A 20+ year former Disney Cast Member sharing family fun and magical moments
Author: Catherine - Magic Made Today
Hi, I'm Catherine, I am a home school mom who worked for the Walt Disney Company for 22 years in various roles. Unfortunately, my career with the Mouse was cut short due to a progressive illness. Missing my home away from home, I thought I would begin to write a blog, and share my memories and history of the Disneyland Resort. It is an ever evolving blog and I truly hope you'll enjoy the journey!
Larry Nikolai was a young boy when he first saw the humanoid Audio-Animatronic of President Abraham Lincoln take the stage in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland in 1965. From this moment on, he was inspired. Not only by the Walt Disney Imagineering marvel of the audio-animatronic technology, but by Lincoln himself. Much like Walt Disney who recounted the following on an episode of Wonderful World of Color titled, “Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair,” “Ever since I was a small boy in Illinois, I have had a great personal admiration for Abraham Lincoln…” so too would Larry Nikolai develop a deep admiration for the famous president (which you can go back and read about in Part 1 if you haven’t read it yet).
“Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” opened Larry’s eyes to a whole new world of show creation and Imagineering possibilities, it only seemed fitting that Larry Nikolai would begin his first day at Walt Disney Imagineering as a Senior Show Designer on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th right at the beginning of what has commonly been referred to as the “Disney Decade” and as Larry tells me, “The New Golden Age of Imagineering.”
I do not believe there would have been a Disney Decade nor a “New Golden Age of Imagineering”, if it were not for the partnership of the then President of the Walt Disney Company, Frank Wells and its Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner. Their partnership, which began in 1984 until Well’s untimely death in 1994, was as important to the Walt Disney Company as its original partners, brothers Walt and Roy Disney. Eisner was the man seen out front, the strong head of the company, while Wells was the man behind the scenes.
After Well’s passing, Disney Legend and former Attractions Chairman Dick Nunis commented in the April 5, 1994 Orlando Sentinel, about the partnership of the two men, “We had the combination that made our company great from the very beginning.”
When Wells and Eisner were first brought together in 1984, the Walt Disney Company had been floundering for years. According to fiscal reports, the reported net income fell 18% in 1982 followed by another 7% drop in 1983. But with the partnership of Wells and Eisner, together, the two men helped revitalize the company and as a result, annual revenues shot up from $1.5 billion to $8.5 billion within ten years, Disney stocks increased 1500 percent, and the theme parks and resort revenues tripled. What these two men set in motion at the Walt Disney Company would propel what would be known as the Disney Decade.
THE DISNEY DECADE
As a Cast Member who began to work for the Walt Disney Company in 1992, I felt as though the next ten years working for the Mouse was truly a very exciting time and what I believe to be one of the most magical eras in Disney history. For Disney, the years 1990 – 2000 was an unbelievable time of creativity and growth. Set forth in motion by the team of Eisner and Wells and further fueled by the beginnings of the Disney Renaissance of Walt Disney Animated films, which started with The Little Mermaid in 1989, followed by hit after hit, Beauty and the Beast 1991, Aladdin in 1992, and The Lion King in 1994.
That forward momentum would be the impetus into the creation of new lands, hotels, attractions, and theme parks, all of which were imagined and created at a seemingly rapid pace.
Just the year prior to the official Disney Decade era, MGM Studios would open in 1989, Walt Disney World’s 3rd theme park. Four new resort hotels opened at Walt Disney World in 1990 alone. Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom opened in 1992, but only after Tokyo Disneyland opened their Splash Mountain the day before. Euro Disney, Disney’s second international park opens in 1992. Mickey’s Toontown, a whole new land opened in 1993 at Disneyland. New attractions and dining locations were opening left and right at MGM Studios including Twilight Zone Tower of Terror which opened in 1994. Tomorrowland reopened after refurbishments at Magic Kingdom in 1995 and that same year, Blizzard Beach, WDW’s second water park opens. Back at Disneyland, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye opened in 1995. In 1996, Tokyo Disneyland opened their Toontown. Downtown Disney had a groundbreaking ceremony in 1997, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, and the list goes on and on, and let’s not forget two additional theme parks that would have their opening dates in 2001, Disney’s California Adventure Park followed by Tokyo DisneySea. The two parks opening dates would spill out of the official Disney Decade by one year, though I think should be included, as the planning and building of these parks began much earlier.
Larry had worked for the Walt Disney Company as a consultant prior to his hire in 1990 at WDI, he would help to design such characters as the colonel for the Adventures Club at WDW’s Pleasure Island. But now the dream he had of becoming an Imagineer had finally come to fruition. On February 12, 1990 Larry would begin his career as an Imagineer during one of the most exciting and magical eras in Disney design, the New Golden Age of Imagineering.
THE NEW GOLDEN AGE OF IMAGINEERING
During the Disney Decade and the New Golden Age of Imagineering, Larry would work on several projects both at Disneyland Paris, at what was then called Euro Disney, and at Tokyo Disneyland. I asked Larry about these projects.
C: What was the first project you worked on for Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI)?
L:I was assigned to work on the post show for “it’s a small world” at Euro Disneyland, which was currently being built in France.
C: Was there someone at WDI who inspired you or you looked up to when you first started your journey with the Disney company?
L: I was inspired by Tony Baxter and Tom Morris, and the other creative lead producers of the lands in Euro Disneyland. I could see how extremely important their creative input was to the design of the park. And of course, I was inspired by all the former ex-Disney folks that I had worked with leading up to my actual hiring at Disney.
During the Disney Decade, Nikolai would spend his time working on projects not only for Euro Disney, but he would also work on many attractions at Tokyo Disneyland as well. Having worked at Tokyo Disneyland (TDL) for many years, I wanted to know more.
C: During the Disney Decade it seems you were primarily creating the magic at Tokyo Disneyland, correct?
L:Even though I worked on Tokyo attractions for a total of 13 years, I actually bounced around a bit, and projects between parks frequently overlapped. TDL Swiss Family Treehouse (Larry was the Show Designer for the exterior sets and props based on the classic Disney film) which was after Jingle Bear Jamboree (show designer and art director). Then after TDL Splash Mountain (art director for the audio-animatronics animation, figure finishing and prop painting) I went back to Euro Disneyland in 1992, though still working on TDL Critter Country props.
Larry would go on to inform me that at Euro Disney he was the concept and show designer for the unrealized expansion project for a Beauty and the Beast theater attraction as well as the very much realized Storybookland “Le Pays Des Contes De Fees.”
Larry truly did jump around from Disney Park to Disney Park the first half of the 1990s, he even worked on the San Francisco Disney Store update in 1994, then back to Tokyo Disneyland to work on props for Critter Country and Splash Mountain. By 1995, Nikolai was promoted and would be assigned to a very special project, The Arabian Coast a brand-new port of call located inside a brand-new Disney theme park called Tokyo DisneySea.
As a cast member working for the Oriental Land Company (O.L.C.) in 2001, the opening of Tokyo DisneySea was truly an exciting time. I was able to preview the brand-new park before it opened to guests, and I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, it is the most beautiful of all Disney theme parks I have ever visited. I would be very happy to pay for an entrance ticket and not go on any attraction. The landscape of the park alone is well worth the price of admission and my favorite land, or as Tokyo DisneySea calls it, port of call, is without a doubt, The Arabian Coast. To be able to ask THE LARRY NIKOLAI, the overall art director AND lead show designer for this entirely distinctive land, questions about his work was so very incredible for me. I’m still getting a bit giddy thinking about it, so I’ll calm down a bit, and share with you what you’re really hear to read about, my interview with Larry Nikolai.
C: I have long believed that Tokyo DisneySea is the most beautiful of all the Disney Parks. When I worked in Japan, I was under the impression that O.L.C. (The company that owns and operates the Tokyo Disney theme parks) were held to a higher standard than the Parks in the states and elsewhere because the Japan Parks are not owned by Disney and instead are under a strict licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Company. While I do not think that is necessarily 100% true, I do understand that O.L.C. licenses the rights to use the Disney name and contractually all items designed must come directly from WDI.
L:This all takes some explanation. The Japanese parks are not necessarily held to a higher standard than the other parks. Oriental Land Company owns only the two parks, so the budgets for their attractions are very focused, and I found that they have an intense cultural desire for perfection. As I’m sure you know, the Japanese audience for Disney parks is extremely enthusiastic, making them two of the most attended parks in the entire world. Expectations for “Disney Magic” are high so O.L.C. is expected to deliver the best possible.
THE ARABIAN COAST
Delivering the best possible was certainly delivered when it comes to this enchanting seaport. It’s here where the streets of Agrabah seem to be calling you into its story. One of seven ports of call at Tokyo DisneySea, the Arabian Coast is stunning, and every last bit of detail is pure perfection. TDS describes this area as an “exotic world of The Arabian Nights.”
My favorite part of the Arabian Coast is its marketplace. The sites and scent of curry in the air sets the stage for the adventures that await you.
I can certainly envision Aladdin running through the streets of Agrabah, can’t you?
In fact, you can find Aladdin, Jasmin, Genie, Jafar and other friends to meet and greet in this lovely coastal port.
But what really grabs you, is its scenery, the architecture, it’s all so very stunning. As I write this I remember Larry telling me that buildings are characters too, and you can certainly see what he means when you look at the buildings that surround you in the Arabian Coast. Stepping into this port of call is like you are venturing into a land that is so incredibly immersive that you could quite easily forget that you’re in a theme park and we have the talented Imagineers like Larry Nikolai, Concept Architect Oscar Cobos, in-field Art Director Chris Crump, and many more artisans to thank for that.
C: Was your project at Tokyo DisneySea primarily focused on The Arabian Coast?
L:I was the lead Art Director for all of The Arabian Coast. Chris Crump was the in-field Art Director for the whole land as well as the Producer for the Magic Lamp Theater.
I also did concept work on Mermaid Lagoon and designed some attractions for American Waterfronts that were never built.
C:Not only was The Arabian Coast my favorite land at Tokyo DisneySea (TDS), Sinbad’s Seven Voyages was my favorite attraction. Can you tell me more about your process in creating this attraction?
L:Sindbad’s Seven Voyages (the original attraction name) was a project that went through many phases. It started with a very rough early concept of a Pirates style attraction, and then morphed into a boat ride with small, puppet sized characters (“mini-matronics”) that followed the classic stories of the 1001 Arabian Nights. I was asked to be the Show Designer/Art Director after this particular concept was deemed to be impractical in scope and character count. It then became more centered on just the Sindbad stories. We did decide to keep the overall theme of a boat ride through an elaborate puppet show, however, with the human puppets now being of a larger size- around 1 meter tall or so. We ended up with over 160 animatronic characters- mostly the 1-meter size but also some pretty huge ones like the Ruhk, Giant and Whale. The human figures were very animated for their size and the show was quite elaborate in scope. Overall, the attraction took 6 years to design, produce and install.
The trouble started almost immediately upon installation completion.
It’s important to understand the original concept for Tokyo DisneySea overall. The guests that the park was originally supposed to appeal to were supposed to be dating couples and an older audience- thus the emphasis on “ports of call” that featured a strong sense of adventure and romance. Sindbad’s Seven Voyages was designed to be a dramatic retelling of the sailor’s adventures in the Arabian Nights. The music was to be reminiscent of a Bernard Herrmann cinematic score, full of danger and drama. Disney Legend Buddy Baker was the composer and conductor, and he was a joy to work with. Unfortunately, even though the music came out great, it was the first thing to arouse criticism by Disney executives as being too dark and ponderous- and things went downhill from there.
We had been told all along that the Japanese audience was familiar with the Arabian Nights tales. Now we were informed that they weren’t, and that the guests were confused with the attraction’s storyline. The attraction was also underutilized- the large queue was never very full. There were two good reasons for this: as a through-load boat ride it had a high theoretical hourly ride capacity (THRC) of 3600, a real “people eater”. It also was located at the furthest point from the main entrance in the back corner of the park- nobody ran for this attraction at park opening!
The redesigns started after a short while. I participated with some new scene ideas until OLC declared that they wanted a fresh perspective, and I was off the project. That’s when the attraction was given a radical new lighthearted theme with an Alan Menken song and score. One prominent OLC exec didn’t like Sindbad’s beard- voila! He’s given a makeover. Now he needs a cute sidekick in order to sell merchandise- here’s a cute little tiger to accompany him on his adventure. All the menacing monsters are too scary? No problem- we’ll make them friendly and helpful to our newly youthful protagonist. And now a new name was needed for the altered attraction- thus it became what we see today: “Sindbad’s Storybook Adventure”.
The attraction is still about 80-85% of what was originally designed, but it is so radically different in tone now that it no longer resembles the show I was the Show Designer/Art Director for. My only consolation is that our creative partners at Pixar declared that it was their favorite attraction at TDS, and they were surprised that we were changing it.
C: Are there any Easter eggs (hidden Disney references or inside jokes) that are hidden on the attraction?
L:I can point out the biggest “Hidden Mickey” that I know of in an attraction – he’s on the front of the whale.
The entire land is so immersive. I loved meeting the camel and street merchant, riding the two storied Caravan Carousel in the Royal Courtyard and of course gazing upon the beautiful Princess Jasmine fountain.
L:That camel was designed by Chris Merritt, built by Garner Holt.
C: What inspired your design of The Arabian Coast?
L: I traveled with two other team members to Spain and Morocco to research Islamic and Moorish architecture, and we found that fountains were important elements there.
L: Princess Jasmine seemed like the perfect character for a decorative fountain.
L: I designed the tile mural and tiger “spitter,” and the overall fountain architecture was designed by our Creative Architect, Oscar Cobos.
C: The two-story Caravan Carousel is a marvel to me; can you tell me more about it?
L: I designed and art directed all the custom animals for the Caravan Carousel. The originals were hand-carved out of wood in the traditional carousel way. The elaborate color designs for the other horses were done by Andrea Bottancino.
Larry was not able to attend the official opening of Tokyo DisneySea on September 4, 2001, he was already assigned to new projects by then, like Flik’s Fun Fair ride vehicles for the new A Bug’s Land being built at Disney’s California Adventure.
Larry Nikolai has worked on, in some capacity, every Disney Park except for Disney Hollywood Studios in Florida. I of course had to ask him which was his favorite park.
L:My favorite foreign park will always be Tokyo DisneySea, because I feel it is the most beautiful park we ever built. I was the overall art director for The Arabian Coast so I was involved from the beginning and even after the park had officially opened.
Larry continues to consult as a freelance designer on projects for Tokyo DisneySea.
C: Do you have a favorite project, foreign or domestic?
L:There are three projects that hold a special place in my heart, foreign and domestic:
The Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare for Tokyo Disneyland
The Little Mermaid– Ariel’s Undersea Adventure at Disney California Adventure
C: Which of the three is your favorite?
L: The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Disney California Adventure
Oh, I’d love to learn more about Larry’s creative direction and design of this attraction, why this project is his favorite, and learn about a very cool hidden Easter egg that many do not know about. Wouldn’t you?
The 20th anniversary celebration of Tokyo DisneySea is on the near horizon. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful of all Disney theme parks I have ever had the privilege to work at and visit. Because of this momentous occasion, I thought the perfect person to reach out to would be the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) Lead Art Director for my favorite port of call, Arabian Coast, one of seven themed ports of call (lands) located inside Tokyo DisneySea. I have been wanting to learn more about the inspiration that led to the design of this beautiful land and knew that I needed to speak to none other than WDI alumnus, Larry Nikolai.
With a career at WDI spanning 28 years, I was excited to talk to Larry about many of his other projects as well, like “Ariel’s Undersea Adventure” at Disney California Adventure Park, Tokyo Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion Holiday Nightmare,” his work as a Disney Gallery Artist, and the merchandise collectibles he designed for the Parks like the Main Street Electrical Parade Collectibles from 1996.
My initial interview with Larry led me down a path craving for many more questions to be answered. Larry graciously answered another round of questions about a month after our initial interview. What I have come to realize is that although I knew Nikolai was an Imagineer who worked on many projects (all of which were during my years of working for Disney and the Oriental Land Company (O.L.C.), what I understood after my interview was how truly little I did know about ALL of his projects. I yearned for a better understanding so that I could, in turn, introduce or reintroduce him to you. You may think you know Imagineer alumnus Larry Nikolai, but I’m not so sure you truly do, yet. My hope over the next few weeks and perhaps even months, as I continue to write my blog about Larry and his many contributions to the Walt Disney Company and its theme parks around the world, is that both you and I will have a better understanding of his many talents.
Ah yes, I must not forget, where to begin? Well, I do believe at the beginning is almost always the best place, so we’ll start there.
It All Started When He Was Two Years Old
Larry Nikolai was born in Kansas City, Missouri and moved to California in 1956 when he was just two years old. It would be that very same year his parents would take him to Disneyland. Larry explained to me the impact visiting the park had on him.
L: When my family moved to California from Kansas City in 1956, we visited Disneyland the first year we were here. After that it became an annual event, and I grew up with the park.
L: I was always fascinated with the attractions and in later years I made my own crude versions in my garage and backyard.
C: Can you tell me more about that?
L: I have always felt compelled to make dimensional objects with my own two hands- my early visits to Disneyland inspired me to want to have some of the magic in my own backyard and garage, so I had to create it myself!
C: What were some of the attractions you built and out of what materials?
L: I made some small Jungle Cruise elephants at first and graduated to very crude Lincoln figures after seeing the show when it first opened at Disneyland (1965). When Pirates came along (1967), I had to make my own walk-through version with a few figures and lighting effects. Everything I built was of the crudest materials- scrap wood, cardboard, wooden produce crates, paper mâché, plaster, used clothing and some homemade vacuum-formed plastic faces. I also made a number of Tiki birds with string-puppeted mouths.
C: Do you have any photos you could share?
L: I am WAY too embarrassed to show any photos of those very crude early creations!
Although Larry was too embarrassed to show me any photos of his childhood creations, he did let me know that his parents and family were all very supportive of him, sitting through many “garage-based Lincoln shows.” There were apparently many shows as Larry would continue to work on his Lincoln, improving his version overtime. Nikolai’s Pirates of the Caribbean however, as Larry states, “lasted just a season and a few viewings.”
C:Were you always an artist? Even as a young child?
L: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing or creating something. My favorite first cartoon character was Popeye, so he is the first thing that I drew. I never really cared for coloring books because I wanted to make the pictures myself, and when we made cards for Mother’s or Father’s Day in school I used to put characters in them. And I’ve always had a desire to paint, even if I didn’t know how to properly use the materials. I once painted a portrait of a sea captain using tubed watercolor paints straight out of the tubes on canvas. I treated them like oil paints. It paid off in the end, though- I entered the painting in a junior art show at a local shopping center and won second prize.
C: I had read that you are both a classically trained fine artist and animation designer. Where did you obtain your training?
L: I took art classes in high school, but to be honest I didn’t pay much attention to them as at the time I was more interested in theater and film making. After high school I attended California State University at Northridge where I concentrated more on my art and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art 2-D painting. When I say I’m a classically trained artist I mean that I went through the classic process of life drawing and learning the various mediums and how to properly use them. I also took the required art history courses and available 3-D design classes to round out my education.
“I OWE EVERYTHING TO THIS MAN”
C: How did you get into theme park attraction design?
L: I was working in the Merchandise Department at Six Flags Magic Mountain during and right after college, and one day it just struck me that- because I loved Disneyland since I could remember- it made sense to bring my art and Disney together for my career. I applied at WED (Walter Elias Disney Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering) but did not have enough experience to get hired there at the time. I stayed at Magic Mountain and a couple of years later I met David Gengenbach, an ex-Disney executive who was also working there.
David Gengenbach worked for the Walt Disney Company as both a project engineer, project manager, and later the vice president of Walt Disney’s WED Enterprises. He oversaw many of the Magic Kingdom’s attractions at Walt Disney World including Space Mountain, the Mark III and Mark IV monorail systems, and the Carousel of Progress. After twelve years with the Walt Disney Company, David left Disney to work for Six Flags Corporation as Manager of Corporate Engineering.
L: He saw a little raccoon sculpture I had done and said that the company was planning to do a dark ride at the Atlanta Park, and that I could join the team if it was approved. I owe everything to this man and mentor who took a chance on me, because the ride “Monster Plantation“ was approved and suddenly I became a professional artist working through the Six Flags Engineering department on a real theme park attraction.
L: On that project (Monster Plantation) I worked with some very talented ex-Disney (and non-ex-Disney) folks, and with their help I ended up working in the theme park, movies, publishing, and cartoon animation industries for the next 12 years before finally being hired at Imagineering.
Almost an Imagineer…But First…One More Question
C: Please tell me a little bit more about the 12 years before finally becoming an Imagineer with the Walt Disney Company. Films you worked on, cartoon animation, and theme parks.
L: The 12 years includes a couple of years still at Magic Mountain before I met Dave Gengenbach and was brought onto the Monster Plantation project.
After Monster Plantation it turns out that Six Flags no longer needed me, so I made the move over to the company that produced all of Monster Plantation’s animatronic figures, AVG Productions. I mostly worked on shows that fulfilled the pizza restaurant craze of the 1980s. I also worked on a show for Six Flags’ Movieland Wax Museum, “The Black Box.” While at AVG I met and worked with many Disney alumni, including Rolly Crump and “Big Al” Bertino.
Shortly after this, my mentor Dave Gengenbach was hired as president of Advanced Animations in Connecticut, and he invited me and some other AVG colleagues to join him there. I moved my family to the East Coast, where we thought we would be for at least 5 years. We did a number of conceptual proposals and some small to mid-size shows for the mostly local eastern states, including a chance for me to finally sculpt a real Abraham Lincoln animatronic figure for a museum in Gettysburg.
Nikolai Meets Lincoln
In 1965, at 11 years old, Nikolai became instantly fascinated with Abraham Lincoln when he saw the 16th President of the United States stand on Disneyland’s Lincoln Theater stage in “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.” Just as Walt Disney was fascinated with the beloved president at a young age, so was Larry Nikolai, who would go on to study Lincoln’s life.
The opportunity to finally sculpt the head of Abraham Lincoln must have been exhilarating for Nikolai. The many childhood attempts of creating Lincoln in his garage would finally pay off. Larry would sculpt the head while another sculptor created the body for the animatronic figure who would deliver the Gettysburg Address at the Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg.
Larry personally owns copies of the famous Abraham Lincoln life mask and hands that were created by Leonard W. Volk, Chicago sculptor, on March 31, 1860. Volk created the mold prior to Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. It involved a process that encased Lincoln’s face and ears in plaster. The plaster was left on his face for about an hour to dry and set and was then carefully removed from Lincoln’s face. A process Lincoln is reported to have said was, “anything but agreeable.” It would be this mold that would become the reference for artists who would create busts and statues of Lincoln including Imagineer Blaine Gibson who would also use the Volk mask for Walt Disney’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Nikolai explained that the Volk mask that both Blaine and he used as reference for Lincoln were invaluable as it provided them both with the measurements they would need to bring Lincoln to life.
Returning to California…Why So Soon?
L: A Warner Communications Company (the parent company of Advanced Animations), fell on hard economic times and they cancelled our projects and laid us off after only one year. Rather than look for work locally or start commuting to New York City I moved my family back to Los Angeles, the true hub of the entertainment industry.
After returning to LA, I was unexpectedly hired into the world of Saturday morning cartoon animation at Ruby Spears Productions. Ken Spears and Joe Ruby were the creators of Scooby Doo during their years at Hanna Barbera before leaving to start their own studio. I had never worked in 2-D or cartoon animation before, and I was lucky to be around some amazing artists who taught me the business. I was initially hired as a maquette sculptor, but I ended up transitioning and was lucky to have five years of working around some amazing professionals in the industry where I got the solid practice I really needed at drawing both background scenes and animated characters. I also did character and show concept work between seasons when new series ideas were being pitched to the networks.
