I’m sitting on a park bench outside the Animation Building at the Walt Disney Studio. Even though it’s present day and the year is 2015, the years of Disney long past are still rattling around in my head. I shared this studio bench with a number of Walt Disney Studio friends and colleagues over a period of years and the first name that comes to mind is famed Disney composer, Oliver Wallace. Ollie and I would sit on this bench at break time and enjoy a pleasant morning conversation. If you don’t know who Ollie Wallace is I’ll give you a hint. The gifted composer scored several dozens of Disney animated short cartoons and feature films. Ollie had a full head of assertive white hair and the studio musician could even be mistaken for the famous orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Well into his eighties, Ollie Wallace was always a delight to speak with. However, there were others as well. I also sat on this studio bench with Kay Silva. Kay was one of the many talented young women working at the Walt Disney Studios back in the fifties and one of the many female artists you’ll never read about. As I’ve often said, few people realize how many women worked here and the important role they played in the making of animated films. Kay Silva had a great sense of humor and we would sit and joke as people walked past. Sadly, the young artist had health issues and was due for open heart surgery. Unlike today, open heart surgery was considered very serious stuff back then, but Kay took it all in stride. Sadly, I would not enjoy her company again because she never survived the operation. An operation that in today’s world has become pretty much routine. Though the talented artist is no longer with us, my memories of Kay Silva remain fresh and clear as if it were yesterday.
While sitting on the park bench I suddenly realize that behind me is the window of my very first Disney studio office. Back in February of 1956 a group of young artists were taking their first shot at becoming Disney animators. We would have a month of training before the decision was made to keep us - or let us go. The seven young hopefuls were put in a large office in B-Wing, the very same office directly behind me. Of course, there were many Disney artists who occupied 1B-1 over the years. Back in the sixties, Blaine Gibson and Jack Fergis sculpted mermaids for Disneyland in the very same space. In the seventies, the office was the home of Disney Animation Scene Planning and was presided over by the amazing Disney Legend, Ruthie Thompson and her associate, Bob Ferguson. A remarkable trouper at age 103, Ruthie Thompson is still with us today.
My memories of Walt Disney Studios past is a long time ago and yet it still seems like yesterday. I can even remember the names of my pals and colleagues and the large studio office we shared. Tom Yakutis, Tom Dagenais, Rick Gonzales, David Michener, Jack Foster, Bob Ray and Stan Chin were my seven comrades hoping for a job at Walt Disney Studios. Luckily, we all made the cut and most of our group stayed in animation for the remainder of our careers. Our pal, Bob Ray eventually departed Disney for a better paying gig and Stan Chin left for an advertising career in New York. The rest of the motley crew managed to do allright. Rick Gonzales became a top character designer at Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears studios and Dave Michener became a story artist, animator and director. Tom Dagenais kept his word and left the drawing board and became a screenwriter because it paid a good deal more than drawing for a living. Tom heard that writers were better compensated for their work, so he carved out a new path for himself. The very funny and talented Tom Yakutis continued to surprise us and even became a college professor at a Midwestern university before returning to cartoon world many years later. Tom managed to wrap up his remarkable career at the Walt Disney Studios where it began so many years ago.
As I sit on this studio park bench today I realize much has changed over the past sixty plus years and the Walt Disney Studio is hardly the same company it was back in 1956. Although animation’s future has never looked more promising, it’s hardly the same business I entered back in the fifties when cartoon making was considered an odd, quirky and unstable profession. Today, animation has become big time and big business. Disney’s recent movies have already netted billion of dollars and the future of animation looks bright. That’s a good thing, I suppose. Yet, somehow I just can’t seem to get excited about the whole darn thing. Am I an old-timer stuck in the past? Why do I keep remembering the nineteen fifties when hardly anyone knew about this goofy little business? Walt Disney Animation was once a dynamic, enchanting enterprise filled with wonder and magic. Now, we just make money.