Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"A Pirates Life for Me!"

The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disneyland is so well known and enjoyed by the millions who have adventured through its caverns that its almost impossible to even imagine the park without it. The fact is that the pirates didn’t hoist their sails or stow their gear until eleven years after Disneyland opened it’s gates and lowered the castle drawbridge.

Marty Sklar, Disney Legend and former Principle Creative Exec at Walt Disney Imagineering admitted that it had originally been planned as a fairly modest walk through with wax figures donning the pirate garb. However when the popularity of the Disney projects at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair proved many of the new innovations his team had pioneered, Walt scrapped the old concept in favor of something much grander in scale. 

Marc Davis and Walt share a laugh
You landlubbers might be surprised to learn that the success of the boat vehicles of It’s a Small World at the fair directly affected the Pirates ride and became the transportation method of choice. it was a way of directing the guests towards each tableau and keeping things running on a time schedule so they could move guests through without prodding.

Yale tides up a Pirate
Another Fair attraction that influenced Pirates was the audioanimatronic magic of Great Moments with Mr. Linclon. When it was decided to scrap the wax figure idea in favor of the emerging field of animatronics, a few of the Imagineers wanted to lean towards a more caricatures and cartoony look. Walt immediately vetoed that suggestion and told them to go for the more natural appearance of Lincoln for an example. “It’s all about breathing life into these characters”, he explained to his team.

Francis Xavier Atencio, or "X" as we call him,  wrote the legendary lyrics with music by George Bruns that became a theme song for the attraction, "A Pirates Life for Me!" You also might recognize X's voice as the talking skull that greets the guests before the plumes down their first waterfall which he also penned.
Imagineer Yale Gracey (and former Donald Duck unit head of Layout under director Jack Hannah). Yale created the astounding effect for the fire sequence. It was so realistic the Anaheim Fire Department was hesitant to approve it fearing the guests would panic at the frightening sight. Marty Sklar recalls with a laugh, “We had to convince them it wasn’t real.”

Claude Coats "Onsite Art Director"
Another spooky tidbit  for you Pirates fans. Did you know that Walt and the Imagineers were disappointed with the skeleton characters that were originally set to be installed in the attraction? In his book Pirates of the Caribbean:From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, Disney Producer Jason Surrell elaborated on the tale. They were so upset that the faux skeletons were , "just too unconvincing" that they contacted UCLA Medical Center to "borrow" some boney bodies from the anatomy Department. Over the years as sculpting and casting methods improved most of the real skeletons were replaced by the newly cast ones.
"Skull"-duggery on display

However there are still reported to be a few of the real variety "skull"-king around the ride. Of the many reports they seem to be whittled down to these: two skulls on the sand bar after the second waterfall and a skull and crossbones adorning the headboard of a bed. They are darker and more realistically aged than the other skulls. The main evidence cited is the extra details inside the skulls and around the nose not to mention the very teeth themselves.

ARRGGH, and yes maties,  political correctness creeped in to the Pirates attraction as it has into so many creative crevices in our country. In the 1990's some bitterly lonely folks berated the company for having those dastardly pirates chasing wenches, er... I mean women. So the company buckled and turned the tables with women chasing the poor pirates. So I guess stealing loot, attempted murder, drunk and disorderly and wide scale arson are OK but don't you dare chase the fair ladies! Lucky for Walt the political correctness police hadn't corrupted an innocent and entertaining expression of historically hilarious fun back in his day. X Atencio heard about these ridiculous changes and now refers to the ride as "Boy Scouts of the Caribbean."

I was very fortunate to know and in some case work with many of the key Imagineers that created the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. These include Marc Davis, (wife) Alice Davis, Claude Coats, Herbie Ryman, X Atencio, Yale Gracey and others so writing this post has been a combination of happy nostalgia mixed with sadness that except for Alice they are gone, but a realization that I was fortunate to at least have had them for friends.

So here we are, 50 years later. I was asked to do a tribute piece for the attraction that was in the same vein of my Haunted Mansion piece that earlier celebrated its anniversary. So I created a “sister” piece that is in the retro styling I seem to be somewhat known for in some circles. The tough part for me was attempting to narrow down so many wonderful experiences from the ride into a smaller number that could fit on one poster. I knew I wanted to use a warm theme after all, there’s always some drunken pirate yelling out  “we wants the redhead”. I kept the guests in a cocoon of cool colors to keep them separate from the world of pirate make believe. I hope ye like it ya bloomin cockroach and if yer ship docks at D23, pick one up for yer booty an' stop by me station and I'll be a happy to sign it, arrgghh!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Original WED Imagineers!

