Friday, June 23, 2006

Animation's First Picket

Another selection from Tom Sito's upcoming book, this time on the labor struggles in a 1930s New York animation studio...
Tom Sito by Hans Bacher.
...It was no surprise that animation unions first found fertile ground in New York City. The major studios in the city in the 1930s were Fleischer and Van Beuren's, with Terrytoons up in suburban New Rochelle. ...The Van Beuren studio seemed to have fallen behind all its competitors in quality and output. None of the studio's characters...had captured the public's fancy the way Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop had... Future Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin did a stint there and later was inspired to do a syndicated comic strip about the place called "Van Boring." Van Beuren changed producers and directors frequently, looking for a team to make his studio a winner, but the mismanagement of work schedules caused his shop's cartoons to fall seriously behind and way over budget. The supervisors' solution to make up the time was to demand that everyone put in long hours of overtime nights and weekends, all for free. ... When Burt Gillett, the director of "The Three Little Pigs," (1933) left Walt Disney to run Van Beuren, everyone hoped that things would improve. Gillett tried to introduce the rigorous standards of quality he learned making Silly Symphonies at Disney, but he did this while still asking for the same low-budget deadlines made up with uncompensated extra work time ... According to several sources, the hard-drinking Gillett quickly earned a reputation for emotional outbursts and instability. The artists held regular informal sessions at the Metropole Bar a few doors from the studio to complain about their situation. Numbers of artists, including Bill Carney, Lou Appet and Sadie Bodin, began to meet with representatives of the AMPWU to discuss going union. Spies in the crowd soon reported everything to Gillett. On February 14, 1935, Gillett called a staff meeting. He shocked everyone when he said he knew all about the union talk and that there had been a meeting. Bill Littlejohn, who was nineteen years old at the time, told me, "The big artists came out of Burt's office white as sheets." The staff shrank back, intimidated, but the grumbles of discontent continued.
Left: Sadie Bodin, circa 1937. Photo courtesy Harvey Deneroff.
Another snitch told Gillett that an inker named Sadie Bodin was overheard in the ladies' room encouraging her girlfriends to stand up to him and not to do the extra work. Gillett's reaction was to immediately fire her. Sadie angrily confronted Gillett. She said that since the Wagner Act had just passed in Washington, firing her for wanting a union was now against the law. Burt Gillett responded that he fired her not for organizing but merely to replace with someone "whose attitude was better." On April 17, 1935, Sadie Bodin and her husband became the first people ever to picket an animation studio. They stood during the lunch hour for several days on Seventh Avenue with signs reading, "Van Beuren Violates Sec. 7-A NRA by Firing Union Labor for Union Activity." Her coworkers shuffled mutely past her in and out of the building, eyes down. They were all too intimidated to go out and stand with her.
-- "Drawing the Line" pp. 70-74
Below: Sadin Bodin, at the time she accepted her Golden Award in 1987.
Despite legal action, Sadie wasn't rehired. The struggle to unionize Van Beuren failed, but in 1936 the studio went out of business. Burt Gillett returned to the West Coast, where he worked for Walter Lantz and his old employer Walt Disney. It was another six years before most animation studios were unionized.


Kevin Koch said...

Since Sadie Bodin was honored with a Golden Award, it's clear she went on to have a long history in the biz. Any details on how her career fared after 1935?

Jeff Massie said...

I think she was out of the business for a while after Van Beuren, whether because of a blacklist or starting a family, or both, I couldn't say.

Later, according to the Golden Awards program, she worked for Cineffects, Neil Sessa, Zander's Animation Parlor, IF Studios and Phoscine. (Jack Zander, the first president of the West Coast chapter of the Screen Cartoonists Guild in the 1930s, later ran a large commercial shop in Manhattan for many years. He's still alive and kicking, well into his 'nineties; I her from him every so often.)

I sat at the table with Sadie when she accepted her Golden Award in 1987, the same year as Lillian Friedman, the first female animator in the U.S. I recall she passed away a few years after that, but I don't have details on file since she never worked on the West Coast and it was before the Afternoon of Remembrance.

Herb Ray said...

This is all so interesting! I stumbled upon these posts quite by accident.

Sadie Bodin was my great aunt. I knew that Left politics ran deep in my family; however, I had no idea that my Aunt Sadie was such a firebrand!

In answer to Kevin Koch's query, I remember quite clearly that in the late 1950's to early 1960's, Sadie worked for Joe Oriolo at Trans Lux. She was on the team that produced both "Felix the Cat" and "Hercules". I was a little boy at the time, and I remember always seeing the name, "Joe Oriolo" on one on the introductory screens of "Felix". I have a clear memory of having asked my Aunt Sadie who Joe Oriolo was. Her reply: "He's my boss."

It's possible that Sadie did some work in her home studio. We would visit her at her home in Sunnyside, Queens (New York City), and I recall that there was some sort of studio-like area or room, and that this room was plastered with acetates of "Felix" characters.

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