If you’re reading this site, then Jeff Kurtti will probably need little introduction. Disney fans like myself will most likely have an entire shelf filled with books that Jeff has authored, magazines with articles he has written, and DVDs that he has produced.
Jeff worked with Walt Disney Imagineering from 1987-1995, after which he became a freelance author and creative consultant. The DVD packages he has produced were, quite literally, the best that Disney has ever released. He’s written scads of books, including a number of art books for Disney and Pixar animated films as well as several key works about theme park history. His 1996 Disney Editions publication Since the World Began remains the single great officially-sanctioned look at the history of Walt Disney World. His latest work is Disneyland Through The Decades, released this year in honor of that park’s 55th anniversary.
Jeff was kind enough to contribute this story about working alongside Herb Ryman, at a time when Herb was an elder statesman of Disney Imagineering.
Herbie Ryman and the Myth of Walt Disney
In 1987, I was hired at Walt Disney Imagineering as a Coordinator in the Graphics Department for what was then called Euro Disneyland.
The glamorous offices were in a well-worn two-story light industrial building, perched on a hillside overlooking the L.A. River in the Grand Central Business Park in Glendale. Today, part of the Studios of KABC Television stand on this site.
Inside was a collection of mismatched cubicle dens, large rooms that house the separate “lands,” each supervised by their individual Show Producer. In a stroke of good luck, there was an empty cubicle in the Main Street area, and I was given a home there, to begin identifying and coding all of the graphic design needs throughout the new Magic Kingdom.
My first day there, the curious and the welcoming came by, including a funny elfin old man with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. I quickly connected the affable “Herbie” with the legendary Herb Ryman, and was simply stunned that such a legendary figure was in the cubicle just a few feet away from me. In these days at WDI, we still had Claude Coats, John Hench, Jack Ferges, and Adolfo Procopio in the building; we were frequently visited by Marc and Alice Davis, Ken Anderson, Harper and Flossie Goff, Harriet Burns, Bill Justice, Jimmy MacDonald, and so many other Disney Artists and Imagineers of great fame—at least to me!
Morning coffee with Herbie was a remarkable thing. He could speak with erudition about any number of topics, and loved to talk with a variety of people about all manner of subjects—often to the consternation of those charged with getting his work to a meeting or a presentation on time.
I came to learn that his talent as a raconteur was a part of his talent as an artist, a component of his process in translating ideas to evocative visual media. I think he genuinely liked people, and enjoyed the stimulation offered in his daily migrations around the building; observing, interacting, offering his insight or opinion, or in many cases recollections of earlier projects. Often it was his eyewitness account of solving a problem with Walt that offered a solution to what we had thought was a new problem.
For many of us, Herbie represented the links between Walt himself, and the very special new Park we were all part of trying to make, one that moved his design principles forward while respecting and elevating Walt’s ideas and dreams.
Sometimes, however, Herbie liked to kick the pedestal out from under himself.
One day I came to my cubicle to find about a dozen young Imagineers gathered in and around Herbie’s workspace. Half of them were smiling broadly. The other half bore expressions that ranged from bafflement to agony.
What I overheard from my office went something like this:
“Well, we realized very early on that as a collective of artists we wouldn’t have much success, but if we created a charismatic figure to act as our leader, we might deflect the unwanted attention and create more of a ‘creative scapegoat.’
“I mean, come on. ‘Walt Disney’? Did you ever hear a name that was more made-up? We created that whole persona to fit with the art forms we were pursuing, and to reflect the innovations our collective was cooking up. Did you really think that everything attributed to Walt Disney could really be the result of one man’s ideas?
“We hired an actor out of Central Casting, and he became our figurehead. The deal was exclusive and very secret—it was probably one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood, and there are still agreements in effect that withhold the actor’s true identity.
“But about 1965, a lot of us were retiring or moving on, and there wasn’t a lot of desire to keep the charade going any more, so it seemed to make sense to let the whole thing go. I think that old fella is still out in the Motion Picture Country Home, clean-shaven and under an assumed name.”
The story went on in this vein, with detail layered carefully upon detail—fabrications woven with pieces of Walt’s genuine biography, so that every crazy element was grounded in an irrefutable fact. Herbie was so sincere and earnest, and such a consummate storyteller, that only that twinkle in his eye ever gave away his game.
I watched Herbie as his audience dispersed, some stunned and upset, others chuckling at the grandeur of his talespinning. Herbie looked at my bemused expression and grinned, and winked at me. “You see, Jeff,” he offered by way of explanation, “You kids think that once anyone hits fifty they lose their sense of humor.”
And off he went, on another round of afternoon visits.
Many thanks to Jeff for sharing this story!
JEFF KURTTI is a renowned cross-media storyteller recognized for his fluency in a variety of forms and formats. As an author of more than twenty-five books, a writer-director of award-winning documentaries, and a respected public speaker, host, and panel moderator, Kurtti is a recognized expert on pop culture and the entertainment industry. He is a consultant to several clients in the motion picture, theater, museum/exhibit and themed-entertainment industries. His newest book, Disneyland Through The Decades, has just been published by Disney Editions.