Also at that time my network of friends and associates had grown considerably, and I did many freelance jobs: magazine illustration, film and television character design, collectible merchandise concepts, puppets and costumed character design for both Disney, and Universal Studios- among many other opportunities. I worked on a couple of “Nightmare on Elm Street” films, and I even got to work with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark on her first movie. They were busy years full of good practice in many fields.
All of this led up to 1990, when I was finally hired at WDI.
Have you ever read this famous quote before? Perhaps you saw it written on an inspirational poster or a meme made on the internet? Have you seen it printed on a souvenir coin or on countless shirts and plaques sold by creatives on their do-it-yourself ETSY sites? Do you, like many others, incorrectly attribute this quote to something Walt Disney said?
If so, it is not your fault. When my oldest child was in the 3rd grade, he was given a homework assignment to come up with a family motto or saying. One such example given on the worksheet he brought home was the “If you can dream it, you can do it” quote wrongly giving credit to Walter Elias Disney, the famous pioneer of animated films, audio-animatronics, co-founder of the Walt Disney Company, and creator of Disneyland, to name a few of his many accomplishments.
When I saw my child’s homework assignment, I was livid. I knew third party companies like Hallmark and Etsy small shop designers were falsely claiming this quote as Walt’s, but now it is being taught in a school? How could this be? Even the Anaheim Police Department shares this quote in their training manuals.
What’s the Source?
Do you still believe Walt Disney spoke these words? Then what is its source?
Let me ask you a few more questions. Have you ever seen this quote printed from an interview Walt did in publication, such as an article in a newspaper or magazine? NO?
Perhaps you heard a recording of a radio broadcast of Walt Disney saying these words? NO?
Maybe you saw Walt Disney on television during a “Wonderful World of Color” segment and heard him speak these words directly into camera? NO?
Well, then, did you read this quote inside some secret diary of Walt’s? NO?
Perhaps, it was on a search engine, like Google for example. You type in the following words… “Walt Disney Quotes” and up on your computer or mobile device’s screen pops countless quotes and memes. Some quotes Walt did in fact say, while many other supposed credited quotes, Walt did not.
As a Cast Member working for the Walt Disney Company for more than 20 years, and a self-proclaimed Disney history enthusiast, I knew this quote was proven to be something Walt neither said, nor wrote down in any journal he had ever kept. There are no recordings of Walt saying this quote in publication, radio, or film. Nor had any Disney family member or colleague ever recall Walt Disney saying, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
And yet, this quote had to come from somewhere, and why are people attributing this quote to something Walt Disney said?
To understand the origins of this quote, you will first have to learn about corporate sponsorships that helped propel the attractions and exhibits over the years at the Disney Parks.
When Disneyland first opened in 1955, Walt and Roy Disney looked to corporate sponsors in order to ensure some of the Park’s attractions would be in operation on opening day, like Kaiser’s Hall of Aluminum Fame.
Years later, though Roy was ready to retire prior to his brother’s passing on December 15, 1966, Roy Disney decided to remain on the job to tackle one of the greatest projects the Walt Disney Company had ever been tasked with to date, the creation of Walt Disney World.
While Walt Disney was indeed the dreamer, Roy was the businessman and doer. He would be the one to find ways to obtain the money to do the ideas Walt dreamed up, like finding the funds to finish Walt Disney’s first full length animation film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” as just one of many examples.
Roy would again find a way to find the funds to honor his brother’s dream of building Walt Disney World in Florida. Five years after Walt’s death, through hard work, leadership and great creative financial prowess, Walt Disney World would open debt free in 1971. The late Disney Imagineer Marty Sklar once said, “Without Roy Disney, this (Walt Disney World) would never have happened.”
When it came to opening Epcot in 1982, although the budget was well over $1 Billion dollars, the Walt Disney Company again turned to corporate sponsorships to fork the bill. It would be these sponsorships that would end up paying for the majority of Epcot. It was the countries, like France, and Japan who would pay for and sponsor their country’s pavilion in the World Showcase, while corporations would pay millions of dollars a year to see their brand’s name alongside the Disney name on its attractions. The corporations would in turn, have some say on what the attraction they were sponsoring ended up looking like.
KODAK AND FIGMENT
One such sponsor was Kodak which sponsored the attraction ‘Journey into Imagination with Figment.’
The loveable character Figment was originally drawn with a green pigmentation in original concept sketches.
Concept Drawings of Figment Credit: Walt Disney Archives
Green was a problem for Kodak, as it was the color of Fuji-Film, Kodak’s competitor. Figment was then changed from green to purple, wearing a red and yellow sweater, the color of Kodak’s logo.
In the Imagination pavilion there was the Magic Eye Theater. During its preshow, an 8 minute long presentation featuring a song called, “Making Memories,” written by the Sherman Brothers was heard while award-winning amateur’s photos were displayed on a screen.
When I listen to the ragtime catchy song, to me it plays more like a commercial jingle for Kodak, than anything else. It starts:
“Long before the old Model T
‘Round about the turn of the century
Folks discovered a barrel of fun
Taking pictures by the light of the sun
Smile, hug, look at the camera
Hold your breath and say cheese!
Little did they realize back then,
They were making memories.
Making memories, making memories
Taking pictures is making memories
Catching little pieces of time
Making them yours and making them mine...”
How can memories reappear exactly? Why, by taking a snapshot with your Kodak camera on Kodak film of course.
General Electric, Disney, and EPCOT
“When Walt first advanced his idea of EPCOT he said WED (Walter Elias Disney – precursor to Walt Disney Imagineering), couldn’t do it alone. We’re in the entertainment business and, obviously, we felt our strength was to entertain people and communicate through our entertainment. But we had to bring in other companies, like GE, to add their expertise in developing our communication about the future. It was important to the credibility of EPCOT that we create a synergism – with Disney as the communicator, the entertainer, and companies like GE and Exxon and Kodak as the experts, the people who really are in the businesses we’re portraying. How do you start out interpreting a corporate culture? Just like there’s a Disney way to our company, there’s a GE style. Every company has its distinctive culture and legend and ways that it sees itself. Our job was to create a pavilion specifically for GE, whose theme is ‘the achievable future…” Marty Sklar, WED’s Executive VP for Creative Development at the time.
“Both our cultures are always changing – tuning to different times, adopting contemporary styles without giving up valued substance. It’s the spirit that led the Disney people to propose what they did and that led us to approve it – a vision of the future firmly rooted in what we know can someday be done.” – Karl Koss General Electric’s Liaison to WED.
From 1955 throughout the 1980’s, it was an absolute great investment for a corporation to share their brand messaging at a theme park where hundreds of millions of guests visit each year.
Just like Kodak sponsored ‘Journey into Imagination with Figment’, General Electric sponsored ‘Horizons’ in Future World.
The Horizon’s attraction that opened in Future World at Walt Disney World’s Epcot on October 1, 1983, was an attraction that was “dedicated to humanity’s future.” It was sponsored by General Electric until September 30, 1993. After the sponsorship ran out, The Walt Disney Company would continue to operate the attraction until late 1994. The attraction closed briefly and then reopened one last time in December of 1995, until finally closing forever on January 9, 1999.
Wait. Perhaps I am jumping into this too fast and too deep. What does this all mean? Why am I talking about Epcot and the Horizons attraction that no longer exists? Okay, let us step back and let me introduce some folks to you who I lovingly call, The Players.
Player #1 Dave Smith – The Disney Legend, Archivist and Historian
Dave Rollin Smith was the founder of the Walt Disney Archives in 1970 and worked for the company for 40 years. He received the prestigious Disney Legends Award in 2007 and retired after his 40th anniversary in 2010. As Chief Archivist Emeritus, Dave stayed on with the Walt Disney Company as a consultant for another nine years until his death in 2019.
Dave was first hired by Roy O. Disney in 1970, 4 years after Walt’s passing. His very first assignment was to catalogue every single item that was inside Walt’s office, which had been left untouched since his passing. During Dave’s four decades at the Walt Disney Company, it was his duty to preserve all things Disney, from film to television, theme parks, animation and so much more.
Bob Iger, Executive Chairman and Chairman of the Board of the Walt Disney Company stated, “He was the unsung hero of Disney’s history who, as our first archivist, spent 40 years rescuing countless documents and artifacts from obscurity, investing endless hours restoring and preserving these priceless pieces of our legacy, and putting them in context to tell our story, Dave was a true Disney Legend, and we are indebted to him for building such an enduring, tangible connection to our past that continues to inspire our future.”
Dave was a treasure and well known amongst Disneyland Resort Cast Members. My husband Marlon, who has worked for the Walt Disney Company since the early 1990’s, recounted a memorable time when he first met Dave Smith. In 1998, Marlon was in Glendale at the Walt Disney Studios and he wanted to meet Dave. He, along with another Cast Member, approached his secretary and asked if they could meet him. His secretary gave a warm smile and invited them right into Dave‘s office. Dave stood up from his desk and gave my husband a firm handshake and a big smile. He then began to give them a tour of his office. At one point Marlon noticed an Academy Award under glass and asked Dave if that was a real award. Dave told Marlon that it indeed was real, and in fact it was the Honorary Academy Award Walt had won in 1939 for his 1937 film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Dave then took the Oscar out of its case and gave it to my husband and let him hold it. More than 20 years later, my husband still talks fondly of that first meeting with Dave, when he let him hold one of Walt Disney’s Academy Awards.
I myself would run into Dave from time to time, during the construction of Disney California Adventure Park, or after he had a speaking engagement or interview held at Walt’s Apartment above the firehouse in Disneyland. On a few rare sightings, I would catch a glimpse of Dave in the early mornings before the Disneyland Park opened. I worked in the TV/Film Production Department for the Disneyland Resort and our call times were often before sunrise.
On those few occasions, I would see a man walking onto the set. I would go to investigate and see that it was none other than Dave Smith. Sometimes Dave would be alone, and sometimes he would have a newly hired historian or archivist he was showing the ropes to. Dave would always have a clipboard in his hand with a blank piece of paper. He told me that if he had a clipboard and walked with a purpose, very rarely did anyone stop to ask him any questions. He liked to visit Disneyland in the early mornings, before it was opened to the guests, he was always taking note of all the changes happening inside the Park.
Dave was a kind man, he always wore a smile and graciously never tired of my questions, well, perhaps he did, but he never showed me that he was tired of providing me answers about the company. One of those questions I asked him about was if it was true that Walt never said the “If you can dream it, you can do it quote.” Dave told me it was a myth.
Though Dave never told me personally it was written by someone else, he simply stated at the time that Walt Disney never spoke nor wrote those specific words.
It would be many years later when I would come across the same question being asked to Dave, while reading his book Disney Facts Revealed. In the book, Dave answers questions from his readers he has received over the last 30 years. On page 252 of the book, Dave shared a question asked of him from a fan from Chicago named Todd.
Todd asks, “I’ve always been under the impression that Walt Disney himself said, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ But I’ve never been able to find a source. Any idea if this quote was ever actually said by Walt himself?”
Dave’s Smith response was, “This is a very common urban legend. It is not a Walt Disney quote, but rather was written by Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald for the Horizons attraction at Epcot.”
Player #2 Tom Fitzgerald – The Imagineer and Script Writer
Enter Player 2 into the scene…
Tom Fitzgerald is a Senior Creative Executive of the Walt Disney Imagineering Management for the Walt Disney Company
For the past 42 years, Tom has worked for Walt Disney Imagineering bringing such iconic attractions to Disney Parks around the world like Star Tours to Disneyland in 1987.
Tom was a little boy when he went to the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and saw Disney’s ‘Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.’ Seeing the audio-animatronic Lincoln as a young boy gave Tom the inspiration to one day work for WED.
After graduating from Northwestern University, Fitzgerald would head to California to fulfill his childhood dream. Mission accomplished! In 1979, Tom was hired in the communications department at WED and by 1981, he was tasked to help write the script for the GE pavilion at Epcot.
“Tom Fitzgerald was the main story person as the Horizons project got rolling. Tom added the warmth of story to scenes I was designing and modeling in small scale.” wrote George McGinnis, the last Imagineer hired by Walt Disney.
In 1983, Fitzgerald would explain in an interview he gave for a General Electric Promotional Booklet about the Horizons attraction that, “We wanted to emphasize the family unit. Some people think that it may not exist in the future, but our feeling was that advances in transportation and communication will bring families closer together.” He would go on to include, “The GE credo ‘Better than the best,’ is a phrase that we at Disney understand well.”
Horizons – The Quote Connection
When guests first approached the Horizons attraction, instrumental music could be heard through speakers playing the “New Horizons” theme song along with GE’s familiar musical notes to their tagline “We Bring Good Things to Life.”
Once guests arrive inside, a large sign was seen displayed next to the left of the sliding glass door entrance. It reads “If we can dream it, we can do it”
Did you notice how this sentence does NOT read, “If you can dream it, you can do it”?
For the first time in the Walt Disney Company history, “If we can dream it, we can do it” is displayed on an attraction wall, 17 years after Walt Disney’s death.
Guests would see this sign and then begin to queue for the flight from the Future Port. Flight 83 is what they will take, 83 is significant because that is the year the Horizons attraction first began taking passengers.
Before the guests were cleared for departure an announcer’s voice could be heard saying, “GE Horizons passengers…you are now cleared for departure to the twenty-first century.”
The attraction took guests to see new towns of tomorrow, like desert farms, floating cities, and space colonies.
Throughout the flight, we witness Tom Fitzgerald’s script writing in action while the audio-animatronic family members recite various dialogue Tom wrote for them, like when the Mother character says, “I suppose people have always dreamed of the future. We sure do.”
To which the father character responds, “The only difference is that today, with what we know and what we are learning to do, we really can bring our dreams to life. It takes a lot of work, but the truth is, if we can dream it, we can do it.”
Did you recognize that the use of General Electric’s tag line, “We bring good things to life” has been integrated and reimagined into Tom Fitzgerald’s script? He has adapted “we bring good things to life” to “we really can bring ourdreams to life.”
Remember, this attraction is a corporate sponsored attraction paid for by General Electric. The corporation is spending millions of dollars a year to have their logo and messaging interwoven throughout the ride. Fitzgerald has cleverly adapted a familiar tagline that almost everyone who rode the attraction would have been very familiar with at that time.
At the end of the attraction, similar lines are once again spoken by Father
Father: Well, we’re almost back from the future.
Mother: Oh, it went by so quickly.
Father: Yes, but one of the nice things about traveling into the future is that the journey’s just beginning.
Mother: That’s right
Father: And I’ll tell you something, if we can dream it, we really can do it and that’s the most exciting part.
A GE Logo was seen and then the following announcement is heard as guests begin to approach the exit platform.
Announcer (1983 version): All of us at General Electric thank you for exploring Horizons. Please take small children by the hand and watch your step…
Announcer: (1984 version) All of us at GE look forward to bringing good things to life for you, today and tomorrow. Now please take small children by the hand and watch your step…
Dave Smith asks Tom Fitzgerald
A few decades after the Horizons attraction first opened, The Walt Disney Archives shared a question from their Ask Walt Disney Archives on the D23.com website.
This time the question is from a Krystina from Arizona.
Krystina: “I heard that Walt Disney did not, in fact, ever say the famous quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Is that true? If so, who did say it?
Dave Smith responds: “He never said this quote. If you check my book, Disney Trivia from the Vault, you can find the true story:
“Despite its frequent publication, that is not a Walt Disney quote. We checked with Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald for the definitive answer: ‘I am very familiar with that line because I wrote it! It was written specifically for the Horizons attraction at Epcot and used in numerous ways, from dialogue in the ride to graphics. I find it amusing that the Science of Imagineering DVD series attributes it to Walt Disney, but I guess I should be flattered.”
Does the Misinformation begin with “The Science of Imagineering” DVD Series?
What I would like to know, and I apologize if my tone changes briefly here, but, who decided to add this quote to the intro of the DVD series? I could find one writer, two producers, and a director listed for the series along with Disney Education Productions listed on IMDB (Internet Movie Database). I attempted to search for the four names listed and could not track anyone down to ask who thought to insert this quote.
I would like to ask them what source did the writer or producers use to claim Walt Disney ever said, “If you can dream it, you can do it” when the foremost expert in Walt Disney history never found any such source with the entire archives at his disposal? Could a writer simply make a mistake? Perhaps they thought a quote by Walt Disney in the introduction of the DVD would make a good setup for the preface of what was about to be taught in the video series and he simply googled “Walt Disney quotes” like so many others, relying on Google to always provide the answers? Could someone truly be that careless?
Having worked in the Broadcast Services Television department, for the Walt Disney Company, you have the great minds of Disney at your disposal to verify and confirm information. Dave Smith was alive at the time the Science of Imagineering was produced. Why was this quote not verified prior to it being sold to the public and pushed for school usage? I would like to know those answers. The Walt Disney Archives have long disputed that this quote belongs to Walt Disney. I would like to better understand this apparent failure to do due diligence. This educational series has been played at schools for many years and can still be purchased on Amazon, shopDisney, and can be seen on YouTube as well. It appears, by all intents and purposes that Tom Fitzgerald is accurate that this could quite possibly be the origin of the falsehood that Walt said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Way to go Science of Imagineering DVD! Now I know why my then 3rd grader came home with this false information.
First, when I talked to Dave Smith about this quote, it must’ve been in the late 1990’s. He never mentioned Tom Fitzgerald to me at that time. But years passed and the internet usage grew more wide and false quotes were beginning to surface more than before and at an alarming rate. In 2012 or so is when I began to first hear that Tom Fitzgerald originated the quote. As soon as I read about Dave’s source being Tom Fitzgerald and Dave, being a Disney Legend with unparalleled knowledge of all things Disney, how could I question that it could be anyone but Tom Fitzgerald? Dave had already long proven the quote to not be that of Walt’s. Dave was the founder of the Walt Disney Archives, remember? Chief Archivist Emeritus? The only person to enter Walt Disney’s office 4 years after he passed away to carefully chronicle Walt’s entire office space, piece of paper, record, everything. It was the information he received from Tom Fitzgerald, claiming the quote as his own, that finally had some weight to it, Tom is a credible source. It made sense. Tom Fitzgerald is the source of the quote. Right?
MY QUEST TO SHARE THE TRUTH
By 2014, I had left Disney due to a progressive illness after 22 years of service with the company and was missing my home away from home. Starting at the age of 17 in 1992, Disneyland is where I met my husband. It was a magical place of friends and family that I was missing so terribly.
By 2019, I discovered Instagram, very much late to the social media game, it was not until last year that I finally joined Facebook, though that may have been a bad decision, but I digress.
But on Instagram I had found a wonderful world of people who liked Disney. At first, I was intrigued by how much these people liked Disney, like…WOW! These people really LOVE Disney. I mean REALLY LOVE Disney! Then I thought…hmm, maybe this is not for me. I had only viewed Disney from the perspective of a Cast Member and I didn’t relate to their perspective on Disney. But then I began noticing folks posting information that was blatantly inaccurate, unresearched, not verifiable. That is what rejuvenated me, though no longer a Disney Cast Member, I could at least attempt to share accurate information and set the record straight. I began to post historical content, information told to me firsthand by the Imagineers and historians that I worked with.
While scrolling through some posts on Instagram, I pause. I see it. THE QUOTE. “If You can dream it, you can do it” credited to Walt Disney!
Seeing this posted as a picture on someone’s feed, then another and then another. NO! Don’t they know?!? If they are truly Disney loving diehards, why are they sharing incorrect information?
I took it upon myself to share the story, share Dave Smith’s legacy and the perceived fact that Tom Fitzgerald came up with the quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I shared this quarterly on my Instagram page. Reminding people that Walt Disney never said this quote. It was my mission that I took on full force. I am a stay-at-home disabled mom; it was my ONE thing! THE ONE mission I gave myself.
THE PANDEMIC AND THE SPARK
It is now almost a year into the worldwide pandemic. While staying safe at home, I began to organize my Disney treasures I have collected over the years. I have a signed concept drawing lithograph of Jessica Rabbit by Imagineer and Disney artist Marcelo Vignali. I was curious of its value and if anyone else had one. It was a Cast Member exclusive when Mickey’s Toontown first opened in 1993. So, I hopped onto a site called Worthpoint, to see if my art piece had value. Though nothing resembling my piece could be found, I did notice a Walt Disney World Epcot GE Horizons 1983 puzzle with the GE Logo and the words If We Can Dream It We Can Do It tag line on the side of the box.
My AHA moment! A spark went off. GE. Horizons is sponsored by General Electric. IF WE CAN DREAM IT WE CAN DO IT. No lower case lettering. Wait. Read the script! READ THE SCRIPT!
I then began to devour the Horizons script, word for word. There are only two places in the script where Fitzgerald writes these words for “Father” to say, in the beginning of the attraction and at the end. By all accounts, “If We can dream it, we can do it,” is not the same as, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Different pronouns were used. “We” inspires the collaborative aspect in a society, much like the hope of future in the Horizons attraction. While “You” is to inspire one person. Do YOU have what it takes? What can YOU dream up? If YOU can dream it, YOU can do it.
Though Tom took credit for the famous quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” for Horizons, he was clearly referring to the line he adapted it to be, “If we can dream it, we can do it” as nowhere in the attraction is there signage or words heard spoken, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
This made me think, since Tom adapted General Electric’s, “We bring good things to life.” To “We really can bring ourdreams to life” for Horizons, is it just as possible that Tom saw “If you can dream it, you can do it” within the chronicles and journals of GE for inspiration? I went on a hunt to find the source.
THE PODCAST – RetroWDW
First stop, a podcast. I never listen to podcasts. Not because I do not like them, I just do not feel I have the time. But this one caused me to stop. The Podcast is called RetroWDW and is a podcast of the Lake Buena Vista Historical Society. “Ok,” I thought, “it’s a historical society, I can listen to this.”
While listening to the broadcast, four hosts, Todd McCartney, How Bowers, JT Kuzior and Brian Miles interview a woman by the name of Sheralyn Silverstein. A woman claiming to have written, “If you can dream it, you can do it” for General Electric in early 1981.
After hearing Sheralyn’s interview on RetroWDW, it all made sense. She was the missing link. She was the AHA moment I was waiting for. But I needed to talk to her myself. I needed to know the who, what, where, when and why’s. I needed definitive answers.
Player #1: Dave Smith had already long proven that Walt Disney NEVER said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Player #2: Tom Fitzgerald clearly wrote. “If we can dream it, we can do it” for the Horizons attraction at Epcot, SPONSORED by General Electric.
What then was Sheralyn Silverstein’s part? How does she fit into this tale?
PLAYER #3 SHERALYN SILVERSTEIN – THE COPYWRITER
Enter Player 3 into the scene.
I reached out to Sheralyn Silverstein via email at the end of January this year seeking an interview. My email was simple, but straight to the point, was she THE Sheralyn Silverstein that had claimed to have written that all too famous quote.
She responded, “Yes, you are contacting the right person. I’m Sheralyn Silverstein, and I did indeed write, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
I was so very joyful when Sheralyn agreed to be interviewed via that device we all have become familiar with this past year, Zoom.
The following are excerpts from this interview:
After I received permission to record our audio conversation, we got right into her story.
I asked Sheralyn how she felt about her quote being passed around as Walt Disney’s quote.
S: Over time I was getting increasingly annoyed that Walt Disney was getting credit for this. What you write is coin of the realm. Your work is all you have to show for who you are and what you’ve done. How does he (Walt Disney) get credit? He had everything, but he didn’t have that. That was mine.
C: When did you write this quote?
S: Going back to the beginning of things, I got a job as a young writer with a company called Marsteller New York (subsidiary of Young and Rubicam, Y&R). At that time, I was the only female on the creative staff. It was rough and tough. It was competitive and a very hard environment, but it was also a great place to learn.
