Imagineer Eddie Sotto Interview - Part Two: Herb Ryman, Disneyland Paris and More

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Eddie Sotto is a former Disney Imagineer who worked for the Walt Disney Company for 13 years. He remains one of the top designers and mixed-media producers in the world and is the founder in 2004 of SottoStudios. It is recommended that you visit his website.

Last week, Sotto talked about his ideas for re-doing New Orleans Square at Disneyland. This week he finishes by talking about being inspired by Herb Ryman, his plans for a Roaring Twenties Main Street U.S.A., and more.

Jim Korkis: I know that one of your biggest influences at Imagineering was Herb Ryman. How would you describe him?

Eddie Sotto: Herb was a pretty complex person. What I liked about him most was that he was his own person first and a Disney artist second. This had a big effect on me, because Disney can overtake you as an identity. He was very confident in his artistic skills and this gave him the confidence to confront Walt Disney and actually turn him down.

He never wanted to be an employee of Disney, always a consultant and they gave him a certain degree of independence and that created an atmosphere with Walt himself that Ryman was sought after and never abused, at least until after Walt passed.

JK: What was your first meeting with Herb like?

ES: Herb used to consult with Gary Goddard Productions, a theme park design firm that I worked for. Gary brought Herbie into my office and showed off my story boards and I was very honored to meet him because I knew of his legendary status. After looking at my work pinned to the wall, Gary asked what he thought of them.

Ryman looked down at the floor and said to Gary, "Well, they're not very good." I have to admit that I was not thrilled at that moment as I was mortally wounded in front of my boss. But I got over it. In case you're curious, they weren't very good drawings.

I may have brought that up to him years later and I think he laughed about the whole thing. Herb had a way of being incredibly cynical when he wanted to be. He was a good writer as well and always used his vocabulary to the greatest effect.

JK: What was the process like of working with Herb on the Indiana Jones Adventure and Adventureland re-do in 1995 at Disneyland?

ES: Everyone told me that he would never work for me because he just liked to tell stories and was not very productive. My method was to listen to as many stories as I could. Who wouldn't? And then just become a good friend and because of that he did turn out lots of sketches and ideas for Indiana Jones based on discussions we would have. His famous specifically vague painting of Indiana Jones in front of the temple was something that Michael Eisner noticed as a really fine piece of art and stopped in his tracks in a meeting and said, "Who did that?"

Rendering of Disneyland Paris that would have had a Roaring Twenties themed Main Street U.S.A.

JK: What was the process like of working with Herb on Main Street for EuroDisneyland?

ES: I wanted to work with Herb because I wanted to understand the DNA of why people come to Main Street and why when Europeans came they would care at all. There had to be a deeper reason to sense the design. Herb did lots of sketches and a few overviews over a period of months, but he was getting sicker and sicker with cancer. It's a miracle that he did as much as he did and I'm very grateful for everything that he gave to us. He was a great teacher. He taught me the value of research. He taught me the value of composition and understanding what should and should not be an illustration.

JK: What are some of the other things you feel you have learned from Herb?

ES: He used to say "bad taste costs no more." The quote came from a book that was popular years ago called "good taste costs no more." Herb taught me to be a research fanatic, student of life and history first, as that will bring more value to the work you do in a theme park. You are always teaching. So, it's just as expensive to do a bridge that is based on history as it is to just think of something generic. His example of this was in Liberty Square doing the Concord bridge that leads into the land.

When he heard I was going to Paris he gave me a list of historic places to go and see. He once said to me that history grabbed him by the throat. He also said that the librarians at the research library are the people you should treat the best in the company because they are really responsible for your success. Good reference and research informs great design.

He also taught me about restraint and creating focus in illustrations. I took that advice and translated it into design for real places. If everything is special, nothing is special, so you want to design to give the eye a treat AND a rest, like in Herb's great illustrations. He paints the verbs not the nouns.

JK: How did he treat you as one of the "new generation" of Imagineers?

ES: So many people were friends of Herb. I believe I can count him as a friend and vice versa. I know his sister wanted me to do the eulogy for his funeral service but I was in Europe. The nicest thing that indicated our friendship was that he used to take me to the retirees lunch (called "The Dinosaurs") with many of the notable Disney legends. When he got too sick to go, he offered his chair at the table to me. Something I consider to be more valuable than any painting or sketch Herb could've given me.

JK: What was Herb's relationship like with the original Imagineers?

ES: Herb had a cynical resentment for John Hench and it would leak out at times with a funny jab. Herb was not interested in power or being in management or anything like that. I think there was a bit of a resentment because Hench took on a dominant management role. I came much later, so I never experienced any of that. John was extremely mellow then and nice to me, extremely complimentary of almost everything I brought it to his office to approve.

JK: When did you become aware of how ill Herb was?

