Blaine Gibson's Mermaid

I’ve told this story before and it always guarantees a laugh. Plus, it’s an insightful look inside the delightful Walt Disney Studios of the nineteen sixties and two of the men who worked there. Animator, Blaine Gibson and Roy Geyser, the head of the moving department. The Old Maestro, Walt Disney had discovered his talented animator, Blaine Gibson had a gift for sculpting. Lacking formal training, the Disney animator developed his skills while enjoying sculpting as a hobby and a break from his animation chores. Of course, this was long before Gibson became part of the core team and a valuable member of Walt Disney’s Imagineers.

Walt was considering an update to one of his underwater attractions and he needed a sculpture of a beautiful mermaid. Assisted by fellow animator, Jack Fergis, Blaine Gibson was given a large office in the Animation Building’s B-Wing. Oddly enough, 1B-1 was the very same office where I began my Disney career back in the fifties. Blaine and Jack immediately moved into the office and began work on their Mermaid sculpture. It was a large piece and would require a good deal of work. The two artists worked dilligently in order to complete the job on time. After all, this was for the boss himself, and nobody wanted anything to go wrong. Before long, the mermaid sculpture was completed and all of us animation artists headed over to 1B-1 to have a look. Blaine and Jack had done a fine job and Walt Disney was certain to be pleased.

Roy Geyser, was a short, burly little guy who headed up the team of movers on the Walt Disney studio lot. For the most part, Roy and his crew moved the massive Kem Webber animation desks from room to room in the Animation Building. On occasion, they might have to move a large item to the workshops on the studio back lot. Such was the case this busy day. Geyser and his team arrived in the Animation Building that afternoon and carefully moved the large sculpture onto a dolly. They wheeled the beautiful mermaid down the hallway and through the exterior doors of the Animation Building. It was then something horrible happened. Roy Geyser and his team of movers watched in horror as the massive sculpture began to tip to the side and fall (in what seemed like slow motion) to the ground below. It was a disaster of biblical proportions as Blaine Gibson’s beautiful mermaid crumbled into what seemed like a thousand pieces. I can only imagine what must have been going through Roy’s head that dreadful afternoon. He and his team had just destroyed a beautiful sculpture by two well respected Disney artists. Worse, the sculpture was being prepared for the boss, Walt Disney. Could things possibly be any worse?

They might have been had Roy Geyser worked anywhere except the Walt Disney Studio. When Blaine Gibson and Jack Fergis heard the “tragic” news, they practically fell off their chairs with laughter. Walt Disney wasn’t even upset and the Old Maestro advised the movers to take a little more time when they had something delicate to move. Finally, Blaine Gibson laughed that he was glad his sculpture was destroyed because he wanted to do it over again anyway. As expected, Blaine and Jack’s next iteration was indeed better than the first, and Walt Disney was delighted with the final result. Most important of all, Roy Geyser and his team of movers were probably truly grateful they worked for a man named, Walt Disney.

I was there the day Blaine Gibson's beautiful mermaid sculpture was reduced to rubble. Only at Disney.

I was there the day Blaine Gibson's beautiful mermaid sculpture was reduced to rubble. Only at Disney.

Don't Bug Me

Back in the nineties our little artistic group was tasked with a special assignment. Create a program that would focus on the environment and use the Disney characters to sell the idea. Naturally, this program would utilize multiple mediums and would be adaptable for film, print and other mediums. It was a pretty big deal so no expense was spared and our team spent nearly six months developing the program. What characters would we use, we wondered? One of our clever team members came up with a brilliant suggestion. Why not go back to the forties and use a Disney character most people had forgotten ever existed. Plus, the organic nature of the cartoon world would fit perfectly into our environmental theme. Perhaps you Disney geeks have already guessed that character was, “Bucky Bug.”

