Story Time: Disney Legend Talked Balls, Bananas

Ever since the first time I saw theater I wanted to design theater. Then I saw Disneyland and knew THAT was what I wanted to design. In Jr High we took one of those tests that tells you jobs you’d be good at if you weren’t sure. I was sure and checked the box for “other” and wrote in artist and Imagineer. How exactly this boy in Fargo, North Dakota would accomplish this, I wasn’t sure. But those cartoons said dreams can come true.

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Less then 10 years later I was working at my first job, and it was the only job I ever wanted. I was in the model shop at Imagineering restoring an antique miniature carousel to be the centerpiece of a new resort in Florida. (I would later go on to do concept and show design.) Overseeing this project was “Disney Legend” John Hench, a 90-some year old fond of wearing ascots – ascots! I knew very well who he was – because I was practically a Disney historian – and when he’d stop by my cubicle I’d try to get him talking about the old days. This wasn’t hard as I was working with a woman he liked to entertain.

The stories were all news to her, as she, like a surprising (to me) number of Imagineers, knew little about Disney history. I soon realized though, he’d edit himself in the company of women, and it wasn’t until we were alone that I got the good stuff. Like when he began to tell me why he thought the Disney parks had sustained such popularity. It had to do with humans having a subconscious or genetic memory of once having lived in a perfect world, perhaps the garden of Eden, and that’s we’re all trying to get back to. He began to lose me there. “It was free love and all the bananas you could eat,” He said, then elbowed me and added, “but I don’t know what the ladies thought about it.”

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I began taking my breaks up in his office. This was amazing to me that I could. He was the most senior designer on staff, one of the few remaining to have worked with the founder of the Disney company – the man who basically invented animated films and theme parks as we know them – yet John was basically ignored by the senior management he shared the floor with. So I’d sit there in the corner eating my bagel while he leaned over his computer working in Photoshop. Photoshop. I didn’t even know Photoshop then. It was new to him too, “You poke this button and all these little ants start marching around.” And, as he was working on designing the exterior paint scheme for the first Disney Cruise ship, “It’s all in there, the whole ship, but you can only see part of it at a time, you just keep sliding it back and fourth and it’s floating out there in space.” Some days I’d eat my bagel silently as he worked, never knowing I was there.

I asked him about Mary Blair, famous for her design of the Small World attraction. He recalled going to a CalArts fundraiser event and seeing her with a water glass full of vodka, and moments later, with an empty glass and her propped against a wall heading towards the floor.

I asked him about Salvador Dali, whom he worked with on an animated short (“Destino“) in the 40′s. They became good friends and John actually helped him with several paintings. (There’s even a play inspired by their friendship, “Lobster Alice.”) John told me they’d wanted to make a “fanana.” An idea they had for a sculpture of a fan that turned into a peeled banana through a combination of 2 rotating platforms and a pepper’s ghost effect. I’ve often thought I should build it.

Some new Disney attractions struck John differently – and literally. As the high-speed GM Test Track was about to open at EPCOT John had taken a test ride. I was shocked someone his age would go on a thrill ride like that, but I was still getting to know him. “How was it?”

In his slow gravely voice, “After I got off, I told them they should put warning signs on that!…”

“Well I’m sure they are.”

“…Warning signs that say ‘Men wearing boxer shorts shouldn’t ride.’ They take you over these different surfaces, and this one was so bumpy, and those seats are so hard, my testicles were going WHAM WHAM WHAM!” Slapping his hand on the table to demonstrate.

Maybe the pain kept balls on his mind because some time after that he showed me designs for these huge fiberglass characters being sculpted for the new All Star Resorts. A 40′ tall dalmatian from 101 Dalmatians was to be placed sitting on the ground. John insisted the dog be perched on a cushion as he explained “some kid is going to get a couple balls or balloons up under there like testicles and take a picture.”

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He did also teach me ways to use color i would have never considered – and I considered myself a good colorist. He explained how when the colonial styled building that houses the epic “American Adventure” show at EPCOT  kept growing in height to accommodate the ever growing theater behind it, he had to “keep your eyes on the ground” so you didn’t notice how huge the building was. His solution, using the fact that the eye is drawn to the point of highest contrast, was to use four different whites, each slightly more gray with each higher level, keeping the most brilliant white as the trim on the ground level. Looking at the building you’d never notice the white on the tower isn’t the same as the columns on the bottom.

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There were other tricks too. If you think the facade for Disneyland’s Small World is all white, look close next time you’re there and you’ll see the sides of the shapes are painted light blue on the underside and light pink on the top – this warms and cools the reflected light bouncing off those shapes giving a subtle “life” to the facade a truly white facade would lack.

When I was born John was already 66. I can’t imagine being 65 and thinking there’s people not yet born that I’m going to be working with. The worst part of getting laid off from Imagineering was knowing he’d be gone before I’d ever get hired back. And sure enough a few years later, he died. But by chance I happened to stop at an estate sale in my neighborhood only to find it was John’s house. Almost everything was gone as it was late in the day but I did get a terrific 70′s colored metal artist’s cabinet from his studio for $40 that i still use. I also grabbed a roll of architectural drawings laying nearby and paid $10 – when i got home an unrolled it among other drawings was a nearly finished sketch for one of his Mickey portraits.

A few years before, when a friend decided to leave the Disney company she went to John to tell him the news, and expected him to be upset with her decision. Instead, “he took a deep breath and slowly wiped his hands down his face and said, ‘Do you know all the things I wanted to do?’ After elaborating and listing all the things not accomplished, he told her to go go go and not regret it.

There was definitely the sense that he’d stayed with the company (65 years!) out of respect to Walt and his vision – and, i think, also, to the guests that had come to expect quality from the Disney name.

And I think about all the Disney geeks and fanboys that make it their life goal to work for Imagineering – like I had – and here you had the most legendary of all Imagineers wishing he could’ve pursued his own ideas the whole time. Lesson learned. Point Taken. Etc. Etc.

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5 Responses to “Story Time: Disney Legend Talked Balls, Bananas”

  1. Chris Says:

    This has got to be my favorite post by you of all time, and I’ve been visiting your website for years… probably since 2000 (I remember reading the “Think Pink” page and laughing; albeit I was a bit young to be reading that).

    As a young aspiring amusement park designer, I just want to thank-you for sharing your experiences. They’re both captivating and interesting.

  2. Dave Says:

    Thanks so much for that. A great remembrance.

    I, too, am *always* surprised at the number of Imagineers who know little about Disney history. The place ain’t a museum, but a little perspective would help.

  3. Nicholas Says:

    Justin,
    This was just remarkable. I can only imagine how much you enjoyed working with him. I love it when you share stories like this. It’s wonderful.

  4. Kurt Says:

    I so thoroughly enjoyed reading this, that I will merely add to the previous compliments.. such an amazing bit of information.

    As a closet IASW freak, I’m wondering if the pink above, blue below trick was added at some point. Since it seems to have been getting tweaked for years now. I swear it appeared flatter at one time to my pre-teen eyes, and one day suddenly popped more.

    I also thought the flatter interior lighting of the original ride, back in its World’s Fair days, seems more in keeping with Mary’s style. And how about those product and character placements recently added?

    Ok, just rambling, sorry. I do love this blog..

  5. Thomas Says:

    Hey Justin,
    This was such a pleasure to read, it is so well written and truly felt. Hope all is well with you. T.

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