ES: I can't recall exactly when I became aware of it other than his appointments became more frequent and his energy level continued to decline. I would visit him in the hospital and at home when he was in bed. It was a very sad time. I was also under incredible deadline pressure on the Paris project, so I would leave the country for weeks at a time so I can't say that I watched the fade out of Herb that closely. I could see him when I was in town, or would call him on the phone from Paris, and I know he really enjoyed taking those calls. We would talk on the phone for quite some time and I really treasure that.

JK: Did he share with you what he felt was one of his favorite Disney projects?

ES: I think developing the design of the Cinderella Castle and the Disneyland castle were things that he really took pride in. He mentioned to me that the Florida castle was supposed to have a glockenspiel type of mechanism of the prince and Cinderella right above the entry portal. I think he wished they would've followed through and done that. New Orleans Square was another area I think he was proud of as well. There are many paintings he has done that we would all consider to be fantastic but he was disappointed with. Herb held his own work up to tough scrutiny. I would rave about some sketch only for him to knock it. Funny how we see ourselves.

Herb Ryman and Eddie Sotto counted each other as friends, even though they were from different generations of Imagineers.

JK: How do you think Herb should be remembered?

ES: As an extremely talented illustrator that brought sophistication and depth to everything he contributed to the company. He was his own person. When you look at his work, you see what people call Disney quality. It's warm, it's deep, and it is informed by life.

JK: To me another sadly forgotten Imagineer is Bruce Gordon.

ES: Bruce Gordon happened to be the person that I would sneak "spy photos" of the Victorian theme park project I was working on directly to Tony Baxter. Bruce and I would have lunch and I would give him an envelope of pictures and he would take those directly to Tony. We got along well. Tony seeing these pictures, and connecting them to earlier meetings we had, caused him to want to hire me directly from Gary Goddard into Imagineering at a vice president level to direct and design Main Street. I am thankful for Bruce facilitating that!

He was tremendously loyal to Tony and I know he was dedicated heart and soul to re-imagining Disneyland as Tony Baxter saw it. He understood Baxter's brilliance (we all did) and Tony really needed him, because Bruce was more confrontational and got things done and asked for forgiveness later.

As I recall, Bruce Gordon was the captain of his debate team in school. It was very difficult to out argue him, even Tony would debate him at times. Bruce was not a "yes" man and Tony appreciated that as well. Having someone like that is a healthy thing as you test what you know and Tony, to his credit, was open to that. They had very complementary skills. I believe that if Bruce thought you were some kind of a threat to whatever Tony's vision was, then you were immediately on his radar. He was the most loyal design manager Tony Baxter has ever had and could ever hope to have. Tony owes much to Bruce (and Bruce to Tony for that matter) and he has always been Gordon's biggest supporter.

His book with David Mumford on the postcards of Disneyland was really a breakthrough in cataloguing history in a way that we could visually track it. He did a lot of other historic contributions as well, but my favorite was the "Nickel Tour" book.

JK: You thought for about a year to turning the clock ahead on Main Street in EuroDisneyland to the Roaring Twenties.

ES: The 19th-century American Main Street was not something Europeans have a yearning for or for that matter even can relate to. Tony felt the same way. I felt like we were building something that had no nostalgic connection whatsoever. Even the architectural styles are drawn from Europe yet interpreted an American way that you may understand. The company was dead set on replicating Main Street from WDW or Tokyo and Tony would have none of it, especially that glass roof.

I think American culture is extremely interesting when presented in the right way, but Europeans think of America as the unique things, like jazz, like the bigger cities and so forth. So I guess the motivation to turn the clock forward was to find more relevant connections as to what Europeans perceive America to be and what's fun about it.

Tony was really behind all of that. We both loved the urban Victorian feel of the film Hello Dolly! so that was where the El Train came from and all of the billboards and graphic intensity. It was a good model for where we wanted to take things.

I was really inspired by the Billy Wilder comedy film with Marilyn Monroe, Some Like It Hot. To me, this was a movie that Europeans really enjoyed and also took us into the '20s and made it really fun.

The gangsters were goofy, the police were goofier, and of course, there was the greatest speakeasy of all time that began in a funeral parlor and was the entry to a raging Jazz Club. We really thought that that would be an exciting show for Europeans.

I also felt that American artists like Edward Hopper and his "Nighthawks Diner" painting deserved to be dimensionalized into real places on our '20s Main Street. Europeans know their American art, so why not use art and artists as inspiration for key architecture? Stuff like that.

Selfishly, I really didn't want to spend five years photocopying Walt Disney World's Main Street. When the 1920s scheme was abandoned by Mr. Eisner, I tried to infuse the Main Street with as many lost elements as possible as "every prisoner has a right to attempt an escape!" I think we did pretty good at infusing Main Street with "Americana," like the Statue of Liberty, baseball, etc. Tony as always was very supportive of all of it. Great to work for him as I clearly knew what my mission was. Make it amazing!

Eisner somewhat famously misread the 1920s concept as being the seedy, gangland "Untouchables" side of America and feared we were straying too far from the formula and that our version portrayed a "loss of innocence." It was also more expensive. He did not understand that we were doing funny Keystone Cops, not Elliot Ness. I never had the chance to explain that as when I returned from vacation it had been decided. Go back to the WDW version. A year's work was scrapped and we were then a year behind the other lands. Later on a trip with Michael, he turns to me and says that we were right, we should have done the '20s idea as they would have loved it! Oh well.

