Saturday, September 26, 2015

CalArts: Walt Disney's Magic School

By Keith Mahne

Picture a place with maze-like hallways. You walk through those hallways, passing cubicles filled with art supplies and artwork. Photographs and doodles fill in the blanks to reveal the style and personality of the occupant. Sometimes the cubicles are the size of a broom closet, and sometimes as large as a walk-in. If you continue, you might come across a wood shop, or a sculpture studio, or a room filled with computers. Pass the library, and at certain times of the day you might hear a string trio playing bluegrass music. You're probably thinking you are observing Imagineers in action while on a tour of 1401 Flower Street (Imagineering Headquarters in Glendale, California) however, it happens all day, every day in Valencia, at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), a school made possible by Walt Disney. Join me today as we have a look at Walt's magic school where Imagineers are born...

Walt Disney with founding trustee Lulu May von Hagen observing "The
CalArts Story" featurette which was to be screened before "Mary Poppins."

CalArts and WDI go back a long way and there are many similarities between the two organizations. Before his death, Walt Disney provided much of the funding which made the school possible. Disney leaders and artists from WED helped out with the DAFCA (Disney Artists For CalArts) program, which focused attention on CalArts through a yearly art show that raised thousands of dollars for the school's scholarship fund.

Take a good look at the photo below...

DAFCA Committee (left to right): Marty and Leah Sklar, Harrison and Anne Price, Sharon Disney Brown, Richard and Ann Irvine, Marvin and Marjorie (Walt's niece) Davis, Thomas and Tommie (Walt's personal secretary) Wilck

I really love looking at the photo above. Seeing so many Disney legends like Marty Sklar, Buzz Price, Dick Irvine, Walt's daughter Sharon Disney, and others reminds me of such a special time at the Disney company. It reminds me of the people who came together to make sure Walt's school for artists remained open and active in granting scholarships. While looking it over in my archives to use in this article, I thought about something. I began to ponder what Marty Sklar would think if he saw this photo again today. After all, his wife and so many others that he has worked so close with over the years are featured in the photo with him. And so...I sent it to him. Marty and I keep in touch often and he has been a guest on the Disney Avenue Podcast a couple of times now. You may be happy to hear that we are even planning a new one in the near future. So now I'd like to share with you Marty's response to seeing this wonderful photo all these years later...

"Keith – First of all thanks for the photo – but second, you know how to shock a guy! I love seeing the picture of old and dear friends … but then I realized that only my wife and I are still alive among these eleven! The photo was taken at Buzz and Anne Price’s home in the Hancock Park area of LA. For about three years there, and then for a bunch more at Sharon Disney Lund’s home, this group kept the flame lit for Walt’s CalArts –when there was little support from Walt Disney Productions, as it was then called – because of various issues at the school. Our group was called “DAFCA” – Disney Artists and Friends of CalArts.” We held an annual show to raise funds for student scholarships at CalArts. This show, in about 1969 or 1970 -- was all Herb Ryman’s personal work. Later we featured other Disney artists as well. These events continued until about 1977 or so.

Many years later, about 1991, we began a similar program to raise funds for Ryman Arts. This became our “An Affair of the Art”, held for over 20 years until this year … the last 15 or so at my home."
- Marty Sklar

Both CalArts and WED had to struggle through a mire of skepticism to get where they are today. WED's initial hurdle was building Disneyland, an entirely new concept, which many people predicted would fail before it even opened. CalArts was known for controversial approaches to teaching the arts, instead of its revolutionary approach to interdisciplinary study in the arts.

Roy O. Disney gives May von Hagen the deed to the land for the new CalArts.

Walt envisioned a place where artists would be free to create, and from that point of view, CalArts was an immediate success. Walt believed that a willingness to risk failure is essential to pushing the limits of creativity. That is the credo of CalArts.

The CalArts graduating class of 1975. Back row: Joe Lanzisero, Darrell Van Citters, Brett Thompson, John Lasseter, Leslie Margolin, Mike Cedeno, Paul Nowak, and Nancy Beiman. Center row: Jerry Rees, Bruce Morris, instructor Elmer Plummer, Brad Bird, and Doug Lefler. Front row: Harry Sabin & John Musker.

Teamwork is paramount at CalArts just as it is at Imagineering. Former Imagineer Tim Delaney told me while being interviewed for the Disney Avenue Podcast that there were occasions where someone didn't last as an Imagineer because he or she couldn't work well with others.

Walt Disney discusses plans for forming an organizations for CalArts alumni.

Walt wanted CalArts to be about teamwork and he firmly believed artists should interact with other artists as they do in making a film or creating a park attraction. At CalArts, dancers work with musicians and production designers work with actors. WDI does the same.

Ron Miller (far left in a black suit), Lillian Disney (in red) and Roy E. Disney
(in grey) join Lulu May von Hagen at the official CalArts groundbreaking
ceremony in 1969.

Both WDI and CalArts face similar challenges in the future. WDI must continue to implement ground breaking and unique experiences and attractions for guests, while retaining its small, campus-like culture. CalArts must expand, while preserving the low student/faculty ratio which has attracted so many talented artists that continue to work for Imagineering. One of the strategies for meeting these challenges is a commitment to change.  All Imagineers are familiar with Walt's Disneyland philosophy: "It's something that will never be finished." CalArts also seems dedicated to maintain an environment which will continue to challenge its students.

Walt in his, "Workshop away from work."

Walt's idea of CalArts wasn't to define art as this or that, but instead to create a giant laboratory where things might happen. That's an idea similar to his feelings toward Imagineering: "WED is my backyard laboratory. My workshop away from work." Walt's clever idea to funnel an army of skilled artists into Imagineering and the Studios, California Institute of the Arts has spawned a generation of students who have become the creative background of the Disney empire. If there's one ingredient vital to the creation of continued Disney magic, CalArts is certainly it.

And now, please enjoy The CalArts Story, the short film that was originally presented at the 1964 gala premiere of Mary Poppins and doubled as a fundraiser for Walt's dream school, CalArts:


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.

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