By JOSH GREGA
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Floyd Norman’s dream to become a cartoon animator at The Walt Disney Company was born one day when he was a student at Santa Barbara Junior High School, and in 1956 he fulfilled that dream by becoming the company’s first African American animator. Experiencing the realization that charted his future was just one of many stories the animation veteran imparted at his alma mater on Friday morning before crowds of hundreds of students during two back-to-back assemblies in the school’s Marjorie Luke Theatre. Calling his professional life story 50 years of “just having a good time,” undergirding this tale was one straightforward message: Dream big, and put in the hard work to make that dream come true.
“Whatever it is that you want to do, that you want to be, you can do it. Dream it, do the hard work, and I guarantee you’ll get there,” he told the first assembly.
Looking back on his days as a student at Santa Barbara Junior High, Mr. Norman said his dream to work in show business not only started at the school, but in the very auditorium in which he was speaking. He called the venue his “home” when he was a Santa Barbara Junior High student, as he often performed in the room with the school orchestra under its longtime music director Irwin Maguire. Whether he was playing in the orchestra along with his fellow students as they acted and sang or simply watching his classmates perform onstage as a spectator, the shows in the Marjorie Luke Theatre revealed to him his true calling: entertainment.
“The one thing that really got me was this whole thing was magical. I love entertainment. I love the lighting, the music, it had a magical aspect to it and it made me realize that I wanted to leave Santa Barbara and go to Hollywood,” he said.
The decision to specifically become an animator was rooted in Mr. Norman’s love of drawing, which he always did and never grew out of. During his school days, students either had the option of going to a study hall period or going to the library. Mr. Norman chose the latter. One day at the Santa Barbara Junior High library, he read every book he could find on movies, cartoons, and how animation was made, and after that he knew he had a destiny with Disney.
After graduating from Santa Barbara High School, Mr. Norman wasted no time in pursuing his dream and drove 90 miles down the road to The Walt Disney Company in Burbank to apply for a job. Calling himself “dumb” and “foolish” in retrospect to think that Disney would hire him as an inexperienced kid right out of high school, Mr. Norman said the people at the company told him to further enhance the skills he already possessed.
He recalled, “The people at Disney said, ‘You’ve got a degree of talent, kid, but you need to go to school and learn how to be an artist.’”
Following their advice, he started attending Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. One day while watching “The Mickey Mouse Club” during his third year of college, his phone rang, with the Walt Disney Company on the other end of the line. Short on artists, they asked Mr. Norman if he still wanted the job that he had applied for a few years prior. Of course, he accepted. The following Monday, he left his home in Santa Barbara for Burbank to start working with Disney, joining the ranks of all the company’s veterans who worked on movies he loved growing up such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Pinochio,” and “Fantasia.”
Though Friday’s assemblies were held as a part of Santa Barbara Junior High School’s recognition of Black History Month, Mr. Norman never felt achieving his dream was difficult as a black man during the post-war period. In an interview with the News-Press prior to the event, the animator said that he didn’t know that he was Disney’s first African American animator when he got hired at the company. It was only something he learned later. Unlike his father, who grew up in the southern United States with Jim Crow laws in full effect, Mr. Norman’s upbringing in Santa Barbara was a supportive one, with a community that encouraged kids to passionately pursue the arts no matter the color of their skin. Growing up in an environment like this, he never feared his race would be a factor when it came to applying to Disney.
“That never even occurred to me to think I would be turned down because of race. I thought the only thing that would cause me to not qualify would be because I wasn’t good enough,” he said.
In 1959, “Sleeping Beauty” was the first movie Mr. Norman worked on as an animator, starting a five-decade career in which he worked under every single one of Disney’s management teams from founder Walt Disney, who he called “the maestro,” to Bob Iger, who just recently stepped down as the company’s CEO and handed the reins over to Bob Chapek.
Following his opening remarks to both assemblies, the animator answered some interview questions from Santa Barbara Junior High art students Kelly Meeder and Tali McPeters and art teacher Darren Iacono. From their questions, he shared insight on the average day in the life of a Disney animator, on learning about digital animation during the emergence of Pixar, and about the man who started it all, Walt Disney. Mr. Norman didn’t give a definitive answer on his personal favorite Disney movie of the ones he worked on, but the 1967 classic “The Jungle Book” does have a special place in his heart. It was the one time he got to personally work with Mr. Disney as the two collaborated on it through most of 1966. Mr. Disney’s death in December 1966 made “The Jungle Book” the last movie he ever produced, and makes the film all the more special to Mr. Norman.
When asked what the maestro was like as a person, Mr. Norman took the opportunity to shoot down many rumored aspersions on his character that have floated around for years.
Mr. Norman stated emphatically, “Walt Disney has been accused of being a gender bigot, he’s been accused of being an antisemite, he’s been accused of being a racist. None of these things are true, absolutely not true.”
While the animator did say that Mr. Disney was a very demanding boss, hard work is not something he just expected out of other people. In Mr. Norman’s opinion, his former boss was the very embodiment of his talk’s message.
He said of Mr. Disney, “Walt Disney was an uneducated farm boy from Marceline, Missouri. He came to Hollywood without having any university education, but he came with a dream and a desire to work hard and he built this incredible enterprise called The Walt Disney Company. How did he do it? Well, he believed in his dream and he made that dream a reality.”