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Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix, editor
2001 Official Disneyana Convention, Part 3 - 9/28/01


The final day of the 2001 Official Disneyana Convention was crammed with events, and ConventionEars were going full- steam from 8:30 a.m. until 11 PM. Guests woke up to another day of merchandise signings, workshops, merchandise opportunities, seminars, corporate exhibits, and, or course, more merchandise to buy. The day started with the the annual Speakers of the Mouse presentation, and concluded with the Final Night Banquet inside California Adventure (DCA).

Sue Kruse began her day learning about an amazing Disney legend who you might know too little about:

Never having been to a Disneyana convention before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from something called Speakers of the Mouse. The title would indicate that someone or someones would speak of course, but would it be worth getting up early to be there by 8:30 AM? As a representative of MousePlanet, it was my job to be there at the appointed hour, but would a ConventionEar find it worthwhile to drag one's self from the comfy confines of bed? My answer to that question would be, absolutely. If you attended the convention and opted to skip Speaker of the Mouse, you missed something special. It's now added to my list of Why The Convention Is Worth The Money.

Speaker of the Mouse was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Disneyland Hotel. This year's topics were Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. Ub and Walt were best friends, both born in the same year, and the two people responsible for giving the world Mickey Mouse. Everyone knows Walt's basic story and it was covered in the second half of the seminar with a discussion on a new documentary, Walt, The Man Behind The Myth. This column will pay attention to the first half of the seminar, largely because the subject matter is so fascinating and not all that widely known.

Publicity photo © Iwerks
Publicity photo © Iwerks

As Disney fans, I'm sure you've probably heard the name Ub Iwerks. If you don't quite know who he was, you're probably not alone. You may remember the name because it's unusual or just because you've heard it associated with Disney Animation, but how much can you really tell others about Ub Iwerks? If you are like me, nothing other than that Ub was an animator. The truth of the matter is that Ub Iwerks was extremely important to the Disney Company, to the art of animation, and to film in general.

If you've ever set foot inside a Disney theme park, you've seen Ub's work. Without Ub, there probably would not be a Mickey Mouse. Without Ub, you would not have enjoyed such classic films as Song of the South, The Three Caballeros, The Parent Trap, Mary Poppins, and The Birds. Without Ub, audio animatronics just wouldn't be the same. Ub was an amazing person.

Ub's life story is detailed in a new book and film entitled The Hand Behind The Mouse, The Ub Iwerks Story and for the first half of Speaker of the Mouse, we were treated to a discussion based on that project. Moderator Tim O'Day presided over a panel consisting of, Leslie Iwerks, Ub's granddaughter and producer, writer, and director of the film and book, Virginia Davis, Alice of the Alice Comedies and Disney's first true star, and, as Tim said, the corporate archeologist and source of all Disney knowledge, Dave Smith.

Click to buy the book from Amazon

The first question Tin asked was just how does one pronounce Ub's name? His granddaughter assured everyone that the correct pronunciation rhymed with hub and that Walt referred to his friend as Ubbie. She then went on to describe how she became involved with the making of the film, "I was only one when he passed away and have always felt that his story needed to be told due to the fact that he was such an integral part of the studio. I formulated the idea of making a film in 1996 and around 1997, I approached Roy Disney about the project. He was very enthusiastic and I also mentioned doing a book as well. So the company got behind a book and a film."

During the making of the film, Leslie got to go to actual locations in Kansas City. Tim O'Day asked her what it was like doing that, to trace the steps of her grandfather, "It was an amazing experience. I went into the Gray Advertising Building and the owner came to me and said, 'You're an Iwerks, let me take you downstairs. I don't normally take people down here.'

So we walked down these rickety old stairs and down below was the actual theater where they projected their films and the tattered old screen. Some animation stands were still down there and the projection booth. It was like walking into the past. It was quite amazing. Then later we found these photographs with them sitting in that theater. Those came from a garage sale." Unfortunately, this historic building has since been demolished and turned into a parking lot.

Click to buy the video from Amazon

Kansas City is an important locale to the history of Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney. That's where they first met when they both worked for the Pesman- Rubin Commercial Art Studio. Soon after meeting, they formed their own business, Iwwerks- Disney Commercial Artists. As quick as they formed that business, it failed (it lasted only a month), but that didn't dampen their spirits. They soon had great success with another company, Laugh-O-gram.

