Celebrating Marc Davis

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Legendary animator and Imagineer Marc Davis would have turned 101 about two weeks ago on March 30, if he had not died January 12, 2000. It continues to sadden me that most of Walt Disney's "original cast" are no longer with us to share their stories.

It makes me treasure even more those who are still around like Rolly Crump, Bob Gurr and Marc's wife, Alice. Alice purposely stayed in Marc's shadow, despite the fact that she was incredibly talented herself and one of the most delightful conversational partners in the world.

I recall her telling me one time, "I believe in happy endings. If you aren't happy, then it just means it is not the end yet."

This year, her late husband will be celebrated with an exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum titled "Leading Ladies and Femmes Fatales: The Art of Marc Davis," which will be on view in the museum's Theater Gallery from April 30 to November 3, 2014.

In addition, due to be released by Disney Editions this coming October is the book Marc Davis: Walt Disney's Renaissance Man.

And, of course, when the Disney live-action film, Maleficent, opens in May, I hope people remember that Davis designed the original character and animated her in Disney's animated feature Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Basically, it is a year long celebration of what would have been his 101st birthday.

Who knows? With the incredible success of the Disney animated feature film Frozen, Disney might dust off Marc's concept of a theme park attraction titled "The Enchanted Snow Palace."

The massive white and blue show building would have looked like a glacier. However, slowly, as guests got closer and looked more carefully, they would have realized that it seemed almost like carvings of towers, windows, doors, and more.

Guests would have boarded a boat (just like on "it's a small world") to drift pass dancing Audio-Animatronics polar bears, walruses, penguins and more to the music from "The Nutcracker's Suite." Soon, the guests would drift into a snow cave with frost fairies (like the ones in the film Fantasia) and snow giants carrying icicle clubs. Eventually, the boats would come to the throne room of the Snow Queen herself, who is about to leave on her sled for her journey through her kingdom.

To speed her passage, she conjures up a blizzard and the guests are caught in a brief snow storm just before they exit into the hot summer reality of Fantasyland. Davis felt that a leisurely beautiful, literally cool attraction that could be enjoyed by guests of all ages would have been embraced by guests eager to get out of the heat.

However, at an estimated cost of $15 million, the Disney company decided to pass and look to more thrilling rather than artistic experiences.

Marc was the only one of the fabled "Nine Old Men" who Walt had work on his projects for the 1964-65 World's Fair and for Disneyland Park.

"I rarely felt confined to the animation medium. I worked as an idea man and loved creating characters, whether they be for animation or any other medium," Davis recalled.

He joined the Disney Studios in 1935 as an assistant to Grim Natwick on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He moved over to story sketching, and his work on Bambi resulted in Walt having Milt Kahl and Frank Thomas teach Davis how to be an animator so that Walt could see Davis' work on the screen.

In particular, Marc was lauded for his work on the female characters, including Cinderella, Tinker Bell, Maleficent, and Cruella DeVille. In the early 1960s, he moved over to WED (now known as Walt Disney Imagineering) where he was significantly involved in freshening the Jungle Cruise attraction, as well as coming up with story and character concepts for Country Bear Jamboree, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, to name just a few of his assignments.

After 43 years with the Disney Company, Davis retired in 1978, but continued to consult on projects, including Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland. He first met his talented wife, Alice, while she was a student in one of the weekly classes he taught for 17 years at Chouinard. Alice Davs designed the costumes for the Audio-Animatronics characters featured in Pirates of the Caribbean and "it's a small world" attractions as well as many other accomplishments.

"Walt Disney could see wonderful things in his mind that others just couldn't see. For example, look at Mickey Mouse, only Walt Disney could have created such a character; he doesn't even look like a real mouse," Marc Davis said with a laugh.

While I had met and listened to him speak many times over the years, the last time I saw him was in September 1998 when he and Alice came out to Walt Disney World for an official Disneyana convention. During the week they were out in Florida, they visited Disney Feature Animation Florida and Walt Disney World Imagineering.

They also dropped by the Disney Institute, where I was working as an animation instructor. In one of the small classrooms, he squeezed behind one of the animation desks and turned to page 12 in the Chanticleer book I had given him to autograph. (Chanticleer and the Fox: A Chaucerian Tale published by Disney Press in 1991 and featuring concept art by Marc Davis for the unproduced animated feature.)

"You know what's wrong with this picture?" he asked, and I froze because I was looking at the page that featured his character concept sketch of Reynard the fox and could only see brilliant work that I would never be able to duplicate.

He took a pen and sketched in a cigarette and a cigarette holder in the outstretched hand of the fox.

"They left that out. Politically incorrect, I guess," he said and then autographed the book to me.

