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I spend more time correcting information about Disney history than I do researching and writing Disney stories. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and some of it will just not disappear, despite all the facts and documentation that dispute the falsehood.


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While it irritates me, it irritates me even more when that misinformation is used to take money from unsuspecting people. For a while, in the late 1980s, beside my regular job, I teamed with my friend and former writing partner John Cawley (then the associate producer of the television series Garfield and Friends and many equally impressive credits) to form a company called Korkis and Cawley's Cartoon and Comic Company.

Basically, in the days before Amazon and eBay, we sold through mail order and, at conventions, animation-related material like artwork, books, videos, toys, etc. To replenish our stock, we would often buy items. One time a person came up offering to sell us an original model sheet of Bugs Bunny drawn by Walt Disney.

We pointed out that Bugs Bunny was not a Disney character but Warner Brothers. In addition, by the time Bugs Bunny debuted, Walt was not actively drawing. The person could not be convinced. He had bought the piece from a "reputable" dealer who had told him the story. The dealer might have actually believed the story himself.

I recently saw on eBay a "one-of-a-kind" item from the Tapestry of Nations parade at Epcot. It was a fake. It was a very nicely done fake, but it was not from Tapestry of Nations. I was there when that parade ran. The creator of the parade was Gary Paben, one of my former drama teachers from Occidental College. I have many friends who were in the parade.

I know for a fact that this figure was not even an unused "prototype." Yet, there it was being advertised as an expensive collectible, despite the fact that there were questions about its authenticity posted from people who were in the parade.

Over the years, I have heard a lot of false conjecture about Squash McStretch, who was the mascot of the animation department at the Disney Institute. Nature abhors a vacuum, so it is just human nature to make up stories when no other resource exists. Usually the discussions are sparked by one of the pins produced featuring the character.

I hope this column will reveal some helpful Disney history information that is in danger of being lost forever.

Animator Larry Lauria was the sole creator of Squash McStretch. He had no input from anyone else nor any interference from the Walt Disney Company. The design, the name, everything was the creation of Lauria. In fact, I was there when he introduced the character. I worked at the Disney Institute when the character was "active."


Only Larry Lauria ever drew Squash McStretch, which is another reason the character disappeared after Lauria left the Institute in fall 1998. Image by Larry Lauria.

Lauria did not receive any addditional compensation for the character and its use. He just assumed it was owned by Disney since we all signed contracts that anything we dreamed of while working for Disney was considered Disney proprietary property. He never had, even today, any regrets or grumbles of Disney owning the character.

Lauria was my boss when I was a full-time salaried animation instructor at the Disney Institute. As often happens, he was put in the position of laying off several of us when the Disney Institute shifted its focus and, shortly afterward, he himself was laid off.

He was the program manager for Animation at the Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida, for three and a half years. He supervised not only myself, but instructors Paul Naas, Graham Toms, Lock Wolverton, Deborah Healy, and Phil Ferretti, along with three female assistants: Mary, Janelle and Natalie who were support personnel in the classes. Larry helped develop the instructional programs, as well as teaching some of them. In addition, he created and supervised special projects like the annual Disney Institute Animation Festivals.

In September 1998, he was the event director for the Disney Institute's first animation special event: the Mulan Animation Experience, a two-weekend immersion package celebrating the release of Mulan, Disney's 36th animated feature film. Guests paid a premium price to work on an animated project and attend lectures, exclusive film presentations, and demonstrations. The event showcased some top talent from Walt Disney Feature Animation, as well as the entire Disney Institute Animation staff.

Prior to working for the Walt Disney Company, Lauria was the coordinator and instructor of the Classical Animation Course at Senior College Ballyfermot, Republic of Ireland. In Dublin, he managed the programs and facilities as well as developing and teaching curriculum.

After the collapse of the Disney Institute animation programming (or, as Disney publicity described it at the time, "consolidating personal enrichment classes"), Lauria taught at various places, including Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia and Full Sail in Orlando, Florida. He is currently teaching at a college in New Jersey.

I recently had lunch with him and his ever-charming wife to reminisce about the early days of the Disney Institute. The conversation turned to Squash McStretch.

[JK: Jim Korkis. LL: Larry Lauria.]

JK

So, how did you develop Squash?

LL

I was working in Ireland and I doodled around with a character who was an "everyman" that my students might be able to use in some animation projects. It never got beyond more than a doodle and we never used him in anything. Then we (my family) moved out to Florida to work at the Institute.

JK

I remember being there at the Institute on the official opening day in February 1996 and standing next to Richard Hutton, vice president and general manager of [Disney Institute] . He looked at the costumed Mickey and said very deliberately, "This is the last time that Mickey Mouse will ever be on this property." I remember upper management wanting a clear separation between the theme parks and the Institute.

