The Walt's People series is an oral history of all things Disney, as told by the artists, animators, designers, engineers, and executives who made it happen, from the 1920s through the present.
Walt's People: Volume 20 features appearances by Sam Armstrong, Leland "Lee" Payne, Bob Givens, O.B. Johnston, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Hannah, Tom Oreb, Iwao Takamoto, Herb Ryman, and Alfred and Elma Milotte.
Among the hundreds of stories in this volume:
The entertaining, informative stories in every volume of Walt's People will please both Disney scholars and eager fans alike.
Sam Armstrong and Leland "Lee" Payne
Bob Givens by Paul Sorokowski
O.B. Johnston: Memoir
Wilfred Jackson by Michael Barrier, Milt Gray, and Bob Clampett
Wilfred Jackson by Michael Barrier and Milt Gray
Jack Hannah by Dave Smith
Tom Oreb by Amid Amidi
Iwao Takamoto by Charles Solomon and Andreas Deja
Herb Ryman by Jay Horan
Alfred and Elma Milotte by Winona Jacobsen
When I was about seven years old, my dad, Claude Coats, took me to his office in the Animation Building at the studio where I watched him work with paint and brushes on a background scene from Alice in Wonderland. My brother and I were fortunate to be “Disney kids” and visit Dad and his colleagues as they created animation classics such as Alice, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp. In our many visits, we explored, learned, and played, and met many talented and friendly people. We were part of an extended family. We were lucky kids. I would later work with many that I met when I joined the company.
You are going to meet some of those people here. The twentieth volume is somewhat of a milestone, continuing Didier’s library of significant interviews, letters, and stories—“talking Disney” with hundreds of creative talents that began with the first one in 2004. No other attempt comes close to such a chronicle of first-hand accounts of working for Walt Disney.
One of the strengths of the Walt’s People series is its continued diversity in finding interviews and documents of some who we may not be as familiar with as those legends and others we have met before in other volumes. What a wide range of creative endeavors we’ll discover in these pages, from the many aspects of animation and Imagineering to character merchandising and the filming of nature in the wild. Being part of that extended Disney family that has been such a part of my life, I thought I was pretty aware of a good many of the members of that family, but I must admit that in this current volume there are three individuals that I was not familiar with at all. Lee Payne, Bob Givens, and O.B. Johnston are individuals that I am meeting for the first time in the following pages. Bob’s tenure at Disney was not long, and his stories of working at the other Burbank animation studios, Warner Brothers and UPA, are an extra bonus in this issue. His contributions to the creation of Bugs Bunny and Mr. Magoo, as well as his collaboration with Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, present further insight into animation history.
Others featured in this issue were close friends and colleagues, members of that extended family. The Milottes were friends of the family through my aunt Jeanette and would drop by our house on the way to their next True-Life Adventure. Herb Ryman was a frequent visitor to our home. When my mother, Evelyn Henry, began in Ink and Paint in 1931, she became friends with Wilfred Jackson, who had been with Walt for several years. He became a long-time friend and worked with Dad as animation director on many films. Jack Hannah, the “Duck man,” is a veteran of the first volume of Walt’s People, and I don’t recall if I met him. If not, I wish I had. I was always able to do a very good Donald Duck voice. My grandmother made an articulated Donald puppet for me and I was a hit at birthday parties. I should have stood at his office door and squawked, “Hi Jack, this is Donald Duck. How are you?” I would have loved to have seen the look on his face. But I was too shy. Anyway, he already had a pretty good voice man.
