Southward Ho! (or Boop Over Miami)
In 1938, Dad was just about to buy a farm near the Delaware Water Gap when he got word that the Fleischer Studio would be leaving New York and relocating in Miami. (According to Charles Solomon’s excellent History of Animation, Paramount was pressuring the Fleischer’s to make a feature length cartoon on the heels of Disney’s success with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The studio didn’t have enough office space for the additional staff a feature required, so Max decided to move the whole operation to Miami where he had a winter house. The tax breaks Florida offered to lure film production to the state were an added incentive.)
After hearing the news of the move, his mom made her own announcement.
“When you go to Florida, I’m going to leave your father. We’ve never had anything in common.”
“Nothing doing,” said Dad, “you’re both coming with me!”
“They didn’t have anything in common,” he told me years later. “But she would have died on her own.”
So in 1938, Dad and his parents left Brooklyn, and never lived there again.
From the pictures, the home movies and Dad’s stories, Florida in the late ‘30s was paradise. In eight years, he had gone from a starting salary of $12 a week at Fleischer’s to $185 a week --the equivalent of $3,000 a week today. For 75 bucks a month, Dad rented a huge house in the Beverly Hills of Miami, Coral Gables. He drove a beautiful cream- colored Packard convertible that he bought for cash.
On weekends, he’d take Pan American’s flying boats to visit his cousins in Havana. “The most beautiful takeoffs in the world,” he remembered years later. (Photo: Dad just before taking off)
“When the plane started to take off, you couldn’t see anything out the windows because the water was splashing so high. As the plane went up, the water would drop away and you would see you were in the air! It was so exciting!”
No more dingy offices in 1600 Broadway. The Fleischer Studio in Miami was the epitome of Streamline Art Deco inside and out; as modern as Disney’s new studio in Burbank.
Unfortunately, Max Fleischer was no Walt Disney. While Mickey Mouse toys, games and books became part of growing up in the 1930s, Max said, “I’m not in the toy business.”
Dad’s brother Herb tried to get the studio into the merchandising act with Betty Boop lingerie. But the idea never took off. (Uncle Herb was 60 years ahead of his time.)
Max’s brother, Dave, the closest thing the studio had to a Disney, was losing focus, spending more time picking ponies at Hialeah and fooling around with his secretary than with Betty Boop, Popeye and the rest of the gang.
In 1937, Popeye had been a bigger box office star than Mickey Mouse. By 1939, the Fleischer’s were losing whatever lead they had through a series of blunders.
The first of them was the decision about what its first feature length cartoon should be. The leading candidates: an animated version of Gulliver’s Travels, or Popeye, the studio’s biggest star, as Aladdin.
Max Fleischer reasoned, “Well, Popeye may be big in America, but just like Snow White, all of Europe knows Gulliver’s Travels. It’ll have a huge foreign market.”
True…if only Gulliver had gotten to Europe before Hitler.
After Gulliver, the Fleischers were stuck with an enlarged staff. The studio’s bread and butter cartoons of Betty Boop and the Color Classics just weren’t cutting it in ’39 as they had in ’35. Only Popeye remained popular, but there were just too many people at the studio to work on just one series. To keep everyone gainfully employed, the studio developed new projects to replace Betty and the Classics.
Among them: a series of cartoons about a Stone Age family featuring their primitive yet zany versions of all the modern day conveniences.
Sound familiar? Unlike Hanna-Barbera’s later formula of turning popular TV characters into cartoon characters, the Stone Age Cartoons were just a series of sight gags with characters that lacked the charm of Fred Flintstone/Ralph Kramden and Barney Rubble/Ed Norton.
After screening the first Stone Age cartoon Dad animated, Dave Fleischer buried his head in his hands and muttered, “Where was I? Where was I?”
Dad, who had hated the concept from the very beginning, couldn’t hold his tongue.
“Where was you?” said Dad. “Right here when you approved the script!”