It was his favorite TV show. So when the phone rang while Santa Barbara native Floyd Norman was watching “The Mickey Mouse Club” one day in 1956, he could have easily just let it keep ringing.
Instead, the 20-year-old picked it up. Good thing, too. Because the voice on the other end was from Walt Disney Productions and said: “We have a job available. Do you want it?”
With that, Mr. Norman became Disney’s first black animator.
In the six decades since, the 83-year-old owned a studio producing black history films for high schools, was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and was named a Disney Legend ? a list that includes Rolly Crump, Richard and Robert Sherman, Angela Lansbury, X Atencio and other gifted animators, Imagineers, songwriters, actors and business leaders who’ve made a significant impact on the Disney legacy.
He has no regrets about interrupting his favorite show to take that call.
Or about saying yes.
Mr. Norman will talk about cartooning, animation (his long list of credits also includes Hanna-Barbera, Film Roman, Ruby-Spears Productions and Pixar), working alongside Walt Disney and many other topics, at 7 p.m. March 7 at the Carsey-Wolf Center at UCSB.
The event includes a screening of the 2016 documentary “Floyd Norman: An Animated Life,” followed by a Q-and-A moderated by Vilna Bashi Treitler, professor and chair of Black Studies at UCSB.
Tickets are free and available starting 11 a.m. Thursday at www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu.
During an exclusive interview with the News-Press at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, the Pasadena resident, who no longer has family in Santa Barbara, discussed growing up here and how he came to be a Disney storyteller.
He even shared advice on how men his age can stay young.
“My theory has always been, if you’re not doing something, your body’s going to think you’re dead. And pretty soon you will be.”
Floyd Norman was born June 22, 1935, and attended Lincoln Elementary, Santa Barbara Junior High and Santa Barbara High School. The mountains were beautiful, the sea inviting, he said, all of which made for an “idyllic” childhood.
“It is the Pacific paradise,” he said. “That shaped my life. Where you’re born usually doesn’t mean much of anything, but in my case, because it was Santa Barbara, that really made me who I am today.”
“My wife (Adrienne Brown-Norman) calls Santa Barbara a bubble. It was darn near perfect.”
In junior high, Mr. Norman played sax and clarinet, under music teacher Irwin Maguire, who died in May 2012. (Four years earlier, Mr. Norman and other “old codgers” from school gathered at Oak Park to celebrate the beloved teacher’s 90th birthday. “He was still playing in the Santa Barbara Symphony, playing violin. We still called him Mr. Maguire, because that’s what we called him when we were kids. And of course he hadn’t changed at all.”)
His other music teacher, who later became a friend, was Henry Brubeck, older brother of the late jazz legend Dave Brubeck.
“A lot of good memories in Santa Barbara,” said Mr. Norman.
It was clear from an early age that music was more of a pastime than a calling for Mr. Norman. Thanks to older brother James and younger brother Wendell, however, he learned to read and write music, something that came in handy later in life when he would sit down with composers to score a film.”I played music simply because I enjoyed it.”
The calling, it turned out, was cartooning ? and the foundation was set when, as a youngster, he saw “Walt Disney’s Dumbo” on the big screen at what was then the Fox Arlington Theater on State Street.
“I saw ‘Dumbo’ and there was this wacky stork who was looking for Mrs. Jumbo because he was passing out all the baby circus animals, and I never forgot that voice,” said Mr. Norman.
It was Sterling Holloway, also the voice of Winnie the Pooh.
In those formative years, Floyd also became quite familiar with Walt’s signature, recognizing it before he could read.
During high school, he hopped a ride from his hometown to The Walt Disney Studios one Saturday morning. It was closed, but he found a sympathetic security guard who let him through the gate to walk down to the animation building.
No jobs were available that day, but the budding artist, who got his start in cartooning working as an assistant to “Katy Keene” comic book artist Bill Woggon, who lived in Santa Barbara, was encouraged to attend art school.
Upon graduating at 17 from Santa Barbara High, Mr. Norman moved south and enrolled at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, majoring in illustration.
He’d begun his third year when he got that amazing phone call. He dropped out of art school and the rest is history ? like something out of a Disney movie.
His first assignment was working with Mr. Crump and his first animation project was “Sleeping Beauty.”
A decade later, Mr. Norman would experience something that sticks with him to this day.
“This is what’s so amazing about one’s life. After hearing the voice of Sterling Holloway as a child in Santa Barbara, years later I’m at the Walt Disney Studio, on recording Stage A with that same actor. Now he’s doing a voice for my film, ‘The Jungle Book,’ that I was doing with Walt Disney.”
That was early 1966, and Walt Disney assembled a stellar group for his animated telling of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book,” a collection of stories from 1894. The Sherman brothers came aboard for some music, while Mr. Holloway would voice Kaa, the snake with the hypnotic eyes who implores Mowgli, “Trust in me/Just in me.”
Floyd Norman was having a great time working on some other animated project when “the old man” came calling.
“When Walt wanted you to work on something, he just basically said, ‘I want you to do this.’ It wasn’t a request. He had decided that’s what you should do. And your only answer was, ‘Yes, sir,’ ” said Mr. Norman. “He had the insight, he had the intuition and he knew what you were good at, even if you didn’t know it.”
But the story department? Mr. Norman said he knew nothing about writing.
“But Walt said, ‘This is what you’re going to be doing.’ So, I start doing it, because the boss said so.”
As it turned out, that year would shape up to be Mr. Norman’s proudest moment.
“By the end of 1966, Walt Disney would be gone,” he said. “We had no idea at the start of the year that this was Walt Disney’s last year. I don’t think he had any idea that it was his last year. He was quite ill, but, boy, he certainly didn’t show it.”
Lung cancer took 65-year-old smoker Walt Disney on Dec. 15 of that year. But to the very end, said Mr. Norman, “He worked with the same amount of enthusiasm, passion as he always did.”
“The most remarkable year of my career had to be 1966 and the year that I spent with the old man on ‘The Jungle Book.’ “
Work for other animation companies and private endeavors would follow, but Mr. Norman would always find his way back to Disney.
In 2007, the company that gave him his first job added his name to its list of legends, but it’s an accolade that makes Mr. Norman laugh.
“I’m sort of a Disney Legend,” he said with a smile. “I worked with the real legends. The legends taught me. … I was very lucky to have been mentored by them and to have worked side by side with the Disney legends. But to look at my life and career and say it’s legendary? For me, that’s a stretch.”
IF YOU GO
“Floyd Norman: An Animated Life” screening and Q-and-A with Santa Barbara native and Disney animator Floyd Norman, takes place 7 p.m. March 7 at the Pollock Theater, UCSB Carsey-Wolf Center. Tickets are free and available starting at 11 a.m. Thursday at www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu.