Tribute to Imagineer Marvin Davis

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Sometimes when Disney fans know who I am, they desperately want to show off their knowledge of Disney history and trivia. Unfortunately, sometimes they are completely wrong and, fortunately, most will be appreciative of being given the correct information. However, that is not always the case.

Recently, I had one person who has some recognition at his work location as the "Disney guy" (especially since he frequently visits the unofficial Disney Web sites) try to tell me that author Bob Thomas was the son of animator Frank Thomas. No, they are not related.

Last week, another self-proclaimed Disney expert, who was lauded by his co-workers for his knowledge of all things Disney, wanted to talk to me about early Disneyland.

I mentioned Imagineer Marvin Davis and he quietly tried to correct me. "Of course, you mean Imagineer MARC Davis." It was apparent from his face that age had obviously muddled my already muddled brain even further and I had made a simple, foolish mistake not even worthy of an elementary Disney fan.

"No," I smiled, "Marc Davis was an Imagineer who worked on projects like the Haunted Mansion, Country Bear Jamboree, America Sings, the upgrade to the Jungle Cruise and more. He started his Disney career as an animator being responsible for such classic characters as Tinker Bell, Maleficent, Cruella De Ville and more. MARVIN Davis was an art director who…"

But the Disney expert had to leave suddenly and I could tell that he was heartbroken that I had failed to live up to expectations as the person who knew all these things about Disney. How could he ever trust anything I ever wrote again since I could make such a simple error about an Imagineer?

Well, it bothers me that there is so much misinformation out there because already it is being accepted as truth by a new generation of Disney fans and is spread with such rapidity and authority that the real information is getting lost or inaccessible.

Over the years, I have been mistaken about a lot of things (including recently the mistaken belief that magicians Doug Henning and Jim Steinmeyer worked on the Adventurer's Club… a recent e-mail from Steinmeyer set me straight that they never had anything to do with the illusions for that project) but fortunately, thanks to friends, research and interviews with people actually involved in project I have gotten better and try to make only different mistakes.

One of my best bosses in the entire world taught me to always have at least three independent sources to verify a piece of information. That is a lot harder than it sounds.

Fortunately, Disney Editions has recently released Jeff Kurtti's much anticipated book, "Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends" and there are five pages covering Marvin Davis. I am very thankful that Kurtti and the late Bruce Gordon decided to document some of the early Imagineers who made magic that continues to delight to this day.

But for any of you still confused between Marc Davis and Marvin Davis, here is a little information about an unsung hero of WED, whose accomplishments are being forgotten.

Marvin Aubrey Davis was born in Clovis, NM, on December 21, 1910. He attended both UCLA and USC in Los Angeles, Calif., where he graduated with a degree in architecture in 1935, and received the American Institute of Architects medal as the top student of his class.

Two years later, he was working at 20th Century Fox as an art director on such films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Asphalt Jungle. In 1953, he became part of WED thanks to an invitation from Dick Irvine, who was a friend and a former 20th Century Fox art director.

Irvine had worked as an art director on Disney's Victory Through Air Power and Three Caballeros but left to work at 20th Century Fox. When the studio cut back its art department staff, Irvine moved back to Disney to work on the proposed Zorro series.

However, Walt soon had Irvine become a liaison between WED and the architectural firm that Walt was considering to design Disneyland. When Walt became dissatisfied with working with architects, he decided that motion picture art directors might better produce what he envisioned. One of the first things, Irvine did was to hire Marvin Davis, who had just been laid off.

Working with some of the initial planning done by Harper Goff (who had been moved over to assist on the feature film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Davis developed the first diagrammatic plan for Disneyland. On the morning of August 8, 1953, Walt reviewed the site map that Davis was working on and picked up a No. 1 carbon pencil and drew a triangle around the plot of land to indicate where he wanted his railroad to run. That historic drawing still exists today. For two years, Davis worked on more than 100 different versions of the master plan for Disneyland.

Davis remembered in an interview that:

"I was working in what they call the Zorro building as the project designer for master planning of the Park at the time. This was before they even knew where the Park was going. Before they bought the property--I guess I must have done, well I know I did 129 different schemes for the solution of the thing...different entryways... until finally it developed into the scheme that it is now with the single entrance and the walk for the avenue, which is Main Street, up to the center of the hub. Walt's idea was to have the whole thing as radials from that hub."

The Zorro building was "a ramshackle, wallboard thing, very temporary, hot in the summer and cold in the winter" according to Davis that Walt had set up to work on a Zorro project (either television series or feature) that would help finance the park. The actual Zorro series was finally developed after the park opened.

Walt referred to these art directors who worked on the early Disneyland like Davis, Irvine, Bill Martin, Sam McKim , etc. as "brick and mortar men" which irritated Davis because it seemed to suggest they weren't imaginatively creative.

While it was Herb Ryman who did the famous sketch of Disneyland that helped sell the concept, it was Irvine and Davis who presented Ryman with the concepts before he began drawing. When Ryman had finished after that memorable weekend, it was Irvine and Davis who grabbed color pencils to add shading and highlights to Ryman's pen and ink drawing before Roy had to grab it and fly to New York.

