Thursday, September 10, 2015

Imagineering Legend John Hench Shares His Memories of Walt Disney

By Keith Mahne

John Hench was a true legend of the Walt Disney Company. Hired by Walt Disney to work on Fantasia, John was employed at the Studio until the early 1950s, when he left to join the creative group Walt was assembling to help him plan and design Disneyland. Hench went on to design many iconic elements for Disney's theme parks, including Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland, Space Mountain, and Spaceship Earth at Epcot. John was also Disney's "official portrait artist" of Mickey Mouse. Because of his resemblance to Walt Disney and his frequent visits to Disneyland, he was often asked to sign autographs and pose for pictures with park visitors who mistook Hench for Disney himself. John was respected by Walt Disney as one of the studio's most gifted artists and the pair had a close relationship. Let's hear a few wonderful stories as John Hench shares some special memories of Walt Disney...

Walt and John Hench who is pictured right.

According to John, research was very important to Walt. John's first project at the Studio was the styling and story of Fantasia, particularly the Nutcracker Suite and Dance of the Hours segments. Despite John's trepidation, in order to ensure that he understood the ballet, Walt sent John backstage to observe the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo...

"It helped me significantly with the project, and I developed a respect for dancing and the dancers themselves. I'd had no idea of the discipline and complete dedication required of dancers."

Later, after his move to Imagineering, John attended a food and restaurant management course at UCLA while working on the designs of the Plaza Pavilion at Disneyland.

"Walt believed that any subject, no matter how boring or unfamiliar, could become interesting provided you had an open mind and showed some initiative for learning. We were encouraged to exchange ideas, to leave our offices and talk with others. This was a philosophy that I came to admire as I saw the benefits we derived personally, and the improvement in our work. Walt knew what he was doing"

"He also wanted us to go down to the Park often to talk to people and observe them because he felt that we had to have a sense of who we were trying to entertain. He wasn't interested in maintaining an ivory tower full of creative people who didn't know their audience."

John Hench and Marty Sklar

But before they could please their audience, John and his fellow employees had to please Walt...

"We knew that Walt came in on the weekends, so we would leave little 'traps' to confirm our suspicions. For example, we would turn storyboards upside down. Of course, come Monday mourning everything was right-side up. Walt even started to fold over and pin down the corners of a story line that he didn't like, so we knew that if we found something folded over on Monday mourning, we had to start changing it. He would always come in on Mondays and unload a whole bunch of new ideas on us. It was funny, we always had to struggle for the ideas we had, but Walt had more than anybody could ever use."

John Hench is pictured over Walt's right shoulder.

John believed, before he passed away in 2004, that the spirit of Walt Disney was still alive at Imagineering...

"Walt usually started the direction, and the team followed. We were all, in a way, on leashes. Some leashes were long, and those people could wander off further; others were given shorter rein. If the man holding the leashes (Walt) went north, we could wander to the east or the west, but we couldn't go south. Some of us thought we didn't have much freedom, but now when I look back, I realize that we all did. He created a momentum that we still follow."

John once recalled, Walt's 'leash law' did not extend to his favorite pet, a standard poodle named 'DD' for Duchess Disney, whom he frequently brought with him to the Studio...

"She was a big dog, and she had the run of the place. Once while we were all in a meeting upstairs, she left her "calling card" in the middle of the main entrance hallway. Apparently, there was a group of nuns from Saint Joseph's Hospital touring that mourning who had to lift up their skirts and tiptoe around the horrendous deposit. When someone came into the meeting to let Walt know what had happened, he didn't bat an eye and said, 'My dog? How do they know it wasn't one of the animators?'"

Walt with his daughters and Duchess Disney

John Hench was certainly a legend among legends and he sure did have a great deal of admiration for his old boss. Along with a short list of others, John was certainly a torch barer of Walt's spirit and way of doing things throughout is 65 years with the Walt Disney Company.

To learn more about John Hench, take a listen to my first interview with John's dear friend and fellow Imagineering legend Marty Sklar in Show #3 of the Disney Avenue Podcast.


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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