Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Rolly Crump: A Conversation

I first discovered Rolly Crump while reading about Mr. Toad's Wild Ride online (in preparation for The Merrily Song post).  I learned that he was instrumental in the design of the ride in Disney World, and when I saw he had an autobiography with illustrious reviews, I bought it immediately. The book, entitled It's Kind of a Cute Story and written by Crump and Jeff Heimbuch, follows his life and career as a Disney artist, designer, and imagineer.  As the title suggests, the book is full of countless great stories including some insightful recollections on Walt Disney himself whom Rolly worked closely with.

His Disney-related accomplishments are innumerable, and they include:
  • Animator on Peter Pan, 101 Dalmations, Sleeping Beauty, and Lady and the Tramp
  • Designer in Disneyland of The Haunted Mansion, Enchanted Tiki Room, It's a Small World, and Tomorrowland
  • Worked on multiple pavilions at the transcendent 1964 New York World's Fair, including the creation of the Tower of the Four Winds structure which stood outside the Pepsi-Cola Small World pavilion.
  • Helped create several rides/pavilions in Disney World including Mr. Toad, Listen to the Land, Food Rocks, Life and Health pavilion, and Innoventions.
In 2004, Rolly was inducted as an official Disney Legend.  And as if these achievements weren't enough, he also worked outside of Disney on many projects including for Jacques Cousteau, Steve Wynn, Circus World, Knott's Berry Farm, the Sultan of Oman, and Wet 'N Wild (in fact, he came up with the "Wet 'N Wild" name).

I had a chance to talk to Rolly and his partner, Marie about his book and career, and they couldn't have been friendlier.  And before we get to our conversation, I want to mention that Rolly will be among those interviewed for a PBS American Experience special on Walt Disney that premieres on September 14th and 15th -- that is sure to be a fantastic documentary.  

NS: It's amazing to me how many different areas you were able to master (such as art, design, architecture, writing) all while having just six days of formal training (from a high school art program).  

RC: It's all about being a good sponge.  It means you want to learn as much as you can about everything.  Research is very important -- I was taught that the first part of any project is research.

NS: I'm interested to hear more about what you called your "intense workout regimen." Your fellow animators would have fun and draw you with huge muscles.  

RC: It was very simple.  I was a skinny little guy to begin with, and for some reason along the way I decided I wanted to gain weight.  I talked to a friend of mine who said, "You gotta lift weights," so I started lifting weights and sure enough starting gaining weight.  We had a gym in the penthouse of the Disney studio.  Walt had built all of this from the very beginning.  There was a place where the guys could work out, have a sea bath, take showers, and there was a little restaurant up there.  It was a little haven up on the top floor, and it was great.

NS: I have a few questions about The Haunted Mansion.  I'm much more familiar with the Florida version, and early on in that one there are some marble busts which turn to look at you as your car goes by.  I've always thought that was a phenomenal effect. 

RC: That was all Yale Gracey's work, a fellow Imagineer. You have to understand that almost everything we did was happy accidents.  What happened was we had taken some heads and had them cast.  Yale's idea was to project skulls from behind so that you'd see this statue against the wall and this skull inside of it.  We had all these mocked up and one day Yale is walking behind all these heads, and as he walked along, it looked like the heads were following him.  It was just an illusion that took place, and that was only because you were looking at the head at a different angle as you walked by.  So Yale said, "Let's put it in the ride!"

NS: Are there any mirrors involved?

RC: No.  If you had a head that was cast and you looked at it from behind the head after it was cast, and if the inside of the mask was as sharp as the exterior, then you'll get that illusion.

NS: The other illusion that always impresses me is the ballroom scene where the ghosts are dining and dancing.  

RC: You're looking into a piece of glass, and the glass is set up at an angle and is reflecting what's underneath the ride.  It's all about the intensity of light that you put on each one of the characters.  When the ghost is visible, you light up the figures underneath you to match the figures that you're looking at, and you only see what's lit.

Let me tell you a cute story about that.  Once the ride was finished and you saw all the people dancing, it's actually backwards because it's reflected into a glass.  So the man in reality is leading the woman in dance, but what you see is the woman leading the man.  I don't know if anybody has ever noticed that.

Now let me ask you a question -- were you going to ask me about the Toad ride?

NS: Yes, let's talk about Mr. Toad!  The book says that you were asked to build two identical rides because it was so popular in Disneyland, but you thought that was a dumb idea and instead built two different rides housed in the same building.

RC: I was originally asked to design all the dark rides for Disney World, and I started off with the Toad ride.  Dick Nunis, who was the head of operations, said, "Rolly, I want you to make two Toad rides."  I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, the Toad ride is the most popular dark ride we have."  

