Marvel and DC Comics have something in common: superhero Alice Donenfeld. She first became familiar with the comics world through her husband, Irwin, who was the son of DC Comics founder, Harry Donenfeld. She never worked for DC, but she served as VP for rival Marvel, before becoming an EVP at Filmation, a company with a large catalog of DC Comics programs. Later, she went solo with the eponymous Alice Entertainment.
Alice Donenfeld’s challenges began well before she ever entered the entertainment business. In 1956 — when she was just 18 years old and still known as Alice Ray Greenbaum — her mother pushed her to get married.
By the time she met Irwin Donenfeld in 1960 — when she was just 22 — she was already on her second divorce, and working her way through law school as a coat checker at Gatsby’s restaurant and nightclub in New York City. He would become her third husband.
While it sounds exhausting, working at night and going to school during the day was considered the perfect arrangement for a superwoman who ended up dealing with superheroes on both sides of the spectrum: Superman and Batman on the DC Comics side, and Spiderman and Captain America on the Marvel side.
Irwin Donenfeld (who passed away in 2004 at age 78) was the son of Romania-born Harry Donenfeld, who printed and distributed New York City’s Detective Comics, where a number of superhero characters originated, including Superman in 1938. It later became the DC Comics we know today. (In 1961, DC Comics became part of a publicly traded group, which in 1967 was taken over by Kinney National. In 1972, it was incorporated into Warner Bros.)
Despite her personal connection to DC, in 1977, Alice — who’d worked as an entertainment lawyer for 14 years and was by then divorced from Irwin, as well — started working for competitor Marvel Comics. She followed this up with a seven-year stint as a top-level international sales executive with Filmation, which began in 1982, and finally, in 1989, with her own company, Alice Entertainment.
She also consulted for Seagull Entertainment from 1996 to 1997, Faith & Values Media from 2000 to 2001, and DIC Animation from 2004 to 2005, only retiring from the distribution business in 2005, when she moved permanently to Mexico.
Donenfeld’s transition from legal to content sales occurred gradually. “After becoming a lawyer and being admitted to the New York Bar in 1965,” she explained, “I had a few choices — go into wills or estates (both of which deal with dead people), or go into entertainment. I chose the latter, and eventually represented stars such as Mel Brooks.”
Entertainment also contributed to paying for her law schooling. According to a report in the New York weekly newspaper, Sunday News from January 1961, “[The New York City-born Alice’s] book, And a Ring for Every Finger, is now making the rounds of publishing houses. Alice had attended Vassar, New York University and Columbia before landing her current job [at Gatsby’s] four years ago. She completed courses at Boston University and Harvard.”
Her first love, however, was writing, and, after retiring from her last job, she published three novels, and also worked on an autobiography.
But let’s slow down. In 1963, before graduating from law school (with two law degrees: An LLB, now called Juris Doctor, and an LLM, or Masters of Law), Alice started working for a law firm founded by her father, Lawrence Greenbaum, with her uncle and grandfather. After graduation she moved to another law firm, and then to Time Inc.’s legal department before becoming Marvel Comics’ in-house attorney, and later, VP of Business Affairs, which included International TV.
She started at Marvel in 1977 by answering a recruiting ad. This was six years after divorcing Irwin, who had left DC Comics — and the comics industry entirely — in 1968.
Marvel Comics was founded in 1939 in New York City by Martin Goodman. It was first called Timely, then Atlas, and in 1961, it finally became Marvel. Goodman sold Marvel in 1968 and left the company in 1973. Since 2009, Marvel has been owned by Walt Disney.
In 1965, Alice and Irwin had a son, Harry. They later had a daughter, Mimi. “Because of the children, after the divorce I preferred to keep the Donenfeld name,” she explained.
While serving as Marvel’s VP and head of Business Affairs in 1979, she attended her first TV market, NATPE, at the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. “At about the same time I attended my first MIP-TV at the old Palais, and also the Cannes Film Festival the following year. Marvel Comics wanted to get into international TV sales and had hired Claude Hill [of New York-based ARP Films] as its international television distributor. I was to go along with Claude as Marvel’s representative to figure out how the whole process worked.
“No one had a clue about how to license for international television or how to divvy up the rights at that time. At the same time, I was scoping out the possibility of licensing a Marvel character for a feature film, [but] I was thrown out of every major [studio] in Hollywood. Each production executive assured me in no uncertain terms there was no market for superheroes in the feature film business since they were just for kids and the theaters who carried them would be dark after 6 p.m.,” she said. “For many years I took our products to anywhere from 12 to 16 international markets, conventions, festivals and fairs per year.” But not many people seemed to want to be bitten by the superhero bug back then.
Another amusing story came from Donenfeld’s yet-to-be published autobiography, Behind The Spandex: Globetrotting With Superheroes, which VideoAge got a rough copy of. In it, she talks rather candidly about Marvel’s creative mind, Stan Lee: “To the comic fans, Stan is a god. He and Jack Kirby created many of the characters, and Stan, so self-aggrandizing, will do anything to make sure his name is always in the limelight. For management, he is a constant pain in the a–,” she wrote.