At that point in time, I was the youngest and lowest on the pay scale. I would often get the jobs that nobody else wanted to do. I would do the little ads for little publications. At one point I had to write an ad for a bank for Playbill Magazine and nobody wants that assignment, but I believed if I make something out of even the smallest thing, it is going to build my reputation and portfolio.
Sheralyn continued to tell me that the ad she wrote for Playbill Magazine won her an award in the ad business, and soon, people began to take notice of her. She began to earn more assignments and then the president of Marsteller New York, Lou Magnani, took notice of her too and saw to it that she would get the better assignments.
S: In 1981 General Electric (GE) was a big company and the ad agency they worked with was BBD&O in New York (Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn originally founded in New York City in 1891). BBD&O is one of the best ad agencies and their tagline for GE was “We bring good things to life.” But General Electric was looking for another ad agency that would do some of the smaller types of ad work.
At any rate, GE asked us to pitch them with an idea about their recruitment division and ideas for other things. Of course, the bigger guns of the agency, the ‘big boys’ wanted to work on television for GE.
While the ‘big boys’ were working on their television pitches, Sheralyn was assigned to work with a man by the name of Bob Green. Green was her senior, with many awards under his belt, who was annoyed by the assignment because he was paired to work on the recruitment pitch ideas with her, a Junior Copywriter.
S: Bob and I worked on the recruitment and what I decided to do was I said, ‘Why don’t we use quotes for teachers and professors, and I’ll make them up.’
One of Sheralyn’s ideas was a picture of a kid with a teacher. The quote Sheralyn wrote for the teacher to say to her student was, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Sheralyn recalled Magnani telling her that he did not know if he liked it and thought her tag line was too ‘pie in the sky.’ She further reminisced that Bob, who did not want to work with her in the first place, seemed to express that it was the only good pitch she had come up with for the entire campaign. Sheralyn stuck to her guns and told Magnani that she liked her idea and that she believed in it.
Sheralyn was too junior to be able to attend the meeting with GE. The Senior Copywriters at Marsteller New York would be making the pitch to GE with the new Charmain and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, in attendance. The Marsteller team had all the work lined up on a wall, TV ads, along with other smaller ad ideas including Sheralyn’s “If you can dream it, you can do it” were all in a line on the wall awaiting the pitch.
After the meeting, Lou Magnani, came straight over to Sheralyn’s tiny little office space and told her that they could not have asked for a better meeting. He informed Sheralyn that Jack Welch came straight over to the wall and pointed to Sheralyn’s, “If you can dream it, you can do it” quote and he said, “That’s the reason I’m going to sign your agency!”
S: It was like winning the lottery. This is something you dream about as a kid. I also got a bonus and a raise. It doesn’t happen like that very often.
Sheralyn went on to explain that GE was not going to be giving up their tag line, “We bring good things to life” because it was a brand line. What was happening was GE wanted to buy her line and keep it for recruitment advertising.
It was during this time that Sheralyn begins to show me the brochures and pamphlets she had kept from the original recruitment pieces she did for GE. Starting with this large brochure printed by General Electric in 1982, which includes GE’s brand messaging on the left, with the quote Sheralyn wrote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” on the right.
Photo Credit: Sheralyn Silverstein
The Proof Continues
HEIGH HO HEIGH HO OFF TO GE SHE GOES
S: They sent me off to Schenectady to their Research and Development facility. I got to meet some great scientists and a Nobel prize winner. GE was interested in attracting the top talent; the life blood of the company is its research.
After meeting the great minds of General Electric’s R&D division, Sheralyn was set to write the words, while Marilyn Lowther, a talented art designer would design the brochure’s artwork. Several months after the brochures for the recruitment had been published, the president of the company, Magnani, called Sherlayn into his office to share some exciting news.
S: He said they are going to use it (If you can dream it, you can do it). For their tag line (for Horizons) at Epcot. And that’s what they did.
That is most certainly what Disney did. Somewhere, somehow, someone saw a tag line that was seen in GE documentation, a line Jack Welch bought from the Marsteller New York ad agency that Sheralyn Silverstein wrote in 1981. The line was taken, and it was reworked. Sheralyn’s tag line for GE, “If you can dream it, you can do it” was beautifully rebirthed by Tom Fitzgerald to fit the communal futuristic landscape of the General Electric sponsored Horizons attraction with his reimagined line, “If we can dream it, we can do it” that was completed at Epcot in 1983.
WALT DISNEY DID NOT SAY IT
C: When did you first notice or become aware of your quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” was attributed to Walt Disney? Did you just go online one day, or did someone bring it to your attention?
S: I think partly because with Google coming along, there was so many things you could find out that you might have been curious about years ago, and when I started to put together my portfolio, I always keep my portfolio updated, I started to think about this, and the one reason why I kept it (Sheralyn is holding up an original pristine condition 1982 GE folder with the GE logo and her tag line, “If you can dream it you can do it” written inside) was because of that line, because it was going to get me jobs, and it did. It helped me. I wanted to protect what’s mine and I kept it along with other pieces of the campaign. So, I thought one day why I hadn’t ever put this quote on my resume.
And so Sheralyn began to look online to see if her quote was out in this new internet world. It was a great quote, one that won her a promotion and several high-profile accounts. I am sure Sheralyn was excited as she began to search for her quote, and then…she sees it. She sees her quote. But wait, it is not attributed to her as the author.
Sheralyn recounts her first memory seeing her quote attributed to Walt Disney:
S: I had found out (online) Walt Disney had said it. Wait. Wait. WAIT! No. He did not. HE DID NOT! That is not true. GE had it. If GE were going to use it, Disney would have said wait a minute. GE loved it. EVERYONE loved it. Then I kept looking into it and looking into it then I said no! No! NO! Then I dug this out (Sheralyn holds up her folder for me to see). Fortunately, I’m not a hoarder but I am a pack rat. I have portfolios from my entire career, things have changed, they’re all digital now, but I have the big black portfolios. I dug it out and I said, ‘There it is.’
It’s funny because you remember, always when you’re an author of things, where you were when you did it. I remember being in my house and freaking out. I was so worried I wasn’t going to be able to do it. It was very intimidating to work with Bob. He would tell me now, “What are you kidding?” But he was very good and he came from a very disciplined background and he wanted a good variety, I always had a lot of anxiety about that and self-doubt. But I remember this.
C: Do you think you would ever contact the Walt Disney Company about this?
S: No, but if they want to talk to me about it, I’m open. I’d be glad to talk to Walt Disney the man if he were still alive. I’d say, we both know. And as for the Imagineer (Tom Fitzgerald), I respectfully say he is incorrect.
It’s like I said, when you write something, and you’re a writer, if you see someone else taking credit for it. You think, that is something you would never do. It’s the only thing you have to get other jobs, to get recognition, you have to be vigilant about your work and protect it. And when people say you shouldn’t blow your own horn, yes you should, yes you should. (laughter) I’ve been in plenty of rooms with people blowing their own horns.
“If we can dream it, we can do it” – Tom Fitzgerald
Most diehard Disney history aficionados know that Walt Disney the man never said, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” that has long been a proven myth by Dave Smith and the whole of the Walt Disney Archives. The origin has become clear, to me, that Sheralyn Silverstein is the first to write these specific words for a campaign piece for General Electric in 1981. But why would Tom claim the quote as his own after the Science in Imagineering DVD series started to misquote this line?
Tom never wrote “If you can dream it, you can do it” for Horizons. He wrote “If we can dream it, we can do it.” An obvious reimaginated line, brilliantly written to not only bring together GE’s brand, the ride’s corporate sponsor, but also the futuristic possibilities the message of the attraction was telling. We, the people of the world can do it if we, together can just dream it.
I reached out to Tom Fitzgerald requesting an interview and was informed by the WDI Communication team that, “Unfortunately, we are unable to offer an interview or email Q&A with Tom at this time. We appreciate the opportunity though!”
Thank you anyway WDI Communication team. I am hopeful I will be able to interview Tom Fitzgerald in the future, I am a huge fan of his and I will make myself available for whenever Tom is ready, I’ll be ready too!
My best conjecture as to why Tom claimed the If YOU can dream it… is that for the last 42 years of working in Walt Disney Imagineering, he has worked on a multitude of projects. From supervising the story development and production for Soarin’ Over California to story supervising one of my favorite of all time attractions, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland. Fitzgerald is a script writer and story developer for countless WDI projects. He wrote and produced Star Tours, worked on the blending of the cinematic Pirates of the Caribbean world to the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, including the famous pirate Jack Sparrow. He took over the creative direction of Epcot in 2014 and has been dreaming up and creating the magic for the Walt Disney Company since he was first hired in 1979. Is it just possible, that maybe, when hearing the misquote from the Science of Imagineering DVDs, the, “If you can dream it, you can do it” that Tom came across while working with GE triggered a memory, that made him think, hey, I wrote that! When, in reality, memories tend to get a bit muddled. Could that be? Because Tom did not write THAT quote. What he wrote, once again for the attraction’s script and signage, was, ‘If WE can dream it, WE can do it.”
ASKING JIM KORKIS – THE AUTHOR, HISTORIAN, ALL AROUND GREAT GUY
Whenever I begin my research of any story I write for my Instagram posts or my blog, I tend to lean towards two historians and their books to help me verify and corroborate any information, Jim Korkis and the late great Chief Archivist Emeritus, Dave Smith.
While researching my story, I thought to turn to Korkis to ask for his thoughts on the subject as he has written on the subject previously in various publications. And, like me, he has also confirmed the famous quote as Fitzgerald’s in the past. I think of Korkis as the Disney Detective. He provides corroborative evidence and never takes one account as the true story without dissecting countless other stories first to confirm the truth. He is everything a historian should strive and aspire to be like.
Korkis has written 30 books about Disney and several other books about animation and has an additional two new books coming out the first week of May, Kungaloosh! The Mythic Jungles of Walt Disney World, which I hear has half the book devoted to Jungle Cruise, Trader Sam’s, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, with two interviews with legendary Imagineer alumnus Joe Rohde! His 2nd book coming out is called Hidden Treasures of Walt Disney World Resort Hotels, which sounds like a great book sharing the histories and stories behind the resorts, and so much more.
Having learned about Sheralyn, I thought Jim would be the person to turn to. To date, I have not yet seen Jim write about Sheralyn Silverstein and I wanted to know what he thought on the subject. What he thought of Tom’s claims from over a decade ago, but mostly, I wanted to know where he now stands on who authored the tag line, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
C: Do you agree that Tom must have forgotten how he reimagined the wording in the script he wrote for Horizons?
Korkis: I don’t think Fitzgerald consciously borrowed that phrase to claim as his own. As a writer, you read tons of stuff and sometimes something gets buried in the subconscious that seeps out when you need something and it just seems right somehow. I have never heard of Fitzgerald ever taking credit for something from someone else.
Korkis also stated: “However, that wouldn’t be the first time an Imagineer “borrowed” a phrase from elsewhere… the Imagineers dubbing the Epcot model at Carousel of Progress “Progress City” because sponsor GE was using the phrase at the time “Progress is our most important product.”
C: Do you know about when the quote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” first started to appear as Walt’s?
Korkis: As soon as Horizons opened (1983), people who saw it on the wall of the queue immediately assumed it was a Walt quote since Disney had often done that in the past including Epcot’s Living with the Land attraction.
C: In your opinion, what is your stance on who first wrote “If you can dream it, you can do it”?
Korkis: In my opinion, it seems like Silverstein should get credit for the line that we all know today.
Who is Sheralyn Silverstein?
So now we all know Sheralyn Silverstein wrote, “If you can dream it, you can do it” for GE in 1981. What happened to her after she wrote the quote Jack Welch bought? The following are more excerpts from my interview.
S: I was given opportunities to work on other things at Marsteller New York. I worked on ads for cars, women did not work on cars back then, they just didn’t. I never wanted to be pigeonholed into so called feminine products because you are female. You should be able to work on everything. So, I worked very hard to try to change that.
After a few years Sheralyn would go one to write tag lines for everything from Dannon yogurt to Grape Nuts.
S: I tell people if you walk down an aisle in the supermarket, every single aisle there’s something I worked on, every single aisle.
Now a Creative Director/Copy Writer, Sheralyn Silverstein has gone on to create some amazing campaigns. For Olive Garden in 1997 she wrote, “When you’re here, you’re family,” which ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’ ended up buying in 2016 and for Bank of America she wrote, “What would you like the power to do?”
Another campaign she worked on while working at BrandUnion, NY (now SuperUnion) was for the Lead the Way Fund. She was apart of a team, including Executive Creative Director Jamie Ambler, assigned to work on the project. Sheralyn sounded so very passionate about this campaign and these group of men and their families. She told me this was another campaign that she was most proud of to work on.
She explained that it was started by James P. Regan, who’s only son, Sgt. James (Jimmy) Regan was killed by an IED which targeted his vehicle in northern Iraq in 2007. His father turned to Sheralyn and Jamie to create a campaign that would help motivate people to donate.
S: I came up with a line, “PEACE CAN BE HELL TOO.” It was rewarding for me to do this for them. ‘PEACE CAN BE HELL TOO’ is one of the best things I ever did. That’s for sure.
Talking with Sheralyn Silverstein was an absolute privilege. Yes, I wrote her first AND last name…AGAIN! Maybe, just maybe, I’m trying to get you to remember it. So, the next time you hear or see that someone is quoting Walt Disney incorrectly as the person who said, “If you can dream it, you can do it” or even Imagineer Tom Fitzgerald, you can politely educate them with the history of the quote and the name of the Junior Copywriter who did not think her quote was too ‘pie in the sky’ for General Electric back in 1981.
Featured at this year’s Epcot International Festival of the Arts at Walt Disney World, is artist Sam Carter. This may be Sam’s first experience at the Festival of the Arts but he’s no stranger to the guests. Sam is well known among Disney aficionados so it is no surprise that his artwork has been selling out. Perhaps it’s because Sam is able to capture the feeling and nostalgia of the attractions in the Pop Art style he creates, which quickly draws in his audience’s attention. Whether it be his “Crooning in the Tiki Room” piece depicting the birds brightly signing words from Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room attraction, or his “Progress” painting depicting the many eras in time the Father character John travels in the Carousel of Progress attraction, the art is captivating, purposeful, and just simply fun to look at.
I was able to meet with Sam over a brief Zoom session. We talked about his love of Disney art, his long career at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California and how he became a WonderGround Gallery Artist creating memorable pieces of art.
Sam Meets The Master Illustrator
Sam: “Ever since I was a kid I was into Disney Gallery art. I don’t know how many 10 year old kids knew artists names like I did, but there was an artist named Charles Boyer, who did a ton of artwork for Disney and my mom knew I was into art and that I liked him. She found out that he was going to appear at the Disneyland Gallery and brought me to meet him. He autographed a lithograph for me, to this day it still hangs in my room, and I absolutely adore it. I think that’s what planted the seed, yep, that’s what I want to do.”
(Photo Credit: Sam Carter) 10 year old Sam Carter with Disney Legend Charles Boyer
Disney Legend Charles Boyer was Disneyland’s first full-time artist, and because of his 45 years with the resort, was known as Disneyland’s master illustrator.
After Sam talked to Charles Boyer, just that one day was all it took for him to be inspired to study Boyer’s style. Sam began to notice Boyer’s composition, how he placed things in certain areas in his paintings and how he would paint his characters because, as Sam explained, “There’s a difference in how you draw a character, are you drawing the character how it appears in a cartoon or do you draw Mickey how he looks in his costume in a parade? You have to really decide what this is for and you have to be strategic, wondering who the audience is.”
Sam Becomes a Disneyland Cast Member
Many of Sam’s art pieces reflect the best of Disney’s in-Park Entertainment, it’s self-reflective as Sam spent a great many years working in the parades at the Disneyland Resort.
In 1995, Sam would begin to work at Disneyland in the Parades and Show Support Department. He was hired as a float driver for the epic summer of when the best day and night parade of all time (in my humble opinion) ran together, The Lion King Celebration Parade by day and the Main Street Electrical Parade at night. In 1997, Sam would be inspired by another daytime parade he worked, the Hercules Victory Parade.
The entire time he was in the parade department, he was trying to get into the Art Department. By 2005, ten years later, Sam shared with me that he was trying to get noticed and it just wasn’t happening. Ten years had gone by and then he decided that he would paint a mural in the Parade building, located backstage.
Sam: “I painted the mural just for the fun of it (with permission of course). I loved the history and I thought the parade performers needed to know what part of this legacy they’re all in. Hey, you’re in a Disneyland parade! This goes back to Walt’s days and now you’re a part of that and I thought that was cool to teach that lesson to everyone that walked down those hallways.”
Having worked with Sam in the Parade Department and seeing the beginnings of his mural take shape was perhaps one of the coolest things I had ever seen during my years in that department. Sam had always been so gracious with his artistry. He would create the designs for the cast parade t-shirts, create keepsakes for the Tink Crew (masters of flight that helped Tinkerbell fly, if she didn’t have enough Pixie Dust that is) and for me, well, he created a team logo shirt when I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1999. It was just something he did. To this day, if Sam created it, even if it was 25 years or more ago, we still have what he made for us. We all saw the talent Sam had and we, as a tight-knit Cast Member family were always so proud of him.
The building where the mural is located is occupied by all Cast Members required to pull off a parade, the performers, the float drivers, makeup artists, wig specialists, choreographers, and the like. Every time someone walks down the hallway, they are reminded that they are a part of that legacy that started back when Walt Disney first opened his park in 1955. It was another gift from Sam to his Parade family.
No one can walk through the parade building without seeing Sam’s mural, which finally led to eyes being opened by those in Disney Creative Entertainment. It wouldn’t be too much longer until Sam was on their radar, and soon thereafter, Sam would be hired as an Art Specialist designing events of all sizes for the Disneyland Resort in Creative Entertainment.
The Santa Car and John Lasseter
As a Creative Event Designer, Sam created some epic unforgettable moments at the Disneyland Resort. One in particular that came to Sam’s mind was the Cars Land Christmas Billboard Overlay. Which Sam described as “Super fun.”
Sam: “I loved that. It’s funny, because when I was drawing it, I had to check in with Pixar and send them my artwork for approvals. Pixar was making sure it was how it should be, and it was a humongous file. It kept crashing my computer!
Sam went on to tell me that he was bouncing off ideas with Dave Caranci, of Resort Enhancement, (who has since been promoted to Manager Creative Development at Walt Disney Imagineering) about the designs he wanted to create for the billboard. Sam told Dave he wanted to add snowflakes to the billboard and that’s when Dave let Sam know that his team was making snowflakes out of wrenches to be placed throughout Cars Land, which gave Sam the idea for the snowflake wrenches that he would then add to his billboard design.
Next, Sam wanted to add a Santa car with reindeer to his billboard. He’d need to receive Pixar approval again, and that’s when he recounted an exciting moment.
Photo/Design Credit: Sam Carter
Sam: “I wanted a Santa car with reindeer. Pixar got back to me and actually sent me a scanned sketch from (John) Lasseter with his writing saying what he always pictured a Santa car would look like. I HAVE A SKETCH FROM JOHN LASSETER saying make it look like this! The reindeer are jet skis and Santa is a big red Chrysler with a sled. So, if you look closely at the artwork for Santa and the reindeer, that’s based off the artwork Lasseter had already envisioned and sent to me.”
The Buena Vista Street Christmas Tree
I remembered Sam had also created something very special with the Christmas tree located on Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure Park and I asked him to explain to me more about the involvement of the design process.
Sam: “Oh yes, the tree design at Disney California Adventure Park. At Creative Entertainment, our offices are next door to Resort Enhancement and I became good friends with Dave Carranci. We were talking about Christmas and he was bouncing ideas off of me, what should a tree look like in 1930’s Los Angeles? We were brainstorming and thinking about it. Then he asked me to help with ornaments. Back in the 1930’s, Walt Disney licensed and sold Christmas lights with characters on each light and on each light was a bell. We both did research and we found pictures of what they looked like in the 1930’s. There’s this Clarabelle and Horace, Mickey and Minnie carrying a Christmas tree, and Goofy playing a flute. I hand drew each drawing as it looked back then. They were then made (from Sam’s drawings) and so now the ornaments at Disney California Adventure are based on the ornaments from the 1930’s. No one is going to know that, but what I’m hoping is, some grandma or grandpa is going to walk over there and see that and get a flashback, and think ‘I had that when I was a kid.’ I just hope one grandma or grandpa gets to see that. That’s what I’m hoping for. I haven’t heard of that happening yet, but it’s possible, right?”
Photo Credit Sam Carter: 1930’s Mickey Mouse lights far left and Sam’s designed bells, artwork and design by Sam Carter
I don’t know if any grandparent has seen Sam’s ornaments and if, by doing so, it brought them back to a moment of joy from their childhood, but that continues to show how Sam creates his art. Everything he puts into his artwork is intentional to provoke a feeling, a memory.
“Fight on for ol’ SC…”
Sam would remain with Creative Art Entertainment at the Disneyland Resort for seven years until 2012, when he was handpicked and offered a job as Creative Director of Design at the University of Southern California. It was an epic jump up for Sam. Although it was a great career move, it lacked the Pixie dust Sam was used to. But, the benefit of no longer being a Cast Member for the Walt Disney Company, meant that Sam could begin to consult for other theme parks and attractions, like at Universal Studios Hollywood’s Springfield land, where he created the Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck design and designed a light parade for Six Flags Magic Mountain, all the while maintain his position at USC.
Photo/Design Credit Sam Carter Creative
During this time, Sam also created an elevated North Pole fantasy voyage on the Queen Mary docked in Long Beach, California. For this special event, Sam would single handedly create the concept down to instructing the employees working the event on how important it was that they, too, were in on the magical story that the ship was travelling to the North Pole.
Photo/Design Credit Sam Carter Creative
Becoming a WonderGround Gallery Artist
Not working as a Cast Member had another benefit for Sam, he could now become a gallery artist, like Charles Boyer before him. WonderGround Gallery had long wanted Sam’s art pieces in their showroom, but because Sam was a Cast Member, there was a conflict, and they could not show his pieces. But by 2012, Sam was no longer an employee of the MOUSE, and so by 2013, Sam had his first art signing during his birthday weekend at WonderGround Gallery at Downtown Disney in Anaheim.
Paintings by Sam Carter Art:
Sam: “It was a dream come true. I had a signing at WonderGround. I had 4 pieces in their gallery that 1st year. Beauty and the Beast, Wreck it Ralph, Mulan and the Lion King. After that show, I was trying to get in the show again, but it was taking a long time and I didn’t get back into the gallery until 2019. It took 6 years after my first signing to get another group of art going and that’s when I did my Fantasmic! piece, because I keep trying to push the Entertainment side. I also had the Country Bear Jamboree painting, which is one my most favorite things ever and those went crazy viral, people loved them and then WonderGround asked, ‘What more can you do? What else can you show us?’”
Paintings by Sam Carter Art
Four More Pieces…next stop Epcot
Sam pitched to WonderGround the ideas he had for his next art pieces and several of his ideas were chosen. Sam went on to tell me that these paintings became his quarantine projects and then he explained that while he calls his art paintings, they are digital art and he further explained his process,
Sam: “Ever since I started working at USC in L.A., I’d take the train there every day and I’d have my MacBook and digital drawing pad. I was doing all my artwork on the train so that’s how I left the acrylic paint in the dust and started doing digital pixels, I still call it paint because I draw it first and then draw it again on a computer.”
By the beginning of 2020, right before the pandemic happened, Sam had taken a leap of faith and left his Directorship at USC to concentrate on his consulting business, Sam Carter Art, as well as his art pieces for WonderGround.
