Let’s pretend I’m writing a biography and I take you back to the days before I began my career at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. My first visit to Disney took place a few days after my high school graduation. A dear Santa Barbara friend, named Gordon Wormal had a connection inside the Disney Studio and I was given a rare Saturday morning interview. After a look at my humble portfolio and a brief, yet friendly chat I was given some good advice. “Kid,” the Disney people advised, “Go to art school and first learn how to be an artist.”
The advice was sound. After all, I thought I knew a thing or two about drawing and painting after being one of the better artists in my high school art class. That smugness quickly came to an end once I began my studies at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Art Center College of Design had a reputation for being one of the finest art schools in the country. Its graduates usually went on to illustrious careers in automotive design, illustration, and photography. I remember arriving at school on a Saturday afternoon for my student orientation. In the no nonsense introduction to the school the instructors promised nothing but hard work. A career in commercial art was to be taken seriously. The speakers made it clear that Art Center College of Design was not a babysitting service for rich kids. Should you expose yourself as a slacker, you risked the chance of being unceremoniously booted out of the prestigious institution. Then again, things were different in the fifties. Today, many “art schools” are only too happy to collect the fat tuitions paid by well–heeled parents. The kids may eventually gain art degrees but sadly most are only marginal when it comes to talent.
Attending Art Center was an incredible experience. The school was located on Third Street in the fashionable Hancock Park area of Los Angeles. Money was tight and I didn’t own an automobile. The Red Car still ran in those days and it was my connection between east and west Los Angeles. I then took a trolley up Vermont Avenue to Third Street. It was very efficient and cost very little. Did oil companies really conspire to put an end this effective method of public transportation? Some seem to think so. Not long after, the Red Cars and trolleys were trashed and the rails ripped out of the city streets. Today, Los Angeles remains snarled in traffic and at the moment there appears to be no solution in sight. In any event, I arrived early on my first day of school with my big green toolbox full of art supplies. I remember the audible “gasp” in my first life drawing class when the shapely female model dropped her robe and stood before us in the altogether. In time, these things would become routine as we settled into our studies and the serious business of becoming a proficient commercial artist began. I sat next to many students who would go on to successful careers in the art world. One of my classmates was the soft spoken, Ralph McQuarrie. McQuarrie was the amazing illustrator and concept artist who would one day visualize the "Star Wars" universe for George Lucas. He was a brilliant artist and I had little doubt he would go on to a successful career.
One weekend we were shocked to read about a terrible murder in Los Angeles. Suddenly, it appeared that real life had taken on the appearance of a sleazy pulp novel or television crime show. The police were investigating the death of a young woman. The woman was employed by our school and lived in the nearby Wilshire district of Los Angeles. A party celebrating the completion of a painting by one of the students was held at her home that weekend. Eager to garner headlines, the newspapers concocted a name for the crime and tried to fold the Art Center painting into the narrative. Of course, one thing had nothing to do with the other. In time it was proven that the painting by the art student had absolutely nothing to do with the woman’s untimely death. Such was the crime scene in fifties Los Angeles.
I continued on at Art Center College of Design and took classes in illustration, painting and perspective. Remember, no one taught animation in those days. The cartoon business, including Disney Studios, was hardly respected as a real job. Yet, the most important lesson I learned at Art Center College of Design was discipline. We were not only taught to be artists - we were taught to be professionals. Professionals did solid work and delivered it on time. We attended Art Center College of Design to learn how to earn a living. Free spirits waiting for the muse to strike had clearly come to the wrong place. I never did earn a degree at Art Center College of Design. While waiting to begin my third year, I received a phone call from The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. However, that’s another story.