When we began this series in late July, it was to celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the Disney studio’s great artists. Since then, we’ve traveled the world with Herb Ryman, witnessed his brushes with the greats of Hollywood’s golden era, and seen how he helped create the art of theme park design.
All good stories must come to an end, though, and so it was that Herb’s travels ended when he succumbed to cancer on the 10th of February, 1989. At 78, you can’t claim that Ryman didn’t live a full and rewarding life. Yet still it seems he left us to soon; age hadn’t dulled his skills, and his art in those final years was just as vital and exciting as ever.
But it also would be an understatement to merely say that his legacy lives on. Ryman inspired a generation of Imagineers and artists, some of whom worked with him at Disney and others who will never meet him but who grew up entranced by his artwork.
To those in the know, though, there’s another tribute – a living tribute in the park the Herb helped create. When I began this series, I knew that this is where I wanted to end the tale. As we’ve previously featured stories in this series by those who know and worked with Herb, I thought it best that the story of Herb’s memorial come from someone who was there. And so the final word will go to Ryman friend and biographer, John Donaldson.
Towards the end of 1988, Herbert said he would like to have a live tree for Christmas, instead of an artificial one. But with the cancer he suffered, having recently termed terminal, it was thought he would not survive to the season. Such trees were not yet for sale, so I went to a local nursery, and purchased a small potted pine…which was set by his side, where it stood… through Christmas… until February, when he passed away.
At the memorial reception, Bill Evans, the famed, Disney, landscape designer, was amazed to see this little tree, kept in a darkened room as it was, now sprouting new shoots. It was decided that it should be transplanted, in tribute, to the side of the Sleeping Beauty Castle… in after hours, secret ceremony.
The right site was shoveled. Herbert had been subject of a Disney Channel short, in which he said, in final frames, “My work with Walt Disney, fitted right in with my aims; to try to translate beauty and inspiration to people. And, there’s more of an extensive mission that has been accomplished, by the work I’ve done here, for Disneyland and Walt Disney, than anything I could have done as a private artist, because I would have had a very limited audience. But, here at Disneyland, it’s a world audience. So, what better showcase could an artist have?”
Where he stood, is where the unmarked tree would be.
For the following Christmas, reproduced to card, I would write a poem, with message to Imagineers…
Deep within the Magic Kingdom,
Standing guard the castle gate,
Is in spirit, a little sentry,
Defender of the faith.
Attempt not to deceive him,
As he surveys the domain,
For only happiness may dwell here,
Only hearts of gold may reign.
And thus he will protect you,
If you dream the dreams of yore,
For he guards the dreams of many,
Who have crossed that bridge before.
Remembrance is the keystone,
Caretaker of destiny,
For these fortress walls can find their strength,
Only in memory.
So within these hallowed grounds,
And divine creativity,
And you will live, as they shall live,
For all eternity.
And standing there beside you,
Forever our little sentry,
Always to guard and guide you,
Is Herbie’s Christmas tree.
Also at that after-hours memorial ceremony in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle in 1989, according to a contemporaneous report in WDEye, were Tim Onosko, Joen Koemmer, Frank Armitage, Larry Hitchcock, Bob Stockemer, Andrea Favilli, Tim Delaney, and Eddie Sotto.
Herb’s tree remains in the park to this day – to the right of the castle, near Snow White’s wishing well.