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The Ryman Centennial: Fond Farewell To A Friend

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,
Respect —
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.

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6 comments to The Ryman Centennial: Fond Farewell To A Friend

  • WC

    What a GREAT story! And what a great series this has been. Obviously a lot of work went into these stories. I learned a lot about this very talented man and am thankful for all his contributions to Disney. His aim of trying “to translate beauty and inspiration to people” was fulfilled. We don’t see that anyone-witness Toy Story Playland. My fear is that creative minds like Herb’s aren’t be sought out anymore to keep Disney in the forefront of bringing our dreams to life. Thanks PCUSA.

  • Mark W

    Great story and great series! Thanks for putting all this together Michael! Definitely one of the coolest Disney “blog features” I’ve ever read!

  • RO93461

    Thanks for the great series Michael. I hate to see it end! You have brought some of Herbie’s best moments from the past to our attention. He was so much more than Disney, thanks for sharing that as well. Thanks also to contributor John Donaldson, Herb’s best and most loyal friend that has stood by him and his legacy even today. You guys did a great job! Most appreciated.

    Eddie Sotto

  • philphoggs

    I feel like if I try to add anything it wouldv’e been known as “good barfmanship” to a great man. Therfore thanks for the series, and thanks Herbie, for all.

  • Thanks everyone for the kind comments and for reading. Also, thanks to everyone who took part! Like Eddie says, I hate to see it end too. I’ve had so much wonderful feedback about this series, and heard from some very special people because of it. I’ve also learned a great deal about an artist that I thought I knew pretty well.

    You’re also right to underline the contributions of John Donaldson, who not only brought it to my attention that Herb’s 100th birthday was going to be in June, but also sent me invaluable never-seen artwork for the stories. Thanks, John!

    And thanks, Herbie – talk about an inspiration!

    Hopefully he wouldn’t find this “good barfsmanship” :)

  • Robert Stockemer

    I enjoyed working with Herbie, and was honored to take part in the after hours secret ceremony. It was a cloudy night when we started digging the hole for the tree, very solemn. After each of us took a turn with the shovel we planted the tree, popped a bottle of champagne, and had a toast to our dear friend. And here’s a fun fact, when we gave our toast, it started to mist from the sky. I like to think it was Herbie’s way of letting us know he appreciated what we were doing. Buried along with the tree was a full glass of the bubblie, and a few of us finished the tribute to the man by throwing our glasses against the side of the castle. I visit the tree whenever I return to the park, it grows tall and strong, and I relate the story of how the tree got there to anyone that happens to be in the area…..Thanks Michael for bringing out this little known story!

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