Who Was Ham Luske?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Many Disney fans around today actually got a chance to meet and talk with legendary Disney animators like Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson and Marc Davis. Those same fans can also tell you that these artists were part of the iconic “Nine Old Men”, some of the best animators to work at the Disney Studios.
Interestingly, these same fans can probably tell you next to nothing about some of the other Nine Old Men like John Lounsberry. To learn more about the Nine Old Men, make sure to find a copy of Disney Historian John Canemaker’s excellent book, “Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and The Art of Animation.” In fact, all of Canemaker’s animation related books are highly recommended by me.
Unfortunately, there was only so much room at the top at the Disney Studios and many other influential and talented animators have been forgotten today. I highly recommend that readers interested in Disney animation visit this amazing website.
While people can certainly debate the rankings of certain artists, one of the things that is most amazing to me is that the site was put together by a high school student, Grayson Ponti, and it is one of the very few places to get accurate information about many important Disney animators. Ponti’s work gives me much hope for the future of Disney historical research.
Ranking number thirteen on the list is Hamilton Luske who was born October 16, 1903 and passed away February 18, 1968.
Hamilton Luske started at Disney Studios in 1931 and despite lack of formal Art School training quickly became a significant animator on characters in the animated shorts like Max Hare in “The Tortoise and the Hare” (1935) and Jenny Wren in “Who Killed Cock Robin?” (1935) Luske was a supervising director on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) and was the primary animator for the Snow White character.
Luske later moved from animation into directing and writing for both animated features, shorts and television. For instance, he was the director of the “People and Places” short “Disneyland U.S.A.” He received the Oscar award for Special Effects in 1965 for his work on “Mary Poppins”. He was made a Disney Legend in 1999.
However, despite all his many achievements, less is known about him than some of his contemporaries because Luske was not a self promoter and passed away before the surge of interest in individual Disney animators. Animator Milt Kahl remembered, “Ham is sort of an enigma to me. Still, when I think about him, he was awfully sweet. That was the word for him. An awfully nice person.”
In March, one of his daughters, Carol Jean Luske told me, “In ‘Peter Pan,’ for the character of the youngest Darling boy, Michael, Dad needed someone’s voice and he used my brother Tom for the voice and as a model for Michael. Michael did end up looking a lot like Tom as the artist used him to draw the character.
“Our dog, Blondie was Lady from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ and our brother James Luske, when he was one year old, was the live action Baby Weems in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ movie. Dad used our voices for the flowers in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ It was fun for us to be involved, but remember we were a ‘movie’ family…this type of thing was not unusual. Our mom modeled for the character Persephone in the Silly Symphony, ‘Goddess of the Spring’.”
Many children only knew their father from his time at home and never saw him at his job. Peggy Finefrock (another of Luske’s daughters) spent time in the secretary steno pool at the Disney Studio and James Luske (Luske’s oldest son) worked as an animation cameraman and later did work on Disney live action features. They saw how their dad behaved at work and how others responded to him.
As children, all three played in the backyard of Walt Disney’s house. Carol recalled having a tea party with Walt’s daughters, Diane and Sharon in their Snow White playhouse and being rescued when she fell in the pool by Walt himself. James learned to drive a car in the Disney Studio parking lot on weekends and both he and Carol learned how to drive a golf ball there while their Dad worked on Saturdays.
Thanks to my good friend and Disney Historian Didier Ghez, I had the opportunity to interview all three surviving Luske children about their father and those complete interviews will appear in a future edition of the book series “Walt’s People”. An interview with Luske himself appears in Volume 10.
For those animation fans who just can’t wait to find out a little more about Hamilton Luske, here are some short excerpts from those interviews to give a better picture of what their dad was like. Much more of their personal memories “growing up Disney kids” and what it was like to work at the Disney Studio will be in the “Walt’s People” version.
Carol Jean Luske
JK: Did your dad ever talk about his work at the Disney Studio?
Carol: Dad had many stories he shared at dinner about the studio. We always all ate together at 6:00 pm at the dining room table. Our major punishment if we were bad was that we to had to eat in the kitchen with the maid and miss Dad's stories. He told us a lot about the pranks they did at the studio.
JK: Did your Dad do any drawing at home?
Carol: He did some work for Disney on his board at home. He didn’t have a separate studio set up at home. For his own amusement, he painted one seascape near the end of his life. He did do some cartooning before I was born in 1937 and I have some of those examples.
JK: Your Dad has been described as being very analytical.
