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The Ryman Centennial: Herb And El Grupo

Herb Ryman greets a papagaio who will soon become famous – Rio de Janiero, 1941 (LIFE photo)

When young Herb Ryman, frazzled from the Hollywood grind and frustrated by his lack of worldly knowledge, decided to see the world, he did it right – with a circumglobal cruise that took him to many exotic ports of call in 1936-37. More on that later. Upon his return he visited many of his old haunts, and took a side-trip to Maine to visit a former female classmate with whom he was friendly in his days at the Art Institute of Chicago.

While he continued to work with MGM when he returned to Hollywood, his attention was mostly devoted to his painting. Working in various media, Ryman recorded a number of the sights he’d encountered in Europe, the Orient, and in Maine. A friend of Herb’s, one Vernon Caldwell, was at the time the head of the Chouinard Art Institute, and proposed an exhibition of Ryman’s work. Reviews of the show were positive, and eventually caught the eye of someone at the Disney studio.

Walt Pfeiffer, a childhood friend of Disney’s who had come to work at the studio, contacted Herb via Chouinard and asked if, after the exhibition had closed, the Disney studio could borrow Ryman’s artwork to aid in the training of the animation staff. Ryman consented, and his artwork was put on display at Disney’s old Hyperion studio. Again the reception was positive, especially to Ryman’s watercolors from Maine. Disney was, at that time, working on Bambi, and Ryman’s paintings of the eastern woods perfectly evoked the atmosphere that the studio was trying to achieve. The word came from Hyperion to Herb – Disney wanted him to interview for a job.

Ryman was unfazed. He was an illustrator, not a cartoonist. What could Disney possibly want with him? But, realizing that the extra income could prove useful, he went to interview. Still uncertain, he was glad to see his old friend Ken Anderson on the Disney lot; the two had started off together at MGM in 1932. Anderson overcame Herb’s skepticism when he described the creative climate at the studio; spurred by the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Disney was making big plans to push the artistic boundaries of animation. The artists were pushing their own technical skills to the limit, and the upcoming slate paid witness to the studio’s increasing sophistication: Pinocchio. Bambi. Dumbo. Fantasia. After wrapping up his teaching at Chouinard and some contract work at MGM on The Wizard of Oz, Herb signed on at Disney in the fall of 1938.

Herb Ryman works on a background for Dumbo, 1940

It was a whole new world for Herb. Accustomed to the buttoned-down atmosphere of MGM, he found Disney a freewheeling and informal environment, where one was on a first-name basis with the boss and you didn’t even have to wear a tie to the office.

Starting with Pinocchio, Ryman worked on all the films of Disney’s golden age. He made the move from the Hyperion lot to the new studio in Burbank in 1939, and took up residence in the story department doing layout work on Dumbo. He would later work with his friend Ken Anderson on the “Pastoral Symphony” segment of Fantasia.

Lee Blair, Bill Cottrell and Herb Ryman in Brazil, 1941 (LIFE photo)

Herb’s greatest Disney adventure would come in 1941. Toying with the idea of leaving the studio to resume his fine art work, Ryman was drafted as part of “El Grupo.” This group of Disney artists and writers would join Walt on a three-month tour of South America in late 1941, doing research for a series of films and attempting to spread all-American goodwill to counter the Axis threat that threatened to spill into our hemisphere.

A little something for the ladies: Herb Ryman, Frank Thomas and Mary Blair in South America, 1941 (LIFE photo)

Needless to say, Walt and his artists managed to handily beat back the wave of Nazi intrigue. In a series of appearances and events in Brazil and Argentina, El Grupo were treated like rock stars. When not mingling with the elite, they also managed to get some work done…

Ryman sketches a stork very similar to one that would later appear in The Three Caballeros (LIFE photo)

As well as an occasional bit of rest and relaxation…

Hazel and Bill Cottrell (L) share a quiet moment – and some brews – with Herb Ryman and Ted Sears (R). Story artist Jack Miller and Janet Martin are in the foreground. (LIFE photo)
The Young Man and the Sea: Herb gets a quiet moment in South America, 1941 (LIFE photo)

After touring Brazil and Argentina, El Grupo split up to better cover the continent. Ryman joined Lee and Mary Blair and Jack Miller, and later Janet Martin and Larry Lansburgh, in a far-ranging crew that would explore South America, travel up through Central America and Panama, and pass through Mexico on their way back to the United States. The result was an incredible amount of research that would soon be used to create Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.

Lavandeira Waiting for Street Car by Herb Ryman, 1941
Mountain Village by Herb Ryman, 1941

And as for that papagaio…

An early sketch of the character that would later become Jose Carioca, 1941

Sadly, soon after El Grupo returned to the U.S., the nation was cast into World War II. Disney’s production ground to a halt, save for package features and training and propaganda films. Ryman considered joining the Navy, but Walt implored him to stay – someone had to stay and help him, Walt argued, because if the studio was forced to shut down it would never reopen.

Herb stayed. Or, in his words, he allowed Walt to convince him to stay.

The work wasn’t as exciting, though; working with his friend Ken Anderson on Victory Through Air Power, Herb’s talents were going to waste on sweeping arrows and tactical diagrams. After the war, in 1946, Herb would leave the Disney studio for a new project – one that tied in closely with his earlier adventures in the distant East. But that’s for next time…

Coming up: 20th Century Fox, Ringling Brothers, world travels, and Disney… again.

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4 comments to The Ryman Centennial: Herb And El Grupo

  • beaglelady

    This was very interesting and I love all the artwork you are posting. I’m very eager to hear more.

  • Thanks! There’s more coming. I didn’t get a story up yesterday because of some technical issues on my end, so the schedule is getting stretched a bit, but there’s a lot more to see ahead!

  • beaglelady

    Was Disney able to use any of the original material from The 3 Caballeros for its Gran Fiesta Mexico/Epcot attraction?

  • The animation in Gran Fiesta is all new, but since Herbert did a lot of conceptual work for World Showcase I’m sure that his art from this trip helped influence the original attraction!

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