Gene Deitch - thirty fascinating years in Communist Prague, Part 2

The American animator Gene Deitch came to Prague in 1959, fell in love, and has been here ever since. For 40 years or so Mr Deitch has lived and worked near Charles Bridge on Mostecka street, and - since the fall of communism - has seen his old neighbourhood transformed into a hub of Prague's tourism industry. Gene Deitch had a unique perspective on the communist system and records many interesting observations and stories in his entertaining book 'For the Love of Prague'. One story he tells is of how he came to draw cartoons for a magazine put out by the state publishers Rude Pravo, with whom his studio shared an office building.

"When the studio moved from what was then Gorkeho namesti to Florenc which was the actual building where the editorial offices of Rude Pravo newspapers and magazines were, right there at Na Florenci 3, we had the top two floors of that building. And because every day we were working there and the news got around that an American was there and the...I'm talking now about the mid-60s, if you remember in the mid-60s when the films came out, there was a new wave of Czech cinema, there was a bit of loosening up...the adventurous editor of Kvety thought it would be really nice to have an American-style comic strip in his magazine. He asked me if I would do this and said I'll give you 500 crowns a week, and it was a joke but nevertheless I thought well OK, this'll be a great gag. I developed something which was called Mlady Svet - Young World, or Little World - and I had little teeny children who were acting out adult things, they were echoing the things their parents did. They had a little house and the house fell down, and it was a parody on the panelaky (pre-fabricated blocks of flats - IW). It was all just light parodies on the kind of things that were happening, that you couldn't get anything, that you had to stand in line and so on. But then I made one cartoon about a meat shortage, showing everybody standing line to get meat. And then suddenly this editor landed on me. He says, the meat shortage is not funny! That was the end of my cartoon strip...I thought it was pretty funny (laughs). There was a standard joke going around, saying in the old days, in the First Republic, there was a big sign that said Butcher and inside there was meat. Now there's a sign that says Meat and inside was a butcher."

Only a butcher.

"Only a butcher, and no meat."

I'm fascinated by the other Americans who were here; you weren't the only one.

"I tell people that I was the only free American living here for 30 years during the communist era. But I became aware that there were other Americans, there were American communists, really American communists, who had escaped McCarthyism in the United States or who had come here and married a Czech and had somehow settled into the work. But those people, let's say Americans here who married a Czech and were working here, they lived under the same financial and movement restrictions as Czechs. So they were Americans but they were not free."

You had a friend who worked for Radio Prague in those days.

"Yes, yes, and he's still my friend today. This was Herbert Laas, who I think broadcast for Radio Prague under the name of Gregor, I think, now I can't remember exactly."

Do you know why he used a pseudonym?

"Well, obviously an American broadcasting propaganda on Radio Prague on short wave was not anxious to have his real name heard. He was a pretty good guy, a very good guy actually, but...look, the circumstances were that he was kind of a leftist in America and right after the war he came here with CARE, giving out CARE packages, and he had his children and his wife with him. He became very enthusiastic about socialism. He and his wife and there small kids decided to live here. Herb and Hilda Laas. Hilda edited a kind of news weekly that was sent out, all telling the bright things about what was in Czechoslovakia. It wasn't really that they were lying or giving outright propaganda, but they were naturally broadcasting positive things. But very quickly they had become disillusioned, naturally, but they were in a trap, just like a lot of people who did come here. They weren't making hard currency, they were being paid in Czechoslovak crowns, which was just paper. There was no way for them to easily leave, and, because they had been broadcasting for Radio Prague, the United States government took away their passports, and they didn't get them back until the mid or late 60s."

He quit Radio Prague in 1968, is that right?

"Yes, he eventually did quit of course. After 1968, I mean, that was the limit, that was as far as anybody like that was willing to go. He did quit and he managed to become a stringer for some British newspapers and he tried to write innocent things that weren't giving any trouble. But, he wrote some story about a bridge in some town and somehow lightly criticized the construction of this bridge, or something, but whatever it was they were just waiting for an excuse to throw them out, so they were finally expelled."

Let's fast-forward quite a lot to 1989 - did the revolution surprise you?

"Not me, it didn't surprise me, it seemed to surprise the Czechs. The funny thing is that even when the East Germans were coming through Prague, sleeping in the back garden of what was then the West German embassy, and buses were organized to bus those people out, and it was so obvious that the whole thing was crumbling...we stood right here on Malostranske namesti and I saw Czechs waving to East Germans on the way out, I thought my God, Czechs waving to East Germans and wishing them happy journey more or less as they were going out. I said that's really a miracle, knowing how the Czechs at that time felt about Germans, and I thought it was obvious it's all over. This was October, just a month before the revolution. And I came back to our building here on Mostecka and I met one of my neighbours. I said oh boy, it's really going to collapse now and he said not here, it'll never happen here, they're too strong. This was in my estimation, even moreso I think than East Germany, this was the hardest-line and closest, butt-licking satellite of the Soviets. The government here was really horrible, let's face it, as we all know. They of course were in no mood to give up at all. Nobody believed it, people had really become pessimists. The Czechs just didn't believe it could ever happen, and so for them it was a tremendous surprise."

You have lived here on Mostecka street for many years. This is the street which leads from Malastranske namesti to Charles Bridge. From your window now you can see the golden arches of McDonalds, millions of people flow through your old street, which used to be a regular street with regular shops - do you resent that in a way?

"Yeah, I guess we do. This place has really gone to hell. When Zdenka and I, my wife Zdenka - that's the one I fell in love with, when we used to together on Mostecka, in the early days there was still gas lamps. A woman came along every night with her dog and a long pole and she lit the lamps one by one. It was a romantic street, it was wonderful. Now, every two metres there's a change booth or a Bohemia glass shop, and we're just haunch to paunch tourists coming by. We have McDonalds in the building, we have a museum of medieval torture instruments, an exhibit of spiders and scorpions, it's just not the same thing. And it's just become seedier and seedier. The fact is we've recently heard that McDonalds now has bought the entire building, with two other white nights. So there are three groups who own this building now, and they didn't buy it for their health, so we know our days are numbered here. Besides our apartment here I have my little studio where we are sitting and speaking right now, in a former washroom converted into a little studio where I have all my computer equipment, my drawing equipment, where I'm still working, writing and drawing scenarios for animation films. I'm 78 years old now, I can't do everything I used to do but I'm still trying. A lot of things from my past seem to be coming out, even cartoons I made when I was a very young man for an obscure jazz magazine in America are now being collected and published in a book, and Zdenka and I both are being called all the time to give talks at seminars."

Gene Deitch, thank you very much.

"You're welcome."

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.