Billy Toons is his stage name. It’s what they called him back in Indiana, first in Birdseye, where his dad was the basketball coach, where they could not have paid Billy Toons to play basketball even though [he says] he was the best athlete in the school…then at IU, where he grew his hair to the middle of his back, rocked a guitar in Superfecta, the school’s most badass student band [he says], and was the first student at the University ever to major in Animation, an academic track he [says he] designed for himself as part of a Name-Your-Major experiment the school was conducting at the time. The Billy Toons handle follows him West, or, more likely, he packs it up neatly, Boy Scout style, the way he does everything, and brings it along with him when he moves to L.A. and the industry that’s been calling to him since he was a boy. When his mom, Helen, would quiz him on the songs playing on the radio or on the drive-in movie speaker before the movie, and he could name them all, and it made her so happy that he dedicated himself to making people happy like his mom was. He’s been learning songs, and making people happy ever since.
Catches on at Hanna-Barbera, where he does in-betweens on shows like Scooby Doo and The Happy Days Gang. During a hiring wave for young artists at Disney, he passes the in-betweener test, gets in, and soon works his way up to Assistant Animator. That’s where I meet him. Walks up to me on the lot one day, hand extended, says he’s from Indiana, like I am. Birdseye, his hometown, is not far from where I grew up.
Who rides a unicycle to work at the studio. Not just any unicycle, a unicycle whose seat is ten feet off the ground, that he has to mount by climbing a ladder, and dismount by stopping against the side of building or a tree and backflipping off it, Billy Toons style.
Who keeps a book of poems he‘s writing about cheese. “I love cheese,” he explains, as if you’ve asked the stupidest question he’s ever heard. Why else would a person write poems about cheese?
Who is next-door neighbors with The Human Fly, the guy who climbed the side of the World Trade Tower. In Billy Toons’ workshop, they make the clamps that the Human Fly will use to climb the Tower to the top using the window washer scaffolding tracks.
Who was once an Eagle Scout, and can tie 20 different types of knots, neat as you please. Can tie anything to anything else with a strand of rope, a piece of twine, a string, fishing line, a strand of your hair, a magician’s thread. Knotmaster Toons.
Who writes jingles for the popular disc jockey, Rick Dees, as a way to make money to buy weed he calls Glen Campbell Weed, because he gets it from a guy in Glen Campbell’s band.
Who has a scar on his neck where he got his thyroid gland removed when he was seven, the reason he’s had to take thyroid medicine ever since.
Who says he wants his epitaph to read Enlightenment only came to me after a series of bumps on the head. Says he got the idea because when he was a kid he was riding his bike around the town square banging a hammer on the spikes of the wrought iron fence surrounding the court house as he rode past, playing an imaginary xylophone, and hit an unexpectedly springy spike, causing the hammer to recoil and biff him in the forehead and knock him off his bike. “It was the beginning of my journey to Enlightenment,” he says.
Who has an office — miraculously, because Assistant Animators aren’t supposed to have such sweet digs — in a prime location, first floor of the Animation Building. His window faces the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive, the busiest intersection on the lot. I like to take detours from my company business to sit on the Kem Weber storage cabinet under his window and watch him draw while we talk about whatever’s in the wind that day. “Hey, look it’s Bette Midler!” when we see The Divine Miss M arriving to shoot Witches of Eastwick — and get her to come over to say hi. Or we’ll talk about the most entertaining things you can do on a farm with a pitchfork. Throwing one through your little brother’s foot, which I once did, is the winning entry. On another, we might think up good band names. Haybalers. The Black Popes. Naugahyde Melt. Jizzfest.
Who is riding his motorcycle when a car runs a red light in front of him as he‘s crossing’ Magnolia on Buena Vista. He T-bones the car. Pushes off the motorcycle handlebars. Does a full flip over the car. Sticks the landing. Breaks an ankle doing it, but Mary Lou Rettons the damn landing. The most Billy Toons thing ever.
Who is playing his ukelele one day at the studio office during the production of The Lion King when the directors hear him and ask him to play his uke in the song where Timon and Puumba dance the hula.
Who has such an exquisite sense of timing that he can find the rhythm in anything. His professional talent is discovering the timing secrets to animation. Those fish dancing in the Under the Sea? Billy Toons. The gags + sound effects in Ren & Stimpy? His. Mouth movements + dialogue of The Simpsons characters in perfect sync? Timing by Toons.
Who raises his hand at an All-Animation meeting and asks if the new Animation building can have a roller coaster running through it. And everyone squirms and stifles laughter and Schneider says that’s the last question and ends the meeting without answering. We all dislike the ‘hokeytecture’ design of the new Animation building, with its Steamboat Willie profile and its giant Sorcerer’s Hat, but nobody has called it out like this in front of Management before. In front of Management no less. As Ron-John says about the new building design, “Isn’t it enough that we make the movies? Do we have to live in in them, too?” We are all too cowardly to say it. Not Billy Toons. And to put it in theme park-ese like that, with the question about a roller coaster? That was genius. So money. No wonder they fear him upstairs, and are always looking for reasons to fire him.
