Don 'Ducky' Williams: An Underappreciated Disney Treasureby Jim Korkis, staff writer
He is definitely not underappreciated by the thousands of Disney guests he has entertained over the years with his presentations on the Disney Cruise Line ships. "Ducky" has performed on 74 Disney cruises. He still does six to eight cruises every year. You can see a sample of his presentation here.
This 46-minute video, "How to become a Disney illustator," is a recording of a Don Williams presentation aboard the Disney Magic cruise ship from May 16, 2011. The last two minutes show some close-ups of a few of his many lithographs. Video posted by 5deheld.
Nor is he underappreciated by all the Disney fans and cast members who have eagerly purchased his amazing limited edition lithographs featuring Disney characters. By the way, Don is the one responsible for all those special Disney Cruise Line lithographs, as well as many pieces of special event and advertising artwork. He occasionally gets called in to do some of the artwork on the higher-end merchandise items.
No, like others working for the Disney Company, "Ducky" is underappreciated by the Disney Company itself.
Perhaps it is because Don is so quiet, nice, and hardworking, and that he has never been a problem in over three decades of service. Perhaps it is because he makes the vast quantity of quality artwork that he has produced in those 30 years appear so seamless and effortless as if the art just flowed from his arm. Perhaps it is because over the decades, he has been whittled down to a department of just one person hidden in a small, cramped, windowless office hidden on an upper floor of a building in the city of Celebration.
Whatever the reason, I think it is time for Don to receive a little recognition from a wider audience and to remind the Disney Company of this hidden treasure. Don's Disney tale is truly a Cinderella story that, like the best of Disney animated features, demonstrates that if a person is talented, nice, and persistent their dreams really can come true.
I first met Don about 16 years ago when I was hired by the Walt Disney World resort. I became friends with Disney Legend Ralph Kent, an outstanding person and artist who was informally known as the "Keeper of the Mouse." He introduced me to Ducky with words of high praise for his art. He was a mentor to Don and today Don has high praise for Ralph, who sadly died in 2007.
I re-connected with Don at an August 11 World Chapter Disneyana Fan Club event in Orlando and got a chance to talk with the soft-spoken, always affable artist.
Don draws every Disney animated character and, when he talks about them, it is with a passion and affection for their personalities:
"Drawing the characters is more than a job for me. It's a way of life. Like many people, I have been infatuated with the characters since I've been a child. The characters are more than drawings to me. They are living, breathing personalities and you've got to get that personality into your drawing. And the only way you can really project that personality of the characters is to really know the characters.
"I know their films inside and out. I have studied the studio and the animators. If you show me a cartoon from 1934, I can tell you which animators animated which scene. I am that close to it. All of this is to make the characters come to life on the page."
Don was born in Springfield, Mass. His mother nicknamed him "Ducky" because she loved the Donald Duck comic books.
"I know that everyone knows that Clarence Nash's nickname was also 'Ducky,'" Don told me. "My mother came by to visit me when I was working as an artist at Walt Disney World, and she told Ralph that she always called me 'Ducky.' Ralph loved that nickname and he started calling me it. He even went so far as to have an official Disney nametag made that said 'Ducky.' Today, you are not allowed to have nicknames on nametags but Ralph got it done. From then on, everyone called me 'Ducky'.
"In 1984, I met Clarence Nash in person. Along with Bill Justice and artist Russell Schroeder, we were to tour the country as part of the publicity campaign surrounding Donald Duck's 50th birthday. Clarence and I became friends and I have photos and things signed by him 'To Ducky from Ducky.' He had no problem letting me keep the nickname."
Don always tells the great story that at the age of 10 he first wrote to Walt Disney for a job as an artist: "Yes, that story is true. I even got a letter back from Walt himself that I still have! It is one of the treasures in my collection. It basically said that he had no openings for a ten year old artist at the time but to keep drawing!"
Don grew up "dirt poor" in Springfield in the late 1950s. When he graduated high school in the early 1960s, he joined the Navy (to avoid being drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam on the ground) and served for four years. When he returned, he knew he had to be practical, so instead of pursuing an art career, he became a teller in a bank and found himself eventually promoted to the branch manager.
He still kept practicing his art and at Christmastime would decorate the bank with dozens of paintings of scenes with Disney characters.
"Christmas and Disney just seem to go together," Don said.
A local 6 p.m. news anchorman came in and did a human interest story on Don's Disneymania, "Local Banker Paints Disney". A local policeman, who was Don's friend and without Don's knowledge, got a copy of the videotape of the presentation from the television station and sent it along with a letter to Ron Miller, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company. The Irish cop didn't ask Miller to hire Don in the letter, but told him to hire Don.
Two weeks later, Don got a letter from the Disney animation department in California explaining that while they were impressed with his art that there were no openings. Don was told if he still wanted to pursue an art career at Disney, he could contact Ralph Kent in Florida. Don immediately sent the tape to Ralph.