LL

You know that the original plans that Michael Eisner had was to build the Institute in Aspen. I was ready to go. It was to appeal to those rich folks who had discretionary income to re-connect with learning. Eisner was inspired by his visit to the Chautauqua in New York. Eventually, it became apparent that it was more cost effective to use already existing structures at Walt Disney World. The area was already configured so it could also supply materials and support rather than shipping it all in to Aspen.

Hutton came from a public television background in Washington, D.C., and New York. His staff had the same background and attitude. They were definitely not immersed in the Disney culture, and I think they were given marching orders to make the place prestigious and exclusive.

JK

Yeah, they really misunderstood that guests were not just coming out to take classes because they could get the same or better classes at less expensive prices elsewhere. They were coming to learn how Disney "did it" and so the classes that survived like animation, culinary, horticulture, etc. did so because they incorporated Disney connections.

Those classes like genealogy that didn't were the first to be cut.

I also remember Michael Eisner telling all of us not to worry. He expected that the Institute would lose money the first three years as it established itself as a new direction in vacationing. He said he was completely committed to deal with the loss until we found our footing. However, classes and instructors (who had relocated from across the country on the belief they would have a job for a few years) were being cut within the first few months.

When it opened, the Institute had more than 80 different programs in seven different categories. Later, they moved the business programs from Disney University to the Institute and that changed the whole approach and the eventual demise of the physical location, as well as all enrichment programs.

LL

Yeah, it was a real shame. [The instructors] were talented and had impressive experience and the classes they taught were terrific. I took a lot of them and loved them. Unfortunately, nobody had planned that even if you filled the class to capacity, the rooms were so small that you could never cover the overhead no matter how successful you were. Our classes were always packed and we still lost money.

JK

Let's get back to Squash. I assume that one of the reasons you created him is that the Institute wanted to avoid a Disney connection using the typical characters.

LL

No, not really. We had talks about using Jiminy Cricket because he was so closely tied to education. I know I did some drawings. Eventually, the discussion turned to having characters that were solely associated with the Institute.

They paid big money for a design group to come up with that "jumping T" in the name "Institute." The point was that he was to represent the guest and as the guest took more and more classes, he became more and more happy and empowered and knowledgeable and leapt from the mundane world high in the sky.

JK

I remember them trying to explain that concept to us and while we 'got it,' we thought the design was terrible and the guests never got it at all. They found the character confusing and unappealing.

 

LL

 

So, I just completed the doodle I had been working on primarily as a mascot for the animation department. He was someone we could do whatever we wanted without asking for permission or approval to use official Disney characters. We could use him on cels to be painted in the Animation Sampler class or in an animated short. I called him "Squash McStretch."

He was based on one of the primary principles of Disney animation: Squash and Stretch. It's based on that bouncing ball test they used to do in feature animation. As a ball gains speed, it seems to stretch and when it impacts against something, it seems to stretch out. Of course, that is not how it happens in real life but it is how the eye "sees" it happening.

JK

We used to have guests make flip books doing that bouncing ball test and also film it under the camera so they could see simple animation.

LL

They used to love that, seeing something they had drawn actually move.

JK

Many guests thought Squash was a bug or a turtle without his shell.

LL

He was a guy! I tried to use some exaggeration like in the eye area for that old-style animation design.

JK

But he was green.

LL

That's because he was Irish! That's why I choose green.

JK

But he had those two antenna.

LL

That was hair sticking out from under his hat. It gave a sense of movement.

JK

Well, I still wear my animation jacket that has an embroidered patch of him on front in an animation disc.

LL

That was because we had money left over. I thought my job as manager was to save the company money because I came from independent animation. Near the end of the first year, I went in to see Bonnie Benjamin-Phariss (who was second in command at the Institute and also came from public television where she had worked with Richard Hutton) and she told me we had all this money left over. I said, 'Well, that's a good thing.' She told me it wasn't because at Disney if you didn't spend the money, it didn't roll over to the following year. You lost all of it. So I went on a spending spree and that's why we got those pricey embroidered jackets.

JK

Which were also green.

LL

They looked good, didn't they? I have mine all boxed up for the move to New Jersey. It's too big on me now.

JK

Mine is almost too small. (Larry laughs.) I loved it then and love it now and as I said, I still wear it on occasion. It is very classy. But that was not the only Squash McStretch merchandise.

LL

They were looking for 'high-end' products to sell in the gift store so I designed a maquette of Squash and had those made. [Only 24 of a planned 250 were made.]

JK

They were pretty pricey at the time, but I have one.

LL

I don't. (Laughs.) What I wish I had done was grab one of the placards in the trailer. [The Disney Institute instructor offices were in a poorly air-conditioned trailer across the street from D.I. They had three conference rooms. One was named Squash McStretch. Outside each conference room was a plexiglass name held up by a full figured Squash.]

