From the Mouth of the Mouse

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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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FROM: From the Mouth of the Mouse Published Wednesdays

Interview: John Donaldson, Disney Author

Herb Ryman designed a lot of Disney. John Donaldson, Herb's protege, has written a lot about Herb Ryman. Now Jeff Heimbuch speaks with John, just for a little while, about Herb, and about John's new biography of Herb, Warp and Weft.

This week's From The Mouth Of The Mouse is a little different from our usual fare. Every interview we've featured so far has been with a person who worked directly for the Walt Disney Company. Those interviews provide a great, direct source of information about the company we all know and love.

Unfortunately, there are some people who pass away before they're able to share their stories with the rest of the world. I have a mile-long list of former Cast Members, Imagineers, and Disney Legends whom I would have loved to interview, even for a few minutes. Sadly, some of these folks never had an outlet to tell their tales, and many of them are lost to time.

Some, however, live on through the work of others: family members, colleagues, or in today's case, a protege.

Herbert Ryman is a Disney Legend like no other. Without him, there would be no Disneyland as we know it. A skilled artist, Herb is best known as the man who drew Disneyland. In 1953, Walt Disney asked Herb to sketch his idea for the Park. As the popular story goes, Herb took a pencil and in a single weekend made Walt's dreams come alive on paper.

Throughout his career at Disney, Herb contributed designs for many things, including Main Street, U.S.A., Sleeping Beauty Castle, New Orleans Square, the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. Even after he retired, Herb continued to freelance design concepts for Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland.

While much is known of Hereb's professional career, not much was known about his personal life. There is no one more qualified to tell the story of Herb's private life than John Stanley Donaldson. For years, John was Herb's protege, being taught all of his techniques, and remained a close, personal friend until Herb's death in 1989.

Last year, John published Warp and Weft: Life Canvas of Herbert Ryman, an engrossing biography of the man behind the paintings. I'll discuss in detail Herb Ryman and John's book in this Friday's edition of The 626, but recently I had a chance to speak with John Donaldson himself about Herb's complicated personal life, his art, and his lasting effect on the Walt Disney Company.

Here's our conversation...

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Cinderella Castle


Sleeping Beauty Castle



Tokyo Disneyland

In your own words, who was Herb Ryman?

JOHN: One thing he said to me, in his last days, was "I was born Herbert; but somewhere along the way, I became Herbie." These were his two sides, and it had long been a bother. Of course, I had known the familiar; it was within family. But, outside that circle, he thought he was seen as someone who could not be considered serious. Several weeks later, at his memorial service, at which I delivered one of eight eulogies, I chose to respectfully remember my mentor, Herbert Ryman, the man; to many who had only known an alter ego.
Herbert Dickens Ryman was the original designer of Disneyland; having created, in one weekend, its first, overall concept. Walt had been financing the Park largely out of own pocket, and as I say in my book, "he was practically down to the lint." That drawing defined the dream. And it found the funds.
And then there would be Walt Disney World, along with two different visions for EPCOT, and Tokyo Disneyland. A number of attractions are of Herb's eye, such as Sleeping Beauty Castle, Cinderella Castle, Spaceship Earth, and New Orleans Square.
Herbert began his career in the art department of Cedric Gibbons, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He was assigned, it seems, to every cinema classic. His last work for MGM was the Emerald City segment for The Wizard of Oz, which, perhaps, prepared him for kingdoms to come.
He was invited to join Walt Disney in late 1938, where he served on such features as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. As part of the hand-picked group, 'El Grupo,' he traveled to South America, which resulted in Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
He was truly a fine human being, a kind, considerate soul. As were his few, true friends, they were his extended family. If Herb was to have any handle, it would be his self-proclaimed 'Valley Host,' as his home in Van Nuys was the gathering place for many an animator and Imagineer. They all seemed to be of the same ilk. When Walt and Lillian Disney celebrated the holidays, he was often the only non-family member invited, and the Disneys were often his guests. All friendly, informal affairs; fried chicken dinners, set outside, on summer afternoons.
Through this, I came to know, and be fond, of Walt's daughter Sharon, and Marjorie, his niece. 'Marjie' had lived for many years with Walt and Lillian, during the golden age of Mickey Mouse, and her meeting of Marvin Davis, whom she would marry, had been covertly arranged by Herb.
Her mother Hazel, Lillian's sister, was married to Bill Cottrell, and they lived nearby.
That was his life; and for over thirty years, I was privileged to be part of it.

Why do you think Herb's art has had such a lasting influence on the Walt Disney Company?

JOHN: One would think he used some tube of secret 'emotion emulsion,' as that is what his work seemed to secrete. But really, as with a symphony, his strokes just find the right notes. He was a Mozart of art; while others painted by numbers.

How did you meet Herb Ryman?

JOHN: Through his sister Lucille. My father published the first nationwide, weekly, teen music newspaper, being in the age of early rock and roll. He had a record label as well. Lucille's husband, John Carroll, had produced a low-budget motion picture of college-age angst, typical of the time, and my father released the title song as a single. Lyrics by Peggy Lee. So that is how we met in 1959.

How did you become his protege?

JOHN: Through the years, the home studio of Herbert Ryman became a place for fine art instruction. Fellows from Disney, such as animators Norm Ferguson and Clyde Geronimi, or storyman Ted Sears, would set up an easel each week. When I was twelve, Herb saw a sketchbook of mine, saw something to it, and by that, I became his sole student. In me, he saw himself at that age, as well as what he knew of young Walt; a talented lad who could use some encouragement.

When did it begin?

JOHN: The summer of 1966. What I believe to be the best Tomorrowland was then under construction. I remember the now iconic artwork being about the room. Big bursts of color, in line with the time. There were also character studies for Pirates of the Caribbean, which I saved from his wastebasket. It was an exciting time.

What did you learn from him?

JOHN: He would take my drawings and make corrections alongside; perhaps explaining proper anatomy, or perspective. My first lesson, I remember, was the inset of eyeballs, and how they should be spaced. Beyond basics, there would be books. Read everything. Develop a wide horizon. One day might find gift of a heady The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, by Will and Ariel Durant; another, a stacking of heavy-metal comics that he had swapped with Ward Kimball.

I know he left you a lot of his possessions when he passed - is there anything that you treasure most?

JOHN: Actually, I was left all of his artwork, "including but not limited to, oil paintings, watercolor paintings, sketches, sketch books, drawings, notes, renderings, and reproductions, all the product of my lifetime." So read his Last Will; at least when it was last seen.
Along with Marty Sklar, his sister Lucille formed a Foundation to oversee everything for exhibition and, sadly, sale. Many works are now scattered to other owners.
So, while Herb did indeed leave me a lot, I have but few actual items. His letters and diaries, such as those from South America, during the Good Neighbor, 'El Grupo' tour; his annual Disneyland passes; his WED Enterprises identification card, showing him to be employee number three. Family photos. But, I also have some of his ashes. Having been banished from his own home by his sister, I made the decision to send him to sea, but retaining a small vial.

In the book, you talk much more about Herb's personal life than his professional one. Why?

JOHN: I think his professional life is fairly well represented, and can be referenced in other works, so I thought it more important to show him when away from the easel; what transpired, and inspired him to prime another canvas. He always seemed to be witness to high points of history, always encountering someone else who was also on some important course. Revolution in China? Herb Ryman was there. The archaeological study of the bones of Peking Man? Herb Ryman was there. Discovery of Marilyn Monroe? Herb Ryman was there. In Warp and Weft, the weave of his life allows us to meet some six hundred folks.

Why did you promise Herb that you would write this book about his life?

JOHN: Actually, we started the book just before he died; setting memory to audio cassette. But, time was not on our side. After Walt died, he had participated in exploratory work, of others, such as a possible Disney biography by Richard Hubler, as well as the published Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas. But these were not more than single afternoon interviews. They lacked, as he said, "salient facts," that "await the inquisitive pen of some future biographer." As he became ill, we began to think of our own ink.
It has been said that I had some agenda, especially regarding the back end of the book. That I sought to settle a score. But, I do not write history; I only report it. To be of other ending, there should have been other action.

Warp and Weft is written in an almost poetic way. How did you decide on the unique writing style you used for the book?

JOHN: My style is just my style. A bit of wit can fit. Unless your subject is intended for insomniacs, there is no reason nonfiction should send you to ZZZ's. And if my working of words is thought in league with John Lennon, well, I can live with that.
I have found the obituary I wrote for the newswires, announcing Herbert's death, has been clipped and pasted elsewhere, without credit. From the autobiography of Harrison Price, to even a Certificate of Authenticity, for Disney Gallery artwork. My style has gone a mile.

In the book, you draw a lot of parallels between Herb's life and Walt's life. Was that your way of showing that two different people, in somewhat similar circumstances, came to work together in their own unique way?

JOHN: Originally, Walt didn't enter the book until a third of the way in, as it actually happened in Herb's life. But to then go back, and tell of the boy from Marceline, the main story would have stalled. Instead, I decided to edit the book, much like a film, to cross cut the main characters, until they connect. So, by the time Herb is introduced to Walt Disney, the reader has already met Mickey Mouse. Also, by doing so, the parallel of Walt and Herb is apparent. They really could have been brothers.

There are chapters dedicated to other people and events that eventually cross over into Herb's life. Unlike most biographers, who would just mention the specific events that involve their subject and move on, you write at length about these other folks. I found that learning about their lives made it even more interesting when you got to the point where these events intersected with Herb's life. Again, this went along with your unique writing style. Why did you feel it was necessary to tell these stories in such a way?

JOHN: Let me give an example. I had seen a documentary of filmmaker Hans Richter, and I mentioned this to Herbert at dinner. This led to a discussion of Oskar Fischinger, and how he had known him at Disney. Now, by letting Oskar take a long Warp and Weft lead, it allows us to learn of Leopold Stokowski, an in-depth development of Fantasia, and even how Hewlett-Packard came about. All still within the realm of Herbert Ryman.

You mentioned in your book that Herb stopped being invited to special Disney events and openings, even when they were about things he had created. Though he gets more respect from the company today, why do you feel Herb was pushed out of the company back then?

JOHN: The life of Herbert Ryman was not without enemy, and there were those who sought him repressed; even to exclusion of invite. But, in time, we find 'talent will out' to be true; Herbert Ryman is remembered. Twenty-two years after his death, Herbert Ryman lives. No one has kept Ryman from rising.

Thank you, John, for taking the time to answer my questions about a truly talented artist.

For more information about Herb Ryman, and to purchase a copy of Warp and Weft: Life Canvas of Herbert Ryman, please visit http://incanio.com. And be sure to come back for Friday's The 626 for my review of the book and lots more about Herb Ryman!

If you haven't done so, subscribe on iTunes to the From The Mouth Of The Mouse Podcast!

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!


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