Rowland Wilson in his Studio
John Culhane, author of many definitive books on Walt Disney animation, including Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 and Aladdin, The Making of Animated film, was a long-time friend of Rowland B. Wilson and sent this memoir to Rowland’s wife, Suzanne.
I opened the New York Times this Sunday morning and immediately recognized the laughter-provoking distinction of a Rowland B. Wilson cartoon! A Rowlie B. tiger is wrestling a Great White Hunter for his gun, and another Great White Hunter is saying, “You’ll not get a proper trophy that way, Bassington!” My first thought was that the Times was trying to lighten the loss told about in the obit above the cartoon: “CLAUDE SIMON, CHAMPION OF NEW NOVEL AND NOBEL LAUREATE, DIES AT 91″ – then suddenly I feared to see what I would find beneath the paper’s fold. Oh, there it was: “ROWAND B. WILSON, 74, CREATOR OF WRY CARTOONS.” I felt loss like that when Tex Avery died. Remember when Roland and I were working for Richard Williams Animation in London, and you and he and I went to the British Film Institute to see an evening of that other Texan’s cartoons? Rowlie B. had one of the most distinctive laughs in the animation industry, right up there with John Hubley’s. When Tex died at 73 in 1980, a year’s laughter less than Rowland, I thought of all those Averys we saw together, and how I knew when Tex had hit the bulls-eye, because Rowland’s laugh enveloped us both. He laughed at the horny wolf in “The Shooting of Dan Magoo,” or Drag-Along Droopy saying “That makes me mad,” or King Size Canary growing to the size of planet earth, or Bad Luck Blackie getting hit by the kitchen sink. In fact, Rowland’s famous cartoon of Santa’s reindeer playing poker and saying to him, “Care to join in a reindeer game?” is funnier to me than all the literal stuff in Tex’s “Symphony in Slang” except maybe “raining cats and dogs.” Moreover, Rowland’s rescued damsel in Playboy who says to her exhausted knight in shining armor, “You think I’m obligated to come across now, don’t you, you male chauvinist pig!” is Red Hot Riding Hood’s sister under the skin.
What Rowland gave to John Musker and Ron Clements for their Disney Renaissance masterpieces, “The Little Mermaid” and “Hercules” is unforgettable. I spent a week touring America with John when I was Mousetro of Ceremonies for “Disney on Film: A Forum on Animation and Fantasy Filmmaking” in 1981, and I knew that he was a collector of drawings by Scarfe and Wilson. Later, I found that he loved the statue’s head that Rowlie B. designed for Eric Goldberg’s Philoctetes to live in. Musker said, “Rowland Wilson’s conception of Phil’s Place provided a sense of fantasy and scale. It gave a sense of history to Phil that he wouldn’t have had otherwise–Phil, trainer of heroes, has fallen on hard times and literally lives in a run-down head of a statue that used to be grand and has sort of fallen on hard times and gone to seed. Yet, inside it, he has his shrine–this treasure trove of artifacts.”
I wrote about the making of “Hercules” for the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, and I was most interested in the personality of Phil because of all the comic thinking that went into him. The first time I heard Danny DeVito’s voice issuing from the head of that old, broken down statue where Phil lived, I laughed harder than Hubley and Wilson combined.
I started out as a lover of Rowland’s non-moving cartoons -for the Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy: then I got to know you two in the 70s when we were working at Richard Williams Animation where Rowland was making Dick’s prize- winning vodka commercial that shows a train running into Russia through the snow and I was working on story development for “The Thief and the Cobbler.” Remember us going to hear Dick Williams play like Bix on his cornet at a jazz club, and Rowlie B making caricatures of me listening raptly while Dick was playing, his eyes bulging out like hardboiled eggs with irises? Then we corresponded when you two were in Ireland making those features for Don Bluth – Thumbelina and the others; then I would talk to him on the phone when you guys came to California and Disney’s. As you know, I have been trying to get Disney to publish that deliciously funny graphic novel that Rowland wrote and illustrated and you, Suzanne Lemieux Wilson, painted. Made me laugh my old Averyesque-quality laugh, that graphic novel! I wonder how long he is going to be too far ahead of them?