Another highlight of this volume is the impressive list of interviewers. Several are frequent contributors, who not only possess a wealth of knowledge of Disney history, but also are experts in the art of formulating an interview that helps bring insight and knowledge from each subject. Michael Barrier, Dave Smith, Amid Amidi, and Charles Solomon are all among the top recognized Disney historians. The quality of the questions coming from such interviewers as these is sure to bring out important new information and memories. Jay Horan conducted an invaluable series of interviews, the Key Employee Documentation Series, for WED Imagineering in the early 1980s. You’ll enjoy the time he spent with Herb Ryman, and I’m sure you’ll gain some new insight into the career of such a wonderful creative man. I had the pleasure of working with Herb during the development of EPCOT, and I think I can safely say there wasn’t a finer man and artist you’d ever meet. He had an office on the so-called Gold Coast, a row of working spaces with windows facing Flower Street, where some of the key Imagineers worked. Dad’s office was the first after you entered from the lobby. Walking down the wide hallway you’d pass by John Hench, Marvin Davis, Bill Martin, Marc Davis, and others. The last office at the end in the corner was Herb’s. His door was always wide open and he was ready with a smile and kind word.
I want to emphasize how nice the many Disney people were that I knew over the years. I mean it—most were really nice folks. Walt didn’t like to hear the word “no.” He was an optimist. “It’s fun to do the impossible,” he said, and he promoted the attitudes and working atmosphere to make the impossible happen and be fun in the process. A good word to sum it all up is “positivity.” If that isn’t a word from a Sherman Brothers’ song, it should be.
Walt said, “My greatest reward is that I’ve been able to build this wonderful organization.” In Walt’s People, we continue to meet and become better acquainted with an ever growing group of talented individuals. Many I was fortunate to know. All were members of that wonderful organization Walt was so proud of. Some are in these pages. Let’s meet them. Again, or for the first time.
Exploring the nooks and crannies of Disney history is such a fun process. It is also, as we all know, a never-ending one. There is so much that has yet to be researched and discussed, so much yet to uncover. As I started writing the fourth volume of They Drew as They Pleased, which focuses on the 1950s and 1960s, I realized that most of what I knew about the origins of Disney’s “space projects” was incomplete and way too sketchy, and that Walt Peregoy, hidden behind his huge ego, was one of the unsung geniuses of “modern” design at Disney. As I gather documents for the fifth volume in the series (the 1970s and 1980s), I am struck by the lack of in-depth research about the history of the studio in those transition years.
There is so much artwork we have never seen, so much beauty, creative ideas, and hidden stories still to be unearthed. This makes every day an exciting one.
Each piece of the jigsaw puzzle reveals something about the others: the Ward Kimball diaries from the late 1930s and early 1940s, which I am in the process of editing, gave me some insights about the Leo Salkin diaries from the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Leo Salkin diaries gave me some important background to understand the origin of the space projects discussed in They Drew as They Pleased. Little by little, the image becomes sharper.
What never ceases to surprise me is that so many documents remain to be discovered. Just a few weeks before finalizing this twentieth volume (!) of Walt’s People, I received from fellow Disney historian Jim Hollifield the rare 1939 interview with Sam Armstrong and Lee Payne which is now the first chapter of this book. I thought that Sam and Lee had never been interviewed. A few months earlier, I learned, thanks to my friend Jim Korkis, that some rare papers from True-Life Adventures cinematographers Al and Elma Milotte had just resurfaced. And a few years ago, thanks to an article released in Japanese and thanks to Niall Bowen, from Dublin, Ireland, I was able to secure the “lost” autobiography of O.B. Johnston.
There is no overarching theme to this volume, but each of its interviews and documents are dear to my heart, each of them excited me when I got hold of it, each opens a new window into our understanding of Disney history.
Didier Ghez has conducted Disney research since he was a teenager in the mid-1980s. His articles about the Disney parks, Disney animation, and vintage international Disneyana, as well as his many interviews with Disney artists, have appeared in Animation Journal, Animation Magazine, Disney Twenty-Three, Persistence of Vision, StoryboarD, and Tomart’s Disneyana Update. He is the co-author of Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality, runs the Disney History blog, the Disney Books Network, and serves as managing editor of the Walt’s People book series.
If you have a question for Didier that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
About The Walt's People Series
GHEZ: The Walt’s People project was born out of an email conversation I conducted with Disney historian Jim Korkis in 2004. The Disney history magazine Persistence of Vision had not been published for years, The “E” Ticket magazine’s future was uncertain, and, of course, the grandfather of them all, Funnyworld, had passed away 20 years ago. As a result, access to serious Disney history was becoming harder that it had ever been.
