Gene Deitch - thirty fascinating years in Communist Prague

The Oscar-winning American animator Gene Deitch first came to Prague in 1959, and - incredibly - he has been here ever since. In the mid-1990s he published 'For the Love of Prague', a fascinating and evocative account of his experiences both under communism and as the system fell. Gene Deitch, who is now 78, continues to live and work a stone's throw from Charles Bridge, on the Mala Strana side. When I spoke to him there recently, he recalled how he'd been looking for financing for a film called 'Munro' when an American producer he didn't know approached him, for help with some films he was having problems with. There was a catch. The work had to be done at the producer's own facilities - in a place called Prague.

"I was young and distracted at that time and wasn't thinking too clearly but my my army days suddenly flashed into my mind. I had been trained in the army in really the hell-hole of America at that time, which was Muskogee, Oklahoma. They still had Jim Crowe, and it was really pretty horrible. On weekends we would liberate a jeep and take off for a town, if you look on a map you'll see, it's about 50 miles to the Southwest of Muskogee, a town called Prague. So when this guy said his facilities were in Prague that was the only Prague that immediately came into my memory and I said you're not going to tell me that there's an animation studio in Prague, Oklahoma, and he said no man, this place is in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Then of course it all clicked together in my head. I said, wait a minute, that's a communist country, I'm not going to go there. I first tried to throw this guy out of my office, he just kept coming back, he kept coming back. Finally when he came, I got a telephone call while he was in the office, and while I was on the phone he looked on the wall and he saw this storyboard I'd made of Jules Feiffer's 'Munro'. So when I hung up the phone he turned around to me and made me the offer I couldn't refuse. He said, look, if you'll go and help me with this - and I'll give you a contract that says in black and white that you don't have to stay there more than ten days. But if you go there and you help me with these films, I will finance 'Munro'. Well, now, maybe we have something to talk about. I came here with this contract, which I still have in my files, which said I don't have to stay in Prague more than ten days. It's not worked out to 42 years. But of course several magical things happened. Not the least of which was the magic of Prague, and of course it just hit me like a ton of bricks. And, hitting me even like a bigger, or a double ton of bricks, was the young production manager who was working on this fellow's films. And her name was Zdenka Najmanova at the time, and - long story short - we fell in love and that changed everything, changed my life. The film we made, 'Munro', won the Oscar in Hollywood right off the bat in 1960. Incidentally, this year I came at first was 1959. There was still this huge giant statue of Stalin up on Letna, it was a whole different place than it is today."

How long was it before you began to feel at home here?

"The funny thing is that it would the last place where I would feel at home, but I did. My first impression was in flying here and everything, it was very scary. It was a tiny little Russian, or Soviet, plane and it was really scary coming here. But after coming here and being shown around Prague I began...even though it was like a time-warp, it was about 50 years behind anything in America, it was grey, it was foggy. It was exactly this time of year, it was October though. And it happened to be a very foggy day, very creepy, but something about the place - besides just the beauty and the amazing sights of the architecture, as crummy and mouldy as everything looked in those days - there was something that grabbed me and I couldn't figure out what it was for a long time and then suddenly it occurred to me it was the smell of coal. Now I was born in Chicago but as a really tiny kid, maybe two years old or less, my family moved to California, Hollywood. I was raised in Hollywood, there is no such thing as central heating in Hollywood, certainly not in those times, certainly not with coal. So this was an infant memory. In Chicago, in those days when I was born - I'm talking about the mid-20s - they used coal heating and there always this smell of coal in the air and so there was this infant memory of the smell of coal, as ugly as we thought it was. Here in Mala Strana was just full of coal smoke in those days and everything was blackened and all the statues on the Charles Bridge were blackened, there was this horrible coal smell. But to me it evoked an infant memory and somehow made me relax, in spite of all the fear that I had and the nervousness about being here, and wanting to get the job done and get the hell out of here. This made me feel relaxed. The other thing of course was the wonderful reception I got. The people in the studio were really terrific to me. After all, an American coming to Prague 'dobrovolne' as they say, voluntarily, to Prague was a big thing. I was the only one."

Were strangers suspicious of you as a foreigner?

"I don't think they were at all, no. On the other hand, look, everybody was against the regime in those days, even though nobody would say it outright. But they were delighted to have an American. In fact, they thought Americans were wonderful, perfect, America was the greatest place in the world. If I'd said any criticism about my own country, then they would have really thought I was a communist. The Czechs unfortunately had gotten after long years of repression - three hundred years of Hapsburg occupation and the Nazi occupation, now we had the communist occupation - people had begun to have very negative feelings about the country."

Interestingly in your book, you say that in thirty years of living in a communist country you never met a true believer in communism.

"No, that's really true and I met official communists. Naturally, because I was the American here and they wanted to feel me out. I was invited to various receptions and different people on the diplomatic level would come to me and they'd say Mr Deitch, how are you getting along here, are you having any problems, we know it isn't anything you might expect, we know we have a lot of problems but it's a matter of a generation. In other words, they were always apologising. Nobody every said we will bury you, that kind of stuff. Nobody said communism is the wave of the future. I never heard anybody say that."

For you what were the best and worst things about life under communism?

"Well, I think the best thing was how the people adapted and lived a life. Things weren't all rotten under communism. People had a good time, there was plenty of fun and parties and sex and everything, and people managed to get everything. I remember one of the great slogans was in Czechoslovakia everything is forbidden but everything is possible. That was somehow the attitude that I really liked, that was the best thing. The worst thing of course was obviously how these people's lives were so limited and the simplest things they couldn't get. They were living in a cage, obviously. As I continued here and we won the Oscar and then we got the contract from MGM to produce Tom and Jerries, and all kinds of good things were happening...I became probably the only person in this country, and maybe in the entire East Bloc who had an unlimited exit and entrance visa, and that was what I demanded in order for me to stay here. So I was able to jump in my car without telling anyone, any time and cross that iron curtain. And when those iron gates opened for me I didn't ever take it for granted, it was a fantastic time. Because there was nothing here, and I had to practically go shopping almost every week during the good weather seasons, I crossed the border probably more than any other human being, and they got to know me personally there. I brought back all kinds of fantastic things and I never had any trouble. I brought back eight-foot aluminum ladders and electric drills, because we managed finally to get a country cottage, a chalupa as they say here. The customs people at the border were always amazed at what I brought in, because what they were looking for were your arm full of wristwatches or pocket calculators, which were a big thing then, or of course illicit printed matter such as bibles or Time magazine or Newsweek of Herald Tribune, but I learned very quickly those were the kind of things you don't bring in. I managed to get all that by having it delivered to the American embassy, and I went there every week to pick up my newspapers and magazines. So I managed to get the stuff for myself but you never wanted to bring it in the car. The things I brought in were obviously not going to disrupt communism or disrupt the country in any way, so I never had any trouble."

You can find out more about Gene Deitch at www.fortheloveofprague.com and www.genedeitch.com If you are interested in his work as an animator go to genedeitch.awn.com.