Ron Miller

Ron Miller passed away last weekend. The news was surprising because Ron was a guy who always looked great each time Adrienne and I visited Northern California. We also knew how stubborn and fiercely independent Ron could be. Family and friends couldn’t help but be concerned since the lost of his wife, Diane. But Ron didn’t need anybody’s help and was determined to take care of himself. Tough and resilient, Ron Miller was a man’s man. A big guy who could easily block a doorway at the Walt Disney Studio, and I honestly doubt I’ll ever get that image out of my head. Ron Miller didn’t simply enter a room, he filled it.

When I think of Ron I can’t help but think of the many zany cartoons I drew of the Disney CEO. Those of you who know me are well aware I have a habit of mocking my bosses. It’s all good natured, of course. I honestly can’t draw cartoons about people I don’t like. I alway drew Ron Miller wearing a business suit and a football helmet. It was a silly image that always brought a smile to my face. You couldn’t help but admire Ron for being one very lucky guy. What the heck, he married the bosses’ daughter and went from being professional jock to Hollywood movie maker and entertainment CEO. In all fairness, Ron didn’t marry the boss’s daughter because he wasn’t a Disney employee when he began dating Diane Disney. Walt brought Ron into the company because he grew tired of seeing his son in law getting pummeled on the football field. “Come work for me,” said the Old Maestro. “Cartoon making is a lot safer.” Walt always had a way of making an offer you couldn’t refuse. It was a great offer, and Ron soon became a regular sight around the Disney cartoon factory. You couldn’t miss Ron. He was a big guy and ruggedly handsome. Heck! He could have easily been mistaken for a movie star. That’s how good he looked. Initially wary of Walt’s son in law, the young Disney animators kept their distance. However, we soon learned that Ron Miller was the real deal. A likable guy who was easily at home in the board room or the volleyball court. All the girls loved him and all the guys wanted to be him.

Of course, I never said the job was easy. In time, Ron began learning the filmmaking process, and early assignments included assistant directing along with other tasks necessary to produce a motion picture. Walt Disney was teaching his son in law the business from the ground up and Ron proved to be a darn good student. In time, he would be on set directing his father in law in a series of introductions for the Walt Disney television shows. How do I know this, you might ask? I was on Stage Two when Ron had the toughest job in the world. He was giving directions to the man who was his boss and his father in law. A daunting task in anybody’s book. Yet, time zips past quickly when you’re having fun and soon Ron and I faced new challenges. I moved upstairs to work in story and Ron Miller became a full producer. However, in these best of times, the worst can happen. Walt Disney passed away suddenly in late 1966 and the studio was thrown into turmoil because the Old Maestro had not formally chosen a successor. After a series of missteps, Ron Miller finally took over as CEO of Walt Disney Productions. Once again, Ron was given the toughest job in the world.

We can never know the final conversations Ron had with his father in law back in 1966. I suspect Walt was preparing Ron to lead the company forward. If you recall, Hollywood and movies were moving through a turbulent time in the seventies, and Ron, like Walt was determined to lead rather than follow. The film landscape was changing, so Ron launched Touchstone Films in order to appeal to older more sophisticated audiences. While others waited on the sidelines, Ron boldly announced The Disney Channel and a new way to deliver family entertainment to a broader audience. Like his father in law, Ron took the initiative while conservative members of the Disney board were hopelessly calcified wondering, “What would Walt do?” Yet, things would only get worse. Adding insult to injury, Ron was eventually removed as CEO and painfully departed the Disney Studio. He and Diane moved into a new home and a new life in Napa Valley. They created Silverado Vineyards, a delightful winery far and free from the craziness of Hollywood. Gracious as always, Diane Disney Miller and Ron shared that life with Adrienne and myself on a number of occasions. Unlike myself and my colleagues, Adrienne never knew Ron Miller as boss or the Disney CEO. He was just a good friend and we shared fun times together. In time, those marvelous get togethers in Napa and Disneyland included the Miller family.