Who starts an Animation Holiday Band that goes all around the studio, floor to floor in every building, caroling, on the day before the holiday break. They get so good and so popular at the studio, they’re invited to play at Imagineering, and then at Disneyland, on the Coke Terrace, every year during the holidays. After a few years, there’s so much demand by artists who want in the band, that a group of them take over the management of the Holiday Band and force Billy Toons, its founder, out of it. He doesn’t try to hold on, he simply quits and, without missing a beat, starts a band that sings carols at assisted living centers. The Animation Holiday Band promptly falls apart and is never heard from again.
Who, music being his true calling, plays and sings at every opportunity. At hospitals for sick friends or dying family members. At the studio with the Friday afternoon lunchtime Dixieland band with Frankenollie and Ward. After work, in jam sessions with young animation pals. In a band he starts that he calls Flasche Buoyancy. Or Flash Boyancy. Or Flasche Boyancy. “There is no wrong way to spell our name,” he claims. “We’re the first band ever who can say that.”
Who remains so passive-aggressively pissed at me for something I said about one of his songs that a whole year year later he inscribes his next LP to me, “For Mike, who uttered the immortal words about my music, ‘Billy, if it only had a melody’”
Who is ‘giving guitar lessons’ to two or three lovely women at any given point in time. And then —
Who meets Jenn at a party at his house. Thinks she looks like Linda McCartney. She thinks he looks like Paul. “People have always said I look like Paul,” he tells her. She stays with him that night. And the night after. Moves in a week later. Within a year, they make it official. Get hitched on the Disney backlot, on the Pete’s Dragon set. He dresses like Zorro. She dresses like Cinderella. The officiant is dressed like Mr. Toad.
Who is heartbroken that she and he can’t have a baby together because, according to his doctors, his thyroid medicine has made him sterile.
Who is disappointed when she quits her job and stays home all day watching TV, having convinced herself she’s had an unhappy life, and TV is the only drug that can mute her unhappiness. He builds her a serving board that she can lower off the wall next to the bed, so she can have her dinner in bed while watching TV.
Who does everything he can to make a place where she can find happiness, everything in his power to design a heaven here on earth that’s worthy of his angel. She likes music. He gets her a violin. She plays for a couple of months, gets good quickly, she’s got an ear. They duet a few times. Make one recording together where she won’t get serious, and they end up not laying down even one good track. Not long after, she drops it and goes back to watching TV and gossiping on the phone all day with her gay friends, Cha-Cha and Marty. He knows they’re coming by and doing coke with her when he’s not around. He set up the camera and got the evidence. Does not confront her with the evidence. Decides, instead, to begin working from home.
Who buys them a small ranch in Sun Valley, with a large riding paddock and a barn out back. She likes horses. He buys horses. And a cart. And fancy dressage outfits that she can wear in horse shows and local parades. For awhile the horses are a distraction, and then she gets tired of dealing with them. Now it’s just him and the horses. And the chores, which he has to do on his own. It’s sad for him in the barn, doing chores, because she’s not here to share it with him. He feels as if her happiness is the only thing missing from his otherwise happy life. The incompleteness aches like a strain of homesickness. Like he’s got a big hole in his heart for a place he’s never even been to before.
Who works freelance at home now, out of an office in their garage that doubles as a tack room, his long days divided into beats as in a musical score, that he must hit in tempo all day long for his life to maintain its order, for things to be neat, the way he likes them. The same way he likes the strings on his guitars wound and clipped just so. His horses exercised daily. His shirts hung in his closet according to the color spectrum. Red at the opposite end of the rack from Violet. Green in the middle. The way he sends his freelance work to the studio in bundles tied with a noose knot and two half-hitches, because a figure eight knot would not do the job. There are days when she seems to be disrupting his carefully orchestrated tempo on purpose. A black widow on her riding boots? He doesn’t see it. No need to empty closets or call an exterminator. What now? What is the problem with the neighbors’ duck and her ducklings being in their riding paddock? He can’t see the harm in it. Why does she even care? She doesn’t ride any more! One of these 20-minute distractions she’s skilled at stirring up can mean missed deadlines, and hours of extra work before his day is done. And he’s so tired already.
Who buys the house on the neighboring property, and remodels it into what he believes will be their dream home, each room custom-designed in a different style. Fifties-style kitchen. Seventies-style den. Kitschy dining room. Swedish minimalist bedroom. Center stage of the remodel is a large roadhouse-style club room with a high beamed ceiling, a small bandstand with a drum kit, a wall of recording equipment, a rack for his 40 guitars, and a bar with a neon sign hanging behind it that says Lightning Bar & Grill. Lightning is the name of Billy Toon’s horse.
Who doesn’t let her inside the remodeled house next door until it’s finished, because he wants to delight her, like she’s Alice entering Wonderland. He has worked so hard on it. Spent so much time and money getting it right. She follows him on the tour of the dream home, barely registering a response. Not delighted, not even at the sight of her name in neon in the Lightning Bar & Grill. Goes back to the other house, to her bed and her TV. Never sets foot in the remodeled house again.
