Legend brought color to
the wonderful world of Disney
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
by Sheila Hagen, staff writer
Veteran Disney Imagineer and artist John Hench
passed away on February 5, at the age of 95. Hench had an intuitive understanding
of how to use color and architecture to create an immersive experience both in
film and theme park design. He was also well liked by many during his long career
at the Walt Disney Company and known for his enthusiasm he brought daily to his
John Hench in July 2002. File photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.
George McGinnis and MousePlanet contributing writer relates just how well liked
and respected Hench was by his fellow Disney employees:
to anyone who has worked at WED/WDI [Walt Disney Imagineering] and they will say
John Hench was always accessible. It mattered not your position; John was there
to share his knowledge, of which we all benefited tremendously over the years.
my first weeks at WED, I remember being told, possibly by Roger Broggie, to 'go
see John Hench.' I was somewhat intimidated by John's position, his office being
next to Dick Irvine's. But I proceeded, wary of meeting the Art Director whom
I had heard Walt liked to have beside him at meetings.
I can't remember
the assignment he gave me, but remember well his friendliness and willingness
to involve this new, very green employee in a project. Returning to my office,
I remarked to Bob Gurr how approachable John was. Bob said, 'That's just the way
Hench was born June 29, 1908, in Cedar Rapids,
Iowa, and grew up in Southern California. After completing his schooling and art
training, he worked at various film jobs until coming to work at the Disney studios
on Hyperion Avenue in 1939 as a sketch artist on Fantasia.
was involved in all aspects of film creationhe worked variously as a background
painter, layout artist, story editor, art editor, colorist and stylist on many
of Disney's animated and live action classic films.
In 1954, Hench was asked
by Walt Disney to join a team of artists and designers working on the plans for
Disneyland. Working initially on the design of Tomorrowland, he was responsible
for the distinctive futuristic feel of the land, especially in guiding
the design of the Moonliner, and later, the design of Space Mountain.
Walt Disney's death in 1966, Hench spent much of the remainder of his career overseeing
the creation of all the Walt Disney Company's theme parks around the world, as
well as Hong Kong Disneyland, now under construction. His final job title was
Senior Vice President at Walt Disney Imagineering after 60 years of service at
Disney. Up until the last few weeks before his death, Hench came into work every
day without fail.
Because of his resemblance to Disney,
he was often mistaken for Disney and would sign autographs for park visitors who
thought they were meeting Walt Disney himself.
Hench was so intimately involved in the design and supervision of Disneyland,
he spent a lot of time there along with other Disney executives. He, along with
Walt, felt that it was important to experience the park in exactly the same way
regular park visitors did. Because of his resemblance to Disney, he was often
mistaken for Disney and would sign autographs for park visitors who thought they
were meeting Walt Disney himself.
John Hench speaks in Disneyland at Walt Disney's 100th Birthday celebration
in 2001. File photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.
the resemblance to Walt didn't end just there. He also had the same philosophy
as Walt on how to operate Disneylandnot everything had to make money. He
would point out that a popcorn wagon by itself would not make money, but in the
long run, it would all even out. It was all about show, about creating
an environment that when the sum of its parts was totaled up, would create a richer
and more satisfying experience for visitors.
Hench was a master of the Art
of the Show, a philosophy that demanded that every design element contributed
to the story or helped to create a natural visual segue from one themed land to
another. His philosophy was that the parks were like movies, and the designer
must provide transitions between one scene to another; gradual changes
in color and design helped to avoid making the changes abrupt. He did this most
often through his legendary gift of color sense.
Hench felt that color could
be effectively used to establish mood and atmosphere. In one famous anecdote,
he was working on the design of an Epcot attraction with the CEO of a sponsoring
corporation. The CEO insisted that the walls be white. Hench replied, Well,
I have 34 shades of white. Which one do you want?