The artwork that the gallery had chosen were two more Country Bear pieces to flank the piece he had created back in 2013 (Big Al to be displayed one side while Henry is on the other side). The Country Bear pieces ended up evolving into just Big Al for this year, but Sam is hoping he’ll create Henry for the other side in the future, as he has envisioned the three paintings being displayed together.
Following Big Al, Sam was also approved to paint his Carousel of Progress piece, The Muses, (from the parade that Sam loved), and the Enchanting Tiki Room.
Credit: Sam Carter Art
Sam: “It’s the first time where I think that these 4 pieces are the best things I have ever done. I can’t really say that about past artwork, I’m really picky with stuff I put out there. I took a lot of critique classes at Cal State Fullerton and the critiques are really beaten into you, so I’m able to not take it personally. I have a mindset of well, I make it perfect so no one can critique it. I put that amount of time into it. But, even if they do critique it, art is subjective, so they can have their own opinion, and that’s fine, but I make sure every detail I do, there’s a reason for it. Whether it’s my gallery art or whether it’s a design for a theme park. Nothing is done by accident, there’s a reason for everything and every piece is loaded with stuff.
“Where the Birds Sing Words and the Flowers Croon…”
I asked Sam about his creative process in painting these 4 newest iconic pieces that premiered at the Festival of the Arts at Epcot this year.
Sam: “Well, while I work on each piece, I listen to the music for the attraction. The Tiki Room is only 20 minutes long and it takes hours to make this painting, so I found on YouTube the Trader Sam’s background music so I listened to this cool music, and then I start to work on it. The music is going and the kids walk in and say, ‘Oh Tiki Room, cool.’ They don’t know what I’m doing, but they’ll see something on my computer screen and then they go to Disneyland and they’ll see it on the wall and they are like, ‘Hey, that’s what you did at home.’ They are starting to put it together. They know we’re going to Walt Disney World for Daddy’s art show. It’s pretty awesome.”
Credit/Design: Carter Creative – Be sure to stop by the WonderGround tent in the Morocco Pavilion at Epcot to see Sam Carter through January 26th
I asked Sam if he had any exciting projects on the horizon and he told me that he is helping out with the design of a video game. He’s there to make sure that it has an elevated quality and style to it and he will also be doing the logos and branding. He tells me that he never thought he’d be working on a video game, but this is a perfect time for him to be working on it, because he can create from home. Though it won’t be out for another two years from now, Sam says he’s having a blast.
Sam also gave me an inside scoop and told me he designed the 50th anniversary popcorn buckets for Walt Disney World.
Sam: “I feel like Disneyland’s 50th anniversary was 10 minutes ago. So to be working on the 50th at Walt Disney World is so cool. I’m such a nerd for this kind of stuff. I’ve had it finished since over the Christmas break, but nobody will get to see it until October 1st when the 50th anniversary celebration begins. It’s so hard to work on stuff for a year or so and I can’t share it, I’m a chatty guy, I want to show it, but I can’t. When you design for a popcorn bucket, it’s a Walt Disney popcorn bucket, not a Sam Carter Art piece, but I still know I did it and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”
It’s in the Blood
Sam Carter, a self-taught artist, credits his parents for the abilities he has today. His mother would take Sam to Disneyland often and nurtured his artistic talent. Sam is also a son of an aerospace engineer. His father was a brilliant man who would find joy in drawing caricatures for his friends at work. It wasn’t until after his father’s passing that Sam took a closer look at the art his father had created. Seeing his father’s art hit him differently than it had before. Sam discovered that his father wasn’t just a strategic left brain thinker. He discovered his dad did indeed have creative skills. Sam has since discovered within himself, that he’s more like his father than he thought, as Sam said, “I’ve found myself drifting to left brain design since my artwork is so thought out and meticulously detailed.” Methodical creativity must run strong in the blood of the Carter family.
Sam: “The thing that I need to pinch myself on is when I look back, to being that 10 year old kid and getting excited to see Charles Boyer, it’s what I get to do now. So, whenever I get down on the dumps, I remind myself that I actually get to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s not my full-time job, I do it for fun.”
Check out these fantastic short clips showing Sam creating some extra magic for 4 original pieces that can be purchased at Epcot during the Festival of the Arts.
If you’ve visited a Disney theme park, then you’ve most likely seen the detailed artistry of the talented scenic artist John Rayburn. But who is John Rayburn and how was he able to paint some of the most iconic and beloved attractions and parade floats? From Splash Mountain, to Abraham Lincoln’s hands, to the very popular Disneyland holiday overlays at both the Haunted Mansion and “it’s a small world,” it all came about with a bit of luck, a lot of talent, and the “Baroque Hoedown.”
I first met John when I started at Disneyland as a float driver in the Main Street Electrical Parade back in 1992. John’s long career with the Mouse started 12 years prior in 1980 when he was cast as a performer in the same nighttime classic parade. An amazing and talented performer with a seemingly unending amount of energy, John would continue to perform and entertain guests in various roles over the years until his final parade performance in the Christmas Fantasy Parade in 1998.
It was fun talking with John about his 18 years with Disneyland’s Parade Department and to reminisce about the time we were in the same unit for the “Cruisin’ the Kingdom Parade.” We had some good times during that parade, just don’t get him started on “Light Magic,” which John claims to still have vivid nightmares about. I’ll definitely have to save that story for another time. For today’s blog post, I want to share John Rayburn’s talent as an artist that began when he picked up a paint brush at the age of six.
It Was a Game Changer
John Rayburn is a self-taught artist and has been painting nearly his whole life. At the age of 12 years old, he was painting models so expertly that the Military Shop, a local model hobby shop, asked him to paint their display models. He was too young to work for them, so instead, he was paid in merchandise. Being able to choose whatever he wanted from the store, as payment, was a deal John gladly accepted.
It was at this hobby shop in Lakewood, California where he met an employee named Jim Murphy. John likes to make the objects he paints look real and credits Jim with his first breakthrough into doing just that. John told me that the painting techniques Jim taught him, like which colors to look at for shading, were a game changer that would inevitably end up giving him a career.
Art and the Disneyland Connection
In the late 1970’s, John’s older sister worked in the Parade Department. He said some of her friends from the parades would come over to the house and one of those friends was a guy named Richard Ferrin. John told me that Richard would always make a point to look at John’s models when he came over. At that time, Richard was not only a ride design Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company, he also moonlit as a performer in the Main Street Electrical Parade.
John reconnected with Richard Ferrin in 1980, when John was finally old enough to work as a parade performer at Disneyland. Richard let John know that he was leaving Imagineering to start his own company with his friend Rick Bastrup called R&R Creative Amusement Designs, Inc. (R&R). As a ride engineer, Richard explained to John that he would need people to build architectural study models and asked John if he’d be interested in creating and painting the models. John jumped at the chance and started to work for R&R in Anaheim, California.
After approval of one of John’s completed architectural model builds and paint samples for a job, John shared with me a conversation he had with Richard. It was a brief conversation that would further propel John on his career path:
Richard: “What if you did that a bit bigger?”
John: “What do you mean?”
Richard: “You’ve already done the paint finish that we wanted, it’s approved, and now it needs to be done on the job site. Why can’t you paint it bigger? Instead of using a small brush (like the ones used on models) get bigger ones. Instead of a small air brush, get a larger one.”
It was not an outrageous suggestion, but it would take Richard in that moment to illuminate John’s mind to the possibility of taking on a new endeavor and hone new full-scale artistry skills. From that moment, John’s life as a model builder and painter would forever change, he was now a full-scale scenic artist.
Living Close to the Castle Has Its Advantages
Richard started to send John on various job sites where he would meet folks from Disney who would end up pulling him in on various projects. Plus, folks from Disney knew Richard from Imagineering and would ask if he knew anyone local that can paint finishes fast and Richard would always recommend John as he could fix and match paint faster than anyone, plus he was a local and could get to the park faster than someone from Los Angeles. That’s how, as John says he, “got the in” at Disneyland.
At first Disney would use John to produce quick paint finishes, as well as paint repairs and paint blending for attractions including, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, and the Jungle Cruise.
You May Get Wet at This “Laughing Place”
Paint repairing on existing attractions to perfection undoubtedly proved to Disney that John was up for his first big job at Disneyland. For this project, John was assigned to scenic paint a new attraction, one that would be billed by Disney as the “Tallest, fastest, thrillingest attraction this side of Star Tours,” and that of course is none other than Splash Mountain, based on Disney’s 1946 film, “Song of the South.”
John, along with an estimated 10 to 12 other scenic artists, age and grain artists and as John said, “a ton of general painters,” all contributed to the painting of the exterior and interior parts of the mountain. For any scenic elements that were added to the attraction after it opened, however, John became the sole scenic artist.
Splash Mountain would open the summer of 1989, after a few months of delays, but in the minds of many guests, it was certainly an attraction that was well worth the wait.
The Work Keeps Coming
John would continue to work on several more projects for Disneyland throughout the years, including painting the brand new Mickey’s Toontown, which opened to guests on January 24, 1993. John was also made the sole scenic artist the year after it opened, tasked with maintaining the land’s vivid hues as well as painting any and all upgrades.
1993Toontown Photos Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
AND…ACTION…CUT…CUT…MAN ON THE MOUNTAIN!
By 2001, John was a proven scenic artist. So much so that he was assigned as a scenic artist for the brand new, yet to open, Disney California Adventure Park. John would work on the initial paint for the Park all the way up until the February 8, 2001, opening date. He was also the only scenic artist approved to be in the Park the full day prior to opening, as he was tasked specifically by Chris Runco, Concept Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, to touch up paint at surrounding restaurants and the iconic Grizzly Mountain.
John shared with me about an incident that I had all but forgotten until he brought it up, which I thought was quite humorous.
By 2001, I was now working mostly in the TV Productions/Broadcast Services Department at the Disneyland Resort and was working on a commercial film shoot for the new Disney theme park. We were supposed to film Grizzly River Rapids, but we couldn’t get a clean shot because there was a man painting on the mountain. Turns out, that man was John.
John was given a mandate from Imagineering that he had full run of the entire park for 24 hours, allowing John to scan the park for needed touch ups. He had until 8AM on opening day February 8th , to complete the job. What John thought would be a relaxing day of just him and his paint brush, turned into something quite different.
John told me, “I was doing a lot of touch up work on Grizzly for Chris (Runco) and I caused a big problem. There were about 300 people, all over the mountain. They were going to film a commercial but failed to ask Imagineering if they could have permission to do it. Runco’s answer was no, they couldn’t have permission because little old me needed to do a bunch of paint in the waterways. The film crew was furious with me! They had to remove their cameras and proceeded to stare at me for an hour and a half until I was finished.”
We were both able to laugh at it now, and it was certainly a good thing the film crew waited, not that we had a choice, but because of John’s extra touch of paint on Grizzly Peak mountain and it’s River Run waterways, it made for even more gorgeous scenery, not only for the crew to film, but for the guests who would be introduced to the park for their very first time once Disney California Adventure Park opened the next day.
John Meets Garner Holt
John was introduced to Garner Holt by Richard and Rick of R&R. They would work together on various projects, like the MGM theme park in Las Vegas. Garner would build the animatronics and John would paint the set pieces.
During the 1990’s Garner had been trying to get his foot in the door with Disney to get some jobs going. But that proved difficult as Disney was using mostly internal staff and only a few outsourced vendors. Since John was working on projects with Disney, he was able to take some of Garner’s products to Lloyd Bressler, who was in charge of Imagineering Construction, and suggested that he should really take a look at Garner Holt because he was doing some amazing things with audio-animatronics.
Garner’s first breakthrough with Disney was the creation of the puppetronic character Phil for the “Hercules’ Victory Parade” in 1996.
Who’s This Garner Holt and Rayburn Fellow?
Garner Holt Productions was now beginning to work more frequently on jobs with the Walt Disney Company, from parade float builds for Disneyland to set pieces for Tokyo DisneySea. But it wasn’t until after John Rayburn and Garner got into the Great Moment’s with Mr. Lincoln Theater that Garner Holt Production’s reputation was solidified.
John said, “Redoing Lincoln Theater caused some nervous moments because it was something that Walt worked on. You had people on the internet wondering who was doing this stuff and who is this Garner Holt Company? Who’s this John Rayburn guy doing the paint? What are they doing and are they going to wreck this attraction?”
Brad Kay, Imagineering Art Director, would assign John with the solo job of painting one of Walt Disney’s most beloved attractions. John painted the entire theater. He even painted Lincoln’s chair and touched up Lincoln’s hands.
The rehab was a great success for both John and Garner Holt. So much so, that they were both hired on for one more project of that year.
One More Job For 2001
While working on Lincoln Theater, John shared that Brad Kay had told him that there was something coming up in the works for both he and Garner, but, he couldn’t tell John what it was. John persisted, and all Brad would say was that, “It’s going to be a very haunted overlay.”
John said, “So I thought cool, it might be an overlay for the Haunted Mansion. I didn’t think too much of it. Then it came down from Brian Sandahl, Senior Art Director at the Disneyland Resort, to hire Garner Holt Productions for the overlay and Brad said I should paint it. So we ended up doing the overlay.”
This last big project of the year for John would prove difficult, painful, but oh so memorable. I am of course talking about the Haunted Mansion Holiday which is themed after Tim Burton’s film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
‘TWAS THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS…
Contrary to popular belief, the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay at Disneyland was not dreamed up nor produced by Walt Disney Imagineering, rather, it was a collaboration between Disneyland’s Creative Director Steven Davison (who has since been promoted to Creative Director/ Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment) and Senior Designer Brian Sandahl, (who has since been promoted to Senior Designer/Show Development and Producer at Disney Entertainment Productions).
After the success of “it’s a small world” Holiday, which opened in 1997, Davison’s next idea for an attraction overlay would be for the Haunted Mansion. Davison, along with Senior Writer Carolyn Gardner, would rewrite the classic poem, “‘Twas the Night before Christmas” for the attraction overlay.”
Once guests enter into the foyer of the Haunted Mansion, the Ghost Host begins to recite the following “‘Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas poem:”
‘Twas a long time ago (now longer than it seems).In a place that perhaps, you have seen in your dreams.For the story that you are about to be toldBegan in the holiday worlds of old.I know you’re curious to see what’s inside.It’s what happens when two holidays collide!
(Guests now enter the stretching room and the poem continues)
Welcome, my friends, to our Christmas delight.Come witness a ghoulishly glorious sight.It’s time for our holiday tale to begin.There’s no turning back now-please, come all the way in. Our holiday tale is a tale that’s quite charming.But during this season, it’s sometimes alarming.So relax and reflect, feel free to take pause,While we tell you a tale about dear Sandy Claws.‘Twas the nightmare before Christmas,And all through the house,Not a creature was peaceful-not even a mouseThe stockings, all hung by the chimney with care,When opened that morning would cause such a scare.The children, nestled all snug in their bedsWould nightmares of monsters and skeleton heads!
Blacklight Paint, Blood, and More Blacklight Paint
John shared with me that the installation of the overlay was a huge build out. There were a lot of unknowns for them because nothing had ever been taken into the ride since it’s opening on August 9, 1969, especially as an overlay.
“The Install was horrendous. It was crazy. They had to get these big giant pieces back into places that had no access. The piece that really comes to mind that was really hard to bring in was the pumpkin mountain.” John said.
John explained to me that the famous pumpkin mountain, which is made up of “3 to 4” pieces that stack on top of each other, are built within a metal frame. The problem was they had to get the mountain, piece by piece, to where it sits for the overlay, which is located behind the statues in the graveyard scene. There was no way to get the mountain into that area without having to tie ropes to each one of the pieces. The crew would then have to get up to the catwalks that are located high above the tracks of the attraction to be able to lift the pieces up on pulleys.
John describes it as such, “The pieces had to all be swung over like Tarzan while crew were up on the high catwalks. Then they’d have to get the piece into position to bring it down in front of where the statutes are located because you can’t just slide it over. Below the statues is about a 15 foot drop down to the projectors below. It all had to be lowered in there, piece by piece.”
By the time the pumpkin mountain was Tarzan swung below the catwalk and put into place, it had been chipped up pretty bad, so John had to spend several weeks to repaint and repair it. The problem with the mountain, was, it’s situated in the pit where the projectors are. The tallest ladder they had that would fit in that area only got John halfway up the mountain, so he’d need to get a 15 foot pole to attach his paint brush to so that he would then be able to paint the areas located at the top half of the mountain.
John tells me, “What sticks with me, is, it’s a lot of long hours, and you’re in the dark a long time and you kind of lose perspective. Is it day? Is it night? Everyone’s tired, and all of a sudden I begin to see these blotches going up the mountain. I was thinking, what is going on? I’m wearing socks, because I don’t want to leave shoeprints on it (blacklight paint picks up everything). I’m in my socks and so dust my socks off and climb back up the mountain but I keep seeing these big giant black blotches of something. I’m tired, my feet hurt really badly for some reason, and it’s cold! WHAT IS THIS STUFF?! I’m trying to wipe it off, I don’t have any regular latex paint on here, what have I got on this thing?! I’m trying to clean it off, but it’s semi dried. I didn’t know what was going on, so I had to start to paint over it, but see that it’s coming through the paint…and…OH MY GOSH, it’s going from bad to worse!”
Then John Realized…
Those black splotches he saw all up and down the mountain was blood! John’s feet were bleeding! Located down below in that area are dead broken Manzanita branches used for scenery. Those branches were slicing up John’s feet as he was going up and down the mountain, leaving a trail of blood. Seems rather fitting, being the Haunted Mansion and all, but poor John. He tells me he had to get peroxide to clean up the mountain to get it pristine again so that he would be able to reapply the blacklight paint. He tells me, “IT WAS CRAZY!” Every time I go past Pumpkin Mountain now, I’ll forever think of John leaving his trail of blood.
John would paint all the lettering on the signs for the attraction, he’d paint the Jack Skellington and Zero animatronics that Garner Holt created, he’d paint the wreaths and design their snake like eyes in the stretching room, as well as paint the singing Venus Flytraps, and so much more. An installation that was supposed to last 3 years, has gone on to be an 18 year tradition (due to park closure the attraction did not run in 2020).
Photo Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
With a Disneyland Entertainment Art budget, Art Director Brian Sandahl did not have enough in his budget for an animatronic Sally for the 2001 opening, which he so desperately wanted. He would eventually get a Sally several years later…but not until Tokyo Disneyland got their’s first.
Chris Crump, Larry Nikolai and Tokyo Disneyland Open Their Haunted Mansion Holiday with Multiple Animatronic Versions of Sally in 2004
Shortly after the success of the Mansion’s holiday overlay, John was back at Garner Holt Productions working on something else when he gets paged to go to the phone and it’s to talk to Larry Nikolai, an Artist and now former Art Director/Producer at Imagineering. Larry asked John if he had any paint left over from when he painted the Haunted Mansion Holiday. John let him know he that he did. Larry then immediately told John that he’d meet him at Garner’s the next day.
John continued to tell me, “The next day both Larry and Chris Crump (former Principal Show Production Designer at Walt Disney Imagineering, and son of Disney Legend Rolly Crump) walked into the shop at Garner Holt Productions. Larry introduced me to Chris. He’s a great guy that likes to have fun, he’s always laughing and is a very sharp designer. So they walk in and asked if I could produce all new paint samples, exactly as I had done it before for the mansion’s holiday overlay. I asked why, what’s going on?”
The build for Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday went quite smoothly. John painted everything the exact same way he had done for Disneyland. The banners requiring lettering were all done the same way, same lettering, same colors, as he was able to use the original artwork as reference. He said all that was simple, the only difficult part was getting Sally’s lip color perfect.
“The only colors that I had to do differently were for Sally. Larry came down for the day, he wanted to make sure Sally was perfect. He said ‘I want a perfect red. Once you get it, I’ll go home.’ I got the specific skin tone color he wanted, he signed off on that. But the lip color was his big thing, reds are extremely hard to mix. If you go one way a little bit, it’s wrecked. You have to throw it out and start all over again. You can’t add any black that’ll make it go too dark, because then it turns grey. You have to bring the color down to the purples and magentas. It’s a very fine line you have to walk. If you put just a tiny drip, it changes everything and it could go too brown, and then you have to throw that out and try again.
I can mix color really fast. I can go into Splash Mountain and they would say the ride is opening in an hour and we’ll need you out of here; I can field mix it and it’s done. It’s fast. But reds are really hard to mix. Even spectrometers, if you go to a hardware store, and ask if they can mix a specific red… (John laughs) GOOD LUCK because spectrometers can’t do it either. But, I finally got it set and Larry approved it. I saved the colors and have the documents Larry signed approving the colors in case Magic Kingdom or another Disney park ever wanted to add the holiday overlay. (Did you hear that Walt Disney World?!)”
John now had the colors and painted all the Sallys. The only exception, was he did not paint her pupils. Larry wasn’t sure where she would be positioned exactly at the Haunted mansion in Japan, so instructed John to not paint her pupils. Chris Crump would end up painting her pupils once she was installed into her positions at the mansion.
All of the set pieces would be delivered to a facility called the “Airport” where Imagineering had a hangar for the staging and packing of items to be shipped overseas. John would met Chris Crump at the “Airport” for one last minute touch up and to provide him with a paint kit before their overseas departure.
It was at this time that Chris shared some fun tidbits with John about his father Rolly Crump, retired Imagineer and Disney Legend who worked on the design of the original Haunted Mansion.
One of these fun tidbits was a story Chris would go on to recount about the ballroom dancers in the Haunted Mansion. He told John that as a little kid, he was walking through the mansion with his dad and the other Imagineers when he noticed something in the ballroom scene.
Chris said to his dad, “Why are the women leading the men?”
Rolly looks at everyone and shouts, “SEE! Even my kid sees it!”
What had happened was the figures were set up with the men leading the women in the first room, but, when their image is reflected back into the ballroom, for the Pepper’s Ghost Optical Illusion, their image is reversed, so it appears as though the women are leading the men in the ballroom dance scene. Next time you go on the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, make sure you look at the dancers, the women are leading the men!
John went on to tell me that the Nightmare Before Christmas project for Tokyo Disneyland was all the fun from the first show, but without any of the problems they had originally encountered. No blood trails were left by John this go around! John said they could all relax and have fun while working on Tokyo Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday, that’s why John said it was one of his all-time favorite projects at Disney to date.
Brian Gets His Sally!
And as for Brian Sandahl and his dream of a Sally at Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion Holiday, well he would get one, eventually. Brian had always intended to have a Sally, but Disneyland Entertainment Art and Imagineering are two different beasts with two vastly different budgets to work with. Now that Garner had the molds, because he created them for Tokyo Disneyland, and John saved all the color information for her skin color and lips, the dream of a Sally at Disneyland was becoming a closer reality for Sandahl, but, it would take 15 more years from the time the holiday overlay first began for Brian’s dream to come to fruition. In 2016, Sally finally made it into the Holiday Mansion Overlay. After being painted to perfection by John Rayburn, she now resides in the graveyard scene, lovingly looking at Jack Skellington.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Garner Holt Productions was the first outside company Disney has ever used to create an animatronic character for one if its attractions. Since then they have created more than 400 figures for Disney and its theme parks around the world and now are the world’s largest manufacture of Animatronics and Animatronic figures, parade floats, and so much more. When Disney shut down its Walt Disney Imagineering’s MAPO division, back in 2012, they turned over all the manufacturing of the attractions to Garner Holt Productions. In a statement made by Disney Legend Bob Gurr, he said, “Garner inherits all of Imagineering’s historic animation and show production designs and tooling.”
And as for the Scenic Artist? John Rayburn has never been busier. His scenic artistry can be seen on Mount Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, throughout Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Shanghai Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, and of course Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park.
