Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Happy Birthday Bill Peet!

Bill's (and mine) layout desk
It’s a particular honor to pay tribute to hands down one of the greatest story men and concept artist ever to work at the Walt Disney Studio, Bill Peet. I met Bill a couple of times when he came to the studio in the 1970s to visit Don Griffith because he certainly wasn’t there to see a gangly little kid like me. However he always made me feel like part of the “gang” when he was around. We would go out to “Sloppos”, which was the nickname we all used for a Mexican Restaurant across from Warners that Don and many of his Disney compatriots used to haunt. It was unfortunately demolished and turned into a parking garage back in the 1980s.

Ironically, I met many of the "old guard" that were no longer working at Disney at restaurants like Sloppos than at the studio. You can bet when any of the Disney "vets" came visiting in the 1970s, they almost certainly made stopping by to say hello to Don Griffith an important stop. He was that kind of wonderful man.

Bill creating more magic

I really enjoyed Bill and his colorful stories about the old days at Disney. He is also one of my biggest influences as to technique. I used to try to emulate his work, never knowing much about the artist who created them until Don shared some of his personal stories of Bill with me.

My love of working in charcoal was due directly to Bill and to a great friend and teacher Ken O’Connor. Don also clued me in about Bill’s vast library of children’s books he not only wrote but illustrated in the same lively style he had used for years at the mouse factory. If you don’t own any Bill Peet books, I suggest you make amends and buy an armload of em. Two of my favorite momentos from the old studio days are a couple of Bill's books personalized for Patty and I as birthday gifts by the master storyteller himself. If I can figure out a way to hang them without breaking the binding one day they'll be framed and up on one of the studio walls next to his other work.

One of Bill's stunning Song of the South story sketches
Eric Larson, one of the 9 old men also shared his appreciation of Bill’s talent by allowing me to study the pastel and charcoal story sketches from "Song of the South" he had framed and hanging directly behind his chair in his office. One time when I dropped in on Eric he even offered in his chuckling voice, “Are you here to see ME Mike, or just look at my etchings?” meaning Bill’s sketches. If you study the little banner I made, you’ll see evidence of the immeasurable talent Bill had and the effect he poured into so many classic Disney films. 

Ready for the pitch!
Bill himself enjoyed the fact that I was using HIS desk while working for Don Griffith in those days. Bill used a story desk in his early days but gravitated to the larger layout model in later years due to the built in cork board and extra shelving. I told him the trouble I had opening the drawers that seemed to be stuck. I pulled and pulled until finally the big one on the lower left flew open. Inside were over a hundred smashed story sketches from Alice to Junglebook. I had torn quite a few of them in the process of getting  it open. When I took a handful of the sketches over in the next room to Don he told me who had drawn them. Over lunch Bill told me the rest of the story. 

He had a falling out of sorts with Walt over some story development ideas on Jungle Book. It wasn’t the first time he had a disagreement with Uncle Walt but unfortunately it would be the last. Bill wasn't the type to mince words and he was in fine form on this day. It happened upstairs in Walt’s favorite sweatbox on the 3rd floor. It was on a Wednesday January 29, 1964. I was surprised Bill remembered the date but when he related that it happened on his birthday of all days it of course made sense. Of course Walt wasn’t the sort to back down to anyone and didn’t have to. Still, for this to happen on his birthday! Not the sort of gift one wants.

The end result was that upon returning to his desk that afternoon in 1964, he was understandably upset and slammed his drawers into the desk which were full to over flowing with his drawings. Apparently those stuffed drawers hadn’t been opened since that fateful day.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking Bill was a hot head, far from it. He was simply an incredibly talented artist who worked extremely hard at his craft and was ready to take up for his solid ideas, even with Walt. Thank goodness for all of us, that passion can be found throughout the great Disney classics for generations to enjoy. Happy Birthday Bill and thanks everything!