Howdy everyone—two weeks ago, the themed entertainment industry and Disney fans worldwide lost an important and beloved friend, Marty Sklar. Any fan engaged with the history and culture of Disney theme parks around the world knew his name, and, because of his generosity with his time and presence, thousands had the opportunity to hear him speak or even meet him through the years. From a fan’s perspective, I was always impressed with how much Marty was willing to share of himself and his memories at dozens of presentations every year, with his prolific writing, and his link directly to Walt. As a professional within themed entertainment, I recognized Marty as a giant among creative minds and leaders in this unusual line of business. Through the years, I was privileged to get to know Marty on a number of fronts.
This may be tough to believe (or to remember for those of us of a certain vintage), but there was a time when Marty Sklar wasn’t famous or much known by fans at all outside the professional walls of Disney. Although he was a powerful and influential presence there, the fan community as we know it now didn’t exist, and, because Disney was quiet about the achievements of individuals, Marty was certainly not a well-known person to fans in the late 1970s and early 1980s (this particular star began to rise after the opening of Epcot, and as Disney made the imagineering process and individual imagineers more visible from the 1990s on). In 1979 or so, I was busy training volunteers from the Assistance League to be tour guides at my haunted house at the Mall of Orange. One of the ladies I was slated to train was Mrs. Leah Sklar. I was told her husband ran Disney Imagineering (WED back then)…but I’d never even heard of him then! Of course, the concept of having a direct link to him and thence Imagineering was really exciting to me as a 19 year-old upstart…unfortunately, Mrs. Sklar had a scheduling conflict and never made it to my haunted house. But I now had a name (a big one, too) for somebody at Disney, and I’d be sure to remember it.
After that, I ran across Marty’s name more and more as he became the voice of WED in the Epcot years—and wrote the fabulous coffee table book about its creation—and afterwards as the imagineers focused primarily on expanding Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He became a sort of “keeper of the flame,” somebody who understood the unique culture of imagineering and the Disney quality style of attraction design—something I tried to adhere to very closely as my company began to grow in the late 1980s. I met Marty for the first time in 1979 or 1980 during a tour the “father of Audio-Animatronics,” Wathel Rogers, gave me after I sent in a film of my animatronic Uncle Sam. The same day, I met Marc Davis, John Hench, and Blaine Gibson, but it was Marty who offered the same kind of advice he gave to countless others: keep chasing your dream and you will catch it. To a young entrepreneur striving to get into the theme park industry, that encouragement meant a lot to me (and it’s the same thing I tell folks just starting out today: NEVER give up!).
Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) was still too small to really be on the Disney radar until I began to do some little entertainment projects for Disneyland in the mid-1990s (things like parade float puppets and animatronics for projects like the Hercules’ Victory Parade and Mulan Parade among others). The next time I met Marty as a vendor for Disney was after we created most of the props and all the animated elements for the Haunted Mansion Holiday attraction overlay. At that time, there was a bit of controversy about whether another company could build Disney quality animatronics. Haunted Mansion Holiday proved we could, and, with Marty looking on from on high at WDI, we began to work on new attractions for Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Resort Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Disneyland Resort.
As GHP began to do more and more work for Disney, I would run across Marty at WDI, industry events, and, later, at the Ryman Arts events he and Mrs. Sklar hosted at their home (for those of you unfamiliar with the group, Ryman Arts is a charitable foundation dedicated to the memory of legendary Disney artist Herb Ryman to providing opportunities for underprivileged students for arts education, mentorship, and even supplies—Marty was a cofounder). He always remembered my name, which really impressed me, and I know he did the same for hundreds of fans he would see at Disney events from time to time. Marty’s generosity with his home (the Ryman events literally took over the whole place for two or three weeks every year, turning every available space into a gallery, from the tennis court to the kitchen) and this simple act of remembering my name impressed me that he was a genuine person—with Marty, there was always steak beneath the sizzle. Over the years, I became a donor and sponsor to Ryman Arts and met with Marty many times at their events in various places throughout Southern California. His interest in the students that Ryman Arts assisted (more than 650 over the years) was genuine. His name and presence became synonymous with the organization.
