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A Tribute to the Wonderfully Weird and Uniquely Talented Disney Imagineer — Rolly Crump

–Karen Burns, WDW Radio Team

One of the many reasons Walt Disney was such a successful businessman was because he believed in nurturing and encouraging creative talent and surrounding himself with the greatest minds in engineering design and animation. The theme parks may have been one man’s dream, but the end product was very much the result of a dream team collaboration that brought gifted individuals together at exactly the right time.

Disney Legend, Rolly Crump, was one such innovator who had an ambition at an early age to work for the Disney company. Born on February 27, 1930 in Alhambra California, the young Rolly always liked to draw, with art becoming his outlet following his parents’ divorce when he was five years old.

He would listen daily to the radio which further fed his active imagination, and with a loving mother who was proud of her son and recognised his artistic talent, she encouraged him to do what he enjoyed. It was his mother who first started writing to Walt when her son was a teenager in the hope Rolly would be offered a job but, unfortunately, this approach was not successful.

Rolly also enjoyed magic and illusions which would prove to serve him well in later years when working with Yale Gracey on ideas for the early concept of a Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Another credit is his design of the interior of the former Magic Shop on Main Street USA.

Bob Gurr first met Rolly in 1956 when they were both working on the devil scene for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Bob says of his close friend in the foreword of Jeff Heimbuch book It’s Kind of a Cute Story:

“Picture this: an all breed dog kennel of thousands. One puppy stands out. The one that leaps highest for the dangled treat. The one that flashes unbridled enthusiasm. And the one that runs the farthest fastest when thrown the ball. And also, the one that always returns reliably with the best answer to a challenge – that’s Rolly”.

I think this quote could also quite easily describe Walt and may be part of the reason he and Rolly got on so well. They had similar personality traits with a childlike sense of wonder and the drive to push boundaries to achieve what they believed in.

Rolly recalls in Heimbuch’s book how in 1951 at a Christmas dinner with some of his mother’s friends, he began talking with a lady who worked in Animation at the Disney Studios. She suggested he contact Andy Engham and after attending an interview and completing an animation test, Rolly was hired for $30 a week.

At the time, this was a significant wage cut from the $75 he was earning as a dipper at a ceramics factory, so he hesitated about whether to take the job. He talked it over with his mother who fully supported him taking the opportunity to work for Disney. She told him he had to just go for it, which is exactly what he did and he never looked back.

Rolly began working for Walt in 1952 as an “inbetweener,” an artist who does every other drawing (which is usually about twelve frames) for a second of film. His first project was the animated movie, Peter Pan. He would go on to become an assistant animator on Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians where he certainly earned his stripes, or should I say spots! Rolly animated every single spot on the dogs in the scene where the puppies are watching television. This was six months of painting dots!

What made Rolly stand out was his quirky sense of humour and his confidence in his work. He enjoyed his job and had fun whether the art he produced was used or not. He simply relished a challenge and wanted to try new things and if he disagreed with something, he would voice his opinion.

Rolly said: “I was always honest with Walt and told him how I really felt about something. Again, I think that’s part of the reason he took such a liking to me.”

John Hornby was hired at WED in 1980. He said of Rolly, “He would never tell you that you had done something wrong, but instead would show you how to do it a little better.”

John retells a story of when Rolly accidentally sat on a paint lid that John had left upturned on a stool. As the new kid, John was incredibly embarrassed, but Rolly in typical comedic style simply laughed hysterically, slipped off his pants, covered his dignity with a smock and strolled out of the workshop to give a big presentation to senior stakeholders, highly amused he would be doing it pantless!

It was whilst working for Disney that he became fascinated with kinetic sculpture after admiring a mobile brought into the office by his colleague, Frank Armitage. He loved the fluidity of motion and was so charmed by the mobile that he started creating his own designs at home.

As retold in Heimbuch’s book, Rolly explains how a simple pencil changed his life. He kept the original pencil and framed it in his home as a reminder of the start of his amazing career journey. Another work colleague, Wathel Rogers, had taken the clip from a pencil and built a small, basic propeller balancing it on a pushpin. Rolly was intrigued by this and tried to work out how to create his own. He was soon building mobiles with multiple propellers which he hung at home and in the office.

He was encouraged by his friends to hold an exhibition of his work which Walt saw and remembered. When Walt was looking for new talent at WED some time later, Ward Kimball mentioned Rolly’s name and Walt remembered his visit to Rolly’s exhibition. He was impressed with the creativity of the pieces on display and Rolly was transferred over to WED in 1959.

In 1963, he designed the pre-show area of the Enchanted Tiki Room using inspiration from Voices on the Wind by Katharine Luomala to make tiki god carvings. He collaborated on It’s a Small World with Mary Blair whose work he had long admired. As a tribute to Mary, the team installed a toy doll with short blond hair wearing Mary’s favourite outfit into the ride which was later transferred from the World’s Fair to Disneyland. Mary can still be seen on the attraction hanging out of the Eiffel Tower.

The World’s Fair would also see a large-scale version of one of Rolly’s mobiles, The Tower of the Four Winds. It was a beautiful design in planning but one Rolly hated when built with thicker metal tubing to support the structures weight as he thought it looked ugly. When asked by Walt what he thought of the Tower, Rolly was his usual honest self — not exactly what Walt wanted to hear about a structure that had just cost him $200,000 to make!

His work on the Haunted Mansion with Yale Gracey produced such classic illusions as Pepper’s Ghost and the singing busts and almost led to a Museum of the Weird which would have incorporated some of his designs, such as the talking chair and the Candle Man. Unfortunately, Walt passed away before completion of the mansion and the museum idea was shelved.

Rolly had a great affection for Walt and remembers fondly meeting Roy Disney at Club 33 many years after Walt had died. He said: “I’d never met Roy before, but he came right over to introduce himself… ‘My brother used to talk about you all the time.’ I thought that was really sweet. We had a unique and special friendship. I was glad he was part of my life, and I hope he was glad I was part of his.”

Rolly worked for the Disney Company for over 40 years and had many career highlights including being named a Disney Legend. But although this was a huge honour, his proudest moment was in 2009 when he was given his own window on Main Street in Disneyland. He recalls how during the unveiling ceremony The Mayor of Main Street claimed he kept being interrupted by phone calls from heaven from Don Edgren. Don was also being given a window that day but had sadly passed away in 2006. The Mayor said Walt had joined Don on the call and wanted to ask Rolly if he would re-design the Pearly Gates.

According to Rolly: “Not missing a beat, I replied, ‘How soon does he want it?’ much to the delight of the crowd. Thankfully, Walt said there was no rush.”

Rolly passed away at the age of 93 on March 12, 2023, and the world lost a dynamic character whose lust for life and sense of humour was infectious. It’s quite reassuring to imagine that he’s being kept busy now, creating something celestially spectacular and innovative (and perhaps a little bit weird!) for a very different kind of visitor.

Reference: Jeff Heimbuch – It’s Kind of a Cute Story by Rolly Crump as told to Jeff.