We all live in a yellow submarine...

How many people can say that they got to work with one of the greatest bands in history, who had a phenomenal impact on the evolution of pop music?”

(photo credit: MAXINE LIPTZEN-DOROT)
As a diehard Beatles fan from the time I first saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, I was excited to hear that there was a man living here in Ashkelon who knew the Beatles and even worked with them on the film, Yellow Submarine, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year.
Growing up in Reading, a town outside London, Norman Kauffman enjoyed making animated films as a child, besides being active in Jewish youth groups after school. At 13, he made an animated film, and at 16 left school, thinking about going to art college, even though his first love was movies and animation. Fate stepped in when someone at the TVC Cartoon Company in London, which made animated TV commercials and opening credits for movies, saw the film Kauffman had made a few years earlier.
“I was called into the office, interviewed, and, at 16, hired as a trainee. My parents didn’t know what the job meant, but as long as I came home before Shabbat, it was okay. Art college was out. To this day, I have no idea how they got hold of my little film, but it changed my life.”
Soon after Kauffman signed on, the US-based King Feature Syndicates, which made cartoons including Popeye and The Jackson Five, decided to make an animated film for kids based on The Beatles, whose popularity was soaring.
“They came to TVC because of their solid reputation and together began work on The Beatles Cartoon series. It was typical cartoon fare with the lads getting into all kinds of adventures – but with American accents, since US kids would never understand Liverpudlian ones.
“One evening, ‘the boys’ (as my wife Toni referred to the Beatles and the moniker stuck) came to a party we held for them. During the party, John Lennon sat under a table. Nobody noticed, so I went over and asked him if he was okay. He said he was fine and asked for a bottle of wine and two glasses. I brought them to him and he invited me to join him under the table for a glass of wine. I told him I was underage and not allowed to drink. He drank his wine and asked for my name and what my job was. When I told him that I was called Norman, he said that he would call me “Normal.” That name stuck by all the Beatles and people at work.”
When I asked Norman/Normal if he was in contact with the remaining Beatles, he was evasive. “The Beatles are owned lock, stock and barrel by Apple Music Corp. and they like to sue. They own everything, including what people say. Anything personal about the Beatles can leave me open to a lawsuit, even today. It’s in my contract.
“We were involved in the titling of The Magical Mystery Tour and we not only worked with ‘the boys,’ but got to be with them socially. They were great fun to be with. They had minders (bodyguards) attached to them and they needed them, too. Mobbing, screaming fans made it very frightening, and that’s an understatement.”
The cartoon series about the Beatles became a hit, so the obvious step was to turn it into a feature film.
“The cartoon was kid stuff for us; we were used to doing more artistic work and this was our chance to do something different. We decided it was time to bring The Beatles more up-to-date fashion-wise and we also didn’t want to do anything Disney – nothing childish. We wanted to get them to a higher fashion level. Heinz Adelman, a famous European illustrator and designer, came up with four wonderful drawings dressing the Beatles in the fashion of the day (bell bottoms and psychedelic shirts) that are in a safe in an American bank. Heinz became the film’s art director.
“We needed a story and a title. We had the rights to use Beatles songs, so we brainstormed with the American writers and came up with an idea based on the song “Yellow Submarine.” We thought that Ringo should have some solo recognition. We invented characters called “the Red Meanies” as the evil ones, but since the Cold War was going on, we worried that people would think they had something to do with the Soviet Union. The ‘Red Meanies’ became the ‘Blue Meanies.’ Some of us thought that people would associate them with Jews, but that turned out not to be so. It was decided to keep them ‘blue’ and in fact, there is a Jewish joke in the film. When Ringo is in a battle getting significant help from a Blue Meanie, Ringo turns and asks him who he is.
“‘Why, I’m a Blue Meanie.’
“‘Funny, you don’t look bluish.’
“The Beatles would come into the studio unannounced to see how the movie was going. One day, John came in. I was in the basement practicing the shofar because I was a baal tekiya in the shul. John come down to investigate the noise, asked me what I was doing and if he could try the shofar. He tried again and again but failed to get out even one note. I felt so good that I could do something that John Lennon couldn’t.
“I stayed on with TVC, which morphed into a production consultancy company. I was one of the two directors, the other being my old boss, John Coates, who had hired me when I was 16 and was now my business partner. We became consultants to other producers, other film companies, established ones and upcoming ones. We knew the right people, so we could point them in the direction they needed to go in for proper financial backing. We had the ability and know-how to build other companies and give good advice. We produced several half-hour TV specials well-known in Europe and worked with singers and musicians in various musical genres.
“All the while, aliyah was in the back of my mind. “Toni and I finally made it to Israel in 2003, moving to Ashdod, but I was still working, so I commuted between there and London, three weeks in each city, before I officially retired. When the grandkids grew up, the flat became way too big for us. We sold it and moved to Ashkelon, where the English-speaking community is larger and very active. To our delight, we met people here whom we had known back in London, some even before we got married! “
On Shabbatot, Kauffman is involved with a shul he likes.
“The rest of the week, I’m very busy. Toni (his wife of 50 years whom he first proposed to when he was 12) and I enjoy a busy social life. I’m also writing a book called Namedropping about all the people I’ve met and spoken to, people I’ve had conversations with, some of whom are quite famous. I also love to spend time with the grandchildren and work in our balcony garden. I get a kick out of taking things apart and then putting them back together. I’m the quintessential DIY guy.”
Kauffman has lectured about his role in The Yellow Submarine in colleges and cinematheques across the country and sheds some insight into “the boys” along the way. “Even after all these years, people of every age are fascinated with the Beatles.”
“They were all regular, down-to-earth guys, very polite and kind, even as their fame was reaching unimaginable heights. It was an incredibly exciting time, especially as a 16-year-old. Let’s face it, how many people can say that they got to work with one of the greatest bands in history, who had a phenomenal impact on the evolution of pop music?”