It was break time at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and most artists gathered for coffee and conversation in the Animation Building. Our little group sat in what was the former office of Disney Legend, Marc Davis. Marc had long since abandoned his animation space for a new position over in Glendale. In any case, the office provided a place for relaxed conversation and a welcome break from our animation assignments. Suddenly, the door swung open and one of the veteran Disney animators, a older guy named, John sprang into the room. “We’ve finally done it!” He smiled. “We’ve sold the house and bought one of those new things they call, Condos. My wife and I are going to kick back and enjoy life. But, first, we’re going to travel the world. I’ve been looking forward to this retirement for a long time.”
You may find this odd, but my first thoughts were, why would anyone want to retire from the animation business? Why was John so eager to put down his animation drawing pencil and pursue a life of leisure? Keep in mind I was a young animation artist barely beginning my cartooning career at the Walt Disney Studios. Even as a lowly assistant I considered myself a very lucky kid although my vision was probably somewhat obscured by the considerable amount of pixie dust in my eyes. I thought about John’s upcoming retirement. He was an animator who had labored many years in Walt’s cartoon factory. Much like an old gunfighter, he was hanging up his six guns and riding off into the sunset. Plus, he honestly appeared to be excited about it. However, my thoughts were pretty much the thoughts of a naive kid. Why on earth, I wondered, would anybody want to retire from the best job in the world?
Okay, I can understand that some would be eager to travel. After all, what’s more fun than seeing the world and all its wonders. However, you don’t have to retire to do that. Actually, it’s a good deal more fun to do it while you’re young. My pal, Jim Fletcher advised friends not to wait until retirement before traveling. It’s a lot more fun to explore exotic places that require a good deal of walking and climbing when you’re a young man or woman. Physical stamina is a requirement should you really want to see the world. I recently enjoyed an extended walking tour of Sydney Australia and I did my fair share of wheezing along the way. And, I’m in better physical condition than most my age. You don’t have to retire to travel. Fletcher traveled throughout Europe, Africa and South America while taking breaks from his full time animation job. He proved that travel does not necessarily demand retirement.
Over the years I learned that true retirement is when you leave the job on your own terms. Many Walt Disney animation artists left the cartoon business to become successful painters or sculptors. However, there are always those who surprise you. Another celebrated Disney background painter left the studio because he wanted to grow apples. His dream of retirement was an apple orchard. Who knew? Finally, the veterans who puzzled me the most were the retirees who simply craved a life of leisure. I’m certain I’m not a normal person because nothing drives me nuts more than having nothing to do. I remember a fall vacation in the high sierras where the air was clear and the scenery was breathtaking. While our kids played outside I sat in the bedroom of our mountain cabin working on a film script. Unlike most normal people, instead of enjoying my vacation, I couldn’t wait to get back to work. Even though many years had passed, I never loss my passion for working and the challenge of solving problems. I remember trying to explain my quirky attitude to a Disney senior vice president who mistakenly thought I was having difficulty on the job. The executive couldn’t seem to wrap his head around my declaration that of all the challenges in my life, my job was actually the easiest.
Now, you probably have some idea why I was so bummed when Disney showed me the door some years ago. I had spent a lifetime learning my craft and preparing myself for more responsibilities. I had also invested in building a degree of financial security and my compensation reflected many years of climbing the studio ladder. Imagine the horror of having that financial ladder swept out from under you. It appears a corporate system decides exactly how long one should work and when it’s appropriate to relocate to the convalescent facility. I fumed in my backyard for a number of weeks before I decided I needed to return to work on my own terms. Twenty years have passed since that fateful decision. In that time, I’ve worked on several feature animated movies, television shows and special projects. I’ve appeared in a feature length documentary and lectured at universities across the country. I consider it interesting that when the Disney Company thought my career had come to a close…it was only just beginning. Of course, I’m well aware the way business works today. I should have known after experiencing my first dose of agism at Disney Animation in the early seventies. After a delightful experience on the film, “Bednobs and Broomsticks,” I decided to stick around for the next feature film. It would be an animated adaptation of, “Robin Hood.’ Much to my surprise I found I was hardly welcomed into Disney’s animation training program at the time. My age was the reason I would be excluded from the program. How old was I, you ask? I was thirty-eight years old, and my animation career was hardly over.
I can’t help but think back to that quiet summer afternoon at the Walt Disney Studios decades ago. A D-wing coffee break where a veteran Disney animator was ready to put down his pencil and ride off into the sunset. Bless that old gentleman and his plans for the future. I hope he and his wife enjoyed a lovely retirement along with some fond Disney memories. As for me, I remain at the Walt Disney Company today. As always, defying convention, defying the rules and defying damn near everything else. I haven’t retired from the business I love, and I never will.