View From a Disney Bench

This is my view as I’m sitting on a park bench outside the Animation Building at the Walt Disney Studio. It’s present day but the years long past are still in my head. I shared this bench with a number of Disney friends and colleagues over the 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 conversation. If you don’t know who Ollie Wallace is I’ll give you a hint. The composer scored dozens of Disney animated short cartoons and feature films. Ollie had a full head of assertive white hair much like the famous orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Well into his eighties, Ollie Wallace was always a joy to speak with. I also sat on this bench with Kay Silva. Kay was one of the many talented 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 had a great sense of humor and we would sit and joke as people walked past. Kay was due for open heart surgery back then and she took it all in stride. Sadly, Kay failed to survive the serious heart operation which has become routine in today’s world. Though she’s no longer with us my memories of Kay Silva remain fresh and clear as if it were yesterday.

As I sit on the park bench I suddenly realize behind me is the window of my very first Disney 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 run by Ruthie Thompson and Bob Ferguson. 102 years of age, 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 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 Disney. Luckily, we all made the cut and most of our group stayed in animation the remainder of our careers. Bob Ray eventually departed for a better paying gig and Stan Chin left for an advertising career in New York. The rest of us managed to do okay. Rick Gonzales became a top character designer at Ruby-Spears and Dave Michener became a story artist, animator and director. Tom Dagenais kept his word and left the drawing board for a writing gig 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 even became a professor at a Midwestern university before returning to cartoon world and wrapping up his career at the Walt Disney Studios where it began so many years ago.

As I sit on this park bench I realize much has changed over the past fifty 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. However, in 2016 animation has become big time, big business and Disney’s recent movies have netted billions. That’s a good thing, I suppose. Yet, somehow I just can’t seem to get excited about it. I keep remembering the nineteen fifties, Walt Disney, and the enchanting business that used to be filled with magic.

My view from a park bench at the Walt Disney Studio, 2016. It would appear nothing at the studio has changed. In reality... everything has.

My view from a park bench at the Walt Disney Studio, 2016. It would appear nothing at the studio has changed. In reality... everything has.