It’s been more than 20 years since Disney “Imagineer” Roland “Rolly” Crump retired, but the Carlsbad artist’s indelible stamp can still be seen at the company’s Disneyland theme park in Anaheim.
During the ’60s, Crump designed and carved the totems that stand outside The Enchanted Tiki Room, built the iconic ghostly contraptions for The Haunted Mansion and helped develop “It’s a Small World.” His 40-year contribution was honored with a Walt Disney Legends Award in 2004, and on Aug. 11 a documentary about his life will be shown at the Oceanside International Film Festival.
“The Whimsical Imagineer,” produced by Vista filmmaker Ken Kebow, traces Crump’s unlikely path from a comics artist with a historically bad portfolio to a revered senior designer whose name is permanently enshrined on a store window on Disneyland’s nostalgic Main Street: “Fargo’s Palm Reader, Roland F. Crump.”
Now 86, Crump and his wife, Marie, share a sunny two-story Carlsbad condominium where every inch of wall space is decorated with his paintings, mobiles and models, which range from original Disney sketches to colorful portraits of Josephine Baker and geishas, pen and ink female nudes and vibrant Day of the Dead designs.
Although Crump had lucrative side jobs over the years designing counter-culture posters, Ball guitar string packages and themed malls and attractions, his life and heart will forever be connected with Walt Disney.
“I loved him,” Crump said of his former boss, who died in 1966. “He was the leader of the pack. He knew how to take ideas to the next level and he loved all of his guys. He could climb inside of you and see through your eyes.”
Crump said he started drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil, filling sketchbooks from the age of 3 with stick figures and eventually more sophisticated comics art. After seeing Disney’s animated “Three Little Pigs” in 1933 as a toddler, he dreamed of working one day at the studio. That opportunity came in 1952, when a friend arranged for the 22-year-old amateur artist to present his drawings to executives at the 60-acre Disney studio in Burbank.
“I didn’t know what animation was and it scared the poop out of me when I figured it out,” he said. “Someone told me I had the worst portfolio of anyone ever hired by Disney Animation Studios.”
For the next several years, Crump worked as an “in-betweener,” finishing the painting on animation cels drawn by the lead artists for films including “Peter Pan,” “Lady and the Tramp” and “Sleeping Beauty.” For “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” he spent six months doing nothing but painting the spots on dozens of cartoon puppies. The work could be tedious and the pay was low, but he loved the creative, playful atmosphere at the studio.
In the early 1950s, Disney began work on his theme park. Intrigued, Crump started hanging around the model studios, hoping he would be asked to contribute. In 1959 — four years after Disneyland opened — he was finally invited to join WED Enterprises’ design department.
The reason was a short 8-millimeter film Crump had made years before of an art exhibit he created by turning strips of metal into air-driven propellers. Disney saw the film and wanted Crump to create a field of flowers with propeller petals for an indoor ride. Impressed by Crump’s energy and honesty, Disney would later put him on some of the park’s most high-profile projects.
For the Tiki Room, which was first conceived as a tropical restaurant with caged live birds, Crump created the “outdoor pre-show” where animatronic tiki gods talk to the audience. His very first sculpture, “Maui, the mighty one,” is still in operation.
In mid-1963, Disney asked his imagineers to come up with an international children’s boat ride for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Working from designs by artist Mary Blair, the team built more than 300 singing and dancing dolls and hundreds of toys and backdrops in just nine months.
Before Disney would sign off on the ride (which would reopen at Disneyland in 1966 as “It’s a Small World”), the design team had to assemble the whole set, with music and electronic dolls, inside a sound studio. Then they pushed Disney through the different sets in a rowboat on wheels so he could see it himself from every angle.
For the World’s Fair exhibit, Crump designed a large monument for its entrance. He created a model for the tall, delicate propeller-filled sculpture, the Tower of Four Winds, which was inspired by his favorite artist, Alexander Calder. But when engineers reimagined his design in life size, it became heavy, short and squat. Crump didn’t spare his criticism with his boss.
“Walt asked me what I thought and I said ‘it’s a piece of crap.’ He said ‘it can’t be a piece of crap because I paid $200,000 for it,’” Crump recalled, saying that Disney insisted his employees call him by his first name.
Rather than installing the tower at Disneyland, Crump instead created the huge animated clock on the front of the ride, which still sends out a parade of tin soldiers and dolls every 15 minutes.
“It still brings tears to my eyes when I see people coming out with a smile,” he said of his work on the ride.
Crump’s next big project was the Haunted Mansion, where he and designer Yale Gracey spent four years building all of the ride’s spooky illusions. They had so many extra models and drawings that Disney promised he’d use them in a “Museum of the Weird” that riders would walk through as they exited, but it was not to be.
Disney was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 1966 and told only his family. Employees were told he was hospitalized for a polo injury but Crump could see Disney was gravely ill when he came to meet with the imagineers after his release.
“His eyes were already sinking back in his head, I thought ‘oh my god, this man is sick.’ Two weeks later he died,” Crump said. “It was the worst thing that ever happened in my life. Not only was everyone profoundly sad but the management didn’t know what to do without him.”
Crump said Disney left behind 25 years of plans, including Disney World and EPCOT in Orlando, but the company’s management didn’t know how to bring his plans to fruition. There was mismanagement and cost overruns and cheap shortcuts were made.
“Disneyland hugs you but this park didn’t,” he said of Florida’s Magic Kingdom. “They lost that love and caring. It wasn’t Disney anymore. What we were left with was a dog’s breakfast.”
Disillusioned, Crump left Disney in 1970 to start his own design firm, which created an ocean theme park for Jacques Cousteau, a themed shopping mall in Texas, a themed palace room at a fort in Oman and much more. And for the next 25 years he continued to do consulting and jobs for Disney, both in Orlando and Anaheim. Many of his original designs (including the Disneyland bandstand and trashcans) are still in use today.
“You became a sacred cow when you worked with Walt and I was a young sacred cow,” he said. “These older rides and attractions represent the flavor of Walt and he was like a magician. He could tap it and it would be forever.”
Crump retired to North County in 1995, where he continued to paint. In 2003, he was exhibiting some paintings in Oceanside when Marie walked into the gallery. They had met 40 years earlier when they both worked for Disney (she was a secretary in the studio wardrobe department), but this time they fell in love.
It was Marie who introduced Crump to Kebow, a Disneyland aficionado who was amazed by Crump’s accomplishments and wanted to capture his story on film before it was too late.
“He’s such a great storyteller. I could sit and listen to him for days,” Kebow said. “I wanted to tell the story of his relationship with Walt and how Walt trusted his team to realize his vision.”
Released in April, “The Whimsical Imagineer” won the Audience Award at the 2016 Newport Beach Film Festival. The 30-minute documentary makes its local premiere at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11, at the Brooks Theatre, 217 N. Coast Highway, Oceanside. Crump will also be honored by the festival on Sunday, Aug. 14, with a lifetime achievement award.
Crump said he loves Kebow’s film and he’s honored by the award. Although he’s proud of his work, he’s humble about his contributions to the Disney legacy.
“I feel very fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “There were all these great artists and minds there. I just felt like the crumbs on the table.”
Source: San Diego Union Tribune
Banner Photo Credit: Disney