Should you be one of the lucky boys and girls born recently, a look back at the nineteen fifties probably seems like a view of ancient history. In some ways I guess it is exactly that. As a twenty something just beginning my animation career I felt pretty much like a kid myself. It was a time few seldom remember as we try to navigate the complexities of todays world. There’s always nostalgia about the past, I suppose. But, I’ll have to confess the world we lived in, though not without its social problems, appeared to be a more stable place. Free from domestic and world problems we were able to concentrate on silly stuff such as the meeting of a prince and princess in a forest glen or focus on the sketching of little squirrels and bunny rabbits hopping underfoot.
It was my second year on the Walt Disney animated feature film, “Sleeping Beauty.” Our animation clean-up team consisting of Freddy Hellmich, Chuck Williams, Jim Fletcher and Bob Reese had moved from our temporary second floor digs to permanent quarters in G-wing on the first floor of the Animation Building. As an aside, this is the present location of actor, Edward James Olmos’ production company. However, more on that later. In any event, work proceeded slowly as we fine tuned the piles of rough animation stacked on our shelves. Though you’ve probably read a good deal about Disney’s Nine Old Men, there were many other animators on the film, and it was our responsibility to clean up their scenes. There were scenes animated by Hal Ambro, Hank Tanous, Don Lusk, George Nicholas, Ken O’Brien, John Sibley and Harvey Toombs to name a few. It had been a long, hard year, but hardly unpleasant. Unlike today, the Disney artists had private offices and more than a degree of privacy. Even a lowly clean-up artist like myself had a private office that not only included an animation drawing board, but a desk and lounge chair as well. I honestly can’t think of a better time to be working at Walt Disney Productions. The year was 1958 and all was well with the world. At least it was in our little world.
Freddy Hellmich’s clean-up crew continued to work away at their drawing boards as the sunny day began to move toward late afternoon. Suddenly clouds rolled in and the sky began to grow dark. Think about a Walt Disney movie when ominous music fills the air and light suddenly turns to dark. Little animals scamper for cover and you know a storm is on the horizon. It was then, brilliant lightning flashed across the sky and the roar of thunder appeared to shake the Animation Building to its foundation. More than one artist left their drawing tables and ran to the window to peer at the sky. “What the heck! Where did this come from?” One artist exclaimed, totally taken aback by the storm that appeared to come out of nowhere. Rain suddenly came down in torrents and several artists who drove convertibles left their drawing boards and sprinted to the parking lot. Employees who were caught outside in the storm hastily scampered for cover. What’s so unusual about an afternoon rainstorm, you might ask? Nothing, I would imagine if you lived in the midwest. However, this was Southern California, and such a freak storm was considered unusual. In any case we thought it was. Moments passed and the pouring rain began to diminish in strength. Darkness turned to light as the clouds suddenly began to part. Magically, if I dare use the word, it appeared the storm was over.
Many years have passed since that strange afternoon at the Walt Disney Studios back in 1958 and the unusual storm that ended as suddenly as it began. How it began and how it ended so suddenly remains a mystery even to this day. However, there are rumors, though unsubstantiated that a lone individual was seen on the rooftop of the Animation Building that late afternoon. An individual that some say was none other than, the boss. That’s correct. I’m referring to the old maestro himself, Walt Disney.