Don waited for four months and didn't hear anything. Finally, he phoned Walt Disney World and was connected to Ralph's secretary who said that he had received the tape but that Ralph hadn't had time to look at it yet. It was still on his desk.
"I don't blame him," Don told me. "Ralph was pretty busy in those days. Today, I have e-mails I haven't answered in quite a while."
Don was told that if he came down to Florida, the secretary would try to arrange a meeting. Don asked when Ralph might be available, took a vacation from the bank and brought down 60 pieces of finished art to show. Ralph and two other artists met with Don and reviewed the work for about 30 minutes without showing any expression.
He was told that, since he had no formal art training, he needed some polish. He was given reams and reams of official model sheets of the characters. He was to do some more work, using the model sheets as a guide, and then send them to Russell Schroeder, their top artist at the time, for critique. Schroeder would write back with corrections and comments.
Don returned to Massachusetts and that first week, after work at the bank, he would draw from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m. each night. He ended up finishing 100 drawings to send. He sent 100 drawings that first week. He sent another 100 drawings the second week. He sent another 100 drawings the third week. He continued to do that weekly amount of drawings for two years.
"I was afraid that if I cut back, they would think I was losing interest," Don said with a laugh.
Don was up for the job of vice president at his bank but he quit and moved to Florida, figuring it would be easier for Walt Disney World to hire him if he was in Orlando. He cashed in his pension and arrived in September in the late 1970s and found that Walt Disney World was not hiring because the busy summer rush was over. He went to the casting center looking for a job but there were no openings. With children back in school, WDW was cutting back hours on cast members who still had jobs.
He could have gotten a job at Suntrust Bank, but he refused to consider it to avoid being trapped in another bank. Instead, he took a job as a dining host at the Americana Dutch Inn on Hotel Plaza Boulevard (now the location of Wyndham Lake Buena Vista). It drove him crazy every time he saw Disney cast members come in to dine in the Flying Dutchman dining room and use their I.D.s to get a 25 percent discount.
"I wanted a mouse on my paycheck even if I was just selling popcorn," said Don with a laugh. He continued to go back to casting daily for three months and was willing to take any Disney job to get his foot in the door.
He was finally offered a third-shift graveyard custodian job at Walt Disney World Village (now the Downtown Disney area). However, after a little prodding he found out that there was also an opening for an artist to do portraits in chalk of guests in the park. The position needed a recommendation from the person in charge of the portrait drawings. Don went to the pay phone in the lobby and called Russell Schroeder who knew the guy in charge, since he worked in the office next door to him, and got Don an interview for the next day.
Don went to a local craft store and bought paper, chalk and more and did up portraits of Walt Disney, Jimmie Dodd and Roy Williams for the interview. It turned out that the person in charge of the portrait department was named Sam and had been a bank manager in Connecticut for 10 years, so the two hit it off perfectly. Don was finally hired.
Don had to go through training in a room in an attic of the Tomorrowland Terrace (now Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe) in Tomorrowland. An easel was set up and they brought up serving hosts so that Don could practice doing portraits. This was not a caricature but a realistic portrait. Don found that "if you can get the profile right, then the rest is just frosting." He spent three days training and was sent out into the park at the Fantasyland Art Festival building.
"It was $4 a portrait and the artist got to keep $1," he said. "The more portraits you did, the more money you earned. It was about volume. I was there for six weeks and then they closed down the Fantasyland Art Festival to put in an orange juice bar. [The area became The Enchanted Grove near the Mad Tea Party attraction.] I was moved to Mickey's Star Traders in Tomorrowland where I stocked shelves for four to five weeks. I now hand delivered my 100 drawings a week to Russell.
"The art department at the time was underneath the Magic Kingdom in the utilidoors," he said. "I would go down there constantly and finally, there was a temporary opening to increase the staff. To convince the manager of the department that I was the guy for the job, Russell brought in boxes and boxes of artwork that I had sent to show him. It was over 10,000 drawings. So I was loaned out to the art department for 30 days. At the end, if I did well and if they could swing an opening, they would hire me. If not, then it was back to running a cash register for the rest of my life.
"The first week I did nothing but practice drawing Mickey from all angles and every possible expression," Don said. "Eight hours a day. The second week it was just Donald. Mad, glad, upside down, whatever you could imagine. The third week was Goofy. Toward the end of the week, I was given an assignment and I thought "how can they not hire me if they have given me an assignment that won't be finished by my last day?" On the last day, I was working all day, figuring somebody would come by and say something. It was 5:30 p.m. and everyone was gone and hadn't said anything. I just decided to come back the next day until they told me not to. I've been working there for over 30 years.