Yet those marvelous years with Ron at Walt Disney Productions can never be forgotten. I remember watching Ron Miller and his producers playing the Disney animators in a spirited volleyball challenge on the studio back lot. And, I remember Ron sitting with Walt Disney in the 3E screening room trying to explain why a monkey didn’t behave on set. Finally, I remember Ron Miller swiftly rising to his feet when a Disney producer admitted, “He didn’t like football.” Miller glared at him and grumbled, “What’s wrong with you?” It may sound silly, but I can still imagine Ron Miller dressed as a handsome prince in a Disney fairy tale. You gotta admit it’s true. After all, he married the king’s beautiful daughter and they lived happily ever after.

Diane Disney Miller and Ron entertain us along with Gordon and Donna Kent in Napa Valley.

Diane Disney Miller and Ron entertain us along with Gordon and Donna Kent in Napa Valley.

My Review of "Mary Poppins Returns"

I didn’t attend the premier of Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins” back in the early sixties. Back then, animation artists were not invited to posh Hollywood affairs. It may seem odd, but none of us felt slighted in any way. That’s because there was never any expectation of an invitation. We had the pleasure of being a part of a Disney masterpiece and that was reward enough. However, there was an unexpected bonus that came with being members of the “Mary Poppins” team. I had the opportunity to meet members of the cast, and that included, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. Of course, the icing on the cake was the opportunity to work with our brilliant composers, Robert and Richard Sherman.

What a difference a few years can make. When “Mary Poppins Returns” premiered a couple weeks ago, Adrienne and I joined my pal, Richard M. Sherman on the red carpet at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. Even though we had already seen the Disney motion picture, we waited in eager anticipation. The atmosphere inside the theater was electric as the seats were slowly filled. Suddenly, the entrance of 93 year old, Dick Van Dyke brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation. We already knew the movie was good. Would it hold up as well on this second viewing, we wondered? I’m pleased to say the delightful Disney musical exceeded our expectations. A week earlier, I had spoken with director, Rob Marshall. “I absolutely love your movie,” I told the smiling director. “You truly honored the film we made fifty four years ago. Now, on the evening of the premier and after party I made my way toward Mr. Marshall with a smile on my face. “Rob, it just keeps getting better and better.”

Hardly a movie critic, I know a great film when I see one. “Mary Poppins Returns” is the sequel I’ve anticipated for nearly fifty four years. And, while some have nit picked casting choices or preferred a Sherman Brothers score, this is a motion picture musical that proudly stands on its own next to the previous Disney classic. How do I know this, you ask? I was on Stage A with Robert and Richard Sherman on the first day of the pre-records. I attended dance rehearsals with choreographers, Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, and was present on every sound stage on the Disney Studio lot for filming. Finally, I worked as part of the animation team for nearly a year creating a marvelous cartoon sequence where every composited drawing was done by hand.

It’s been a while since a Disney film has captured the magic, whimsy and wonder of “Mary Poppins Returns.” There’s a long standing rule (in my opinion, anyway) that all movie musicals have to live by. The movie has to fly. The film has to soar. This doesn’t happen by accident. Right choices have to be made, and boy, did Disney make the right choices this time around. The casting of Emily Blunt and Lin Manuel Miranda was inspired, and trusting Rob Marshall was smart. Who would dare follow Robert and Richard Sherman’s marvelous score? Get ready to listen to what composer, Marc Shaiman has done with a soundtrack that connects to the original while managing to maintain its own sense of magic and wonder. I’ll not say anything more, because this is a movie you simply have to experience for yourself. “Mary Poppins Returns” is a marvelous trip back to a happier time, and proof that Disney magic is still very much alive. Can you imagine that?

Sadly, todays Hollywood musicals usually stumble. This Disney film soars.

Sadly, todays Hollywood musicals usually stumble. This Disney film soars.

