Friday, November 26, 2010

Fiction: AMERICAN ANIMATION SOCIETY ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS: PUNKIN PYE Interview Conducted and Annotated by David Perlmutter

[1] The American Animation Society (AAS) is a non for profit organization designed to preserving and protecting the unique culture of animation in America and the equally unique fictional and real people who are involved in its production and creation. It is involved in conducting interviews with significant figures in the history of animation as well as in promoting educational programming related to the animation industry’s history and ongoing projects. By allowing this first of a planned ongoing series of oral histories to grace its pages, this publication joins the AAS in acknowledging the uniqueness of animation as an American art form as well as one requiring unique means of understanding and preservation which we hope to provide.


Punkin Pye, for those of you not familiar with him, is a small, rabbit like creature with elongated ears, red fur and an almost permanent scowl on his face. He has been a persistent, if marginal, figure in the field of animation for nearly a century, taking advantage of the near immortality granted to most animated cartoon characters by their particular physiological construction. He has worked in advertising, theatrical animation, and television animation, but has spent much of his later career serving as an informal advocate for fellow members of his species of “’toon”. He is persistently outspoken, taking controversial stands on issues when most members of his species would prefer to remain silent. This is perhaps why, unlike so many others, his career has lacked consistency, due in part to a long and embittered exile from the film and broadcast media.

Punkin first emerged into the public consciousness as the mascot of the Yutz Bread Company of New York City in the mid-1910s. The company went bankrupt in the stock market crash of 1929, forcing “Punk”, as he was informally known, to seek alternate forms of employment. Several attempts at work at the major New York area animation studios of Fleischer, Terry and Van Beuren failed to earn him steady employment, in no small part due to his controversial socialist politics. By the 1940s, he had traveled to Los Angeles in search of work, but his reputation preceded him and he was unable to get work. He concentrated instead on advocating for “’toon” rights, which lead to several increasingly bitter run-ins with the LAPD across the 1940s and 1950s.

Television seemed to offer a better opportunity for employment for him and, in the mid-1960s, he was able to obtain a supporting role on an independently produced animated program called The Buddies. This opportunity, too, ended up slipping through his fingers. Not only did politics once again get in the way but his repeated use of violence on camera, in the form of an ever present and oft-used sledgehammer, on camera got him into trouble with the censors. In an angry confrontation, he refused to disavow his use of violence as a comedy tactic and has since been blacklisted from television, a condition that, despite support from others in the animation industry, has still been enforced. Meanwhile, films and videotapes of The Buddies, sometimes altered to overemphasize his use of violence, have become a hot “underground” property.

It was at this time that he began concentrating on advocacy and, due to his vast experience and understanding of animation and “’toons”, he has become one of the leading commercial advocates for their rights. He has been a constant supporter of, among other things, gaining the right to vote for “’toons”, obtaining commercial royalties for past and present performances, and allowing them to become members of the Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America, on the grounds that their roles in these fields have been repeatedly overlooked.

I talked with Punkin Pye at his apartment in the Toontown district of Los Angeles, where he has lived since his arrival in the city since the 1940s and where, despite his advocacy, “’toons” in the city’s animation industry are still forced to live if they work in the city. (A word of caution: there are words and opinions in this interview that may be offensive to others.)

[1] Based on a tape recorded discussion originally recorded April 5, 2008.

DP: Where were you born?

PP: In New York City, around the garment district, about 1908.

DP: And how, as a ‘toon, were you born?

PP: You aren’t so much born as drawn. Somebody just takes a pen or pencil and sketches a doodle of you. If they happen to like you, you live. If they don’t, you die. I’m actually quite fortunate since most of us end up dying on the drawing board, if you know what I mean.

DP: I understand. So you spent your early years in New York?

PP: Yeah, and I still consider myself a New Yorker even though I’ve been living in L.A. all this time. Ties like that are strong with us ‘toons. Our home towns are always strong with us even though most of us don’t have the kind of things that would tie them strongly to us. Like families and stuff.