Carol: He was always looking at the movement of animals or objects. He would have us look at the way a bird’s wings would move, or a dog’s legs moved. But he was also very funny. Dad was a very funny man and kept everyone laughing.
JK: Your Dad seems to have been very quiet at work, not flamboyant like a Ward Kimball.
Carol: NO, he was very unlike Ward Kimball. Ward Kimball was fun and funny though. Dad was not a temperamental artist type. Dad did not have a “way.”He did things “Walt’s” way. Dad did not have a personal artistic ego he was fighting to promote. Dad moved up from being just an animator to being a supervising director, and producer. He was “Disney” and not doing the work for personal promotion. He was very committed to doing it the way Walt wanted it.
He loved his job. He would only get frustrated when things were moving too slowly. I do not think he had a favorite project. He was very excited about all projects and took us to the studio to see the story boards. When one of his shows was on the Disney weekly television show, we would gather around the set to watch. We just watched and told Dad how great it was.
Walt was always teasing Dad about being a “college boy”…which almost no one there at the Studio was. That worked out for Dad when Disney started in doing a weekly TV show. Walt said to Dad, “Since you’re the college boy, you figure this thing out.”
JK: What did your Dad do outside of his time at the studio?
Carol: His hobbies included hunting, camping, fishing, bowling, tennis and golf. He always played in the Disney golf tournament as did Mom. He was a very good golfer. He played twice a week on Saturday and Sunday…sometimes several rounds. Even vacations included golfing for the two of them. They played excellent tennis. He wasn’t big on horseback riding so didn’t get involved with the studio polo team.
JK: Your Dad did a lot of live action directing.
Carol: I think he may have preferred doing animation but Dad did do a lot of live action directing. He was the one who directed Walt for the TV shows. I told Dad he must be pretty important for Walt to have him as his director. Dad said Walt had him because Dad would let Walt do what Walt wanted to do….which Walt would do anyway. Dad and mom socialized with Walt and his wife Lilly often during the early years of the Disney Studio, even going together to the premiere of “Snow White” in New York.
JK: One of the stories your Dad told you was about teaching Bobby Driscoll to skip on the set of the movie “Song of the South”
Carol: Yes….Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were supposed to skip through the woods, but Driscoll couldn’t so almost everyone on the set including my Dad was skipping around to help.
JK: Your dad directed Dick Van Dyke for the penguin dancing sequence in “Mary Poppins.”
Carol: Yes, he had fun doing that. We got to watch some of the early scenes on the Moviola. Dad told us that one day Dick Van Dyke showed up on the set and dad didn’t recognize him at all. He was in makeup and costume as the old banker.
JK: How would you like your dad to be remembered?
Carol: Dad was a wonderful, funny man who was very talented, not just as an artist, but a planner and motivator. He was very responsible for his animators, and made sure each had enough work so they didn’t get laid off. He was also serious about the movie budget and was the only supervising director who consistently came in at budget. He was very talented. Dad wrote and illustrated a book which is unpublished called “Santa Slept Here.” He was kind and generous. Everyone loved him. He was a DISNEY man. All things were Disney. He did not promote himself personally in any way for the work he did at the Studio.
JK: What was your Dad like?
Peggy: Dad’s personality was always smiling at others, friendly, serious, funny, likable, worried a lot, impatient, not involved in child raising like parents today. Mom did everything dealing with the four of us kids. I wasn't very close to him as a child, but as I got older, I adored him, respected him, loved him, and realized what an amazing person he was. He was so into sports, all sports, a real athlete, especially golf and tennis.
When it was his birthday dinner, he had a pair of binoculars that he took to the table. There was some great fight on television and he loved watching the fights. He sat there eating with us, and every so often would pick up those binoculars and watch the match on tv which was in the next room. It was pretty funny as I think about it now.
JK: What was it like at the Disney Studio?
Peggy: What I do remember about my dad was that everyone knew him and he knew everyone. It was "Hi, Ham! Hi, Ham." I then realized he was a pretty big deal there and very loved. It was great working there. It was so casual and friendly. People were happy. I did see Walt several times, if I ate with my dad in the Executive dining room. Otherwise I ate in the Commissary with the girls from the steno pool.
JK: What was Walt Disney like?
Peggy: Walt Disney was bigger than life to me. I was always was thrilled to see him. He only knew me when I was with my Dad. I had always been told by Dad that Walt was a genius, so that is how I always perceived him. One night of filming at Disneyland, my Dad took us up to Walt’s apartment above the firehouse. Walt was celebrating his birthday with his family. He said to the waiter, "Please send some of my cake to the Luske children." I felt very special.