Making animated movies is not a mechanical process,” said Andy Gaskill, the wonderfully creative art director of “Hercules.” “It’s not something you can program into a computer which spits out a hard copy. It’s a process that involves a whole network of relationships, people working with each other, bumping into each other, scratching each other’s eyes out – I mean, hugging each other. Moviemaking involves a whole gamut of human behavior. I hope, after all we’ve done, we can all look at the movie and say, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
I’d never seen anything like Phil’s Place before. I hope to see it again, when architecture and comics catch up. Rowland worked for the future, though I remember from London how much he loved the past. He and I had both done graduate work at Columbia – me in journalism; Rowland in art history. We could talk Viennese paintings with Grim Natwick – Schiele and Klimt – and Grim had been there when those guys were painting! (Of course, that kiss by Grim – prince and Snow White – is much better known than “The Kiss” by Klimt.)
Rowland’s concept art for Disney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” evoked for me medieval life in the reign of Louis XI such as I found as an American Cold Warrior in Paris in the 1950’s, celebrating the Feast of St. Hubert the Hunter with High Mass at Notre Dame. Rowland’s drawings of Esmeralda, Frollo, and, particularly, Quasimodo, were people I could have met there in The Age of Faith. Rowland’s big painting of soldiers taking away Esmeralda and her goat while gray-hooded scribes take names and red-hooded figures impassively look on has the chilling feeling of the authoritarianism of Frollo’s Paris. The gypsies of the time, persecuted by Frollo and his men, hide away in old Roman ruins that, in Rowland Wilson’s version, have been gypsy-humanized with a lavender and yellow tapestry that calls it The Court of Miracles. Quasimodo’s crowning as King of Fools and his first meeting with Esmeralda would fit right in to the Feast of Fools that Rowland painted, particularly with the sausage seller, the big-bosomed fast-food consumer, the playing musicians, the running children. The life in the art of Rowland B. Wilson lives on after his death!
And when Frollo is prevented from burning Esmeralda to death by her rescue, and that evil man is willing to avenge himself on Paris itself by setting loose hellfire on the cathedral and the whole city (is Paris burning?), Rowland gives us a ribbon of wavering fire streaking down the facade of Notre Dame de Paris!
How fitting, darling Skeezix (Rowland’s shorthand for your maiden name of Suzanne Lemieux!), that he should have evolved to make that artistic tribute to the French spirit of our ancestors. My mother’s Robidoux forebears, like your father’s Lemieux clan, knew that Paris; and Mount Robidoux in Riverside bears testimony to their presence in the California world of missions where the goodly friar commemorated Rowland. And I’ll bet you that Rowley B. is up there laughing with Rabelais now.
-Sincerely, John Culhane, model for Mr. Snoops in Disney’s “The Rescuers” and Flying John in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Roy E. Disney’s “Fantasia 2000″; model (with Rowland) for two submachine-gun firing gangsters in a Richard Williams commercial.
When I was a young boy I would borrow my Dad’s collection of Playboys and after reading the interesting articles I would cut out all Roland Wilson’s Artwork and keep them in a scrapbook. When I was a little older a comic book collector friend and I would talk for hours about how great Rowland’s color and design was. Little did I know that I would be privileged to meet and work with him In Ireland. He was great talent and a really nice person who I learned from.
-Barry Atkinson, Visual Development Walt Disney Studios
Rowland figured out all of the mosaic murals in the underwater swim sequence in Atlantis. His water colors were sumptuous, his designs were amazing and in those few seconds that the audience is underwater with the protagonists, we figure out everything along with them. Rowland was one of the best Vis Dev guys I’ve ever seen.
-Ricardo Delgado, Visual Development Artist, Illustrator
I first met Rowland Wilson in 1947 in an art class at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. I was a sophomore in High School, Rowland a junior. The first time I saw his work I thought it was the most astonishing thing I had ever seen. At the age of sixteen he already had the skill and authority of someone twice his age. I would sit next to Rowland in art class and study everything he did and then go home and spend the week trying my best to copy it. Rowland became not only my friend, but my first real art teacher and an extraordinary influence on my life. Rowland went to the University of Texas. I went to the University of Texas. He introduced me to animated cartoons, Dixieland jazz and all things British. He was, at least for a while, an Anglophile. While the rest of us were sitting around the University of Texas reading the “New Yorker” and dreaming of going to New York. Rowland, was probably the only person in Austin Texas who subscribed to “Punch” the British humor magazine that flourished in the fifties, and for him New York was a pit stop on the way to London. It is no wonder that his four daughters all have British accents.
