This Animatronic Life
by, 05-13-2012 at 08:13 PM
Howdy everyone and welcome to “This Animatronic Life.” My name is Garner Holt and I’m the founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) located in San Bernardino, CA. Some readers may recognize our name from various theme park and other projects we’ve been part of over the years.
Last year at the D-23 Expo event in Anaheim, a MiceChat moderator floated the idea of a brief column for the website based on some of my experiences working for theme parks and the creation of animatronics in general. I’m glad to share some of the stories and wonderful projects I’ve had the opportunity to be part of in 35 years of professional work in animatronics and other creations. In that time, I’ve met and worked with amazing people and even some Disney Legends, had a hand in creating some really incredible attractions, and spent lots of time agonizing over how to make something that seemed impossible come to life. Because a lot of our work is for clients like Disney and Universal, there will be a bit of editing in the secrets they’ve entrusted me with for projects over the past decade.
Since this is primarily a Disney fan oriented website, I think a little confession is in order: my company would not exist today if I weren’t a major, mega, huge Disney fan. In fact, the entire reason I began fiddling with animatronics in the first place was because as a pre-teen I fell in love with the technology at Disneyland—in Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and especially Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln—and wanted to create the things I saw there for myself. I clearly remember the day as a 12-year-old I told my parents on the trip back home from Disneyland that I didn’t want to grow up to be a veterinarian as they wished (my dad trained race horses), but instead wanted to build things like I saw at Disneyland as a career. I was about twelve at the time, but the idea stuck. I founded Garner Holt Productions (I named it that because it sounded like Walt Disney Productions) in 1977, when I was 16 and still in high school.
I’ll talk more about the foundations of GHP in a future column. Today, I wanted to share a little bit about the first time my work with animatronics brought me in touch with Disney. After that fateful day at Disneyland, a type of obsession with animatronics had taken over my imagination and I was hooked on learning everything I could about them. During the next few years, I built a series of haunted houses in my backyard that I filled with very simple animated props I built in the garage. I opened the haunted houses to the public—to my parents’ horror—and got a huge bit of publicity in the local newspaper. Hundreds of people traipsed through our house and backyard. I loved the haunted house, but my dream was to build my own Disney-style animatronic figure. In 1975, I decided to create an animatronic Uncle Sam figure to celebrate the Bicentennial the following year.
I was in ninth grade at the time, and convinced my teachers to let me work on Uncle Sam as an official school project. So I wrote the script in English class, drew the mechanical frame in drafting class, and worked on the electronics in shop class. My dad had some old angle iron in his barn and a welder, so I learned to weld some door hinges to the metal to make a very rudimentary frame. I’m sure a lot of you Disney fans have seen or have a copy of the August, 1963 issue of National Geographic Magazine. I found a dog-eared copy in my English class and was astounded to find the article about the Mr. Lincoln figure being built for the World’s Fair. Up to that point, I had never seen what the inside of an animatronic figure looked like.
I knew from pestering a Disneyland blue shirt maintenance employee what made the animatronics move: air or hydraulic “cylinders.” Knowing this felt like being in on a major industrial secret. In the advertisements of some old Machine Design magazines in the back of my drafting class, I noticed an ad for air cylinders from the Roger Howell Company in Burbank. I called them up and told them I was looking for air cylinders to build an animatronic figure with. The saleslady told me that they supplied the ones for Disneyland, too—which was a pretty encouraging fact! That year, I asked for an air compressor for Christmas. When all the other kids in the neighborhood wanted a new bike or a basketball hoop, I got an air compressor from Sears so I could run these air cylinders for the Uncle Sam I was building.
Through lots of trial and dead-ends, I finally got a real, working animatronic figure built in time for July 4, 1976. My Uncle Sam debuted at a local shopping mall and was a hit with guests. He even received coverage on the Channel 4 news. At that time, my youth gave me a lot of mileage with the very prototypical nature of the animatronic! He showed at the mall for a few weeks, until mid-summer 1976—I doubt he would have held up much longer! I knew I needed to keep pushing and plussing the figure to make it really move and look like a Disneyland animatronic. I did some more tinkering through that summer and fall, and into the next year, balancing the time spent in my garage workshop with my obligations at school. I started on “Uncle Sam II” on summer break 1977 and had him almost entirely designed later in the year—I had incorporated GHP a few months earlier, in July. I was 16 at the time.
Uncle Sam II had a number of design and functional improvements over the original. In fact, he turned out so well that I decided to film him and some friends talked me into sending the film to WED Enterprises (today’s Walt Disney Imagineering). I borrowed a camera from the A/V class at school and took the bedspread off my bed and hung it up in the garage behind Uncle Sam and filmed him going through his show. I mailed the tape in to WED with a letter (from 17-year-old me, “President of Garner Holt Productions, Inc.”!) asking someone there to take a look.
