William A. Emmons: The Disney Animator Who Almost Was

The old adage goes that history is written by the victors. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other stories worth telling. Recently, I’ve been in touch with the daughter of William A. Emmons. If you haven’t heard the name, that’s understandable. He worked in the animation industry for only three months.

Bill Emmons started his employment at the Disney Studio in the summer of 1940 as a trainee/traffic boy. It was the bottom rung of the studio hierarchy, but to get even that far required a certain level of skill and talent.

Someone at the studio must have spotted the promise of the nineteen-year-old Emmons, who was barely a year out of high school at the time. His daughter Charlene Craig remembers that her father had done “some art training at the Chouinard Art School…[which] may be how my father’s name came to WDP’s attention.”

Emmons worked hard during those few months, but the studio was competitive and he didn’t make the cut. The studio let him go in the fall of 1940, citing that he needed more art training and drawing experience.

Though his family knew that he had worked at Disney, Emmons rarely discussed the experience while he was still alive. Looking through her father’s files, his daughter recently discovered a stash of Disney keepsakes that he kept from his time at the studio.

Before I get to what Emmons saved, let’s hear more about what happened after he was let go from his Disney. His daughter writes:

I think it was pretty impressive that somehow word of his drawing skills made it to L.A. and he was invited by Disney fresh out of high school to try out and give his best especially since many of his co-trainees appeared to be college graduates such as his mention of a possible roommate recently graduated from UCLA with more under his belt. My father’s vision even with corrective lens was a challenge, so the intensity and kind of detailed work required was very fatiguing on his eyes.

He was very pragmatic about this disappointment figuring he may not have been suited for this kind of work anyway. In the end he returned to San Diego to work on specialty paint work for war planes at Consolidated Vultee for the war effort. He was able to get several draft deferments due to his artistic expertise until spring of 1944. Those late war Army Air/Force draftee trainees were slated to be part of a land invasion in Japan, but as you know the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945 which stopped that awful fate with huge anticipated US casualties.  In retrospect not working at Disney may have saved his life given the chance he may have gotten drafted far sooner. 

Ultimately my Dad put his artistic and illustrating talents to work for 34 years at the San Diego School District as their education materials and audio visual media illustrator. Not nearly as exciting and glamourous as working at Disney but the pay and benefits afforded the raising of us four children and a more than generous retirement plan to support my elderly mother today.

Emmons saved many mementos from his time at Disney, including a letter from the studio expressing interest to hire him signed by Disney exec Vernon Caldwell, several of his Disney pay stubs, and an original menu from the studio Animation Coffee Shop. Among the most fascinating artifacts left behind in Emmons’ files is a letter that he wrote in September 1940 to his sister Doris, who was living in Manila, Philippines with her submarine officer husband, John.

The charming correspondence provides a unique glimpse into the life of a Disney trainee. Emmons had started working there just a few months after the company had moved into its brand-new sprawling Burbank campus. The size of the studio obviously made an impression on the young Emmons. In the letter to his sister, he included a hand-drawn map of the studio grounds.

We’d like to thank Bill’s daughter, Charlene, who has graciously allowed Cartoon Brew to share the four-page letter that Bill wrote to his sister. I’ve included the pages below, as well as a transcription below each page with a few minor spelling corrections for ease of reading.

[page 1 - The Mickey line art on the top left is a tea bag tag from the studio]
9/23/40

Dear Doris & John:

Joke – “My pants are on fire!”
“Where are you?”
“Home on the range”

Well how are things coming?

Congratulations on making your rate John. I just know you will get on farther, too.

We surely are glad to hear from you & I know you are very glad & happy to hear from us. It really is getting lonesome–now–for we haven’t seen each other for quite a long time. If you take pictures send some to Ma & Pa, Doris. You know for a while I begin to think that I haven’t a sister. But I do. And John, you know, I am looking forward to the time when we all go out together again.

Thanks for my letters you sent me. I appreciated it, & I know Ma & Pa thank God hat we all can receive them & read them.

Now Ma & Pa are more lonely because we both hope have left them Dor, so we will have to try to write more. I guess it must be pretty quiet do there. They say they might sell out, possibly. I don’t know what to say to help them but I think it will all work out after [a]while by letting it take its own course.

