Practical Jokes by Disney Animators

Suspended Animation # 362

Personally, I find no amusement in pranks even when they happen to others. To me it just seems painful and humiliating with the victim the butt of the joke. However, I know others, especially animators, don’t feel that way so here are a few stories of pranks that Disney animators played on their peers.

Walt Kelly

Richard Greene in his book Man Behind the Magic: “On one occasion, Walt Kelly — a Disney animator who went on to create the comic strip Pogo — targeted a fellow animator who took great pride in successfully throwing his coat across the room onto a coat rack.

“Kelly sawed the coat rack into dozens of small pieces and taped it back together so the breaks wouldn’t show. When the victim came back from lunch, he tossed his coat, as usual, and nearly passed out when the whole rack came tumbling apart like a house of cards.”

The victim of that prank was Disney Legend Fred Moore, who had just returned from a “drinking lunch,” and his friends Kelly and Ward Kimball delighted in his shock and surprise. The tape was Scotch tape so it only held the pole together very lightly.

Homer Brightman

Disney Legend Jack Kinney said that “the victims of these so-called jokes always had a standard comeback: ‘Why don’t you guys put them funny gags in the pictures?'”

Kinney, best know for his directing work on the Goofy shorts for Disney, had a funny story about pranking storyman Homer Brightman, who considered himself something of a comedic actor.

Brightman’s comedic storyboard pitches always brought laughter from his audience, once prompting Walt to lean over to a secretary and ask, “Are you laughing at the story or Homer’s performance?”

Her reply was “Homer.”

In 1988, Kinney wrote about a prank at Brightman’s expense:

“One hot, quiet night, for want of something better to do, we started a rumor with Homer Brightman as the patsy. We told him that Walt wasn’t going to have time to do Mickey on the radio [for the Mickey Mouse Theatre of the Air program which turned out to be correct] and was looking for a substitute.

“Homer fell for it and went around all the next day practicing the high falsetto: ‘Hello, Minnie. Hi, Pluto [laughing)] heh, heh, heh…’

“We convinced Homer he was a natural and set up an audition starting at 7:30 p.m. The microphone was turned on and the audition began…with the entire Story Department hiding out upstairs in the next building, catching the act through the windows.

“Stuart [Buchanan, the person in charge of casting voices] was in the booth. After each reading, he would emerge and offer suggestions like ‘That was fine, Homer, but we need more action in the reading, so could you hop up and down when you read the lines? Okay, take 23…’

“Homer hopped. Stuart would say, ‘Homer, you’re out of mic range, would you hold the mic as you jump? Take 37…’

“By 10 p.m., Homer was exhausted, sweating and pooped, but still game. Hop, hop, hop. ‘Hello, Minnie. Hi, Pluto. Heh, heh, heh!’
“Stuart came out again. ‘Hold it, Homer. Now your socks squeak.’ So Homer is struggling pulling off his shoes and socks and Stuart says, ‘We’ll try it again when we have more time’.”

Disney storyman Ted Sears once visited Knott’s Berry Farm, but was appalled that the Old West saloon did not serve anything alcoholic. Sears was still peeved when his wife insisted they make a reservation at the restaurant for them and their two friends.

Grumbling, Sears made the reservation and was told there would be short wait of 20 minutes for the famous fried chicken and boysenberry pie.

Ted Sears

Sears decided to get his revenge by writing a phony name to be called. Roughly twenty minutes later, over the loudspeaker, the name was repeated over and over. The name that Sears left? “Byrdchitte” which sounds alot different when said aloud rather than merely written down.

At the Disney Studio, Sears was thumbing through a phone directory and came across a name he fell in love with immediately and dialed up the person:

“Hello? Is this Gisella Werberserk Piffl?”

“Yes, it is. How can I help you?”

“I’m an old friend of your brother’s. We were classmates at Cornell.”

“Oh, I’m afraid you have a wrong number. My brother did not go to Cornell. He graduated from Princeton.”

“I’m so sorry,” replied an extremely apologetic Sears. “You must be some other Gisella Werbersek Piffl.”

Lou Debney – by T. See

Some pranks were not newly created gems but often repeats of childhood ideas. During work on the animated feature Pinocchio, many late nights were spent at the Disney Studios. One of the assistant directors was Lou Debney who was called “Whitey” because he always wore white pants.

One late night, he collapsed into a nearby chair for a quick nap and one of the young animators put warm water in a film can, slid it toward Debney’s arm that was hanging over the side of the chair and gently put Debney’s hand into the water. Shortly afterward, the expected result that most school children know would happen was very noticeable on his white pants that now had a yellow stain.

In 1997, I asked Disney Legend Bill Justice, famous for his work on the Chip’n’Dale and Donald Duck theatrical shorts to share a few of his memories about pranks at the Disney Studio.

Bill Justice

Jim Korkis: I know that Disney animators would break up the tedium doing a lot of pranks. Were you involved in any of those?

Bill Justice: “Pranks? Some of it was pretty standard. We’d balance a cup of water over a door to drench someone when they opened the door. One time someone put up a roll of animation paper up there. That must have hurt when it fell and hit the guy.

“One of the gags was taking the animation discs off and putting a kneaded eraser or a piece of limburger cheese on the incandescent bulb so that it would burn and stink under the disc when an animator was drawing. They didn’t know where that terrible smell was coming from because it was so gradual.

“In the old Hyperion studio, there was a little garden area with some benches and people would go on break. Walt would go there. There was a little turtle that would eat the vegetation. So the guys got the idea to bring in a different turtle.

“They kept bringing in a larger and larger turtle every two or three days so it looked like the turtle was growing at a fantastic rate. Then to top the gag, they reversed it and brought in smaller turtles every two or three days.

“Walt even started talking about it at meetings. I am sure he caught on to the gag but in the beginning I think they ‘got’ him going.”