Photo Credit: John Rayburn Consulting
John works on many projects outside of Disney too. His top two favorite projects he’s ever painted were painting both the Timber Mountain Log Ride and the Calico Mine Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm, a theme park located just 7 miles from Disneyland.
John Rayburn has his own business and you can find him on Facebook at John Rayburn Consulting. He paints themed paint, Trompe L’oeil, Faux Finishes, Glazes, Artistic Refinishing, Portraits, Aging, Graining, and Marbling.
John has a diverse clientele, whatever you can dream up, John will be able to create it. From adorable nurseries to dental offices, to even backyard scenic artistry, like the famous Orange County backyard of architect David Sheegog. Imagine having a model of Splash Mountain in your backyard painted by THE GUY that painted the original Splash Mountain.
I’ll be writing more about John in future. This blog post is just the tip of the iceberg.
An in depth interview with Misty Rosas of “The Mandalorian.” Written by Catherine Ramirez
George Lucas once described the late Peter Mayhew as a mime actor. Mayhew, who portrayed Chewbacca in the Star Wars Films for almost 40 years, had only the use of his eyes and body language as a means of expression as the 7’2” tall Wookie. To be able to express and convey so many different emotions across a cinematic screen is no easy task, and yet Mayhew did it to utter perfection, all while performing within a suit. I have not seen another suit performer convey such emotion as Peter Mayhew did when he performed as Chewbacca, until I saw the Ugnaught Kuiil in, “The Mandalorian.”
Who is Misty Rosas?
To understand Kuiil, you’ll have to understand the character’s suit actor, Misty Rosas. Misty was born in Mission Viejo, California and raised in the mountains at Los Piños in the Cleveland National Forest. She had a unique upbringing, enjoying the forest as her backyard. She also became quite a skilled gymnast. Misty said that her mom took her to her first gymnastics class when she was 2 ½ years old, and quite often there would be tears when it was time for Misty to leave.
Misty tells me, “Class was never long enough. I was immediately hooked! I loved gymnastics! I loved it so much that it was my life from age 2 ½ until I was 16. By the time I was 12 years old I was a Child Elite gymnast on the U.S. National Gymnastics Team, and again as a Junior Elite at age 13.
The Olympics were in my sights, but some dreams don’t come true. For me personally, I loved doing gymnastics, but I did not like competing! The mental, physical and emotional pressure just became too much for me, and all of that pressure manifested into an eating disorder. At 16 years old I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life, I had to walk away from the sport I loved so much because I was losing my battle with Anorexia. A battle I would fight for many, many years.”
Memories of Misty’s childhood were bittersweet. There was joy but there was also heartbreak. Even with the heartbreak Misty was appreciative of the lessons she learned from her years of training and competing as a gymnast.
“Like all things in life,” Misty tells me, “you’ve gotta take the good with the bad, and learn from the lessons! The invaluable lessons!”
Misty went on to tell me that gymnastics not only taught her how to strength train, but the sport also trained her mentally and gave her emotional strength as well. All those years of gymnastics training gave Misty an understanding of how hard and how long she would have to work at something for it to become a reality.
She went on to explain, “You just gotta have faith in your journey and keep checking in with yourself. Do you love what you do? You have to love it more than anything because (for most of us) success doesn’t happen overnight. At the end of the day, something like Star Wars is the icing on the cake, and I appreciate it so much more because of all of the struggles I endured and the very long journey I’ve taken to be here now.”
A Twist of Fate…and Some Imagination, Huh?
Misty walked away from gymnastics, choosing to give up the dream of being in the Olympics at the age of 16, bravely disclosing to me that she was lost for a while. Misty ended up graduating high school early and enrolled at Saddleback College, a local community college located in Mission Viejo, California. There she enrolled in dance and voice classes. It’s in those classes where Misty would find her joy once more.
There were a couple of young ladies in Misty’s dance classes that were parade performers at Disneyland. Because of Misty’s demure height, they told her that she should audition at Disneyland because there were parts in her height range.
Misty tells me, “I didn’t know how to approach auditioning, so I called up Disneyland and I went in for an interview but it was perhaps a lack of communication because the interview was not to work in Entertainment in the Parades Department, it was to work at the hotel. I told the interviewer that I was really trying to figure out how to be a dancer in the parades at the theme park.”
By a twist of fate, Disneyland Entertainment had just sent over a stack of flyers and Misty was given one. She was told that there was a new show coming out called Fantasmic! (Yes the exclamation mark is part of the title of the show) and she could audition for that.
Fate was certainly on Misty’s side. She would end up being one of the original Fantasmic! cast members in 1992. In the now world renowned show with two other incarnations, one of which was performed at Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, and the other version was performed at Tokyo DisneySea in Japan, Misty was cast as one of the dancing monkeys on King Louie’s Barge, based on Disney’s animated feature film The Jungle Book. On the same night, she would also become very good friends with Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, and sometimes even Mickey Mouse, who liked to frequent the Mark Twain riverboat during the finale of the famous nighttime show.
“It was fun to be a part of because it was a brand new show. The rehearsals during that period of time were long and grueling, but to be 18 and in a show that everyone wanted to see was pretty special.” Misty said.
Full disclosure, I began to work at Disneyland in 1992, starting as a float driver in the Main Street Electrical Parade. That same year Misty began her debut on the River’s of America in Fantasmic! I also worked in Fantasmic! first as a barge driver from 1993 to 1994 (Ursula and Tick Tock) and then as a performer in Fantasmic! from 1999 to 2001. Though we both worked Fantasmic! in the early years, I didn’t know Misty until we both performed in the Lion King Celebration Parade at Disneyland.
We were both cast as the only two female pole climbers in the parade. From the moment I saw Misty climb and execute her stunts on the pole, 10 feet in the air, I was instantly humbled by her strength and elegance. Misty seemed to possess a strength that few others had. The ease and transitions of her skills going into every stunt looked as effortless as breathing in and out, but believe me, few skills on that pole were easy, but they certainly appeared so for Misty.
Timing is Everything
While Misty was performing at Disneyland, she also landed her first Motion Picture film role in Congo, directed by Frank Marshall. I asked Misty about her role and how she got it.
M: “It’s timing. Timing is everything! My gymnastics career was the reason I was right for that role. Looking back, you only remember the joyous moments, but I know how hard it was to execute this role well because it took the producers a very long time to find the right people that would be able to handle the demands, especially for the role of the main gorilla character, Amy. It was a nationwide search to find Amy!
Production had called my former coach at SCATS Gymnastics (in Huntington Beach, California) and told him that they were looking for people under 5 ft tall. Little people. STRONG, little people, and the role was quickly narrowed down to gymnasts to perform as a Gorilla Artist, which is a type of suit performance work. They asked if he knew anyone over 18 years of age that he could recommend. I was 20. He called me knowing I was performing at Disneyland and that I had some suit experience, and he thought I should try for this role.”
I asked Misty what it was like auditioning for the role of a gorilla and she shared with me that she had to go through a series of 3 separate auditions, each building upon the prior audition.
First, she had to show them her upper body strength and overall coordination. The most extreme stunt that she could show the better because they wanted to see if Misty could handle weight on her arms. She performed a few impressive gymnastics skills. She also was given arm extensions and they wanted to see if she could walk and run using the arm extensions, in quadruped, like a gorilla.
Misty says, “It was easy having been a gymnast. I have spent as much time on my hands as I have on my feet! Walking and running in quadruped felt quite natural to me. I made it through the 1st audition.”
The second audition would become more intense.
Misty describes, “They brought the arm extensions back and these auditions were more intense because it was one on one with Peter Elliott (veteran gorilla performer). He wanted to see if I could act. We were in a dance studio. Just Peter, a camera, me and arm extensions.”
Peter would direct Misty to very slowly walk around and mill about as if it was a typical ordinary day for the gorilla, and then he explained to her that, “Something is going to scare you and you have to react to it. You have to be scared! However you feel you would react, will you cower? Will you try to get away?” After that challenge Misty goes on to tell me about the next challenge, to be aggressive.
Once again Peter gave a direction. Misty recalls him saying, “You’re milling about in quadruped and a threat comes and this time charge at me and be aggressive, you’re welcome to vocalize.”
Misty tells me that she knows she did end up using her voice, because her friend Jane, who was just outside waiting to audition, was stunned to learn that the voice she had heard so loudly was Misty’s.
“That was you?” Misty remembers Jane asking.
Misty went on to share with me about the final audition.
M: “The final audition was at Stan Winston Studios. I got to meet Stan and fellow veteran gorilla suit performer, John Alexander, and Peter Elliott was there to guide us through this final call back audition. This audition would solidify who they were going to choose and for what roles. I didn’t know if I would get it but knew I had a good chance by that point. Stan wanted to meet everyone that was going to be a part of the film. He not only wanted to see movement, he wanted to see personality, a willingness to work well with a team, and the actor’s response to direction.”
Misty is Cast as the Gorilla Amy in “Congo”
M: “I gained a lot of suit performance experience having worked at Disneyland, but there is NOTHING that can prepare you for this type of suit performance work! I remember going in for the fittings, the various stages of fittings. The head cast, body cast, arm casts, hands and feet cast. Trying on the muscle suit, which is the first layer; then the hair tech. suit that goes over the muscle suit; then the animatronic head (The “blind” head. You do not have any line of sight in animatronic heads) and the head’s attached pack of batteries (Yes! Plural!); lastly, the arm extensions. It was overwhelming at first! …to say the least! I couldn’t see, and I felt like I couldn’t move! I had a lot of hard work and training ahead of me, but I was ready for the challenge and so thrilled to be cast in Congo!”
“I was originally cast as one of the grey gorillas, the aggressive, violent protectors of Zinj. During preproduction it was soon realized that the workload for the role of Amy the gorilla was going to be too intense for one person alone. Production would need two people for the role, so they brought me on board Team Amy with actress, Lorene Noh. Congo was my first job ever in the film industry. I will say that it was incredibly overwhelming. I didn’t know what I was doing, I had never been trained, never taken any classes to understand about film, but I was lucky, I learned this art and technique from the best of the best, but again, I have gymnastics to thank for that too.
This job required a tremendous amount of discipline. When we started training, a three month preproduction preparation, we worked out every single day. We did circuit training, weights and cardio, for 3 hours every morning. In the afternoon, 3 to 4 hours of movement training and acting class learning how to move, feel, breathe and BE a gorilla. Lorene and I also had sign language class. The training was intense, but the job was going to be incredibly intense, so it was necessary! I loved every moment of it! I trained twice a day as an elite gymnast, so I was used to this type of workload, and this once in a lifetime opportunity felt like a gift from gymnastics! I didn’t make it to the Olympics, but because of my years and years of training as a gymnast I was awarded this role in a major motion picture! I am forever grateful!”
C: “From working on Congo, is that when you knew you wanted to go into stunts or an acting career?”
M: “While shooting Congo, I did all of the stunt work for Amy. I worked with the stunt coordinator and the stunt men often, and that made for a smooth transition into the world of stunts. And so it goes, EVERYTHING we put our hearts’ into always leads to the next, which leads to the next, which leads to the next.”
The Gorillas ARE REAL!!!
A few years after Congo wrapped, the film Instinct, which was released in 1999 starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding, Jr., would be Misty’s 2nd film as a Gorilla Artist. Stan Winston Studios would once again be the studio to build the gorilla suits. It would be a much smaller troupe of gorilla artists that would be needed for this casting. Stan Winston handpicked the troupe he wanted to work with and Misty was one of the gorilla artists chosen.
M: “I was incredibly proud of my work in the film, Instinct! Congo was my very first film role, a once in a lifetime opportunity, but Instinct was an opportunity for me to improve! To take all that I learned while shooting Congo and use that knowledge and experience to really master the craft of, Gorilla Artist. To make my performance really beautiful and believable, that was my goal, and I believe that our Gorilla Artist team did just that! I’ve had some fun interaction with fans about Instinct. They insist that the gorillas are real. I told them, no, they were people in suits, in fact I was one of them, but they want to believe that they are real, and that’s fine with me. It’s a tremendous compliment that people think the gorillas in the film were real, it means we did our job well.”
WOAH! I WANT TO LEARN HOW TO DO THAT!
Misty credits working on the film Instinct as one of the most important moments of her life. It would be due to witnessing an intense and emotional scene involving Sir Anthony Hopkins. For one specific scene, no one would be allowed on set except the director, Jon Turteltaub, and the cast and crew that needed to be present to film the scene. Since Turtletaub was on set, Misty ended up sneaking over to the director’s chair at video village, where a monitor was present enabling Misty to see what was being filmed.
M: “I saw Tony (Anthony Hopkins) go from zero to 1000% in half a second displaying a tremendous amount of emotion, energy, anguish, anger, pain, humility, etc., etc. I had never witnessed something so heartbreakingly beautiful, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to learn how to do that!”
With quite a few films, television series shoots, and a couple of commercial shoots under Misty’s belt as a stunt and suit performer, and after seeing Hopkin’s brilliant performance in action, she was instantly inspired and soon thereafter wanted to continue to build upon her craft and soon began to take an Acting on Camera class at Cypress College. taught by Theater Arts Professor Mark Majarian. After studying under Majarian’s tutelage for a few years, he told Misty that if she really wanted this career, she would have to move to Los Angeles and hustle by truly hitting the pavement.
It’s Not Easy…But it is a Piece to the Puzzle
Misty was incredibly uneasy about moving to Los Angeles, but she was determined to make it in film and went for it, even though not everything went according to plan.
M: “I moved to Los Angeles, and then everything fell apart. What am I going to do? I had assumed that I solidified a role on Planet of the Apes but as fate would have it, they had written out all of the female roles and mine was one of them. So here I am in Los Angeles, my big job just fell through, and no other work in sight. Budget time! For a couple of months, I ate just one meal a day in the middle of the day, and I would drink a lot of water, and take a lot of vitamins. To say, “The hustle is real in L.A.,” is an understatement! This moment was a good learning lesson about assumptions! In this business, never assume that you are booked on a project until you are literally driving to set! My parents asked me why I didn’t ask them for help, and I told them that this was my choice and not theirs. I was either going to figure this out on my own or I’m not going to figure it out at all. If you really want to be in L.A., and you know your, ‘WHY’ you’ll find a way. AND, every once in a while, a residual check from Congo or another film I had worked on would come through the mail at the last minute to help me pay my rent and other things. I lovingly refer to those checks as, ‘Pennies from Heaven!’ A.K.A., grocery money!”
Misty Meets Brian Henson
While Misty had been in Los Angeles for several months trying to survive, she was called in by the Jim Henson Company to audition for Disney’s The Country Bears Movie.
M: “It was my first audition with the Jim Henson Company. I went in and I thought I completely blew the audition. But it never fails, because honestly, most of the auditions I think I’ve aced, I never get the callback, but the ones I think I didn’t do well at, I get the call back.”
The movie The Country Bears would be Misty’s first job with the Jim Henson Company. She was the suit performer for Beary Barrington. Misty grew up watching The Muppets and FraggleRock, and shehad always wanted to work with the Jim Henson Company and truly enjoyed the experience, especially filming the final concert scene! The dream of singing and performing live on stage was born here in this movie making experience, but it would be a few more years before her music journey would begin! After all, timing is everything!
Henson Digital Puppetry Studio (HDPS) is Born
After The Country Bears movie, Brian Henson called in the suit performers for a meeting. He let them know that the company was no longer going to be doing practical, suit performance work. Misty shared that she was disappointed because she had only just begun to work for the Henson Company and now, as it would seem at the time, her journey with the company was over before she had the opportunity to truly begin, or so she thought.
A month after Misty learned that the roles of suit performers were going to be cut, Brian Henson invited her to return to the studios to work alongside actor and fellow suit performer, Michelan Sisti. Misty and Micha were hired to work on a test pilot assisting Brian and the Henson Company in the further development of their brand new system called Henson Digital Puppetry Studio (HDPS), which is the Henson Company’s motion capture technology.
It was not only Misty’s first time working in motion capture, it was the Henson Company’s first time too. Misty was at the forefront in testing this new technology which allows performers to puppeteer and voice three-dimensional CG characters in real time. The Henson’s proprietary software allows for live performance control of computer graphic characters, which means that the animated characters are streamed in real time and are directed just as live action actors would be.
M: “My introduction into Motion Capture came about because of my experience as a suit performer, and my suit performance work as Beary Barrington in The Country Bears movie. After working on the motion capture test pilot with Brian and Micha, the next big job for us with Motion Capture was TJ Beary Tales, and then I did the test pilot for Sidthe Science Kid. That project got green lit and the show became a big hit.”
Not only was it a big hit, Misty would go on to star as the title character, Sid. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would end up receiving a special Emmy Award Laureate for Special Recognition in the Computer Smithsonian Awards, Media, Arts and Entertainment Category for their Henson Digital Puppetry Studio (HDPS) use in Sid the Science Kid.
Another Piece to the Puzzle
Other jobs came up for Misty, both in motion capture, stunts and suit performance work.
It would be on the set of the 2006 Horror/Sci-fi film Altered in which Misty played an Alien Foki Scout, where she would meet Brad William Henke (Orange is the New Black). Their meeting and friendship would propel Misty forward in her acting training. After the film wrapped, Henke encouraged Misty to attend his acting class. Misty shared with me that acting class always made her nervous, but after about a month of Brad’s persistence she finally relented and Henke would end up becoming Misty’s acting coach. The first assignment Henke would give Misty was to purchase a book called The Alchemist, by author, Paulo Coehlo. To Misty, that book was everything.
M: “The book forever changed me. To realize my ‘Personal Legend’ (Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist) It will take everything I’ve got, but it is worth it! Acting class in L.A. intimidated me. Many of the actors here in town are classically trained. I really struggled at first, and I had a tough time dealing with my nerves, but I kept going to class week after week, and devoted a good, solid two years to Brad’s acting class, all the while continuing to work on films, commercials, and television shows, and continue to audition, and take dance classes at the EDGE (EDGE Performing Arts Center located in Los Angeles). You always need to be training, and improving your craft.”
Bikram Yoga and Finding Self Worth
Misty was dedicated to her craft, taking both acting and dance classes continuously but, after a decade of stunt work and suit performance work, it had taken a toll on Misty’s body that not many are able to fathom.
M: “The Country Bears movie was incredibly challenging and physically demanding on my body! My body was pretty beat up by the end of the shoot. My puppeteer, Alice Dinnean, invited me to come with her to a yoga class just after the film wrapped. She felt it would help me. After the first class, same as with gymnastics, I was hooked. I began practicing yoga in the summer of 2001, and I’ve been practicing ever since.
Bikram Yoga is where I discovered a great deal of healing. I didn’t take to Bikram at first. I remember walking into the room and thinking, ‘oh wow, it’s hot in here!’ But I signed up for a month unlimited Bikram yoga series because the teacher suggested that ample benefits from the yoga come with steady practice! And there was a big ol’ first time student discount! So, I went every single day, and within a month my body had changed so rapidly and dramatically in all lovely ways possible, I thought to myself, ‘THIS IS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!’
After experiencing the tremendous, transformational, healing power of the Bikram series, I decided that I wanted to teach the yoga too! I wanted to give to others what I had been given; a happy, healthy mind, body, spirit connection. And a smoking hot body! Ha! My mama couldn’t understand why I would want to walk away from my career and spend 9 weeks in the Bikram Yoga Teacher Training, but I told her it was something I needed to do for me. I don’t feel that I am contributing to society, and teaching yoga will be my small contribution. I want to help other people heal too, and I know that the Bikram series works!
My height. I’d like to say that I stand proud and confident and unwavering, but often times I experience shyness and insecurity. I’m not very comfortable in social settings unless I have my posse with me, oh, and my stilettos on. For a short girl, those ‘stilettos’ inches matter! However, when I walk into the Bikram studio to practice or to teach, I’m not wearing stilettos. I simply stand on my flat, bare feet in the hot room. It is a space where I have not only found peace and compassion for myself, but I’ve also found my confidence in a social setting. Through the 90 minute class, you’re in that room with the heat that pushes not only your physical buttons, but your mental and emotional ones too, and as you learn to really look at yourself in the mirror for those intense 90 minutes you begin to become your best friend again! Most of us are really skilled at breaking ourselves down, and I remind my students during practice that there isn’t anyone that they judge more harshly than themselves. I encourage them to use the 90 minutes in front of the mirror to begin to learn how to be more gentle and compassionate, and in doing so, they are able to share that same gentleness and compassion with everyone in their life. The Ripple Effect! The Bikram Yoga journey isn’t just physical, it is a mental and emotional journey too. I became my best friend again, and I found my confidence too! To stand in front of a big group of people and talk to them for 90 minutes, that was a big win for this shy girl!”
Becoming a Certified Bikram Yoga instructor helped Misty to find confidence in herself once again. Misty continues to practice and teach the Bikram series at Christie William’s Bikram Yoga Encino studio.
Music Is In Her Blood
When I asked Misty about The Mandalorian and how her audition was, I did not expect to hear the story she was about to tell me. As I type this, I am fighting through water filled eyes (I know what is about to written and I need to pause for a moment). I knew Misty when we were in our early 20’s performing at Disneyland, I thought I knew Misty well, I idolized her really, she has always been such an incredible one of a kind talent and yet I never knew many of the things she so bravely shared with me during her 90 minute interview with me. Like, I knew she was a talented singer/songwriter. OH, YES! Misty can sing too!! She’s a quintuple+ threat! Actor/Singer/Dancer/Stunt Performer/Suit Performer/Motion Capture Performer/ETC/ETC.
So when I asked Misty about TheMandalorian, she back tracks a bit to tell me about her singing career, because the two would mesh and come together in an unanticipated way.
M: “It was a culmination of things that happened, leading up to the audition for The Mandalorian. At that time in my life, I would tend to go off on little tangents, letting my heart and spirit guide me. When I auditioned for Sid the Science Kid, I was asked if I could sing. My head was saying, ‘Well, sort of. I sort of sing.’ While my heart was shouting, ‘YES!!!! I DO SING!!! I LOVE TO SING!’
I have always loved singing. I didn’t really know why until more recently that music was a big deal on both sides of my family. One of my second cousins was Rick Rosas (a long time bassist who performed with Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Ron Wood and Jerry Lee Lewis and who Neil Young describes as, “One of the greatest musicians to ever play with me”).
Music and singing has always been a part of my life, but it was not the forefront of my career. So when I went in for my singing audition, knowing Sid the Science Kid was a children’s show, I chose to sing a song in a cappella that I had always sung to my nieces and nephews, “You Are My Sunshine.”
The creator of the show, Halle Stanford, never forgot Misty’s voice and referred her to a music producer who told her that in order to make it in the music industry, she’d have to write her own songs too, luckily, Misty did indeed write her own music. In 2009 Misty pitched the one song she had written to her music producers, Paul Bushnell and Paul Graham. They took her on as a client, and they’ve been creating songs together ever since.
M: “I’ve taken the biggest risk in my life choosing to create my music and music videos, as well as, perform live on stage. Every penny I’ve ever worked for, including my entire savings, I put into this journey of being an artist. A music artist. There are no guarantees, it’s the hardest business I’ve ever been in, and by 2018 I had absolutely nothing to show for myself except for my songs and music videos. January, 2018, I had to hustle extremely hard again to simply make ends meet! I taught as many yoga classes as I could without dying of dehydration. I got certified to walk dogs, and I walked 3 to 4 dogs every day. I must say, despite having nothing, I was really happy! I was living moment to moment and day by day reminding myself that, ‘In THIS moment, I have enough!’ I’m fine. Keep going!”
Though 2018 was a turning out to be a rough year for Misty, she never lost faith and continued to return to that favorite book of hers that Brad William Henke had her purchase many years prior, The Alchemist.
