When I was in art school, I was hired to work one summer for Canawest Films, a studio that did commercials and segments of Saturday morning cartoons such as Abbott and Costello and Shazaam. These were Hanna-Barbera productions, and the Vancouver staff was pressured to churn out as many shows as possible, as fast as possible. We worked a grueling schedule to keep production going for 24 hours a day. I was in the ink and pain department (something that doesn’t really exist any more), and although the job was tiresome and repetitive, I learned more about animation than I could through any course. By the end of the summer, I had decided that I wanted a career as an animator.
The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show is an American half-hour animated series of the famous comedy duo that aired in syndication from September 9, 1967 to June 1, 1968. Shazzan is an American animated television series, created by Alex Toth and produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions in 1967 for CBS. Lynn misspells the name as Shazaam, but she mentioned in her 10th anniversary collection that she only worked on Abbott and Costello and as usual, when Lynn doesn’t really know something, she misspells it.
I worked as a volunteer apprentice with the director, when I wasn’t painting cells. Barry Helmer was a great teacher. He gave me characters to design and segments to animate. He showed me how to storyboard and how to work with sound tracks, click tracks, and Foley. I loved this challenge. I thought I was on the bottom rung of a ladder I was going to climb and that there was success at the top. Then I got married and everything changed.
Barry Helmer is listed in the imdb database as an illustrator and not a director. The directors for Abbott and Costello are credited to be Hanna and Barbera and there is no mention of Barry Helmer on them. In the 10th anniversary collection, Lynn described this as going from department to department in her spare time to learn how they did things.
Doug Franks was a television cameraman with the CBC. Television was where several of my high school friends had found work, and through them I was introduced to Doug. Unfortunately, the bottom was falling out of the industry at the time. The 1960s saw many cut backs to public programming in Canada, and it was evident shortly after we were married that Doug would be losing his job. We travelled to Los Angeles with my friend Cecily (to the right of me in the photograph above), an artist who worked next to me at Canawest, and her husband, Larry, who worked for CFUN, a rock-jock radio station in Vancouver. We went as a lark but hoped to find work there…if we were lucky.
I have never been able to find proof that CBC was going under in 1967 in Vancouver. If anything, the exact opposite was the case. Lynn may not realize this, but an industry bringing in untrained high school kids to fill positions is an industry growing and desperate for employees, not one getting ready to lay people off. Here is a quote about CBC history at the time:
In Canada's centennial year, 1967, the CBC broadcast 1,500 hours of Centennial programming, in addition to building and operating a C$10 million broadcasting center at Expo '67 in Montreal. Also in 1967, the CBC became the official broadcaster for the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg. By the end of the decade, CBC was providing television coverage to 96.6 percent of Canadians, and satellite coverage was in the planning stages. Moreover, the Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) had been established to regulate and license the broadcasting industry.
CFUN radio on the other hand has a definite end in 1967 and I can easily see find why Cecily’s husband Larry needed to find work. From Wikipedia:
CFUN's early Top 40 era ended on September 18, 1967, when the format was dropped for easy listening music. On May 28, 1968, the station was sold to Montreal-based Radio Futura Ltd., and on July 1, 1969, the station changed its call letters to CKVN, adopted a primarily all-news format (with music overnight) and increased transmission power to 50,000 watts.
Cecily was originally from Los Angeles. Her folks were comic book writers for Disney --- her dad has worked as an animator on wonderful shows such as Fantasia and Snow White. Alpine and Cecil Beard knew all kinds of people in the animation and film industry and were willing to make some connections for us. Cecily and I took our folios and did the rounds. We were both good illustrators, and Jay Ward Studios offered us jobs in their background department starting immediately. We were beyond excited. Jay Ward was famous for George of the Jungle, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and my personal fave, Super Chicken! All I had to do was get a green card, Cecily could move home, and the guys could find something, we were sure! Not so. Radio announcers and television cameramen were everywhere in California. There was no need to hire from out of the country. Both men refused to take “just anything” so their wives could become animators. The four of us drove back to Vancouver. This was heartbreaking, but we followed our men.
Close. Cecil Beard animated at Disney Studios from 1936-1940 (Snow White, Pinocchio Bambi), but not Fantasia. For Disney Studios he and wife Alpine Harper wrote scripts for foreign-market comic book stories (Magica de Spell, Madam Mim), so technically that is correct.
The problem I have always had with the Jay Ward studios story is that 1967 marked the last year they did cartoon animation and from 1967 – 1970 they did animation strictly for commercials. It seemed crazy to me that at the time when they would have to be cutting back on employees, they would hire Lynn and Cecily. This story finally makes it clear. They were getting hired as a favor to the Beards, who had worked in animation for 22 years prior to this point. Once again, it's not what you know, but who you know that makes a difference.
Doug and I moved to Ontario after he accepted a position at CHCH TV in Hamilton, and my career took another turn from there. Unable to work in animation, I looked for work in jewellery stores, something in which I had experience. I had just been offered a job when I read an ad in the Hamilton Spectator: The Hamilton General Hospital was looking for a graphic artist. I called the number and made an appointment with the head of photography. I then worked all day and into the night making a folio that showed I could do charts, graphs, guts, bones – whatever I thought they’d want to see. This was a good thing. I’d have never been offered the job if all he’d seen was cartoons! This job led to another: medical artist at McMaster University – which, in a series of serendipitous encounters, led to the job I have now. Long story!
This story is a little different from the one in 10th anniversary collection where Lynn said the Hamilton Spectator ad was for the McMaster University position and she tells a story about how she got the job primarily because she chose to wear a miniskirt to an interview with a man who couldn't keep his eyes off her legs. The Hamilton General Hospital (HGH) is a major teaching hospital and it is operated by Hamilton Health Sciences and is formally affiliated with McMaster University Medical School. There is story here we have never heard about how Lynn moved from work in the hospital to working directly for McMaster.
