From the Mouth of the Mouse
From the Mouth of the Mouse

About the Column

The folks who know the most about Disney aren't always the Imagineers but rather the 'regular' people who manage the lines, serve the food, clean up the trash. Jeff Heimbuch has interviewed dozens of them. Their fascinating stories present Disney from new perspectives: you'll learn what it's like to work for the Mouse on the front-lines. And, of course, you'll hear from the Imagineers, too. So buckle up! What comes From the Mouth of the Mouse may surprise you...

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Interview: Rolly Crump, Disney Legend

Jeff Heimbuch speaks with the man who helped Walt make the magic

Today's edition of From The Mouth Of The Mouse is very special to me for two reasons.

First, have you ever had one of those days that you'll remember for the rest of your life? Last Saturday was one of those days for me. Last Saturday was when I spoke with someone whom I have admired since childhood and first became aware of these 'Imagineers' who helped make Disney possible.

Last Saturday is the first time I spoke with Rolly Crump.

Few of you need an introduction to Rolly Crump, a Disney Legend and one of the most influential Imagineers in Disney's history. His impact on the Walt Disney Company has been felt everywhere: from California to Florida, and worldwide, as well. Rolly had a hand in many classic Disney attractions, and he has a tale to tell about each.

Despite Rolly's incredible body of work, he's very modest about it. In fact, after I gushed to him what an honor it was to speak with him, he quickly reminded me that he was 'just a regular guy'.

And he is just a regular guy. But he's also a regular guy who made a significant impact on the biggest entertainment and theme park company in the world.

I was lucky enough to speak with Rolly about his latest project, A Walk In The Park, a 50 minute guided audio tour of Disneyland. In it, Rolly takes you around Disneyland and tells some fascinating behind-the-scenes stories, many of which have never been heard before.

The audio tour is a great way to hear a few of Rolly's tales (he has thousands of them!) directly from the source. It's available from Kenbow Communications for $4.95, and it's worth every penny.

Second, have you ever wished you could hear From the Mouth of the Mouse?

Well, now you can! A few interviews, such as Rolly's, are being packaged as podcasts, or as I call it, 'SOUND-O-VISION'. In Rolly's case, the podcast is essential because you need to hear his stories to fully appreciate them and to appreciate his love for Disney.

The podcast is much longer than the interview presented here. The print interview deals mainly with Rolly's Walk in the Park audio tour, but in the hour-long podcast, you'll get the complete interview, including Rolly's stories about The Museum of the Weird (and its rumored movie adaptation), Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the current state of the Disney parks, why changes are made to attractions, and much, much more. (Plus a special guest!)

If you have iTunes, you can hear the interview on the From The Mouth Of The Mouse Podcast page. Please don't forget to subscribe!

If you don't have iTunes, you can download the podcast in MP3 format.

I'm very proud of both of these things, and I feel like this is my best interview to date, so without further ado, I present... Rolly Crump!

Can you tell us what A Walk In The Park is about?

ROLLY: Do you have about twenty minutes? (laughs) It's interesting, people ask me questions, and they expect the answer to be red or blue, but it's not like that, it goes on forever because there is a story behind everything I've been involved with.
I was sent to Disneyland as supervising Art Director in maintenance back in 1966 and I spent three years at Disneyland working at the maintenance division. I worked with all the different departments there, whether it was merchandise, janitorial, operations, or whatever, and so anything that was bothering the park or needed updating, they'd come to me and I would evaluate it. And I would get my leaders at W.E.D. to approve the fact that we should do something.
During that time, I learned so much from the people at the park. It was probably one of the greatest educations I've ever had because every division would tell me a different story, and most of those divisions had people in them that had worked with Walt from the very beginning. So it was almost a history lesson for me to go through all of that.
Because of all the different parts of the park that I worked in, I realized that I was really taking in a lot of information for one person. There were all these groups that knew everything but it was never funneled to one person. I realized there were beautiful stories there, so I started giving walks in the park to people at W.E.D. I'd get about a dozen at a time, start at the main gate, and take them through Disneyland. It would take me about an hour, hour and a half, and I'd give them the history. That was something that I wanted to continue when I was still working for W.E.D., but of course, no one was really interested in it!
So we put it in a truck and stored it for awhile, and then last year I was invited to speak to a high school class and present something to get them involved. We talked for awhile, and the idea of 'a walk in the park' came to me and I said it should be like a scavenger hunt. I told the teacher that what I could do was give the students a list of things to go look at and tell them the story behind each one.
I gave them the list, and I talked about it, and then they went to the park to find all these little things. Meanwhile, Ken Kebow thought he would like to tape my talk, but the room was too noisy. So Ken asked me to come to his office and do it there. I said fine, and did. I sat there, looked at the wall for an hour, and that's how we did A Walk In The Park.

I'm assuming that since you've done A Walk In The Park so many times over the years, that no script was needed, and it just came out.