DP: So you don’t have a family in the normal sense?

PP: Yeah. It’s only been fairly recently that they’ve started making ‘em with families. Most of us, unless we got really popular, had to do without.

DP: Did you suffer from prejudice as a child?

PP: Hell, yeah! There’s no ‘toon that doesn’t if they’re particularly “out” with it. Look at us. Most of us are fairly ugly to start with, and then there’s all that crazy stuff we do. Expanding limbs, taking our heads off, cutting holes in the sky and the ground so we can escape people. And all in the name of entertainment! That’s what I don’t like- that they think we’re purely entertainers! That we just turn on the charm when the camera comes on and then bottle everything up until the next go round. That is no way to see other people! They don’t see blacks, Jews or women like that now, so why us?

DP: In other words, people don’t understand animated characters and they don’t want to try.

PP: Correct! That’s what I dig about you and those other AAS guys! You care about us! That’s why I wanted to talk to you. Lot of other people wanted to talk to me but I turned them down- they just couldn’t take me seriously, see?

DP: Yes, of course. So when were you first employed by Yutz Bread?

PP: I can remember that like it was yesterday. When you’re a six year old ‘toon kicking the can around the Lower East Side ‘cause you got nothing else to do, you pay attention when a guy comes up to you and offers you sixty bucks a week just for posing for an artist ‘cause they like your looks!

DP: So it was your looks that attracted them?

PP: Yeah. ‘Course I was a lot more attractive then. (Laughs). And that was it. I sat down and they drew some pictures of me. So I was their public face. I was on their billboards, in their magazine ads and on the bread wrappers themselves. I was just a kid and here I was, a star! You don’t know what that does to a kid.

DP: Many child stars have issues with addiction and an inability to adjust to being out of the spotlight. Did that happen to you when the company went bankrupt?

PP: I would say yes and no. I had a life with Yutz. Stability, a home and everything, you know. But I was wise. I kept my cash in my mattress at home, you see? None of that banking crap for me. And also, by the time of the crash, I was an adult. I’d grown up. Some ‘toons that start out as kids ended up staying that way for the rest of their lives, but some of ‘em grow up pretty quickly. I was one of those. So, between that and my savings, I turned out all right.

DP: But despite your status as a salaried commercial spokesman, you were and have always been a committed socialist. Is there some sort of disparity in that?

PP: I wasn’t a socialist when I started out in life, but it was Debs that turned me right on that.

DP: Eugene Debs, the presidential candidate? I’m just asking because some people may not have heard of him.

PP: More’s the pity for them not knowing about him. He had more guts that half the politicians around today- or then, even. I mean, who else would run a presidential campaign while he was in jail? That takes real chutzpah. And there was the Triangle disaster.

DP: You mean the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911? I only ask because…

PP: Yeah, because the people don’t know about it. Then they’re dumb! That thing didn’t need to happen. I saw the whole thing go down ‘cause it was only a short distance from my apartment. The fire and the screaming and the jumping off the side of the building. Didn’t need to happen. And it happened because the guys who owned the place got greedy and wanted more money. See, that’s what attracted me about socialism. A lot more fair to everybody, not just the guys with money. Everybody cares about each other. We’d all be better off with it, I think. A lot of my friends think the same way about it, but we can around to that later on.

DP: Sure. So after the crash, you started into your animation career…

PP: Not so much a career as a dabbling, I would say (Laughs).

DP: I should note here that there is a difference between animation and the ‘toons themselves. Animation refers to the medium and ‘toons to the people who appear in those films.

PP: Yeah, only “’toons” was and always has been a pejorative. We generally prefer to be called “animated characters” or “animated beings”. This is for the audience again, right?

DP: Right.

