Disney Legend Bob Gurr: Filling in the Gapsby Wade Sampson, staff writer
I have interviewed a good many Disney animators, Imagineers, performers and more over the years. Actually, there are several different kinds of interviews. Usually the preferred interview is done in person, so you can sense the tone of voice or immediately follow up on an answer. However, sometimes, for a variety of reasons, it is better to do an interview by e-mail: It gives the person more time to think about his answer, check the facts and confer with others (often a spouse) before committing a memory to hard, cold print. It can also be geographically challenging to meet face to face.
There are several different types of interviews, as well. Most people are familiar with the career-spanning interview. Usually, this is a chronological interview that begins with the person’s early life leading up to how they joined the Disney Company or begins with their first days at Disney. Then, the questions follow about the year-by-year events with sometimes brief tangents about people that they worked with at Disney. It usually ends with the person leaving or retiring from Disney.
Another type of interview focuses only on a particular project, like an attraction or an animated film ,and goes into greater depth about their memories and contribution to it.
However, there is a type of interview that rarely if ever sees print. I refer to this type of interview as “filling in the gaps.” Often, it is a follow-up to a much lengthier interview to literally "fill in a gap" or further elaborate something that was only revealed after the interview was transcribed and reviewed. Sometimes it is to clarify what someone else who was interviewed said; “Such and such said this about that project. How do you remember it?”
Animation historian Michael Barrier (link) was the first person I knew who did extensive “filling in the gaps” interviews as he diligently researched the material for his always outstanding books about Disney and animation. As he came across a new bit of information or perspective, he would go back to one of his former interview subjects to share this information and ask for further insight to cross check the facts.
Recently, I did a “filling in the gaps” interview by e-mail with Disney Legend Bob Gurr and thought, during this season of celebrating the birth of Disneyland, that some of the MousePlanet readers might enjoy those brief comments from him.
Gurr was director of Special Vehicle Development during the early years of Disneyland. He joined the Disney Company in 1954 and worked on just about anything with wheels, as well as many other attractions. It was Gurr’s innovative design work on the Disneyland Autopia that made it such an immediate popular attraction.
Gurr officially retired in 1981, although he occasionally came back to the Disney Company to consult, as well as working on projects for other companies, including Universal Studios' original King Kong attraction.
During his nearly three-decade employment with Walt Disney Imagineering, he worked on more than 100 designs for attractions that included the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Monorails, Matterhorn Bobsleds, the well-loved and remembered Flying Saucers, and the original Abraham Lincoln Audio-Animatronics figure for the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, along with the Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway Ride.
Fortunately, Gurr wrote a series of delightful and knowledgeable “Designer Times” columns about his contributions and memories (link). I continually prod Gurr to gather and release these columns as a book, perhaps with some editing and additions.
I previously shared the transcript of a “brown bag” luncheon with Gurr (link).
Fortunately, Gurr has been interviewed many, many times over the years and has been very generous in sharing his memories and knowledge. However, like many people who worked for Disney, he had such a rich career working on so many different projects that it is impossible to capture it all. Unfortunately, just as Disney Legend Ward Kimball was continually asked over and over and over about how he created Jiminy Cricket, Gurr often gets asked repeatedly the same questions about the birth of the Autopia or the development of the monorail and other subjects are never explored.
During the week I contacted Gurr, he was giving two different video interviews and preparing for yet another trip to give a presentation. I asked him if he might be able to squeeze in some time to answer a few questions that I had never seen him previously answer. As always, he was extremely gracious and good humored. Here is a lengthy excerpt from that interview.
For this column, I eliminated some of the “dead” ends. For instance, he confirmed that he never had any interaction with Roy O. Disney in the parks nor worked on anything for the Disneyland Hotel. It is not really entertaining to read a list of Gurr saying, “I really have no memory of that or wasn’t involved with that” etc.
I had him review these answers and he agreed it would be okay to share them in print.
Wade Sampson: As a kid, what was your reaction to the magic of Disney?
Bob Gurr: We had no television so I only saw a Disney cartoon if that’s what the movie house was playing. I had no choice in the matter. I never liked Mickey Mouse but thought Donald Duck was a hoot. I don’t recall ever having any early Disney toys. My father had died and my mother had no money, so I built model airplanes. I really didn’t have traditional toys. I did think that Disney produced amazing stuff like Fantasia and the True-Life Adventures nature series.
WS: Did your interest in wheeled vehicles and redesigning them pop up in your early years?