The Greatest Job in the World

It was a late Friday afternoon when I spotted the older gentleman staring into a department store window. He was tall, gaunt and had a cigar clenched in his teeth. He noticed me and gave a nod of acknowledgement as I walked passed. I was headed back to work at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Oddly enough, the old gentleman was a former employee, but much more than that. He was a celebrated Disney legend and one of Walt’s favorite directors. Being a Disney geek, I knew a good deal about his amazing career and I had followed his work since I was a child. I couldn’t help but think this ordinary situation seemed strangely odd. The old gentleman had been a creative force at the Walt Disney Studios for several decades. Now, he was window shopping on a Friday afternoon in beautiful downtown Burbank. I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind that sunny afternoon. Was he happy with his recent retirement and an abundance of leisure time? Could anything else be truly rewarding after having what I considered, the greatest job in the world?

Being a Disney director had to be the coolest job one could ever imagine. You are the creative leader of an amazing animated enterprise and you only answer to one person. Of course, that person was the old maestro, Walt Disney. However, putting that detail aside, you remained the boss, the head honcho and the top enchilada. You sat with the story team as they crafted the films narrative and you scrutinized production design alongside your art directors. You turned up the heat in sweatbox sessions as your animators presented their footage for your approval. Finally, you joined your voice actors (usually Hollywood celebrities) on the recording stage for a spirited session. No doubt, you were working hard, but you were also having a helluva lot of fun and getting paid to do it. Remember, we’re talking about directing back in my day. The good old days before the animated motion picture became immensely popular and incredibly profitable. In many ways, the recent success of animated movies has taken a good deal of joy out of the process of creating an animated film. Sadly, that includes the work of the motion picture director. Hardly a fun job today, the director of an animated movie turns over their life to the production once they sign on. Incredibly efficient managers will whisk you to one meeting to the next and every hour of your day will most likely be spoken for. This exhausting process will begin once you assume the job as director, and won’t end until you have completed the motion picture and the tedious press junket that precedes the films release. Once it ends, you’ll be glad its over, and I doubt you’ll be eager to repeat the process.

In the good old days, graduating to director was a true promotion. A substantial bump in pay was hardly the motivation. Rather, it was the opportunity to realize your own personal vision for a new animated motion picture and leading a talented team to create something truly special. In Disney’s Golden Era, I watched a fair number of talented directors do their jobs. They were a marvelous group of animated filmmakers that included, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Lusk, Les Clark and Gerry Geronimi. Bill Justice, Jack Kinney and Jack Hannah directed the short cartoons and versatile guys like Ward Kimball handled special projects. Finally, our directors were usually accessible and you only need walk into their office to have a question answered. In today’s Hopelessly over-managed studio system you’d have to make an appointment.

I wondered about the cigar chomping gentleman starring into the department store window that sunny Burbank afternoon. I wondered if he missed his job and the creative collaboration of so many amazing Disney artists. Would he ever consider returning, I wondered? Though a life of leisure and relaxation may have sounded enticing to director/animator, Wolfgang Reitherman, it could hardly compare to having the greatest job in the world.

Director, Woolie Reitherman (far left) enjoying a pitch by story man, Vance Gerry.

Director, Woolie Reitherman (far left) enjoying a pitch by story man, Vance Gerry.

Working with Milt

I’ve been the lucky recipient of many marvelous opportunities during my long career in the animation business. One such, happened in the summer of 1961 when my boss, Andy Engman called me into his office on the first floor of Walt Disney’s Animation Building to inform me of my next assignment. “The Sword in the Stone” will be moving into production in the next few weeks,”replied the animation boss. “It looks like you’re going to be working with Milt.” I was momentarily speechless. There was no need for last names in this particular instance. I knew full well Andy was referring to the “Terror of D-Wing,” who just happened to be one of Disney’s most demanding directing animators. Milt Kahl was a stellar animator as well as the studios finest draftsman and few could match his level of drawing. Who would make such a choice, I wondered? Considering the number of talented artists at Disney’s disposal, why choose me? I wandered back to my office in A-wing still trying to make sense of the whole thing. Perhaps this wasn’t an execution after all, I considered. Maybe it was a golden opportunity to work with one of Disney’s finest.

