Monday, July 21, 2014

Amazing Al Dempster

There have been many amazing talents that have worked in the Disney background department and created stunning concept pieces over the years. Of course names like Mary Blair, Eyvind Earle, Claude Coats, Walt Peregoy and others spring to mind but there are others equally deserving of credit due their talented offerings. One that comes to my mind is Al Dempster

He was born July 23, 1911 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. After relocating to Los Angeles he got a job with the Disney Studio in 1939 and when Walt saw his painting skills first hand, he was quickly transferred to the background department. Those skills benefitted the studio on classic like Fantasia, Dumbo, Saludos Amigos, Victory Through Air Power, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music and Song of the South

Bill Justice-pencils, Al Dempster-paint
L-R  Don Griffith, Al Dempster
He left the studio in 1945 but came back in 1952 to create more lovely backgrounds for Walt’s Peter Pan. He stayed on to contribute to Lady and The Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmations, Sword in the Stone, Jungle Book and more. He left a lasting mark when he teamed up with close friend Don Griffith to create the look for all of the Winnie the Pooh featurettes.

Al's take on Johnny Appleseed
At Walt’s personal request, Al translated many of the studio’s films into lavishly illustrated children’s books, usually with pal Bill Justice providing the pencils. He retired from the studio for various reasons but agreed to return to help with The Rescuers in 1973 which is how I met him albeit briefly.

I wasn’t working on that film but was attending the CalArts Art School (the Character Animation Program had not yet been created). Don Duckwall introduced me to Al and the rest of the small background department. His time on Rescuers was not an enjoyable one as there were a few bumps in the road during production and soon the same reasons he had left the studio before reared up again. Since Al had only committed to 6 months or so on that production, when the time was up, he skeedaddled back into retirement and did his own paintings, this time in oil. 
Al creates more magic with Alice

Walt choose Al's version of Jungle Book
Years later I did have a chance to spend more time with Al during our regular Thursday lunches at Sloppos with Don Griffith. I was a huge fan of his work and had a few of his spectacularly illustrated books for Disney. Al eventually signed my books and gave Patty and I a couple of his original oil paintings as a wedding present which we have hanging to this day over the stairway to the upstairs studio. 

So check your old Disney story books. If the illustrations have an extra special feeling of Disney magic like the images here, you may just own an Al Dempster collection. Happy Birthday Al!

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