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Thursday, December 15, 2005


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Bio Summary

A true visionary artist with a passion for exploring new projects and processes, John Hench enveloped himself in his work for the Walt Disney company. Starting in 1939, he worked in most of the departments doing nearly everything including story and layout, background painting, multiplane backgrounds, animation, live action special effects, story editing, art direction, and animated special effects. About the only aspect he was not involved with was character animation. He earned Walt’s respect and regard as one of the most gifted artists of his studio.

During a career that spanned nearly 65 years with the Walt Disney company, one clear job title may prove elusive. He has been described as Disney’s “Renaissance artist” in that he was a scholar with a commanding knowledge of assorted interests, and knew almost everything about many different topics. A true assessment, because John Hench spread his talents amongst a wide variety of departments and applications from studio art work, to live action film, to theme park and attraction design and development. In fact, Marty Sklar, International Ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering, having had the privilege of working with Hench, said that “Other than Walt Disney himself, no one symbolizes the Walt Disney Company more than John Hench.”

But if pressed for an actual job description title, John Hench was Animator, Imagineer, and finally Senior Vice President of Walt Disney Imagineering.

He remained active with the Walt Disney company until a couple of weeks before his death.

Early Life/Family

John Hench was born June 29, 1908 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but was raised in Southern California where he attended various art schools. In 1938 he married his lovely wife, Lowry, and the two became nearly inseparable. His biographies and obituaries make no mention of children, but describe a happy marriage and an enviable relationship between the two. After a brief illness, Hench died February 5, 2004 in a Burbank hospital of heart failure at the age of 95. Thirteen days later, Lowry Hench also died.


Most of John Hench’s formal training was done in California, but like many other Golden Age illustrators, he first enrolled at the Art Students’ League in New York. He attended Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles on a scholarship. He also studied at California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (which is now known as Cal Arts).

Career Outline

After college, John worked at Vitacolor studios where, fascinated with color theory that would later become a hallmark of his talents, he researched color processes. He then moved on to work in the special effects department at Republic Studios. It was while designing window displays for the Broadway department store in May 1939 that John Hench signed up with the Walt Disney Studio.

He was first hired as a sketch artist in the story department at thirty dollars a week. His first assignment was to the Fantasia project at Disney’s old Hyperion studio, which was actually the un-airconditioned top floor of a two-story apartment building. While there, he discovered that rubbing pastels on black paper against the rough sandy walls produced great underwater effects for the “Arabian Nights” sequence of the Nutcracker Suite. During production, the Fantasia teams were moved to Walt’s new Burbank studio.

Among other projects at the new studio, from 1939 to the mid 1950’s, John painted backgrounds on Dumbo, and layouts for The Three Caballeros. In the film department, he was art supervisor for Make Mine Music, did cartoon treatments for So Dear To My Heart, color and styling for Peter Pan, and animation special effects for The Living Desert.

In 1954, Hench left the studio to work in the area of the company that today is known as Walt Disney Imagineering. He was hand chosen by Walt Disney himself to work at the ground level of a “secret project” that was Disneyland. He began by designing attractions for the original Tomorrowland. Indeed, he helped design the look and feel of Disneyland. It was John Hench who helped launch specific colorful costumes for Disneyland employees, called “cast members”, improving upon the bland monochromatic uniforms.

In 1960, John worked directly with Walt to develop the pageantry for the opening and closing ceremonies as well as the daily presentations for the VIII Winter Olympics held at Squaw Valley. Specifically, he and his team of WED artists designed and created the backdrops for the games, oversaw the production of “snow statues”, and contributed to other “touches” seen in the Olympic village.

1964-65 saw the imagineer working on Disney attractions for the New York World’s Fair.
The fair unveiled four impressive shows: Great Moments with Mr.Lincoln, Carousel of Progress, It’s a Small World, and Magic Skyway.

John Hench also became the official Mickey Mouse corporate portrait artist, and painted all of the portraits for Mickey’s 25th (1953), 50th (1978), 60th (1988), and 70th (1998) birthdays, Millennium MIckey (2000), and for the fiftieth anniversary in 2003 of Walt Disney Imagineering.

In 1966, following Walt’s death, Hench found himself one of the chief designers for the imagineers. He had a hand in the creation of each of the eleven existing theme parks worldwide. All told, he worked alongside others on over 100 resort developments.