I remember reading Bucky Bug as a child and being continually delighted with the cute bug characters and the wonderful miniature world in which they lived. The Bucky Bug stories appeared in the Dell publication, Walt Disney Comics and Stories. This was a monthly comic book that was required reading for kids like me who were infatuated with all things Disney. The cartoonists and comic book writers took advantage of the wonderful bug environment that utilized cast offs from the human world as well as items from their natural surroundings. Rather than appearing gross and icky, these bug characters were perfect Disney character designs that were delightfully charming and cute. This is something I consider critical when telling stories about a bug world. Perhaps I should explain this idea further. Back in the day, when old timers like myself sat in meetings with Walt Disney, there was one thing the Old Maestro continued to emphasize. Though story was important — the characters were critical. Should our characters fail to resonate with the audience there was no way the story was going to save our bacon. Therefore, Walt disney hammered into us the importance of having appealing characters if our movie or print story was going to be successful.

Naturally, this brings to mind two animated films that were produced some years ago and the fact that both motion pictures only enjoyed moderate success. What was the weakness, you ask? Both films were well written and produced and both had well developed characters. However, both animated films had bugs as protagonists and unfortunately bugs aren’t all that appealing. The Disney writers and artists knew this as far back as the forties and that explains why Walt Disney’s “Bucky Bug” had that corny, sweet Disney design. That design sensibility does more than simply make Bucky Bug a Disney character. The design makes him appealing. And when it comes to character design, appeal is everything. With all due respect, I found the characters in DreamWorks “Antz” and Pixar Animation Studios “A Bug’s Life” somewhat icky. I would venture to guess the audience had the same reaction. After all, both animated films are well made and should have had more box office success. Heck, the Pixar film was totally charming at times, and the movie should have entranced audiences. I remember the film being in production when I arrived at Pixar Animation Studios in the late nineties and since that time it’s my least watched Pixar movie. Why was that, I wondered? Oh, yeah. The main characters are insects and insects just ain’t that loveable. “Ant Bully,” anyone?

Sometimes the answer is staring us right in the face and we simply don’t see it. I used to chat late weekend evenings with Disney Legend, Ward Kimball about the wonderful Disney character, he designed for Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio.” Ward said the design answer was to make the bug look nothing like a bug. Jiminy Cricket is still adored today and it’s easy to see the reason why. That’s why I regret the Walt Disney Company decided to pass on our environmental program back in the nineties. We were eager to bring back Bucky Bug because we knew audiences would fall in love with the little critter all over again. We were anticipating a Toy bug’s world and other spin offs from the Disney comic book stories. After all, Bucky was a delightful Disney character that would have easily resonated with today’s audiences as much as he did in the forties. It was an important lesson the veteran Disney artists learned decades ago. If you’re going to draw a bug cartoon character — make darn sure he doesn’t look like a bug.

The nineteen forties Disney character nearly returned to the public in the nineties. We found Bucky Bug  cute and charming, however Disney had other ideas.

The nineteen forties Disney character nearly returned to the public in the nineties. We found Bucky Bug  cute and charming, however Disney had other ideas.

My Disney Scrapbook

Back in the old days before computers, ipads and iphones became the popular storage medium, young kids like myself had scrapbooks. You could pick one up at at the local five and dime and build your own memories and dreams in the privacy of your bedroom. Animation had become my passion and as a young middle schooler I searched high and low for any scrap of information about the cartoon business. Amazingly enough, I found these published treasures in the most unlikely of places. Articles about the Walt Disney Studios appeared in a number of magazines back in the fifties and those magazines were usually in the dentist or doctor’s reception rooms. I flipped through movie fanzines and weekly periodicals looking for anything on animation. Thankfully, the magazines were so darn old, I actually found a Life Magazine article featuring the hot new Walt Disney animation feature film entitled, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Can you begin to imagine how long that magazine had been in the doctors office? Yikes! The film was released in the thirties, for heavens sake.

No matter. These newspaper and magazine articles were printed treasures for a kid like myself. After all, there were precious few places a young artist could find information about the animated cartoon business. Many of our elders considered animation a special kind of magic created by a man named, Disney. Most never gave a thought that these magical motion pictures were actually created by talented, young (most were back then) men and women. Working in animation was hardly considered a real job and most older people thought it wise that I focus my attention on a vocation that would pay the rent. Undeterred, I continued my search for animated articles and any scrap of information I could dig up about the wonderful world of animation.

