Monday, June 12, 2006

In Search of Frank Braxton

A week ago I had lunch with President Emeritus Tom Sito. His book "Drawing the Line," is soon to hit bookstores, and I asked him to provide us with some snippets of animation history. Here's the first one: Like many specialized fields in American industry, African Americans had to wait until the 1950s to get into the top jobs in Hollywood Animation. Asian and Latino animators had worked harmoniously alongside their white counterparts since the silent era. But all the elderly animators from the 1930s and '40s could recall of black Americans at their studios, it was as janitors or errand runners. The enforced segregation known as Jim Crow was prevalent through animations first fifty years. Many early labor unions were colorblind, but since Samuel Gompers founded the American Federation of Labor while adhering to segregationist codes in 1911, the larger labor alliances took awhile to desegregate. I once was talking to storyboard artist Floyd Norman. I asked him what it was like to be the first black animator ever hired by Walt Disney. Floyd had been hired in 1954. Floyd smiled and said: "But, I wasn't the first. That was Frank Braxton." In 1948, the same year President Truman ordered desegregation of the U.S. Army and Jackie Robinson swung a bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Frank Braxton became the first animator of his race hired at Walt Disney. But he quit after two months. I have never been able to uncover the reason why. Friends said Braxton was aware he was one of the first black animators in America and that thought drove him to seek perfection. The pressure on him to succeed must have been terrible. You could feel all the eyes on you, the sting of a bad critique. One could imagine the added level of being in a job place where not everyone wanted you to succeed. After leaving Disneys, Braxton had befriended animation guild president Ben Washam when they met at the office of a voice coach they were both seeing. Ben Washam was one of Chuck Jones's top animators. He usually did the last Bugs Bunny closeup scene at the end of a cartoon, just before the iris closed - "Nyeahhh, and Mud spelled backwards is Dum!" Washam went into the office of Warner Bros. production manager Johnny Burton and said, "I hear Warners has a racist policy and won't hire blacks." Burton swung around in his chair, furious, and snapped back, "Whoever said that is a goddamn liar! That's not true!" Washam countered, "Well, then I have a young black artist out here who is terrific. I guess he came to the right place." Johnny was as good as his word. Braxton soon became an animator on Chuck Jones's crew. Chuck remembered Frank fondly in his first book "Chuck Amuck." Braxton also did scenes of Tom & Jerry for MGM and at Hanna & Barbera. People who knew Frank said he was a skilled artist with a wonderful sense of humor. In 1960 Frank Braxton was elected by the animation community president of the Screen Cartoonists Guild. In the 1960s Frank came down with an advanced cancer. He was still only in his 40s. He remained ill for the next few years, and struggled to keep working. Frank Braxton died in 1967. People who knew him said had Frank lived he would have been more well known in the pantheon of animation celebrities. If anyone out there has more info on Frank Braxton and his all too short career. I'd love to hear. Many African American artists who came afterwards, Leo Sullivan, Phil Mendez, Bruce Smith, Lou Scarborough, Lenny Graves, Barry Caldwell, Bob Tyler, Brenda Banks and many more, owe a debt of gratitude to the trail blazed by Frank Braxton. - Tom Sito


Anonymous said...

Frank Braxton was more of a mentor to me than a close personal friend. I really didn't know that much about his personal life.

I wrote a column about Frank for Jim Hill Media a few years ago. My information came from Frank's daughter who was working at Disney at the time.

I last saw Frank at Jay Ward's studio out on Sunset. This was in the sixties while he was still fighting his illness. He was a great animator, and a real inspiration for this young kid just starting out back in the fifties.

g1toons said...

i was doing a search to find if there were any black animators and i found this article, i am an inspiring animator, this was very informative do you know of any other places where i can find out more or find any of his work

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