John Hench developed ideas and designs for all of Disney’s theme parks and hotels. In 1971, Hench helped with the creation of Walt Disney World in Florida, and of Epcot Center in 1982. He was directly involved with Disney’s first overseas expansion with Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. Additionally, he went on to work with new imagineers on the creation of Disney Studios in Florida (1989); Disneyland Paris (opening in 1992 as EuroDisney); Disney’s Animal Park in Florida (1998); Disney’s California Adventure (2001); Tokyo DisneySea; Walt Disney Studios in France (2002); and finally Hong Kong Disneyland.

In 1999, Hench celebrated sixty years with the Walt Disney company and at that point was dubbed a “lifer” with the organization.

In 2003, Hench wrote a book with Peggy VanPelt, Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show, describing the experiences of a Disney Imagineer and the creation of Disneyland.

Comments On Style

Clearly, John Hench understood concept, space, and perspective. He was a master with color. Some of his concept pieces are loose and fluid, but still in command of space and mood. Other pieces are tightly rendered such as his Mickey Mouse portraits as well as other commissioned work, some of which is on display in the Tokyo Disneyland Disney Gallery. Some pieces include forced perspective to greater establish the concept or character of a location. Every piece demonstrates his mastery of color, and he uses it to communicate mood, feel, and emotion. He commented in an interview on the great importance of color, even subliminally. In his book, Designing Disney: The Art of the Show, Hench lays out an analysis of each color, explaining how color influences story, place and time, creates mood and sensation, establishes identity, enhances the illusion of reality, and even influences guests’ decisions. There is a gallery devoted to the art of John Hench in the Blue Sky division of the Imagineering studio in Glendale, Ca. It mostly exhibits his loose concept pieces. It is evident that John Hench was a talented artist and draftsman.


It would seem that John Hench’s primary influence was Walt Disney himself. He was the embodiment of Walt’s philosophies and vision to always entertain the people and offer “something new”.

It might be considered that he was also influenced by the people themselves who enjoyed Disneyland. He carried on Walt’s practice of going to the Park on a regular basis and becoming “one of the guests” to experience Disneyland as they did. This meant entering through the front gate instead of employees’ entrance, standing in lines, going on the rides, and eating with the guests. He and his longtime assistant and confidante, Sandy Huskins, pretended to be guests, and came back with loads of notes.
Hench said that he was fascinated and intrigued by the fact that Disneyland seemed to make people feel better, stronger, energized, and more confident for having used their imaginations while visiting the Park.

Hench and his wife were said to be devotees of the Hindu saint Ramakrishna and members of the Vedanta Society.


By all accounts, John Hench was friendly. Encouraging others, he was a philosopher, teacher and mentor, who did not possess a fragile ego. Well-liked, he was on good terms with all who knew him. He was a friend of Roy Disney. Michael Eisner said he could not imagine a more vital, energetic man. Besides sharing Walt’s vision, John Hench also carried a strong resemblance to his boss. In fact, sporting the dapper look and thin mustache that was the fashion of the day, Hench was often mistaken for Walt in the park. On occasion, he was asked for his autograph. He would oblige by first signing Walt’s name, and then adding, “I am not...” as a playful prefix.

John Hench appeared well-spoken and intellectually sharp, but also humble during an interview on the DVD, On the Front LIne: The War Years. He matter-of-factly described what it was like during WWII when the studio was commissioned to produce educational war films, some of which were used for training the armed forces.

John was fascinated with the psychological and historical influences the Disney projects would have on society and culture. He was ever pursuing knowledge, and intellectual gain, and took great joy in sheer discovery.

One of his endearing qualities was that John was concerned with both big and little things. For example, the original design for the famous “Partners” sculpture standing in the circle before Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland called for Mickey’s free hand to be holding an ice cream cone. Worried that some vendors might feel slighted, Hench changed the design to Mickey’s empty hand resting on his hip instead. Also, it was Hench’s idea to put Minnie Mouse on the bench next to Roy Disney in his sculpture for the Magic Kingdom.

Hench was a talent and force that encouraged and inspired generations of imagineers as well as people everywhere enjoying the Disney experiences.


In the beginning, Hench was skeptical at best concerning the Disney company. He couldn’t imagine that it would be open for more than six months. He felt that animation was difficult, arduous, with not much value. However, Walt himself changed this perspective with his enthusiasm, vision, and stalwart nature, so John stuck it out with the studio and enjoyed an unprecedented career as a result.

Even though the move from the old Hyperion studio to the new Disney studio in Burbank during production of Fantasia was an improvement, a part of Hench still missed the hubbub of all the departments crowded together in the sweaty apartment complex where animators could hear the music department developing the scores that would eventually accompany their drawings. The new studio sported sound proof walls. John lamented the loss of the audio connection.

