Joined: Nov. 2003
||Posted: Dec. 10, 2003 12:14 am/pm
Nearly 20 years ago, as a youthful business reporter for a Seattle newspaper, I was asked to write about a Fortune 500 company in southern California.
I visited the Burbank headquarters and interviewed the spanking new chairman/chief executive. The next day, I visited another segment of the company several miles away, in Glendale, and interviewed the head of that unit, a man about 50 years old.
After a wide-ranging chat that lasted nearly an hour, the man then told me I'd be ushered around the facility by a 76-year-old gentleman, more than twice my age and well past the imaginary point of retirement.
That is how I came to know John Hench.
Hench, many dedicated Disney collectors know, is now 95 years old. He continues to work for Disney, with years of service stretching past 64. He is a dinosaur who never became extinct – a man who bridges a wealth of generations with wisdom only age and experience can provide.
Hench is a tall man with a military bearing. He spent most of his career eschewing the limelight. He was not one of the fabled Nine Old Men, though a case for him being one doesn't take a lot of effort. After Walt Disney died (in 1966), his widow Lilly told Hench that Walt said John never let him down. Walt, always stingy in the public backpatting department, never told Hench that.
When I first met Hench, in March 1985, I had been collecting Disney for 17 years. But I had no idea what I had stumbled upon. I knew a visit to Walt Disney Imagineering, then called WED Enterprises, was special. But I didn't realize Hench had been there from the start, before the start, and was considered by many to be Walt's right-hand man.
In fact, in subsequent years, I felt so guilty for not realizing how important Hench was that I dedicated myself to collecting his works. I have 11 of his lithos, including all the birthday portraits, a bolo tie he designed and a large scarf containing 64 different Mickeys, sketches Hench presumably doodled during business meetings.
I'll cover a little more of Hench and Imagineering, but first a word or two about Michael Eisner and Marty Sklar, the two other Disney executives I met on that trip.
Eisner had just taken over at Disney and was years away from controversy. When I arrived in Burbank to interview him, he said he had told The Wall Street Journal and others they could interview him after a break-in period. To him, that meant in-person. To avoid violating that promise, Eisner could not allow me in his office.
So I interviewed Eisner via telephone maybe 50 feet or so down the hallway from his office. My feelings weren't hurt – I got a solid 30 minutes or so with of the world's hottest CEOs. Eisner laid out a blueprint the company followed over the next few years that produced some of Disney's best results ever.
Sklar was executive vice president of creative development. In other words, he ran Imagineering.
"The parks are living organisms, and they have to be fed," Sklar said in the hour or so he spent with me. "They have to be fed with new attractions."
Disney was electric at that time, partially because of Eisner, and partially because of new initiatives that included filmmaker George Lucas developing a "Star Wars" attraction.
"We're excited about that," Sklar said. "Just take Disney and George Lucas working together . . . the two most creative organizations in the world coming together."
In March 1985, Disney had nearly 50 projects under development at WED. They included a Thunder Mountain Railroad ride for Tokyo Disneyland and early planning for the European Disneyland that hadn't yet selected Paris as its destination.
This is where Hench, a Disney employee already with 46 corporate years under his belt, comes in. When he enters, by the way, he cuts the proverbial wide swath – a man well above six feet tall, almost larger than life, which would match his accomplishments.
Hench arrived at Disney in 1939, soon enough to work on Nutcracker backgrounds for Fantasia. He toiled on such features as Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Probably his greatest trial was the inability to convert Salvador Dali's extended visit to Disney into a commercially successful endeavor in Dali's lifetime.
Hench's special effects on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea won an Oscar. Among his many parks' projects, he was key in developing Space Mountain.
But Hench's legacy has been color. He became the in-house expert on what color to apply where. In his 2003 book Designing Disney, Hench tells a story about an obnoxious executive demanding a white coat of paint, to which Hench was compelled to explain there are 34 shades of white.
Hench also has done the Mickey birthday portraits, the 25th, the 50th, the 60th and the 70th. (We eagerly await the 75th.) Disney devotees eager to see two great examples need only visit City Hall at Disneyland, where the 25th and 50th hang behind the front desk.
On our tour of WED, Hench displayed no revulsion at having to usher some punk reporter around the hallowed halls.
"This is the home of brainstorming, Brainstorm City," Hench said with more than a little pride.
Everyone you looked, clay, wood and other models were in various forms of expression. To be honest, you couldn't see a Space Mountain, or a Pirates of the Caribbean. Instead, there were lots of parts of things to be added to or subtracted from by the Imagineers.
Typical of a company culture that channeled all of the praise and Oscars and other awards to the top, Hench minimized his role on Space Mountain.
"I never accomplished something like that by myself," Hench said. "As Walt pointed out, the product had the mark."
Still, Sklar and Hench recalled that when Walt Disney World unveiled its Space Mountain, the ride provided so many thrills that even a toupee or two found a new home. I had ridden it during that period, and lost everything in my shirt pocket. They had to throttle back the ride.
Hench said Walt Disney's direction of the company and employees was anything but ambiguous.
"Walt had a very consistent method," Hench said. "The direction was established. If it were north, we all moved north. Like dogs on a leash, we would be pulled up short if we moved south."
Sklar quoted a popular Disney line: "Walt used to say that whatever you did yesterday, you'll never do again. There's always a new plateau."
Sklar also noted how far Disney has come. Disneyland cost $17 million to open in 1955. Even in 1985, virtually any attraction Disney created would cost more than that, meaning, "it can't be a fad," Sklar said.
Hench said attractions move so quickly that characters within them must be clearly defined.
"In all our shows, you have limited time to get across what the character is," Hench said. "You have to leave out all the contradictions."
At the same time, Disney parks are a total experience: "Walt didn't want you to come around a corner and encounter a bare wall."
Disney stockpiles good ideas, sometimes simply waiting for the technology to catch up. It doesn't turn a deaf ear on new ideas. Tony Baxter, now a highly popular Imagineering executive, was selling popcorn in the park when he dreamed up Thunder Mountain Railway.
At Eisner's first annual meeting with Disney, he told an old Walt Disney story, Sklar said. A youngster volunteered to play in the band. His performance was atrocious. The bandmaster commanded the boy to explain why he didn't tell the man he couldn't play.
"How did I know?" the boy said. "I never tried."
You don't have to look far to see why men such as Sklar and Hench revered Walt Disney. Nor why they themselves merit reverence.
(Besides Hench items, the author also avidly collects Two-Gun Mickey.)
Greg / gheb53