Jump ahead to 1985. My comic art career was booming and I was busier than ever. Rod (my second husband) and I had just moved to North Bay, and the proximity of a good airport allowed me to travel more easily and more often. On one of my journeys, I was invited to do a radio show in Toronto, a wonderful show called This Country in the Morning hosted by Don Harron, one of my favourite comedians. After the show, he and another guest and I went for coffee at a nearby restaurant, which was a real treat. Sitting at a table nearby was another hero: writer and actor, Gordon Pinsent, to whom I was introduced. Star-struck and stammering, I said, “Mr. Pinsent, I really want to write a play. How do I start?” With a look that said he’d been asked the same question too many times, he replied, “Just to it.” I felt silly for asking, but what he said was what I really needed to hear – and I took his advice to heart.
This Country in the Morning was a nationally broadcast Canadian radio program, which aired on CBC Radio from 1971 to June 27, 1975. On September 20, 1976, the program was renamed Morningside, and was hosted by Don Harron from 1976 to 1982. But the program was most associated with Canadian broadcaster Peter Gzowski, who assumed the host's chair in 1982. Don Harron subsequently hosted an afternoon talk show, The Don Harron Show on CTV from 1983 to 1985. None of this matches Lynn's description. God only knows what show Lynn was actually on or if it was even in 1985 or who the host was.
Gordon Pinsent is known much more as an actor than a writer, so it’s interesting that Lynn would ask him a writing question. Imdb lists him with 7 writing credits, 4 of which were before 1985, but none of the ones before 1985 are well-known.
I caught the afternoon flight home that night and I couldn’t sleep. I decided to write, and I wrote a play called The Bestest Present. I sent it by courier to Bill Stevens, owner of Atkinson Film Arts, a small animation studio in Ottawa. He called me right away. He said, “I read your story last night and was really moved by it. Would you like to do an animated television special?” Excited and in disbelief, I accepted. I couldn’t believe this had happened so fast. I was soon on my way to Ottawa to meet Bill and make arrangements to sign the contract. This was the beginning of a huge adventure!
Sorry, Lynn, but this one is unbelievable. You don’t write “a play” featuring characters from your comic strip and send it to an animation studio owner. Also, you just don’t send a script to an animation studio owner without someone making some arrangements in advance to make sure the script is read by the right people. As popular as Lynn’s comic strip was, I am sure her syndicate was very interested in having an animated feature done. In 1985, the Peanuts comic strip had a new animated special almost every year, and I cannot imagine Lynn's syndicate would not want a part of that money. Given Lynn Johnston’s inclination towards absolute creative control, she would want to write the script, and so the real question would be whether or not she could write a script that would be considered acceptable. My guess is the real point of this story is that Bill Stevens judged the script to be good enough, and that allowed them to go ahead with the production with Lynn's consent.
Bill arranged funding through various channels, and we began to work on my first animated film. We chose voices and designed backgrounds, Bill wrote the music, and he sang and he was the voice of John. I asked Bill if my children could play the roles of Michael and Elizabeth, and after they did a reading, he agreed. Aaron’s friend Scott came on board to add his voice to the opening song, and the recording went off without a hitch. It was so much fun. I travelled to Ottawa regularly for over a year, and our Navajo Aircraft was never more appreciated. Rod was our pilot (and the voice of the postman), so the whole family was involved.
Through various channels is revealed on imdb to be Animated Investments (for) Téléfilm Canada (with the participation of) CTV Television Network (in association with).
Imdb actually credits the music to Bob and Merry Chimbel. The most amusing part revealed in imdb is Scott Binkley ... John Patterson (singing voice). Lynn fails to mention that John Patterson’s singing was done by a kid Aaron’s age, who is also credited for singing the song “Little Girl of Mine” Also, this little reveal lets us know that Aaron was not friendless in North Bay, as Lynn has suggested in prior notes.
The most shocking part about this story is that Rod Johnston is her pilot. Lynn has told us previously that being in North Bay meant the loss of the Navajo Aircraft, because she no longer needed it with the North Bay airport. Two years into living at Corbeil and they still have the plane. My guess is that the loss of the Navajo Aircraft was much more of a battle than Lynn has let on so far.
Animation is done by a team of talented artists who are obsessed with what they do, which is a good thing, because it’s a hit and miss business with no guarantees. I was honoured to be working with talented illustrators, actors, photographers, sound technicians, and musicians – all focused on a production featuring my work, my characters. They made it all happen; they taught me step by step, all along the way, and we achieved something, which, for me, was amazing.
Agreed. Personally, I like the idea that Lynn’s whole family was involved in the production. This would have been a great bonding moment for the Johnston family and it does make The Bestest Present far more intriguing to us fans.
We all worked for the love of it, and even though it was costly, time consuming, and sometimes maddening, making The Bestest Present was one of the happiest times of my life. It won a Gemini award for children’s programming. It still runs at Christmas time. I have Bill Stevens to thank for seeing the potential in a short, unsolicited script and Gordon Pinsent for telling me to “Just do it!” This never would have happened if I had taken the job at Jay Ward in Los Angeles … sometimes, disappointment is a blessing in disguise!
Actually the Gemini award was for Best Animated Program, Single Program or Series. Lynn fails to mention that she was nominated for a Gemini award for Best Writing in a Comedy/Variety/Entertainment/Performing Arts Program or Series. I guess for Lynn it’s not an honour just to be nominated.
As for what would have happened to Lynn if she had taken the Jay Ward job, my guess is that she would have kept that job for no longer than until 1970 at best, when the studio closed down if that long.