We have a very special article from famed Disney Imagineer, Bob Gurr, today. He has spun the Wheel of Years and landed on 1956 and his time with legendary Disney artist, Herb Ryman. You are in for a treat.
Within my first year working for Walt Disney Productions at the Studio in Burbank, California, I’d met a whole bunch of interesting folks. While I was concentrated on Disneyland specific projects, the Studio was always buzzing with action, both movie and television, in addition to the new equipment we were building for Disneyland. Among these interesting folks was a kind and friendly gent named Herb Ryman. Meeting him for the first time, we became life long friends until his passing in 1989.
When I saw the kinds of drawings he was working on, he opened some drawers in his office to show me even more. From little doodles to oil portraits, everything he showed me was so beautiful. I was so in awe of how easily and naturally he handled pencil and brush. He took time to explain so much to me, being a former Art Center School car stylist turned Disney ride designer. We were in two different worlds, but commonly connected in some way.
While I worked at the studio until I was transferred to Disneyland in 1960 for one year, I always found an excuse why to leave my machine shop drafting room to visit Herb over in the animation building. Of course, this led to being introduced to so many other of Walt’s Wizards. Strolling the Studio lot and knowing so many artists on a first name basis was a special kind of designer’s heaven in those days – Herb being my center guide. The year I was working at Disneyland meant that I sadly missed Herb and the Studio. But in 1961, I was back at the Studio for a few weeks when Walt moved everyone working with WED Enterprises on Disneyland to our new place on Sonora Avenue in Glendale, a few miles east of the Studio. Herb made the move also and had an office, now just a few steps from my drafting room.
Most folks at WED went out to lunch, since we had no company food service. But Herb and I liked to mostly “brown bag” in his office with our own home-packed lunches. He loved to tell me tales of the various “characters” at the Studio and their raucous antics. I think this was because as a young, fresh Disney employee, I was a “new” audience for him. Sometimes we’d walk a few blocks to Checks Cashed for lunch. That was the bigger lettering over the hamburger shack known as the Crash Inn, so it was known by the larger name. In the late 1930s, it was my dad’s favorite libation spot, only a block from our house. Since the area was aviation themed, being next to Grand Central Air Terminal, it featured a flashing neon sign on an airplane crashed onto the roof.
Many of us were known by our nicknames; Ryman was known as Happy Herbie, and he called me Glider Gurr, since I was a glider pilot. Typically on Mondays, I was greeted by Herbie and Disney Artist Colin Campbell…”did you go up – how high?”. When I’d visit Herbie’s office and he wasn’t there, I’d lightly sketch a glider in the sky of his current drawing, sort of as a calling card. If anyone else dared touch his work, well, there’d be a repercussion.
Since I was an automotive guru, Herbie would ask me to help with anything mechanical. Once he sent me out to retrieve his dead 1956 Lincoln and get it to a shop for a fix. When he’d come to dinner at my house, he’d always bring a nice signed print for me of his latest work. I still cherish these today. Herbie was so very independent in his work hours that the managers would not push his drawings for any kind of completion date. One time, WED design manager Dick Irvine sternly set a finish date. Herbie quietly put on his coat and left, not to return for many days. Great art will be done in it’s own time. That never happened again.
Herbie was very self-effacing when meeting new people, sort of brushing off any extra gushing that those who revered his art would display when first meeting him. He had a very clever way to come out on top anyway. He’d introduce me as “the second smartest person in the whole world”. This would trigger their question, “whose the first person?”. Herbie would then exclaim…”I am”.
Herbie enjoyed the “wild” art of avant garde European artists like Heinrich Kley. These were reprinted in Eros Magazine in 1962 by Ralph Ginzburg along with some other very erotic (for the times) art. So Herbie had me subscribe to Eros and bring them to him every three months. That way, he would not be caught with any connection to obscenity – I was his connection! After only four issues, Eros was closed down and Ginzburg sent to prison. By today’s standards, Eros would be merely quaint art. Disney had a few artists at the time whose work would have fit perfectly into Eros – I’m not mentioning names.
Many years after I was no longer at WED, Herbie would come out to Sequoia Creative, where I was a co-founder, to do some art work for us. He was always so cheery and delighted to look at all kinds of new theme park projects for us. It was just so sad when he passed in 1989. I think he was Walt Disney’s absolute shining star, so unique, but as humble as apple pie with everyone. I still fondly remember those wonderful years with Happy Herbie.