ROLLY: It took less than an hour!

So there really wasn't much that was taken out of the audio tour. How did you determine what you would say or wouldn't say, because I'm sure you had a wealth of stories you could share?

ROLLY: Well, the thing is, I have A Walk In The Park Number 2 ready to go, based on a lot more stories. I knew we were going to probably do the first for an hour, but I could go a lot longer than an hour about stories at Disneyland!
The interesting thing about it is, and I have to stay clear of this, but I've had so much happen to me over the years working with the company and a lot of it had to do with the politics I had to work my way through in order to do the things that I was doing. So I had to try to steer clear and not talk about those things because they are probably the things I remember the most.
In a lot of ways, I went to war every morning when I went to work because a lot of the upper management had problems with me. I was honest about things and about their opinions. And to be honest, to me, their opinions didn't mean jack! (laughs)
I loved working for Disneyland and working for the company so much that I absorbed every possible thing that I could that was based on the history, and I just love passing that on.

Why do you feel that it's important to pass these stories on?

ROLLY: It's because I love Walt so much and I felt that the behind-the-scenes stories personally about Walt were so precious that I wanted the public to get a better view of what he was really like.
A good example is the story about the nuns [which you can hear Rolly talk about in A Walk In The Park], and it's so funny because I think I'm probably the only one who knows that story. I was a good friend of Emile Kuri long before he passed, and Emilie told me that story, so I tucked that one away. I'm so thrilled to tell it because it gives you a view of what the Old Man was really like, what he was like to work with. Of course, it's interesting because if anyone asks you what Walt was really like, and you asked everyone who knew Walt, you'd get a different answer from everyone. Which is kind of interesting. Anyway, I just wanted to pass on as much as I could about a man I really loved.

In A Walk In The Park, you don't really mention Tomorrowland too much. Was there a reason why?

ROLLY: Well (laughs), the interesting thing is, there is a lot to talk about there, but it's mostly on the negative side! I'll tell you one of the stories, though.
I was involved in designing about five different pieces of the new Tomorrowland and each one has a story behind it. But one of them is that when we finally cut the ticker to get into the park when it was open for the new Tomorrowland, we did it at night. And I'll tell you the truth, the company they brought in to do the lighting went about three times brighter than they should have. When you walk in Tomorrowland at night, there were no shadows. You never created a shadow because there was too much damn light! And so when I was working at maintenance, they came to me and said "Do you know what the electric bill is like for Tomorrowland?" And I said no. They said "It's horrible! It's outrageous!" And I said I never liked it because there were no shadows, which meant there was no depth to it. And they said "Can we take some out?" I said yeah! Take 50% out, and they did.
So I saved the company a helluva lot of money but at the same time, I created a better atmosphere. And it was based on, and I hate to say it, but it was based on the people they were using for years that were doing the electrical down there.

To me, it's amazing that these little simple changes make so much of a difference in the things you see, and it shows to the guest.

ROLLY: Oh God, yes. Another story like that is when I was designing the facade for It's a Small World. This has to do with my little wars with management. I designed all the lighting for what the facade would look like, being very much aware that ambient light coming from a big piece of architecture like that would pretty much light the area. Well, the architect decided it needed two gigantic poles that were 50-60 feet in the air that had all these lights on them to light the area. That's like lighting a parking lot, which is stupid.
So I went to management, and I'm not giving you any names because I know them very clearly in my head (laughs), but I said we're not going to put those damn things in there, are we? And they said, oh no, but all of a sudden the poles appeared on the model. But they said don't worry about that. What happened is, next thing I know, we're finishing up the facade and here come the trucks with these gigantic damn lamp poles on them and I just had a fit.
So I went to my management again and they said ,"Don't worry about it Rolly, we need that for security." And I said you don't need it! And they said, "Oh yes we do."
I was talking to non-creative people, because if you really look at the facade, it's lit now like a theatrical set, while they were trying to light it like a parking lot. There wasn't much I could do about it and it wasn't too long after that that I left the company to go off on my own.
And then when I came back, which was eight or ten years later, I had the same position and connection to Disneyland. I was walking through the park one day, and they came up to me and said "You know those lights? They're horrible and they cost us a lot of money. We don't need them!" And I said "Well... cut the fuckers down!" And they did! They cut them down the very next day.
So, in the long run, Rolly won his war! It was ten years later, but I won. You know what it was, though - I had learned, from Walt, that you look at the big picture. The architects didn't think about every detail that it takes to do something theatrical, and that was wild.

That definitely feeds into the fact that Walt said the park would never be finished, that everything would always be changing.

ROLLY: Yeah, yeah, and I must say thank God for the maintenance division because they keep that park looking spotless at all times. The bad thing about it is that whenever they need a little more money, they would cut the budget for maintenance, and that drove me crazy. If Walt had been alive, that would have been number one. You cut maintenance down, you hurt the park.
You remember that when the park opened, it was closed on Monday and Tuesdays so the maintenance people could get out there and do their job. And then management decided that it should be left open, obviously for financial reasons, and so all these poor guys had to work all night long instead, which I think is kind of pathetic, but that's business.

One of the stories you had that was really fascinating was about driving your car around the park. Were you the only one they allowed to do that?

ROLLY: (laughs) I was King Kong, they didn't mess with me! (laughs) The truth is that when the parks were closed on Monday and Tuesday, a lot of times people all over the park had little buggies to go around with, so I asked them if I could drive my beautiful little '64 Porsche around and they said just keep a piece of cardboard underneath so you don't drip oil onto the pavement. So I got away with murder with my little Porsche.

Were there any parts of the park that were hard to get around?

ROLLY: No, no, you only stayed on Main Street or went around the Matterhorn. I never parked in the castle! (laughs) We just had fun. After I worked down there a few months, I felt that I was in charge of all these changes being made, and that's another story about Disneyland and W.E.D., because there was an Iron Curtain between the two.
W.E.D. would not let Disneyland do anything unless they checked with them first, and then what happened was they would send memos to our management about something they'd like taken care of and our management would throw it in the trash!
When I found out about that, I was furious - so I set up a design order system and I ran it to make sure that I actually bridged Disneyland and W.E.D., which had never been bridged before with a system that worked. And of course after I left, the system went down the tubes. You had to be a warrior to do this thing properly and I loved these battles, because like I taught my son a long time ago, if you got more answers than they got questions, you win the war.

When you talked about the Haunted Mansion in the audio tour, you also mentioned the Museum of the Weird. You made it sound like they were being developed side-by-side?

ROLLY: Actually, Walt wanted a Haunted Mansion when he opened the park in 1955, so a lot of people over the years did sketches and concepts but nothing cohesive. When I was asked to leave animation and join W.E.D, Walt said "Rolly, I think I'm gonna have you work on the Haunted Mansion."
So Yale Gracey (who was in the background department) and I got together, and we sat around for a solid year doing nothing but reading ghost stories and making little models and coming up with ideas for what might be in the Mansion. We basically structured what we thought it should be. In those days, it was a walk-through.
When we went to Seattle to the World's Fair, there was one pavilion that had an elevator that these people would go up in and then just disappear! They never came down again! Where did they go? Well, they brought you down another way, but those 100 people on that elevator proved we could move 100 people every 3 minutes, and that helped us see we could reach the attendance, the hourly capita, so we did that. It wasn't until after Walt passed away that operations people were scared to death that setting people loose in there would cause vandalism, so they decided to do it as a ride.
When we came back from the World's Fair project, we didn't get assignments. I went back to the Haunted Mansion. I didn't like it the way it was - I thought it was boring the way it was going. I thought it needed some imagination so I started developing these weird sketches based on movies I had seen, like Beauty and the Beast, which was a French film made in the 1940s. I thought we had to get some of that magic into the Mansion so I did all these weird sketches and everyone was telling me it was too weird, Walt wasn't going to like them.
After Walt passed, management didn't want me around (laughs), so that's when they sent me to Disneyland to get me out of the building. So Marc (Davis) and Claude (Coats) went ahead and designed the Haunted Mansion but if it hadn't had been for Yale Gracey, well, his illusions made the Mansion what it is. I was there the day he came up with the idea of the head in the ball. It was kind of wild, and he did it over lunch. It was just spectacular. And I love Yale and I think he should have gotten more credit, because if you take out those illusions, it's dumb. I don't think he gets enough credit for the magic he brought to the park.

You talk about The Tiki Room in California, and the tiki gods that are out front. The ones that are there now are the ones you created yourself, correct? Was it harder for you to do, since that was your first time sculpting?

ROLLY: Yes, they are the originals. It wasn't harder, it was exciting. What happened was, they had originally wanted to do a tea room on Main Street, but when they were redoing that area of Adventureland, they decided to change it to a restaurant tiki room. So I designed all these sketches of the tiki gods, and I brought them to Blaine Gibson and asked if he could sculpt them and he said "nope!" And I said, then who is going to? And he said, "you are!"
So I made all of them over a two month period. But the Tiki Room itself, it went from being designed, changed to a show instead of a restaurant, and then construction started within 90 days!

I want to thank Rolly Crump again for taking the time to speak to me about his latest projects, and for sharing some of his stories. It truly meant a lot.

Please send us feedback about the podcast! We'd love to hear it! And please don't forget to subscribe, as I have a few more interviews lined up in the next few weeks that we'll be releasing as podcasts!

Thanks for reading - and thanks for listening, too!

If you are (or know) a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and be featured here on Disney Dispatch, email me at jeff@bamferproductions.com. I'd love to hear from you!

NEXT WEEK: Ridley Pearson chats with us about the upcoming show 'Peter & The Starcatcher' based on his best selling book!

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