M: (Referring to The Alchemist) “Your ‘Personal Legend,’ The Universe isn’t just gonna hand it to you! Everything will go wrong at first. You will lose everything you have, but you will find yourself in the process! JUST STAY THE COURSE NO MATTER HOW HARD IT GETS.”
Misty Gets The Call
Misty would receive a call from her agent saying that Sarah Finn, casting director known for Avengers: Endgame, Black Panther, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and TheMandalorian, just to name a few, was casting a new show and had requested Misty’s acting reels.
M: “At this time in my life I was incredibly focused on my music and not on my reel (an actor demo reel is a video of clips of the actor’s best performances which helps casting directors get a sense of the actor’s abilities). I had no idea what I was blowing off!”
Misty gave her agent what she had, which her agent submitted, but Sarah Finn Casting wanted to see more.
M: “My agent told me that casting wanted me to come in for an audition. Despite my nerves about cold read auditions, I really wanted to try for it! A few months earlier I had done a favor for a friend and acted in her short film, and although it was terrifying to not be under an animatronic head or in a motion capture suit as an animated character; to be on camera as myself, it was new and scary for me, but I really enjoyed the process, and I wanted to do it again! So I agreed. ‘OK! YES! I CAN DO THIS!’”
Misty shared with me that she wears hearing aids. She was born with a congenital hearing loss in her right ear and after years and years of wearing ear pieces in her left ear for suit performance jobs, she has suffered nerve damage in the left ear. Even with the nerve damage, her left ear is still the strongest of the two, and she relies on her left ear a lot. Unfortunately, she was having trouble with her left ear the morning of the audition for TheMandalorian. Misty had hoped that all she would have to do was go to the doctor, have her ear examined and then the doctor would insert a new hearing aid back in and she would be fine. But that didn’t happen for Misty.
M: “I called my agent immediately after the appointment with my ear doctor and told her what was happening! I had mixed emotions! I really wanted to go to the audition, but I was so uncomfortable with the fact that I could not hear well at all, AND it was a cold read audition with Sarah Finn! It was an incredibly frustrating moment for me, but ultimately, I listened to my heart, and my heart really wanted to go to the audition! It was an opportunity to get to meet Sarah Finn, one of the biggest casting agents in town. And my agent, always being positive and supportive said, “If you have trouble hearing them, just ask them to speak up. YOU NEED TO GO TO THIS AUDITION! Also, I’ll ask if you can go in early so that you can spend a little time with the script.” She asked, and they said yes!”
I got there an hour early, signed in, signed the NDA agreeing that I wouldn’t share anything, and I just sat there in the front waiting room and began reading my script, and in that moment I had an epiphany as I read the character’s words, OH MY GOD, I KNOW THIS CHARACTER!!!! And again…”
Misty begins to get teary eyed and tries her best to hold back her tears and then she continues…
M: “Kuiil (she is barely able to muster out his name) I know him and I understand him from my struggles in life, not my triumphs. I know him from my struggles as a gymnast. I know his wisdom from my years of practicing and teaching yoga. I know him from having a similar wantonness to help people to help themselves. So when I went into the audition room, the choices I made were derived from a very honest place. My life’s journey! And it was the first time that I got to say the line, ‘I Have Spoken.’”
It wouldn’t be the last time Misty would get to say this now famous line, the next time would be on the set of The Mandalorian.
The Mandalorian, But First Air Supply!
After Misty learned she landed the part of Kuill in The Mandalorian she thought all her struggles were over, but life had one more lesson for Misty to learn.
M: In July of 2018, just prior to filming The Mandalorian, I was still having issues with my left ear. I went to my ear appointment at House Ear Institute thinking I was having a simple, painless procedure, and that I’d be in and out of the doctor’s office in no time. It ended up being one of the most scary and painful days of my life! I had 3 incredibly painful procedures in one day. Multiple doctors came into the surgery room (never a good sign!) they couldn’t stop the bleeding in my ear. After the third ear surgery they administered a special medicine used for internal bleeding, packed my ear with tons of cotton, medicine and tape, and sent me home. The next day I went in for a CAT scan, blood work, and a return visit to my ear doctor just to see how I was doing. To be honest I was really scared and frustrated! I didn’t know if my left ear would recover. I could feel my music career slipping away, and it would be a week and a half of waiting. Waiting for the test results, and waiting to see the doctor again! THE LONGEST 10 DAYS OF MY LIFE!
The day after the surgeries, when I returned home from all of the appointments, I received an email from my music promoter Zac Garfinkel, asking me if I wanted to open for Air Supply in about 3 weeks? As always, my heart and spirit immediately scream, YES! OH MY GOSH! YES! While my head is spinning with the thoughts, ARE YOU INSANE? You just had 3 ear surgeries. You don’t know what’s wrong with you, or if you’re ok? You don’t know if you’ll be able to hear well out of your left ear again?
There I was, sitting alone at the dining room table, tears streaming down my face from frustration and confusion. What kind of timing is this?”
Fortunately, Misty has a strong group of close friends she calls, “The SheTribe.” She sat alone at the table and began to send out texts to them. One by one messages of encouragement began to come back.
M: “Messages came back saying things like: “Remember, life happens in the yes!” “Stay positive and trust that in 1 ½ weeks from now you’ll get good news. Everything is going to be fine.” “JUST SAY YES MIST!”
Misty was now cast in an epic new Star Wars series, she had just undergone three ear surgeries, and she now had an opportunity to open for her favorite band of all time, Air Supply. She had just three weeks and 3 days to prepare for her set. She had no hearing aid in her left ear to hear her pitch, her ear was still jam packed with cotton and medicine as she began planning for the show, and rehearsing with her band mates. She took a leap of faith and she said, YES! because it was AIR SUPPLY!! Thankfully, everything turned out OK for Misty.
M: “Just one week before the show I went to my final ear doctor appointment and was able to put my hearing aid, that I rely on, back in my left ear. It was a truly joyous occasion for me! I got to rehearse one final time with everything FINALLY back to normal! Words could never properly express the joy I felt!
The Rose, a live music venue in Pasadena, California, was sold out on the night Misty would be opening up for the Air Supply.
Photos Credit: Nyk Fry/Air Supply at The Rose in Pasadena
M: “It’s crazy because when you’re backstage, the volume of the crowd and their collective excitement, it can be overwhelming! For my first song, I decided to start with a three-part harmony, a cappella, and we were trying to hear the note to get prepared for that. When I walked onto the stage that night I felt so happy, excited, and proud! It felt good, like I really earned the right to be there, and I sang my heart out that night for Air Supply’s fans. It was the best show of my life because of everything that I had endured just a few weeks before the show! I shared about my experience with the audience that night, and for the first time ever, I experienced the beautiful connection between us all. The human connection! They took a journey with me that night! It was one of the most incredible moments of my life! …because of the lesson: JUST SAY YES!”
Misty would tell the audience that night she was so excited to be opening up for her favorite band since she was 8 years old. She also went on to tell them that 3 weeks and 3 days prior to that very performance she had three ear surgeries and had no idea if she would ever be able to hear again.
But then, there she was, standing on stage, singing in the best show of her life and then when it was over, it was time to start shooting The Mandalorian.
And So It Begins…
After Misty’s stellar opening performance at The Rose, she was now ready to start shooting the epic new Star Wars series, streaming on Disney+. The Mandalorian, written and executive produced by Jon Favreau, is the first live-action Star Wars series that has many Star Wars fans on edge. The familiarity of many of the new characters Favreau has introduced has many fans instantly wrapped up and invested in the character’s storylines, like The Child, Mando, and Kuiil. This saga takes place 5 years after the Return of the Jedi, just after the fall of the Galactic Empire and yet prior to the rise of the First Order. I was eager to ask Misty all my nerdy Star Wars fan questions, but I tried my best to keep it cool…at first. So I went in easy, though my heart started pumping a bit quicker by this point.
I asked Misty what it was like when she got the scripts for The Mandalorian.
M: “It was amazing and so special! Logging into my Lucasfilm account for the first time to get my scripts, it felt like an incredible gift! A reward for working so hard for so long, and staying the course no matter how tough life got! (ALERT…If you haven’t yet seen season one of The Mandalorian, there are spoilers ahead…skip ahead to WHO IS KUIIL?)
The scripts. By the time I finished reading Chapter One, I was hooked! I was a Mandalorian fan! The scripts were so good! I was so excited! Kuiil is such a cool character! I could not believe I was going to be a part of this incredible Star Wars story! Then I got to the end of Chapter 7, and I was like, ‘NOOOOOOO! NOT KUIIL! NO! I just got to Star Wars!’ I read through the scene twice just in case I misread it. I didn’t. I sat on my bed in silence and in shock. I put the script down and I cried! I was so genuinely sad for this character that I didn’t even know yet, but I was also extremely proud to be playing such a cool, funny, kind, courageous character that is willing to sacrifice himself for the innocent, and for the greater good of all! I had a lot of work to do in order to ensure that I could deliver a genuine, heartfelt performance that people would be moved by. A performance that people would remember because he has such a short time on screen in this Star Wars story. I wanted him to be memorable. I think he was.”
WHO IS KUIIL?
Kuiil was certainly memorable and I believe there is more to his story that needs to be told. The Ugnaught, Kuiil’s race, first appeared in Empire Strikes Back in Cloud City. In The Mandalorian, Kuiil tells Mando that he was once an indentured servant to the Empire. I asked Misty if she knew if Kuiil was one of those Ugnaughts’ who had to prep the hyperbaric chamber for Han Solo before he was frozen in carbonite.
Misty politely laughed and replied, “Maybe. Dave Filoni was my first director on The Mandalorian. I asked him if he could give me Kuiil’s backstory, anything really. Dave told me that because Ugnaughts have always been background characters, it was up to me to create what I wanted to create with him. So YOGA! That’s how I know him. Because he is wise and passive. There is no jibber jabber with him, he says exactly what it is he needs to say and then he is done. HE HAS SPOKEN…he’s moving on.”
I then asked Misty if she had a favorite line, or dialogue as Kuiil.
M: “I Have Spoken, is special! This line was in the scene when I auditioned for the role. Casting directors and writers often choose dialogue for auditions that will cue them quite quickly about an actor’s understanding of a character’s complexities and depth. The line, I have spoken, I understand it because of my yoga journey. When I teach I try to be very specific with my words because I know my students have a lot going on internally, and less is more. I teach yoga simply because I want to help people to help themselves. I never imagined that it would help me book the greatest role of my life! “I HAVE SPOKEN.”
I love that line too, and I better understand the power in Kuiil’s line after Misty shared the back story. Misty then pauses for a moment during our interview, thoughtfully going through her lines in her head for a moment and then she shares with me a beautiful moment, it would be the very first day of shooting for The Mandalorian and she would be in that very first scene.
Photo Credit: Lucasfilm
M: “It was the very first day of shooting. We were on set with the sunrise! The first scene up was Kuiil and Mando on the blurrgs at the top of the ridge overlooking the encampment. It was one of Kuiil’s most important monologues, and it was first up! I had butterflies in my stomach! I needed to continuously take big, deep breaths in order to stay calm. I was standing next to Dave Filoni on a Star Wars set! Yeah, deep breaths were necessary! With my sides in hand, we read through the scene. I didn’t need my sides because I was off-book, but I had them just in case! … you know, THE NERVES! Brad William Henke taught me well. He reminded us all (when Misty was in his acting class) ‘The dialogue is the last thing you’ll be focused on in the scene! There are many other technical details unrelated to the dialogue that will need your attention. Your words should come naturally! Have respect for the writer’s words! Know them well! Be off book when you arrive on set!’ Thank you Brad!
So I had my lines down, we ran through the scene a couple of times for timing and pacing, then it was time to get dressed; walk onto my first Star Wars set; jump onto the blurrg and do my thing. We did a few takes, and then we were done! It felt strangely easy! I think that the crew was quite shocked at how well the first scene went too! It was seamless! The two characters looked great, and it was a beautiful exchange between the two of them! I am very proud of that scene!
My puppeteers at Legacy Effects were so excited too! In between takes they would come up to me to give me air and water, and they were just so happy! They kept saying over and over, “He looks so good!” That first day on set, and every day to follow, I experienced little victories in the form of courage and confidence! I have my yoga journey, my music journey, my acting classes journey, gymnastics, and all of life’s ups and downs to thank! I AM FOREVER GRATEFUL! For all of it! Especially the tough stuff because it is what has made me who I am, and who Kuiil is! I brought all of my life experience and put it into Kuiil! In fact, another one of my favorite lines is, “None will be free until the old ways are gone.” Like me, he understands empathy, compassion, kindness and peace, and we all need strive for those beautiful qualities, rather than power, violence and dominion.”
It Takes a Team
Misty was the suit performer for Kuiil, but it would take more than Misty to help bring the character to life.
M: “Kuiil was a team effort. In addition to me, the suit performer, and Nick Nolte’s voice, I worked with 3 puppeteers on set. Legacy Effects puppeteers: Jason B. Matthews (puppeteered Kuill’s eyebrows), David Covarrubias (puppeteered extra mouth and jaw movements, and Rodrick Khachatoorian (cued the dialogue tracks). Often times our first couple of takes would be a little off, but once we felt the timing and the flow of a scene, the ‘mind meld’ would occur, and suddenly 4 people would blend and mesh into one character! Also, the excitement that everybody felt knowing that this project was a new Star Wars show, we were always ready to work, we came to set prepared, and we were very excited to be there!
As soon as me and my team arrived on set, Kuiil’s dialogue was our first priority. David Covarrubias would set up the dialogue tracks on his puppeteering rig, hand me headphones, and I would listen and listen and listen. Nick Nolte not only gifted us with beautiful delivery of the lines, but he also gave us 2 to 3 options for each line varying speed and emphasis on different words in a line. After our morning rehearsal with the cast and crew, I would have a good idea of what lines I’d like to use. Each director I worked with (Dave Filoni, Rick Famuyiwa, and Deborah Chow) would also have a listen, and they too would help me choose. Once the choices were made, David quickly pieced the lines together, and Kuiil’s dialogue would be ready to go! PHEW! It was quite a process!”
Misty also shared with me that because of the expert craftsmanship of Legacy Effects artist, Jason B. Matthews, who sculpted Kuiil’s face, she didn’t have to be glued in anywhere around her eyes, which, to me, is astonishing.
M: “Kuiil was a unique animatronic head for me to wear because of the tight sculpt. I’ve never worn a head that had to fit so tightly against my face, nor have I ever worn an animatronic head that exposed my eyes. The head had to be a super tight fit against my face in order for the skin around my eyes to blend well with Kuiil’s face. Also, Kuiil’s eyes are my eyes, just a different color. I wore custom made, bright yellow-green, sclera contacts. I thought they were cool and beautiful, but Jon Favreau would always smile and laugh and say, ‘It’s challenging to chat with you when you have those things in without the head on!’ Ha!!”
What Happens in Season 2?
I had interviewed Misty prior to the release of Season 2, The Mandalorian, which she was not allowed to confirm or deny any of my questions about it. So I waited with baited breath until its release. And then I saw a new character, a sweet character, one that is referred to as Frog Lady, and I knew instantly who the actor was inside this suit.
In Chapter 10, you’ll see some awesome moves that reminded me of Misty when she was a gorilla artist in Congo and Instinct. In two seasons of TheMandalorian, Misty has now portrayed two very different characters in the Star Wars Universe. I am eager to find out what happens in season 3, will Misty play a third character? Just think of all the Star Wars action figures! And Mr. Favreau, if you ever end up reading this, please oh please Kuiil needs an origin story! There’s so much more I want to know about him!
FROM DISNEYLAND TO DISNEY+
M: “It’s special to come full circle! I consider this my Alchemist journey! My very first professional audition was at Disneyland, and now to return to the Disney Company to play a role that has forever changed my life, well, it’s like the icing on the cake, and it’s incredibly special to be a part of the magic again.”
Misty is an inspiration to many. She has always been someone who leads with her heart, and I do admire that about her. She is so very kind and her humility is humbling. When I tell her that she is an inspiration, someone who is strong both physically and mentally, and that I wanted to tell her story, because I thought others should be aware that someone like her exists in the world, she smiles graciously and she then tells me the following:
“All I really want is for my story to inspire people. I want them to see that it’s never too late. Age is just a number really! You have your entire life to constantly be inventing and reinventing yourself. I believe our stories become more and more interesting as we get older, having endured all of life’s ups and downs, and through it all having the courage to just keep on going. Keep on fighting! To me, that’s what’s inspiring. Like RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), that woman right there is one of the most amazing people I have ever come to know! I was absolutely blown away when I watched her documentary, RBG. (Misty recites a quote) ‘There’s a sense that time is precious and you should enjoy and thrive in what you’re doing to the hilt.’ – RBG Thank you for the inspiration RBG! I am doing just that!”
Misty has a new song that she just finished recording entitled, “Thank You.” It’s a song about gratitude. A ‘thank you’ gift from her to all of the essential workers, her family, friends, and the fans. It is set to be released around Christmas time. It’ll be available on Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify and anywhere else you may stream music. Until it’s released be sure to check out “Paper House,” which landed on Buzz Music’s Spotify top 10 Best of 2019 list.
Misty is continuing her motion capture artistry in the Jim Henson Company/Netflix series, “Word Party.” Netflix greenlit the adorable, educational program for its 5th season. Filming is set to begin in December.
Will Misty Rosas be in the 3rd season of The Mandalorian? I guess we’ll have to wait and see…
*Star Wars Autograph Universe Fans, reach out to www.swau.com for autograph information for all your favorite Star Wars Universe characters.
For as long as I can remember, our must do holiday family tradition has been going to Disneyland to ride the “it’s a small world” Holiday attraction followed by a visit to see Santa Claus.
We visited Santa when he had his cabin at Disneyland…
We’ve also visited Santa at the Disneyland Hotel…
And of course we would make sure to wish Santa a very Merry Christmas while watching him in Disneyland’s Christmas Fantasy Parade.
This Year It’s Different
This year will be not be the same. There will be no Disneyland Christmas Fantasy Parade, no “it’s a small world” Holiday, and no visiting Santa with long lists of Christmas wishes. The gates of Disneyland will remain closed throughout this holiday season and on into next year. Our tradition of visiting Santa at the Happiest Place on Earth will not be happening this Christmastime.
But What If…
What if Santa, who has visited the Disneyland Resort for so many years, found a way to continue the magic?
Well, that’s exactly what’s happening. One of the 28,000 Disney Cast Members that were layed-off recently, Jerry Tomlinson, found a way. The once seasonal holiday performer and Entertainment Tech Manager is continuing to create the magic of the holidays for so many children.
Introducing: North Pole Central
Though no longer able to spread the joy and magic at Disneyland, Tomlinson, with the help of his son Cory, were able to figure out a way to keep the magic of the holiday season alive, by helping Santa’s Elves create North Pole Central.
At the North Pole Central there are a variety of options for parents to choose from. Whether it be a personalized video message from Santa for your child or a fun craft time activity virtually spent with Santa’s Elves, there are wonderful options to choose from at varying prices.
I purchased the “All Things Santa Claus Bundle” which includes a personalized video message, mail from the North Pole and a one-on-one with Santa Video Chat. My son wants to make crafts with the Elves so I’ll be looking into that as well.
I had been trying to find a way for my children to still have that special one on one face time with Santa safely this year and was very much relieved when I found North Pole Central. I was even more ecstatic to find out that a former Disneyland Resort Cast Member had created it, with the help of Santa’s Elves of course.
I am so happy to share North Pole Central with you, as I know how hard it was for me to try to figure out a way for my kids to not only see Santa this year, but actually talk to him and tell him their Christmas wishes. This seems like the best answer for me. I hope you’ll check out North Pole Central too. http://www.northpolecentral.org
*I was not paid in anyway for my endorsement of North Pole Central. I was excited to find a safe way that my children can talk to Santa Claus and tell them their Christmas wishes and wanted to share this amazing site with you. I also strongly believe in supporting Disney Cast Members, many of whom have been furloughed for 8+ months, with an additional 28,000 that have recently been layed-off. #castmemberstrong
Written by Catherine RamirezPhotos Credit Treb Heining (unless noted)
Treb Comes Home
In 1984, twelve years after Treb Heining left his Balloon Boy job at Disneyland and now a successful entrepreneur with his own company, BalloonArt By Treb, folks at Disney began to take notice of his prolific balloon art installations and designs. None more so than Disneyland’s Art Director Clare Graham. Graham first began to try out Treb on smaller jobs outside of the Park before he would be invited to lend his artistic expertise inside the Happiest Place on Earth.
Treb says, “We did our first event at the Children’s Museum in Los Angeles and a couple other events before Clare finally scheduled an event for us inside the park, which was at the Tomorrowland Stage.”
“Then we started to do more and more events with Disneyland. It got to the point where I would call Clare at his extension and ask what he needed. Clare would tell me, for example, about the Splash Mountain Opening, he’d tell me what he needed, providing me with a list. I’d work on a bid, and Clare would approve it, and so by 10 A.M., my day had been made; I had just made my biggest sale.”
A lot of exciting projects began to happen for Treb within the park for various attraction openings like Captain EO and Disneyland’s grand yearly birthday festivities (which will be a huge chapter in Treb’s upcoming biography).
Disneyland’s 30th Birthday Celebration
Treb’s previous training at Disneyland lent specific principles that he held on to in life and instilled at his own company. Which according to Treb, were to “Dream big, work hard, show respect to all those you work with and always be professional.” Clare would observe this disciplined work ethic and talent in Treb and his crew while on events at Disneyland. Perhaps that is why Clare thought Treb’s hard working crew, with phenomenal skills, was up to a very specific challenge. The Disneyland Art Director’s new idea for Treb would be extreme and perhaps one of Treb’s greatest challenges, up to this point anyway. This new challenge would be a balloon design for Disneyland’s 30th Birthday Celebration.
Treb recalled the following conversation to me:
Clare said, “Treb, what about the idea of getting 30 birthday cake candles, 75 feet high all the way down Main Street?”
Treb Said, “Ok, Clare, Ok.”
Clare Continues, “Then we can put 10 foot spears on the top of each one.”
Treb responds, “OK. Alright.”
Clare finishes, “Work out the price…and all these have to go up while the park is still open to the guests.”
Treb continues, “So in other words the party started that night on the 30th Anniversary at midnight (July 17, 1985). The idea was the party was going to go from midnight on that night all the way until midnight the next day, a 24 hour party. Everything had to be set up by 9am on the morning of the 17th. We did all the columns of balloons in the rehearsal halls, back where the horses were kept (back of house Circle D Ranch). We did the columns in there one day and then the next day we touched them up. We then had a huge crew that marched them in, through the backroad from Small World towards the back of Main Street.”
Treb explained that crews were placed on the rooftops of the buildings all along both sides of Main Street U.S.A. Yet, even with the pictures Treb provided, it is difficult for me to fathom how this was pulled off. I worked on the Main Streets rooftops for confetti drops and TV production filmings, I understand the layout, and yet I have little understanding of how the 75 feet long balloon columns went from one roof to the next while guests were in the park.
Well, somehow Treb’s crew would do just that. They installed the thirty 75 feet long balloon (columns) candles, plus the added 10 foot sphere (to represent the candle’s flame) from one side of a building’s rooftop to another rooftop located across the street. By the time they were done, a canopy of 30 beautifully spiraled columns covered Main Street. Now all they had to do was wait until midnight.
Treb tells me the following about the moment his columns were transformed into something most memorable. He said, “At the nighttime ceremony at the Wish Upon a Star moment at midnight, the extraordinary happens, the canopy of balloons open up and all these perfectly placed columns rose up and transformed into 30 birthday candles.”
Treb gets choked up as he explains this to me and says, “It’s hard for me to talk about. It was pushing us to the limit.”
Treb had to bring in an extra crew of 100 people to do what Treb says was, “Beyond impossible.”
