Legacy Content

Bob Welbaum: Rolly Crump, One Special Imagineer
Page 1 of 3

by Bob Welbaum (archives)
May 5, 2009
Bob talks extensive about a 1993 presentation by Rolly Crump to the NFFC. As Bob puts it... "a lot of what he talked about was what he called 'the nave years, to where we didnt know we couldnt do it, and we did it.' His presentation had been enlightening, entertaining, and down-to-earth, and I decided to dig out the video and relive that time with him."

Part I The Beginning

Ive been trying to catch up on my reading, and have been going through Walt Disneys Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park by Jeff Kurtti (Disney Enterprises, 2008). In this book, Jeff profiles 29 Imagineers (30 if you count Walt Disney) in four-to-six page sketches divided into ten categories (The Executive Suite, The Story Department, The Model Shop, etc.), along with a brief description of what Walt Disney Imagineering is.

When I got to Masters of the Mixed Media and saw the name of Roland Rolly Crump, my memory came to life.

Rolly Crump had spoken to the 1993 NFFC Convention. Although he didnt retire until 1998, a lot of what he talked about was what he called the nave years, to where we didnt know we couldnt do it, and we did it. His presentation had been enlightening, entertaining, and down-to-earth, and I decided to dig out the video and relive that time with him.

Rolly had actually started in Animation; he had been the last inbetweener hired for the animated feature Peter Pan. Animation meant artists were basically cartoonists, which meant they were constantly thinking up gags, which meant they played a lot of gags on each other. Everybody who worked in Animation for Walt had this freedom, this craziness that was part of them, Rolly explained. To illustrate this point, he recounted one classic example:

One night I was working late on Peter Pan and the two assistants that I was working for, I came into their room and they were down on the floor and they were drilling a hole in the wall.

In the Disney Animation Department, artists sat at an animation desk with a built-in light table. That means theres a little hole in the desk for an electric cord to power the light. These assistants were drilling a hole in the wall with a particular target in mind: Milt Kahl, one of the famed Nine Old Men and a leading animator for the Studio. As Rolly described it:

they actually aligned the hole up on the other side, and they put a little tube in the hole, and for weeks, once a week, they would take a big squeeze ball filled with talcum powder and [whooshing sound] shoot it in there, and Milt got up to go to lunch and thered be talcum powder all over his crotch. And he couldnt figure out where the talcum powder was coming from. And Milt was kind of a noisy guy, and he would go J____ C_____! and of course when hed look theyd pull the little tube out and he didnt see it. So this went on for quite a few weeks.

Well, finally he was gonna have lunch with Walt in the Coral Room. And he wore a tie that day and a sport coat and everything. And you can tell when youre gonna leave, you turn off your light switch for your light table, because its a metal base in there, when that switch goes off you get this big bang. Soon as he hit the light switch they let him have it with hot water, and completely wiped out his entire crotch. So you can imagine hes having to go to have lunch with Walt and his whole crotch is just sopping wet. Of course hes yelling and screaming and he runs next door and realizes what those guys have done. Now that is just one of the millions of stories I could tell you about what went on in Animation.

Needless to say, Rolly tried to carry that freedom and spirit of humor with him when he went to WED (which was the original name for Walt Disney Imagineering and was derived from Walt Disneys initials). Even in 1993, Rolly lamented how things had changed. Now the company is much larger and the humor isnt quite there like it used to be.

What got Rolly his job at WED, and in effect changed his life, was a mechanical pencil. When Rolly joined Disney, he didnt know what a mobile was. One of the artists he worked with had built a mobile one day that ran off the air conditioner. Rolly became intrigued with kinetic sculpture and started building mobiles on the weekends.

One day (while still in Animation), Rolly walked into the room of Imagineer Wathel Rogers. Wathel had taken the clip that held the eraser onto his pencil, mounted a pushpin atop his lamp, and had set the clip on the pushpin to form a little propeller that was spun by the heat from the lamp.

This got Rollys attention immediately. How do you do that? he asked. Wathel quickly replied Its a secret. I cant tell you.

So Rolly went back to his room and tried it himself. But he couldnt quite perfect it, and whenever he would ask, Wathel would always tell him Its a secret.

Finally Wathel offered to sell the secret, and Rolly gratefully bought it (for a penny). By the way, the secret was using the point of a ballpoint pen to make a smooth, friction-minimizing indentation for the pushpin to rest in; Rolly had been trying to use a nail and his indentation was too jagged.

So Rolly went back to his room and made a little helicopter with a propeller powered by the air conditioner. One day someone from the Art Props Department walked in, saw the spinning propeller, and immediately asked How do you do that? And Rolly quickly replied Oh, its a secret.

But Rolly did tell him, and was chagrined to see this artist make a bigger propeller by adding little pieces of cardboard. So Rolly got to work, and within six months or so had filled his room with increasingly elaborate propellers mounted on sticks in groups, as parts of mobiles, inside wine bottles, etc. He even discovered that with a little soldering and twisting in the opposite direction, he could have a counter-rotating propeller on top of the first propeller. When word got around, Rolly was invited to exhibit some of his work in the studio library, where artists showed off (and sold) their artwork. Rolly not only exhibited mobiles and propellers, he also added some tongue-in-cheek posters befitting the times, like Heroine Airlines and Smoke Marijuana.

His exhibit was well received; he thought maybe too well received when hed heard Walt had been by and had taken to all in. What Rolly didnt know was that Walt was looking to expand WED, and decided Rolly was just the type of creative talent WED needed. Rollys near-panic turned to relief when he quickly accepted the invitation to join WED. As he remembers it, My superior told me Rolly, you must have been a diamond-in-the-rough, because you actually had the worst portfolio of anyone who ever got a job in this company. And Rolly readily agreed!

When he joined WED in 1959, one of Rollys first jobs was thinking up illusions for the planned Haunted Mansion at Disneyland with co-Imagineer Yale Gracy. They had an entire wing of the building to themselves and spent a solid year just building models and thinking up illusions. Rolly readily admits they made it up as we went. For example, they put a slide of a skull into a slide projector and shot the projector around the room on a doorknob, the wall, anything. Then Yale shot the projector onto a mirror ball and they had skulls all over the ceiling, all perfectly in focus (an effect they never fully understood). That effect a still projector shooting an image into a series of turning mirrors was still being used in the Mansion when Rolly spoke.

One of their most valuable tools was a series of volumes of The Boy Mechanic owned by Yale Gracey. Volume 1 contained the Peppers Ghost Illusion as developed by Professor John Henry Pepper in the1860s, which has always been used in the Haunted Mansion. So much for high technology! [The Boy Mechanic: Volume 1 by Popular Mechanics Co. is on the Internet at www.gutenberg.org. Look on page 64 for A Miniature Peppers Ghost Illusion (52).]

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