Surrounded by a half-dozen other animation instructors from the Disney Institute, I began to ask him some questions. He was in a particularly sentimental mood, remembering some of the people he worked with in his early years in animation.

I also think he was appreciative that I didn't ask the standard questions about Tinker Bell or Haunted Mansion since he had covered his career in Disney animation and that particular theme park attraction many times before and probably had answered recently those same questions for others during his Florida trip.

This was not a formal interview but more of an off-the-cuff discussion and while he talked, he graciously drew a caricature of himself in the Disney Institute Animation guest book. Alice drew a sketch of one of the Eskimo children from the "it's a small world" attraction that she costumed. Unfortunately, both those original drawings were lost when the Disney Institute went through a re-organization.

Here's is an excerpt from that interview on that day concentrating on his work at Disneyland. To read the entire interview, pick up a copy of Walt's People Volume 7.

Jim Korkis: When you moved to WED, the first things Walt had you work on were the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland and revitalizing the Jungle Cruise attraction.

Marc Davis: Actually, the first thing I did for Disneyland was the mermaid figurehead on the Chicken of the Sea Pirate ship. I designed that and Chris Mueller sculptured it.

JK: I never knew that.

MD: Later, Walt asked me, "Hey, Marc, think up some things that the train could see on the outside of some of these attractions." I did several sketches, like cannibals cooking a guy in a pot who was wearing a Mickey Mouse hat. Over by Tomorrowland I had a flying saucer that had crashed and little green spacemen. None of those ever got built. When I did the sketch of the trapped safari and the rhino, he saw that and he laughed like hell. "That's too good to go outside." So he put it inside as a major part of the attraction. With the Jungle ride we were trying to make it more exotic, a little more interesting than just a boring travelogue. I made a drawing of this huge man eating plant gag but I was never able to get Walt to buy off on it.

JK: At the same time, you did the elephant bathing pool.

MD: There was no real humor on any of the Disneyland rides and I wanted to put some in there.

I put in the elephant pool and I did idea sketches of what the elephants would look like and what they would be doing. I did the Florida version, as well, which has quite a few differences since there is more space in Florida. I made the headhunter at the end of the ride South American because that is the only place they shrink heads.

JK: I know you've told me you had some concerns about the elephant bathing pool.

MD: The original attraction they had done the big African elephant so we were pretty sure they could do an elephant. That wasn't the problem. I went down there with Walt after putting all these elephants in there. I knew there was no way anybody could go through that ride and see all these elephants. "You know, Walt, nobody is going to be able to see all these things at one time."

He slapped me on the back, "Hell, that's great, Marc. We do such a repeat business here, each time they come through they'll have something more to see."

And that philosophy became like a Bible for the park. It's true of the Pirates ride. We have guests saying "I never saw that before" and it's always been there. We got marvelous sculpture done on the elephants. You can't compliment Blaine Gibson enough for supervising the doing of these things. We had people who were incredible.

JK: Over the years, of course, there have been some changes.

MD: The Irrawaddy River used to be called the Mekong River. When Vietnam and that thing was going on, I thought that was a pretty crummy thing for a bunch of G.I.s to come back and having bad experiences there and telling them that they are back on the Mekong River. So it became the Irrawaddy. That's what we used to do. That's something you have to do. Do it right for the public.

JK: So unlike animation, you realized that your work at the theme parks might get changed?

MD: I always designed every thing like it was going to last forever. I don't like to go there and see things I've done changed unless it's done better. I don't like the idea of changing things just to be changing things. I know the philosophy is if you have something different, people will come in droves and to see those things and I suppose that is true. If it's not better than the thing before, then I have some personal resentment.

JK: It must have been gratifying to see your concept sketches become three-dimensional figures.

MD: I don't know. You do something here. Now, it goes through a sculptor's head, then it goes over through a mold maker's head, then it goes through a machinist's head, then it goes through a lot of electrical engineers' heads, then costume people's heads and there it is. It's gone through a lot of heads since yours.

Sometimes they are very gratifying. I guess I know how Walt felt, "We'll fix it up next time."

There were some things I did on the Pirate's ride that didn't get in and I remember Walt saying, "Oh, we got to get this thing open. You can add that six months from now." You never added anything six months later.

Walt never lived to see the Pirate ride finished. He did walk through some things we had at WED. We did program the scenes at WED. The first thing we programmed looked pretty good but we did something we didn't have to do. The auctioneer pirate had more moves than the Abraham Lincoln figure. He was a very sophisticated figure. But it was the way you see if from the moving boat.

All these little details, all of the variations we had of the mouth moving didn't mean a thing. A Charlie McCarthy-type of operation would have worked just as well. But every one of these things gets done and you learn something.

How do you look at something? How do people see this?

I also learned that the only time hair on a leg gets a laugh is in the Pirates attraction. The guy dangling his foot off the bridge.

