Despite his humble Midwestern beginnings, Disney artist and Imagineer Herbert Ryman eventually developed a love for world travel. Many of his early excursions were in the American southwest, where his road trips helped develop his artistic skills until his career took off at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932. The painting above, a scene from Arizona, is a result of those early travels. It would be his later globetrotting adventures, though, that would inform his worldview and help shape some of his work that is most relevant here – his conceptual paintings for EPCOT’s World Showcase in the 1970s and 80s.
Ironically, though, Ryman was initially somewhat chagrined at his lack of worldly experience. Working on the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth at MGM, he started to feel the call of the outside world. He’d worked so hard on creating these exotic scenes for various films, but that was just film fakery – Herb wanted to see these things first-hand.
Things came to a head in 1936. Ryman, fatigued by four years of nonstop work, was sketching set designs for Mutiny on the Bounty. A chance conversation with actor Donald Crisp led to an exhortation for young Ryman to take a break from his work and see a bit of the world while he was still young. Mulling this advice, Herb received that same day a letter from his cousin, Halvern Norris, who was serving in the American Foreign Service as Vice Consul to Siam. Norris was wrapping up his five-year stint in Bangkok, and in his lengthy letter he encouraged Ryman to pay a visit and see the sights. Satisfied with the import of this coincidence, Herb took leave from MGM and headed to the steamship office to book passage to Siam. He didn’t have to worry about paying; in his pocket at the time were thirteen paychecks from Metro, all uncashed because the workaholic Ryman had not been able to leave his office long enough to visit the bank.
It turned out that for the price of passage across the Pacific Ocean to Siam, Herb could take the long way there and in the process see the world. For no extra cost he was able to circumnavigate the globe, stopping in the Caribbean, Europe, and several other points before eventually reaching Bangkok. For someone worried about his lack of travels, Ryman was about to catch up in high style.
After circling the globe, with many stops along the way, Ryman reached Siam. While his adventures there were too innumerable to list here, it led to a number of fascinating and coincidental meetings. Prominent diplomats. Artists. Authors. The royal family. The Peking Man. It had to be pretty exciting for a young guy from Illinois. But, like so many young people in extraordinary times, Ryman wouldn’t really understand the full import of his travels until later. He didn’t realize, at the time, what was really happening around him as he trekked through Indochina – the first stirrings in the east that would eventually lead to a World War.
But these concerns weren’t on Herb’s mind. In his travels from 1936-37, he saw everything that he could possibly fit in to his itinerary. Despite the fact that the world was a much larger and stranger place in those days, though, even in the distant outposts of the Orient people knew about Hollywood. And, whenever locals would find out Herb worked in pictures in Hollywood, he was invariably asked about one person. Not any of the legends of MGM, where he actually worked – Garbo, Gable, or even Lassie. Everyone wanted to know one thing: Did Herb know Walt Disney?
He didn’t. But, after answering truthfully a few times and seeing the resultant disappointment and instant disinterest from curious strangers, Ryman decided to give the people what they wanted. “Yes, I know Walt Disney!”
Don’t be too hard on Herb – his harmless white lie was only a year or so distant from being 100% true.
From Siam, Ryman traveled northward to Japan, where the creeping hand of fascism led to a few uncomfortable interrogations at the hands of petty customs officials. A decision was made to visit China, despite the increasing chaos brewing in that country. Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek were faced with the prospect of battling Mao Tse-Tung and the communists to the west and invading Japanese troops to the east, but the situation was still stable in the major cities. Herb spent four months there in the village of Ba Ta Chu, in the hills outside Peking.
His time in China would be productive artistically as well as socially; it would also leave him with a full portfolio of artwork which, as we’ve mentioned, would lead to an exhibition at Chouinard in Los Angeles and, subsequently, his career at Disney.
The circle of life, eh?