WED Exit Interviews

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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WED Exit Interviews

Back in the "old days," most of the Imagineering team had been with the Disney Company for decades, often moving over from other jobs like animation. Unfortunately, after Walt's death, the Disney Company often forced these talented craftsmen into retirement when they reached a certain age even though they were still full of skill and new ideas. The Disney Company realized that fact too late, and sometimes brought them back as occasional consultants on new projects such as Epcot Center.

Walt Disney Imagineering was originally known as WED (Walt Disney's initials) and some claim that Walt felt that WED was his special "laughing place" in his final decade or so of life because it inspired him just as animation had in the 1930s.

When the older Imagineers retired, they often gave a final exit interview, sharing some stories and final bits of wisdom since no one was clever enough to sit them down and do an in-depth interview. To me, it is exciting to hear from people who actually knew and worked with Walt and get their perspective on their projects.

From my files, here are excerpts from three of the "exit" interviews done in the mid-1970s with Bill Martin, Marc Davis and Ken Anderson. Again, there was no consistency in how the interviews were handled, what questions were asked so I have picked a couple of "key" quotes to spotlight. For those who may not recognize these names, I've supplied a short paragraph or two summarizing some of their accomplishments.

Bill Martin was the Vice President of Design at WED when he retired in 1977. Originally a movie studio art director and set designer, he came to Walt Disney Productions in 1953 to assist in the design of Disneyland.

For Walt Disney World, Martin played a key role in developing the master layout of the Magic Kingdom, worked with the architectural design on Main Street and Cinderella Castle, the utilidoors beneath the Magic Kingdom and the canal systems.

He also headed the design for various watercraft at Walt Disney World including the Admiral Joe Fowler and Richard F. Irvine riverboats, steam launches and sidewheel steamboats.

Before his retirement, Martin did a quick farewell interview for WED in May 1977. He was made a Disney Legend in 1994.

WED: How did you happen to come to work for Disney on the plans for an outdoor attraction like Disneyland since your background was set designing and art direction for the movie studios?

Martin: I was working in set design at 20th Century Fox in 1953 when I got a call from Disney. Harper Goff had worked up some original concepts for a Disneyland and several of us were assembled to continue with them. Walt had mostly animators working for him at that time and he wanted people with experience like mine in actual set designing and architecture to help build Disneyland.

WED: What was it like working out the first Disneyland concepts, the problems of designing an outdoor attraction unlike any that existed at the time?

Martin: Well, in 1954 we got the go-ahead and we had a lot of momentum. We didn't know what we couldn't do in those days. We had nothing to go on because nothing had ever been built like Disneyland before. We toured "amusement parks" as they were around the country in those days but they had little creative impetus to offer us, so we went to work on something entirely new using the Disney movies, of course, for story material.

WED: What was it like behind the scenes opening day? Were you ready for the crowds?

Martin: Walt was committed to televising the opening so we had to open. Behind the scenes, the Pirate Boat was painted on one side and they laid cables and water lines in such a hurry that they had no time to go by the drawings and we're still discovering where they put everything. The day before opening we thought we were going to lose the theme building because there was a gas leak in the castle and the little blue flames sprouted up around its base. There were photographers there trying to take pictures of it but we got it all under control before anything happened. The public's enthusiasm for the new Disneyland was exciting from the beginning; everyone was elated.

WED: Specifically what were you involved with in the original Disneyland design?

Martin: I was the "art director" for Fantasyland. The castle was the main thing and it went through quite a few transformations before the design was finalized. It was a composite dream castle. I also did the exteriors of the Snow White attraction and Peter Pan, which was the first time an aerial ride like that had ever been done. There was no prototype for what we did, we contracted with the Cleveland Tram Company and began testing and modifying their system at the studio.

WED: How did everyone involved celebrate the opening of Disneyland?

Martin: There were several parties. One I remember in particular was a house wrecking party. We tore apart the old construction headquarters, literally. The pace had been so hectic that we let off steam tearing up the banisters and throwing the plumbing out the window.

WED: What was it like working for Walt Disney? What made him special?

Martin: I think he was what kept me working for WED instead of going back to the studios. He was a taskmaster but he knew what would go, what would be a winner. It was such a contrast from the movie studio I was used to where there was nothing but indecision. Walt was a refreshing one-man boss. He felt if it was worth doing it should be done right. He was a perfectionist. I don't know where he got it, but he was a visionary. He brought animation to life. He was always on to new things. If he were here today, I think he would be in space!

WED: Most of us feel working at WED is a unique experience. How do you explain the nature of WED?