JK

Of course, the most common piece of Squash merchandise was the pins. We gave them out in the classes for those people who attended. I remember the first question I always got no matter how much I explained it before I gave them out was "Who is this?" That's why I know people thought he was some kind of bug. He was also on the cels we painted and I got that question then as well.

LL

He was a man. He was just a funny character.

JK

Well, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about the character. I have seen the pins sell for anywhere between $4 and almost $50. I want to share with you one description that is out there:

"The animator mascot for the Disney Institute. He wears a cap or hat and holds a pencil. He was to have been made in various colors, but the animator who created him left the company! The back of the pin reads Disney 1/5000 DI. That means it is one of 5,000 pins made. But, when the creator of the character left the Disney Institute, part of those 5,000 pins were destroyed because of copyright issues. So no one really knows how many of these are really out there. At most there are 5,000. The pins were given to the animators who taught the class and to each student who took the Animation class, before the animator who created the character left the Institute."

LL

(Laughs so loud that it is literally minutes before he can answer.) That's great. Just great.

JK

Can you clarify some of that information for people who bought the pin at $50.

LL

When all the cutbacks started to happen, they didn't want to invest in more pins, so we used the ones we had until they ran out. I don't think they completely ran out. I don't think we gave out 5,000, but I don't know. I think there were bags left over but they just tossed them because they were re-branding the Institute as a business place and didn't want anything that was a memory of the original family-friendly version.

I don't know how many there were but I know we got some sort of discount for ordering a large bunch. We had that excess money to spend so I used it. We handed them out in the classes, at the special events, etc.

There was no copyright problem. I figured Disney owned the character. Period. I had no interest in claiming the character. I can easily come up with characters. I created so many before I came to Disney and so many more after I left. I wish I had thought of using different colors on the character for other versions.

JK

Did you have any particular voice in mind for Squash?

LL

(Pauses for a moment.) No. That's interesting. No, I had no particular voice in mind but if we had gone ahead on those animation projects we planned, I probably would have come to you to do the voice.

JK

Me? Really?

LL

Yes, you were the voice guy. You taught the Voices of Disney class. You were doing all those special projects like The Christmas Carol radio show, narration for all the things. I would definitely have come to you. You would have given me a lot of options but just your natural perky voice might have been the one.

JK

Anything else we should know about Squash?

LL

I really liked the character. I am still very fond of him. Culinary also wanted to use the character and I was in discussions with the manager about incorporating him into something for them. Then, everything started falling apart.

JK

Thanks for clearing things up.

LL

Oh, I just remembered. Squash has a baseball cap and letter jacket on - like most animators who used to wear the movie jackets and ball caps. At the end of a production, many animation studios like Disney used to give the crew a "letterman" type jacket and a cap like the ones I had made for the Institute team.

Squash was inspired a bit by Kevin Brownie (a Canadian at the time) who taught layout at the animation school I taught at in Dublin. The design also involved some comments from animator Nancy Beiman when she worked with Kevin in New York, but that's a long story. By the way, Squash wears a Hawaiian shirt under his jacket like John Lasseter and some other animators.

The huge nose is not just for comic effect but a lot of animators seem to have huge noses. When you write about him, please make sure you point out that he is definitely human.

JK

We should also mention that your son, Matt, is an actor on the TV show Parenthood, and earlier as Luke on Friday Night Lights.

LL

Yes, he is definitely better known than I am. One time Trish [his wife] and I were in a restaurant and there was this little girl who had just survived cancer and it was a big family party at the table next to us so I drew her a picture of Mickey Mouse to help her celebrate. I signed it and when she showed it to her mother, her mother said, "I'm sorry but I see your last name is 'Lauria.' Are you in any way related to the actor on 'Parenthood'? My daughter watched that show all the time and took great comfort and hope in their cancer storyline." I told her I was his dad. It really is a small world. Matt's going to be in a TV series cKingdom. Pecople recognize him everywhere. We were with him at the Fort Wilderness campground playing with our daughter's child and he was all unshaven and dressed down and people still came up to him.

JK

I remember when he was just a teen and you had me sit down and give him some acting career advice because of my experiences as a performer in Los Angeles.

LL

I appreciated that. We didn't know anyone who had been in the business and he was completely focused on being an actor.

JK

It was my pleasure. I used to do that all the time for young people, but I think Matt is the only one who hit it really big. Of course, I saw you do the same for young people who were interested in animation and attended classes at the Institute.

 



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Jim Korkis grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Jim describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.

From 2006 to 2010, Jim wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Sampson. He finally revealed his true identity in September of 2010. Those articles can be found here.