Cartoonist and animator Willie Ito and his relentless drive to bring a bird named Maggie from page to screen.
At first glance, this sounds like a story about a retiree keeping busy, but it’s so much more. This story spans the world, includes wars, as well as one man’s relentless drive to bring a bird named Maggie from page to screen.
By Lynda Lin Grigsby, Contributor
The moment of awe is about to begin.
On the other side of the door, Willie Ito stands, cane in hand, ready. It’s a moment that faithfully repeats when a new visitor steps over the threshold of his home. It might start with a little gasp or a slow exhalation and then end in a stroll through the living room with dilated pupils to take in the enormity of the memorabilia — mostly Disney — on walls and in display cases.
In Ito’s house, the mouse is king. Incarnations of the famous rodent in different poses live on the shelves like altars for newcomers to worship.
“Take a look around,” he says, with eyes twinkling above his mask. Of course, with a pandemic still in existence, it’s been a while since someone new has entered his Monterey Park, Calif., home. Dressed in an olive floral-print shirt, Ito, 86, exudes a Tommy Bahama aura of relaxed island vibes — the retired corporate man with nothing but time now. Except after closer inspection, his shirt is covered in a Mickey Mouse motif. His blue hat is embroidered with the Disney name. If the mouse is king, Ito is the ambassador.
The ambassador needs no introduction in the animation world. He spent nearly 50 years in the industry as a cartoonist — many with Disney — starting in 1954 when a count of Asian American faces in the industry couldn’t even make a full set of tally marks. In animation circles, everyone knows Ito for the characters he created and the doors he opened for other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the industry.
Last year, Eric Bauza, a Filipino-Canadian voice actor, was named the voice of Bugs Bunny, the wise-cracking, iconic animated character that Ito also sketched during his time at Warner Bros. Ito was the first Asian American to draw Bugs Bunny.
Now, a self-proclaimed Filipino kid is voicing the rabbit. The through line isn’t lost on Bauza, 41, who wondered out loud in a December episode of the “They Call Us Bruce” podcast what Ito thinks of the trail he blazed.
“Willie is a living legend,” Bauza tweeted on May 27. “Without his hard work, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
This story is not about the bunny or the mouse or the countless characters Ito sketched to life during the golden era of American animation. This story is about the second act of his career — his so-called retirement that has become a period of creative renaissance. It’s about a magpie bird and how Ito is working to bring one of his most personal projects from book to screen.
“The meeting is about to begin,” said Ito, pointing to a chair on a sunny day in late May. On his computer screen are a series of faces from all over the world gathered for their twice-weekly virtual production meeting. The screen flashes, and suddenly, we are transported to the behind-the-scenes world of animation magic.
At center is a drawing of a young Japanese American boy, a bird and the title of Ito’s latest passion project, “Hello Maggie!”
A Story Only Survivors Could Tell
Everyone in Ito’s inner circle who I spoke with said the same thing: He’s busier now in retirement than he ever was working for Disney, Warner Bros, Sanrio or Hanna Barbera.
It’s the gift of time after the pandemic stripped away in-person appearances at comic book conventions and speaking engagements that so often crowd a legend’s personal calendar.
Retirement and pandemic-induced solitude gave Ito the opportunity to reflect on his experiences, said his 62-year-old son, Vincent Ito. “I think now he has been able to really focus on telling his story.”
In 1999, Ito’s buddy, Shigeru Yabu, approached him with an idea for a children’s book based on his own experiences as a boy incarcerated at Heart Mountain during World War II. In his family barrack, Yabu raised a magpie chick named Maggie that eventually learned to wolf whistle when women walked by and say, “Ohayo” (“good morning” in Japanese). Maggie symbolized one boy’s pain, joy and loss from the incarceration experience. Yabu had the story. He needed an illustrator.
“I wanted somebody that was from the internment camps,” said Yabu, 88. “It didn’t matter what camp. I just wanted somebody that understood what a guard tower, barbed-wire fence and mess hall looked like.”
Ito tells the story of Yabu’s proposal in a style that sounds like an excerpt from an old Hollywood script.
Shig: “Willie, I want you to illustrate a story of mine.”
Willie: “I hung up my pencil, Shig. I just want to take it easy.”
Shig: “Just read the manuscript, then you will know what I am talking about.”