A couple of weeks later, I was out in the backyard feeding some goats we had when my grandmother yelled out the window that I had a phone call from a secretary at Disney. She said it was the secretary of someone with some ridiculous name and figured it was one of my friends razzing me. The name was Wathel Rogers!
The fans of Disney animatronics history will know the name Wathel Rogers. He is considered the father of the Audio-Animatronics technology Disney pioneered in the early 1960s. Along with a small group of other hugely talented and totally un-sung Imagineers, Wathel helped create a technology that has changed the landscape of themed entertainment in a way few others have. I first came across Wathel’s name in the Mr. Lincoln article in that old copy of National Geographic. To hear that he was interested in my Uncle Sam was a huge shock.
I ran into the house and caught my breath to steady myself before taking the call. Wathel’s secretary said he wanted to see my Uncle Sam in person and asked if he could make an appointment stop by my house the following week. I just about fainted!
The next week, Wathel and another legendary Audio-Animatronics Imagineer named Wayne Jackson drove out from Glendale to my family’s house near the old Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino. My mom and grandmother met them at the front door and plied him with cookies in the living room. I was readying Uncle Sam in my “workshop” out in the garage. They called me in and I had an almost surreal introduction to one of my heroes, Wathel Rogers, right there in my living room! I would never have believed the man in the pictures with Mr. Lincoln and Walt would be eating cookies and talking about an animatronic I had built in my own house. Talk about strange!
I invited Wathel and Wayne out to the garage to see my setup and to watch Uncle Sam go through his paces. I was probably never more nervous during a performance than I was then, not even with an audience of hundreds of people at the mall. Everything went fine, and Wathel seemed impressed that a long-haired kid could pull off a pretty convincing animatronic. We “talked shop” a little bit, and then he said something every Disney fan wishes to hear: “Well, you’ve shown me your shop. How would you like to see ours?” An invitation to WED from the father of Audio-Animatronics himself!
Of course, that was like getting invited to Oz. At the time, WED and MAPO were into production on EPCOT Center, so I was able to see a number of those great Audio-Animatronics attractions in their early forms. As Wathel walked me through WED, I met John Hench, Herb Ryman, and Marc Davis, and was led through MAPO by Dave Schweninger, another legendary name in animatronics. Needless to say, the visit to WED cemented my love for animatronics and convinced me even more that creating them was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This year, GHP turns 35 and Disney is now my biggest client.
Through the years, I kept in touch with Wathel and would show him the latest things I was working on. I graduated early from high school so I could focus my energies on animatronics and kept making new improvements, new characters, and increasingly complex figures. During another trip to WED when I was about 19, I showed Wathel a new expressive animatronic human head I’d built. I set the head up in the old “Illusioneering” room and was running it when suddenly the door burst open and a whirlwind of a man being followed by a big cadre of underlings breezed into the room.
It was Orlando Ferrante, Disney Legend and former head of all engineering and production for WED/MAPO and one of the most important figures in the history of Disney theme park production and installation. He walked right up to my animatronic head and got in real close. After a couple of tense moments of silent inspection, he turned to Wathel and said, “This looks just like one of ours!” I exhaled and squeaked a quick thank-you. He continued, “Why are you reinventing the wheel? Why don’t you work for us?” Wathel told him it was in the works, and just as quick as he’d come in, Mr. Ferrante disappeared again. Even so, to this day I have never been an employee of Disney in any capacity, only a vendor, although at the time it was certainly my major goal in life.
Starting as a 16-year-old kid in awe of Disney animatronics and the Imagineers who created them, and having the opportunity to work on great Disney attractions is literally a dream come true. And a big part of convincing me to follow my dream was the encouragement I got from Wathel Rogers that day in my garage workshop way back in 1977 and in subsequent years. To this day, I keep the page from the National Geographic he signed for me way back then in my office, right behind my desk.
I hope to continue writing about my experiences in the animatronics and themed entertainment industry in this column in the future, if you folks are interested. I’ve been asked a number of times to speak at Disney fan events in Southern California, and I always love to hear what other fans have to say about animatronics and to answer, when I can, their questions about this wonderful technology. If you have questions you’d like to see answered in future installments, please let me know!
Garner Holt is the founder and president of Garner Holt Productions, Inc. (GHP) Located in San Bernardino, CA, GHP is the world’s largest designer and fabricator of animatronics, show action systems, special effects, and other creations for theme parks, museums, retail and dining experiences, and other attractions. Inspired by a childhood trip to Disneyland and a lifelong love of Disney theme parks, Garner founded his company when he was only 16 years old. Since 1977, GHP has created nearly 3,000 individual animatronics and hundreds of other items for clients like the Disney Theme Parks, Universal Studios, Chuck E. Cheese Restaurants, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, NASA, Lockheed-Martin, and hundreds of other clients. Find out more about Garner and GHP at www.garnerholt.com