Gene Deitch (born Eugene Merril Deitch), 1924
Gene Deitch was born in Chicago in 1924 to Ruth Delson Deitch and Joseph Deitch, a salesman. The Deitch family moved to California after the stock market crash in 1929 and Gene started school in Hollywood. Gene enjoyed creating classroom and neighborhood newspapers, and the different printing techniques he used over the years speak to his lifelong love of technology. He was also fascinated by the movie industry and especially enjoyed watching cartoon shorts. After graduating from Los Angeles High School in 1942, Gene joined the war effort and drew aircraft blueprints for North American Aviation. It was there he met his first wife, Marie. They married in 1943 and had three sons together. That same year, Gene was drafted and, although he trained to become a pilot, he fell ill with pneumonia and was honorably discharged in May 1944.
Gene embarked on a career as a cartoonist and animator. He drew covers and cartoons for the jazz magazine The Record Changer and joined the animation studio UPA (United Productions of America). He later became the creative director of CBS Terrytoons. In 1959, Gene had started his own studio, Gene Deitch Associates, Inc, which was primarily producing commercials. He was asked to travel to Prague by a client who wanted him to direct a film there. As Gene was reluctant, this client promised to fund a project particularly close to Gene’s heart (the pet project was a film called Munro – which later won an Oscar). In October 1959, Gene arrived in Prague, and he recalls his first impression of the city as ‘creepy.’ However, he soon met Zdenka Najmanová, the studio’s production manager, and fell in love with both her and the city. Gene says that as soon as he returned to the States, he was ‘looking for ways to get back’ to Prague. He returned shortly thereafter and married Zdenka in 1964. Gene’s career flourished in Prague; he produced many films, including several installments of the popular series Tom and Jerry.
Gene says that he was received with some suspicion in communist Czechoslovakia; his reasons for being there – love and work – were too simple for people to believe. Following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, Gene and Zdenka traveled to Vienna to contact his family back in the United States. When they attempted to return, Gene says they were not allowed back in, as the country had closed its borders. The two went to Norway to work on a project while the studio convinced the government that Gene’s work was beneficial to the country and that he should be allowed to return. He says that in the mid-1980s, the two considered moving to the United States, and even went so far as to buy a house in San Francisco; however, the event of the Velvet Revolution led them to stay in Prague. Gene remains an American citizen and over the years he has frequently traveled back to the United States. Today, he lives in Prague with Zdenka.
From an early age, Gene loved going to the movies and watching cartoons
“I was infected with all these kinds of things, of ways of creatively communicating; and seeing the cartoons every day, I got to be really big on Mickey Mouse and all the cartoons of the day. When I did get up into the high school level and was putting out this magazine, and the magazine, incidentally, was called The Hollywood Star News, and we made ourselves fake press cards. By this time we were teenagers and we were even able to borrow my partner’s car – he was the son of a doctor so they had money – and we would actually go to the cartoon studios, show our press cards – and it was a great joke, a great laugh – and they always let us in. And I met the real, great stars of the Disney studios in those days as a kid. Later I even found one guy, Ward Kimball, who remembered me. He was one of Disney’s Nine Old Men (the Disney studios had key animators they called the Nine Old Men). But when I first met them, I was a kid and they took me in to their work, they showed me their test animation on the movie auto machine, and I immediately became infected with that, and because I had this toy [movie] projector, all these things somehow came together and focused me on what I really wanted to do.”
Gene describes his first impressions of Czechoslovakia
“When this plane landed, of course the airport in Prague was extremely primitive then, and we landed at what looked like a shack, a wooden building that actually a neon hammer and sickle over the top, and it was really a foggy day in October. It was creepy; I was scared as hell coming in there. Out of the fog comes loping this woman right onto the tarmac – in spite of the fact that there was communism and everything, you could do things then you couldn’t possibly do today, just walk out on to the tarmac where the airplanes are landing, and there wasn’t any fancy way of getting off the plane; they just moved a ladder up to the plane, a metal ladder, and you walked down – and she comes to me with her had stuck out and said ‘Mr. Deitch, if you thought you were going to be taken directly from the airport to the jail, it’s not true. Welcome to Prague.’ Those were the first words I heard getting off the plane, because she knew that any American coming here was going to be frightened at the idea of coming to a communist country. And, of course, they took my passport away right away, and I began to wonder whether this whole thing was a trap, I was being set up, who knows what. I was absolutely in the dark, and I couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying, so that was my introduction.”