In the photograph below you’ll see a page from my ancient scrapbook that features an article from a Hollywood fan magazine. This is only one of the many acticles I dug up back in the early fifties that took us inside the magical facility known as the Walt Disney Studios. Naturally, the Hollywood Studios used such excursions to the Disney Studios as a device to build a media profile for their budding young actors and actresses. In this particular case, we see a young Farley Granger and Phyllis Kirk as they tour the various departments of Walt’s magic factory. In the black & white photos we see a young Eric Larson as he explains the animation process. In another shot, director, Hamilton Luske stands on a stool as he explains Disney’s story development techniques. Naturally, these visits often included cute photo moments as the attractive young actors try their hand at painting a cartoon animation cel. It may have simply been a job for the young Hollywood couple, but it provided special acess for a kid who had never seen the inside of a cartoon studio. That’s why these articles were pasted in my special cartoon scrapbook so I could view them over and over again.

If you’re as old as I am, you may very well have had a scrapbook of your own. A kid’s scrapbook was the special repository of his or her dreams and aspirations, and they helped us continually focus on our ultimate goals. I still have my scrapbook today and it remains a treasure. Naturally, I still flip through the pages and remember what it was like being a twelve year old kid with lofty dreams. Dreams that I knew would one day be realized.

An attractive young Hollywood couple tour the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties. Thankfully, it provided an inside tour for me as well.

An attractive young Hollywood couple tour the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties. Thankfully, it provided an inside tour for me as well.

Man's World

What were we doing back in 1957? We were hard at work crafting Walt Disney’s most ambitous animated motion picture, “Sleeping Beauty” and reading Playboy magazine. Has Playboy been around that long, you ask? I guess it has. As I recall, there were copies all over the studio back then. Hardly a concern for Human Resources because there was no Human Resources back in the fifties. What would be considered a “hostile work place” today was simply taken in stride. It was the era that slightly preceeded the years that the television show, “Mad Men” would one day examine. Smoking, drinking and other office hanky-panky would be considered quite normal in the fifties. It was truly another time and another world.

I’ve often spoken about the number of young women working in animation back in the fifties. Today, we continue to hear the same names over and over again. Certainly, the amazing talents of Mary Blair, Retta Scott and others should not be ignored. However, there were scores of women artists working in the Animation Building back in the fifties. And, not just in animation, although animation could boast the largest number. I would venture to guess women would have probably played a larger role in Disney animation had it not been for the Sleeping Beauty layoffs. When the massive Sleeping Beauty staff was decimated in late 1959, many men and women left Walt Disney Productions never to return. Had things been different, I would wager many of these talented young women would have eventually climbed the ladder to more important positions. We’ll never know, of course. The late fifties layoffs put an abrupt end to the artistic growth at the Disney Studio. Growth, in terms of staff in any case. It would be at least another two decades before we would see female artists return to the Walt Disney Studio in significent numbers.

Back in 1957 the chances were pretty good you could be having your Sleeping Beauty drawings checked by a woman. As I said, there were a fair number of female assistant animators assigned to the film. It would appear that women, along with their ability to focus on intricate detail were perfect for a motion picture as complex as “Sleeping Beauty.” Male artists frustrated with drawings where the weight of an eyelash was considered important often deferred to the skill and patience of their female colleagues. After all, “Sleeping Beauty” had been the most intricate and detailed film we had ever done. It was an animated motion picture perfectly suited to the unique sensibilities inherent in most women artists. I hope this is not coming off as sounding sexist. The woman were just darn good at doing this job, and Directing Animator, Marc Davis was grateful to have women such as, Mary Anderson, Fran Marr and Doris Collins following him as he animated Briar Rose.

As I said, it was another world at the Walt Disney Studio back in 1957. While many might say it was a “Man’s World” back then, I might quickly add that it was a man’s world where women played a very important role.

Young Rick Gonzales and Floyd take a break from their chores on Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

Young Rick Gonzales and Floyd take a break from their chores on Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty.