Animation corporate executives have not always been highly regarded by the artists who work for them, particularly during the Golden Age. One exception to that trend was Leon Schlesinger, who until 1944 served as the producer of all of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons released by Warner Bros. (after 1944, Warners owned the cartoon operation outright…but you already knew that).
To his staff, which in the studio’s formative years included Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Friz Freleng, the McKimson brothers, and Chuck Jones, Schlesinger was known as a colorful but generally benign presence; a hands-off boss, whose laissez faire attitude allowed for the loonacy that would characterize Termite Terrace. “Leon had a sense of humor,” animator Bill Melendez told me in 1991, “but he didn’t know what we were doing.”
“Leon liked Porky Pig. We’d put up a storyboard and Leon would come in and say, ‘I don’t see any Porky Pigs. Don’t we make Porky Pigs here anymore?’ So one of the story men came up with an idea: no matter what they were working on, there would be a drawing of Porky Pig. Leon would go: ‘Ah! Another Porky Pig!’ He thought we were making Porky Pigs now. I don’t know why he liked Porky Pig, because somebody once told me that Porky was really a caricature of Leon, who was kind of a portly guy.”
When it came to contract negotiations, Melendez went on, Schlesinger was rivaled only by the histrionic Lord of MGM, Louis B. Mayer.
“I remember the assistants went out on strike and he [Schlesinger] got really mad. He even pretended to have a heart attack! Everybody left and thought, ‘Jesus, what did we do to Leon?’ But he was just putting on an act. We had negotiations and we won. We all got a little raise. After the ‘heart attack,’ he said, ‘Well, you bastards beat me this time, but next year, I’m gonna get you!’ There were no hard feelings or anything.”
Schlesinger was also something of a dandy, with a marcelle wave and an ever-present boutonnière. He had another notable quirk, according to animator and layout man Tom McKimson, who worked on and off at the Schlesinger studio throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. “You’d think it would always be fun to receive a check from the boss, but we got so we dreaded every weekend, because Leon insisted on passing out the checks personally, McKimson told me in 1992, adding:
“He would hand you the check with one hand and shake your hand with the other. We dreaded shaking his hand because the cologne he wore, which I think he must have bathed in, would stay with you the rest of the day! And if you were drawing over that heated animation board, it made it worse!”
All studio moguls, A-list or B-list, were Hollywood characters, but it is a rare one indeed that can make his employees cringe at the thought of being paid!