Gene’s initial experiences as an American in Prague were not what he had expected
“Naturally, in my situation of being here officially with a contract and everything, making films for export to America, I was invited to different affairs and I did meet communist dignitaries. Nikita Khrushchev was supposed to have said, or he did say in the U.N., ‘We will defeat you, we will overcome you, we will prevail…’ Nobody ever said that to me here; that was the funny thing. I would meet ministers in the government who’d say ‘Oh Mr. Deitch, we’ve heard you were here, we hope that everything is ok. We know we don’t have everything that you’re used to, but we’re making great progress,’ and always apologizing. They never said ‘We will defeat you.’ They never said ‘Communism is going to prevail in the world.’ They were quite aware of how I was seeing it. That it was primitive and it was rundown and that you couldn’t buy anything in the store. There weren’t enough fruit and vegetables in the store. There wasn’t enough of anything; you couldn’t even buy toilet paper. So there was no point in them trying to tell me how great everything was. They just said ‘Of course we’re having certain difficulties because we’re isolated and there are trade embargoes against us and we are struggling. We know we don’t have the things we’re used to, but we hope that you’re comfortable. We try to make everything as good as we can.’ But they were really defensive. That was the amazing thing. Nobody tried to give me propaganda. Nobody. It was really amazing. First of all, even those people, even those high [ranking] people didn’t believe in any of it. It was just the way that it was and the way that it had to be.”
Gene did not have conversations with Czechs about the differences between the two countries
“Just the fact that I was here was the message. I realized that I didn’t have to say how great capitalism was, and I mean, I had plenty of problems with capitalism. They saw that I had an American passport. That I could get in my car and drive in the morning and do shopping in West Germany and come back with all the things I needed in one day. They thought that was amazing. They said ‘Any of us who would be able to cross that barbed wire fence and get out of this country, we’d never come back!’ But that I got in my car in the morning and drove there and back the same night with all the stuff in my car – that was the message. What did I have to say? I didn’t have to say anything. It’s just the fact that I realized that all I needed to do was be here, stay out of trouble and I was the message without having to say one word in favor of capitalism.”
The American folk singer Pete Seeger was a good friend of Gene’s
“He came to Prague in 1964 and gave a series of concerts which I recorded. The local Communists, on the one hand, were happy to have him come, but on the other hand, were suspicious because they knew he was an American Communist, and that was not the kind of communist they were. They didn’t bother to record him. By that time, I had really good, professional equipment, and I did record his concerts, and they realized too late the importance of his visiting here. Supraphon, the recording company here, they never did record him, they had to buy my recordings, and they did put it out on an LP, and later it’s been put on CD of those original recordings of mine.”
Gene reflects on the Prague Spring
“Things were gradually… in the mid-’60s you started to see a few things in the newspapers that seemed to be really weird, little by little. There was even, in the late 1960’s, a picture suddenly of Masaryk was published in one of the literary newspapers. That was just a miracle, tiny little picture of Masaryk. His name was never mentioned; he didn’t even exist as far as the news here or in Rudé právo, a Communist newspaper, his name was never mentioned. So when things like that started to happen, you knew something was happening. And then plays by Václav Havel began to be performed at the Theatre on the Balustrade [Divadlo na zábradlí]. There was a certain softening up; we began to have a little hope. Better quality goods began appearing in the shops in the mid-’60s. But you couldn’t take it too seriously, but there was a certain kind of liberalization. There was obviously an internal pressure within the Communist Party and we didn’t know from whom. But January 1, 1968 suddenly we heard this guy – never heard of him – Alexander Dubček was named First Secretary of the Communist Party, and week by week, month by month, really strange things started happening.
“We knew something was really happening, it was absolutely beyond understanding that this was going on. And suddenly newspapers started to print interesting stuff, magazine articles and even the news reels were all propaganda before. So then the highlight came in May. The May Day parade in 1968 was something unforgettable. This was the first time we all wanted to go there, even me, and I never wanted to go to Communist things like this, but we said we were all going to go to the parade this time. We all wanted to go past that stand and wave to Dubček, because he suddenly was a fantastic hero.”
Category: Oral History