After Disneyland opened, Davis became an art director for Disney live-action films for almost the next 10 years on films including Moon Pilot, Babes in Toyland, Bon Voyage and Big Red, as well as television projects like the Zorro television series. He received an Emmy Award for his art direction on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

Davis was responsible for designing the Alamo set for the Davy Crockett series, the Diego de la Vega hacienda set and Pueblo de Los Angeles village (with jail, church and town square) for the Zorro series.

"I happened to be in the men's room in the Animation building -at the Disney Studios] and Walt came in and went to the next urinal along the wall. While there, he said, 'Hey, Marv…I want you to take over the Davy Crockett and the Zorro shows' and so that's how I got my job," said Davis with a laugh when he recounted that story for E-Ticket No. 28 in a lengthy interview about his Disney career.

In 1955, Davis married Walt Disney's niece, Marjorie Sewell. "At one point, I actually went up to his office and I said, 'Walt, I'm going to marry Margie.' He just said, "Go ahead.' When Walt heard that Margie was going to marry me, he said to her, 'You know, he's a very stubborn man'. Maybe Walt liked that in me because he was a hell of a lot more stubborn than I am," Davis remembered.

Marjorie was one of the first live=action Disney stars appearing in "Clara Cleans Her Teeth" in 1926 and was Walt's favorite niece.

When Walt was visiting Florida anonymously to check out the property, he borrowed the Davis last name since he was part of the family. On these visits, Walt used the pseudonym, "Walter E. Davis," and the initials "WED" matched the initials on Walt's luggage.

In 1965, Marvin Davis returned to WED as a project designer for Walt Disney World in Florida. He devised the master plan for the Magic Kingdom theme park but also contributed to the design of the resort hotels like the Contemporary, the Polynesian and the Golf Resort.

He officially retired in 1975 and died on March 8, 1998 in Santa Monica, Calif., at the age of 87.

Davis was inducted as a Disney Legend in 1994. At that time, Imagineer John Hench stated, "Because Marvin had a rich background in live-action motion picture design, he had a strong sense and understanding of theater and how to give life or meaning to structures, which typically, most formally-trained architects aren't interested in. He knew how to create architectural form that had a message for people. For instance, his structures on Main Street U.S.A. are irrepressibly optimistic."

In fact, several Imagineers commented on Davis for WD EYE magazine in 1998 and here are their memories of an Imagineer that has been forgotten by a new generation.

Marty Sklar:

"Marvin was a bulldog. He pushed things and kept pushing them until everyone, especially him, was completely satisfied with them. He was just extremely thorough and professional. Determined was the right word for Marvin. It took him 69 versions of the Disneyland master plan before Walt said, 'OK.' It was a difficult situation. No one had ever done anything like Disneyland before, but he just kept pushing. A source of great pride for him, though, was that when he came back to Imagineering to do Walt Disney World, it took him only seven versions. That's remarkable considering that Walt Disney World was 27,000 acres, a big puzzle that he had to sort out and make understandable for guests. A lot of people worked on that plan, but it was Marvin who brought it all together."

Sam McKim:

"Marvin hired me. I was working at 20th Century Fox, though I didn't know him when he was there, and he was one of two people who looked at my portfolio. He must have liked what he saw because I was asked to come the next Monday after the interview. It was only supposed to be a temporary job But it turned out to be for 32 years. We developed a good friendship. Marvin wasn't overbearing but he knew what he wanted and he gave you the room to do it. I feel lucky to have worked with someone like him."

Bill Martin:

"Marvin and I actually go way back to 1940. We met at 20th Century Fox and he was the first to go to Disney. In 1953, there were only about a half-dozen of us at that time. It was a real small group and Walt would stop by every day to see how we were doing. None of us thought the park was going to happen because no one had any idea what a theme park was. Everybody was used to these amusement parks with iron rides. So I went back to Fox to finish a picture. But Marvin kept at it and by the time I was done with the picture, Disneyland was given the go-ahead. That's the thing about Marvin. He had this stick-to-it-iveness. He was very quiet, very unassuming, but he kept at whatever he was doing."

Bill Evans:

"The remarkable thing about Marvin was his attitude. He could have been angry about his ailment (Marvin suffered from the effects of polio) but he was always up, always positive, always in good spirits. He never let it affect him. He was cheerful, creative and an inspiration to everyone who knew him. One time in the summer of 1967, we were trying to get a better look at the site in Florida. It was hotter than Hades that day, 100 F and humidity in the 90s. We crammed into Land Rovers and ours got really stuck in the mud. There was no one around the 28,000 acres at that time except for an occasional hunter chasing a deer so I had to leave Marvin behind while I slogged through the mud looking for the others. When we finally got back to him, he wasn't as cheerful as usual, but I guess you wouldn't be either if you had to sit in that heat and humidity for several hours."

John Hench:

"The one thing you always noticed about Marvin was how determined he was to bring closure to everything. Some thought it was stubbornness. He just wanted to take a job to the bitter end. You couldn't stop him. He would push on to the end no matter what. I remember he was trying to build a recreation room on the back of his house and he had to shave off part of a hill to do it. He went at it for two years until he finally got the OK from the county. All of us would have given up, but he didn't. He was like that at work, too. But one thing I admire is that he never lost his temper, especially for being such an impatient guy."