How I got a job at the Mouse (as is in Mickey) Factory starts with an surprise June 1951 order I received via wire (remember them?). It was just a day or two after earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art (now University of the Arts). The telegram was an order to report for active duty with the U.S. Navy.
The Korean War was on, and my Naval Reserve Carrier Air Group was activated, requiring us to serve two years. Many in the group, including me, had already served in World War II, but willingly (did we have a choice?) performed our new tasks. We did six months off the Korean coast, then at Naval Air Stations in the U.S. When my two-year tour was over, I hoped my BFA would get me a well-paying job in commercial art.
Instead of going back to cold, clammy Philly, I looked for work in sunny Los Angeles. I applied at Warner Brothers, Paramount, Disney and at a bunch of ad agencies. None responded for weeks, and then an interview appointment came in from Disney.
After being grilled by Disney management, and showing my portfolio of samples, I was offered an assistant’s job in animation for $75 a week. Even in 1953, that was low, low pay for a college grad. On my just-finished active duty, I was a Navy chief petty officer, earning about $150 a week. Added were free private quarters, meals, uniform allowance and lots more. However, I figured I could work my way up the Disney ladder to decent pay.
I rented a studio room for $50 a month near the Disney Studios in Burbank, where I painted animation cels for the then in-production movie, “Lady and the Tramp” and other assignments. I did so well, that my pay was raised way up to $100 a week after only a year on the job.
Staff members were one big happy family then, without the usual strict pecking order of the Navy or big companies. Often, Walt Disney himself came by my drawing board for a chat. He was more of a friendly uncle than one of the most famous creative people in the world. He and his associates were already planning Disneyland in nearby Anaheim, scheduled to open in 1955, and there was a lot of excitement around the studio.
However, before I could move up the Disney ladder, I was offered a faculty position at Colorado State University, with more than double the salary I was earning at Disney. I very reluctantly resigned my job at the Mouse Factory and moved on with my career.
Just three years later, maybe caused by a rush of homesickness, my life came full circle back to Philly. I was offered free tuition and assistantship at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Graduate School of Communications. Fortunately, there were no more Navy recalls, and it was followed by a 25-year management career with a major insurance company.