This is a favorite photo of mine taken Ive been told around 1965. It includes many of the wonderful folks we know as Disney “Imagineers”. I had the pleasure and honor of knowing all of them except for two. In addition I actually enjoyed the opportunity of working with quite a few of them during my “loan-outs” to WED, and even had one as my teacher at Cal Arts. 
Walt Disney Imagineering was originally formed by Walt Disney on December 16, 1952 as WED Enterprises (WED: Walter Elias Disney) to develop plans for a new theme park using Disney's personal assets. It was originally an independent, private company, owned by Walt Disney himself, but on February 3, 1965, was merged into Walt Disney Productions. It is currently known as Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), Disney Imagineering, or simply put Imagineering. I still find myself calling it WED but try to remember to say WDI when I'm in house.
Their expertise and vision was instrumental in making Walt Disney’s vision of a unique Park experience like no other on earth known as Disneyland, into a reality enjoyed by countless millions.  
L-R: Herb Ryman, Ken O'Brien, Collin Campbell, Marc Davis, Al Bertino, Wathel Rogers, Mary Blair, Thornton Hee, Blaine Gibson, X. Atencio, Claude Coats, and Yale Gracey.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"It's a Small World After All"

Painting the "Blues" while listening to them.
To celebrate the famous attraction's 50th Anniversary, I decided to create a painting in my retro style as an artistic acknowledgment to the time period in which it opened in 1967, well at the Disneyland location anyway. I wanted to show the iconic facade with a nod to the famous balloon motif along with the streamlined boat filled with happy guests.

The familiar tune is famous the world over and whether it recalls the colorful attraction at Disneyland or simply the arrival of a local neighborhood ice cream truck, it elicits smiles from children young and old. The original creation was devised at the Walt Disney Studios and over at its sister studio WED and here's some of the backstory.

The destination was to be the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. A major soft drink company, Pepsi-Cola had wanted a major attraction at the fair but the board of directors argued over what exactly that would be. Board member and actress Joan Crawford who had recently been widowed by the former president of the company called upon her Hollywood friend, Walt Disney, to help them out. Pepsi execs jumped at the chance and traveled to California in February of 1963 and ran into "Admiral" Joe Fowler who was the construction honcho for Disneyland. He informed the disappointed Pepsi execs that they (Disney) were already working on 3 previously committed attractions and because it was less than a year left couldn't possibly take on another. Walt found out and from all accounts he hit the roof. (There's reportedly still a dent there, the roof, not Walt). Anyway he told Joe and the rest, "I'll make those decisions! Tell Pepsi I'll do it!"  Walt explained that they were never going to be too busy for a great opportunity like this to showcase what the Disney company could create. You have to watch those kinds of missteps or you can be demoted from an admiral to seaman in one quick cut.

One of Mary Blair's lovely concepts
Original Installation at World's Fair
Walt was well aware that he had already committed his talented team of Imagineers to projects for the State of Illinois, General Electric and Kodak but was still game for the challenge. Walt commissioned a feasibility study but everyone involved already knew it was a done deal. The challenge was that they had to deliver the completed pavilion in only 11 months, yes I said it, ELEVEN MONTHS people! 

Opening Day with Walt and kids 
Joan Crawford then dictated to the board that they would accept Walt Disney’s proposal no matter what he presented. Because of the short lead time to come up with a concept and construct the attraction. Disneyland was about to celebrate its wildly successful first decade so the man obviously knew what he was doing and had the right people to back up his dreams. Some of the most talented Imagineers from WED pitched in to make the last minute attraction a reality. Mary Blair, one of the key creative concept people (and one of my favorites!) at the studio in the 1940s through the 1950s had left to work on her own. Walt asked her to come back and lend her talents to the attraction and she was happy to oblige. The Small World dream team included Marc Davis one of the 9 old men and his lovely wife Alice Davis who designed the costumes for the dolls. Claude Coats came up with additional color studies. Rolly Crump came up with inside toys and eventually the outdoor display named Tower of the Four Winds. Blain Gibson was charged with sculpting the doll faces.
The attraction was originally called “Children of the World”. Walt was immersed in a “walk thru” of the model settings with a couple of his song writers, the Sherman Brothers. During the visit, he told them he needed, “… ONE song that can be easily translated and be played as a round”. For those reading this unfamiliar with the term “round” think back to your early school days when your class was divided into groups singing different sections of “Row, row, row your boat.” The song the brothers came up with was so memorable that they even changed the attraction's name to, you guessed it, "It's a Small World."