PP: Okay. On to my dabbling. Not as much here as you would think. At Fleischer’s and Terry’s I was basically an extra. No speaking parts. I was just in a couple of films for them each and then they let me go. Problem wasn’t my appearance or presence; I filmed good in black and white. It was the political thing. I’d go around handing fliers for socialist meetings and everything during lunch hours. So I got fired.

DP: Both of them were anti-union as I recall. That was one of the reason the Fleischer Studio went on strike in 1937.

PP: You nailed it. If I’d still been there then I would have been right in there.

DP: Then you went to Van Beuren. Were you more successful there?

PP: If you mean getting bigger parts, then yeah. But that didn’t help me none. You gotta remember that Van Beuren was the bottom of the barrel then. Crap! I mean, half the time the vocal track and the film weren’t even synchronized properly. I’d see the stuff later on and I’d be embarrassed. It didn’t do much for my career except I met Joe Barbera there.

DP: Of Hanna-Barbera.

PP: Yes. We’ve been friends for a long time, up until he died. He always had a great rapport with the ‘toons, which is why he and Hanna were able to stay in the business so long. Didn’t help me professionally, though. He went to bat for me later on, after I got blacklisted, but no one would touch me then. Not even Jay Ward, and he seriously needed a hit series by then. But anyhow, I stayed around Van Beuren for a few years until they went out of business in 1937.

DP: Because RKO, their distributor, started distributing Walt Disney.

PP: Exactly. Like going from turnip to tulip.

DP: This was around the time that you decided to go to Hollywood.

PP: Well, I had no other choice, really. There was nothing left for me in New York. I mean, nothing. I’d burnt by bridges with the studios, and my looks had started going, so advertising was definitely out. All the other studios were in Hollywood so I had to go if I wanted work. So I packed my grip, got a train ticket, and went out here. End of story.

DP: Yet nobody wanted to hire you when you arrived in Hollywood, despite the reputation you had built up in New York.

PP: That’s putting it mildly. They thought socialism was the plague, and I refused to bend. That cost me a lot of work. Nothing at Disney, Warners or MGM. The best I could do was a few bit parts at Universal and Columbia; you can probably see me if you look close enough.

DP: You did work more extensively with UPA during that time, didn’t you?

PP: Correction: I tried working with them. This time it wasn’t the politics; some of those guys were redder than I was, and it cost them dearly when HUAC came calling. It was the way they drew. That whole “limited animation” stuff might have been more “artsy” and all, but it didn’t work for me. Gosh! When they were through with me, and they tested me, I looked like a doodle on an oil painting. And besides, I looked like a total butt ugly putz. I didn’t need none of that, so I walked out.

DP: Did you consider work in non-commercial filmmaking?

PP: There wasn’t much I liked, other than maybe Jam Handy, but they were out in Detroit and I didn’t want to move. So mostly I just hung around the house and cursed my bad luck. Or I tried other things.

DP: That was when you first got arrested by the LAPD.

PP: Yeah. I’d gotten involved in a plan with some other ‘toons to knock over a bank. Just ‘cause we thought our cartoon abilities could let us do the job without leaving much evidence. Didn’t work. And then because we were ‘toons, they roughed us up really bad, aside from leaving us in the clink for a longer than average time. Rather not go into more detail about it, if you don’t mind.

DP: I understand. Can you give me your impression of the Toontown Riots of 1949, in which you participated?

PP: How could I forget that! Man! That happened because of Paramount v. United States. You know that, right?

DP: That was where the Supreme Court ordered the film studios to sell off the theatres that they owned. And they did. They apparently had violated some arcane anti-trust legislation or something like that.

PP: Yes. And one of the repercussions was that they started cutting back on what they considered to be “non-essential” stuff, like cartoons. So a lot of my people found themselves out of work, with very little explanation. They just showed up for work one day and the studio cops just said, “We don’t need you any more. Get the hell out of here.” It took time for some of those studios to shut down, of course; I mean, Walter Lantz, God love him, was still making films in the ‘70s, but they were starting to look pretty cheap by then. But most of them said point blank that they were either getting out of the business entirely or cutting back to just a few each year. Toontown exploded. It was like what happened here in town in ’65 and ’91, or what had happened with the zoot suiters a few years before. But nobody talks about it, ‘cause, as I said before, apparently nobody gives a shit about us ‘toons.

