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Arthur Babbitt, 84; Hollywood Animator

March 07, 1992|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arthur Babbitt, one of Walt Disney's earliest animators, who created the classic dancing mushroom scene in "Fantasia," has died. He was 84.

He died Wednesday night of heart and kidney failure at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, his wife, actress Barbara Perry, said Friday.

In 1974, the International Animated Film Society, known as ASIFA-Hollywood, honored Babbitt with its Winsor McCay Award for his more than 50 years of animation artistry.

"The Chinese Dance" from the "Nutcracker Suite" in "Fantasia" was among his most famous scenes. Film historian John Canemaker, at the time of the film's re-release in 1985, called it "arguably the most marvelously magical moment in the history of animation."

Babbitt himself was unimpressed, commenting to Los Angeles Times critic Charles Solomon at the time of the re-release: "Why that sequence is such a classic I don't know. . . . I feel better about it now that it's done than I did when I was working on it."

Babbitt said he worked on the scene for the 1940 film with Tchaikovsky's score pinned to his drawing table "because it gave me clues to bits of action and pictorial composition."

The animator had just taken a year of piano lessons in order to understand music that he might be asked to illustrate.

Although Babbitt never got along with Walt Disney, he credited the impresario with luring him to animation. He saw the early Disney productions "Silly Symphony" and "The Skeleton Dance" in 1929 and said he decided, "That's for me!"

He gave up a career in commercial art in New York and went to work at the Paul Terry Studio. After three years of Terrytoons, he moved to Hollywood and Walt Disney Productions.

Later, Babbitt and Disney had a bitter falling out. Babbitt sued Disney, claiming that Disney fired him for his leadership of the studio's strike in 1941. He won the case, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court, gaining a year's salary--from the time he was ousted until Nov. 10, 1942, when he enlisted in the Marines.

Because of the dispute, Babbitt was omitted from Disney histories and press releases for many years.

His work for Disney included the first animation of Donald Duck in "The Wise Little Hen" in 1934; the drunken mouse in "The Country Cousin" in 1936; the beautiful Wicked Queen in "Snow White" in 1937 and Geppetto the woodcarver in "Pinocchio" in 1940.

Although the court had required Disney to offer Babbitt reinstatement, the artist felt uncomfortable in the Disney studio and moved on soon after World War II to United Production of America. There he animated characters that included Mr. Magoo.

During the 1950s and '60s, Babbitt won more than 80 awards for animated commercials. He was director of the commercial department of Hanna-Barbera from 1966 to 1975.

Babbitt next moved to Richard Williams Animation where he worked on more commercials and the 1977 feature "Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy."

In addition to his wife, Babbitt is survived by three daughters, Karen Chilcott, a stand-up comedian of Fulton, Calif.; Michele Chaney, a Las Vegas producer, and Laurel James, a Los Angeles-based opera singer.

His wife said ASIFA-Hollywood is planning a memorial service for Babbitt on March 29. She asked that any memorial contributions be sent to the organization for an Art Babbitt award for young animators.

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