Under the Sun

Under the Sun: Don Bluth – an American Animator's Tail

You may not  recognize animator  Don Bluth, but you probably recognize his work.
You may not recognize animator Don Bluth, but you probably recognize his work. Courtesy Don Bluth Front Row Theatre

click to enlarge You may not  recognize animator  Don Bluth, but you probably recognize his work. - COURTESY DON BLUTH FRONT ROW THEATRE
You may not recognize animator Don Bluth, but you probably recognize his work.
Courtesy Don Bluth Front Row Theatre

At Don Bluth Front Row Theatre the other day, the man for whom the theater is named stretched out across a row of seats for a midday nap. When a stranger stopped by to discuss Bluth’s storied career in show business, he arose and folded himself into a seated position. He told about working for Walt Disney, and drawing the Archies, and about why running a small Scottsdale theater is so rewarding. He dropped names — Steven Spielberg, Roy Disney Jr., Veronica and Betty — that weren’t meant to impress.

“Lillian Gish once said that when you sit in the dark and watch a play or a movie, it’s not harmless,” Bluth cautioned. “She said, ‘We are rearranging your molecules. We are putting ideas into your head that are there forever. Things that will either edify you or pull you down.”

Bluth longed for edification. He never worked, he said, just to earn a living, waving his hands for emphasis. “I was raised on a farm in Utah,” he crowed. “Farm chores are awful. You’ve got to milk the cows and you’ve got to clean the corral and feed the calves. We had 24 cows and there were no milking machines then.”

When his chores were complete, Bluth rode his horse to the local cinema. He favored Walt Disney movies, because the people in them also got around on horses. “This was the '40s and early '50s, the era where Disney was trying to perfect the art of animation,” said Bluth, who had been drawing since boyhood. “The era of Snow White and Bambi and Pinocchio.”

Bluth attended classes at BYU in 1955 (“A waste of time!”) before dropping out and heading to Burbank, California, where Disney was making Sleeping Beauty.

click to enlarge Animator Don Bluth at this Scottsdale theater. - COURTESY DON BLUTH FRONT ROW THEATRE
Animator Don Bluth at this Scottsdale theater.
Courtesy Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
“I was so naïve, I had no idea how to get a job there,” he said. “I called and they said, ‘We’re not hiring.’ I kept calling Disney and they finally said, ‘Bring a portfolio.’ I didn’t know what a portfolio was. I went out there and showed them some of my drawings and they brought out John Lounsbery and he said ‘Yes, I’ll take you.’ I had no idea what a big deal Lounsbery was. I became his assistant, and I wasn’t very popular with the others there because some had been there 20 years and hadn’t been able to get close to Lounsbery.”

When Bluth watches Sleeping Beauty, he can still pick out the birds and squirrels he drew. He was sorry they never gave him the girl to draw. “I did a lot of birds and squirrels. I was fast, and Lounsbery liked that. He would come around and say ‘How many birds did you draw today? How many squirrels?’ This was going to be the perfect animated movie. All the drawings had to be just so.”

After a year at Disney, Bluth’s bishop told him it was time to go overseas on a requisite Mormon mission. He struggled with the request. “I’d be gone two and a half years, and not be able to draw for that time. John Lounsbery wasn’t happy.”

Back in the states, Bluth returned to BYU and studied English literature. “I already knew how to draw, so why study art? I knew nothing about reading and writing and literature. Everyone was talking about Melville and Buck and Wordsworth, and I had no idea who these were.”

After completing his degree, Bluth moved back to California and signed on with Filmation, where for three years he drew for CBS-TV’s The Archies and its many spinoffs — shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and The Groovy Ghoulies. “All the stuff I was drawing was the same, and I got bored,” he remembered. “It was all going into a trashcan.”

Bluth phoned Disney and asked for his old job back.

“It was a Rumpelstiltskin story,” he recalled. “They put me in a room, gave me paper and pencils, and said they’d be back in two weeks to see what I’d done. They were making Robin Hood at the time. They looked at what I did and they gave me a job as an animator on that movie.”

Bluth stayed for nine years, leaving in 1979 to form Don Bluth Productions.

His company made The Secret of Nimh, a critical hit, and provided animation for Xanadu, the movie with Olivia Newton John. “Steven Spielberg called one day and asked us to do a movie with him, and that was An American Tail,” Bluth said, then shook his head. Tail became the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film of all time. Another Bluth-Spielberg collaboration in 1988, The Land Before Time, did even better.

After folding Don Bluth Productions in the mid-'90s, Bluth scored another hit with Anastasia (1997) for Fox Studios animation department, then based in Phoenix.

“That’s how I ended up in the desert,” Bluth sighed. “Fox closed its animation department in 2001, and after that I started doing theater at my house.”

Bluth had 45 seats in his home theater, but patrons were making a mess of his place. “I found this space here,” he said, then jabbed a thumb at the set for Blithe Spirit, which his theater is presenting this month. “That was about six years ago. In October we’re doing The Wizard of Oz. That will be a really big production. Theater is so much like animation; it’s just telling a story that will edify. Which is where I started out.”

But Bluth, whose drawings have earned hundreds of millions of dollars for big-deal movie studios, couldn’t shake the animation bug. “I animate for four hours every day,” he said. “I am working on several projects at once. Everyone is doing CGI these days, but that isn’t animation.”

He glanced again at Blithe Spirit’s drawing room. “Theater is great. I love it. But I have got to do whatever I can to keep traditional animation alive.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela