never quite retired from Disney. He’s been working on children’s books and television shows. “I’ve managed to stay busy all these years,” he said.
Now he’s writing “Animated Life,” a book about his years at Disney, for Focal Press.
“Jobs keep finding me,” Norman said. “I’m luckier than most.”