“Well…it didn’t go off without a hitch,” Treb says, “Someone let go of a column too quick and two columns got wrapped, so going down Main Street all of the 85 foot tall columns of balloons were standing straight except the two. We had to race up to the roofs and undue the two columns and when the two finally went up perfect, the whole crowd down below cheered.”
Contributing to the 30th anniversay of Disneyland was certainly a huge and momentous accomplishment for Treb. At 1:00 A.M. that night, on July 18, 1985, Treb trudged back to his hotel room at the Disneyland Hotel with his wife. He had been working nearly 48 hours straight by this time, with very little sleep in-between. Treb explained that as he looked out of his hotel room’s window he could see the 30 balloon columns, in the shape of birthday candles brightly lit from inside, standing 85 feet high with their flame sphere, and he just sat there on the edge of the bed and wept.
Treb recalled, “I just wept. I thought that this would be something that Walt Disney would be very proud of.”
Treb is Introduced to the “T” Balloon
It was around this time, in the mid to late 1980’s when Treb was introduced to several people based out of Japan from the Takara Kosan Company. Henry Unger, the West Coast Rep for the Pioneer Balloon Company (maker of the balloons Treb uses) had invited Treb to his office to meet with them. They showed Treb their “T” balloon that they had created. It was used in Japan for balloon decorations as a way of making balloon décor outdoors last for days and even weeks.
The Japanese company was able to put a 9” latex or an 11” latex balloon inside of the “T” balloon, which was a clear film-like product. When the balloon was blown up it would be the round balloon encased inside of that clear “T” balloon. In other words, a balloon within a balloon-like object. It was unique because it made the balloon that was encased inside last for so long.
As Treb continues to explain to me the details of the “T” balloon, I can hear his excitement begin to grow in his voice as he says, “I remember going to Clare Graham and saying, remember those columns that we did across Main Street for the 30th? Well we could do those columns now but they would be in the “T” balloon and they would last for a week! Instead of just one day! Of course Clare said give me a price but it was astronomical and he turned it down.”
Though Treb thought the product was very interesting and pitched the idea to Disneyland in different ways to use it for décor, the cost was always too high, making it prohibitive, even for Disney. The “T” Balloons ended up going into a drawer at Henry Unger and Associates, and were not seen for a very long time.
From the start of Treb’s business in 1979, not only did Treb coin the phrase “balloonart,” he also invented the balloon arch in 1979, and the first balloon sculpture in 1981. By the 1980’s Treb was working on some stellar projects. In addition to working with the Walt Disney Company, he also worked on more than eighteen Superbowls for NFL, five Academy Award shows and he worked on the 1984 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
Treb has also worked on the infamous balloon drops for both the Democratic and Republican Presidential National Conventions for many years…
…with the exception to the Democratic National Convention Balloon Drop of 2004, that was the one time Treb’s company wasn’t used, if they had, well, it would have been a much different balloon drop.
Oh, yes, I mustn’t forget to tell you that Treb also set three Guinness World Record Professional Balloon Releases during this time, utilizing Pioneer Balloon Company’s Made in the USA balloons, which is the only balloon company Treb has ever used, as their balloons are 100% biodegradable. The world record releases helped raise over $500,000 for charity in one instance, and more than $50,000 for high school music programs; Treb has always believed strongly in giving back to the community.
One of the professional world record releases occurred in Anaheim, California on what would have been Walt Disney’s 84th birthday. On December 5, 1985, volunteers consisting mostly of high school band students and Marines from the once El Toro Marine base, arrived as early as 3:30 A.M. to fill 1,200,000 balloons, though Guinness official’s record states 1,121,448 with helium rose to the sky that day.
Treb recalls, “I talked to Clare about being able to do the million balloon release and we finally got to do it for Skyfest. It was on Katella, between West Street and Harbor, we had 1,200 tubes of balloons each, which was a monumental feat. During that time I met a man named Bob Gault, he was a great guy and a supervisor of Main Street and we worked on Sky Fest together.”
Treb continues, “I also met a man named Pete Clark that ran merchandise at the time. I sent a letter to him back in 1980 when I first started my company. I let him know I was interested in going back and working the Balloon Department and run it like Nat Lewis (Treb’s first employer at Disneyland back in 1969). I always wanted to come back and run the balloon concessions at the park I started at, for one reason or the other it went by the wayside.”
Once a Balloon Vendor, Always a Balloon Vendor
Although Treb doesn’t currently run Disneyland’s balloon department, he did start balloon concessions at Knott’s Berry Farm, Mall of America, and State Fairs all across the country. Treb tells me that he always kept his hand in balloon vending. Back in 1983 he also started balloon vending at a popular mall in Orange County called South Coast Plaza. His balloon concession stand is a staple at the high-end shopping complex that all children look forward to seeing, while parents, on the other hand, try to steer them away. I myself remember getting my ears pierced at the mall when I was in the 6th grade. Afterwards my mom bought me a ride on the carousel as well as a Treb Heining balloon.
Treb Takes a Break…Sort Of
By 1993, 14 years after Treb first started his company BalloonArt By Treb, he explained to me that the balloon industry had “grown up.”
He said, “The balloon industry itself had changed dramatically. People don’t do things on the scale that we did them back then. That’s what pioneered the industry, yet with all industries, they change and become different. People sit at the balloon conventions and look at my work and they love the history, but they are afraid to attempt stuff like that. We did things in front of people on stage, like the Olympics that had never been done before. People are very reluctant to do that nowadays, even TV Producers. They are reluctant to do something that has not been tried and tested. People like Tommy Walker and Bob Jani (who replaced Walker in 1966 as Disneyland Entertainment Division Director, but is most remembered perhaps for his conceptual idea of the Main Street Electrical parade), loved doing that kind of stuff, it was a little bit dangerous, not to the public, but dangerous if it was going to work or not, but it always made a very spectacular effect for the show. It’s something I am very proud to be a part of what were really first time deals.”
Treb continues, “When I look back at one of my favorite bands, the Beatles, they were only around for 6 to 8 years, but the amount of work they did was unbelievable. Not to put myself in the same category or even the same class as the Beatles, but in the Balloon Industry, the amount of work we did, and the size and scale of the work, was spectacular to the point that when I was approached by Pioneer Balloon company (the company who made the balloons both Disney and Treb worked with) to see if I would teach more people about what I did, that’s what I finally decided to do.
Everybody knows that a baseball player can only pitch baseball for so long, and nobody knows how long you can do the type of work I was doing, and it was exhausting work. I always worked weekends on Special Events, so when I finally went to work for Henry Unger and Associates (Pioneer’s sales rep on the West Coast), people asked what I liked most about it, and I said weekends off! A Saturday and Sunday off for the first time in 15 years!”
With Treb no longer doing his spectacular inventive balloon art installations, it was the end of the great balloon era in terms of balloon décor on the massive and momentous scale Treb was creating. But it certainly was not the end of the great Treb Heining nor his balloon designs.
Henry Unger & Associates
In 1994, Treb began to work at Henry Unger & Associates. Henry Unger was well connected in the toy business and went to Asia quite a bit for the annual toy shows in Hong Kong. Henry had many contacts including buyers at Disneyland where his company was already selling many different items in the Park. When it came to balloons, Henry knew the business side of Pioneer’s distribution system.
One day in 1996, while Henry was cleaning out his office, he stumbled upon the “T” balloon samples the Takara Kosan Company had given him nearly a decade earlier. With THE balloon guy now in house, Treb tells me that Henry walked to his office and plopped the balloons on his desk, telling him to make another stab at coming up with a way to make them work in the U.S. Being the hands on balloon guy, Treb began to think, how could this product translate to being used in the U.S.?
A Flash of Genius
Flash of Genius doctrine states that an invention must indicate the flash of creative genius, not merely a skill of the calling.
Treb said, “Henry’s office was in Santa Monica. I was commuting, which I did not like. One day going home while stuck in traffic, all of a sudden….I was like, wait a minute…wait a minute…if they could make that balloon larger…big enough that we could put a 15” Mickey Mouse balloon inside ohhhh… So next morning I went in and told Henry. I did the initial drawings which showed how I wanted to increase the size as well as make the neck portion of the balloon different to make the stuffing of the Mickey Mouse latex easier.
Henry helped draft the faxes (that’s how communication was happening then) and we started sending faxes back and forth to the manufacturer in Japan.”
Treb recollects the following conversation, via fax…
First fax came back from Takara Kosan Company: “NO. Not Possible. Film is not wide enough.”
Henry and Treb reply: “Fax back if you can do it, we are thinking if you can do it, then we can sell to the Walt Disney Organization.”
Takara Kosan Company: “I think we can make it work.”
When I asked Treb what the exterior film of the balloon was made of, he wouldn’t provide specifics, but he did inform me that the exterior clear film protects the latex balloon inside from oxidation which makes the overall product last for a very long time. He further informed me that this balloon is put into the toy category because children can play with the product for weeks and even months and it can then be re-inflated to last for weeks and months again.
Treb Begins to Test
After samples were sent back and forth between the Takara Kosan Company and Treb over the next year, Treb thinks it’s perfect and he begins to test the product.
Treb tells me, “I initially tested at my house where I would mark the balloons and leave them outside in my backyard to test how long they lasted and also if prolonged exposure to the sun would make a difference. I wanted more adverse conditions before showing to Disneyland so I contacted the LA County Fair in Pomona to set up a meeting to pitch a balloon concession. It just so happened that the person who used to run South Coast Plaza, Jim Henwood, had just taken the head position with the LA County Fair. He was thrilled to see me and connected me with the right people to set up an operation for the Fair in 1997. This gave me the opportunity to work with thousands of pieces of the new balloon as well as see how it performed in the challenging heat and winds of Pomona. The latex balloon inside of the film that was sold at the L.A. Fair were not the Mickey shaped balloons, regular oval latex balloons were used, as I didn’t want to do anything that Disney would be upset about. All went very well and I then felt confident to bring it to Disneyland.”
What’s in a Name?
Treb’s friend, Karen Lamson told Treb that he should name his new creation the Glasshouse Balloon. When he asked her why, she had explained to him that in the early 60’s Disney sold a latex balloon inside a clear latex balloon. In the summer, the clear latex would fog up and it didn’t look good. But everybody used to call it mickey in a glass house back then, so Treb thought that was a perfect idea and said, “Let’s call it the Glasshouse!”
Armed with testing and a great name for Treb’s product, Disney’s approval of the Glasshouse Balloon would be the final step Treb needed to bring his newest creation through the gates of Disneyland.
Henry setup a meeting in 1997 with Sarah Quinn, Disneyland Resort’s Product Development Coordinator.
Treb explains, “A lot of sales calls usually go back and forth trying to get something going. But when we walked into this meeting with 25 different colored Mickey Glasshouse Balloons, we were asked when we could get this into the park. It was just like that. In the meeting I told them that I thought this balloon would outsell the other balloons 3 to 1.”
Sarah told Treb that she thought the Glasshouse should be sold in the new Tomorrowland that was to open the following year. Although Treb thought his balloon could sell in all the lands, he was ecstatic that HIS balloon would be sold at Disneyland, the place where he himself once sold balloons at the age of 15.
The Glasshouse Balloon is sold at Disneyland…Back to the Balloon Room
By May 22, 1998, the New Tomorrowland had been rededicated at Disneyland. Now no longer working at Henry Unger and Associates, in order to concentrate on his Glasshouse balloon and his new deal with Disneyland, Treb returned to the balloon room. Twenty-five years after he left Disneyland as a balloon boy, Treb finds that he not only needs to train the cast members how to fill the glasshouse balloon, but the Mickey shaped latex balloon as well.
Treb explained, “By this time, Disney sold only foil balloons, the Mickey shaped head balloons were completely phased out. It’s now my job to go into the balloon room and teach the balloon department not only how to blow up a Mickey Mouse balloon but how to blow it up inside this Glasshouse balloon. So I go there the first day and I spend 8 to 10 hours working with the department and training the staff. It was going very well. I remember saying to the crew that I’d see them tomorrow. More than half of them said they weren’t on balloons tomorrow because they rotated positions.”
Unlike in 1969 when Treb was a Disneyland Balloon Boy, balloon vending is now lumped into the Outdoor Vending Department, so the cast members are also required to perform other tasks like selling popcorn or cotton candy, etc.
That first day the Glasshouse was sold in Tomorrowland must have been such an exciting day for Treb. Returning to the room where he first met Nat Lewis in 1969 and learned how to tie a balloon really, really fast must have felt incredibly nostalgic. Though it was exciting for Treb, some balloon vendors were not so happy with the new balloon.
We Need More Balloons!
Treb returned the next day to Disneyland to train more Cast Members on how to inflate the Glasshouse.
Treb recalls, “I go back the next day and some of the balloon vendors that had been there the previous day cornered me and told me that they didn’t really like this product.”
“Why, it didn’t sell?” Treb asked them.
“Oh…no, no, no,” they responded. “We are used to the foil balloon. When we send the vendor out with the foil balloon we normally don’t have to worry about them for 3 to 4 hours because they have enough product but when we send them out with the glasshouse balloon we have to give them more product in like 10 minutes, we can’t keep up.”
“And that’s why you don’t like it?” Treb said.
“Well Ya, it’s really hard to keep up with the sales.”
After the first month with only one vendor in Tomorrowland, the glasshouse was outselling not Treb’s original 3 to 1 prediction, but was outselling the other 5 foil balloon vendors combined, by 5 to 1. The Glasshouse became a fixture, and pretty soon the foil balloons began to fall by the wayside. It was a roaring success, but with any new product there are kinks that eventually need to be worked out.
Treb tells me that, “With any new product, there are lots of glitches that happen and that was very much the case with the glasshouse balloon. I worked very closely through the early structure of that product because we had lots of problems in the beginning because it was a new process for Japan. I baby sat it every step of the way. I’d get these phone calls from Disneyland, saying this is happening, and boom I’d be over there and I would help them. I was always vigilant and was at Disneyland often in solving problems and working to make the product better and better. Without those efforts, I doubt the product would have survived.”
The Glasshouse Balloon Takes Over the World
Hong Kong Disneyland
Treb said, “Hong Kong Disneyland was the next park to start using the Glasshouse balloons. I trained the department and was there for the opening day on September 12, 2005.”
Walt Disney World
Treb continues, “I then investigated Rubio Arts, owned by Nat Lewis’ friend Jess Rubio, who ran Walt Disney World balloon concessions in Florida. I had been trying to get his production guy, David Johnson to bring the Glasshouse to Florida. They wouldn’t do it…wouldn’t do it…wouldn’t do it for years! And then I get a call from David saying that Jess is having his high school reunion at the Santa Ana Country Club and asked me if it was possible that I could do some balloons for Jess’s reunion. I said, DONE! Where is it, when is it? I went over there and was experimenting with the “Light up Stick.” That’s another product that we invented. So, for Jess Rubio’s reunion, not only did we do Mickey Mouse Glasshouse Balloons, but they also had light up sticks in them.” Treb continues with huge laughter as he continues to tell me, “The next day, I get a call from David that they were bringing in the Glasshouse balloons to Walt Disney World!”
David Koo, Director of Merchandise at The Walt Disney Company, contacted Treb asking if he would consider running the operation in Shanghai. Treb shared with me that he had been trying to do that for all the parks so was excited to take on Shanghai. Treb started two new corporations, one in Shanghai called Magic Glasshouse Umbrella LTD and TNH Amusements LTD which is based in Hong Kong.
Treb tells me that his son Damon Tieu moved to Shanghai and has been running the companies for the last five years.
Damon Tieu and Treb Heining at Shanghai Disneyland
Just as Treb taught Damon the art of balloon vending, Damon in turn taught Treb what balloon vending was like in a foreign land in terms of weather, environment and preferences for Disney characters. Disney Princesses for example aren’t as big a draw as the most popular character in Shanghai, Donald Duck.
Treb says, “Damon is running the Shanghai operation on a level that I don’t think even I could do.”
Treb explained that it was a lot of work to go to China and train everyone, but their sales have been phenomenal.
Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea
I asked Treb about his experience in getting his Glasshouse balloon to Tokyo Disneyland. I myself was a Cast Member who worked at the Tokyo Disneyland Resort on five separate contracts between the years 2001 to 2005. There is just something so magical about the Tokyo Disney Resorts, that can’t truly be explained, unless you yourself experience it. During my time working for the Oriental Land Company, which owns the Tokyo Disney Resort, I never remembered seeing the glasshouse balloon at the parks in Japan and I was curious how difficult it was to break into the Japanese market.
Treb tells me, “For years we tried to figure out the Japanese market. Henry helped, knowing the Asian market. We took the bull by the horns and scheduled a trip over there and learned everything we needed to know about what went on in Japan. It was a very hard process and it took me 10 years of many meetings. The Japanese people want to make sure that you’re going to be there. You aren’t just going to come in and sell something and go. I was scheduled, meeting after meeting, every three months for ten years.”
The turning point was when Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016. The Tokyo Disney representatives would visit Damon at Shanghai Disneyland to see how the balloon operation was run on several occasions, resulting in the formation of a strong business relationship.
“Damon had a huge influence on Tokyo Disney bringing the glasshouse balloon to their resort,” Treb said.
Damon worked shoulder to shoulder with Treb on the final meetings at Tokyo Disney, leading up to the Glasshouse Balloon’s debut. And then finally on April 15, 2019, the Glasshouse Balloon made its first appearance at Tokyo Disneyland.
Treb says, “It was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was absolutely incredible for me now to look back and think about how it all transpired, but the fact that I get to do something in some place that I love so much. And Tokyo Disney, I gotta tell you, because you know having worked at Tokyo DisneySea yourself, but I consider that to be one of the finest theme parks in the world. I really believe, that the Japanese do it the way Walt would. He would be so thrilled walking those parks. All the Cast Members they are always on, they’re doing it exactly the way it’s supposed to be done. The Japanese Market, I just love the way they treat our products and our history. Sometimes I would wear my name tag from ’69 on my coat and when we went to lunch we would get into these talks, and I would start talking about my experiences, just like I’m telling you, and oh my gosh, everyone would just stop and ask questions and what about this, and this, they want to know so much. They love the history of Disney and when you can tell them… in 1970 when I… they just loved it, and I loved it too.”
22 years later, Treb’s most magical balloon of them all, the Glasshouse Balloon remains the best selling balloon of all time and is now sold at nearly all Disney theme parks around the world, with the one exception of Disneyland Paris, but don’t worry, Parisians, Treb is working on it.
Hard Work is Good For You
I asked Treb about his success and his never give up attitude and he tells me the following, “My success was formed by the very things I learned at Disney. It’s absolutely true. Dream Big: because I used to sit and think, how did Walt think of this? The same way that people would ask me sometimes how I came up with this glasshouse balloon idea. The answer, you have to dream. You have to spend so much of time every day dreaming, you know, just thinking. Sometimes I sit for long periods of time doing nothing, but just thinking. And then ideas will come to you. For a while, when I’m on the freeway driving back and forth it gave me time to think.
You have to Dream Big, Not Be Afraid to Work Hard, and Always Be Professional. Those 3 things that Disney taught me. And hard work…come on! Unless we’re born as a prince or something, we all have to work, right? Working hard I never minded, I don’t believe anything is worthwhile, unless you work for it. Find something you like to do because you’re going to work and working hard isn’t bad. It’s good for you. I say to people now, I built my own house, I am living the greatest life, and my only worries is that I’m not going to live long enough. I don’t want it to end. If I can do this in this country of ours, with balloons, come on! Is this not the greatest country in the world? If you are willing to just apply yourself and work hard you can do whatever you want. I don’t care what your idea is, you just have to be willing to work hard.”
What’s Happening Now?
In addition to working on new balloon designs with the Walt Disney Company, and creating new products utilizing his MyOwnPet Balloon Company, Treb is also co-writing his biography, which I am certainly very excited to read.
Treb shares, “My thrill now, I have thousands of pictures from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. The thrill of the kids when you see them and they want a balloon so bad, I love it. At South Coast Plaza when you see a kid go walking by and you see the parent says no no no, they go around the corner, and next thing I know, here comes the child dragging that parent saying OK, OK!” Treb continues with a robust laughter, “If it were up to me, we’d be poor because I’d give all the balloons away!”
Returning to the Melody
When Treb was first hired as a Disneyland Balloon Boy in 1969, I don’t think his 15 year old self could have possibly imagined that his dream job would have lasted a lifetime. Treb told me that a Dixieland Musician once told him, that in Jazz, it’s always important to return to the melody. Treb’s melody is balloon vending. His hope is to return to Disneyland to run the balloon concessions where his balloon vending first began. I can’t see anyone more perfect or more destined for that role. Can you?
Written by Catherine Ramirez, Photos Provided by Treb Heining (unless otherwise noted)
Nat Lewis Teaches Treb About the Balloon Garland
In 1969 Treb Heining was cast as a Disneyland Balloon Boy in one of the greatest shows of all time and his stage was Disneyland. Lucky for Treb, he worked for Nat Lewis, whose career prior to working at Disneyland was to put on a show under the Big Top. For 22 years, Nat was the #1 Go To producer for Shrine Circuses. A fact Treb never knew about him until many years later while in the process of co-writing his biography. I find it interesting that Nat worked for the circus most of his life and yet, curiously, never shared with the balloon boys the very important role he once played.
Nat was certainly an interesting man, who described himself as a “cold blooded pro.” By others, he has been described as a short man with droopy eyelids that always wore a Mickey Mouse watch. While Treb describes Nat as someone who always had a cigar in his hand, well spoken, gruff, and yet possessed a heart of gold.
Treb said, “You could go to him and say you were down on your luck and Nat would immediately ask us what do you need to borrow? When are you gonna pay it back? And he’d then take out his wallet and hand us the money.”
Nat would have a lot of people from the circus come by and visit him in the balloon room (at Disneyland) and he would often do things for the circus industry parties. It’s at one of these parties that Treb learned a basic balloon garland formation. Treb explains, “At one of these parties, we started putting 4 round balloons on a paper clip and putting it on a line, the same kind of line used at Disneyland, and then you would pack those clusters of 4 very tightly and that formed a garland of balloons. I remember doing that at the Newporter Inn in Newport Beach (California). After going home that night and talking to Gordan, (a fellow balloon vendor coworker) I remember saying to him that I thought this could be done on a large scale bases.”
To which Gordan replied, “Treb, you’re never going to get anyone to pay for this. Nat does this right now for a living and it’s just too expensive.”
Treb continues by saying, “They always poo pooed the idea.”
After being exposed to the basic balloon garland design showed to him by Nat Lewis, Treb saw the potential in the use of balloons that others hadn’t yet seen. At the age of 18, a spark of an idea was now formulating in Treb’s mind, and his idea would continue to grow with him, even after leaving Disneyland in 1972.
Good Bye Disneyland…For Now
Although Treb had left the balloon department at Disneyland, he would continue to experiment with his own ideas while creating beautiful balloon garland for his family and friends on special occasions.
Treb said, “Whenever someone I knew had a birthday, I’d blow up 9 inch and 11 inch balloons. It always required hundreds and hundreds of balloons. But that was never a problem because I learned how to tie balloons (from the best at Disneyland), so that part was easy. I always noticed the reaction when I did this for family and friends. It was a huge deal seeing air inflated garland that would be hung around the house.”
As you read this today, you’ll need to understand that balloon garlands are commonplace now, but they weren’t back in the early ’70’s, at least not the type and certainly not the scale Treb was designing, they simply didn’t exist.
Now a Music Major student at Golden West College, Treb had no income. He didn’t come from a lot of money and learned at a very young age that if he wanted something, he’d have to pay for it. Still in need of a job, that was flexible with his classes at school, Treb’s father, a purchasing agent for the Southland Corporation, which included all the 7-11 stores and a dairy-for-home delivery service at the time, encouraged Treb to take on a milk delivery route.
