Monday, October 21, 2013

10.21.13 Hero of the Day: Lou Scheimer

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Name: Lou Scheimer
Age: was 84
Occupation: founder and president, Filmation Associates
Last Seen: up in the heavens with Norm Prescott, deciding whose name should stay on top
Awarded For: giving us great childhood memories


For millions of kids growing up in the 60's, 70's and 80's, Saturday mornings were magical.

You woke up, grabbed a bowl of cereal and flipped on the TV for cartoons. Many of those animated memories, such as The Superman/Batman Hour, The Archie Show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and its spinoff, She-Ra: Princess of Power were brought to us by Filmation, a Reseda, CA-based company founded 50 years ago this year by three gentlemen who wanted to bring good animation to TV: Norm Prescott, Hal Sutherland and its president, Lou Scheimer.

Despite its three founders, Lou was the undisputed champion behind the company, especially when Hal retired in 1974 and Norm followed suit in 1982 when the company was bought out. Although many animation purists raised on Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry criticized Filmation for its bland animation, Lou realized that the real critics were the children who watched his shows. Like its main rival, Hanna-Barbera, Filmation had its hits, but its misses, too.

Lou had humble beginnings; he was born 85 years ago last Saturday to a Russian mother and a German father. Neither spoke good English; as a matter of fact, they communicated in Yiddish. Not long after their son Louis was born, the Scheimers purchased a small grocery store, which made them barely enough money to live on, especially through the Great Depression. Sadly, Lou's dad died when he was just 14 years old, so he and his mother were left to tend the grocery. He wanted to go to Carnegie Tech to study fine arts, but money was tight. After graduating high school, Lou enlisted in the Army right after the second World War. He got out with enough money to go to Carnegie. He graduated in 1952, married his girlfriend, Jay and moved to Los Angeles to to pursue a career in animation. He did, working for Walter Lantz (who hired him because he looked like his brother), Larry Harmon and a few others. It was at Harmon's where he helped animate Popeye and Bozo the Clown cartoons.

While working for Larry Harmon, Lou met a man named Hal Sutherland, who previously worked for Walt Disney. The two became close pals and when Harmon abandoned making animated cartoons, the two had an idea: start their own animation studio. Lou suggested "Filmation" because it was animation on film and it would be fun. The name stuck and the two pitched the idea to a friend of theirs, a DJ from Boston named Norm Prescott. In 1963, Filmation was born.

For the next three years, Filmation did odd jobs, making everything from commercials to animation sequences for movies. The company was hardly making a dime. However, in 1966, the company got a call from Superman. Mort Weisinger, the editor-in-chief of DC Comics wanted Filmation to make a 13-episode series of Superman cartoons for Saturday mornings. Norm Prescott flew to New York to negotiate the deal and called Lou that they got the deal. However, Norm also said "by the way, they want to look at the studio" and Lou responded, "WHAT STUDIO?!?!" At the time, Filmation was just Lou, Hal and Norm and not much else. So, Lou and Hal called up everybody they knew - family, friends and laid-off Hanna Barbera animators - to come to the studio to fill up some desks. The deal was a success. DC execs were paraded throughout the studio and The Superman/Batman Hour was a Saturday morning hit on CBS.

Soon, other properties begged Filmation to animate their shows, including Archie Comics, Paramount (The Brady Kids and Star Trek) and many others. While H-B was dominant with hits like Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones, Filmation did things Bill and Joe couldn't do. In 1969, the song "Sugar Sugar" was a #1 hit on the pop charts (from The Archie Show) and in 1972, they helped to create the first-ever Saturday morning cartoon with a mostly-black cast, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. That show was Filmation's longest-running - albeit non-consecutively due to Bill Cosby's hectic schedule - running from 1972-1985.

Throughout the 1970's, Filmation grew and grew; they even had their own shows, such as the Laugh-In-esque Groovie Goolies, which were the subject of criticism when they were paired with most of the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes in the 1972 made-for-TV film Daffy Duck and Porky Pig Meet the Groovie Goolies. Critics bashed the movie because of its lackluster animation and poor character design. It was Filmation's most-major flaws: piss-poor animation. However, Lou defended the company telling people that kids can't count how many drawings go into his shows. Plus, if the networks gave him more money and time, the results would have been a lot more different. One way Filmation went around its budget was to re-use scenes by using rotoscoping: using actors to create shots and animators racing over those shots to create scenes. Many animators, including its inventor, Betty Boop animator Max Fleischer used rotoscoping to create realistic shots.