Ito was 8 years old when he and his family were incarcerated at Topaz. “Hello Maggie!” stirred memories in the cartoonist that he had put away for a long time, like the feeling of disembarking a bus in the middle of a Utah desert and watching a fine layer of dust cover his grandfather’s gray fedora hat and black overcoat.
“So, I went and illustrated it because of my vivid memory of those days,” said Ito.
“Hello Maggie!” was published in 2007 mostly with funds from Ito and Yabu. The book’s drawings of wild sagebrush and blue star flags hanging in barrack windows are details from a survivor’s point of view. Yabu and Ito carried copies of the book to community events like business cards.
“We were in the Cherry Blossom Festival, you know, waving our stupid hands at people,” said Yabu, a Nisei Ventura County JACL member. Then they would set up space to sell the books. “Anyway, basically, we struggled.”
“Hustling,” a modern-day term co-opted here, describes the men’s relentless drive to get the “Hello Maggie!” book in as many homes as possible.
Slowly, the books sold out.
To get a copy now, one has to buy a used one off Amazon for $70.98 or wait for Ito to finish the revised edition with four additional pages about the heroics of the Japanese American units in the military during WWII.
“I just need to get off of my butt and start drawing,” Ito joked.
After all, he has another project that is competing for his attention.
Maggie the Cartoon
Bringing “Hello Maggie!” from page to screen sounds like a series of events that came together with the help of a global pandemic and the connective power of an animation legend.
Many describe the same scenario on how they joined the production team. It starts with a question:
“Do you know Willie Ito? He has this idea for a cartoon.”
Ito is always hustling.
Two years ago, Ito was on a whirlwind trip to Florence, Italy, to pick up an award from Nemo Academy, an animation studio. Between receiving the award and viewing Michelangelo’s David, Ito noticed a copy of “Hello Maggie!” on Nemo Academy founder Luca Chiarotti’s bookshelf.
It started out as a joke, Ito said.
Ha. Ha. Wouldn’t it be nice if you and your students make a cartoon version of “Hello Maggie!”? Can you imagine that? What would a project like that take?
When the laughter subsided, the “Hello Maggie!” cartoon short film project was greenlighted in February before coronavirus shut down the U.S. Preproduction started last May.
What the pandemic takes away, it gives back in time.
The “Hello Maggie!” short film project needed a director, so Chiarotti called on Tony Tarantini, a professor of animation, arts and design from Sheridan College in Toronto, Canada.
Do you know Willie Ito? He has an idea.
“What am I going to do, you know, in the spring [of 2020] now anyway, so why not take on this project?” said Tarantini in the virtual production meeting. “But it turned out to be more than a spring thing.”
It’s been a year’s thing, to be exact. Preproduction for “Hello Maggie!” is humming along in a style Ito jokingly calls “the only real way to animate” — 2-D animation of a young Shig delighting over a stack of hand-drawn pancakes and digitally painted scenery of Heart Mountain, so breathtakingly beautiful and stark.
Bringing “Hello Maggie!” from page to screen is an international affair. Two separate production teams made up of students from Sheridan College and Nemo Academy oversee visuals with Tarantini as director and Ito as creative executive producer and co-director. Sandro Cleuzo is the animation supervisor.
Ito and Tarantini envision an animated short, 14 minutes, with fastidious dedication to historical accuracy. “Hello Maggie!” is a heart-warming story about a little boy and his pet bird, but it is also about historic events — a mass incarceration that continues to see intergenerational trauma trickle down.
“The reason why I want to be somewhat historically correct is that I want to give the audience, a sense that this really happened. It’s not just cartoon characters,” said Tarantini.
The production team had several virtual meetings just to go over the details of the Heart Mountain guard tower, so it looks accurate. They brought on other former incarcerees, including Yabu, to vouch for the depiction of the camp.
In a virtual production meeting, Yabu mostly listened until a scene of the Heart Mountain camp popped up onscreen. In the distance, someone had included telephone poles. Yabu could be quiet no longer.
“Could I make one correction?” he said. “In camp, we didn’t have any telephone poles or wires. No one had any telephones. How hard would it be to erase?”
The telephone poles in the scene vanished.
“I love to be able to think that maybe the people that were at Heart Mountain will look at that and will get a feel, ‘Wow! You know that really feels like that was the place,’” said Tarantini.
In so many ways, bringing “Hello Maggie!” to life is a passion project for the production team. The student artists are receiving stipends from their colleges for their work, but other members are volunteering their time and talent. To continue the project, the team needs more funding.