The most frustrating part of this situation was that both Jim and I knew huge amounts of amazing material was sleeping in the cabinets of serious Disney historians, unavailable to others because no one would publish it. Some would surface from time to time in a book released by Disney Editions, some in a fanzine or on a website, but this seemed to happen less and less often. And what did surface was only the tip of the iceberg: Paul F. Anderson alone conducted more than 250 interviews over the years with Disney artists, most of whom are no longer with us today.
Jim had conceived the idea of a book originally called Talking Disney that would collect his best interviews with Disney artists. He suggested this to several publishers, but they all turned him down. They thought the potential market too small.
Jim’s idea, however, awakened long forgotten dreams, dreams that I had of becoming a publisher of Disney history books. By doing some research on the web I realized that new "print-on-demand" technology now allowed these dreams to become reality. This is how the project started.
Twelve volumes of Walt's People later, I decided to switch from print-on-demand to an established publisher, Theme Park Press, and am happy to say that Theme Park Press will soon re-release the earlier volumes, removing the few typos that they contain and improving the overall layout of the series.
To locate them, I usually check carefully the footnotes as well as the acknowledgments in other Disney history books, then get in touch with their authors. Also, I stay in touch with a network of Disney historians and researchers, and so I become aware of newly found documents, such as lost autobiographies, correspondence with Disney artists, and so forth, as soon as they've been discovered.
Yes, some interviews and autobiographical documents are extremely difficult to obtain. Many are only available on tapes and have to be transcribed (thanks to a network of volunteers without whom Walt’s People would not exist), which is a long and painstaking process. Some, like the seminal interview with Disney comic artist Paul Murry, took me years to obtain because even person who had originally conducted the interview could not find the tapes. But I am patient and persistent, and if there is a way to get the interview, I will try to get it, even if it takes years to do so.
One funny anecdote involves the autobiography of the Head of Disney’s Character Merchandising from the '40s to the '70s, O.B. Johnston. Nobody knew that his autobiography existed until I found a reference to an article Johnston had written for a Japanese magazine. The article was in Japanese. I managed to get a copy (which I could not read, of course) but by following the thread, I realized that it was an extract from Johnston’s autobiography, which had been written in English and was preserved by UCLA as part of the Walter Lantz Collection. (Later in his career Johnston had worked with Woody Woodpecker’s creator.) Unfortunately, UCLA did not allow anyone to make copies of the manuscript. By posting a note on the Disney History blog a few weeks later, I was lucky enough to be contacted by a friend of Johnston's family, who lives in England and who had a copy of the manuscript. This document will be included in a book, Roy's People, that will focus on the people who worked for Walt's brother Roy.
That is a tough question. The more volumes I release, the more I find outstanding interviews that should be made public, not to mention the interviews that I and a few others continue to conduct on an ongoing basis. I will need at least another 15 to 17 volumes to get most of the interviews in print.
About Disney's Grand Tour
DIDIER: The research took me close to 25 years. The actual writing took two-and-a-half years.
The official history of Disney in Europe seemed to start after World War II. We all knew about the various Disney magazines which existed in the Old World in the '30s, and we knew about the highly-prized, pre-World War II collectibles. That was about it. The rest of the story was not even sketchy: it remained a complete mystery. For a Disney historian born and raised in Paris this was highly unsatisfactory. I wanted to understand much more: How did it all start? Who were the men and women who helped establish and grow Disney's presence in Europe? How many were they? Were there any talented artists among them? And so forth.
I managed to chip away at the brick wall, by learning about the existence of Disney's first representative in Europe, William Banks Levy; by learning the name George Kamen; and by piecing together the story of some of the early Disney licensees. This was still highly unsatisfactory. We had never seen a photo of Bill Levy, there was little that we knew about George Kamen's career, and the overall picture simply was not there.
