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The Architect of Delight
Rolly Crump’s whimsical artistry has entertained generations at Disneyland. The famed Imagineer, now 81, holds forth on talking birds, small worlds, and the legacy of uncle Walt
Photograph by Gregg Segal
When I started with Disney in the animation department in 1952, I didn’t know how long I’d have the job because I knew there were always big layoffs after every feature was finished. There was a pretty good-size layoff after Lady and the Tramp that I survived, but they cut my salary way back, almost half of what I had been making. They brought me down from assistant animator to “break down” artist, and then to “in-betweener.” I wanted to make enough money to support my family—my wife and three kids—and I actually went out and applied for a job as a milkman, but they wouldn’t hire me because I didn’t have any experience. And I said to them, “How do you get experience to be a milkman?”
A friend of mine had a close friend who did construction work, and he needed a laborer. I asked if he could pay $70 a week, and my friend said he would. At that time I was only making $45 a week at Disney, so I took the job. After about four or five months, Disney decided to do The Mickey Mouse Club, and that exploded animation because there were so many little sequences that needed to be done. So I got a call from the animation department, and they said, “If you come back now, we’ll make you a full-time assistant.” And I said, “I’m there.” And everything just sort of started falling into place.
At the studio, employees were allowed to exhibit their own artwork in the library. I had an exhibit there, one that included my various propeller devices, my mobiles, and my marijuana posters. Walt at that time was looking for more people to come to WED Enterprises. “WED” stood for Walt’s initials—Walter Elias Disney—and it was his special division that had been created to develop Disneyland. WED was originally owned by the Disney family, but after Walt’s death the studio took it over and later changed the name to Walt Disney Imagineering, or WDI. My supervisor told Walt about me. He said, “You ought to see Rolly Crump’s stuff. He’s having an exhibit in the library.” Kita, the librarian, called me one day and said, “Well, Walt was up and saw your exhibit.” I said, “Oh, wow! Did he go down the hallway and see my dope posters?” She said, “Yeah, he did.” And I asked, “How did he react to them?” She said, “He laughed.” See, this was Walt. I mean, he never read into anything. He just enjoyed whatever he looked at if he felt the artist was being honest. The marijuana posters, like the one about the Green Gasser Kauphy House, were satires—they were put-ons, you know—and he saw the humor in them.
One of my bosses at animation, Ken Peterson, called me and told me, “WED wants you. By the way, now that you’re moving over to WED, we just wanted you to know that when you applied for the job here, you had the worst portfolio of anyone ever hired in animation.” I said, “Yeah, I know. It was just a high school portfolio. I didn’t have anything more than that.” And he said, “Well, you must have been a diamond in the rough.” Which I thought was kind of cute.
I was called in and introduced to Walt. I shook his hand, and he said, “Roland, it’s a pleasure to have you on board.” I said, “Mr. Disney, it’s a pleasure for me to be here.” He said, “No, it’s not Mr. Disney. It’s Walt, and don’t you ever forget that.” I said, “Yes, sir.” I think Walt wanted me at WED because he could see in my work, whether marijuana posters, mobiles, or propellers, a lot of imagination. Because of the mobiles, he used to refer to a lot of the things I did as mobiles. In fact, when I was doing the Tiki Room he said, “Rolly, I want you to design a mobile that comes out of the ceiling with a hundred birds on it”—rather than use the word “chandelier.”
In designing for Disneyland you definitely worked more as a conduit for Walt’s ideas. He directed what you were doing, and his direction was far superior to your own personal ideas. His ideas were way ahead of yours—you had to play catch-up on that, and then you had to kind of read subconsciously what it was that he wanted and the direction to take. Walt would come up with an idea, and that idea would explode inside of him. It would get better and better. So when you showed him something, he would take what you did to another level. And when you gave it back, he’d take it to yet another level.
He’d tell you things periodically, and if you tucked those things away, then you realized that you were learning his philosophy. I was at Disneyland with him once on the Rivers of America, on the Mark Twain steamboat, and he said, “Now, Rolly, if you just kind of lean back and half-close your eyes and look out there at that, you really could be in the 1700s on some rivers in America.” He loved that. He said, “You’ve got to give the public a chance to really absorb and feel like they’re really there.” What Walt was saying was, Make sure that when you’re designing something, you get your audience engulfed.
In the earliest stages of It’s a Small World, all we knew was that Walt wanted children from around the world to be the show and the ride. It was a little boat ride that actually took you around the world. Some artist had done an initial rendering, and it was beautiful, but it didn’t have that childlike feeling that Walt wanted. Walt took one look at it and turned to my supervisor and asked, “What’s Mary Blair doing?” Mary had been a key background stylist on Saludos Amigos, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and a lot of Disney shorts as well as an independent illustrator of children’s books like the Little Golden Books. She had a beautiful childlike style and these strong designs and patterns and bright colors. Unlike many artists, Mary was totally unafraid about using color—she loved everything right out of the tubes. Even though she was retired and living in New York, Walt felt that Mary would be perfect. He was right. She had that childlike quality, which was incredible, and I think that’s why Small World is what it is.
I got Mary’s sketches out, and with the help of Fred Joerger from the model shop designed and built a cardboard model of the Small World facade in seven days. Fred and I had made some cardboard trees that we were going to place in front, but we hadn’t quite found a spot to put them, so we temporarily set them on top of a box that represented the roof of the ride behind the facade. Walt walked in early to take a look at the model, and he said, “You know what I like most about what you did here? You have trees on the roof, and the public will never know there’s a building back there.” We instantly said, “We thought that was a good idea.” Then we busted out laughing and told Walt the truth. He said, “I don’t care. It was a good idea. Let’s leave the trees on the roof.” Over the years they’ve kind of eliminated them because of the cost of maintaining them.
The final model for Small World was made out of white fiberglass, which proved to be the best material because it required extremely low maintenance. It was about 300 feet long. Walt didn’t want it any bigger. He said, “Rolly, whatever you do, don’t overscale this facade. I don’t want it to look like something from Las Vegas.”
I remember the day Walt came over to look at the finished model of the facade. He came all by himself. Normally there was this whole entourage of supervisors and managers and artists who would accompany him on his visits. I had requested just a one-on-one with the old man on this. He looked at it for about five or six minutes, and then he turned to me and asked, “Rolly, do you have any excuses today?” I said, “No, sir.” He said, “Well, then build it.”
The Enchanted Tiki Room came about in an interesting way. In the early ’60s, they were upgrading Adventureland. They were putting in a restaurant called the Tahitian Terrace that included a live show. They were redoing the Jungle Cruise marquee and other things. Somewhere along the line they discovered they had a little space left over and thought that some kind of tearoom would be good there. At the time I was designing a tearoom for Main Street using the theme of clocks from all over the world. But now it seemed the tearoom should be in Adventureland and should be Polynesian themed. One of the artists came up with an illustration of a Tahitian-style tearoom with tikis for columns and birds in cages near the ceiling. We were in a meeting with Walt, and the artist showed Walt the rendering. After looking at it, Walt told the artist, “You shouldn’t have birds in the tearoom or in the restaurant.” When the artist asked why, Walt replied, “Well, they’ll poop in the food.” The artist said, “No, no, no. They’re not real birds, they’re stuffed birds.” Walt told him, “Disney does not stuff birds.” And the artist countered, “No, they’re not stuffed birds. They’re little mechanical birds.” All of a sudden Walt stopped and said, “Oh, a little mechanical bird.”
There were about six of us at the meeting, and it got to the point where we were discussing, What if we had a little mechanical bird that chirps, and maybe there are a couple of birds on the other side of the room that chirp back? And maybe all of a sudden they’ll start to sing a little, they’ll chirp together, and do a little song. Right after that Walt liked the idea of birds singing. He told me he wanted me to do a mobile that descended out of the ceiling with a hundred birds on it, so that we had all of these birds as a sort of crescendo. I said, “OK, fine.” They sent the concept over to the machine shop so they could design a chandelier that would come out of the ceiling and make the birds animated. Because the birds operated by compressed air, we could only have 30 birds—100 birds would have meant too massive an air pipe hidden in the central column of the chandelier. They then sent the chandelier armature over to WED, and I was lifted up there with all my plasticine clay, and I started to add clay to the armature to make it look like it was carved wood. They made a fiberglass replica of it, and then I painted it off-white so it would have the look of driftwood that had been on the beach a long time.
Just as I was wrapping up, Walt said to me, “When people are waiting to have lunch there or whatever, they’re going to be outside. Rolly, I want you to design some preshow tikis for the outside.” I went to the library and got a book called Voices on the Wind that described all of these legends of the South Pacific. I read all the legends, and I picked out some—Rongo, Tangaroa-Ru, Pele, and some of the other gods that they believed in—and I did a series of pen-and-ink sketches of these different tiki gods, adding to them elements that would help them come alive, and in the preshow they would introduce themselves and do something physically while talking to you. I designed all of those, and then Walt asked me to have them sculpted. The top sculptor at WED said he was too busy and suggested that I sculpt them myself. I had never sculpted before, but the sculptor showed me how, and I ended up sculpting the tikis in the WED parking lot, where it was warm enough to make the plasticine clay malleable.
Walt wanted to see the show that was going to be in the restaurant, and to do this he had one corner of the interior of the restaurant mocked up on one of the soundstages at the studio, including all the animated birds, chandelier—everything. By this time we’ve got all the birds talking and singing, we’ve got the fountain going, we’ve got the birds coming out of the ceiling. We had all the chairs and the tables set up like a restaurant. Walt’s cracking up, he’s just enjoying it to no end. Then he holds his hand up and says, “This show is too good for a restaurant because people will never leave. It’s no longer a restaurant. It’s a show.”
If you’re doing a painting, after a while the painting will tell you what to do. That’s true with a lot of things that you design. I remember when the girl birds came out on the chandelier, I wanted to put sequins on the breasts, which they did, so then the little girls would sparkle. Over the years they’ve eliminated that because of costs. When the drummers were beating the drums, it was kind of dull when you looked up there. I took little reflective disks—like you see on Sparkletts trucks—and I screwed them into their eyes so that when the drummers beat, their eyes would sparkle. That was something I did after the show was running, after it was in Disneyland.
Walt used to go to Disneyland on his own and stand in line with the guests. He had a bad back, so when you saw him in person, he was hunched over. When he was on television, they had a brace that he wore so he stood straight up. When Walt was at the park, often his hair wasn’t brushed, and he looked a little frowzy. You never would have recognized him. That’s the way he wanted it to be. He would stand in line with all the people just to listen to what they had to say.
When Walt passed away, in December of 1966, it was devastating. No one in the company realized how sick he had been. We finished a revision of Tomorrowland in spring of 1967, fairly soon after Walt passed away. Walt had been guiding it, and we felt we had done everything that he had wanted on it. That night we all went down, and there was a ribbon stretched in front that the next day they were going to cut. We all stood there like we were lost because it was the last thing that we’d worked with Walt on, and we didn’t have a clue what the next thing was going to be. That was probably my saddest moment at Disney. Later everything got very political, and there was a lot of infighting.
You had more freedom when Walt was alive because your freedom was supported by him. Without Walt, if you tried something too new or different, they’d shoot you down. Eventually that situation forced me to leave, although it took me three years. I just couldn’t handle the politics. There was no quality control over the shows. We weren’t working as a team anymore, and one of the reasons for this was artists from the outside, from other studios, were being brought in. They were not designing through the eyes of a Disney artist, and I really got furious about that. On the Disney World project, nothing was scaled down. Everything became full scale or bigger. The castle in Disney World is 300 feet high. The castle here is 65 feet high.
My daughter was a grammar school teacher, and on Walt’s birthday every year she had her kids wear a Disney T-shirt or dress. One year she said that she was going to get her father to come down and talk about what it was like to work with Walt. The principal found out about it and decided the whole student body should be there. We held it in the auditorium, and I brought down a large picture. I told them that this was a picture of me with Walt Disney from my younger days. A little guy in the front row raised his hand and asked, “Which one’s you and which one’s Walt?” The little guys today don’t know what Walt looked like. They know Mickey Mouse, but they don’t know Walt.
When Michael Eisner took over, it was a different era. Walt’s spirit was gone. Under Eisner, the studio made a lot of money, but it wasn’t the same. Walt knew storytelling—he had us tell wonderful stories. Eisner made the studio grow, but he didn’t have Walt’s philosophy of storytelling. As Ward Kimball, one of our top animators, once told a group of art students, “It’s over. Walt’s dead. You missed it.”
The morning that Walt passed away, John Hench, one of the project directors at WED Enterprises, came out and told me the news. He said, “Now we’ll realize how much of our work was really done by Walt.” Which I think was a beautiful statement.
The artists of WED Enterprises (later Walt Disney Imagineering) created theme park rides, cruise ships, and retail outlets. The contemporaries with whom Rolly Crump worked from 1959 to 1970 (and for several short runs thereafter) represented some of the studio’s finest talent and include:
» A fugitive from the animation department, he was so good at layout and design that he became the chief stylist for most of the Fantasyland rides and a leading supervisor of projects at WED.
» He was a master technician who supervised the building and operation of the 36-inch-gauge railroad that circles Disneyland and the steam engines that power the Mark Twain riverboat.
» A superb painter of landscapes and animation backgrounds (including those for Pinocchio), Coats also figured out how to make pools of subterranean water cascade in the Rainbow Caverns of the old Mine Train ride and helped conceive the dank jails, burning towns, and battling ships for the Pirates of the Caribbean.
» He worked on countless concepts for animatronic figures at Disney park attractions. Davis drew and animated Thumper in Bambi (1942), Tinker Bell in Peter Pan (1953), Aurora and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmations (1961).
» As a sculptor, he created highly detailed characters ranging from grinning ghosts at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion to Abraham Lincoln for Disney World’s Hall of Presidents.
» Gurr designed autos for Ford before coming to WED to create Autopia cars, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the futuristic monorail, and nearly all the conveyance systems at Disneyland, including the vintage buses and fire engines of Main Street.
» He was an animator, designer, and adviser to Walt Disney. Hench’s special-effects artistry for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea won an Oscar in 1955. As Mickey’s official portraitist, he painted the famous mouse for his 25th, 50th, 60th, and 70th birthdays.
» Joerger worked in the model shop, where he built a tiny Storybook cottage for Storybook Land and the towering crags of Big Thunder Mountain.
» He was a robotics engineer who could make a tiny propeller spin on the head of a pin and a life-size figure of Abraham Lincoln rise, move, and speak.