When something is done right at the park, we study it.

JK: So you learned from the Disneyland Pirates attraction to simplify the movements?

MD: The early days, we were so afraid, we would work out a whole pattern of animation but we learned when you built the figure there were some limitations. The figure would do what the figure would do. So, after Disneyland's Pirates I stopped being so detailed in my sketches as to the movements except in the most general sense that an action had to be repeated over and over and read clearly for the audience floating by it.

In the Florida version, I wanted to eliminate the having to ride up that ramp at the end of the last scene because the story is over after you've seen the last scene. In Disneyland, because of the physical space, we had to take them back up, and I don't think it helped the ride.

JK: One of my favorites at Disneyland that disappeared much too soon was America Sings.

MD: On that attraction I kept thinking: "How long can you keep these characters alive and doing something different?" We did only a chorus or a verse of the songs. Burl Ives who did the eagle for us came up to me and said, "I like what you guys did with those songs. When you have to sing along with those things all the way through it gets pretty damn boring."

This America Sings looks more like my drawings than any other.

JK: Did the owl have a name?

MD: The owl in America Sings we just called the owl. Sam was the name of the eagle for obvious reasons. Uncle Sam.

JK: I think most Disney fans remember your work on the Haunted Mansion.

MD: We did a lot of versions of the Haunted Mansion. We had interesting things, like the ghosts coming out of a hearse and floating through the door to the party. I did a number of different versions of scenes in the Haunted Mansion. I did sketches of a spider creature with a lot of legs playing the organ in the party scene. I had a sketch where a ghost was coming out of the séance ball and scaring the medium. I did a ghost lion tamer, a ghost boxer, a ghost carpenter building a casket. Had a bat in a birdcage hanging upside down from the perch. I thought some witches would be fun for the graveyard and then changed my mind.

I always felt "try everything." It is very difficult to choose between one. Whenever I worked on something like this, I tried everything that would come to mind.

JK: Was that your philosophy when you worked on the Country Bear Jamboree?

MD: I patterned the funny teeth of one of the Country Bears after a guy I knew (Imagineer Harper Goff); used Cliff Arquette's short necktie for another of the bears. I tried many different things like a female bear in a small tutu playing the piano. Had a bear playing a clarinet that I thought looked funny.

Had a bear playing a tuba and Walt loved that. He laughed so hard. Those drawings were the last drawings Walt ever saw before he died. He sat down in my room at WED for awhile but he looked awful. But he chuckled over this group of drawings and he left and turned and said, "Goodbye, Marc" and I never saw him alive after that. He never said "goodbye" before just something like "see you later" or something.

The drawings Walt saw had all kinds of bears, not just a country band but a jazz band, a circus band. A lot of choices. I had a one bear band in a red outfit with all these instruments he was playing.

JK: Were you satisfied how these drawings were translated into three-dimensions?

MD: When they finished the Bear Band Jamboree, a few of the machinists came to me and said, "Gee, Marc, this is the first time we ever did anything that looked like your drawings."

These guys were very proud of what they had done. When I first started with them, they said, "You tell us what you want and we'll do it."

How do you know what you want? Nobody had ever done things like this before. Most of the things were wrong. We had sculptors who could do things that had already been done like making a Statue of Liberty. They could do that. But when you put them on a figure, they would put in all these muscles and a lot of other things that weren't necessary.

Really, all we were doing was creating an illusion, something that would move a suit around in the right way like a mannequin. Trying to get these guys to do something like a body for a mannequin would have been better in some places than these big, unchanging mechanical biceps and muscles and things.

The end result was what I wanted? Not always. Rarely. I don't think I've ever said it on anything I've done. What I appreciated over the years though is when they are entertaining and when you see people reacting to them and saying "wow" or laughing at the right place.

It's tough to bring things to life. When you take two characters and put them together characters can come to life.

JK: Can you give me an example?

MD: Walt sent me to Nature's Wonderland at Disneyland. They had two little kit foxes. This was before Audio-Animatronics, so the mechanical movements were limited. One of them had his head going up and down, and then, about a 100 yards away was another one with his head going side to side. When I put them together facing each other, almost nose to nose, it looked like one was saying "yes" and the other was saying "no." You have something that reads as an idea and it comes to life.

Things don't become alive by themselves. It is very difficult to take and do one single character and have them do a song and dance. Where do they look? At the audience? Break the fourth wall? That's really not that interesting. But as soon as their eyes hit another character and that character reacts, then they come to life. That's true of the human characters and the cartoon animals.



  1. By stan4d_steph

    I'm really looking forward to the upcoming exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum. I just joined after going to see the Mary Blair exhibit, and look forward to spending more time there over the coming year.

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.