Lost UPA Cartoon: Howdy Doody and his Magic Hat

Gene Deitch has written this plea before, but he’s not ready to give up hope. The first cartoon he ever directed – for UPA no less – is apparently a lost film. Writes Gene:

“The short animated film that I consider my seminal work appears to be lost and gone forever. It is not listed on any roster of animated films. Technically, it does not exist. The only evidence that it ever did, beside my word and a very few living witnesses, is a magazine article in the also vanished Colliers magazine, with one barely representative illustration (above, click to see it larger).”

The name of this hopelessly obscure little film is also weirdly surrealistic: HOWDY DOODY AND HIS MAGIC HAT. Surrealistic because the film had nothing to do –really – with the grotesque television puppet Howdy Doody. So what is the origin of this artistic tragedy? Here’s the story: The Howdy Doody production organization, Kagran Corp, paid us at UPA-New York, in 1952, to make the film, hoping to establish their string puppet star into a movie star. We disappointed them. They felt we screwed them, and they got the ultimate revenge: They destroyed the negative. They destroyed my seminal work of animation art! I ultimately got that information from a most reliable source: my best friend, and the one-time voice of Howdy Doody and his entire gang, Allen Swift. Allen told me that Bob Smith, the creator of Howdy Doody, hated my film so vehemently that he ordered it wiped it off the face of the earth!

What had we done, and why? We, the then masters of modern animation – the purveyors of progressive design, got it into our eggy heads to influence Kagran to transform Howdy Doody with elegant graphics; to give children something better than the schlocky look of their immensely popular TV show. To this day I don’t know what made us think we could get away with it. We were delighted to take Kagran’s money, and the opportunity it gave us to show our stuff.

When I claim my so-called HOWDY DOODY film is a work of art, I don’t mean that it was all my art. Cliff Roberts was the graphic designer, and Duane Crowther the animator, and I can’t even remember the name of the great young avant garde composer. We were all proud of our film, feeling it was a landmark, that would not only rejuvinate the ugly H.D. but would become a classic film for us.

My personal contribution was partly the storywritten in collaboration with my long-time friend, William Bernal, ( a cowboy rough-rider variation on the magic talisman that endows victory, but that is lost and forces the hero to win without it), plus my visual conception, layout and direction. Coping with the low budget, I decided to do it as paper cut-out animation with special camera effects of my own invention, which became the basis of my filming technique throughout my career and to this day. That’s why the ‘HOWDY DOODY AND HIS MAGIC HAT film is still so important to me. Others have since done these same multiple exposure depth effects, overlapping dissolves and backlit glows since those early days before computers existed, but without a copy of this simple little 1952 bag of tricks filmette, how can I prove I did it first?

When I left UPA New York to pursue other glories, I did manage to get a 16mm print, and I eventually brought that print with me on my first trip to Prague, 50 years ago in 1959 – to impress the communist-repressed locals my skills. It worked, and I won my incredible wife in the process. But in that first trip, nothing like that was assured. I had only a few days to stay here, and according to US Customs regulations at the time, I could not carry films to America in my luggage, so the Czechoslovak Air Cargo outfit shipped my film back to Bill Snyder’s office. It arrived. It was not confiscated by the Czechs, yet when I returned, Snyder could not find it. I had my mind set on more urgent matters, and assumed it would turn up. It never did.

Snyder and his assistant repeatedly told me the print could not be found. I had returned to Prague and had no chance to get to New York during that time – the early 1960s. When I did get there, I could not find it in the Rembrandt Film’s store room. Later, after Snyder died and his company was taken over by his son Adam, our close friend, neither he could find it.

So this possibly lone 16mm film print slipped from my grasp. Many colleagues tried to locate a print, but to this day, nearly 50 years later, it appears to be hopeless. So my first UPA film, “Directed by Gene Deitch,” seems to be lost forever.

Only the Kagran Corporation, now also defunct, could have derived satisfaction, that this brazen little animated movie, which dared to meddle with the design and name of their beloved character, has been erased from history! – Gene Deitch

If one 16mm print existed, surely others were struck from the negative. And what of the negative, or any original art? If anyone has any clues as to the existence of anything related to the film (not the Little Golden Book), please contact us.

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