Unhappy Billy Toons.
Who invites friends over to the Lightning Bar & Grill to play and listen to music, as always, but who is changed. Changing. The smile, the laugh, the twinkle in the eye — they’re all still there. Only now it feels the tiniest bit off. Like an actor playing a role by rote, whose body is onstage, who still knows his lines and where to find his light, but whose mind is somewhere else. I don’t notice it when I’m with him one evening at the Lightning, but later, when I’m looking at video I shot, there’s a sequence where he doesn’t know the camera is on him, no one is looking at him, and it’s like he’s thinking hard about something. Like he’s worrying. And then so fast, literally in one frame of video, like the turn in a magic trick, someone looks at him and he’s all happy and smiling again. Presto! Back to [pretending to be] the same old good old happy-go-lucky Billy Toons!
Who quits drinking, only to take up obsessing about Martians, and conspiracies and cover-ups. “Why did the government hire Disney to make a series about Mars?” he asks anyone who’ll listen. “Because they want the idea of life on other planets to seem silly, so we won’t suspect anything. I mean what’s sillier than a cartoon? Only children who watch cartoons believe in Martians. That’s what they want us to think. But they know. They know,” he promises, ominously.
Who is working in their paddock, shoveling it clean of horse droppings, when the mother duck and her ducklings come waddling across the paddock from the direction of their neighbor’s house. He pauses for a beat. “Hey duckies,” he says.
Who hears his wife before he sees her. “I said I don’t want those fucking ducks in our paddock!” she howls as runs from the house in his direction.
Who has his shovel yanked from his hand before he realizes what she intends to do with it.
Who, despite having world class reflexes in most situations, does not react quickly enough to keep her from slamming down the shovel on the ducklings, crushing two of them as the others panic and scatter and the mama duck runs in circles honking frantically and spreading her wings in alarm.
Who quits taking his thyroid medicine the next day.
Who gets into a manic-depressive cycle he can’t get out of. Working 24 hours straight, exhausting himself, still unable to sleep, and so working some more, until his diurnal sense is completely shot to hell, along with all his other senses.
Who talks about eating the weeds growing in the yard of the remodeled house. Jimson weed, he says it is. Better than marijuana, he says.
Who we convince to check into a hospital, where he gets on a new thyroid medicine. It doesn’t work as well as the old medicine.
Who, when he gets home from the hospital, soon confronts Jenn about her killing the baby ducks. “Why don’t you kill yourself?” she asks him.
Who stops taking the new thyroid medicine, too.
Who can’t sleep for nights in a row. He keeps seeing and hearing her kill those poor ducklings and chase the others around with a shovel, killing two more. Her raging unhappiness won’t let him rest.
Tired Billy Toons.
Who, on his fourth sleepless night in a row, fetches a lariat from the barn. Takes it into the Lightning Bar & Grill. Loops it over one of the ceiling beams.
Who ties, with meticulous care, one of the 20 knots he learned to tie in the Boy Scouts. A noose.
Who stands on a barstool and snugs the noose around his neck.
Who takes one last look at his 40 guitars. Smiles at the memories they’ve given him. And kicks the barstool away.
Who is at last free of the incompleteness that haunted him. Death is as complete as life gets.
Who is buried back in Indiana.
At his memorial service in Animation, I read from his book of poems about cheese. I remember this passage from one of the poems:
I love to eat cottage cheese. It makes me feel like a breeze. Whenever we’re together, no matter what the weather, I love to eat cottage cheese.
A couple of months later, I visit his parents at the modest home in Birdseye, Indiana, where he’d been raised.
I share with them what he used to say he wanted his epitaph to be. They hadn’t heard of it. I tell them the story of how he came up with the idea. When the ball peen hammer clocked him on the noggin while he was riding his bike around the town square.
“That’s not where he got the idea,” says his mom, being motherly.
“He and a group of kids were playing in our front yard one day. I was watching them out the kitchen window,” she says. “This would’ve been when he was four or five, before he was old enough to ride a bike. They had a brick, and they were throwing it. He threw it in the air and it came down and hit him smack on top of his head.”
“That’s where he came up with it,” she says.
That afternoon, I find a brick in their backyard. Paint his epitaph on it: Enlightenment came to me only after a series of bumps on the head. Drive out to the cemetery and place it on his grave.
If you saw a man out at the Birdseye Cemetery, kneeling by a headstone with a guitar inscribed on it, bumping himself on the head over and over again with a brick, and crying — that was probably me.
Enlightenment did not come to me. Not then or since.
I miss Billy Toons almost every day. I think of him whenever I eat cottage cheese, or ride a horse, or hear a song he liked to sing, or hear anyone play a ukelele. Or when someone speaks truth to power. I imagine these things as markers he put down for those of us he left behind, that we may be guided by them to find our own paths to Enlightenment. And in imagining this, I feel like a breeze.
Maybe feeling like a breeze is what Enlightenment is.