After graduating from Texas Rowland moved to New York. And a year later, after I graduated, I followed suit. Ostensibly we were going to Columbia to get a Masters Degree and, more importantly avoid the draft (which neither of us managed to do), but, in fact we spent most of our time playing ruthless games of ping-pong in the Student Union. Unfortunately, we ran out of money for tuition and had to abandon our dreams of becoming world champion ping-pong players. There is the family we are born with and the family we find along the way, The family we find along the way is big and rowdy and largely dysfunctional. There are people we see all the time and others we see less often than we should, but nevertheless we are part of one another’s family and the loss of one member of that family is a huge loss. Rowland and I were friends for close to sixty years and I can still remember vividly the first drawing of his I ever saw. It was a cartoon of Frankenstein, and it still seems to me as astounding now as it did then. We will miss him.I will miss him.
-Robert Benton, Film Director
Rowland was not only an outstanding artist, but a true gentleman, a great wit and very generous with his time and ideas. He was also a big fan of the New York radio duo “Bob & Ray” and we would quote our favorite routines back and forth. Any kid who grew up seeing Rowland’s prolific and magnificent magazine cartoons, ads and illustration couldn’t help but be in awe of him. I remember at one point our offices were right next to each other and Mike Show saw our names side to side outside our doors and commented with wonder: “Did you ever dream in a million years you’d see your name right next to his on a Disney studio office wall?” I practically had to pinch myself to believe it.
-Will Finn, Story Artist, Director
I met Rowland around 1993 at Disney, I’m really bad with dates but it was sometime when we were in the Flower St building in Glendale which was then home of Disney’s Visual Development Department that I saw his plaque on an office door. I thought to myself my God that’s Rowland Wilson. I had admired Rowlands work so much over the years prior to him coming to Disney. I had first seen his work in those great magazine ads for some Life Insurance company from back east. The drawings were just wonderful of maybe a guy getting hit by a big piano or being eaten by a lion and some such event that inspired you to need Insurance and man, they were just beautifully drawn cartoons.I also knew of Rowlands work in Playboy which was really the only reason I bought the magazine. (wink)
-Rik Maki, Character Designer
Rowland Wilson was an amazing artist who crossed many venues. Whether it was his cartoons for Playboy or the After School Specials for ABC or his work on the Thief and the Cobbler he brought a playfull cartoon style that was very fun and pleasing to the eye. His exterior was that of a quiet southern gentleman (which he was), but he had a wicked sense of humor, which came out in his artwork. Rowland was another well esablished artist who was very open to helping anyone. I will never forget the times we sat and laughed.
-Ed Ghertner, Art Director, Background Painter, Illustrator
I remember as a pre-teen, my stepfather’s copies of “Playboy” lying around the house; of course, we kids had to sneak a peek, and it was there I saw my first Rowland cartoons. Imagine my surprise and (perverse?) delight to be working many years later with this man professionally! I will always remember Rowland for his very dry humor, his perpetually-irreverent viewpoint, and his tongue-in-cheek objectivity, both toward the material AND the people in charge of getting it done— the RIGHT perspective, to me. The artistic results were always meticulously crafted, thoughtful, and never trivializing. Rowland was, simply, a “class act”.
-Jean Gillmore, Character Designer, Illustrator, Actress
Vance and Rowland were two of the greatest, most inspiring,and giving artists in the animation industry. I miss them.
-Kevin Harkey, Story Artist
I had some great chats with Rowland at the pub over a Guiness in Dublin while working on Land Before Time.
-Eddie Goral, Fine Art Painter and Drawing Teacher
If there was ever a time I was happy for not being able to say “no”, it was when I was approached to do a animated commercial for ‘Flying A’ gasoline back in the early ‘70s. I was shown a fantastic design of a gas eating monster that the ad agency hired Rowland to do. The problem was that it was so heavily rendered with a lot of blending colors that other top animation studios it turned down as they deamed it impossible to animate. But I was so touched by Rowland’s designs
that I couldn’t say no and so began one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. With Rowland’s guidance, we ended up rendering cel by cel with acrylic paints and produced a classic award winning commercial. That was just the beginning. From there we went on to produce many more award winning campaigns such as Utica Club beer, Vote toothpaste, Hi Karate after shave, Schoolhouse Rock, etc. etc.
