Toonarific Interview – Shirley Silvey

Originally posted: 6-6-2005

One of the amazing artists who helped animate Bullwinkle & Rocky, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, and many other favorites!

A little over a month ago I was contacted by Shirley’s daughter, Beckie, to add a link to their site. I was absolutely thrilled to hear of Shirley’s career, and immediately requested to do an interview with her, since it’s not every day that you get to throw questions at someone who animated at Jay Ward Studios. Shirley has worked on so many of the classic characters produced there; Bullwinkle, Rocky, Peabody, and so on. Plus, she had a big role in animating the Mr. Magoo Christmas Carol. She has done so many shows that are now classics, I couldn’t pass up the chance. And make sure, once you are done reading through this, to visit her site linked at the bottom of the page!
Did you go to school for animation, or did you just happen to fall into the position?
Chouinard Art School was always the school of choice for people who wished to enter the animation field. I, however, wanting to be an illustrator, attended Art Center School of Design and later, Jepson Art Institute in Los Angeles.
Was Jay Ward Studios the first animation house you worked at? If not, which was and what kind of work did you do there? Did you start in the animation dept. directly, or did you work your way up?
In 1956, I got lucky. A friend of mine, Chris Jenkyns, (an Art Center student who later became a writer for many of the Fractured Fairy Tales) told me that Ed Levitt, a top cartoon director, was looking for a beginner to work on a pilot film. Ed had been a director and layout designer for Playhouse Pictures, famous for producing all of the Snoopy and Charlie Brown animation pictures. He had also gone to Jepson and he immediately hired me. In 1957, Ed went to U.P.A. to direct cartoons for the “Gerald McBoing-Boing Show” and took me along as his layout artist. “Layout” is that part of animation that takes a storyboard already broken into scenes by the director and then designs the backgrounds and incidental characters for each scene upon which he draws the movements of the characters and gives the basic directions for camera moves that the director requires. Finished layouts are then given to the animators. Here I learned my craft. From there I went to Churchill-Wexler, a very small medical and educational film company where only three artists worked including me. It became a steady job, but U.P.A. called and I found myself back there doing storyboard and layout for the movie “Mr. Magoo’s 1001 Arabian Nights”. That movie was a great deal of work. There were only three of us on this picture. We did the whole storyboard and the layout/design. One of us, Bob Dranko, oversaw all of the work to keep it consistent and to make sure it looked good. He and I did the characters for this film. Dranko was one of the best men in the business. He layed out almost every Magoo theatrical short that was made under the director Pete Burness, who later came to Jay Wards. Following this, I went to TV Spots to storyboard a pilot film under the direction of Jerry Ray. Jerry had worked for Jay on “Crusader Rabbit” and was then working with Jay to get “Rocky and His Friends” up and running. Later it was Jerry who was, with a few willing designers and animators, sent to Mexico by Jay to help set up an animation studio. It was up to them to take unskilled people and turn them into skilled professionals. Jerry was responsible to get each job sent back to Jay’s in good condition where Skip Craig would take the finished film and edit them with voice and music.
How long did you work at Jay Ward Studios? Did you get to work with Jay Ward at a personal level? If so, what was he like? What did you like about him?
I worked for Jay from the end of 1959 to 1973. All of the shows were finished around 1968 and during that time Roy and I did 366 storyboards of R & B, and 104 of Hoppity Hooper, plus Dudley, Fairy Tales, and others. After that, we worked mainly on commercials like Captain Crunch.

I was never close to Jay. He hung out mainly with the directors, writers, editors and voice actors. He was usually at the recording studio when the voice actors were working, and dealing with the sponsors like General Mills. As a result, I had only a few close one-on-one dealings with him. I was home most of the time and out of it. Jay owned a huge home up in the hills above the studio but he worked in a little upstairs apartment (his working office) in a beautiful Spanish building with a courtyard and fish pond down the street from the original studio. At times he would invite Roy and me to visit with him. Two or three times he called me to come there to give me the job of laying out titles. There was the “Marquee Lights” which is on VCR and the opening title for “George of the Jungle”. There was also the major title and characters for the title I did for “Fractured Flickers”. He was always nice and never forgot to ask about my daughter. Many times I had to bring her to the studio. It was a very relaxed and casual place to work. Jay was on a first name basis with everyone and even my daughter could call him “Jay”. When my daughter and I would go to his office he would give her the latest R&B toys and records. He gave her the very first Rocky statue that was made. I can’t remember if those ever went on the market or not. I save everything and I still have it.

In Nov. 1959, all TV Spots employees got to watch the premier of “Rocky and His Friends” on television. Wow, were we blown away by the speed of the cutting from scene to scene! Jerry then asked me to lay out an episode of “Fractured Fairy Tales” for Jay. After I finished and delivered it, Jay personally called me to offer me a job. I accepted but told him that I had just finished working on a TV Spots pilot film, and would have to go back to that studio should that series go forward. Fortunately, Jay hired me anyways and as the series was not picked up, I spent the next 13 years working for him.