Then, in July 2011, Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney's daughter, asked me a seemingly simple question: "Do you know if any photos were taken during the 'League of Nations' event that my father attended during his trip to Paris in 1935?" And the solution to the great Disney European mystery started to unravel. This "simple" question from Diane proved to be anything but. It also allowed me to focus on an event, Walt's visit to Europe in 1935, which gave me the key to the mysteries I had been investigating for twenty-three years. Remarkably, in just two years most of the answers were found.
DIDIER: Yes, I believe that casual readers, not just Disney historians, will find it a fun read. The book is heavily illustrated. We travel with Walt and his family. We see what they see and enjoy what they enjoy. And the book is full of quotes from the people who were there: Roy and Edna Disney, of course, but also many of the celebrities and interesting individuals that the Disneys met during the trip. And on top of all of this, there is the historical detective work, that I believe is quite fun: the mysteries explored in the book unravel step by step, and it is often like reading a historical novel mixed with a detective story, although the book is strict non-fiction.
DIDIER: Those books provided massive new sources of inspiration to the Story Department. "Some of those little books which I brought back with me from Europe," Walt remarked in a memo dated December 23, 1935, "have very fascinating illustrations of little peoples, bees, and small insects who live in mushrooms, pumpkins, etc. This quaint atmosphere fascinates me."
DIDIER: There are still a million events in Walt's life and career which need to be explored in detail. To name a few:
The list goes on almost forever.
Didier Ghez has edited:
Ninety-nine-year-old animator-artist Bob Givens remembers as he pleases the nooks and crannies of the early Disney Studio.
PAUL SOROKOWSKI: Do you remember the first time you met Walt at Hyperion?
BOB GIVENS: It wasn’t too long. He used to come over to the annex and check on the guys. So he’d walk around there, especially at night he’d walk around there looking at wastebaskets to see what good drawings they threw away. He’d pick it out and write, “Use This!” signed Walt. You’d better use it. But he was right because sometimes they’d throw away extremes that were great. They thought they could plus it..
PS: You never had a wastebasket note from Walt?
BG: Oh, no. I don’t think I threw away my drawings.
PS: So after you became an inbetweener, then you became an assistant?
BG: Yes, later. They used two or three assistants. Like the one animator, he had three assistants and I was number three, so I was third assistant. We’d do the inbetweens, the fill-ins, whatnot. Some of them had two assistants, some had three. Fred Moore had two or three. I worked with him once in a while. I had a lot of drawings of his that I wish I knew what happened to them. Freddy was my favorite. He was a nice man. I went to grammar school with him up at Lancaster. The story I heard was he came down here on the bus from Lancaster, did some drawings on the bus. And he wanted to meet Mr. Disney, and so Walt came out and looked at the drawings and said, “Geez, hold that guy! Hold the kid! Get the contract! Sign him up!”
PS: That was Walt seeing Fred Moore’s drawings for the first time?
DG: That’s the story I heard. I think it is true, though. “Sign this kid up!” He was about sixteen at the time. He became the best animator they ever had there. He was in my class [multi-year classes] I found out years later. A lot of good things came out of Lancaster.
PS: Yeah, Judy Garland, John Wayne, Bob Givens—
BG: Bob Givens [chuckle], famous old animator.
PS: Who were the first coworkers that you worked with?
BG: It was Walt Kelly and Sam Cobean, a famous person later. I think they got canned during the strike or something, but they became famous later. A lot of those guys did. Dave Swift was the delivery boy, the coffee boy at the time.
PS: Did he become an animator at Hyperion?
BG: He became an inbetweener and later on worked with Ward Kimball and Art Babbitt and all that gang. He wanted to be an animator, but somehow couldn’t break through. They wouldn’t let him animate. But he became a great guy later as a writer and producer. He started in radio after the war. My wife worked with him on a lot of those early shows. Isn’t that funny? And I used to go there and watch him do the shows up at CBS and NBC. The great Dave Swift. My god, he was 14 when he came out here. His folks couldn’t afford to keep him, so he came out here on a train. He was one of the guys riding the train. He lied about his age. He was about 15 when I met him. Everybody thought he was 19. He became the great David Swift. From nowhere to somewhere.
