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John Hench (left) and Walt Disney
Farewell, the Incomparable John Hench, June 1908- February 2004
I used to refer to John Hench as the ‚ÄúTenth Old Man of Disney‚Ä?. While not among the venerated Nine Old Men, Hench was certainly someone with tremendous influence on Disney, through his prolific contributions and his unbelievable longevity. Much of what people associate with the Disney style is John's work.
What can you say about a man who stayed employed under both Walt Disney and Michael Eisner, all the way up until his death at a ripe old age?
No, it isn't surprising that a 95-year-old man would fall ill and pass away, but it is surprising that such a man was working at Disney until he literally was too ill to go on, and it is still an irreparable loss to Disney that he is now gone.
His passing opens up a void in the Disney culture that those left behind can attempt to mitigate, though things will never really the same. The knowledge, the experience, the insights, the unique eyes and hands that John took with him can now only speak through the films and the location-based projects he left behind, those he mentored, as well as his book that Peggy Van Pelt and Bruce Gordon helped put together and publish last year.
From "Fantasia" to Celebration, Florida to Hong Kong Disneyland, John Hench has left his mark in this world, and billions of people have been touched by his mind and heart. How many people can claim that legacy? He's a man who used his considerable skills and talent to make the world a more pleasant place.
For people like myself, born after the death of Walt Disney and his brother Roy, seeing people like John Hench in person connected me to the past. Here, in front of my very eyes, was a man who had lived through and made much Disney history, and through that work, had inspired generations of filmmakers and designers. As a Disneyland cast member, I saw him as someone who bridged the gap between Walt and Roy's Disney and the Disney of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. How much more true must that have been for Imagineers?
Rightfully named an official Disney Legend, John was one of the original Imagineers who were filmmakers recruited by Walt Disney to try something new. They were tapped to expand their experience to working on a new concept - making the kind of stories they did with films into permanent three-dimensional environments that would host millions of people a year.
John started with the Disney Story Department in May 1939, before most of us were even born - before many of our parents were even born He worked as a sketch artist, on story editing, layout, background, effects animation, and special effects on such films as "Fantasia", "Dumbo", "Alice in Wonderland", "Peter Pan", "So Dear to My Heart", "Cinderella", "The Living Desert", "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", moving to what is now Walt Disney Imagineering in 1954 as a project designer. He worked first on the Disneyland Tomorrowland, and did much work for the original Disney park through the years. Walt put him to work on the attractions for the 1964 New York World's Fair. For the Walt Disney World Resort, he worked on the master plan, show concepts, architecture, costume, and graphic design, and later Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. He also worked on the Disney Cruise Line, Disneyland Paris Resort, and the developing Hong Kong Disneyland. When John fell ill, he'd been a Senior Vice President at Walt Disney Imagineering for many years.
One of the best friends Mickey Mouse ever had, John Hench did an official portrait of Mickey for his 25th anniversary in 1953, and did many official portraits of Mickey through the decades since.
We are very fortunate that John shared some of what he'd learned with all of his experience in his 2003 book, Designing Disney - Imagineering and the Art of Show with Peggy Van Pelt. Any designer would do well to study that book - aspiring theme park designers, of course, but also those who would look down their noses at Disney theme parks. It should be required reading for managers and artists working within Walt Disney Parks & Resorts.
While it is unusual for someone to work almost sixty-five years for the same company, John was married for sixty-five years to the same woman! He leaves behind his widow, Lowry, to whom our hearts go out.
Thanks, Lowry, for sharing John with us. We needed him.
-- Story by Ken Pellman
-- Pictures by Doug Marsh (except those marked (c) Disney)
-- Posted February 6, 2004