Today, July 25, 2017, is the 40th anniversary of the world’s largest, most productive, and, with not a little pride, most ambitiously creative animatronics producer: Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP). Four decades ago today, paperwork filed by a sixteen year-old high school student named Garner Holt was approved for the formation of a California corporation, one that would provide certain protections for Garner’s parents from their precocious son’s (mostly) safe and well-intentioned creative business endeavors, from haunted houses in local malls to mail-order products, animatronic American folk heroes, and more. From its humble beginnings in a suburban garage, that company—at once a hobby, proving grounds, and highly-unusual entrepreneurial endeavor—is now a dream factory with a worldwide of joy, wonder, and incredible imagination.
Garner and I spoke (along with our pal Bob Gurr) at San Diego Comic-Con International over the weekend. Our panel was about the origins of theme park style animatronics, some of the highlights (Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland, the Tiki Room, Lincoln), and about where we’re going next with animatronics so expressive they blur the line between mechanical and alive. Part of our talk focused on the emergence of vendor companies (all of them started by former Disney imagineers) that built animatronics and helped launch an industry, where only Disney had the technology from around 1963 to the mid-1980s. Amidst those companies—Sequoia Creative (co-founded by Gurr), AVG, Robo Shop, and others—Garner started GHP with no background in having created figures for anyone, working backward from educated guesses and an innate mechanical prowess to begin making working figures before he was old enough to vote.
But all the other companies that arose from the post-Epcot era of Disney have gone under, most of them decades ago. Speaking from an (informed) fan’s point of view, I think this has as much to do with the theme park business climate as it does with passion: every other animation company was founded based on a perceived market gap, more money focused than otherwise ambitious. And when times got tough, these businesses failed and their owners moved to something more stable. But Garner, even in lean times where he was the only employee, and did by himself every aspect of a project, persevered and kept his company alive. Forty years on, that GHP still not only exists but is at the top of its game in output, shop capabilities, capacity, and talent is attributable largely to this passion for magic, for the purpose of the company as a personal dream rather than a profitable one (although sometimes we are even that). That’s so rare in the themed entertainment business that it’s practically unheard of.
I think most readers are familiar with what we do at GHP, and what projects at the parks we are responsible for. What I think may be more difficult is imagining GHP as a company, with all the annoying economic realities shared by thousands of other small business around the country: personnel squabbles, insurance, keeping the lights on, scouting new talent, balancing a staff over half a dozen projects going on at any one time, payroll, stretching a dollar…all while maintaining ongoing research and development projects and constantly pushing the envelope in animatronics art and technology. We face a consistent conundrum: when we’re too busy, we have no time to work on R&D; when we aren’t, we’re too poor to focus on non-paying work. Garner steers us to work in a world in between, at once churning out magnificent creations for attractions around the world, and inwardly focused on creating new ways of bringing animatronics to astonishing life. This is exactly why we’re still here 40 years on, and stronger, bigger, more creative than ever.
The mayor of San Bernardino, California (where GHP is located), named today Garner Holt Productions Day in San Bernardino. Cities do this sort of symbolic not-quite-holiday naming all the time. But rarely is it done for a forty year-old business that designs and builds machines targeted primarily to bring joy to and to mystify audiences. At this moment—at any moment—around the world, thousands of people are watching animatronics that we at GHP helped to design and build. From Knott’s Berry Farm to Shanghai Disneyland, de Efteling to Edaville, USA, and San Francisco to Singapore, the magic created by Garner’s childhood dream of a company entertains, informs, enchants, and delights audiences in 34 countries on six continents.
Garner wouldn’t say it—he’s too humble this way—but GHP is in rare company in our global impact. Few organizations can boast the portfolio we have or the audience we reach through our creations. Speaking for all of us at the company, being part of this rare organization makes for an unusual career that brings us more unique and challenging work than we can find anyplace else. Four decades on, this is Garner’s gift to us: we share a bit of what as a teenager inspired him to dedicate his life to mechanized magic. We see the joy we help create for guests the world over. And all of us know that we’re only getting started. Forty years is only the beginning.
Happy birthday, GHP.
A Night of Magic with Dick Van Dyke at Garner Holt Productions – Nov 4th, 2017
See Garner Holt’s animatronics factory for yourself and meet Dick Van Dyke at the same time. GHP is helping launch Mr. Van Dyke’s Foundation for the Performing Arts on Saturday November 4th. Get your name on the pre-registraion list HERE now: