Words like “legend” and “icon” get tossed around a lot in
Hollywood, but the people who built the Walt Disney company, creating timeless
films and beloved theme park attractions, earned those titles long ago. The studio
holds its own “Legends” ceremony every year, but so does a group of dedicated
enthusiasts known as the Disneyana Fan Club, and last weekend they honored
three worthy recipients at their annual convention in Anaheim, California:
Howard Green, Bruce Reitherman, and Tony Baxter. If their names aren’t of the
household variety, the work they’ve done certainly is.
I must disclose that Howard and Tony are good friends of mine, so I won’t pretend to be objective in writing about them. Howard is currently Vice President, Communications for Walt Disney Animation Studios, and has been with the company for 36 years. He was personally hired by the longtime head of Buena Vista, Irving Ludwig—who, years earlier, was hand-chosen to run the distribution company by Walt and Roy Disney. Howard earned his stripes doing unit publicity on a number of features, writing presskits, and participating in ambitious junkets for Mickey Mouse’s 50th and 60th birthdays (in Russia!). What the cold facts don’t reveal is that he became close friends with his professional charges, including Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Joe Grant, and Roy E. Disney, traveling with them and their families to festivals and events around the world and earning their complete trust. A giving, caring person, Howard is one of the genuine Good Guys in the movie business—and a tireless ambassador for all things Disney.
Bruce Reitherman is the son of Wolfgang Reitherman, the animator-turned-director who was one of Walt Disney’s fabled Nine Old Men. The self-effacing documentary filmmaker was more interested in discussing his father than himself, and provided a spontaneous (and poignant) commentary for a slide show that gave us a glimpse of his dad’s personality away from the drawing board. Still, Bruce has his own claim to fame in Disney history: he was the voice of Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree and Mowgli in The Jungle Book. He recalled that his father wisely tried to shield him from the show-business aspect of these tasks and keep him as real a kid as possible. When it came to coaching during recording sessions, he leaned on story man Larry Clemmons so the instructions wouldn’t be coming from his dad.
Bruce is not the first person to find a strong link between his father’s passion for flying and his leadership ability, noting that “you can’t fly a plane backwards—it’s all about forward movement.” During World War Two, “Woolie” served as a pilot and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. In the 1960s he became the studio’s principal animation director, riding herd over a wide range of strong, artistic personalities. He already had a reputation for tackling some of the most vigorous and ambitious action scenes in Disney cartoon features: the dinosaur battle in Fantasia, the chase involving Monstro the Whale in Pinocchio, and the climactic fight between Prince Philip and the dragon Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, to name a few.
A lifelong aviation enthusiast, he took an unexpected turn into the world of art as a young man at the influential Chouinard Art Institute, and later said of animation, “It was a romance from the start. The minute you know you can make a drawing move, the static drawing loses its appeal; movement is life. Animation represents the greatest breakthrough in 20th century art.”
Tony Baxter has already been honored by the Disneyana Fan Club, and is about to be inducted as an official Disney Legend at this year’s D23 Fan Convention in August (click HERE), but the Disneyana folks had to commemorate a moment of passage as Tony moves on after 47 years as an Imagineer. Tony is another person who hasn’t held a job so much as followed a calling. He transformed his childhood love of Disneyland into an amazing career that saw him take a lead position in almost every major transition at the original park, Walt Disney World in Florida, and Disneyland Paris—from the creation of Star Tours and the Indiana Jones Ride to the reintroduction of Walt Disney’s submarine ride as a Finding Nemo attraction. Tony looks forward to new challenges, as he is the kind of person whose imagination is forever brimming with ideas.
It was lovely to be in attendance as these three talented (and modest) people received recognition last Friday. As icing on the cake, my wife and I arrived in time to hear an inspiring speech by Marty Sklar, the longtime head of Imagineering who has a book coming out next month called Dream It! Do It! My Half Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms. Having worked closely with Walt Disney himself, Marty has long been a living link to Disneyland’s founder. I can’t wait to read his book.