The debate over how to get the money to finish the project plays out in the production meeting. Tarantini says they need a person to join the team to spearhead the fundraising effort and crowdsource funding. At home, Ito shakes his head. He wants to look for big funders.
Later, Ito leans in and says, “One of the guys really helping to push this whole thing is David.”
Here’s the thing about being a legend. An Emmy Award-winning news anchor from one of the largest news markets in the country can casually be referenced on a first-name basis. The David here is David Ono, co-anchor of ABC7 Eyewitness News in Los Angeles, who Ito says has been championing his “Hello Maggie!” projects.
This year’s Heart Mountain pilgrimage on July 24-25 will be a series of virtual events with limited in-person meetings for board members and VIPs. Ito was set to attend (“David wants me to go with them.”) with a goal to fundraise for “Hello Maggie!” the cartoon, but now he’s not sure. It’s not a problem of will, it’s a problem of logistic and aging bodies. Getting to the pilgrimage site in Wyoming means he must take two different planes and carry large portfolios of artwork on an ankle that had surgery for arthritis before the pandemic.
“I may have to pass,” said Ito about the Heart Mountain pilgrimage.
“And at the moment, I’ve got George who might be interested in doing the voiceover or narration for the film, you know.”
Is there any question that the George in reference here is George Takei of “Star Trek” fame?
Willie the Person
Willie Katsutoshi Ito Jr. was born in San Francisco in 1934. Most of his official documents cite him as Willie or Will, but never William. He has four children with his wife, Rosemary, who died in 2017 after 61 years of marriage.
He has always been driven, said his son Marc Ito, 63. “The artwork was his life.”
Growing up, the Ito kids knew their dad drew cartoons for a living. He worked late nights at the big studios and in his own studio affectionately called his “man cave” in the backyard. On Saturday mornings, the kids would watch cartoons and see Ito’s name in the credits, but to them, he was a regular dad, who would take the boys to drag races at the Pomona Fairgrounds.
Growing up with a dad like Ito was like living in Disneyland, said his 51-year-old daughter, Sabrina Kiilsgaard.
“We always had the fun birthday parties because my dad would bring all the old classic Disney movies home and put them on the projector screen and, you know, draw for my friends,” she said.
There is a picture of Ito from the late 1970s standing proudly amid his formidable collection of Disney memorabilia in his man cave. The stuff was more expansive then,covering walls, tables and the floor.
He’s been a collector all his life. The very first piece he acquired was a coin bank shaped like Dopey, one of the dwarves from the 1937 Disney animated “Snow White” movie that famously inspired young Ito to become a cartoonist. He got the bank when he was 5 years old. It’s yellow and unimpressive compared to other pieces in his collection, but it is Ito’s most-prized possession.
At 8, he was forced to leave the Dopey bank behind when his family was forcibly removed from their San Francisco home and incarcerated at Topaz. Japanese Americans were instructed to only bring what they could carry, so a coin bank could not be justified as an essential item, no matter the sentimental value.
During the war, a family friend took care of their house, said Ito. When his family returned to San Francisco, Ito ran to his room. There was his bank, right where he left it on top of his dresser. Considering that at one time in his life everything was taken away, it makes sense that Ito now likes to surround himself with things he loves.
Today, the bank sits among other collectibles and tchotchkes near him when he attends virtual production meetings. His oldest collectible sits next to his newest, a golden lifetime achievement trophy from the Annie Awards, the Oscars of the animation industry, which he received on April 16.
Adults need an excuse to become a kid again, and in cartoons, Ito gets to keep the perspective of an 8-year-old. He and Yabu were children during WWII, collateral of wartime hysteria. Kids process big, scary life events differently than adults. Maybe they break them down to focus on joy over trauma. In that way, it’s easy to see why Maggie, the cute black bird with the expressive face, has become iconic to Yabu and Ito and the Japanese American community.
It’s also easy to see why Ito continues hustling well into his retirement. Looking at him today with hisubiquitous Mickey Mouse attire, it’s easy to see the little boy who, inspired by animation magic, doodled from behind barbed wire in the margins of Sears catalogues to copy the lines and curves of the Disney characters he loved.
He’s still that little kid, except this time, he is trying to create his own characters and tell his own story.
To sign up for “Hello Maggie!” fundraising news, send an email with your name and mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org.