Hench also was a
master in utilizing cultural icons in theme park design. He understood how to
use images and colors that people see on a daily basis to create an instant comfort
and immediate understanding of the design elements in the parks. One of his earliest
successes was the design of the Moonliner. In the 1950s, people had seen various
images, both real and imaginary, of spacecraft. His job was to incorporate all
the images seen before into the design of the Moonliner, which would be new in
design but that when people saw it, they would instantly recognize
A duplicate of the original Moonliner in Disneyland, owned and restored
by Disney historian and author Dan Viets, is exhibited in Marceline, Missouri
during the town's celebration of Walt Disney's 100th birthday in 2001.
File photo by Alex Stroup.
Another example illustrating
Hench's ability to utilize cultural icons was the pylons installed at the exterior
of Disneyland's Space Mountain attraction built in 1977. Reaching high into the
sky, the pylons represented man's exploration of the skies above.
Hench's more notable accomplishments was his career as Mickey Mouse's Official
Portrait Artist. Hench completed portraits for Mickey in 1953 (25th anniversary),
1978 (50th), 1988 (60th) and 1998 (70th). Hench often felt that Mickey's success
came from the use of a series of round shapes. In Hench's book, Designing Disney:
Imagineering and the Art of the Show, he stated:
a graphic representation, Mickey is a symbol of life. He is a series of round
shapes that have a distinctive relationship characterized by the flow of one curve
into another, creating lines that relate to each other in the musculature of a
human being. Curves typically indicate movement typical of the living human figure.
I see Mickey as a record of dynamic movement.
also instrumental in pioneering the use of vehicles guided on a track to transport
guests through an attraction. This revolutionary concept came about as a result
of the initial design of the Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway attraction
at the 1964 World's Fair. Ford had wanted guests to actually ride real Ford convertibles,
a concept that eventually turned into the Omnimover system used today in Disney
theme parks and elsewhere.
It was said that because Hench
was so talented, his drawings were indistinguishable from Dali's.
2003, Hench finally completed the work he began with Salvador Dali in the 1940s
on the animated short, Destino, which received a nomination for Best
Short Animated Film at the 2004 Academy Awards. Back in the 1940s, he worked with
Dali to turn Dali's inspirations into workable animation. It was said that because
Hench was so talented, his drawings were indistinguishable from Dali's. Through
the backing of Roy E. Disney, the greenlight was finally given to complete the
project after sitting on the shelf for almost 60 years.
Hench received many
important awards throughout his career. In 1954, he won an Academy Award for special
effects on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In 1990, he was the recipient
of the prestigious Disney Legends Award. In 1998, he received the Lifetime Achievement
Award from the Themed Entertainment Association (THEA) for his 60 years of outstanding
contributions at Disney.
Tributes to Hench can also be seen at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom
at Walt Disney World in Florida. At Disneyland, Hench has a window on
Main Street, located above the Main Street Photo Supply Company. The inscription
reads Plaza School of Art Instructors Herbert Ryman, John
Hench, Peter Ellenshaw.
Hench also has a second tribute window at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney
World. Located on Main Street, the inscription reads: Walter E.
Disney Graduate School of Design & Master Planning 'We Specialize
in Imagineering' Headmaster, Richard Irvine, Dean of Design, John
Hench, Instructors Edward Brummitt, Marvin Davis, Fred Hope, Vic Greene,
Bill Martin, Chuck Myall.
At the Magic Kingdom, a caricature of Hench
used to be part of the mosaic mural at Cinderella's Castle before the mural had
been modified to its current display. He could be spotted (wearing a red tunic
with black and gold trim) in the panel depicting Cinderella trying on the glass
John Hench (left) and Walt Disney. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Company.
The next time you're at Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom,
make sure to pause at either of those tributes to honor him for all he did to
create the magic in the magic kingdoms. He was a true artist in every
sense of the word, and next to Walt, he was the embodiment of the Disney ideal
of entertainment through design, story and respect for the viewer.