I’m glad you are back in Manila. I hope you stay there. Mother got a little worried over you 2 in China.

I am getting quite an experience here at this boarding house. This makes my 5[th] week & also with the studio.

I’ll bet you’re saying, “Just think Bill got in ‘Disney Studio’ Gosh Am I Proud!” Well–

[page 2]
It surprised me too. Really it all came out but it rather did take me off my feet. I hope I can make good. If you 2 were here we would have celebrated, eh?

I’m sending home my extra $ that I make.

Now about the studio.
1.) It is located below Burbank, which is N. of Hollywood.
2.) I live in walking distance of the studio (just across st.)
3.) There are about 950 employees. The largest group of incorporated artists in the U. S.
4. I have animation training in the morning. We are drawing things (& cleanups) & have fig. draw. classes.
5.) In the afternoon I carry coffee, ice cream, tea, etc. – all refreshments right in the studio to all the animators. Yes there is a coffee shop on the 1st floor there & we carry it for them. We are called traffic boys for we do all the messengering & delivering for the whole studio. In other words we all are office boys. We all wear a uniform of tan color & it says TRAFFIC on our shirts.
6.) Really, the whole workings of the studio are hardly describable–there is so much to see.
7.) The [Studio] covers 51 acres of ground, but not all complete (& covered ‘by’).
8.) Disney is trying to put out 9 feature reels a year. They are getting better too.
9.) Some of the future shows “Fantasia”–”Dumbo”–”Bambi”–”The Reluctant Dragon”–later “Peter Pan”–& “Alice in Wonderland” & possible “Wind in the Willows” way later.
10.) There is a special room for traffic on each floor & it takes care of everything on its floor.
11.) There are 3 dumbwaiters for the 3 story buildings, going up & down all day.

[page 3]
[Hand drawn map of Walt Disney Production's Burbank studio].
“And is it classy WOW!”
“No wonder I’m tired walking around this place!”
The names here applied can be figured out. They play ping-pong next to the cafe in spare moments. The parking lot is as big as the building territory here. There is a filling station right within the studio–near the main gate. The main 3 story building is the honey. 1st floor–Animation–effects–inbetweening action, etc.
2nd – Story dept., backgrounds, sweat boxes–where they argue over a picture in rough drawings before they go for real production. The 2nd story is where all the shows really originate. The 3rd is the tops–the directors work there & that’s where Walt is. There is also another projection theatre there too.

9/26/40
Well Doris & John, I won’t be able [to] draw any more pictures for this letter.

[page 4]
Another: “Do you like the kind of women who talk a lot?”
“Well, what other kind is there?”

I’ll write again soon again, early in Oct. How are the rains coming along?

I hope you don’t have to go to Singapore.

Do some painting Doris.

You’ll soon be home. Just don’t think about the time. I’ll be seeing you soon.

Keep dry.
Lots of luck John.
Wash your socks Doris.
Love,
Bill
Write Ma & Pa when you have time.


  • http://desertfoxx33.blogspot.com/ Lloyd

    Amazing piece of history!..I’m sure every aspiring artist and pros (when they were still trying to break in) can relate…the story kind of squeezed my heart a bit although Will (Emmons) didn’t make the cut, but I know he gave his best shot. This story goes to all modern “Traffic Boys” in the industry…hold on tight guys! Let’s give it our best shot!

    Nice Post Amid!

  • Dustin

    Cool story. It’d be neat to see some of his work outside of Disney.

  • Charlene Emmons-Craig

    Hi Dustin,
    Thank you! Amid did a very nice job sharing this piece of recently uncovered Disney history. My Dad’s mother deserved credit for having saved most of this originally.

    What may not have gotten noticed by readers was the custom made for WDP, Mickey Mouse tea bag tab my Dad attached to the upper left corner of the first page of his letter. An original one of a kind souvenir that made it all the way to Manila, P.I. and back.

    I have one or more pieces of WWII anti-Axis (Hitler, Mussolini Hiro Hito) era art pieces my father did that I can send to Amid to share if he’s interested. There are additional items I’ve come across I’m planning to scan to contribute to this site in order to continue this story. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • Doug

      I, for one, would love to see that anti-Axis art work.

