(This interview appeared in a trade publication called Zoetrope around 1976. Zoetrope was published in Chicago by Larry Janiak. Because the pages are oversized and won't fit on my scanner, I'm transcribing this interview and it will appear in several parts. Here we go:)
Gordon Sheehan has spent his professional life in the field of animation, which is not bad considering he never intended it to be that way. Beginning with the Fleischer Studios, Gordon has worked his way around the country including some pioneer commercial work for Pepsi Cola, recently retiring from Coronet Films where he had started an animation department a number of years earlier. In this interview with Harry Arnold and Dave Daruszka, Mr. Sheehan talks about his hears with the Fleischers and his impressions of the animation industry.
Zoetrope: When did you get started in the field of animation?
Sheehan: I started working for Max Fleischer in New York in 1933. Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer had been very successful in producing Betty Boop and Koko the Clown along with several other cartoons, and their experience dated back into the 1920's. When sound came along, Betty Boop became a popular singing cartoon star. Shortly after that, when I got into the business, they were just trying out a comic strip character; Popeye the Sailor who became quite a sensation in the cartoon world.
Zoetrope: What brought you to Fleischer and why did you choose animation as a career?
Sheehan: Well, it was kind of a fluke. I had attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for three years, graduated and got out during the Depression. I had studied magazine illustration. I didn't consider myself much of a cartoonist, in fact I didn't care much for this line. But in the Depression days, you couldn't pick your career. There were too many people out of jobs and too many looking for jobs, especially in the art line. After pounding the sidewalks of Manhattan for a good nine or ten months, I finally got a connection with the Fleischer Studios on Broadway. They were just starting to expand then. The motion picture business, by the way, was one of the few industries that prospered during the Great Depression era. Magazines, newspapers, and advertising agencies were folding. The movie business was booming because people had to go to the movies, I suppose, to get away from their troubles and worries. So I got into the animation business sort of as a tie-over job. I had no intention whatsoever of making a career of it. It was a new business, nobody knew much about it , and very few people had much confidence in animated cartoons as an entertainment media.
Fleischers had a very unique system of apprenticeship. They started you off painting on acetate cels, in black and white of course; everything was done in black and white in those days. Then after you became proficient at painting, you were promoted to the tracing department where you traced with ink on acetates, then eventually you would be promoted to the inbetweening department. That is, if you practiced and were accepted; this was the very lowest stage of assistant animation. Then eventually you got into assistant animation, and then full animation. Of course you could go higher, and become a director or start your own company, I suppose.
The common theory was that one could become an animator through this apprenticeship system within two years. There was one fellow who made it into animation in one year, but it turned out he was a relative of one of the employers. A bit of nepotism. It took me the best part of two-and-a-half years to get into the animation department.
The pay was very meager in those days, to say the least. We worked forty three-and-a-half hours a week, but instead of working a half day on Saturday as many companies did, we would work on Friday nights for three-and-a-half hours. We could then have two full days off for the weekend. I started at the tremendous salary of twelve dollars a week. I think there was a labor law at the time which said if anyone worked over a certain number of hours a day, he would receive supper money. So on Friday, the day we worked through till ten thirty in the evening, the accountant would come around with a big bag of silver half dollars, and give each worker a half dollar for supper. This made my salary $12.50 a week.
It was a very exacting routine, and it took a lot of practice to get promoted. Once a person got into the animation department, they were signed to a three year contract. Written into the contract was a raise every six months. You started at thirty dollars a week, then in six months you would get a five dollar raise. Eventually, when your contract was up, you would be getting sixty dollars a week. This was pretty fair pay in those days.
(To be continued.)