Years ago, I was inspired to become an author, in part, because of friends who were also pursuing that path. Their delight in writing and in having written was infectious. But what tantalized me most were their interview subjects. Their book projects brought them into the presence, sometimes into the living rooms, and occasionally into close friendships with their childhood heroes. Wouldn't that be cool, I thought, to spend time with the people who created Disneyland?
However, one friend, Randy, whose passion was the movie comedy team Laurel and Hardy, mentioned a dark aside that, two decades later, continues to haunt me. In his book-writing efforts, Randy had come to track down and become dear friends with dozens of old-timers who worked with Stan and Ollie. The relationships brought joy both to Randy and to the once-forgotten movie stars and craftsmen. The hard part, Randy remarked to me in the early 1980s, was these people are all in their 70s and 80s and 90s. In 20 years, all my friends will be gone.
Here we are, 20 years later and, just as predicted, all these friends are gone. Somehow I thought it would be different writing about Disneyland. When I began doing research for my first book about the park in 1987, not only were the majority of the park's pioneers still alive, they still worked for Disney. But time passed. My interests and projects took me into other, older areas of the company and became more history-minded. Gradually, as many of these interview subjects became friends, it hit me. I now regularly talk shop with a lot of people in their 70s and 80s and 90s.
So each year I lose a few more Disney friends. Sadly, 2004 hit especially hard.
In tribute, here are some of Disney's biggest losses over the past yearand in the case of those I got to know, my loss as well.
I met Mr. Alsberg in 1983, not to interview him about his string of Disney writing credits (Hot Lead & Cold Feet, Gus, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, No Deposit, No Return), but talk about his work as a radio comedy writer in the 1940s. He had a handful of humorous anecdotes, but what struck me were his desire to help a clueless college kid and his genuine concern about my project. It was no surprise to later learn of his fondness for teaching writing.
Although he spent only two years with Disney, the studio executive is credited as having started the Touchstone Films subsidiary, which served as an outlet for the company's first movies for grown-ups, and served as the Walt Disney Pictures division's president. He was replaced by Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1984.
His Disney career stretched from animator on Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs to development on figures and elements on some of the most famous attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Yet Harry blessed us everyday park visitors on a more personal level when, after his formal retirement, he spent 10 years on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, sketching characters for the guests. Quite a far cry from today's Disney World, where you can't even find real animators in the Animation Building.
While Ustinov received far more accolades for his serious acting, Disney fans will always remember him for playing the title character in Blackbeard's Ghost and providing the voices of Prince John and King Richard in Robin Hoodand likely not remember him for his role in One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing. Plus, he was to have starred in Walt's aborted film Khrushchev at Disneyland.
Again, another achiever better known for his work outside Disney. Outside Earth, actually. Yet Cooper's contributions were invaluable as a consultant to the Imagineers creating Space Mountain and then officially joining WED as a vice president of research and development in helping to plan Epcot Center. Cooper and his never-say-it-can't-be-done attitude fit right in at WED. He appeared most recently at the opening of Epcot's Mission: Space.
In a way, you could say I worked alongside Harry, who spent 40 years as a producer, director and right-hand-man for Walt Disney. By alongside, I mean we would often be selling our books (his, One of Walt's Boys) near each other at Disneyana shows. Harry was delightful to spend an afternoon with and was always gracious with his time. It always amazed me how many showgoers would hurry past his table with nary a glance, hot in pursuit of some highly prized pin, when here was a real, live treasure right in their midst.
In the dark ages before VHS and DVD and omnipresent Disney Stores and Disney channels, little kids like me who wanted to take home our favorite Disney story would relive the tales at bedtime with Little Golden Books. The first characters Western Publishing & Lithographing licensed were Disney's, and the publisher presented them in movie retellings and original tales in hundreds of children's books beginning in the 1930s.
After World War II, to elevate the quality of kids' literature, Western Publishing hired a batch of former Disney animators, including John Parr J.P. Miller [who died October 29] and Jack Bradbury [who died May 15].