PS: You mentioned that you worked with Marc Davis and Grim Natwick on Snow White, so you were their assistant at the time?
BG: Yes. Actually I was doing a lot of the Snow White stuff, and I would check with those two guys and make sure the drawings were right. Marc would work on the nose a little bit. It was very tight drawing. Sometimes we’d spend a whole day on a big close-up of Snow White. Then we’d check it with Marc and he’d find some little subtlety; one line would throw the whole thing off. An interesting story about Snow White is one time one of the inkers looked at the drawings of Snow White and she looked kind of pale, so she took some rouge and rubbed it on the cel and Walt said, “That’s great!” They had to do that through the whole picture, that little touch. That’s how crude it was. I thought that was genius. Even though it took a lot to have rouge, but it gave her a little life. You think about the geniuses that they had there that would think of these things.
PS: Do you remember what scenes of Snow White that you worked on?
BG: A lot of them. I worked on all the characters. Different animators and all, but mainly it was Snow White, working with Marc and Grim Natwick, which was really a pleasure.
PS: Just out of curiosity, did you know Don Lusk?
BG: Oh yes, I remember Don Lusk. He’s 101 now.
PS: Did you ever work with Don?
BG: Not directly. He was assistant to somebody. I don’t know who he worked for. I remember Don very well. He’s still alive, the last of the Mohicans. I wish he was out here. I’d like to meet him. I’d like to talk to him anyways. Don’s a great guy. I know one gal is out in the Motion Picture Home, she’s 102.
PS: That’s Ruthie Tompson.
BG: Oh yeah. I remember Ruthie.
PS: Did you start getting paid as soon as you were hired or did you have an unpaid period?
BG: Yes, we started at $16 a week. And then I got up to big money: 30 bucks a week, just before I left. I think everybody started at about 16 bucks a week. But it was alright, you could save a couple bucks a month. Everything was so cheap. Those were the good old days. They were better than today with people making the big money because you could get by on nothing. Old people are having a hard time nowadays.
PS: So you worked at Hyperion and then moved to Burbank?
BG: I left Disney about one or two years after I started there.
PS: So before the move?
BG: Yes. I went over to Warner Bros. for more money, naturally. A lot more money [and a] five-year contract. So I just moved because it made sense. I would’ve been an assistant forever.
PS: Do you remember the date when you went to Warner’s?
BG: It was a couple of years after I started at Disney. [It] must have been late ’38. Then I had a part of creating Bugs Bunny a year later, which wasn’t bad. And then Magoo wasn’t a bad character either. They were the two best characters of the twentieth century: Bugs Bunny and Magoo.
Continued in "Walt's People: Volume 20"!
In his role as head of Disney's character merchandising division, O.B. Johnson for decades had a ring-side seat to the brilliance of how Disney marketed its characters. Here, he recalls the first time the Disney brothers met merchandising genius Kay Kamen, the man who marketed Mickey to America.
I was not at the studio long before I met Herman “Kay” Kamen. He was a stocky man with a big nose, a round face, and small eyes that peered from behind big spectacles. Born in Baltimore in 1892, he had migrated to Kansas City. Like the Disneys, he had little formal education, but he hadn’t let that prevent him from making something of a name for himself as a salesman.
And what did he sell?
He had an advertising agency called Kamen-Blair, and he sold things that helped other people to sell merchandise. One of Kamen’s projects was a magazine which specialized in boys’ clothing. Kamen sold this publication to department stores, and since only one department store in a city could distribute the book, it became a selling tool which the store had exclusively for use in its contacts with customers.
Another of Kamen’s promotions involved menus. Kamen traveled a great deal, and when he came into a town he would call on all of the leading retail businesses and on a leading restaurant. He would then make up a menu for the restaurant that carried advertisements for the businesses.