Marc's audioanimatronic sketches
The married team of Marc and Alice Davis supplied a One-Two punch of creativity. Marc designed many of the various lands within the attraction while Walt personally asked Alice to oversee the costumes. Have you ever counted the doll population in Small World? Well someone did, and it's over 300! That's a sizable group which translates to quite a few colorful and culturally accurate fashions from around the world thanks in large part to Alice Davis.

Alice Davis sizes up doll
Over 90 percent of the guests of the 1964 World's Fair the opening year made it their mission to attend "It's a Small World." For some reason even though Pepsi was the sponsor of the original attraction, when it migrated to Disneyland, Bank of America, one of the key backers of the park took over the steering rudder by taking over sponsorship of the "happiest cruise that ever sailed."

Sadly Rolly Crump's marvelous "Tower of the Four Winds" didn't join the move to Anaheim. It was replaced by another of his crafty and creative concoctions of a 30 foot clock centered within a facade based on Mary Blair's styling that symbolized structures and shapes from around the world. The guests in line, along with those in the loading area get to watch the toy soldiers trumpet the parade of dolls every quarter hour. So if it's a very crowded day, well, you're going to get to enjoy that parade over... and over... and over.
Celebrating 50 Years of the Happiest Cruise that ever Sailed!

As per Walt's vision the imagineers kept attempting to improve on what was there. They added visual imagery projected onto the facade set to music that even included surprised gusts in the audience that very day. Imagine looking up and seeing a closeup of Aunt Mildred bigger than life on the Small World facade devouring her third delicious Dole Whip? Yikes!

From January to November 2008 they dry-docked the happy little cruise while the fiberglass boats were replaced by a more durable plastic body. The water propulsion was upgraded to smoother and more powerful electric water jet turbines. Other additions have included installing characters from Disney films within the lands such as Alice, Lilo, Stitch and even Woody numbering 29 new characters in all. It has been argued (quite successfully) that the them song, "It's a Small World" is the single most performed and translated piece of music on Earth. I was even told by no less an authority of the Sherman Brothers themselves that somewhere in the world, it's being played at this moment. I believe it, and have to thank Walt and his talented team of imagineers for one of the most magical and memorable of all Disney attractions! Happy 50th SMALL WORLD!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Disney Cruise Line Art

Painting in my favorite couple as they run through the waves
The maiden voyage for the beautiful Disney Magic ship was July 30, 1988. This ship has astounded its guests with beautiful views from the exquisite staterooms to the magnificent Grand Atrium Lobby which guests enjoy when they first enter the ship/. Yep that is a big'n as we say down south. As impressive as it is on the outside, the interior is breathtaking. 

Each Inside stateroom has a "virtual" porthole showing rolling waves and Disney characters swimming by all in HD. And you won't guess the next item. One of the most popular features is the first ever water roller coaster at sea - the Aqua Duck is 250 yards of transparent tubing that sends guests soaring over the top decks and at one point - over the ocean! Donald Duck may have had something to do with this inventive aqua adventure.

The Aque Duck overhanging one of the many spas 
When I was approached by Disney to create artwork for the Cruise line I first asked about the ports of call. After discovering that it visited the Caribbean I had my theme! I painted the pieces in gouache just as we used to back at Disney Studios from Pinocchio of the 1930s and on into Rescuers of the 1970s. Well they did sneak in some oil paint for Bambi but that my friends is as they say another story. 

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse were my obvious choice of a happy couple enjoying a cruise together. I used a palette of tropical colors to give the settings a bright colorful feel that would remind the guests of their wonderful vacations on the Disney Dream while down in the Caribbean. I then requested the Disney framers use bamboo motifs as the framing element to finish it off. Left to right are: Cruise the Caribbean, Running Through the Waves, and Tubing Offshore. I sincerely hope you like all three of them.

