Walt Disney had over his lifetime some of the best artistic talent this world had to offer under his studio roof. Artists, Animators, Songwriters, Story men and every other skill imaginable were at his disposal. The core of his army was what he laughingly called his “Nine Old Men” (A reference to the 1937 Supreme Court’s nine Justices). But one animator had the distinction of two major roles in the Disney Company- Art Babbitt. Art is known as the creator of the character “Goofy”, he established his demeanor and personality and the basics of the character. But on the darker side, he was the main spearhead in the infamous Disney Animators strike of 1941.
He was born Arthur Harold Babitsky on October 8th, 1907 in Omaha Nebraska, in the “Little Bohemia” neighborhood known for its large concentration of Czech immigrants. His parents, Solomon and Zelda were married in their native Russia in 1898. After Kindergarten his family moved to Sioux City Iowa, and after several more family moves, the family re-located to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn New York. It was then when Art was in his teens that he began to draw and animate, and found that he had a natural talent for it, and used this as a means for extra income. Art put himself through pre-med school at Columbia College, but the dreams of becoming a doctor vanished when he first saw the Walt Disney Silly Symphony the “Skeleton Dance” in 1929. Babbitt was a lover of classical music, which was in many of the Symphonies, and he decided to become an animator.
His first job was at the animation studios of Van Beuren in 1929. He left the Beuren studios to work for Paul Terry; a former partner of Van Beuren’s who started his own studio in the same year. He animated for “Terrytoons” for a while and joined Disney in 1932. By 1941 Art had become one of Disney’s top animators. Babbitt is credited with animating the Stork in Dumbo, the Queen in Snow White, the Chinese Dance in Fantasia and Geppetto in Pinocchio. But Art Babbitt is also credited with the development of one of Disney’s most beloved characters, Goofy. Babbitt did not create him; he was a spectator in the Mickey short, “Mickey’s Revue” in 1932. In this short, “Dippy Dawg” as he was first named, was annoying spectators and Mickey alike with his odd, loud laugh and noisily crunching peanuts. Art took the character of Dippy and molded and developed him into the Goofy we know today. In fact, he got his name Goofy in the Mickey short “Orphan’s Benefit” in 1934. Babbitt had even written an Instruction manual, so to speak explaining Goofy’s mannerisms, speech, walk, even the way his thought processes worked. He was indeed, the Father of Goofy!
Art Babbitt knew the way to improving the medium was through training and classes. He took his craft so seriously that he bought a 16mm camera and began studying live footage to gain a better perspective on real life movements. He then began offering fellow artists at the Disney Studio “Life Drawing” classes, using a model of a nude woman in his own home. Walt found out about it and offered to pay for the training at the Studio, where he could keep on an eye on things, after all he said…”Ya know, if the newspapers find out about a bunch of Mickey Mouse artists grouping together around a naked woman in a private house, the studio would be up a creek” Babbitt suggested that Walt hire animation teacher Don Graham to teach the animators. For the next ten years, Graham helped the Disney artists polish their craft, making the Studio the top in the country, all thanks to Art Babbitt.
But Art and Walt really never saw eye to eye. Babbitt was loud and boisterous and could be a defiant individual. By his own admission he was indiscreet and known as the office womanizer. He hated office politics and never played them. He seemed to push all the wrong buttons for Walt Disney. He once took a merchant to court over a three cent sales tax dispute, another display of his assertive personality. Walt became very irritated when Babbitt had an affair with Marjorie Belcher, the model for Snow White, and was going to fire him, but Babbitt decided to marry her.
It was this assertive personality that caused him and Walt to lock horns and become alienated. During the late 30’s, many animation studios were beginning to unionize. In 1937, Babbitt learned that a mob-tied union was trying to get into the Disney Shop. He alerted Roy Disney and they formed a sham union called the “Cartoonists Federation” stopping the take-over. But Babbitt drew up a list of demands and presented them to Roy, who refused to negotiate. Babbitt relented and disbanded the Federation rather than fight.
But in 1940, assistant animator Dave Hilberman began organizing the Disney Studios into joining the “Screen Cartoonist’s Guild” headed up by union organizer Herb Sorrell. Walt was livid, he hated unions and no one was going to tell him how to run his studio. He called in Babbitt to re-form the Cartoonists Federation to head off the union take-over. Babbitt refused. Even though his was one of the highest paid animators at the time, he felt compassion for his lessor paid colleagues, and joined the SCG to help bring the union into the Studio. There were many reasons for the strike, unpaid bonuses that were never given out, lack of credits for work done and other issues. When Walt fired Babbitt for his union activities on May 27th, the Disney Animators voted to strike. The bitter strike lasted five weeks. Walt never forgave the strikers, especially Babbitt who Walt believed betrayed him. After World War Two, Babbitt had to take Disney to court to get his job back, but after returning to the Studio for about a year; he left, never to return.
Art Babbitt than went to United Productions of America (UPA) where he continued animating. He worked on the Rooty Toot Toot cartoons, and worked on the Mr. Magoo classics. Art Babbitt became one of the world’s greatest animation instructors. He had the ability to explain in words what came natural to other artists. He continued to teach throughout the ‘60’s and 70’s. Art was so well respected that Richard Williams postponed production so his artists could train with Babbitt.
Babbitt and Walt never did mend fences. But when Fantasia came out on Home video, Roy E. Disney sent Babbitt a note saying…’I want to give you long overdue thanks for your contribution to making Fantasia the classic film that it is.” This simple note helped erase all the bitterness and hate that Art held against the Disney’s all these years. Sadly, Arthur Harold Babbitt passed away on March 4th, 1992.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.