Filmation also had a great deal of live-action shows as well, including Shazam!, Ark II, Jason of Star Command and The Ghost Busters, a 1975 show starring F-Troopers Larry Storch and Forrest Tucker that was ripped off by Columbia Pictures in 1984 for the hit movie of their own. Filmation sued Columbia and won.

By the 1980's, Filmation was the top animation studio on television. In 1982, the company - which Lou, Norm and Hal sold to TelePrompTer in 1969 - was sold to Westinghouse/Group W Broadcasting. Lou used Group W's resources to stay away from the networks and their censors. In 1983, he made a first when he licensed the Masters of the Universe action figures from Mattel to create the He-Man series. Because the FCC did not allow networks to broadcast shows based on toys, Lou was thankful for Group W's syndication services to ship the show out to TV stations as a first-run show. With 65 episodes produced for one season, stations could air the show for two months straight without a repeat.

Throughout the 80's, Filmation also pumped out He-Man's spinoff, She-Ra and a new animated series of Ghostbusters cartoons to counter Columbia's version of the franchise. Filmation's last series, Bravestarr, aired from 1987-1988.

However, Lou constantly sparred with Group W over the direction of the company. Group W wanted Filmation to move all of its production overseas in the age of Reaganomics while Lou was for protecting American jobs. While he had to please his bosses by moving some aspects to South Korea, he made sure that in the age of his rivals abandoning American ingenuity, he kept it alive and well. Sadly, the fact that Lou also made a few theatrical bombs such as Pinocchio and the Emperor of Night and BraveStarr: The Movie didn't help his relationship with Group W. So, he shopped Filmation to French cosmetic giant L'Oreal. However, on February 3, 1989, Group W shuttered Filmation just before the sale was completed, leaving hundreds without jobs. When Lou made the announcement to his employees, a round of applause was made to him when he left the podium. He fought hard for his people, and his people loved him back.

Since Filmation's closure, Lou started another company, Lou Scheimer Productions. He had a few projects - mostly adult cartoons - but they were never officially released. His health started to deteriorate and had quadruple bypass surgery and was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. However, he remained a consultant with several companies and even made appearances at several conventions. However, his health continued to worsen because of Parkinson's and heart disease. He made his last public appearance last year at the San Diego Comic Con alongside several former Filmation staffers and friends to talk about his years in the business. He was frail and didn't speak in very long sentences, but he was still loaded with a sense of humor. Sid Haig talked about the hectic shooting schedule of Jason of Star Command, where he played the evil villain, and Lou yelled, "DON'T LOOK AT ME!"

While some scoff at Lou's embarrassments, he was a champion. He proved that a mostly-black cartoon show could survive on Saturday mornings. He stopped a battle between him and follow producer Norm Prescott in regards to screen credit by putting their names in a rotating circle so nobody's names stayed on top. He was a true family man, giving his wife Jay and children Erika and Lane jobs at the company doing voicework. He fought his bosses to protect the small guy. His company was the starting point for animation legends like Sam Simon, John Kricfalusi and William "Bill" Wray. He even brought back Star Trek to television in 1973 in cartoon form five years after NBC canceled it due to "poor ratings" and won an Emmy for that. When his daughter Erika came out of the closet in 2007, he was proud of her. The list goes on and on.

Lou's long battle with Parkinson's and heart disease came to an end last Thursday, just two days before his 85th birthday. He's survived by his wife MaryAnn (Jay died in 2009), and his children. He's also professionally survived by Hal Sutherland, who is now the sole surviving founder of Filmation (Prescott died in 2007). It's ironic that many of his fans got the sad news... On a Saturday morning. Thankfully, several cable and digital networks such as Bounce TV and Retro TV show many of Filmation's old shows. Part of it's due to the fact that these days, DreamWorks now owns them, and many ex-Filmation staffers now work there. Lou died very proud that his legacy will go on forever.

And as for that battle between him and Norm Prescott regarding credit, well, God loves everybody equally.

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