My Sleeping Beauty Adventure 1956-1958
From my bio “Flyin’ Chunks and Other Things to Duck”
by Dorse Lanpher
After struggling through 5 semesters of The Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles , California , I, at the age of 21, decided it was time to conquer the real world. I heard The Walt Disney Studio was looking for artists to help do an animated film entitled “Sleeping Beauty.” I had never really considered cartoon animation as a career but I needed a job and animation art sounded like fun.
I made an appointment to show my portfolio at Walt Disney Feature Animation. On that magic day I nervously carted my portfolio to the main gate of The Walt Disney Studio. Attempting great stage presence I announced my arrival to the guard. He gave me proper directions to my meeting place, Andy Engman’s office in the animation building, follow “Mickey Mouse Lane” to “Dopey Drive,” turn right and enter the animation building on my left…Andy’s office would be the first door on your left as you enter the animation building. Got it! The studio was beautiful. Well kept buildings, un-fearful, frisky squirrels scampering across grassy lawns edged with colorful flowers and large manicured trees. I felt very special walking up Mickey Mouse Lane , frightened, nervous and beatific.
Walt Disney Animation Building On the Lot
I found Mr. Engman’s office, told the secretary who I was and she introduced me to Andy. Everybody was on a first name basis at the studio. I guess the informality of the place relaxed me. Andy was a little over weight, sweet kind of gruff guy who had been an effects animator and was, at that time, in administration. He was a studio veteran. In those days a lot of the guys were tough, heavy drinking party guys. Not sure why unless it was just tough to hang on to a job as an artist or maybe they were just fun guys. After my portfolio was perused by Andy, Johnny Bond, a Disney animation fixture for many years and drinking buddies of Andy’s, gave me an “In-between Test.” The test consisted of me doing a drawing of Donald Duck, which fit precisely between two other drawings of Donald Duck, unfortunately for me each duck drawing was in a different position. This forced my drawing to be a different duck than the other two. Yikes. The duck drawings had been drawn by somebody who knew how to draw Donald Duck. I had never tried to draw Donald Duck. I had drawn autos, airplanes, wrenches, carburetors, girls, but never a famous duck or even a regular duck. I wasn’t too nervous but I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t understand the concept of animation. When the drawings were viewed in sequence Donald Duck magically came to life. Ah, the magic of animation! Pencil drawings come to life, I was hooked. I also did the same test but with drawings of clouds. I had no idea what was expected. I went home and anxiously awaited a response to what was my Herculean effort to impress Andy Engman and Johnny Bond.
Fortunately for me the studio needed effects artists. I received a call from Andy’s secretary asking me to report to the studio as a trainee in the animation effects department. I was thrilled. Having just gotten married it was comforting to know I was a responsible husband and would be working as a professional artist.
In January, 1956 I began a 30 day training program for about 42 dollars a week. I had never considered animation as a career even though the first movie I remember seeing was Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” with Cliff Edwards, an early thirties movie star known as “Ukulele Ike” as the voice of Jiminy Cricket. I was impressed enough by that movie to make sure I was never turned into a donkey and to always stay away from creepy guys with wagons pulled by little boys turned into donkeys. I had my orientation tour of the studio and the lady who was in charge said to the group that we would all be driving Cadillac’s in ten years. I was driving a Volkswagen ten years later, but it was a “brand new” Volkswagen. Oddly enough, ten years later, I was out in the real world of Culver City working on technical films. I had resigned from Disney’s to except a job offer which I thought would propel me to even greater heights, but back to the Sleeping Beauty.
During my training period at the studio I worked on several “shorts” in preparation for the feature we would start soon, “Paul Bunyan”, “Wind Wagon Smith”, “Our Friend the Atom.” I couldn’t believe they were paying me to do this stuff. I was doodling for dollars, working with the likes of Jack Boyd, Art Stevens, Cliff Nordberg, Ed Parks, all old timers in the animation business. When I started on the shorts Josh Meador, one of the old time effects animators was the department supervisor. He was a successful master painter with a gallery in Carmel . He said his wife was running the gallery and “she sells everything I paint”. While chatting with a few of us he told us that one day he found himself in his room reading the paper all day, it occurred to him that he hadn’t had an assignment from Walt for a while. In doing some detective work he found that he had somehow crossed Walt and was on Walt’s bad side. Maybe that was the time he had told Walt that he could complete a short by himself in less time than it would take a whole studio crew to do it. Eventually all was worked out and Josh was back to his projects and in between projects was taking six month painting sabbaticals to sketch landscapes for painting reference. Josh was a long time Disney effects artist who had animated effects on the movie Bambi as well as many other films. He was always willing to crit my sketch to share his talent with positive reinforcement of my efforts. At that time I really didn’t grasp the value of such a privilege to have some one so successful sharing there expertise. After a period of working on the shorts I was assigned to Sleeping Beauty. Ah, a real animated feature to work on. My very first Walt Disney feature.
