John Hench – Disney’s Renaissance Artist

On this day in 1908, John Hench – Disney’s Renaissance artist – was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In his legendary 64 year career with the Walt Disney Company, John left his mark in films, theme parks, and hotels. Former head of Disney Imagineering Marty Sklar said “Other than Walt Disney himself, no one symbolizes the Walt Disney Company more than John Hench.”

John Hench and Walt Disney

After joining the Walt Disney Studio in 1939 John worked on both animated and live-action films as a set designer, artist and on special-effects. In 1954, John was one of the many studio employees asked to help with the design and construction of Disneyland. As an Imagineer, John’s first project involved the attractions in Tomorrowland. On the Rocket to the Moon attraction John worked with famed German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun on the design of the Moonliner. In his book, Designing Disney, John explains: “I wanted an elegant shape that suggested high speed even though it would be stationary…From any angle in Tomorrowland, the rocket appeared ready to blast off for the moon.”

Rocket to the Moon concept art by John Hench

After Disneyland’s opening, John worked on various new attractions and park expansions. In 1960, Walt received marble statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from an anonymous Italian donor, he summoned John to the look at them. After assigning him with the task of finding them a home in Disneyland, John explained to Walt that would be a challenge because the sculptor made Snow White the same height as the Seven Dwarfs – so the perspective would be off. Unsympathetic, Walt exclaimed, “Just figure it out.” John’s solution was to stage them on a slope next to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. He placed the Snow White statue on the top of the slope, where as John described she’d be “highest and farthest away from guests, where her too-small size would appear to be the natural effect of distance — I could solve the scale problem using forced perspective.” John also had a small deer sculpted to stand next to Snow White to help her appear larger, as well as a waterfall that grew wider as it descended. After seeing an early concept drawing, Walt recognized that people would throw money in the pool of water, so he told John to add a wishing well, where all the coins could be collected and donated to local charities. 

Snow White’s Grotto concept art by John Hench

John helped establish the philosophy behind Disney design from the ideas and concepts first shared by Walt himself. In a 1978 article in New West magazine titled “Disneyland is Good for You,” the author notes “Hench has become the Disney organization’s ranking theoretician on how movies and theme parks can be programmed to produce effects on the unconscious as well as conscious mind.” The article provides an extraordinary foundation for the psychology behind Disney theme park design and features extensive comments from Hench. He explains that “…the order here at Disneyland works on people, the sense of harmony. They feel more content here, in a way they can’t explain.” John explains that the essential message of Disneyland is that “there is nothing to fear….What we are selling is not escapism but reassurance.”

Marty Sklar worked together with John at Imagineering for nearly 50 years and, as you’d expect, shared many anecdotes about his long-time colleague over the years. He once shared that “At Disneyland in the mid-1960s, John was often mistaken for Walt Disney during walk-throughs with Walt Disney. One day, a father proudly pointed Walt out to his young son, and Walt pointed right at John and said, “No — That’s him over there!” When Marty became the creative head of Imagineering, he asked John’s assistant on Monday for all of the books and periodicals John took room over the weekend. The assistant “kept bringing in material and eventually delivered thirty-five items. I still recall that the magazines ranged from Women’s Wear Daily to Scientific American.”

Marty Sklar and John Hench

John worked with Walt and other Imagineers to develop attractions for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Later, John worked on the master plan and designs for Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Epcot Center, as well as contributed on Disney’s California Adventure, Animal Kingdom, and Tokyo DisneySea. John died at age 95 while still working full-time for Disney. 

In the foreword to John’s book, famed architect Frank Gehry writes about his unique skill set:

“There are certain people, and John is one of them, who bring a really special quality, one that’s almost indefinable, one that can take “good” and make it “great.” John’s ability to do this, I think, is rooted in his curiosity and his love of people…Even when the specialists have given up, John will come in and suggest a simple and elegant solution – one that has never even occurred to anyone else.”

On This Day People

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