Martin: I can't think of another design organization that covers all the bases-sculpture, sound, art, model building, train building, boat building. Each area plays off the next and produces a complete product that's all our own. We give things the Disney twist. We're in the entertainment business. We make people laugh.

WED: How would you sum up your career at WED and how have you seen the company grow over the years?

Martin: WED today has grown up from a house mainly of artists to include research, marketing and planning people. We show our work to outside companies and we do that the same way we always have. We take imaginative renderings and build them in 3D. Walt always wanted to see the details of an idea worked out in a model. We're still doing that today. My career here was fun. You know if Walt didn't like an idea he would shelve it, but he never forgot it and it would show up again in a little different circumstance. I have a lot of ideas here in my files that haven't been used yet. Maybe they'll come to life with a little different twist themselves.

Marc Davis achieved success in many different areas at the Disney Company. He was one of the fabled "Nine Old Men". Marc began with the Disney Studios in 1935 doing work on films like Snow White, Bambi, Peter Pan, Cinderella, 101 Dalmatians and many more. He was primarily responsible for memorable female characters like Tinker Bell and Maleficent. Walt asked him to join WED in 1960. He helped create as well as enrich existing attractions at Disneyland from the Jungle Cruise to Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, America Sings and more.

When Marc retired in 1978 from WED, he shared some thoughts about the philosophy of audio-animatronics:

"The Enchanted Tiki Room was the first Audio-Animatronics show, and it clearly showed the excitement of our kind of entertainment. The magic of having a room come to life before you, having it give you sort of a wall-to-wall performance of birds, flowers and tiki poles. This was a new kind of fantasy.

"We can't duplicate life with Audio-Animatronics, but we create the illusion of it. An Audio-Animatronics man is not a mechanical human, but a suit of clothes that moves like a man. The figure needs to be in balance and seem to react to gravity to be convincing. He is not sculptured muscle and bone.

"The figure cannot change direction quickly or move quickly, but the limitations establish creative perimeters.

"Another important element of the shows is visual economy. You must get the message across quickly. In the Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, we wanted to show looting, so I devised the pirate with a stack of ladies' hats on his head. That said 'thief' at a glance.

"From experience, we know how movement can best be accomplished in our shows. But we don't stop with the known. We put something new in each time. We do something unusual with our mechanical capabilities. That way the shows continue to grow, and the natural evolution of this unique entertainment goes on.

"What would I say to young designers? First, there are no hard and fast rules. Second, keep lots of ideas coming. Walt always said, 'You can't choose between one!'"

Ken Anderson retired on March 31, 1978 after 44 years with the Disney Company. He joined the Disney Studio in 1934 when he drove by the studio and stopped the car and went in to apply for a job.

"I wasn't an animator. I had every intention of being an architect. I remember saying to my wife, Polly, who was with me, 'I can't draw cartoons.' But I went in anyway and showed them some of my work."

However, the reaction to Ken's paintings was so enthusiastic that he was offered a job. He was involved in several roles including art direction, art supervision, story, color and styling and layout.

"I was so happy my work pleased Walt that I wanted to continue doing just that. Walt really loved people and he had an unfaltering faith in the basic goodness of people. His tremendous inspiration is still carrying on in the Company today."

Animation, according to Ken was "one of man's highest forms of expression. It is my challenge in life. I absolutely love the idea of putting music and pictures together. It has always fascinated me."

Ken contributed to many films from Snow White, Pinocchio, Song of the South, 101 Dalmatians, Robin Hood, Pete's Dragon and many more.

"I don't know how I came up with Elliott (the dragon in 'Pete's Dragon'). I like to think of him as an example of China's concept of the dragon as a symbol of luck and good will which come to them when they need him. He just came to me, and I sure needed him!"

As Disneyland was being prepared, Ken moved into WED where his credits included major portions of Fantasyland, Storybook Land and the original Haunted Mansion.

If, like me, you get excited hearing from the people who worked on Disney animation and theme parks, then I can't recommend highly enough the "Walt's People" series edited by Didier Ghez. Volume six will be released in a couple of weeks and each volume contains fascinating interviews by a variety of respected Disney Historians with some of the Disney Legends who made Walt's dreams come true. You can order at this link.

In addition, I would also like to plug an upcoming book by Don Peri, Working With Walt that has Don's interviews with folks who worked for Walt. You can pre-order at this link.

Of course, on your bookshelf if you like interviews with people who worked with Walt, you should also have Remembering Walt by Howard and Amy Green, available at this link.

Finally, don't forget to drop by the Web site of the Disney Family Foundation, WaltDisney.org, run by Katherine and Richard Greene that each month posts new interviews from their extensive archives with people who knew Walt including interviews with the Disney family.