In short order, Roy Geyser and his moving crew would be packing up my office and moving me down the hallway to D-wing. This was standard procedure at the Walt Disney Studios where animation artists were continually relocated (lock stock and barrel) when work assignments necessitated. Now, it was 1961 and the wing itself was going through a number of changes. Director, Eric Larson (after a five year stint on Sleeping Beauty) was moving back into his corner office at the West end of the wing. However, Directing animator, Marc Davis was packing up and preparing to leave for his new assignment in Glendale. Apparently, Walt Disney had other plans for Mr. Davis. Ward Kimball decided not to return to D-wing even though he had completed his assignment creating films on space exploration. Kimball had decided to make the move to live-action films and he gave up his D-wing office to animator, John Kennedy. I moved into 1D-1, a large office near the front of the wing. The large space could easily accommodate several artists, but for the next few weeks I would be the only occupant of the sizable office. I regularly kept my office door open so I could see the “Old Men” as they arrived for work each day. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston arrived at the same time each day because the two had been “car pooling” long before the term was invented. On the other hand, Milt Kahl made an entrance characteristic of his expansive personality. The outer door would slam open with a loud bang as the tall Dutchman stomped down the corridor. When Milt Kahl arrived, everyone knew it.

Things were not totally unfamiliar in my new quarters. Stan Green had an office down the hallway and he remained Milt Kahl’s Key assistant on the new animated movie. I had briefly worked with Stan on Sleeping Beauty and we had an excellent relationship. Stan would be my buffer because he had already been working with Kahl a number of years. Before long, I received a call to pick up my first scene from The Sword in the Stone. For some reason I expected Stan to have given the scene a once over before handing it off to me. I was in for surprise, because Stan hadn’t even touched the scene. He simply handed me a stack of rough animation. I was given the rough animation of Milt Kahl, and my job was to finalize the scene. Before going further, let me explain the way we were working back in 1961 when animation had already made the move to Xerox. Since there was no longer any need for super tight clean-ups in a scene, the animation assistant could now work over the animator’s original drawings without the need to start with a clean sheet of paper. That meant I would be drawing (Oh, the horror) directly over Milt’s rough sketches. I probably sat at my desk for hours studying every Milt Kahl pose and attitude as well as his loose but confident sketches. Eventually, it was time to pick up my pencil and make a commitment. It was time to sink or swim. I’ve learned when you are afraid of something, you need to overcome the fear. You don’t run from it…you run toward it.
Milt Kahl usually scrutinized his scenes on the Moviola once they were returned from the Camera Department. He and Stan would run the clattering machine back and forth as they studied the animation. If Milt was satisfied he would turn the scene over to Music Room. That meant, director, Woolie Reitherman would cut the scene into the reel. In time, Walt Disney would gather with the animators in the Sweatbox to go over the scenes. Soon, several weeks had passed and I continued to clean-up (or should I say, touch-up) Milt Kahl’s inspired sketches. I heard not a word from the Master Animator and I considered this a good thing because Milt did not hide his disapproval. His welcomed silence meant I was doing my job to his satisfaction. When you work for Milt Kahl, it doesn’t get much better than that. 

So many memories of those marvelous days remain with me to this day. In time, I joined Milt Kahl in his office as we watched animation scenes on his Moviola. Milt took particular delight in the antics of the mad Madame Mim and he roared with laughter at his own animation. Clearly, Milt was good and he knew it. I remember our wonderful voice actors, Ricky Sorenson, Karl Swenson, Junius Matthews, Ginny Tyler and Norm Alden. I lived with their voices for two years and they felt like old friends. However, I remember the awesome opportunity to work with an Animation Master. I was taught how to create a solid drawing and how to imbue a character with life. All done without the benefit of technology, because we had none. Milt Kahl brought delightful characters to life using nothing but pencil, paper and a rich imagination. Say what you will about Disney animation, it doesn’t get much more magical than that.

I had the opportunity to work with Milt Kahl back in 1961. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I had the opportunity to work with Milt Kahl back in 1961. It doesn’t get much better than that.