Dave Smith pointed out an interesting fact, "You have to remember that these were extremely young men. When Iwwerks- Disney was set up, they were 18 years old. These are just teenagers that are starting a business for the very first time. Walt Disney was the one that was really fascinated by animation. He encouraged Ub to come with him in the creating of Laugh-O-gram Studios. Ub loved it too. Walt was able to pass this enthusiasm around to all his friends and he got a whole group of animators to come and join him and start working on Laugh-O-gram films."

Dave added, "I think it's important to remember that Ub Iwerks started out as a letterer. He was not the cartoonist. Walt Disney was the cartoonist at the studio. It wasn't very long before their roles switched. Walt Disney became the salesman, he became the director, the story man, but Ub became the cartoonist."

In a repetition of the first business effort, Laugh-O-gram went bust in 1923 And once again, this didn't stop Ub and Walt. They went forward and created the Alice comedies. Leslie explained the importance of this, "The Alice comedies were really an offshoot of the Out of the Inkwell cartoons, which is an animated film with a live-action character. And so Virginia (Davis) was the live-action girl in an animated world. It was an exciting time."

Dave Smith explained the financial importance to Walt and Ub's company, "The very first Alice comedy was made in Kansas City. When the company started in October of 1923, out in California, there was a staff of four people. There were four whole people making the Alice comedies! But, these were quality films. They started receiving encouraging reviews and the staff was able to pay off their debts. They started getting a little extra money. Salaries were slowly increased. At the same time, they were sort of building up a storehouse of gags and story situations that they could use for years to come. By 1927, when the Alice comedies ended, there were 14 on the staff. Speaking to the importance of Ub Iwerks, he was the highest paid on the staff."

Walt Disney brought child actress Virginia Davis McGhee over from Kansas City to be his first star in his Alice Comedies in 1923. She is seen here in a scene from "Alice's Wild West Show" (1924).
Walt Disney brought child actress Virginia Davis McGhee over from Kansas City to be his first star in his Alice Comedies in 1923. She is seen here in a scene from "Alice's Wild West Show" (1924).

A few of the posters from the Alice comedies were shown and Virginia Davis, who played Alice reminisced about her favorite film of the series, Alice's Day At Sea, which was the first of the series, "That was the first one when we came out from Kansas City. I saw the ocean. I had never seen the ocean before, it was very, very exciting."

After we were treated to a clip from the documentary highlighting the Alice comedies, Tim O'Day asked Virginia Davis what she remembered from working on these pictures, "I remember more of Walt because he was really in at the beginning and Walt was a wonderful storyteller. It was great fun for me to come to work because I was going to play, as far as I was concerned. The only bad part of it was I had nobody to play with. They had to be drawn in afterwards. I loved Walt dearly, he was just wonderful."

"What do you remember about Ub," Tim prompted. "I don't remember too much of Ub. I met him briefly. Ub was always in the back room, or I guess, not in the back room but the garage doing the work that Walt needed. So that's my biggest memory of Ub. When you think about those two boys starting with all their visions and the disappointments that they had, and then to create this whole thing that they have hereŠI think that's pretty fantastic."

Tim O'Day switched gears to another of Walt and Ub's characters, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Commenting that Ub had a lot of influence on the look of the films and the personality of the character, he asked Leslie what her grandfather's contribution was to the films.

"Ub animated Oswald. I love Oswald; you don't see him very often. Oswald was this crazy rabbit. He was always getting into trouble and he was more violent than any of the action you would see in the Alice comedies. He would pound other animals and you would see limbs flying. I think he was a steppingstone to Mickey. You see Oswald and you see Ub's wacky personality coming out. A lot of scenes have dark humor. It's funny, I think that Iwerks spelled backwards is skrewi."

At that point, we were treated to a few clips from the Oswald cartoons so we could see for ourselves what a wacky little guy the rabbit was. It's a shame we don't get to see more of these old cartoons nowadays. They're every bit as entertaining as current animation (if not more so).

An Oswald the Lucky Rabbit one sheet
An Oswald the Lucky Rabbit one sheet

Dave Smith pointed out that even though the Oswald cartoons were a huge hit with audiences, everything was not coming up roses. "Walt and his staff weren't seeing any of the money. Walt went back to New York to try and get some additional money for a second season and was offered less money." Walt decided to take his character to another distributor but quickly learned he didn't own the rights to Oswald.

Then something historical happened, Walt came up with an idea for a new character and Ub came up with the design. Fueled by the then national craze for airplanes, what normally takes months was accomplished in two weeks. With a record 700 drawings a day, Ub Iwerks single-handedly animated the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy.