The Disney Magic offers the latest designs in contemporary staterooms, elegant restaurants, and fabulous entertainment.  In addition to the kids' clubs, there are nightclubs and lounges, as well as theaters for movies and live shows. And don't forget the artwork. Bon voyage!

Monday, February 6, 2017

"A Lifetime of Achievement"

Disney Award Book cover Mike Peraza
Here's the early press release for a book about the awards presented to Walt Disney over his lifetime:

" Walt Disney received over six-hundred personal awards and honors over the course of his amazing life. The accolades were given by a wide variety of private and public organizations as well as governments from around the world. 

Besides being recognized for his contributions to the field of entertainment, Walt Disney was also acknowledged for his innumerable contributions to public service, the environment, education, and technology. 

Walt receives special award for Snow White
A Lifetime of Achievement by Disney historian David Lesjak, chronicles all of Walt’s myriad collection awards and goes into depth describing the reasons he received each one. The awards are portrayed throughout the volume in photographs, some of which have not seen the light of day in decades. 

The book, with amazing cover art by renowned Disney artist Mike Peraza, will be available for purchase in the Fall of 2017 through Amazon and the publisher, Theme Park Press."

Monday, July 25, 2016

Walt's Birthplace!

Flora and Elias Disney
In the late 1800's, Elias Disney and his wife Flora decided to put down roots in Chicago and build a home for their growing family of two sons. The family gained two more boys, Roy on June 24, 1893, Walt on December 5, 1901 and a daughter Ruth on December 6, 1903. Eventually Elias sold the property when the family moved on to Marceline, Missouri.

Dina, Truman and Brent
The property went through various owners and was about to be placed on the chopping block until purchased by Dina Brenadon and Brent Young. This wonderful couple are making it their mission to restore the home to it’s former 1901 appearance and to protect it there after as a historical landmark that will be enjoyed by the public.

Patty and I were invited up to join the festivities surrounding Roy Disney’s birthday and take to part in a “Creativity Days” event at the birthplace of Walt Disney. Dick Van Dyke and his lovely and talented wife Arlene would also be there to liven the celebration so we had to say yes. Todd could invite us to an earthquake and I would probably still say yes, he's that nice of a person.

All we needed was a
blank sidewalk
Since Dick was going to be there, I decided it would be fun to don his movie costume (albeit an enlarged version) as the sidewalk artist from Mary Poppins. Todd liked the idea so Patty and I arrived at Walt’s home early in the morning before anyone was scheduled to show up and got out the chalk. It didn’t take long though before neighborhood folks started gathering to see what we were doing on the sidewalk.

The pose of Mickey I designed was purposely sketched in an elongated perspective to be seen from a child’s view so that when they approached the home, it would appear that Mickey Mouse was actually rising in 3D from the sidewalk. I wanted Mickey to join in with the restoration of his "poppa's" place.

Now I was raised in the deep south and Patty is from the East coast so we're used to humidity but living for decades in Southern California has gotten us both used to what everyone calls, a "dry heat".  To say it was humid is an understatement. (It was so hot in Chicago that weekend that the cows were giving evaporated milk and the chickens were laying hard boiled eggs). I had to be careful not to let my perspiration hit the chalk which made having “Bert’s” scarf a welcome sponge of an accessory to my sidewalk artist wardrobe.

Patty, Truman and Me (Bert's brother Ernie)
We weren't sure we would finish it before the crowds started showing up if we finished it at all. With my Disney animator wife Patty at my side or I should say at my "sidewalk", we both were able to complete it in plenty of time. It was a joy spending time with home owners Dina, Brent and their precocious son Truman who acted as my "supervisor" while I drew Mickey Mouse.

The crowd easily numbered over 1,000 and the smiles on the faces of those young and old made the entire weekend one filled with magic.

Dick soon showed up and the excitement grew as children were called up to place wishing stones they had each painted at the base of the newly planted tree in Walt's front yard.

The assembled group then treated everyone to a rousing chorus of "Let's Go Fly A Kite" as the children held up the kites they had made during the event. Dick's acapella group the Vantastix provided a strong backing to the community sing-a-long.

We were then driven over to the next event on the schedule and that included our meeting up close and personal, our favorite automobile in the world, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Dick assured me that it gets better milage in the air than on the ground but nevertheless it was a treat to get behind the wheel.