DP: Was there an inciting incident, like the murder of the Latino teenagers at Sleepy Lagoon that set off the zoot suit riots in 1943?

PP: Yes, there was, but you never heard about it ‘til now ‘cause I’m telling you about it. There were these ‘toons on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, hanging out. Just like normal guys. This would have been around January of ’49, by the way. Cops pull up, call them loafers and all sorts of other dirty names, and then the nightsticks come out. Couple of them fight back. They tear off the street lamp at the corner and use it to bash in the skull of one of the cops. Strictly self-defense, understand? Next thing you know, they’ve called in reinforcements; half the LAPD, it seems. Toontown organizes its own citizen brigades, one of them led by me, and we fight it out with them. We lost some people, but they lost more, ‘cause they couldn’t deal with the way we played ball. Dropping pianos and rocks and such. Went on for a couple of weeks, and then they finally left the neighborhood. But it scared all of us in that neighborhood real bad. Not just that we became even more pariah types than we were before. There was a lot of shell shock. The establishment didn’t have to deal with that ‘til Vietnam, but it hit us first.

DP: Then afterwards came television, around the same time.

PP: Uh huh. What the anti-trust didn’t do to the movie business, TV did. Nobody wanted to deal with TV in the Hollywood crowd; it wasn’t until later, when they got to be neighbors in the corporate hierarchy, that they really got to understand it better. That was especially true in Toontown; you worked in TV and word got ‘round about it, it was like you had the Scarlet Letter around your neck. Believe me, the worst violence in Toontown wasn’t what the human cops did to us; it was what the movie ‘toons did to the TV ‘toons. Horrible stuff!

DP: What do you mean? Were there murders? Or was there more subtle prejudice as well?

PP: Sometimes it was like that. Sometimes it was less serious, like practical jokes and whatnot. It moved back and forth between those extremes. But there was a lot of bad blood, and it stayed that way at least until the TV ‘toons finally started outnumbering the movie ‘toons, about the mid 1970s. It wasn’t very comfortable, but I stayed ‘cause it was my home and I had nowhere else to stay. I kept my nose out of that movie/TV debate if only just to save my skin.

DP: And then you started your own brief career in television with The Buddies . How did that come about? ([1] Despite continual advocacy on the part of Punkin and others, The Buddies has yet to see a DVD release, though, as noted earlier, it has been circulating underground for many years.)

PP: Well, it was just a matter of my neighbors nagging me to get work. Didn’t matter that nobody would hire me- they wanted me to work so I wouldn’t be lying around my house all day. Anyhow, one of my friends recommends me to Sheldon Abernathy, the creator of the show, and I get an audition. I did that thing I do with my ears, the “wiggle waggle”. And he digs it. So I get the part. They give my fur a touch up with some new red paint, and give me the hammer, and I’m set.

DP: Did you get along with your cast mates?

PP: Sure. That wasn’t the problem. Bernie Bear and I are still pals- talk to him if you don’t believe me. Polly Poodle and I went with each other for a long time; she stuck with me during the unpleasantness. We had to break it off ‘cause I’m not the family type and she wanted kids, but that’s all right. Jerry Monkey, though, had a huge dope problem that we noticed even then; we tried to get him off it but he wouldn’t listen. He blew his brains out a few years ago, unfortunately. Casualty of the business.

DP: The problem, as you suggest, though, was that the show was violent and that you specifically were violent, too violent for television.

PP: That was bullshit! Serious bullshit! It had to do entirely with us being ‘toons, and doing ‘toon like stuff on a national television network. We were “violent” in a time when everybody was “violent”, that’s all I can say about that. What they did was say that nobody could act in a way they wanted children to imitate. That covers a lot of stuff. And besides, I think a lot of children- most of them, in fact- are considerably more intelligent than the network suits and the advertisers have always thought of them as. The dumber they are, or they think they are, the more they can manipulate them into thinking the way they want to them to think. Nobody should be made to think like that.

My using the hammer was simply part of the schtick that we were doing as part of the show. It had nothing to do with who I really was- it was my character. The angry emotions were real, given what was going on then, but I was not and have never been that cantankerous. I love being around my fellow ‘toons and the humans who care about them, and I always will. That stuff was just in the scripts; I was being paid to do it, and I did it. And then, when half the scripts are in the can, they suddenly say that using a hammer or any so called “violent” weapons on air is out. Way to tell us, idiots! So I throw my script down, say I’m quitting, and walk off. I refuse to work on any more shows unless I do it my way.

So finally the network calls in we members of the cast and crew and we hash things out. They think they know what children and audiences want ‘cause they run the network. I have been in this business for over half a century by this time, and I am not going to let some pencil pushing idiot call me out over what I can and cannot do. So I strike out. I scream bloody murder and read the riot act. I call them every single name I know what to call them, and I know plenty. Then I walk out of the room. They blacklist me. They say I’m unapproachable and uncooperative. They say I will not work within the prescribed settings, i.e. that sanitized pre-packaged garbage they call “pro-social values”. Everybody all lovey dovey and throwing flowers in the air and saying how the world is great and all. I cannot do or say any of that because it is NOT REAL. I mean, it’s not real in the sense of the cartoons I worked in. Those network morons just DESTROYED the world I knew. The cable people, thank God they know how to make cartoons, ‘cause the network people knew their ass better than they knew cartoons!

DP: And you haven’t worked in television since.

PP: Nor anywhere else. But I found a way to work that was much more in line with who I really was.

DP: This was your work as an advocate.

PP: Again, my friend, you are right.

DP: How did that begin?

PP: By accident, mostly. There wasn’t anybody handling ‘toon issues in union arbitration. The major unions wouldn’t let them in as members, and the cartoon characters were unable to form their own union. So cartoon characters were and are treated like crap when it comes to negotiating residuals and stuff. I became one of the first to arbitrate mainly because some of my friends asked me to help them out.

DP: I noticed that around your apartment you do have a number of signed photos from your friends, and not all of them traditional animal type ones either.

PP: Yeah. I knew most of them when they first started out. So I went into a meeting that one of ‘em had with Hanna-Barbera and Joe Barbera was there. He says, “What are you doing here, Punk’?” I answers, “I’m the advocate. I’m dealing with representations and rights and all. So you should know what I want. You know me, Joe.” And he says, “Yeah. I do.” And it goes well enough that I start being the rep for a lot of the characters in town, right up to today. Especially the ones who live in their own little towns who don’t know L.A. and what goes on around here.

DP: So what specifically do you do?

PP: I’m generally called in during contract negotiations and negotiations for continuing on for another year and that. I generally speak for the clients even if they’re in the room with me. I say that the clients want this and that, and the network or channel says we can only afford this and that and the other thing. Most of the time it goes well. Sometimes not. In really bad situations we end up yelling at each other for hours on end, ‘cause I can keep it up as long as they can. And some of them know about me now. They’ve seen The Buddies, or they’re grandparents are from NYC and they know about Yutz. And we get deals with the people done.

DP: You have worked with some high profile performers, yet you rarely make the news yourself. How do you account for this?

PP: They’d much rather pretend they didn’t have to deal with me. But, as you can see from the photos, those who know me certainly care. And when you know that they spend a lot of time risking their asses to help the whole world on their shows, they’re pretty relieved that somebody who knows Hollywood is going to help them settle their hash there. That kind of thing gives me as much pleasure as performing, I’ll tell you. I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

DP: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.

PP: Charmed!


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