I was eventually promoted to assistant animator working with Jack Buckley, a master effects animator and artist who had started at the studio in the late forties. I was working with famous artists who had created successful lives in the animation business. My days were filled with drawing pixie dust, burning thorn bushes, and flapping fairy wings. I kept a note pad taped to my desk and to take a break I would draw a race car on the last page and then on the other pages I would draw the car in progressive stages of crashing. I would then flip the pages and the car would appear to race to a fiery finish. Drawings come to life. Sometimes my fun would be interrupted by a seething Jack storming into the room, slinging a packet of his scene across the room, after a meeting with a loud, rude, cursing, cigar smoking, Clyde Geronomi, the movies director. I had heard that Clyde used an abundance of four letter words with a force which could remove wallpaper. Of course I heard this from Jack having never had my own experience with that force.
Jack animated most of the pixie dust in the film. No particle systems in those days. I was the particle system! I thought it would take the rest of my life doing the assistant work on the sequence where the fairies put the castle to sleep but it did look magical when it was finished. The picture was shot in the Super Technirama 70 Cinematographic Process which was a name about as long as the cinemascope paper we had to draw the animation on. The paper was more than twice as wide as the paper we used for standard 35 mm movies. Holding up that paper to flip the drawings all day required athletic ability. My left arm is still bigger than my right arm.
For the fire which the dragon spews to set the thorn forest ablaze in her attempt to fry the prince Jack decided to animate with pastel chalks. I was never a fan of pastels simply because I could do a nice still life with them but I ended up with more chalk on me than my art. Drawing fire with those pastel chalks on those big sheets of paper caused me to realize I was no longer doodling for dollars but rather laboring for love, the love I had for pencils and standard sized paper. I was very happy to get back to at least drawing with pencils when we animated the thorn forest and the prince slicing through it with his trusty sword. But of course we still had to do it on that big paper. Jack liked my work as so well he gave me a chance to animate, to test my mettle. I was to animate the effects in a scene which was a long shot of the castle where the fog of doom envelopes the castle. I did so well on that scene that Jack let me animate the bridge collapsing when the Prince, on his horse, jumps the moat of the castle.
In those days smoking cigarettes, cigars or a pipe for the more erudite, was a socially acceptable way of doing yourself in with a horrible disease while thinking it was a marvelous pastime. Almost every one smoked, in their cars, in their home, at work, while dining; there were even water proof cigarettes. Those were great for people who wanted to smoke while they showered. I smoked in all of those places and at work, in the building, at my desk, very stinky. Jack smoked cigars and me, cigarettes. I had an ashtray which was usually filled to the smelly brim with fumatorious debris but Jack refused to use an ashtray; instead he would lay his lit cigar on the edge of his desk drawer. One afternoon I was feverishly flapping those big sheets of paper while drawing fire with colored chalk when I heard Jack rustling about. I looked over at Jack just as he slid his waste basket, which his cigar had fallen into, my way. His face glowing from the bright fire rising out of his waste basket. I’d swear he had a mischievous look of glee as the waste basket left a trail of smoke and flames rising high out of the basket as it slid toward me. I jumped up and stopped the basket before it arrived under the water sprinkler which protruded from the ceiling just above my head. By this time Jack had composed himself enough to grab a piece of chip board which he placed over the waste basket smothering the fire. We always worked with our door closed and in a few minutes we heard people out in the hallway shuffling about and muttering about the smell of smoke. Jack and I furiously fanned the smoke with chip boards and waited a few minutes for the smell of smoke to clear our room. We then opened the door to see the studio fire marshal and a bunch of people milling about in the hallway. They all had their noses in the air sniffing like dogs on the trail of drug smugglers, everyone announcing the smell of smoke as if they were in the chorus of a Broadway musical, “yes, I smell smoke, we all smell smoke, yes, we all smell smoke”. Jack and I joined them sniffing with our noses in the air more convinced than any of them that we smelled smoke. Eventually we all sniffed all of the smoke out of the air and the smell went away as did the fire marshal and all of the worried people. Jack and I went back in our room, closed the door and snickered quietly while we continued to work, for sure relieved that we didn’t burn down the studio while animating fire on those big sheets of paper. L.A. Times headline…”Disney animator with large left arm sets studio ablaze with his big paper fired fury.”