JK: When you went back to a traditional Main Street you incorporated a lot of references to Walt Disney?

ES: Yes. Building a Disneyland on European soil is the largest constructed cultural export in the history of United States. The French gave us a Statue of Liberty, and we responded by giving them Disneyland.

To me, creating a cultural (non-political) statement that goes beyond the expected was a bit of a mission. Part of that mission, was to introduce Walt Disney as a person, not a logo. The reason the Main Street exists is because he had a fondness for his own hometown.

As long as I was forced to do a 19th-century Main Street, it may as well have been his vision. Walt's Restaurant is meant to be a storytelling vehicle to help people see Walt Disney the person, and how his personal fascinations fueled everything from steam trains to the transition from gas to electric. Sharon [Disney Lund, his daughter] and her kids came through opening day and really loved it.

As a Disney fan myself, Main Street wanted to be "by a fan for other fans." Burying those small details all over the place still gives people the thrill even more than 25 years later. Don't get me wrong, I don't see Walt Disney as a God. In fact, it's quite the opposite. He's a curious wonderful person just like the rest of us and just wants to make us laugh and have a good time.

He lived a difficult life and just as much as anyone needed Disneyland to be that escape from the day to day grind. Main Street stirred my imagination as a child and so I quietly promised myself that if I ever had the chance to be one of those people who thought of attractions for the park, (something I remember saying when I was five years old), that I would want to put in things that made it seamless. I wanted to make Main Street that place when you really would believe that people really lived upstairs, just like I thought when I was a small boy. "Suspending disbelief" is wonderful job description.

JK: What are your feelings about Walt?

ES: Have some mixed feelings about Walt because I don't deify him the way some do. I admire a lot of his great qualities and sincerity though. In a strange way I think Walt built the park for himself as a means of survival, not financially, but emotionally. He had an apartment there to get away from his own machine that he had to feed up in Burbank. He created his own therapeutic remedy and knew others would crave it, too. I've heard so many stories from insiders, both good and bad. I guess I have empathy for him more than anything else.

He really had to struggle for the projects he felt passionate about and even with all that fame, he still had to mortgage his house to make the park happen. He sure brought a lot of happiness to those he entertained. I love that the slogan at one time was "Look to the name Walt Disney for the finest in family entertainment." And it was! So great.

JK: You would have been about 7 years old when he passed away, so was it that you rediscovered him through reruns of his television show?

ES: My impressions of Walt and WED were created by watching the Sunday night television shows and seeing previews of the attractions being built. I really was not a regular viewer of the Disney shows at all. I was more a fan of the Parks. But when there was a special previewing something new for the park (like Pirates) I was very excited to watch it.

Walt Disney lives for me in the standards he left behind because I was not around when he was alive. I admired that someone could go on vacation and bring back a Monorail or a Matterhorn. The very notion that he would create a land of the park that would demonstrate the future with Monorails and Peoplemovers, and then to top it all off with a model of Progress City that you may go to live someday, really captures the essence of a fearless visionary.

A favorite thing about Walt Disney is that he tried to create entertainment that speaks to the better nature in people and believed that there was a good side in everyone. I tried to practice that as the things that we take on want to be upbuilding not degrading.

JK: Any great stories you heard about Walt from the Imagineers?

ES: I heard a great story from one of the first…before there was the name Imagineer…an old amusement operator David Bradley. A legend in the business, I had the privilege to work with him years ago and he told me this. He owned and operated Beverly Park, a celebrity kiddieland that Walt would take his daughters to on occasion. Bradley told me that he was disturbed by the fact that Walt was constantly inspecting and observing how he ran all the rides over there. At one point, he approached Walt and asked why he was looking at everything.

Walt asked him what he would do if you had all the money in the world. Bradley, gruffly reminded Walt that he was a kiddieland operator and doesn't have all the money in the world! Disney kept the chat going and eventually Bradley became a design consultant to Disneyland.

Bradley told me he pitched ideas like the "Hub Plaza" and other innovations. One story was how Walt wanted the Casey Junior locomotive to talk to each child when it was in the station. Walt was really excited describing how it would say "Happy Birthday Jimmy, etc."

Bradley told him that was a "really stupid idea" and this angered Walt. How dare he! Dave explained that if you do that with one kid, every kid will want to talk with the train and it will never leave the station. Mothers would insist it pay attention to their child. Disaster. Walt eventually dropped the idea.

He reportedly convinced Walt that was a bad idea to have Midway style "Games of Chance" in his park because they only rip-off customers. Walt agreed he did not want that in his park. Interesting.

My favorite quote from Dave was this. "The best rides are the ones that happen to you" I'm sure he told that to Walt, too.

JK: Eddie, thank you so much for sharing these stories with us. They could have been lost forever but now they have a new life.