Tim O'Day asked Leslie Iwerks if this was true, "Yeah. I think purely out of desperation, he had to do it all. He did everything in two weeks. That's unheard of today. Dave Smith added, "They were doing this in secret also. They hadn't finished up their contract on Oswald so Ub had to be working off in a back room and not show any of the other animators what he was doing."

After the birth of Mickey Mouse, they went on to Steamboat Willie, the first synchronized sound cartoon. This led to The Silly Symphonies and in particular The Skeleton Dance, which took animation to a whole new level. Unlike Steamboat Willie, The Skeleton Dance was animated to a prerecorded musical score, which allowed Ub to animate in a very stylized way. As Leslie explained, "It was skeletons dancing in a graveyard. I think it brought out the gothic side to Iwerks, and his animation enhanced even more with sound."

By 1929, Ub's role with the studio, as he viewed it, started to change. There were conflicts over timing sheets and methodology and, as Leslie pointed out, "Probably Walt taking a lot of the spotlight." Ub started his own company. On his own, he created the character of Flip the Frog and such classic examples of Iwerks Gothic as Balloon Land (which features a balloon-menacing character named Pincushion Man).

Flip the Frog
Flip the Frog

In 1940 though, Ub returned to the Walt Disney Studios to launch what became a second career there. Leslie filled us in, "He went back and got involved in the double-headed optical printer and the sodium traveling matte process. Walt had somebody at the Studio to take their cartoons and live-action features to the next level. It really put the Walt Disney Company at the forefront of technical excellence."

Tim O'Day added that Ub Iwerks was responsible for the development of the Xerox camera for use in animation. What this meant was that the artist's original drawings could now be reproduced directly onto cells, eliminating the hand-tracing and inking stages of animation. It revolutionized the art form and greatly reduced production costs.

In the early 1960s, Ub drifted from the Disney Company to other ventures, he worked on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. "He did all the sodium work for The Birds," Leslie said, "Tippi Hedren, who was in the movie, talks in the documentary about how the birds came down the fireplace and were supposed to fill the room. But actually, they came down the fireplace and sat there. So Ub had to come in and actually shoot birds against a screen and optically composite those with the live-action set with the live actors. That's how that came about and it was revolutionary."

Tim O'Day added, "It's amazing. What I didn't realize, until I saw the film and read the book, is that virtually all of us have been entertained by an Ub Iwerks invention, either through film or at a Disney park."

A clip from the documentary showing some of Ub's inventions came on the screen. Among other things, Ub is responsible for; the anamorphic-wide angle lens used in the film Sleeping Beauty, the "gnome-point" perspective camera used in Darby O'Gill and the Little People, the seamless split- screen technique from The Parent Trap, the invention of the first 3- camera electronic editing system used in television, the Wet Gate printer, which eliminates scratches on film and is still in use today, the development of the first 360 degree motion picture screen, the photoelectric control system used in audio- animatronics, and numerous three-dimensional projection processes still used in the Disney parks today.

Tim wrapped up the discussion with a question for Leslie, "After people read the book and see the film, what kind of an impression do you want them to walk away with?" She responded: "I just want people to understand, not only his contributions to film and Disney, but to the world. I grew up behind the scenes learning all this and I wanted to make sure that Ub's contributions were out there."

Publicity art © Iwerks
Publicity art © Iwerks

Personally, I came away from Speaker of the Mouse with a sense of wonder at the man who was Ub Iwerks. To me, his contributions were pretty darned amazing. I can't quite understand why we don't know his name better. Perhaps now we will. Unfortunately, as of this writing the documentary The Hand Behind The Mouse, The Ub Iwerks Story has already aired on Bravo. It is set to air some time in the fall on The Independent Film Channel. Check your local listing. And if you get a chance, do have a look at Leslie's excellent book, The Hand Behind The Mouse. It provides an interesting look at Ub, Walt, and the creation of the some of the world's most beloved characters.

Oh, and the next time you set foot in the Haunted Mansion to see the singing busts serenade or sail into a pirates lair to watch pirates loot a town, do give a thought to Ub Iwerks, the man Walt Disney called, "The greatest animator in the world."


Disneyana III


Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix is the super-shopper behind MouseShoppe, your personal and unofficial shopping service for the Disneyland Resort, and the owner of CharmingShoppe, a Disney collectibles store located in Anaheim.

In addition to scouring the park to find you the latest and greatest merchandise, she keeps you updated on all of the merchandise events happening in the parks.

If you want to talk to her about this column, merchandise, or events, contact her here.


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