Occasionally, I would receive at my desk an invitation to an “ARI,” an Audience Reaction Interview for a new film or TV show which was being screened in one of the animation studio’s many small screening rooms called “sweat boxes”. Those screenings would be a chance for an audience to submit comments about the film they just saw, hopefully improving the film. During the lunch breaks we could go to the sound stages and watch a live action production being filmed. The sound stages weren’t so secure in those days, to my benefit. Standing quietly in the dark I’d watch all of the stagehands, electricians, actors and actresses making a real movie. It was a super experience. Sometimes I would find out where “The Firehouse Five Plus Two” was rehearsing. I would take my brown bag and sit in an audience of maybe two or three people. Ward Kimbal always welcome us, apparently glad to have fans listen. Yes, they were still working at Disney’s when I started at the studio and were more popular than ever. They even played at the opening of Disneyland the year before. I will always remember Ward Kimbal’s snappy out fits. He would just wear bright colors and not be concerned with subtleties. He would wear a red shirt, yellow tie, blue pants with green suspenders and a nifty hat or any combo of colors depending on the day. I had discovered the “Fire House Five Plus Two” years before, as a teenager, living in the state of Michigan . My folks had a 78 rpm recording on the Good Time Jazz label. At that time I had no idea they were top Disney artists. Ward Kimbal, the only Disney artist Walt ever called a genius, started the band after he taught himself to play the trombone. Frank Thomas played piano. Both were members of the “Nine Old Men” the key group of animators at the studio, Walt’s favorites. I, to this day listen to their CD’s in my home and in my car, so happy that technology allows us to preserve our favorites of the past. I was then 21 years old and thought I was accomplished, privileged and there was no where to go but up! Those were good days. The Mickey Mouse club was in its “hay day” and I would see the Mousketeers and Annette Funicello bouncing around the studio. I would see Cliff Edwards driving on to the lot in his auto, the make of which was a “Nash” His name was painted on his spare tire cover with a picture of Pinocchio at the center. European sports cars were the rage in those days so I bought a British sports car, a 1956 Austin Healy. I loved that car almost as much as I loved my job at Walt Disney Studios, almost as much as my wife, Judy. Um, I had a lot to love and a still much more to learn.
I’m sure at one time or another we all wonder why the good times have to end. About the time I thought I was on top of the world I received my first lesson in taking things for granted and good times ending. Good times not just ending but coming to a screeching halt. One evening, at home with Judy, I sat down to sort through the day’s mail. I came across a letter from the President of The United States. The letter began with “Greetings from the President of the United States .” Wow… I was doing such a good job at the studio on Sleeping Beauty that President Eisenhower was writing to praise me. No, the letter turned out to be a request from President Eisenhower for me to report on March 28, 1958, to the United States Army Infantry at Fort Ord California to serve two years learning to be a soldier and defending our country from whatever enemies we might face. Gee, and I thought my career was just taking off and now the President wanted me to put it on hold, leave my wife and my sports car, and be a soldier in the U.S. Army. The army was going to teach a Disney artist how to break things, shoot stuff and be able to live in a cave. Gee, I wasn’t finished with Sleeping Beauty, my career in cartoon animation, my wife Judy or my Austin Healy.
I informed the studio of my President’s desires and fortunately for me the animation for Sleeping Beauty was almost finished. The studio laid a lot of the artist off after it was finished but I was in the U.S. Army by that time. I was guaranteed employment for two years, maybe even more. I was a Private First Class soldier in the army when Sleeping Beauty was finished. The movie was placed in the theaters around the country and the box office results were disappointing. It was a visually beautiful film but the audiences didn’t take to it.
I survived the army and in 1960 came back to resume my career at The Walt Disney Studios. A much wiser 25 year old knowing that good times end but ready to begin the good times again.
Words and Insights care of Dorse Lanpher