Working with Rowland was incredably magical as with each project he would always come up with a new approach and a different look, and as our relationship grew, he became my mentor and very close friend. His profound influence on me would change my life forever. He helped me to expand my visions and to better understand who I am, and for this I am eternally grateful. It was always creatively challenging and fun to be in Rowland’s company, and some of the fun times I remember was the time I visited him in Ct. with my brand new Alfa Romeo sports car. He had a Porsche at the time and when I arrived he asked to sit in my new car to check it out. He then proceeded to challenge me to a race. The rules were when he said go, we were to jump in our cars and race on this country road which circled around back to his house. So on his command and being all of 5 ft. 5 in., I jumped into my car only to realize I could not reach the peddles or even the steering wheel and even the mirrors were out of whack. He returned with a sheepish smile on his face to find me still adjusting the seat and said “what happened to you?” But I got my revenge the time he showed up at my house the day after I threw a party that he couldn’t attend. We had a ping pong contest in my basement that night where I had a hot streak and wiped everybody out. When I opened the door there was Rowland standing there with a ping pong paddle in his hand saying, “I hear you’re quite a ping pong player!” So down to the basement we went and I proceeded to beat him mainly because he was facing a window where the sun was shining in his eyes. So he said “okay wiseguy, let’s switch sides and you face the sun!” We did and being all of 5 ft.5, the glare from the sun shot over my head and I proceeded to beat him again. Without saying a word, he picked up his paddle and left! And these are just some of the fond memories I recall in our relationship, but most of all it was his incredible talent and approach to creativity that sticks with me most. Artistically, he was truly a super star, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I am working on a project that I don’t ask myself, how would Rowland approach this? He was the best and I will miss him more than words can say.
-Phil Kimmelman, PKA Animation Studio
I will always have a lifelong affection for Rowland B Wilson. Rowland and I worked on several commercials when based at the Richard Williams Studio in London during the 1970′s. He was the designer of projects and I was the director/animator. Rowland was as big in heart as he was in stature and was always ready with a smile and/or last-minute change (such is the way of advertsing clients!) whenever they were necessary. His unique and inspirational designs were as much fun to animate as he was to work with. I deeply miss the vibrant space he took up in this world. Yet, I’m sure he’s out there… somewhere in the ethers… still smiling and designing to his heart’s content at his great drawing board in the sky. Rowland, I really miss working on your stuff buddy. Send something down and I’ll start straight away!
-Tony White, Animaticus Foundation
I had been a huge fan of Rowland Wilson’s work for years. Imagine my surprise when I returned to Disney Animation in the early nineties to find Rowland in Disney’s development department. I first became aware of Wilson’s work when I saw his wonderful cartoons and ad illustrations in magazines. He had a wonderful sense of color and composition, and his particular creative vision was a real asset to Disney’s development department in the nineties.
-Floyd Norman – No newcomer to the animation business, Floyd Norman has worked on several feature films for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. His credits also include directing educational films, story boarding and scripting television shows, and writing children books
I’ve been a big fan of Rowland’s since he did that great series of cartoons for New England Life wherein unsuspecting people are about to be comically “done in.” I liked them so much, in fact, that I wrote to the insurance company complimenting them on the ads, and they sent me an entire set of them. I had Rowland autograph them for me years later when we worked together at Disney. His Playboy cartoons were also stunners. A particularly striking one featuring Tarzan and Jane and great color and composition was prominently displayed in my Cal Arts dorm room as an inspiration. It was this work in Playboy and for New England Life, coupled with his outstanding work for Richard Williams, notably his David Lean-esque Trans Siberian Railways vodka ads, that led me to approach him to do visual development on Little Mermaid. I had been encouraged to contact him by Bill Frake, who knew Rowland well. This began a rich and rewarding collaboration with Rowland. He designed, among other things, Prince Eric’s castle with its eclectic mix of Mediterranean and Asian influences. Rowland put a great deal of thought into his designs. He thought that the palace should feature warm Mediterranean sun washed plaster, which would hold great appeal to a mermaid who’s been confined to the cold sea. Rowland’s courtly manners and Texas drawl were as much a part of him as his wizardry with watercolors. His affection for the hand crafted curios of earlier ages gave his drawings a feeling of being rooted in history, and imbued them all with a warmth and humanity that grew from his own character.
-John Musker, Director
From Michael Sporn