Imagineer Rolly Crump recalls a time when Walt wanted a Tiki room to be incorporated into the re-doing of Adventureland. He asked John Hench to do a rendering of what the Tiki Room might look like. Hench did a beautiful painting with with birds in cages and a restaurant interior. Crump remembers that after taking one look at the painting, Walt admonished Hench for including birds in the painting because “they’d poop on the food!”
Hench explained that they were not real birds, but rather stuffed birds. Walt retorted that “Disney does not stuff birds!” Hench replied, “No, no no.They’re little mechanical birds that cheep.” Satisfied with this, Walt said “Well,maybe they can cheep and cavort with each other.” Crump says that was how the Tiki Room came into being.

When the Disney studio was commissioned by the United States government to produce war films, Hench related stories of the studio being under military guard. Since some of the projects were top secret, security clearance was required. One example John shared was watching actual bomb patterns then transforming them into films used to instruct pilots on their recognition during combat in Germany. The artists also created cartoon emblems, often humorous, for different departments. Hench even sketched some of the airplane nose art. One such example can be seen on a private island on a Disney cruise today.


In 1946, Walt paired Hench with Salvador Dali to collaborate on a 6 minute Disney cartoon, Destino. Dali spoke no English, so Hench conversed with him in French. The unfinished cartoon was shelved until 1960 the studio completed the project, on which Hench helped. The cartoon premiered at the 2003 New York Film Festival.

John Hench made hand-drawn Christmas cards.

He bore a strong physical resemblance to Walt Disney.

He was a palm reader, and entertained his friends as well as airline stewardesses, waitresses, and retirement home residents with astounding accuracy.

He was dubbed the “guru of Disney design”.

One of his most recognizable works is the Olympic torch.

Hench was one of the only, if not the only Disney employee to be given the 65 year medal. It is on display in the Imagineering Department in Glendale, California.

John Hench was present at the opening of every Disney theme park in the world, with the exception of Hong Kong Disneyland, which although he helped with its creation opened on September 12, 2005 following his death in 2004.


Animation Department:

“”Fantasia” (1940 background artist: segment “The Toccata and Fugue in
D Minor” and “The Nutcracker Suite”)
“Dumbo” (1941 background artist)
“The Three Caballeros (1944 layout artist)
“Fun & Fancy Free” (1947 layout artist)
“The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” (1949 color and styling)
“Alice inWonderland” (1951 color and styling)
“Nature’s Half Acre” (1951 animation effects)
“The Olympic Elk” (1952 animation effects)
“Water Birds” (1952 animation effects)
“Peter Pan” (1953 color and styling)
“Prowlers of the Everglades” (1953 animation effects)
“Adventures of Mickey Mouse” (1955 TV episode; layout artist)
“Our Friend the Atom” (1957 TV episode; animation art styling)
“The Crisler Story/ Prowlers of the Everglades (1957 TV episode; animation
“The Living Desert” (1953 animation effects)
(1957 1 episode; animation art styling)
(1957 1 episode; animation effects)
(1957 1 episode; layout artist

Art Department:

“Make Mine Music” (1946 art supervisor)
“So Dear To My Heart” (1948 cartoon treatment)
“Cinderella” (1950 color and styling)
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954 production illustrator) (uncredited)
“Behind the True-Life Cameras/Olympic Elk: (1955 TV episode; special
art work)
“Disneyland” (1955 1 episode; special art work)
“Donald in Mathmagic Land” (1959 styling)

Special Effects:

“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954 special effects)

“Disneyland” (1954 1 episode; special effects)


“Destino” (2003 story)


1954: Won an Oscar for his special effects work as lead developer for the hydraulic
giant squid for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

1998: Lifetime Achievement award by the Themed Entertainment Association (THEA).

1999: Inducted into Disney Legends (the company’s highest honor), presented by
Michael Eisner.

Annie Award: Winsor McCay Award 2003

Related Links

Bibliographic References

Eisner, Michael D. (forward by). Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real. New York: Disney Editions, 1996

Hench, John Designing Disney. first edition. New York: Disney Editions, 2003

Walt Disney Treasures, On The Front Line: The War Years. DVD (Interview with John Hench)

Kurtti, Jeff Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends. New York: Disney Editions, 2008

Marling, Ann. Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland. Dearborn, MI: Henry Ford Museum

Surrell, Jason. The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at It’s Peak. NY: Disney Editions, 2007 ( by Doug Marsh 3-18-04


Contributors To This Listing

Barbara Kolberg

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