I began at Jay’s in Dec. 1959 in a studio that was a small, old house near the corner of Sunset Blvd on Hayvenhurst in Los Angeles. In this house, Bill Scott and the writers wrote, Skip Craig edited, Roy Morita storyboarded “Rocky and Bullwinkle” and I did layout on Fractured Fairy Tales” and “Peabody”. The house stood next to the corner hot dog cafe called the Plush Pup. The early flower children movement practically evolved there. Sometime in the 60’s after they left for San Francisco, Jay bought it and turned it into the Dudley DoRight Emporium.

Sometime after starting, Roy and I moved to another old converted house around the corner on Sunset Blvd. It never contained more than 10 or 11 people. Except for Roy, all the artists worked at home and came in only to deliver and pick up from the directors. Once there, Roy and I worked exclusively on storyboarding R&B. In 1961, I also began working at home so I could care for my daughter.

What are your fondest memories from working there? Favorite people? Least favorite people?
My fondest memories at Jay Ward’s are of all the workers there, even the scene checkers, one of whom eventually married the man who created and drew “Pogo”. We all got along and Jay never raised his voice or disparaged anyone. I loved the director Pete Burness. When he became so ill with cancer I couldn’t help but try and make his work as easy as possible. He was pure kindness. Bill Hurtz was nice and Roy was my best friend. We had good times at Jay’s, especially at the beginning. Everyday was exciting. We all loved playing ping-pong together. The ping-pong table was located in the backyard and at 10:00 and 2:00 we would all rush down to grab the paddles and play for a little while. We didn’t have to account for our working time the way most employees do – we just had to produce. Unfortunately, the ping-pong games stopped about the time I began working at home.

With all the sweetness and light we still faced hard deadlines and they had to be kept. Three and a half days per storyboard and 2 weeks per layout. There were also social events we had to keep: special group dinners, attending the circus, being at Jay’s daughter Tiffany’s wedding and the important unveiling of the R&B statue in front of the studio with its party of thousands of milling fans, kleig lights and Jayne Mansfield. Prior to his daughter’s wedding, Jay had an almost life-size mannequin of himself made. Then, Jay himself recorded one-line jokes which were placed inside it. This talking mannequin greeted the guests at the wedding with jokes and it was later moved to the outside of the Dudley Do-Right Emporium to entertain the passers-by.

Jay could be quite controlling, but was never unpleasant about it. He put a gym in the basement and required all the men to work out. (It never helped). Only Roy refused to go. The main thing Jay did that was wrong was establishing a private “club” for ‘men only’ in the building next door that he owned. This was the building where the women in the ink and paint department worked. As a result, my girlfriend Gloria Wood (who did background painting in the main studio in my room) and I were excluded. As I worked mostly from my home at this point, and didn’t like “private clubs” anyways, I didn’t let it bother me. But Roy was angry about this and refused to go to the “club”. Roy grew up in the Japanese internment camps in California during WWII and this gave him a unique perspective on prejudice.

How did you hear of/ get the assignment for the Magoo Christmas Carol?
Jay would lay us off temporarily when he was in-between contracts and though we all knew we were going to be brought back when the contracts were signed, we took free-lance jobs during that time. He was a very loyal employer and never dumped any of the people who worked for him. All the studios knew who was working and who wasn’t so it wasn’t a surprise when I got a call from UPA to work on “Magoo’s Christmas Carol”. I never worked throughout the full production. I was hired to do only storyboard and layout with the condition that when Jay called, I would be leaving. Along with a fellow worker, I finished the storyboard, but working on the layout was short-lived. Within two weeks of starting, Jay called. Layout can be a long, hard drag, and as I never liked UPA’s production manager ever since working with him on Arabian Nights, I was happy to leave. When you work on a job you are never aware that it will become a “classic”. The same for R&B. We all knew it was special but we never thought its success would be so long lasting.
You also worked on some classic Warner Bros. series in the 60s (Road Runner Show, Bugs & Tweety Show). Do you have any stories from working on these productions? Who did you get to work with?
I suppose you could say I once worked for Warner Bros., but it was for a very short time. I did work under Abe Levitow, a WB director who directed “Magoo’s 1001 Arabian Nights” for UPA. I almost worked for WB when Abe called me over to his studio and offered me a job on “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”, and introduced me to Chuck Jones and the rest of the artists. Of course I declined as I was working at Jay’s. But there was also a time when Roy and I did layout a “Road Runner” for a WB TV series. However, Roy handled the business end and I never saw the people who hired us and I can’t remember their names. The only thing that reminds me that I did it was that I still have the model sheets for both the Road Runner and the coyote. I’m sorry I threw away all of the copies of the backgrounds I did for it.

All in all, Jay Ward Studio was the liveliest place in which I ever worked and Jay was the best employer I could ever have had. For me, it was the only studio where most of my memories were happy ones. I can still see Jay coming into our room holding his beloved soft drink can and chuckling about some joke he had been told.

I hope you have all learned something about the studio that you didn’t already know. I know I did. This was a real pleasure, and Shirley’s talents are as sharp as ever. The artwork on her greeting cards is brilliant, and there are some for every occasion. Be sure to check them out, pick some up, and say hello. I’m sure she loves to hear from all her fans, and I know she’ll love to sell you some of her great new greeting cards!