John Hench

Disney artist, 'imagineer' and theme-park designer

Thursday 12 February 2004 01:00

John Hench, animator and theme-park designer: born Cedar Rapids, Iowa 29 June 1908; married; died Burbank, California 5 February 2004.

What do you call a man who worked for Disney for nearly 65 years; collaborated with Salvador Dali; had a hand in designing the Disney theme parks worldwide, as well as the Olympic torch on which all subsequent ones have been loosely based; became the official portrait artist of Mickey Mouse; won an Oscar in 1954 and is up for another one 50 years on? Answer: John Hench.

But these bare statistics, impressive as they are, hardly begin to touch on the amazing career of the man dubbed the "guru of Disney design". Hench not only personified the Disney style longer than anyone else - including Walt himself - but he also did it better than most, and then co-wrote a primer on the subject, Designing Disney (2003), aged 94.

Born in Iowa in 1908, John Hench was raised in southern California and was trained at the Otis Art Institute (where he won a scholarship) and the Chouinard Institute in Los Angeles, and at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. He also attended the Arts Students' League in New York City. After college he was taken on by Vitacolor Studios and then by the special-effects department at Republic Studios. While designing window displays for the Broadway department store, he signed up in May 1939 with the Walt Disney Studio.

His first job for the studio was as a story artist, painting backgrounds on Fantasia (1940) and then Dumbo (1941). Throughout the Second World War and post-war years, he was moved around the animation department at the whim of Walt: he painted layouts on The Three Caballeros (1945) and Fun and Fancy Free (1947), became an art supervisor on Make Mine Music (1946) and handled the colouring and styling for Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). Nineteen fifty-four saw Hench in the live-action department, heading the special-effects team responsible for the hydraulic giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, for which he won his first Academy Award (for Best Special Effects).

Hench's most unusual assignment came about in 1945, when the studio boss chose him to partner Salvador Dali in the studio's most unlikely - and longest ever - project. Coming to America in 1937, Dali had seen in Disney a kindred spirit, calling him one of the three great American surrealists: mutual admiration had turned to collaboration in the form of an adaptation of a Mexican ballad, "Destino", with Hench as the storyboard artist.

Hench's Spanish was of the same standard as Dali's English - i.e. non-existent - so as ever the animator improvised: "My French was not much worse than Salvador Dali's," he explained in a recent interview, "so we got along fine and became friends." After eight months, the project was shelved by mutual consent, only to be resurrected 56 years later and completed - under Hench's supervision. To add to the surreal nature of the episode, Destino has just been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Short Film (Animated) category.

Nineteen fifty-four marked a turning point in Hench's career, when Disney appointed him Mickey Mouse's official portrait painter (a role he was to perform on Mickey's 25th, 50th, 60th, 70th and 75th anniversaries) and, perhaps more significantly, enlisted him as one of the first project designers for his new venture, WED Enterprises. WED (later renamed Walt Disney Imagineering) was Disney's vehicle to create a Disneyland, the first of the company's theme parks.

Hench, as one of the "imagineers", was one of the designers of Tomorrowland at Disneyland and then went on to create the attractions at the New York's World Fair in 1964. Over the ensuing four decades, he was to supervise the creation of Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971, along with its later Epcot extension and the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, and also had a major hand in the design of the Tokyo, Paris and Hong Kong theme parks. Not that Hench's efforts were confined to theme parks: when the company was put in charge of the pageantry at the 1960 Winter Olympics in California, he became best known for his definitive designs for the free-standing and hand-held Olympic torches.

Disney himself died in 1966, before Walt Disney World was completed or any of the later theme parks were on the drawing board. Hench, however, knew what his boss wanted, and is acknowledged throughout the company as having had more influence over the parks' concepts and designs than anyone else. According to him, it was easy: "In a sense, Walt guided us because we knew what he would like."

In fact, with his neatly trimmed moustache and 1930s character-actor appearance, Hench bore more than a passing resemblance to Disney himself, a fact that the "Old Mousetro" used to elude fans on his walkabouts through Disneyland. Hench was also renowned for his wicked sense of humour: after an employees-only preview of a new attraction in 2001, the designer was asked for his opinion of it. Straight-faced, he shot back, "I liked it better when it was a parking lot."

While humble about his own vast expertise and endlessly kind to junior Disney employees, Hench could use his sharp wit to prick pomposity in others: in the 1980s, when the CEO of one of the principal sponsors of Epcot was reiterating ad nauseam that the outside of the Future World exhibit had to be white, Hench abandoned diplomacy with, "Mr Grey, I have 33 different shades of white in my palette. Which is your personal favourite?"

Alan Woollcombe

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