Mickey Mouse was not very old before Kay Kamen became aware of him, and of the fact that a young man from Kansas City was out in Hollywood doing great things with the cartoon mouse. Perhaps the Kansas City connection helped when Kamen first talked with Walt and Roy. There was a telephone call first from Kansas City to the studio on Hyperion, then Kamen got on a train and came to California.
Kamen himself confided to one of his associates that the Disneys were not greatly impressed with him at the beginning. There was already a modest merchandising program underway with George Borgfeldt & Co. licensing manufacturers for items that would be sold in the United States. However, Borgfeldt was mainly an importer, and Walt and Roy were not completely satisfied with his efforts to provide an ample line of high-quality merchandise. “We have built our business on the theory of trying to make a better product than the other fellow,” Roy had written in a letter urging Borgfeldt to upgrade his merchandise.
At this late date we cannot be sure whether the Disneys discussed Borgfeldt with Kamen at their first meetings. Kamen was to tell later how he asked Roy what the studio made from merchandise each year. Roy gave him the figure of $50,000, and admittedly this was slightly exaggerated.
Kamen then said that if he could handle the merchandising of the Disney characters, it would cost Roy and Walt nothing for the first $50,000 worth of royalties that Kamen brought to them. He would expect a share of the royalties only if they amounted to more than $50,000.
After several meetings Walt and Roy did come to an agreement with Kamen. Because of the contract already existing with Borgfeldt, Kamen was limited at first. He could contact existing licensees and he could assist them by presenting new ideas for exploiting Mickey Mouse. The licensees were so informed by a letter dated July 1, 1932. In the months following, Kamen licensed some products which were not covered by Borgfeldt, and he put together a campaign catalog to help exhibitors arrange tie-ins with local merchants. Then, in July 1933, Kamen signed the contract which made him the sole representative for character merchandising for the United States and its possessions, and for all the countries of the Western Hemisphere.
At about that time Kamen decided that New York was the place to be if one wanted to keep in touch with toy manufacturers. He moved his office from Kansas City to New York, and there he really bloomed.
Lou Lispi, the art director who was with Kamen for many years, said:
He wanted people to feel good. He wanted them to get off the elevator when they came to the office and to recognize that they were somewhere good, somewhere important. So there we were in the middle of a horrible depression, and what the visitor saw was luxury. We had paneled walls and a marvelous rug, and even the receptionist was terrific to look at.
Many potential licensees beat a path to Kamen’s door. The toy manufacturers and the people who made plastic and bisque figurines and children’s games and rubber balls and marionettes came in droves. When they did not come, Kamen went out looking for them. Soon he was traveling again as he had traveled to sell menus to restaurants.
He would go into a town and make the first contact. He’d call on a manufacturer he wanted to sign to a contract, and he’d talk about Mickey and Minnie. Then he’d go on his way, and a day or two later I’d show up with my pencils and sketch pads. I’d sit down with the manufacturer and draw the characters for them—draw them the way they might be used on his product.
Later the licensees would come into the office in New York. I didn’t have to go out to them, but we offered them the same service. Sometimes we’d come in and sit in the conference room with them while they talked, and we’d sketch out ideas. Not only did it make them feel that we really wanted to help them—which we did—but it was an assurance of quality. Roy and Walt wanted that quality. When the characters were used, they had to look right.
From the very beginning the characters had tremendous acceptance. Mickey and Minnie were the first, and then there were the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.
When he talked to prospective licensees, Kamen stressed the fact that Mickey and Minnie and the pigs and the wolf were recognized everywhere. He would point out that a manufacturer might spend thousands or even millions of dollars to establish an image in the marketplace, but that he could do the same thing for a comparatively modest amount by using such well-known characters to identify his product. Kamen knew that the merchandising representative really offers the same service that an advertising agency offers: he helps the licensee sell his product, and at far less cost than if the licensee went to an advertising agency. The merchandising income soared.
Continued in "Walt's People: Volume 20"!