Both had joined the Disney Studios in the early 1930s and worked their way up to plum animating assignments on Pinocchio and other classics of the early 1940s. Miller's fame would come illustrating best-selling non-Disney Golden Books (such as the still-in-print Little Red Hen). Bradbury's forte was established cartoon characters, with Pluto a specialty. Walt was so confident in his talent that the studio reportedly gave standing approval to everything Bradbury drew, sight unseen.
Granted, animatronic Abe's demise is not a done deal; always-upfront Disneyland promises he's just getting a two-year respite while a 50th Anniversary exhibit takes over the Opera House. Yet it's no secret that park management has been trying to permanently unplug the underappreciated animatronic for more than 30 years. Also consider the sincerity with which Main Street cast membersfrom Opera House hostesses to Omnibus drivers to train conductorshave been pleading with guests over the last few months to bump up Mr. Lincoln's ride counts before a permanent decision is made on the classic figure's fate. If I were you, I'd go see Abe.
Seconds into first meeting Sam McKim I realized why he was the one whose three decades at WED were best known for his souvenir maps of Disneyland. The niceness, the neatness, the whimsy, the warmth, the vividness in storytelling, everything about him was accessible and detailed.
Every time we lose another Club 55'er (someone who helped open Disneyland in 1955), I can't help but feel a little depressed. Sometimes it's pain for the loss of friends. But even with those I've never met, it hits me that they've made it so closebut not close enoughto Disneyland's 50th, the time when the company should finally give these long-neglected pioneers their due.
Within 50 days this past summer, we lost three influential onesthe Custodial department's first chief, Chuck Boyajian, and his two lieutenants, Tom Roppa and Roy Young. Fortunately, Disneyland has begun paying their respects to these men of late in the best possible wayby helping to keep the park pristine once again, to the standards they established primarily to satisfy Walt.
And then there was one. Ollie Johnston is now the last of Walt's Nine Old Men, with the death of his best friend. Although I never had the opportunity to meet Thomas, I was touched more deeply by his work than by any other animator's. I think about the -est scenes in Disney animationthe sweetest (a wee rabbit giving a deer ice skating lessons), the most romantic (two dogs sharing a plate of pasta), the most joyous (Pinocchio delirious that he's Got No Strings, Dick Van Dyke cavorting with penguins), the most sad (Baloo evicting Mowgli from the jungle, a lovesick squirrel getting dumped)and they're all Thomas.
For many a blushing waitress, they knew him only as a dashing gentleman who asked to read their palm. In fact, during his 65 years at Disney, Hench left his fingerprints all over most every prestige Disney projectas an artist on Fantasia through Peter Pan, in special effects on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in creating Disneyland's first Tomorrowland, in supervising the development of the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center, and in designing Tokyo Disneyland. Note that wherever Walt's passion was at a particular time (feature animation in the late 1930s and 1940s, live action in the early/mid-1950s, theme parks in the 1950s, Imagineering in the early 1960s, city planning in the mid-1960s), that was where Hench was working. He was even the official portrait painter of Mickey Mouse.
What I appreciated most about him was that he seemed to understand Disney on a deeper level than anyone else I've ever listened to; he had a reason for everythingwhy a bench was a certain color or a door was a certain width or a curb was a certain shape. Not money reasons. Not random choices. Listening to John Hench, everything made sense.
As predicted, the beloved artform and legacy that began with Snow White ended not with a bang, but a whimper, with the release of Home on the Range. Disney executives were likely relieved at the film's mediocre performance at the box office, reasoning that it justified their short-sighted decision to scrap 2-D.
So, for now, traditional feature animation is gone. It's a shame, since, in part, 50-year-olds like Cinderella and Tinker Bell have remained current because we knew that artists remained busy dreaming and animating these characters' descendants. Now, a chain that lived from Snow White through Little Mermaid and Tarzan has for the first time been broken.
The saddest part about this loss of a lifelong friend of all of ours is its death was not of natural causes.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.