JK: What do you remember about your Dad at work?
Peggy: My brother Jim did say that dad was “more aggressive” at the Studio than Carol gives him credit for. Before the unions Walt gave the animators bonuses at the end of the year for the footage they produced. Dad always got the largest bonus, sometimes more than his regular salary.
When I worked there, I was amazed how much power Dad had. Nothing like he was at home. He was liked by everyone, but nobody crossed him. “Crossing him would be seen like crossing Walt, as anything Dad was doing already had Walt's approval” said my brother Jim.
JK: How would you like your dad remembered?
Peggy: Since dad died at age 64, he really didn't have a lot of time to promote himself. It has been more recently that his name has resurfaced. I remember mom being upset that some of the books that came out barely mentioned his name. Ollie Johnson and Frank Thomas told her that they were going to put Dad in their new book, “The Illusion of Life”, and give dad the recognition that he deserved. And they did just that!
JK: How would you describe your Dad?
Jim: My father was a very busy man working at Disney. He was the boss of the family without ever acting like one. One just didn't want to disappoint him. He taught me many lessons. He did the real finances that ran the household like purchasing and selling stock, etc. Some of the tips he gave me still hold true today.
Everything my Dad did was funny. Once I found a pair of my mother's shoes in his car. I asked him what they were doing there. He said that he had found some foot prints in the mud in our back yard and he wanted to make sure they belonged to someone in our family. He said don't tell anyone, because he didn't want to scare anyone. Of course, I told my mother, who demanded to know what was going on. As it turned out my father was buying my mother a pair of shoes for her birthday and wanted to be sure the size was right. He couldn't just tell me that. He had to make a story of it.
I knew I could never draw like my father. He worked at home and some of his art work was unbelievable. I had art classes in school and saw the difference. Comparing him to Ward Kimball, because they both had the same type job, is like comparing Julie Andrews to Lady Gaga, because they both had the same job. Ward Kimball was an extreme extravert. He wore different colored socks, striped pants with checkered coats and had long hair (a big “no no” at Disney).
The idea that Walt kept Dad around because he always agreed with Walt is ridiculous. Walt didn't need or want a “yes” man. He wanted someone who understood what a certain movie was about and someone who could help him achieve the end results. Also, my father was a stubborn man, like I am. Many arguments or discussions with him proved that to me. He would never say “yes” to anything he thought was wrong, no matter who said it.
JK: What was your Dad like at work?
Jim: I worked at Disney for years while my father was directing there. His position there was like it was at home. As far as I know he wasn't known to yell or scream at other employees, but there was no doubt that he was respected and what ever he said was done. People were always coming up to me and telling me what a great person my father was. I think other people in his position were very difficult to get along with.
My father was very loyal to the men in his unit. There was a period when eliminating animation was being discussed by the executives at the studio. My father worried about this more than anyone realized. Not because he would lose his job because he wouldn't, but because some of his crew would.
JK: What were your impressions of Walt Disney?
Jim: One story says it all. Walt hired an executive to help run the studio. I think he had owned some successful car agencies. The man was given an office in the Animation building, the headquarters of the studio. He immediately put his name on the door, “Mr. such and such”. He was in his office making a phone call and the gardener was outside mowing the lawn. I guess this man couldn't hear the phone conversation because of the noise. He opened the window and yelled, "You son of a bitch, turn off that mower." It wasn't a minute later that Walt burst into the office. "I am the only son of a bitch at this studio. That gardener has been here 25 years. You yell at him again and you won't be here 25 more minutes! And I am Walt. If I am Walt, you are not Mr. anything!”
JK: What did you do when you started at the studio?
Jim: I started in the mail room. It was sort of a position where the studio could look at you and you could look at the studio. I then got into animation camera, a holding place where I was able to get seniority in the union to be able to work in live action photography. It was the most tedious and boring job I have ever had. It did teach me patience. If you want something that is difficult to achieve you may have to suffer to achieve the goal. I did that for five years!
JK: How would you like your Dad remembered?
Jim: As I remember him, a very good example of how to live one's life. He was very talented and able to make up for any lack of talent with hard work. I seem to see Dad in a different way than my sisters do, probably because I saw him in his position at the studio more than they did. My sister seems to think that Dad did what Walt wanted and that is why he did so well. I think Dad did things his way, but knew that Walt was the boss and that Walt was very talented. I am sure that my father directed the films his way. And I am sure that there were probably some times when he and Walt verbally disagreed. Of course, in those cases, Walt would win, but may have adjusted his ideas.