Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Animator Al Eugster
(January, 1997)

Animator Alfred Eugster, whose career started in the silent era and ended doing animation for TV, passed away the night of January 1, 1997 at the age of 87.

Al was born on February 11, 1909 and he began his animation career in 1925 at the Pat Sullivan studio, working for Otto Messmer on the Felix the Cat series. His first job there was blackening in drawings of Felix. While at Sullivan, he attended Cooper Union at night to study art.

In 1929, Al moved over the Fleischer studio, where he did his first animation. Some of the films he worked on include Strike Up the Band (1930; Al was the sole animator), Swing You Sinners (1930), Sky Scraping (1930) and Stopping the Show (1932), where Al remembered animating Betty Boop imitating Maurice Chevalier and Fanny Brice.

In 1932, Al went west to work for the Mintz studio on Krazy Kat cartoons, where he was teamed with Preston Blair on cartoons like Prosperity Blues (1932) and Antique Antics (1933).

From May of 1933 to 1935, Al worked for Ub Iwerks. He co-animated several ComiColor shorts with Shamus Culhane, including Jack and the Beanstalk (1933), The Little Red Hen (1934) and Puss in Boots (1934).

In 1935, Al joined Disney and became a Duck man, animating Donald doing the hula for Hawaiian Holiday and Donald on the clock mainspring in Clock Cleaners, both in 1937. In the latter cartoon, he also animated the final shot of Mickey, Donald and Goofy doing the shimmy. Most of Al's work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was on the bed building sequence, which was cut, but one of Al's remaining shots include birds and animals pulling on Dopey's robe to warn him that Snow White is in trouble.

Al left Disney to rejoin Fleischer in Miami to work on Gulliver's Travels (1939). Al did work on Gabby, including a shot where Gabby and King Little are pelted with stones on the balcony near the start of the film. On Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), Al animated Mr. Beetle, Swat and Smack. One scene that's Al's is where Swat and Smack are dancing in imitation of Hoppity and Honey. Al originally animated the dancing to be faster, but Dave Fleischer told him that it would be sexier if he slowed it down. Working with Shamus Culhane again, Al animated on Popeye Meets William Tell and A Kick in Time, both 1940. Al stayed at Fleischer's until 1943, when he went into the Signal Corps.

In 1945, Al joined Famous Studios as a head animator and stayed until 1957. He worked on a lot of Screen Songs and Popeye cartoons. Two of the Popeye cartoons were Popeye, The Ace of Space (1953), which was made in stereoscopic 3D, and Popeye's 20th Anniversary (1954). In addition, Al worked on other series including Little Audrey and the Noveltoons. Butterscotch and Soda (1948) is an interesting Little Audrey that's a parody of Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend. Dante Dreamer (1958) is a Noveltoon about a Little Nemo-like character.

After Famous , Al freelanced for various commercial studios in New York, including Animation Central. He also worked on the Joe Oriolo Felix the Cat TV cartoons.

In 1964, he rejoined the Paramount studio, working under Shamus Culhane and Ralph Bakshi before the studio closed in 1967. Al's work there included animating My Daddy the Astronaut (1967), done in the style of children's drawings.

Al joined Kim and Gifford in 1968. Ironically, at a time when the animation business rarely offered full time employment, Al began his longest uninterrupted stay at a single studio. Kim and Gifford did commercial work and also the Science Rock series, which is still being re-run on ABC. Al animated Science Rock segments on gravity, bones and the nervous system, among others. In 1978, Al did intersititals for NBC's Saturday morning lineup, based on the theme Saturday Morning Fever. In 1980, Kim and Gifford produced Drawing Power, a live action and animated Saturday morning series for NBC. Al animated all the Professor Rutabaga segments. Rutabaga was a carnival pitchman who extolled the virtues of fruits and vegetables. During a great deal of this time, Al worked without an assistant or inbetweener and did all the pencil artwork himself. He retired from animation in September of 1987, ending a 62 year career.

Al was helpful to many animation historians including Leonard Maltin, John Canemaker and myself. He appeared on camera in Canemaker's Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat documentary.

In 1995, Al's wife Hazel, known as Chick, passed away, ending a marriage of 61 years. The couple had no children. Al is survived by a niece, Joan Bell, and a half-brother, Charles.

Remembering Al

I first met Al in 1975. At the time, I was living in New York City and was researching an article about the cartoons released by MGM for the film magazine The Velvet Light Trap. Through research, I realized that the Al Eugster who had worked for Iwerks was then working for Kim and Gifford. Since Kim and Gifford was in New York, I contacted Al and he agreed to let me interview him about the Iwerks studio.

When I went up to Kim and Gifford, I had no idea what to expect. Al was 66 at the time, and I guess I expected to see a balding, white-haired old man. Instead, I saw a man who could have passed for his fifties. He had a full head of brown hair and an upright posture and he energetically waved me into his office and answered all my questions. He also lent me a staff photo of the Iwerks studio for my article.

