Old Imagineers never die, they just keep on designing new attractions.
Walt Disney Co. is in the midst of developing a slew of new theme parks and attractions, and guess who's designing them? Some of the same guys who were hired in the early 1950s by Walt Disney to design the world's very first theme park, Disneyland.
Bill Evans, now 88, Bob Gurr, 67, Sam McKim, 73, and John Hench, 90, are all still working in the trenches of "the Happiest Place on Earth," having touched virtually every Disney theme park from Anaheim to Florida to Paris to Tokyo.
Today, they're developing concepts for Disney's new theme parks such as California Adventure, Animal Kingdom and Tokyo's DisneySea.
"I like it, for one. I guess that's the real reason I am still here," said Hench, sitting in his Glendale office beside a bust of Walt Disney. "I get to design things I make. Things that make people feel better about themselves."
Hench, who first worked on films for Walt Disney Productions in 1939, is on the payroll as senior vice president of Disney's Imagineering team. He still reports to work every day and plans to be on the job in 1999, which would be his 60th year at Disney.
Next month, he will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Themed Entertainment Association.
Hench and the other senior Imagineers have quite a collective resume: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Carribean, the Flying Saucers, Main Street U.S.A. and the Haunted Mansion.
Unlike Hench, the other elder Imagineers are no longer on staff at Disney, but work as independent consultants.
Gurr's original company, R.H. Gurr Industrial Design, was hired by Walt Disney in 1953 to design miniature cars for Disneyland's Autopia. He studied car body design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but knew nothing about mechanical design. Then Walt Disney asked him to design the internal mechanics, too.
"I didn't have the courage to say, 'No Walt, I only do bodies, I don't do mechanical parts,' " Gurr explains. "So this was an indication that I should learn how to do it."
During his 1953-81 stint as a Disney staffer, Gurr worked on more than 100 designs, including the monorail and Matterhorn bobsleds.
Now Gurr is a consultant who works on a half-dozen Disney projects every year, through his GurrDesign Inc. Most recently, he designed a giant mechanical octopus for the Little Mermaid Theater at Tokyo's DisneySea, slated to open in 2001.
Today, Gurr wakes up every weekday at 5 a.m. and sits down at his Macintosh to lay out designs. "The tools of the trade just get better and faster," Gurr said. "With a Mac I can do the work of six drafters and I can keep the money."
Landscape architect Evans was the first to sculpt Disney characters out of cypress trees and other plants.
"Walt showed me these pictures (from Europe) and said, 'How long would it take you to make these into Disney characters?' " Evans said. The topiaries took decades to grow in Europe, but under Walt Disney's direction Evans pulled it off in about two years, forming characters' legs by bending branches into metal frames and chicken wire.
Now, at 88, his skin freckled from decades of work outdoors, the bearded Evans hops a plane to Florida every month to consult on the creation of Disney's Animal Kingdom.
"I was hired on a 12-month contract to landscape Disneyland, and here I am 44 years later," Evans said.
But why would Evans keep working? Why not just relax at home?
"Just sit here?" Evans said from the living room overlooking the gardens of his Malibu home. "I don't want to sit here all day, as long as I am able to get around."
For the moment, Evans is homebound, but not for long.
"I had to make a brief pit stop in the hospital 10 days ago," said Evans, who had surgery for a tumor on his prostate. "It slowed me down a little bit, but I am eager to get back on my feet."
Sam McKim limits his work these days to smaller independent projects.
He actually started out as a child actor, auditioning for the speaking role of Pinocchio in the classic 1930s animated feature. He didn't get the part, but later sketched the first Disneyland map that was handed out to park visitors. Over the years he revised the original version as attractions came and went. His most recent creation was a map of Disneyland Paris (formerly Euro Disneyland), which he drew in 1991 when Disney officials lured him out of retirement.
At his crowded Sun Valley studio, McKim recalls those tight deadlines and how a heart attack nearly prevented him from completing the French map. It was finalized three weeks after deadline, after which he went into semi-retirement.
"I suppose I could have worked until I fell off my stool," jokes McKim, who proudly shows off copies of his sketches of the late Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln exhibit.
Bill Martin, formerly vice president of design at Walt Disney Imagineering, is another man who has been called back time and again by Disney. Martin first retired 21 years ago.
"They called me back for consulting, and I laid out all of Tokyo Disney and the Italy and Mexico pavilions at Epcot (at Walt Disney World in Florida)," said Martin, whose 22 years at Disney have included work on New Orleans Square, Pirates of the Caribbean and other popular Disneyland attractions.
The oldest of the senior Imagineers is Hench, who lives in Toluca Lake. He joined Disney as a sketch artist in story development in May 1939 at the old Hyperion Avenue studios, then called WED Enterprises and renamed Walt Disney Imagineering in 1986.
His work includes background paintings for the movies "Fantasia" and "Dumbo," and he was lead special effects artist for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," which won an Academy Award in 1954 for its special effects.
"One day Walt said, 'I want you to work on Disneyland,' " Hench said. "He kept on going and he didn't stop. He just said 'I want you to work on Disneyland and you are going to like it.' So I didn't have a chance to say anything. But it's true. I did like it. I still like it."
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