I said, "Well, I'm not going to do duplicates, but I'll design a ride that has a double hourly capacity."  We put the two rides in one big building, and what happens is you load on the ride in two different locations.  When you got into the Toad car, they'd be released and be coming straight at each other.  Then they'd both go into the doors of Toad Hall, and then one would go to the right and one would go to the left.  The one that went to the left would crash into a kitchen, and the one that went to the right would crash into a library, and they would crash into all kinds of different things.  Then in the center, they would all come back together in the little town square.  

NS: Yes, I remember that!

RC: Then they'd split off to separate tracks again -- there was a jail, a barn with chickens, a gypsy camp, and then both would have the same ending with the train hitting and killing you and then you go to Hell, which was a bunch of funny little devils to make you giggle and laugh.

One reason I did it differently on each side was that I wanted a family to go on it and the father to say, "Gee, I saw all those chickens in the barn," and maybe the son would say, "I didn't see any chickens in the ride."  So there was controversy about what they saw in the ride but yet they both went on the same ride, so that was kind of a fun thing to do.

I really was very proud of doing the ride, and I was so upset when they took it out.  I know that some people picketed the ride and said "Save Mr. Toad."  The problem is you have a bunch of designers, and management wants to keep the designers busy, so they decide to take a ride out and put a new ride in.  Which is kind of sad.  

NS: Did you do any other dark rides in Disney World?

RC: I was going to do all of them, but some of the other designers needed work so they gave them to the other designers.  But I actually designed three dark rides that were never built. One of them was Alice in Wonderland.  My design had you sitting in the teacup and spinning as you went through the ride.  I thought that was kind of fun because that meant that whatever area you were in, it had to be designed three dimensionally all around you. 

NS: In your book, you mention your work with the design and planting of the hydroponic plants on the original "Listen to the Land" ride.  Every time I go on that ride now, I get bummed out that the opening song is missing.  I know there was a change in sponsorship between Kraft and Nestlé -- is there anything else you can tell me about why the song went away?

RC: I'm afraid I can't answer that one.  It was a beautiful piece of music, and why they eliminated it, I don't know, because it really fit into the pavilion. I remember meeting with John Denver about it and wanting him to sing it for the ride, but I don't remember if he got the gig.  

The whole secret to the success of The Land pavilion was that I had an incredible team that worked with me, and each one of the team members played an important role.  Some of them did the original Kitchen Kabaret, which was an incredible piece of work.

Editor's Note: The "Listen to the Land" song is generally credited to Bob Moline, and I had never heard of John Denver being involved.  I reached out to another Disney Legend, Marty Sklar, to ask about Denver's potential involvement, and he said, "The song was written by Bob Moline, who also wrote (and sang) that song, the Canada song, one of the original Universe of Energy songs, and 'Great Bird' for the American Adventure (written with Randy Bright). John Denver did visit us once during the development of Epcot Center. It was an amazing day because he brought a friend with him: Buckminster Fuller! But we never connected with John Denver to record any of our songs."

NS: What do you remember about working on the Life and Health pavilion?

RC: The biggest problem was that the health educators would always argue with each other, and nobody would agree on anything.  We had a conference in Florida, and after the conference, all the health educators were complaining.  Some would say, "You're not supposed to have eggs," while others would say, "It's ok to have eggs."  It just went on and on and on. 

We worked with a professor out of UCLA, Dr. Charles Lewis, who was classified as supposedly the best health educator in the United States.  After working with him for two or three months and trying to put together some small shows and venues, I finally said, "Jesus Christ, isn't there a common denominator that everyone will agree with?"  He said, "Oh yeah."  I said, "Well, what is it?"  He said, "It's a 'health habit.'  If you do the health habits, they'll all agree with you.  And that's when I came up with the idea of the Great Midway of Life.  It was a carousel with all these iron figures that represented different health habits like brushing your teeth and exercise.  

I was thrilled about that and later disturbed that they never built that pavilion the way we designed it.  The problem is that when they turned it over to a project manager, he didn't stay with any of the ideas that we had.

NS: Did you work with the Sherman brothers at all?

RC: No, I did not.  You have to remember that Walt would have a team, but they didn't necessarily interface.  The music group was separate and answered directly to Walt.  

NS: Is it true that Walt Disney had an apartment in the Disneyland castle?

RC: No, it was in the fire house on Main Street.

Editor's Note: Turns out that Disney's apartment in the fire house is well documented.  I wasn't aware of that and had been thinking of the proposed apartment in the Disney World castle which is now an opulent suite

NS: Speaking of secrets, tell me about Club 33.

RC: That was Walt's idea and it goes back a long way.  At one time before Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at the '64 World's Fair, Walt had come up with the idea of a Chinese restaurant where an audio-animatronic Chinese man was sitting on the stage answering questions from the audience; in fact, it was the first animatronic figure that was designed. Obviously, there was a mirror behind him where a live person could hear the question and then know how to answer.  But we never built it because Walt decided to do Lincoln instead.