In 1976, I was finished with school and starting working in the film business as a production assistant at J.C. Productions, one of the many small commercial houses in New York. At the same time, I was animating at home as a hobby. I was able to use J.C. Production's camera stand to shoot my animation onto 16mm. When it was finished, I invited Al over to show it to him and asked him if he thought I was good enough to work professionally in animation. He told me I was. Coming from someone who had worked for Disney and Fleischer, the opinion meant a lot to me. Shortly after that, I left J.C. Productions to take my first animation job at Teletactics.

I worked with Al on two occasions. In late '77 or early '78, I helped out on the Science Rock episode about gravity. It was a short freelance assignment, and I always thought that I got the job out of pity. Al knew I wasn't working steadily at the time, and I believe he convinced Kim and Gifford that he needed help hitting a deadline. The second time was from May until October in 1980. I had returned to New York after animating for almost two years in Iowa. Kim and Gifford was doing the TV series Drawing Power, created by George Newall and Tom Yohe, the people behind the Schoolhouse Rock series.

Kim and Gifford's work was very flat in design and limited in animation, but Al was an expert at breaking up a character into separate cel levels to keep it alive. His work was far superior to anyone else's on the series and his exposure sheets were an education.

Al gave every scene his full attention. He never felt superior to the material or hacked something out to get it off his desk. Within the limitations of budget and schedule, he worked hard to get the maximum entertainment out of every scene.

I hadn't been animating for many years, and the show was being made without pencil tests. If I was having a problem with one of my scenes, Al would always take time to help me out with it. "It's all production," he would say, meaning that it was as good a use of his time as his own work.

Al was a very regular in his habits. I've heard stories that people could tell time by when Al lit up his cigars. He kept all his papers meticulously filed, and anything he wasn't sure how to classify he put in a file marked "limbo."

Al was always generous in helping people professionally. Assistant animator Ed Cerullo told me that when he worked with Al in the '50's, Al gave him opportunities to animate. Joe Funaro, who later entered the priesthood, remembered Al fondly in a Daily News article that Bill Lorenzo reprinted in Apatoons.

After Drawing Power, I moved to Toronto and kept in touch with Al mostly by phone and mail for the next 12 years. I have to admit that our conversations grew awkward after Al retired. We didn't have a whole lot in common except animation and I'm sorry to say that I let our contact lapse in 1992.

In 1996, Bill Lorenzo threw a memorial tribute to Shamus Culhane, reported in these pages, and mentioned that Al's wife had passed away and that he was in a retirement home. Bill was good enough to give me Al's address and I wrote to him. Many weeks went by without a reply, so I called the home. I had no idea what condition Al was in, so I was afraid that he might be too ill to communicate. I was told he was okay and I phoned him directly and re-established our contact. I called him regularly after that and visited him twice, once in October and once on December 28, just days before he died. During the first visit I gave him a copy of the new book on the Schoolhouse Rock series, and the last time I gave him a copy of David Gerstein's Felix the Cat book, Nine Lives to Live. While I got it backwards, I'd given Al material that reflected the start and end of his career.

Al had definitely aged since I had last seen him. He had heart trouble and failing eye sight. He had given up his cigars due to doctor's orders. He was bent over and moved very slowly. He also had lost strength in his hands and complained that some books were too heavy to hold. Because of his eyesight, reading and writing were difficult. When I found this out I communicated with him by phone. I'd always call him Sunday nights and he'd always be watching 60 Minutes. He got a kick out of Andy Rooney. I made sure to time my calls so that they ended well in advance of Rooney's segment.

While Al was very pleasant and easy to talk to, he was a very private man. It was only in the last year that I learned that he had no children. I started asking him questions about his background. While he'd answer them, he wouldn't volunteer any extra information. I found out that his father was a professional french horn player who had played with John Phillip Sousa and Toscanini. His father died young, in his '40's, but Al did not give a cause of death. I also found out that Al had a brother who worked as a sound man in the New York film industry. After Al's death, his niece told me that Al also had a sister and a half brother and half sister. Over the years Al had dropped various bits of information, such as ghosting at least one Felix Sunday comic strip page for Otto Messmer or the fact that he'd done comic book work under the name Eugie. He also told me that his first Fleischer animation was not Swing You Sinners, but an industrial film made for Westinghouse. This may be Finding His VoiceΓΈ made for Western Electric, but I'm not sure.

I was shocked to hear of Al's death. I had seen him December 28 and he died on January 1. He seemed the same in December as he had when I saw him in October and he was scheduled to have cataract surgery on January 8.

Al was the first veteran animator I ever met, and he was one of the nicest. He was genuinely interested in helping me out and took an interest in what I was doing. I'm really, really going to miss him.