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.

Bob poses in front of one of Herbie's pieces inside Club 33
Bob Gurr poses in front of Herbie’s iconic New Orleans Square painting which hangs in the lobby of Disneyland’s Club 33

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.

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Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."
  • dazyhill

    Great story. Herb Ryman is one of my favorite Disney artists. His concept art of EPCOT Center is beautiful and so full of life.

  • Herb’s artwork is nothing short of amazing. Though he did much of his work for Walt Disney, nearly every one of his pieces could hang in a gallery of great respect.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story Bob. These are the sorts of tales we just can’t get anywhere else.

    Now, if only I could get away with quietly leaving the office for a few days every time I’m given a deadline at work!

  • jazzbanjo

    Another source of information about Herb Ryman is the book, “A Brush With Disney.”

  • Jeff Heimbuch

    Yet another great tale, but this time, we get to learn more about a legendary Imagineer. Thanks for sharing, Bob!

  • mrjoyce

    Thank you for sharing this great story. Herbie was a great friend to my family. In the 40’s he was a Sketch Artist at 20th Century Fox where my mother became friends with him. Over the years I remember Herbie and other members of the Art Department of Fox visiting my parents. And I remember great visits to Herbie’s studio.
    In the late 60’s I was doing a paper for my High School on Transportation Solutions for Los Angeles and Herbie set me up with an interview with you at WED. A visit I will not forget. (Plus I got an A for the paper).
    My career in Motion Pictures and Television was influence in no small part by the influences of people like Herbie, yourself and the memebers of the Fox Art Department.
    Many thanks

  • Norman Gidney

    I love reading of how someone like Herb Ryman was so humble and approachable. What a fascinating read. Thanks Bob!

  • davidrusk

    I absolutely love reading your recollections Mr. Gurr! Thanks so much for taking the time to share. The times you describe are what I think of as the best days of the Disney Company.

  • Eric Davis

    what a great story Bobb! Thank you for sharing! I love these back stories about the people who created the things we all have grown to love!

  • George Taylor

    Wonderful article! I’m glad to hear more about my favorite Disney artists.

    So, did Herb have a favorite brown bag lunch?

  • Atomobile

    Wonderful recollections, wonderful art. The world lost a great artist when Mr. Ryman passed. Thanks for bringing him back to life for us Bob!

  • DobbysCloset

    Thank you so much for introducing me to one of the men who made the Disneyland of my childhood. The paintings are beautiful. It’s hard to imagine other theme parks inspiring such great art as Disney’s.

  • disneylandfan8

    I don’t know what more I can say that hasn’t already been said here by those who have commented before me. Your recollections are just so fascinating and I absolutely love the detail. Just brings your experiences to life!

    I especially enjoyed your “calling card” glider sketches!

    Can hardly wait for your need wheel spin!

  • SarahSnitch

    What a wonderful piece honoring an amazing artist. This was very touching and enlightening. Thank you Mr. Gurr for giving us a peek into 1956 Disney Company antics 🙂

  • Spacepainter

    Bob, what a touching and personal article! When I was in art school I studied A Brush with Disney religiously. I still look to Herb’s work for inspiration when doing concept art for new attractions! Thanks so much for sharing your stories about a very special man.

  • MickeyMaxx

    Thank you, Bob! I so enjoy your articles.

    What an uncommon talent Herb Ryman was. The concept art for Spaceship Earth included in your article is amazing in its detail and its story-telling. The beauty of the structures, the folks having the time of their life, and even the sunlight streaming from above fill the image with vitality. I’ve seen that scene dozens of times at Epcot, right after the short daily rain begins to leave and the sun breaks through the clouds. Years before Walt Disney World became a reality, Herb Ryman knew quite precisely how it would look. Thanks to all of you who worked on the Disney parks, and for giving us a hint at what our future was going to look like!

  • rstar

    I look forward to each of these wonderful articles as well! Thank you, Bob!

    MiceAge and all of its readers are fortunate to share in these!

  • Dizzey

    Absolutely LOVE these stories. Just incredible to think about how many lives have been touched by these guys and how many nostalgic family memories have been created over the years – all due to their fantastic imaginations. Thanks, Bob!

  • SnorkletsMom

    Love, Love, LOVE these articles, Bob! Thank you so much! You’re becoming a legend in our house 🙂

  • 4Apples4Disney

    Great article! Always look forward to reading them!

  • DG2

    It’s like a time machine reading your stories Bob. Priceless!!