One of our favorite people
Dick Van Dyke.
Later that evening we were entertained further by Dick, Arlene and the amazing acapella group, The Vantastix (which reminds me that yodeling is often a cry for Alp). Patty and I really enjoyed spending time that evening chatting with Dick and Arlene Van Dyke and sharing a few stories. We want to thank everyone who participated and who made this magical weekend possible: Todd, Lance, Dina, Brent, Truman, Dick, Arlene, Rey, Patty and so many others who contributed their time and passion.

Happy Birthday Roy!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Happy Birthday Bill Peet!

Bill's (and mine) layout desk
It’s a particular honor to pay tribute to hands down one of the greatest story men and concept artist ever to work at the Walt Disney Studio, Bill Peet. I met Bill a couple of times when he came to the studio in the 1970s to visit Don Griffith because he certainly wasn’t there to see a gangly little kid like me. However he always made me feel like part of the “gang” when he was around. We would go out to “Sloppos”, which was the nickname we all used for a Mexican Restaurant across from Warners that Don and many of his Disney compatriots used to haunt. It was unfortunately demolished and turned into a parking garage back in the 1980s.

Ironically, I met many of the "old guard" that were no longer working at Disney at restaurants like Sloppos than at the studio. You can bet when any of the Disney "vets" came visiting in the 1970s, they almost certainly made stopping by to say hello to Don Griffith an important stop. He was that kind of wonderful man.

Bill creating more magic

I really enjoyed Bill and his colorful stories about the old days at Disney. He is also one of my biggest influences as to technique. I used to try to emulate his work, never knowing much about the artist who created them until Don shared some of his personal stories of Bill with me.

My love of working in charcoal was due directly to Bill and to a great friend and teacher Ken O’Connor. Don also clued me in about Bill’s vast library of children’s books he not only wrote but illustrated in the same lively style he had used for years at the mouse factory. If you don’t own any Bill Peet books, I suggest you make amends and buy an armload of em. Two of my favorite momentos from the old studio days are a couple of Bill's books personalized for Patty and I as birthday gifts by the master storyteller himself. If I can figure out a way to hang them without breaking the binding one day they'll be framed and up on one of the studio walls next to his other work.

One of Bill's stunning Song of the South story sketches
Eric Larson, one of the 9 old men also shared his appreciation of Bill’s talent by allowing me to study the pastel and charcoal story sketches from "Song of the South" he had framed and hanging directly behind his chair in his office. One time when I dropped in on Eric he even offered in his chuckling voice, “Are you here to see ME Mike, or just look at my etchings?” meaning Bill’s sketches. If you study the little banner I made, you’ll see evidence of the immeasurable talent Bill had and the effect he poured into so many classic Disney films. 

Ready for the pitch!
Bill himself enjoyed the fact that I was using HIS desk while working for Don Griffith in those days. Bill used a story desk in his early days but gravitated to the larger layout model in later years due to the built in cork board and extra shelving. I told him the trouble I had opening the drawers that seemed to be stuck. I pulled and pulled until finally the big one on the lower left flew open. Inside were over a hundred smashed story sketches from Alice to Junglebook. I had torn quite a few of them in the process of getting  it open. When I took a handful of the sketches over in the next room to Don he told me who had drawn them. Over lunch Bill told me the rest of the story. 

He had a falling out of sorts with Walt over some story development ideas on Jungle Book. It wasn’t the first time he had a disagreement with Uncle Walt but unfortunately it would be the last. Bill wasn't the type to mince words and he was in fine form on this day. It happened upstairs in Walt’s favorite sweatbox on the 3rd floor. It was on a Wednesday January 29, 1964. I was surprised Bill remembered the date but when he related that it happened on his birthday of all days it of course made sense. Of course Walt wasn’t the sort to back down to anyone and didn’t have to. Still, for this to happen on his birthday! Not the sort of gift one wants.

The end result was that upon returning to his desk that afternoon in 1964, he was understandably upset and slammed his drawers into the desk which were full to over flowing with his drawings. Apparently those stuffed drawers hadn’t been opened since that fateful day.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking Bill was a hot head, far from it. He was simply an incredibly talented artist who worked extremely hard at his craft and was ready to take up for his solid ideas, even with Walt. Thank goodness for all of us, that passion can be found throughout the great Disney classics for generations to enjoy. Happy Birthday Bill and thanks everything!