A funny thing happened once that convinced me Marty’s heart was absolutely in the right place when it came to the parks: when Food Rocks closed at Epcot’s Land Pavilion, a salvage subcontractor for Disney started to sell several of the Audio-Animatronics figures on eBay. As many of you probably know, I love historic animation, and quickly purchased as much as I could—real animatronics from attractions are exceptionally rare. Marty caught wind that figures were being sold from the attraction, and called the salvage company and told the owner that he needed to stop immediately—he could sell other items from the former attraction, but Audio-Animatronics were strictly forbidden because they were too much a part of the Disney magic legacy. He instructed the owner to buy back all he’d already sold…but I loved the figures I bought too much and hung onto them. As far as I know, from that point on, no Disney Audio-Animatronics were ever sold by the company to the public again. I admired Marty for trying to preserve that aspect of Disney magic.
Although I knew Marty on a professional basis for more than a decade, it wasn’t until I was honored with the Themed Entertainment Association’s Buzz Price Award for a Lifetime of Achievements (the selection committee of which Marty was a voting member) that I began to know him better. As an honoree, I was invited to join the committee that chooses Thea Award winners year after year. In this capacity, I was privileged to see a part of Marty I think few outside working with him at Disney ever did: he was an absolute riot with subtle, dry humor and always (always) had something funny to say in emails to the committee at large, and droll witticisms in notes to me one-on-one, and he was always very complimentary of the work we do at GHP. After I learned the sad news of his passing away I re-read a number of the emails and thought of how much his humor and irrepressible good nature came through in all of them. I think a lot of us will miss things like this especially.
By far the most important—and meaningful—part of my relationship with Marty was his nomination of me to join the board of directors for Ryman Arts. With GHP, I had been a supporter of Ryman for years (and some of my staff had even created original artwork for sale at its events), but I was shocked when I learned that Marty had advocated for me to be part of the organization’s leadership. This meant so much to me. For decades, GHP and myself personally were outsiders to Disney (the company and that parks that I admired most). Now, I felt like part of the in crowd, and accepted as a peer among the men and women I held in such high regard from Disney and other leading themed entertainment and arts companies. Like Walt, Marty understood the value of organizing a diverse team, in the slate for Thea Award winners for the Themed Entertainment Association, and in devising leaders for his beloved Ryman Arts. In all my work, in 40 years of operating a business in themed entertainment, Marty asking me to be part of the board of Ryman Arts is the most significant and satisfying event to me.
So many people in themed entertainment can point to Marty for helping to get their careers started and for giving them the chance to prove themselves over more than half a century of working in this wonderful industry (even my creative director, Bill Butler, points to Marty inviting him to WDI as a college freshman to interview imagineers about the creation of Tokyo Disneyland as a formative event in his career). Although I never worked for Disney as an employee, Marty was a huge presence in my inroads with the company, and in the arts and entertainment world outside its gates. I’m proud to have known him, to have worked with him as a vendor and as a colleague, and to have served at his behest. My pal Marty was everyone’s pal—he was exactly as advertised: generous, thoughtful, kind, funny, warm, and dynamic. When you wrote to him, or left a voicemail, you could be sure he would write you back or return your call. At his memorial, a longtime friend related how in half a century of knowing Marty, he had never once let anyone he knew down, or flaked or forgotten an appointment or promise. From my limited perspective, I can vouch for that, too.
I hope that the elements that Marty stood for at Disney and afterwards—quality, immersion, magic, and inspiration—will continue to drive the creative efforts at his beloved Walt Disney Imagineering (and all of us in this business). His legacy and spirit will live on in the thousands of people whose lives he touched, however briefly or from afar or by tangents. We’re all going to miss our pal Marty.