William T. Hurtz, an award-wining animation director, animator and film designer who was a key player in a historic strike at Disney studios in 1941, has died.
Hurtz died on Oct. 14 at his home in Van Nuys. He was 81.
Born in Chicago, Hurtz began studying art at the Chicago Art Institute at the age of 10. After moving to Los Angeles, he continued his studies at Chouinard Art Institute, a noted school that eventually became Cal Arts.
In 1938, he was invited to join Disney, which was undergoing a period of expansion spurred by the success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first American animated feature. It was also a time of rising tensions in the animation industry, especially at the Disney studio, where animators were not unionized.
Many Disney artists felt their personal relationship with Walt Disney meant more than a contract, but his favor was the sole criterion for promotions, raises and bonuses.
“People got raises because someone called Walt’s attention to you,” Hurtz, who worked as Art Babbitt’s assistant on the dance of the Chinese mushrooms in the 1940 classic “Fantasia,” once recalled. “While we were working on the mushroom dance, Art asked me what I was making. When he heard it was $25 a week, he got mad, went up to Walt’s office and got me a $10-a-week raise. I think the lack of a regular wage scale was one of the main reasons for the strike.”
Tensions rose in 1941, exacerbated by the studio’s precarious financial situation when “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” failed to duplicate the success of “Snow White.” At an emergency meeting of the Screen Cartoonists’ Guild, Hurtz proposed a strike. His motion was unanimously approved. The next day, Walt Disney arrived at his Burbank studio to find it ringed with pickets. The strike, which lasted several months, became a watershed in animation history.
Hurtz served during World War II, making training films at the old Hal Roach Studio in Culver City.
For one film, “How to Fly a Lazy Eight,” he was assigned to animate a caricature of Mae West. Years later, he recalled: “When I asked her how she would perform a gesture, she replied ‘Do something like this.’ She raised her elbow to shoulder height, then brought up her hand. All her diamond bracelets went clank-clank and slid down to her elbow. She turned to me and said, “Service stripes!”
In his spare time, he worked with future Oscar winners John Hubley and Chuck Jones on “Hell Bent for Election,” a film sponsored by the United Auto Workers urging members to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his quest for a fourth term as president.
Hurtz joined the fledgling UPA studio after the war, where he designed the Academy Award-winning short, “Gerald McBoing-Boing” (1951). After being promoted to director, he earned Oscar nominations for “Man Alive!” (1952), made for the American Cancer Society, and an adaptation of James Thurber’s “The Unicorn in the Garden” (1953).
Hurtz next moved to Shamus Culhane Productions and directed the animation for three films in Frank Capra’s “Bell Science Series”: “Hemo the Magnificent” (1956), “The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays” (1957) and “The Unchained Goddess” (1957).
After freelancing as a director of TV commercials and winning several Art Directors Club awards, he directed the animated movie titles designed by Saul Bass for “Around the World in Eighty Days” (1956), “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960) and “Psycho” (1960).
He joined Jay Ward Productions in 1959 to supervise the early episodes of “Rocky and Friends.” When asked about the creation of the popular series, he said, “We knew even then we were doing the best stuff around. . . . We knew we had something that was more than the sum of its parts.”
Hurtz remained at Jay Ward until the studio closed in 1984. In addition to “Rocky,” he worked on “The Adventures of Hoppity Hooper” (1964) and “George of the Jungle” (1967). He also directed more than 300 “Cap’n Crunch” cereal commercials.
Hurtz and Carlton Moss formed Artisan Productions in 1972 to produce educational shorts about African American history. Together, they made three shorts: “George Washington Carver;” “The House on Cedar Hill,” the story of Frederick Douglass; and “The Gift of the Black Folk,” which won a Cine Golden Eagle Award.
After leaving Jay Ward, Hurtz drew storyboards for the Klasky-Csupo series “Rugrats” and directed projects at the Japanese studio TMS, including the feature “Little Nemo” (1991). In addition, Hurtz served on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was president of ASIFA/Hollywood, the Los Angeles chapter of the international animated film society.
Hurtz is survived by his wife, Mary; son Tim Hurtz; daughter Claudia Hurtz; and two grandchildren, Jeanne Hurtz and Ken Matsubara. The family asks that contributions be made to Sepulveda Unitarian Univeralist Society, 9550 Haskell Ave., North Hills, CA 91343.