      This is a great post and I thank all who were involved in posting it to CartoonBrew. Wonderfully, uplifting story. I love hearing letters from that time in America. The constantly cheering each other up and making the best out of tough times. We could all use a letter like that from time to time. Thanks Amid!

    • Charlene Emmons-Craig

      Hi Doug,
      My father was greatly influenced by Arthur Szyk the well known editorial and political cartoonist of the 30′s and 40′s. I recently ran across my father’s copy of Mr. Syzk’s “The new Order” printed in 1941. Are you familiar with this iconic WWII era illustrator?
      This one art piece I refer to above is clearly an homage to that style but with a religious overtone.

  • http://hand-drawn-animation.blogspot.com David Nethery

    Wonderful piece of history here. Thanks to Charlene Emmons-Craig for sharing and thanks to Amid for transcribing and posting it.

    “Ultimately my Dad put his artistic and illustrating talents to work for 34 years at the San Diego School District as their education materials and audio visual media illustrator. Not nearly as exciting and glamourous as working at Disney but the pay and benefits afforded the raising of us four children and a more than generous retirement plan to support my elderly mother today.”

    Is anyone else reminded of aspiring major league baseball rookie Archie “Moonlight” (Doc) Graham from the movie ‘Field of Dreams’ ?

    • Charlene Emmons-Craig

      David, You are very kind in pointing out this poignant comparison to my father and “Doc” Graham. My father was a very humble, unassuming gentle soul. He was a huge supporter of funding for education and an early volunteer advocate of educating the public and especially our youth about water conservation in CA back in the early 1960′s. I’m glad to be able to share some of his life, talent and experience with others of his peers and fans of animation history.

  • Didier Ghez

    Charlene and Amid: Thanks for sharing those great documents.

    Charlene: YES, we would love to see all the other ones!!

  • http://www.timreckart.com Tim Reckart

    Really nice article, thanks Amid! This side of the Disney employee experience (the one that ends in getting let go, rather than becoming a legend) is one that we’re missing from our historical literature but I’m sure it covers a huge portion of people who worked there. William Moritz’s treatment of Oskar Fischinger’s short stint at the studio was really fascinating and a useful counterexample for a paper I recently wrote on Fantasia. If we could get more of that, I’d be over the moon!

    Write the book, Amid!

  • http://www.WarnerArt.com Eric

    Awesome post. A first hand account like that of life in ANY Golden Age animation studio is just priceless.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jasclarkewriter James Clarke

    What a great archive. It would be wonderful to see more if that’s possible.

  • Charlene Emmons-Craig

    James, Your patience will be rewarded. Once I return home with all the archived material found, my husband will scan things to be sent to Amid for posting. My father would be aw shucks, modestly bashful, but likely tickled to know his efforts are being enjoyed and appreciated in a 21st Century cyberspace after life ;-)

  • http://dailygrail.com/ Red Pill Junkie

    Very nice article. Good comparison with Field of Dreams from David, though it also made me think of Mr. Holland’s Opus.

    Though to be honest, it also made me think of *my* own life: When I was fresh out of college I was lucky enough to land a job at the late Ricardo Legorreta’s architecture firm. Legorreta, who recently passed away, was arguably one of the most famous & successful architects in Mexico, and possibly the world; so to have been accepted made me feel like Leonardo at the bow of Titanic.

    Alas, I merely lasted at the job 7 months. Sure, there was the matter of lack of experience —I was the only designer in an office full of architects & engineers— and I admit to displaying behavior issues whenever I was order to fulfill menial chores —making copies and what-have-you.

    But the thing I was more at odds is how every time I tried to propose new ideas —it was ’98, and I was pushing very aggressively for the need of implementing 3D computer renderings for project visualizations, yet they wanted none of that… then!— is how they forced me to realize my input was not welcome: “We already have 2 dreamers” one of the managers told me, “and they are Ricardo & his son Victor. And that’s all we need. YOUR job is to help bring their dreams into fruition.”

    Boy did that PISS me off!

    So yeah, eventually I was given the boot, and it took me a lot of years to stop feeling like a monumental failure. Now I work in a firm that’s nowhere near as big or successful as Legorreta’s, BUT I get to work on my own ideas & dreams, and that makes for a whole lot of difference.

    I still miss the coffee they had over there, though ;)