His father told Treb that all the milkmen were independent contractors and if they needed the day off, they would need someone to run the route in their place and they were paid cash money. That sounded perfect for Treb. Now there were two routes out of the Glendale office, where his father was working. One, which started at 3:00 AM, delivered the milk to the front porch and they would be done by 9:00 AM in the morning. The second route, which is what Treb did, was the Beverly Hills Route. He didn’t have to start until 5:30 or 6:00 AM because for this route, he had to go into people’s homes.
The Milkman and Lucille Ball???
Treb tells me, “On this route you went into the kitchens and talked to the cook or butler and you would fill the refrigerator with everything they needed, like bacon, butter, eggs, yogurt, milk, orange juice, and cottage cheese. I’d rearrange the refrigerator until it was all done. On this job I got to meet people like Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, IN THEIR KITCHENS!” Treb exclaims. He continues, “Johnny Mathis I would see a couple times a week, Jerry Lewis… for an Orange County kid, this was an eye popping and an amazing experience. I could go on and on.”
Oh, how I wanted Treb to go on and on, but somethings must be left for the book he’s currently writing, so I let it go, though secretly, yearned for more. While Treb did not go on, he did point out that his milk route opened his eyes to a whole new lifestyle than what he was used to.
Treb said, “As I would leave one of these homes, Abbey Rentals would be out there covering a pool with a wooden structure to make a dance floor or put up big tenting for parties. That was the impetus for me as I moved on from that job.”
Treb Gets Sidetracked By a Chocolate Chip Cookie Made By Wally Amos
Treb says to me, “I was living in Glendale at the time. Wally had a cookie shop on Sunset Boulevard. The first chocolate chip cookie shop in the country. He was an entrepreneur. He was the first black booking agent at William Morris Agency. He used to bake these cookies at home and used them as his calling card and that was the start of his Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies. I stopped into his store a few times and liked them so much that I started working there as a cashier on the weekends. Back in those days I was practicing my horn 8 hours a day, going to school, working my milk routes and working at Famous Amos Friday, Saturday and Sundays. Eventually Wally and Sid Ross, who ran it, came to me and told me they’d like me to manage the store on the weekends, so I became a manager. Then Wally said that we were going to start producing wholesale cookies out of a plant in Van Nuys and I want you to run the plant.”
Treb continues to explain that he told Wally that he didn’t know anything about running a plant, to which Wally replied, “You’ll learn, you’ll learn.” So Treb worked with Wally Amos as Wally’s Famous Amos Cookies went nationwide. Treb says they were making 3000 lbs of handmade cookies a day!
One day, Wally Amos had a display at some sort of a promotional event and had Treb help him out. Still, with the love of balloons coursing through his veins, Treb immediately began to creatively add balloons to this display. Treb recollects that Wally turned to him in amazement at the balloon décor and questioned how he could have possibly learned how to do this. So amazed by this, Wally gave Treb some great advice by telling him that he should contact some caterers, further emphasizing that his balloon designing could be a business.
Dave Klein AKA Mr. Jelly Belly
While working for Wally Amos, there was this guy that would deliver the pecans for the cookies. Treb states, “We used quality ingredients and there was this guy that ran a company called Garby Nut House in Los Angeles and he was our pecan supplier. His name is Dave Klein. Dave was an absolute character and I would always look forward to when he would come by. One hot summer day in Van Nuys, in comes Dave’s truck, but before he starts unloading he tells me that he made People Magazine this week and throws it to me. I told him, yeah right, just unload the pecans. I went back to my office to look through the magazine and sure enough, there’s a full picture of Dave in a vat of Jelly Bellys.”
“This is what I’ve been talking to you about.” Dave told Treb.
Dave Klein, the inventor of Jelly Belly jelly beans back in 1976, was a huge supporter of Treb. He would often tell Treb, while he was working at Famous Amos, how sharp he was, that he could run a Fortune 500 Company, and that he really could do anything he wanted, including starting his own business.
Treb Finds His Way
Treb left Wally Amos but continued his friendship with Dave Klein. The year after Treb left Wally was a tough year for him, but during that year, Dave continued to encourage him. Treb would often spend time at Dave’s house with his family and on one of those nights, Dave brought up Treb’s idea of starting his own balloon business. He told Treb that he really ought to try out this idea.
Treb said, “I told him fine, I’m going to try it out for one year and see if I can do it.”
Dave and Treb continued to talk that night about this business Treb would create. Dave asked him about what he thought a business like that would need to start. Treb didn’t really know what he would need, maybe a thousand dollars to start. But what Treb did know were the specifics of what he wanted his company to be. He was adamant that he only wanted to do balloon décor, that’s it, not delivering it, no centerpieces, just massive balloon décor. Now all Treb needed was the name of his company. Who better to come up with the name than Mr. Jelly Belly himself? Treb told me that Dave Klein is a master with names, and it was Dave who actually thought up the name of his company, BalloonArt By Treb. It was an encouraging night. Treb now had a vision of what his company would be and he had a name for it. The seed that was planted back in 1972 was now beginning to grow.
Treb tells me he went back another night to visit Dave and his family, which was a usual thing for him to do. Though, this one night in particular was different.
Treb said, “Dave came out with $1,000.00 cash and he said…” Treb hesitates momentarily; I can see tears begin to well up in his eyes during our Zoom interview, and with a crackling in his voice Treb continues, “He said pay me back when you can and I did. I did pay him back.”
It’s been 41 years since Dave Klein loaned his friend Treb Heining $1,000.00 to start his balloon business. Yet, in that moment talking to Treb, I could instantly feel the gratitude Treb still feels for his friend and the generous decision Dave made that night. Dave had an unwavering belief in his friend it seems. He never stopped encouraging him, and now it was up to Treb to make his way.
BalloonArt By Treb Is Born
In 1979, now at the age of 25, Treb Heining started his business, BalloonArt By Treb out of an apartment on Vantage Avenue in North Hollywood. It was the first and only company in the world that was doing balloon décor and effects for parties and events. Treb remembered Wally Amos’ advice and reached out to a few caterers in Los Angeles. One of which was “Renta Yenta,” a successful catering business that was owned by two women, Lila Greene and Toby Brown. They were kind to Treb, and hired him based solely on the ideas that he shared with them, as he had no proof of concept photos.
Treb explains that in those days, balloons were only used for birthday parties, or circus events. Treb always accepted the small project, but always brought extra supplies and would ask the caterer if he could decorate an area with what he wanted to do. It would be in those areas that would always involve creating what he called “balloon columns.”
Cher Witnesses the Birth of Treb’s Balloon Arch
The caterers at Renta Yenta asked Treb to help out with balloons for a birthday party for Cher and Greg Allman’s son Elijia Blue who was turning three years old.
Treb said, “Back in those days, caterers had like $50.00 for balloons. They’d say just a few 5 inch balloons here on this table. In this case I asked if I could do what I wanted on the tennis court, the caterer said sure. We ended up doing this large column over the tennis court. I then thought, hey Elijia “Blue,” he was 3 years old at that time in 1979, and we had a bunch of blue balloons, why don’t we put helium in these? And so we put helium in the 4 balloon clusters and I made an archway of balloons that connected these columns that went over the tennis court, and that was the very first balloon arch ever done in the entire world. Just came by happenstance. Cher then came out onto the tennis court and took a picture with us, the stuff we were doing was so spectacular back then because no one had ever seen anything like it. So we had a picture with Cher in front of the arch and we rode balloon arches for many, many years before there was any company that even came close.
The pictures below show Treb’s team at Elijah’s 3rd birthday party. If you’ll notice, the balloons that are on the tables behind them are what the caterer requested. The other pictures of Cher’s tennis court, was Treb’s improvisation. He was always finding ways to be creative and introduce the world to see what balloon art could be. He was paid $50.00 for this job, but after seeing the tennis court design was tipped an extra $50.00!
Treb said, “We were so proficient. As we went on we developed systems. I would always work shoulder to shoulder with my crew, so pretty soon people were tying balloons just as fast as me. We had crews up to 10 – 20 people that were just monsters. We would go into a ball room and transfer it just like a snap of a finger. I remember the busboys that would be putting up tables and chairs would sometimes just sit and watch the balloons going up, the columns, the arches, the work was spectacular. Did we have to market? Did we have to solicit? NO. Every event we did we got 4 or 5 calls. It was all I could do to keep up with the ringing phone and making appointments.”
BalloonArt By Treb is Going Hollywood
This was a passion for Treb, he was doing things that were just off the charts now and was written into the Hollywood scene very quickly.
Treb says, “Hollywood caught on to it, the film companies, the premiers, after parties, L.A. was our oyster. We owned the town. There wasn’t a big event in town that we were not involved with. We were on a roll. We eventually had our first office on Melrose across from Pacific Design Center.
Through the 1970’s and into the early 1980’s, Treb was the first to pioneer balloon designs in the form of arches, columns, letters, logos, spiral designs and sculpture. We’ve all seen balloon designs like these before, they seem commonplace now, but they wouldn’t be common today, if it weren’t for Treb Heining who first dreamt them.
Treb Meets Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker, the son of Disneyland bandleader Vesey Walker, was also a musician and served as the band director at the University of Southern California. Walt Disney attended one of the football games at USC and saw the band perform their halftime show in 1955. After seeing the show, Walt asked Tommy to plan the day’s events for the July 17, 1955 grand opening of Disneyland.
After the momentous grand opening, Tommy was hired as Disneyland’s very first Entertainment Director. Walker would introduce many firsts to Disneyland’s stage, like the Candlelight Procession, but what he is most remembered for were the nighttime firework spectaculars that he brought to Disneyland’s night sky.
After many years at Disneyland, Tommy had a falling out with Walt Disney which ultimately led to his dismissal. After he was let go, Tommy went on to create his own special event company called Tommy Walker Spectaculars.
In the early 1980’s, Tommy started calling Treb, wanting his balloon art for half time shows for the NFL. This then led Treb into work with the Super Bowls, and the Rams, when they first moved from L.A. to Anaheim. Tommy and Treb had a great working relationship and the two would work together at the World’s Fair in 1984 in New Orleans and then they both came together again to work on the 1984 Olympics Opening Ceremony, which Treb says, “Put BalloonArt By Treb on the map.”
By 1984, 5 years after Treb first started BalloonArt By Treb, and now at the age of 29, his company was grossing $1 million a year in sales.
It’s around this time that the Disney organization began to notice Treb. Disneyland’s Art Director Clare Graham wanted to start trying him out. First Treb was utilized for projects at locations outside of the park, like at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
Treb Shares, “Clare was not going to let BalloonArt By Treb come in and do their first deal inside the park, he was going to test us out just to see how we worked. We did our first event at the Children’s Museum in Los Angeles and a couple other events before he finally scheduled an event for us inside the park.”
Treb was excited with the prospect of being able to design and share his balloon art with a company he revered. Stepping back into the place where he first started as a balloon boy back in 1969 was Treb’s goal. By this time, Treb was already known as a proven pioneer in an industry he created. There was no competition. BalloonArt By Treb was the best and Disney was now calling. Soon the gates would open for Treb to return, not knowing then of course, that the best was yet to come.
On May 22, 1998 at the mere price tag of $100 million, the new Tomorrowland was rededicated at Disneyland with special guests in attendance, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Tomorrowland opened with a new esthetic, attractions and exhibits like Rocket Rods and the American Space Experience. Although these additions no longer exist today, including most of Tomorrowland’s 1998 makeover, there is one special item that also appeared in Tomorrowland around this time, and not only does it continue to exist today, it has flourished. It is an invention so magical in design, that it includes a 15” Mickey Mouse head shaped latex balloon incased inside of a round film that protects the latex Mickey balloon from oxidizing on the hot summer days. If inflated correctly, it seals the helium filled balloon in such a way that it can remain airborne for well over a month. I am of course talking about the Glasshouse balloon which remains as vibrant, new and exciting today as when it first graced Disneyland’s Tomorrowland back in 1998.
When I worked on film production at the Disneyland Resort during that time, the Glasshouse balloon was one of the highest demanded props for commercials, B-Roll and still photo shoots. On one occasion, I remember being told to pick up these important props from the balloon man who just so happened to be at Disneyland that day. I vaguely remember retrieving these special balloons from a nice dressed man who was backstage in the balloon room. The term “balloon man,” I would learn many years later, would be a severe understatement. For Treb Heining is more than a balloon man, he is THE man, a visionary, who would ignite a balloon industry and invent the bestselling balloon of all time.
To understand Treb Heining, you first have to learn about his origins. His father, a native Californian, was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army stationed out of Fort Bragg. His mother was born and raised in the village of Babylon on Long Island, New York. On one fateful trip, Treb’s father and his Army buddies went on leave to the Big Apple, and it’s here, in New York City where his parents would meet and fall in love.
The Heinings got married in 1953 and decided to purchase a home in Garden Grove, California. One of their deciding factors to purchasing the home was its proximity to a new park Walt Disney was going to build in the neighboring city of Anaheim. They had envisioned it as a nice place to take their children, a park complete with swings and slides. Unbeknownst to them what Walt Disney’s term of a “park” truly meant, and that of course, was the park we know today as Disneyland.
Because of their close proximity, Treb’s parents would often take both he and his brother to The Happiest Place on Earth.
The below home movie is Treb Heining as a youngster leading the Disneyland Band in 1957.
A Glimmer of Hope
By the time Treb entered high school in 1969, he joined the high school band. Being in the band meant that Treb had many upper grade friends, most of whom were 18 years of age and working at Disneyland. Treb wanted to work at Disneyland too, in the worst way. But at the age of 15, he could not be hired as a Cast Member.
And then, one night, a glimmer of hope for Treb. His father came home with a phone number on a piece of notepaper. His father had a friend who knew that Nat Lewis, who had been running the balloon concession at Disneyland since Walt hired him in 1956, hired workers as young as 16 years old to work in the balloon department. Nat was able to do this because his company was a lessee, a third party vendor. Still only 15 years old, Treb Heining was on a mission to work at Disneyland any way he could. He immediately called the number his father had given him, and informed the person who answered the phone that he was available immediately.
Treb said, “They told me they weren’t hiring now so to call back in a couple months. So I called the next day and they told me that, yes, we got your call yesterday but we’re not hiring now so just give it some time and we’ll call you back.”
Would you like to take a guess what happened on the third day? You’re right, Treb called once again, except this time, Treb was invited to come in and fill out an application. Treb was certainly excited that his persistence payed off.
The Day Treb Heining Filled Out an Application
Treb’s parents drove him to Harbor Gate at Disneyland. Back then there was a parking lot right in front of Disneyland where he could be dropped off. He made a phone call to the balloon room from the Harbor Security Gate and was instructed how to walk backstage. Treb ended up walking underneath the train tracks and over to the balloon room, just past where the People Mover tracks and parts were stored. He walked in and sat down, nervously filling out his application. Shortly thereafter, Treb began to hear communications go back and forth between the managers over the phones about someone not being able to show up for work.
One of the managers then turned to Treb and said, “You wanna work today?”
To which Treb quickly replied, “Yes!”
After telling his parents they would have to come back and pick him up later, Treb went out that very day as a balloon vendor to sell balloons. He was now an official Nat Lewis Balloon Boy making $1.35 per hour. It was a whole 15 cents less per hour from the previous job he was working at, but Treb didn’t mind. He was working at Disneyland!
An Official Disneyland Balloon Boy
Treb’s first day out as a Balloon Boy was a rite of passage, in that he had to wear an outfit no other Balloon Boy would wear. The Costuming Department had given Nat Lewis several costumes for the Balloon Boys to try out, and none of the other boys would wear this one.
Treb remembers that his costume was a “Yellow thing with fluffy pants and yellow tights and I remember all the other senior balloon boys were coming out during that evening just to come by and look at me and laugh. I didn’t care because I got to be working at Disneyland. I will never forget that first time of walking past the Inn Between (the backstage lunch cafeteria for cast members) to the entrance that lets you out just past the north side of Plaza Inn with my balloons. It was the first time in my life of walking into Disneyland that wasn’t through the Main Gate (Treb laughs with a fondness I can hear in his voice).”
Treb shared that his feelings were of nothing more than pure excitement to be in THE PARK, and as we continued the interview he said, “That’s how it all began.”
Five Balloon Boy Positions
There were five positions where a balloon boy would sell the balloons. They were Fantasyland, Small World, Good Gate and Bad Gate (near the front of the park’s Main Gate) and Subland (located in-between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, the pathway just past Matterhorn Mountain). The term Good Gate was derived because guests would often pass through the Emporium and then exit the park towards the right tunnel entrance, so that side of the gate would always have many more guests exiting, therefore more balloon sales. Bad Gate was on the opposite side of the street, towards where Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is located.
Treb said that “It was very advantageous to work either Subland or the Gates as you got to wear the really cool outfit. Which was the blue pants, striped shirt, the vest and the straw hat. But, you only got to wear that after you worked there for a while.”
Treb first started his role in Fantasyland and he further explained that in Fantasyland and Small World, the balloon boys had to wear the not as cool Peter Pan costume.
The Art of Selling
Treb learned from Nat Lewis that “bending the balloon,” having a large quantity, is important. To this day, the different concessions that Treb works with at the various Disney Parks around the world, he stresses how important it is to keeping the “umbrella full.” A huge umbrella of balloons causes people to stop and look at them.
Treb explained that after a guest stops to look at the beautifully arranged balloons, they might say, “Woah, that’s cool, hey how much are these? Boom. That’s the opening you get. A very basic marketing technique that was taught to me back then. Once you get someone to ask a price of something, it opens a door to talking to them.”
Walt Disney did not want a carnival atmosphere at Disneyland, and the selling of balloons was no exception. Unlike carnivals, where a balloon vendor may yell, “Here, here, come get your balloon!” Disneyland’s balloon vendors are not allowed to approach the guest. The guest must come to the vendor. A way to entice the guest would be to keep the balloon umbrella perfectly flat, arranged and even, to the point where the balloon boy would be able to hold up to 100 balloons.
Another technique Treb learned, which he uses to this day, is how to sell by burying the price. “We were taught that when a guest asks about the balloons and ask the price, I would say, my balloons are 50 cents, and I don’t know what color you like, but I have a green one, a red one, a blue one, oh, this is a new one, it’s the white one and I would talk about the product and then…” Treb asks me, “What happened to the price?” Treb goes on to share that, “It’s a basic marketing strategy of burying the price. I wouldn’t say it’s 50 cents and then stand there, because then people would complain and say that they can buy a whole packet of balloons for 50 cents.”
When Treb first started to sell balloons, the Mickey Mouse head balloon was made of latex and smaller than today’s version.
“We sold them for 35 cents. Which was always hard to make change if someone ordered three. About one year after I worked there, in 1970, they went to the larger mouse head and charged 50 cents. That is the same size they sell today, but without the glasshouse.”
The vendors always wanted to sell as many balloons as they could, as it was much easier to stand with less balloons, because if you had a lot, and it became windy, the balloons became very hard to keep arranged.
The room crew, under Nat Lewis’ guidance, would always keep everyone loaded up with balloons, especially if the crew heard that Nat was going to be in the park that day.
Treb explained that everyone had to be on their best behavior when Nat Lewis was around. “If you weren’t standing in the right spot or if he saw somebody who didn’t have enough balloons, there was hell to pay.”
“After you worked there for a while, you would eventually move up to the room position,” Treb said. “In the room position, you would fill the balloons and deliver them to the sellers in the park.”
Working your way up into the balloon room, which is where the balloons were inflated was a place Treb learned a great deal. He explained that the balloon boys took a great amount of pride in what they did and they did things as quickly as they could.”
It’s here in the balloon room where Treb learned the spin-tie method, where you would spin around thread to tie off the balloon. The spin-tie method was important, because if the balloons weren’t sold by the end of the night, the balloon boys would have to return to the balloon room to untie them. The spin-tie method enabled the vendors to quickly untie the balloons, let the helium out and then toss the balloons into a dryer for a few minutes. The heat from the dryer would cause the balloon to shrink back down to its original size so it could be re-blown the next day. Treb and the other boys hated re-blows, because they weren’t as fresh as the other balloons, so they often tried their hardest to sell out their balloons each night, which they often did.
I asked Treb how fast he could tie a balloon.
He responded by saying, “Spin tying was one thing, but actually tying a latex balloon came about when we used to do the Christmas Parade.” Treb went on to explain that the finale unit of the Christmas Parade had six cars. Each car had a letter spelling out T.H.E. E.N.D. and throughout the parade there would be an elf that would pull a string to one of the boxes and a balloon release would occur for the parade two times a day. Nat Lewis would always bring in extra boys to help with the parade.
“So, there was a few of us regular Disneyland Balloon Boys, as we called ourselves,” Treb explains, who would have to go back there and help out. I remember we didn’t like it so much. We wanted to work in the balloon room or back out on stage, so we would challenge each other. We knew we had so many balloons to inflate. We got to the point where we could inflate and tie these balloons so fast. Back in those days they were 9 inch balloons and we could do 17 to 20 per minute. It’s mind boggling to watch.”
Treb told me he could inflate and tie about 1000 balloons in one hour and posted a YouTube video of just how he used to it. Click on the link below.
“That’s where I learned the skill of being able to inflate and tie balloons really, really fast. This was a skill that was comical to us back then, but we were just trying to get back to doing what we wanted to do.” Treb and the other Disneyland Balloon Boys always looked at the guys that Nat brought in seasonally to help during the Christmas season as not really being folks they wanted to associate with.
“They didn’t have the haircuts we had, I mean we were very proud of the fact that we were Disneyland Balloon Boys,” Treb continues by saying, “When I say Disneyland Balloon Boys, that’s because there were no girls in the operation at that time. It was the 60’s and this group of Balloon Boys was this tightknit group of guys, very much a hierarchy of seniority, and who could do it the best, but ultimately just some of the best days of my life.”
The Opening of Walt Disney World
Nat Lewis announced a contest during the springtime of 1971. He informed the Balloon Boys that six would be chosen to go and help with the balloon release at the grand opening of the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971. Treb tells me that they really had to mind their “P’s and Q’s.” The boys were all on their best behavior hoping to be chosen; and ultimately, Treb Heining was one of the boys awarded with the opportunity to be on the balloon crew for the opening of Walt Disney World.
The Flight of a Lifetime
“We got a last minute letter delivered to us, telling us where to be at LAX,” Treb explains, “My dad drove me, and he was saying good-bye and then my dad started noticing Annette Funicello, Forrest Tucker, and Agnus Morehead…my dad goes to the payphone and calls his work to tell them he’s going to be late. Somehow, Nat had arranged for all us balloon boys to get on the Disney charter plane. Everybody that was on that plane was a who’s who of Hollywood. Everybody who had basically been in a Disney movie before was on that plane. The plane took off and then Jonathan Winters gets up and takes over the mic and was making funny announcements in the voice of Mickey Mouse. Frankie Avalon, Fess Parker and Sterling Holloway, who I grew up to listening narrate “Peter and the Wolf,” and he’s sitting in the seat behind me! Then people started to ask what we did.” Treb then says, with great laughter, “We’re balloon boys!”
When the plane landed, the stars went off to their fancy accommodations, and the balloon boys got into Nat’s van. Treb was so excited that he was able to be there for the opening.
Treb said, “It was a beautiful balloon release of 50,000 balloons, a very heady experience. Of course, not knowing at that time that I was going to make a living in balloons.” The skills Treb first learned while working at Disneyland at a very early age he says, was to “dream big, work hard, show respect to all those you work with and always be professional.” Those skills and beliefs not only helped him to start his own business, but it ended up starting a worldwide industry, turning Treb’s dream job into a job that would last a lifetime.
A Disneyland Balloon Boy, The Treb Heining Story To be Continued…