Remembering Vance Gerry

When we arrived at the Walt Disney Studio as young apprentices back in the 1950s, much of Walt's “Brain Trust” still labored in the upstairs story rooms. The story men, as they were called back then, were Disney's elite, and their names are legendary. Bill Peet, Winston Hibler, Ralph Wright, Milt Banta, Ed Penner and Joe Rinaldi still retained offices on the third floor of the Animation Building. Of course, there were many others - such as Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi, Otto Englander, Dave Dietege and Bill Berg – who wrote mainly for television. It seemed everybody wanted to get into Disney's story department back in the nineteen fifties. I found this rather odd since so many of Walt's old story guys were still occupying the second & third floors of the Animation Building on Buena Vista Street. Still, Disney was on a roll and the new medium of television brought with it an increased demand for story material. I had many friends who were eager to leave the drawing board and become writers. A few of the younger guys actually got a shot at story, although most didn't pan out. However, one guy showed he had a flair for story and could actually hold his own with the older guys. His name was Vance Gerry.

Most of us avoided the upstairs story rooms at the Walt Disney Studio. Storymen were a grumpy sort who preferred not being disturbed. Uninvited visits to their disheveled offices were not recommended, which is why most of us did our prowling either at noontime or after hours. Vance Gerry was an exception. Vance was a mellow young man totally without pretense. Though he was an exceptional story artist even back then, Vance never gave the impression anything he did merited special attention. He was simply doing his job, and he was always generous with his time whenever dumb young kids like us came to visit. Though I admired the Disney story artists, I never entertained the thought of becoming one. I was simply grateful that we had guys like Vance developing the ideas we might one day bring to life on the animation drawing board. Life is full of surprises, and one day I found myself packing up my office in 1D-1 and moving upstairs to C-Wing to work on “The Jungle Book.” Exactly, the how and why remains a mystery to this day. However, it appears the person who gave the order had considerable clout and none dare question him. One Monday morning I found myself seated directly across from my new mentor, Vance Gerry. Disney storytelling 101 was about to begin. As I said earlier, Vance Gerry was a very relaxed guy with his own distinctive style. He had a sweater draped over his shoulders preppy style, and he often wore saddle shoes. On this particular morning, Vance sat at his desk reading the newspaper, as I wondered what the heck I was supposed to do.

Story development is a very complicated process - or so I'm told. However, this morning, Vance Gerry made doing the work of a Disney story artist seem deceptively simple. “Larry's going to bring us an outline,” said Vance as he glanced over his newspaper. “We're going to flesh it out, and make it funny. After that, we'll show it to Woolie.” For those not familiar with sixties Disney, Woolie was our director, Wolfgang Reitherman. “What happens after that,” I inquired? “Then we pitch the whole thing to Walt,” Vance remarked casually. “He'll either love it or hate it, and then we'll start the whole process over again. That's what I loved about Vance Gerry. His whole approach to Disney story telling was so uncomplicated. In an era when young story artists pontificate endlessly about their story telling prowess, Vance was an intuitive story teller who seem to allow the story to flow out of him. When we questioned Vance about his technique, he would say, "I like to create a drawing or painting, and then 'dream' into it.” This is truly the essence of Disney visual story telling, and Vance Gerry was able to sum the whole thing up brilliantly.

When it came time to pitch to The Old Maestro, most writers and story artists would break out in a cold sweat. It was understood that a pitch before Walt could either launch or end your career depending on how it was received by the studio boss. Such was not the case with Vance Gerry. His pitching style never changed whether he was describing a storyboard to a bunch of geeky young artists or the Old Maestro himself. As you probably already know, Walt Disney couldn't stand blowhards and phonies. Having a guy as sincere as Vance Gerry pitch the storyboard already put us in the winner's column. Walt Disney passed away late in 1966, and “The Jungle Book” was successfully released in 1967. Vance often talked about his surprise at the movie's success, and how audiences still adored it decades later. In an era where we often hear the mantra, “Story is King,” it was no less than Walt Disney himself who scolded us for “worrying too much about the story.” Clearly, story is an important component to any successful film, but it surely isn't the only one.

I never knew much about Vance Gerry’s personal life, and I visited his home on the Pasadena arroyo only once in our longtime relationship. I met his wife, Mary only after his passing, and I was pleased to be chosen to present her with her husband’s Lifetime Achievement Award at an Animation Ceremony some years ago. By the late eighties, Animation was going through another transition, and I couldn’t help but feel Vance was growing weary with the continuing flip flops in the department. Walt had been gone for over a decade, and now most of the “old guys” were heading for retirement. The Disney studio had a new management, and even though Vance was extremely prolific, few took an interest in his story ideas. The new guys seemed more interested in creating their own legacy, and the work Vance was doing was perceived as being, “old fashioned.” In time, Vance Gerry retired from the Walt Disney Studio to pursue his passion of Letterpress printing. He founded Weather Bird Press with longtime friend Patrick Roeh, but the two of them never got around to signing the legal documents drawn up by their attorney. No matter. The two of them continued printing impressive limited editions for several years. Even though he had retired from the Walt Disney Company, Vance continued to come into work one day a week. I do not kid you when I say Vance accomplished more in one day than the rest of us did in a week.

Vance Gerry personified old school Disney. He didn't care for scripts because he found them too restricting. “A script tells you too much,” said Vance. “I'd rather start earlier that than that and look for possibilities for animation and entertainment, rather than story element or structure. I won't bother listing all the films and projects Vance Gerry contributed to during his years at the Walt Disney studio. I will say an era of Disney storytelling came to a close with his passing, and I doubt Disney will ever be the same again.

The incredible Vance Gerry. An exceptional storyteller who seldom lost his cool. And, that even included pitching to the Old Maestro, Walt Disney. Vance represents a style of Disney storytelling I doubt we'll ever see again.

The incredible Vance Gerry. An exceptional storyteller who seldom lost his cool. And, that even included pitching to the Old Maestro, Walt Disney. Vance represents a style of Disney storytelling I doubt we'll ever see again.