MARC DAVIS IN HIS OWN WORDS: IMAGINEERING THE DISNEY THEME PARKS by Pete Docter and Christopher Merritt (Disney Editions)
Walt Disney was stingy with compliments, but he called longtime animator Marc Davis his “renaissance man” and meant it. As the production of animated films wound down in the 1950s, Disneyland and the upcoming New York World’s Fair consumed much of Walt’s time and nearly all of his energy. His Midas touch intact, Disney reassigned many of his artists to his WED operation, later renamed Imagineering. Davis brought his artistic talent and whimsical imagination to the task of world-building and left his mark on such enduring attractions as the Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and the Country Bear Jamboree, to name just a few.
This elaborate, slip-cased two-volume book is a labor of love for authors Docter (one of Pixar’s key filmmakers) and Merritt (a show designer and historian), who knew Davis and his devoted wife Alice and recorded his musings about his career over many years’ time. Every page is filled with drawings, paintings, and never-before-seen photographs, alongside quotes from Davis and many of his colleagues. It’s a cornucopia of material designed to inform and delight Disneyland aficionados. The best word to describe this endeavor is “spectacular.”
MY BOSS, WALT: MAKING THE DISNEY WILDLIFE SHOWS by Jack Couffer (Theme Park Press)
Jack Couffer is one of the unsung heroes of Disney history: a naturalist and filmmaker who contributed immeasurably to Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures and countless animal-oriented TV shows. A 1949 graduate of USC’s cinema program, he teamed up with future Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall to shoot unprecedented wildlife footage, learned how to train animals and birds to become actors with specific skill sets, and eventually directed feature films on his own. Some of the material in this book overlaps with Couffer’s earlier memoir Song of Wild Laughter but there is new material as well that is worthy of your attention. Couffer’s encounters with Walt Disney were sporadic but memorable and he paints an honest and positive portrait—in contrast to his experiences with some of the company’s bean counters. I highly recommend this first-hand account of making memorable nature films both in and outside the Disney orbit.
THE MAKING OF WALT DISNEY’S ‘FUN AND FANCY FREE’ BY J.B. Kaufman (Hyperion Historical Alliance)
Few authors are as well-versed in Disney history as J.B. Kaufman. Every book he composes is an event for Disneyphiles and this one is no exception. We are all indebted to the Hyperion Historical Alliance, a society devoted to the study of all things Disney, for making it a reality. Fun and Fancy Free was one of the studio’s so-called “package features” of the 1940s, intended to keep the animation pot boiling and not break the bank while everyone geared up for a new, full-length fairy tale in the years following World War II. Kaufman traces this particular film’s winding road, as a proposed Mickey Mouse short based on “Jack and the Beanstalk” wound up being paired with a fable called “Bongo” based on a story by literary lion Sinclair Lewis. A plethora of concept artwork, animation drawings, model sheets and the like fill this book and provide eye appeal to match its scholarship. Kaufman even provides extensive credits so we can learn which animators worked on every scene in the feature. This welcome volume is available from Stuart Ng at www.stuartngbooks.com.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WARD KIMBALL: MAVERICK OF DISNEY ANIMATION by Todd James Pierce (University Press of Mississippi)
Somehow I overlooked this valuable biography when it was published early last year. The author is a superb writer who understands the nature of animation and what it took for Ward Kimball to master this art and craft in the 1930s. He manages to get inside Kimball’s head, revealing his aspirations to achieve recognition as an artist before surrendering to the reality of a steady job in animation. He also explores the roots of Kimball’s lifelong iconoclasm.
What’s more, Pierce appreciates the nuances of Ward’s relationship with Walt Disney. They could never be true friends but had a special relationship, more than merely that of employer and employee. This caused great resentment among Ward’s colleagues—even fellow animator Frank Thomas, who pulled no punches in his remarks in spite of the fact that he and Ward were part of the jazz band The Firehouse Five Plus Two.
I’ve never read a better, more detailed account of the tensions and day-to-day reality of the bitter studio strike of 1941. Ward tried to rise above it, while his pal Walt Kelly simply stopped showing up for work rather than deal with it. This is a superb biography, essential reading for anyone who values Disney history.
THEY DREW AS THEY PLEASED: THE HIDDEN ART OF DISNEY’S EARLY RENAISSANCE, THE 1970s AND 1980s by Didier Ghez; foreword by Don Hahn (Chronicle Books)
Posterity will thank the indefatigable Didier Ghez for his research, but we can express our gratitude right now for his valuable series of handsome sketchbooks. The latest entry in this “hidden art” series features two of the studio’s most prolific and reliable artists, Ken Anderson and Mel Shaw. Both men started with Walt Disney in the 1930s but their well of visual ideas never ran dry. Toward the end of their careers they were tasked with creating character designs and concept art for upcoming projects. This book offers generous examples of their work, from pen-and-ink sketches to full color renderings. It’s a joy to leaf through these pages and appreciate their artistry.
THE 55-ERS: THE PIONEERS WHO SETTLED DISNEYLAND by David Koenig (Bonaventure Press)
David Koenig has written extensively about Disneyland, but this book is one of a kind, offering biographical sketches of more than 700 employees who worked at the park during its inaugural year, 1955. These “cast members” range from Conestoga wagon drivers to bandleaders, silhouette artists to magicians. Some became well-known to park visitors while others toiled behind the scenes. Many of these participants provided Koenig with snapshots for his book including views of food stands, restaurants and attractions that are no longer there. Disneyland enthusiasts will find much to enjoy here.
GROWING UP IN DISNEYLAND by Ron DeFore (Waldorf Publishing)
Ron’s father, Don DeFore, studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and went on to appear in such films as It Happened on Fifth Avenue, Without Reservations, My Friend Irma and two popular TV series: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Hazel. He counted John Wayne and Ronald Reagan among his friends and—wait for it—also ran Don DeFore’s Silver Banjo Barbecue restaurant at Disneyland from 1957-62. This Frontierland eatery gave young Ron a unique perspective on Walt Disney and his still-blossoming theme park. The book combines Don’s recollections, from a never-published manuscript, and his son’s memories and experiences working in public relations and early-day live television. Disneyland completists will enjoy hearing from a man whose mother used to say that he and his siblings were probably the only kids in America who used to whine, “Gee, Mom, do we have to go to Disneyland again?”