Ted Thomas describes his latest work, the 30-minute documentary Growing Up with 9 Old Men, as “a road trip to catch up with my cohorts, the other children of the 9 Old Men.” The nonet to which he refers was an elite corps of animators hand-picked by Walt Disney. Between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Rescuers (1977), many if not all nine of these giants had a hand in breathing life into many of cartoondom’s elite.
Ted’s father was Frank Thomas, and among the characters he gifted viewers with were Alice in Wonderland’s pliable Queen of Hearts, Peter Pan’s arch rival (and animation marvel) Captain Hook, and a never-to-be forgotten spaghetti smooch between Lady and her Tramp.
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Growing Up with 9 Old Men screens Sunday, August 31 at 2 pm as part of the California Center for the Arts, Escondido’s latest exhibit, The Art of Fantasia and Other Disney Classics: The David Yaruss Collection.
Ted spent his early years growing up with Disneyland as his playground. Was life in the Thomas home as animated as what we saw on the screen? “I try to phrase my answer to something like that this way,” Ted says during our Saturday morning phone interview. “Our household was like any other household, except for the fact that my dad worked with Walt Disney. When you factor that in, humor played a big part, especially when you grow up finding funny ways to look at things. The animals in the backyard — the squirrels, or the birds, or things like that — weren’t just animals. They were critters that all had personalities. This just seemed to overflow from the environment he worked in.”
Original animation cels and other prized pieces of Disneyana remain high-ticket items among collectors, but you couldn’t tell what Frank did for a living simply by walking into the Thomas abode. Ted remembers, “He didn’t have much in the way of Disney memorabilia at that time. You’d be surprised how little of the Disney memorabilia the working artists actually held on to. Ollie Johnston had lot more that my dad. I’ve come across things that have been squirreled away, like a maquette from Pinocchio. Maquettes were plaster-of-Paris models made at the time of production. In the days before pre-visualization, what they’d do was make a physical model of a character so the animator could rotate it and get a feeling for what it should look like from different angles. Nowadays, with the computer, you can take your model and turn it any way you want to.”
This is not the first time Ted has tackled the subject on film. Growing Up with 9 Old Men is a continuation, of sorts, of his Frank and Ollie (1995), a documentary about Frank and his esteemed partner, Ollie Johnston. What’s different about the two films?
“This was the first time I put myself in front of the camera,” says Ted. “I have a philosophy of filmmaking where I try not to let the filmmaker get between the subject matter and the viewer. This time out, my executive producer said, ‘The story is about you!’ That was enough motivation to put me on camera. In terms of format, it’s much more a personal journey style of film than anything I’ve done before.”
When asked to define his father’s legacy, instead of choosing Hook, Cinderella’s wicked Stepmother, or countless other creations, Ted cites “an astonishing ability to analyze and remember behavior, much like any fine stage or film actor would do. He was able to translate that into a series of drawings, and I don’t think anybody has equaled it. I don’t think anybody has risen to his level of fine acting. He had this way of always keeping something moving and alive. I think this contributed to his astonishing ability to act.”
Frank Thomas left us ten years ago, and his son has spent much of the past decade cataloging his dad’s career and taking stock of what he left behind. “To give you an idea of the impact that he left,” Ted adds. “I’m still at it.”
The memorabilia that didn’t find its way into the trunk of Frank Thomas’s Chevy is the stuff David Yaruss’s dreams are made of. Yaruss, 73, a retired pharmacist, was five when he moved to San Diego. He bought his first pieces (a pair of storyboards from Snow White) at Comic-Con #5.
“I spent $60,” he remembers, “which in 1975 was a lot of money, particularly since I hadn’t planned on spending anything.” Today, his 250-plus-piece collection occupies every inch of the center’s available gallery space.
Among his most coveted pieces are a background cel set-up from Bambi and a number of concert pieces and original backgrounds from Fantasia, the film he calls “my number-one passion.”
Both Ted Thomas and David Yaruss, along with another son-of-an-old-man, Ken Lounsbery, will be in attendance for a post-show discussion. The exhibition ends September 7. Admission to both the gallery and this Sunday’s screening is $8, with discounts available for some attendees.