Suspended Animation #415
Willie Ito was born in 1934 in San Francisco and said that seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a movie theater when he was five years old inspired his love of animation.
“I saw those dwarfs marching across that log bridge, and I was hooked. I knew I wanted cartooning to be my life’s work,” recalled Ito.
Being of Japanese immigrant parents, his family was placed in an internment camp in Utah.
He learned to draw on the pages of Sears catalogs, making homemade flipbooks. He collected Disney comic books and Big Little Books with Disney characters. He officially retired from animation on July 31, 1999.
In 2019, there was an exhibition in Florence, Italy connected to the Nemo Academy (an animation school) and Anima Frienze (an animation museum) dedicated to the work of Hanna-Barbera.
The three guests of honor were Willie Ito, Jerry Eisenberg and Tony Benedict who all had long careers in animation but all had spent significant time working at Hanna-Barbera working on some of the earliest and most memorable productions.
Here are some comments from Willie Ito from that event.
Ito: In 1954, I moved from my home in San Francisco where I was born and raised to continue my schooling at Chouinard’s Art Institute in Los Angeles.
While a student, I was hired at Walt Disney Productions to work in the feature animation department. Lady and the Tramp was in production and I found myself working on the iconic “spaghetti kissing” scene.
Upon completion of the feature, I went to work at Warner Bros. Cartoons which was located in the infamous Termite Terrace. In a few weeks, I was promoted to the Chuck Jones unit as Ken Harris’ assistant.
What’s Up Doc and One Froggy Evening were some of the clasics I worked on along with the Coyote and Roadrunner series, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons. Eventually, my role with Chuck expanded and I was doing character designs, storyboards and layouts for the Dr. Frank Baxter Science series.
Friz Freleng, a director who was working to train another layout man “borrowed” me from Chuck for one picture. That resulted in my first Warner Bros. screen credit.
Producer Bob Clampett was starting production on his Beany and Cecil Show. Originally a puppet show, he was looking for a character designer to convert his characters into animation. Another fledging new animation studio was finding great success with The Huckleberry Hound Show with Yogi Bear and The Flintstones.
Word around Hollywood in the animation fraternity was the newly formed studio Hanna-Barbera was on the horizon as one of the “hot” new studios in town. I really liked The Huckleberry Hound Show with Yogi Bear. S
My first encounter with Joe Barbera was when I decided to visit him with my portfolio. Hanna-Barbera studio was located in the heart of Hollywood at the classic Charlie Chaplin studio. It was an old studio from the 1920s which had the ambiance of an early motion picture studio.
It had soundstages where some of Charlie Chaplin’s memorable classics were filmed. Joe’s office could have been Mr. Chaplin’s office. It had all the great Chaplin vibes.
Joe was at his dapper best. His desk was covered with storyboards of forth coming shows. I sat before Joe as he asked me some basic questions. Upon his reviewing my portfolio, he dismissed me, saying “We don’t draw like this.”
It was a year later that Alex Lovy hired me. Joe didn’t even remember me from a year earlier.
The Jetsons was now in production and I now found myself as part of that crew. I was involved with many of the Hanna-Barbera shows as character designer, layout man, concept artists and designer with supervisory capacity.
I was with Hanna-Barbera for fourteen years but chose to strike out on my own. I formed Aloha Productions and create commercials for the theater screen advertising, local TV stations and PS.
I also was involved with magazine cartoons (Car-Toons magazine in the 1950s), comic strips (four episodes of the annual Disney Christmas comic strip for King Features), comic books (the five Beany and Cecil comic books 1962-1963) and doing subcontract work for other production studios.
Storyboards, layout and character design work was part of the mix. I wrote, co-directed and designed a special for NBC as one of my projects. With the voice of Sterling Holloway, the show was titled All About Me. (NBC Children’s Theater 1973)
I had a stint with Sanrio studio of “Hello Kitty” fame.
Walt Disney Studio beckoned me in 1976 with an offer to be a staff comic strip artist. To be back at where my career all began, I quickly jumped at the offer.
As my role expanded at Disney, the Consumer Products Department grew. The department was getting bigger and Disney offices were worldwide. During this time, Disney decided to expand into the field of Saturday morning children’s programming.
I was recruited to join the new department because of my personal background in TV animation. I joined with the agreement that it would be just during the formation period. I was instrumental in finding the right animation company to handle production.
With that taken care of, The Wuzzles and The Gummi Bears were the two premiere shows to go into production. I was there about three months.
I was promoted as Director of Character Art International and was part of a team of Disney creative artists to travel to our worldwide offices training and mentoring its local talents and to maintain the integrity of Disney characters.
I retired after a fifty year career in the animation industry only to find myself now engaged in self publishing, illustrating and on speaking engagements promoting my children’s books.
During the World War II years, Japanese Americans were incarcerated into concentration camps where I spent three years of my childhood. My books focus on those years so my writing partner and I are telling these stories and creating these books to teach future generations about our plight in a child friendly manner.
(Hello, Maggie! (written by Shigeru Yabu, 2007) and A Boy of Heart Mountain written by Barbara Bazaldua, 2010).
I have three sons, a daughter, six grandchildren and two great grand kids.
During my years in animation, I was fortunate to see it all happen from the Golden Age to the coming of Xerox replacing ink and paint department and the current renaissance of CGI. The industry of animated cartoons has yet to see a future I can’t even imagine. From Steamboat Willie to Pixar, it’s only the beginning!