"Of course, things changed over the years," he added. "Ralph Kent was in charge and he was connected with WED Imagineering. Then it was moved to Resort Design and Advertising and there were 16 artists. Half did realistic art, like buildings, and the other half just did the characters. Today, I am part of Yellow Shoes Marketing and with some artists going over to Disney Design Group, some being laid off, some moving over to animation when Disney MGM Studios opened, etc., I am now just a department of one. I do all the Disney Cruise Line brochures, mailers, billboards, lithographs and pretty much the same for Disney Vacation Club, as well."
While producing all that advertising art (and Don does both the characters and the realistic drawings…I once saw him do a freehand sketch of Spaceship Earth that couldn't have been more perfect if he had used the most precise instruments) and those special limited-edition prints would be more than enough to overfill the work schedule of any artist, Don has been involved in many other Disney achievements.
Tony's Town Square Restaurant on Main Street U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom is an unknown artistic tribute to Don "Ducky" Williams.
"I did the artwork for all the china, signage, menus, etc. In fact, when it first opened, it had plates, saucers, creamers and more with my Lady and the Tramp artwork on it. They found the guests loved it so much that they kept stealing it so they replaced them with regular china. The remainder they had they sold at Disneyana conventions. Do you see all those framed paintings on the wall? There are 12 of them and I did them all. Those are the original paintings framed under glass, not prints or reproductions. If they ever change out that place, I would love to have those back to put up in my house," said Don with justifiable pride.
When it came time to build Mickey Mouse's house in Mickey's Birthday Land, they came to Don and Russell Schroeder.
"We were amazed that they knew nothing about Mickey. 'What does his house look like inside?' Just look at the cartoons. That's what the inside of Mickey's house looks like. Russell and I designed all the furniture. We went to Home Depot to pick out carpeting and wallpaper. Mickey had a den and they had no props so I brought in my own: a snow globe of WDW, my Disneyland records, Disney books, etc. When they changed it over to sports stuff, they removed all that stuff and I never got it back. I wonder where it is today?" pondered Don.
"There is a funny story of how I met Michael Jackson," said Don with a smile. "H. R. Russell was busy doing the Captain EO poster and he did a great job. But he had to keep changing the painting because Lucas, Coppolla, Jackson and who knows who else had to approve it. So Jackson was going to be coming in the next day and someone rushed into my office and asked me if I could do a painting of Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk to give to him as a gift. I said, 'No problem. Just one thing. Who is Michael Jackson and what is a Moonwalk?' So they took me into a room and showed me a video.
"I stayed there all night and finished it at 4 a.m.," he said. "Ralph comes in and says, 'Stay in your office. I want to bring him by so he can thank you for the painting'. So I am waiting and waiting and waiting and it is getting to be lunch time and I really have to go to the bathroom which is in another trailer. Finally, I tell someone where I am going and will be back in a few minutes and I run to the other trailer. In there, is a guy talking about seeing Jackson who he explains left 20 minutes ago. I come back and Ralph is there looking sheepish and explaining that Michael had to leave. I said, 'I forgive you this time but if you ever pull this type of baloney if Annette or Hayley Mills shows up…..'
"Later, I did meet Michael who wanted to learn how to draw Mickey Mouse. So we were together in a room for a half hour with me teaching him how to draw Mickey. He was the nicest person. The next time I met him, I had drawn him a Peter Pan. He loved that character," Don said.
In addition, Don illustrated 200 different Disney children's books in 18 years.
"The first one was Mickey's Prince and the Pauper. (Little Golden Book, December 1990). Russell Schroeder had gotten the job and he just wanted to draw it and have me paint it. I told him I would if I got credit which I did. When the second book came up, Russell had the flu very badly and couldn't do it and meet the deadline so I just illustrated it myself. Since this was in addition to my regular role, I got paid extra and I used that money to travel and to take my relatives traveling. Ironically, one of my sisters just wanted to go to Walt Disney World. That saved me a lot of money but we had fun. I told her we could go to London but she wanted to come here," Don said with a laugh.
One thing that was an iconic piece of furniture in his office but he recently moved to his house was an animation desk that he had purchased many years ago. It belonged to Disney Legend Frank Thomas
While Don is not a dinosaur when it comes to being adept at using a computer, he insists on doing his drawings and painting the old-fashioned way with pencil and paint. On occasion he has done Disney characters on computer but he doesn't care for it.
"Buzz, Woody, all those Pixar characters, they were meant to be done that way….but when you do Cinderella, it just looks like she is made of plastic," grumbled Don, one of the very, very few grumbles to ever come from him.
For those who have met Don in person, it is instantly clear how beloved he is by his audience, his peers, Disney fans and everyone else. I felt it was time to shine a small spotlight in the direction of a hardworking, skilled craftsman who has brought so much joy to the world but has been largely forgotten by the Disney Company. He's just ducky