Morton Schindel, founder of the Weston Woods Studios, a company lauded for its quality audiovisual adaptations of award-winning children’s books, died on August 20. He was 98.
Schindel was born in Orange, N.J., in 1918. He graduated from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania with a B.S. in economics in 1939 and later earned a master’s in curriculum and teaching at Columbia Teachers College in 1949. Following his undergraduate work, he lived in New York City where he founded a machine shop, ELMOR Manufacturing Company, in 1941. But he contracted tuberculosis in 1944, which forced his move to Saranac Lake, N.Y. That brush with serious illness changed his career path; in a 2003 interview with Booklist magazine, Schindler told Candace Smith: “I was ‘lucky’ enough to contract tuberculosis when I got out of college. It took a number of years to recover, and when I did, my doctor said my best chances of staying well would be if I didn’t work. But how could I support my family if I didn’t work? He said, ‘Become an artist.’ I had no pretensions that I could be an artist, but photography was my hobby, and I thought maybe I could turn this hobby into a vocation.”
Schindel’s pursuit of a new line of work led to the company Teaching Films in 1949, where he tried creating films. But when that company went bankrupt, he became an independent producer. In 1951, he began service as film officer and attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey. Following his term in Turkey, Schindel settled in Weston, Ct., with his wife, Ellen Bamberger, whom he married in 1941, and their three children. In 1953, inspired by the books he had read with his daughters and son, Schindel launched Weston Woods Studios, with a dream of animating children’s books.
Schindel signed up titles throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s like Andy and the Lion, the Caldecott Honor book by James Doughty, and began working on his dream. He was a pioneer of the iconographic style of filmmaking, which took still images from a picture book’s illustrations, and giving them motion. Weston Woods’ first animated production, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, was released in 1963. But Weston Woods struggled to find its financial footing. Then the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act which was passed in 1966, made way for the opening of the country’s first school libraries. The boost from that new marketplace meant that Weston Woods’ sales quadrupled overnight.
Production of audio and visual materials continued and accolades rolled in. In 1984, Doctor De Soto, based on the book by William Steig, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short, and Owen, adapted from the Kevin Henkes picture book, won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video in 1996.
In 1996, Weston Woods Studios was acquired by Scholastic, a deal that Schindel told Booklist was influenced by his relationship with Scholastic president and CEO Richard Robinson, who spent summers with his family in Connecticut near Weston Woods. “Dick would come over with his children to pick up films. So he knew our product line from screening them at home with his kids,” Schindel said in the interview. “Scholastic had distributed our recordings, so I felt that when the time was right, I would turn to Dick.” Schindel went on to say of the acquisition, “I think of this more as a legacy than a business transaction.... I’ve never had a minute of regret.” Schindel produced more than 300 films and 450 recordings while he was at the helm, and Weston Woods has gone on to create several hundred more since joining Scholastic.
From 1982 to 2016, Schindel served as chairman of the board of directors of the nonprofit Weston Woods Institute, which was founded to support innovative efforts behind literacy and education for children.
Richard Robinson, chairman, president and CEO of Scholastic, offered this tribute: “Mort Schindel not only founded the art form and business of creating films based on outstanding children’s books, he also helped generations of teachers and librarians understand how they could reach more children with these great stories through the medium of film, video and television. He pioneered this important art form by working with hundreds of authors and illustrators including Maurice Sendak, William Steig and Robert McCloskey, winning their support by making creative films like Where the Wild Things Are, Blueberries for Sal, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and The Amazing Bone, which adhered absolutely to the spirit and story of the original printed work.”
Schindel is survived by his wife, the author Cari Best, whom he married in 1988, a sister, and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.