When Fred Kopietz opened the door to his private studio, it was like being ushered into a collector’s version of heaven. Before his retirement he had worked for almost every major animation studio of his time in Southern California and along the way, he had collected animation sketches, cels, just about everything you can imagine. He was also a real estate agent and an avid fan of western memorabilia earning him the nickname among his friends as ‘the desert rat.’
Everyone knew I was a collector and they were always bringing me things.
After working a couple of years at Iwerks Studios (Ub Iwerks was Walt Disney’s first partner) Kopietz joined the Disney Studios in 1940 where his first animation job was assisting on special effects in Fantasia. He went on to assist every noted Disney animator including almost all of Disney’s famous ‘nine old men’ through the 40s and up through his retirement in 1966.
Kopietz was responsible for redesigning Donald Duck for copyright. He had animated cartoon shorts of Donald for years even when other animators had trouble with that particular character.
I never had problems with the duck.
Before he and his wife Jane retired to Sedona, Ariz., Kopietz had sold most of a formidable western collection. What remained of it along with the art work, prints, sculptures and the wide assortment of items he had collected through his many years an an animator were jam-packed together in his large studio.
Stacks and stacks of western prints and railroad posters from floor to shoulder height left barely enough space for narrow meandering paths in several directions across the room.
He paused to point out one of his treasured possessions, an old western poker table, the kind where the gunslingers stowed their hardware on the shelf below the tabletop. Above the table and chairs and along both sides of the center beam hung autographed photos of the stars of the 40s and the 50s, an original background from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and prints from other Disney animated films.
Kopietz pulled open the drawer of a tall dresser and reached inside. In the palm of his hand was a police badge. He explained that after Disneyland opened, Walt Disney thought there should be a police officer available. Through a convoluted series of problems, neither the position nor the man appointed lasted more than a few months. Kopietz was able to obtain the one and only Disneyland police chief badge in existence for his collection.
At the back of the studio, high up on a long shelf stood about a dozen Disney plaster maquettes, sculpted models that were used by the artists for figure drawing in the days of hand-drawn animation. An early Mickey Mouse maquette that had been painted in tempera paints by its sculptor in the 40s was covered with curling paint chips. Nearby an unpainted version of Pluto stood near his master. A figure of Goofy still retained its bright yellow striped old-fashioned bathing suit. The surly coachman from Pinocchio stared slyly at the viewer.
Three figures of Gephetto, some still retaining their soft colors, and unpainted figures of Figaro and Jimminy Cricket stood next to a fine maquette of Ratty from ‘The Adventures of Mister Toad.’ One of the most unusual and almost unnerving figures was of a human male minus his flesh and showing his muscular structure. The unpainted head of a deer with antlers had been a study model for Bambi. Two more unpainted maquettes of minor figures lay in pieces in a box, victims of the great San Fernando earthquake.
At the very back right corner of the room, hardly visible through the piles of boxes and stacks, stood Fred Kopietz’s greatest Disney treasure, his most favorite collectible.
In the 1960’s the Disney Studio had decided to replace the original animator’s desks with newer versions and put the originals up for sale. Kopietz promptly plunked down the money and bought his own desk. Immediately afterward the Studios realized how expensive it would be to replace the heavy oak desks with their circular animator windows and withdrew the offer.
Because Kopietz had already paid for his desk, he was able to get for his collection the only original Disney animator’s desk ever put on the market.
Although Kopietz died in 1989 and his collections were sold at auction at Southby’s, the indelible memory of such a treasure trove of animated art remains in the hearts and minds of the fans who were able to view it.
The full transcript of an extended interview with Fred Kopietz by Michael Barrier who was also fortunate to see a lot of this amazing collection can be found at:
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