Days of Disney Past

Sleeping Beauty continued to move through production back in the fifties but progress remained slow. Walt Disney was preoccupied with His new theme park and getting his attention was often difficult. Unlike today’s production schedules, the studio simply pushed Sleeping Beauty’s finish date ahead another year when making the release date seemed improbable. Sleeping Beauty had already spanned a number of years, but it did provide something positive. It was a great training ground for young animation artists beginning a career at Disney. The animation department seemed eager to assemble finest draftsmen and women in the industry and marginal talents need not apply.

Our clean-up team often worked late and one evening we wandered into a story room on the third floor. The storyboards were completed, stacked and ready to show to Walt Disney. Much to our surprise, the veteran storyman invited us into his office to view the sequence. Better yet, the storyman performed the climatic battle sequence for our little group. Suddenly, the phonograph filled the room with dramatic music by the composer, Tchaikovsky. The enthusiastic story artist used his pointer as a sword as he leaped from desk to chair acting out the role of Prince Philip fighting the dragon. There was little doubt the Walt Disney studio staff had tremendous creative energy. Each of us returned to our desks that evening with renewed enthusiasm for the movie we were making.

I began doing my studio animation jokes in the early sixties. Nobody was drawing funny gags back then and I hated to see the passing of a long standing Disney tradition. Animation production had undergone a number of changes and the animation staff was just a shadow of what it had been earlier. Walt was now tooling around the studio lot in a little electric cart that included a Nixon/Lodge bumper sticker. His thoughts were on the Mineral King winter resort project in the Sierras, along with a much larger theme park in Orlando Florida. Walt’s son in law, Ron Miller took on a larger role in the company and the Walt Disney television shows were now being broadcast in color.

Of course, there were a number of amusing things that happened during this time. One day, a little old woman in a horse and wagon arrived at the studio main gate. It appeared the woman, who must have been in her seventies had traveled miles to personally deliver a manuscript to Walt Disney. Naturally, any other studio boss would have ignored the odd, quirky incident. However, Walt Disney was not that kind of gentleman. The Old Maestro left his office and walked out to the main gate to meet with the strange little woman. After the incident, I spoke briefly with Walt Disney as he made his way back to his office. He chuckled and remarked, “The world is full of peculiar people.” Yet, Walt Disney’s simple gesture impressed me. Can you imagine any CEO doing that today?

Rumors of gloom and doom continued to permeate the company as each successive animated feature wound down. It appeared, every film I worked on was going to be the last. It was rumored that Walt was going shut the whole thing down and just build theme parks. I must admit however, that the canceling of a proposed feature, “Chanticleer” and the selling of dozens of animation desks did not inspire confidence in a secure future. In spite of my own and everyone else’s worries, I enjoyed doing a number of Walt Disney cartoon gags as he fired everyone.
Animation artists are a hardy sort, and most continued to plunge ahead in spite of an uncertain future. The artists organized an outdoor art show to prove that creativity was alive and well at the Walt Disney Studio. Included in the show was a large printed poster that read: “To Walt with appreciation.” Some joked that it was the only painting in the show Walt really liked.

Every day provided more fodder for jokes as Disney’s animators and directors deliberated over the darndest things. What would be the shape of Winnie the Pooh’s hands, and would he have a thumb? Would Ravi Shankar provide sitar music for “The Jungle Book” or would it simply be standard western music? With Walt Disney in charge, my material for gags seemed endless. Would it be another disastrous story meeting, or Walt agonizing through one of his filmed television show lead in's out on the sound stage? It was the mid-sixties and in many ways the end of an era. Mary Poppins was a big hit, the Nine Old Men were in their prime, and Walt Disney showed no signs of slowing down. With a few exceptions, I made no attempt to save all the cartoons I drew during this time. There must be a ton of stuff I’ve probably lost or forgotten. This was pre Xerox, and nobody thought much about saving anything. If I had all the cels and animation drawings we threw out, I’d be rich today.

In an attempt to impress the Old Maestro back in the sixties, the Disney artists launched a huge art exhibit on the studio lot. I think Walt only liked one painting.

In an attempt to impress the Old Maestro back in the sixties, the Disney artists launched a huge art exhibit on the studio lot. I think Walt only liked one painting.