What he then wanted was the same idea in a restaurant.  While you were sitting in the restaurant, you'd have all these stuffed animals around that would come to life and talk to you. And the concept would be the same where someone would be sitting off stage behind a mirror so they could see who was asking the question and respond in kind.  Where Walt got this idea of having the animals talk to you was from Knott's Berry Farm.  They had the old One Eyed Joe in the jail, and when you went over to talk to One Eyed Joe and ask him questions, there was a guy behind a window up above you who'd recognize what you were wearing.  

So One Eyed Joe would talk to you about your clothes and who you were and everything, and Walt loved that idea.  There was at one time a dining room with all those animals in Club 33, though they may have changed it since then.  

MARIE: To get into the club, you had to be a member or a VIP -- it was a very exclusive, upscale place. Now it is a corporate membership club and is thousands of dollars to belong.  It's just a restaurant, really -- very good food, but expensive. 

NS: Marie, did you work for the Disney company also?

MARIE: I did.  Through a mutual friend, I met Rolly when he was working on the Toad ride design at one of the soundstages at the studio.  I worked at the studio in wardrobe and makeup where I was the secretary to the heads of those departments.  And then 33 years later, Rolly and I met again.

NS: Rolly, you worked very closely with Walt Disney for many years.  What do you think was unique about him, and what made him great?

RC: He was a genius, and the uniqueness of him was that as much of a genius as he was, he was so down to earth.  When he talked, he made you feel comfortable.  There was never a time where he didn't make you feel comfortable.  He was a sweetheart and marvelous to work with.  He could get a little cranky, but you had to ask for the crankiness to get it.

NS: You mention in the book that he respected you because you spoke honestly to him rather than try and kiss up. 

RC: I think the whole secret to working with Walt was to tell him the truth.  And a lot of the other guys wouldn't do that because they wanted to try and make him feel like they knew what he was talking about.  And I'd sit there and think, "This is ridiculous -- they don't have a clue because I don't have a clue."

I was never afraid to speak up to management.  Here's another story about the Toad ride. On many of those dark rides, all the sets themselves and the backgrounds were painted on canvas.  Then you applied the canvas to the walls, just like wallpaper.  Well, for some unknown reason my beloved leader Dick Irvine decided to leave the Toad ride canvases on the walls and ship the freaking walls across the United States.  I thought that was absolutely ridiculous, and I challenged Dick and said, "What the hell are you doing?  It'll cost a fortune to ship 2x4 walls across the United States."  He said, "Well, we don't trust the carpenters in Florida."  I said, "Oh my God."

There were times when no one would speak up against management, and of course I spoke up against them constantly, so they had a hard time with me.  That's why after Walt passed away, they decided to get me out of the building and sent me to Disneyland as a supervising art director to get me out of WED.

NS: After having gotten used to Walt's amazing leadership, I imagine it must have been hard for you to deal with management after he died. 

RC: It was impossible.  Everyone just ran rampant in their own direction.  There was no cohesiveness about the group anymore.  It was just gone.  It was sad.  The whole idea of teamwork went out the door when Walt passed away.  Because he was a team worker -- an incredible team worker.  There was a certain atmosphere that was created when Walt was alive, and that atmosphere is completely gone now.  It's just a business now, albeit a very successful business.  

NS: I like the story from the book where you were in Tomorrowland in Disneyland and made a pattern of flowers with just your mind and a shovel -- no drawings or planning or anything.  And then you and the chief landscaper did all the digging.  In today's overly regulated world, you'd probably need to have 5 meetings and get 10 people to sign off on something like that. 

RC: Absolutely.  Everything we did was hands on.  When you did something, you learned how it was built after you got finished with it and then you followed it through.  A good example is the Tiki -- I sculpted it and then we sent it over the studio where they made a fiberglass model off of it.  Then they sent it back to us, I painted it, and then I bolted it in there.  So you followed through and worked in every different discipline.  And there was no paperwork.  

NS: Do you make it back to Disneyland much?

RC:  No, no.  The charm is gone, and it's so crowded.  I've been there for a few special events and anniversaries, but I didn't go to the recent 60th anniversary.

NS: When you two met the second time around, did you recognize each other from the first time?

MARIE: Oh yeah.  I sought him out when he was having an art show at a gallery close by to where I lived, and that mutual friend that introduced us originally had passed away, and I wanted Rolly to know that.  I went to the gallery and re-introduced myself -- that was 12 years ago, and he's still here.  That's another book! 

NS: What are you both up to now?  What keeps you busy?

RC:  Marie keeps me busy!  I do a lot of interviews, and we get a few letters of fan mail every week, and we have all these different pieces of work that I did which I sign and send back.  Some of the letters people write to me are incredible -- some of them damn near makes you cry.

MARIE: The internet has opened up a whole new world, and the book as well.  So many people like you and men your age have contacted Rolly and have somehow been influenced by something they saw at Disney, and then they find out he was connected to it. It's just been a beautiful thing. 

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