BG: I had a paper route for the Hollywood Citizen News as a kid. I never modified my bike. I just tried to make my bikes last because they went through so much wear and tear. Long before I joined the “Road Burners” car club where I met Dave Iwerks, I modified my '31 Model A from a club sedan to a five-window coupe with a replacement body after my stepfather crashed in it. Solid hood sides, B-shell, Calnevar wheel covers, bullet headlights, custom dash etc. Later, my '36 Ford five window had teardrops, frenched trunk, chrome dash, skirts, etc.
WS: Through Dave, you met his father Ub who worked at the Disney Studios. What was he like?
BG: He was real quiet but enjoyed showing me the guns he worked on in his home shop and giving me rides in his interesting cars, one of which a 1950 English Triumph 1800 modified with a Studebaker V8.
WS: How would you describe Walt’s mechanical expertise?
BG: He understood a lot. He knew what I was doing but did not interfere or challenge anything. He was too busy paying attention to all the projects going on. He was not the type of guy to praise you directly. During a heated meeting, our ideas clashed and he said "you can be right…(long pause…for now!” He used to call me “Bobby”. Walt never wavered in his courage. He was always interested in what could be…always curious and optimistic. When Walt was around there were no big meetings…everyone made decisions, no waiting for higher authority etc. That changed after he passed away.
WS: What did you learn from Walt?
BG: Always know you’re gonna figure things out. He always had upbeat ideas for something new and he always followed each project almost daily. I still miss him. When I heard he had died, I was in my office and the world just stopped. I still can’t view the last room at the Walt Disney Family Museum that displays condolences from around the world.
WS: How did you stay so up-to-date on new designs?
BG: I paid attention to everything interesting in newspapers and magazines. I followed the auto and aircraft industry, went to car races, air shows, etc.
WS: Did you visit other amusement parks to check out what they were doing?
BG: I never went to Knotts in the early days. At Pacific Ocean Park, I thought the banana train was nice, but they had a terrible bump cars ride. I hardly ever went to amusement parks. When I was young, there was just no money to spend on such things.
WS: How did you determine how large to make the interior of the first Autopia car?
BG: It fit me! We didn’t have a horn on the wheel because we just felt there was no need having a horn. I don’t remember why we had two police cars rather than just one. There was no stopping allowed on the ride. The police cars were primarily for cast members to give rides to kids too small to drive the cars.
WS: Marceline is in the process of rebuilding the Midget Autopia.
BG: I had nothing to do with that attraction when it was at Disneyland. It was a stock Arrow Development ride.
WS: How was Walt’s private Autopia car different from the regular cars?
BG: Maroon with fancy upholstery, windshield, nice bumpers and chrome wheel caps. The car is now in the Walt Disney Family Museum.
WS: Did Walt or other people at the Disney Studio ever ask you to work on their own cars?
BG: No, that never happened. Walt had a ’50 Cadillac convertible, then a MB 230 SL, and lastly a ’65 T-Bird convertible. He liked convertibles. I had a ’51 Cadillac convertible.
WS: Why were the Phantom Boats at Disneyland called “Phantom”?
BG: I have no idea. I wouldn’t have built that thing in the first place if they had asked me. Joe Fowler obviously didn’t think the proposed replacement of an airboat ride would have worked either.
WS: The early Disneyland parking lot tram had seats facing outward. Why did you choose that design?
BG: Lots of tram cars had been built that way for 50 years.
WS: What was C.V. Wood like? He was the original vice president and general manager of Disneyland.
BG: He was clearly a con man and certainly behaved that way. In the beginning, he and Walt worked together and got Disneyland up and running. He never asked me to join him on the Freedomland project when he left Disneyland. I remember there were a lot of carnival-type folks at Disneyland for a year or two like Doc Lemmon, Jack Riley and Pete Whitney, but they left once things really got up and running.
WS: Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon of Arrow don’t always get credit for their contributions to Disneyland.
BG: Ed and Karl were guys I really liked to work with. They were so practical and willing to tackle anything for Walt. Joe Fowler was the main liaison between Disney and Arrow. Roger Broggie, Fowler, Ed and Karl all operated as a single force, always productive and never any ego getting in the way. I learned a whole bunch of simplified ways to do production drawing from them that I used for decades afterward.
WS: Another person I don’t think gets enough credit for his contributions to early Disneyland was Tommy Walker who was in charge of Entertainment. Did you ever work with him?
BG: Yes, I designed a 30-foot-flying saucer spacecraft that had a lot of lights and was carried by helicopter. Since I had designed a 50-foot-flying saucer for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Closing Ceremonies, Tommy Walker Productions wanted a smaller one built to rent out at various events. I designed and built this one as GurrDesign, Inc. Tommy was enthusiastic and fearless. He got all sorts of folks to rally around his show ideas.
WS: Bob, as always, thank you so much for being so generous as to share some of your thoughts and memories…and write that book!