Back with the VideoAge interview, Donenfeld continued: “In 1982, I went to pitch Lou Scheimer a deal for Marvel to handle Filmation’s international TV and world merchandise licensing as the company had been recently acquired by Westinghouse Broadcasting & Television. Instead of me pitching him, he pitched me to come and work for him at the studio. He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and in 1982, I moved to California as EVP of Filmation. I stayed in that position until 1989.”
Filmation was founded in 1962 by Scheimer (1928-2013), together with Hal Sutherland and Norm Prescott, and specialized in animation and live-action production and distribution. In 1966, Filmation produced a Superman cartoon, which was followed by other DC Comics superheroes.
In effect, Donenfeld left Marvel to join a company with a large catalog of DC Comics programs. In VideoAge’s 1983 edition of “Who’s Who,” Donenfeld was listed under Group W Productions, but by the 1985 edition she had returned under Filmation.
At Filmation, she launched the international television and merchandise licensing of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, BraveStarr, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and The Real Ghosbusters.
“He-Man and the Masters of the Universe — the first animated syndicated series — attained such worldwide success it created the international animation business on a large scale. At one point it was playing in over 100 countries and was grossing over $200 million in sales,” Donenfeld pointed out.
Then, in 1989, when France’s Parafrance/Paravision, a division of L’Oréal/Nestle, acquired the Filmation library, Donenfeld decided to go solo with Alice Entertainment and, later, with Alice4TV.com, which she ran until 2005.
During an AFM lunch meeting at the Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica last November, the topic of sexual harassment came up while she spoke with VideoAge, but Donenfeld said, “I never had any problems with aggressive men. They used to call me ‘Ice Queen,’ except one, who stalked me and relentlessly sent me flowers no matter the country I was in. Ultimately, I gave in and married him.” His name was Pierre Jean Vernoux, a French national marketing consultant whom she met at the Bologna Book Fair in 1979.
Speaking of being an attractive woman in a man’s world, Donenfeld recalled an amusing story: “[Filmation’s] Lou Scheimer always traveled with his wife, Jay. In one of my many business trips with Lou, Jay couldn’t accompany him. This caused Lou to act very strangely. If we were having lunch, or riding the elevator together, he would burst out to strangers, with ‘Alice is my business partner, not my wife.’ At one point I had to yell at him to stop saying it.”
She then returned to discussing Pierre Jean: “We were together for 25 years,” she said. “We got married in 2004, and we had a wedding ceremony at NATPE 2005.” Sadly, Pierre Jean, who was Donenfeld’s fourth and final husband, passed away in 2006 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was initially prevented from entering the U.S., so they purchased homes in Spain and Mexico. Later on, they sold the house in Spain, but retained the one in Mexico. Since 2005, she has lived in Playas de Rosarito, some 160 kilometers south of her other “every other week” residence in Laguna Woods, California.
“I still maintain a residence in the U.S. because my daughter insists on it, but Mexico is my home,” she reported.
Alice Entertainment continued representing the Filmation library for three more years for Parafrance. It also represented documentaries and outdoor programs. “Walker’s Cay Chronicles was the first outdoor, hunting and fishing series with worldwide success. The series played in over 100 countries around the world and was instrumental in starting interest in this type of series when everyone told me it would never sell,” she told VideoAge. “At one point we had over 5,000 episodes of documentaries, outdoor, hunting and fishing, as well as kids shows, historical docs, and miscellaneous programming.
“I produced over 100 episodes of programming: two series for ESPN and Discovery while at Filmation and Alice Entertainment, 26 half-hours of Bingo and Molly for TLC [which] won a Cine Golden Eagle for Excellence in Programming, UFOs and Aliens: Search For The Truth for TLC’s Alien Invasion Week, Millennium Alert for international broadcasters, and The World of Dogs for PBS stations.
“After the closure I was a consultant to DIC for 13 months, and consulted for Faith & Values Media. I was also hired as a consultant for Robin & The Dreamweavers, and Seagull Entertainment.”
Additionally, she taught “The Business of Television in a Digital Age” at UCLA Extension for several years.
“After retiring in 2005 I’ve been able to indulge my passion for writing and have published three novels, Cave Dreams, Out of the Chute, Pudel & Cie.: Problems Solved, and a business manual, How to Get and Keep the Best Jobs.”
She added: “My work is also in several anthologies and articles in local papers. In Mexico, I run the Baja Wordsmiths, a group of local writers, and in the U.S., I am a member of Southern California Writer’s Association, the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society, The Television Academy, and an Advanced Fiction Group. Always a lover of words, I used to spend my time on airplanes writing — short stories, poems, novels, essays — none very good, but it passed the time on long flights. Now I can indulge my passion.”
In 1990 she was quoted as saying, “I don’t ever want to retire… If I have my way, when I’m a 90-year old lady, I’ll still be hopping around the markets selling my cartoons.”
(By Dom Serafini)
Audio Version (a DV Works service)