On this day in 1953, artist Herb Ryman received a phone call from Walt Disney that led to the now famous “lost weekend” which produced arguably the most important piece of Disneyland concept art.
At the time, Herb was not actually working at Disney. He previously worked as a Disney artist but left in 1946 to work for 20th Century Fox. Despite his departure, Walt and Herb remained friends and Walt had tremendous respect of Herb’s talents as an artist. In a 1983 interview with author Jay Horan, Herb explained what happened on September 26, 1953. Here’s portions of his account:
One Saturday morning, I got a telephone call. It was Dick Irvine. And Dick said, “We’re all over here at the Disney Studio, and Walt wants to talk to you.”
Walt gets on the line and says “I’m over here at the studio. I wonder if you could come over here.”
I said, “Sure, I could come over. Are you working on Saturday?”
He said, “Yes, I can work on Saturday. Can you come over?”
I said, “Yes, do you want me to come over as I am, or do you want me to get dressed?”
He said, “How long will it take you to get here?”
I said, “It’ll take me 30 minutes if I get dressed, change my clothes, and if I come as I am it’ll take me 15 minutes.”
So he said, “Just come the way you are. I’ll be out in front waiting for you.”
I was curious, and I was glad to see Walt again, and I was very flattered that he picked up the phone and called me. I had no idea what he wanted.
He met me out in front, shook my hand, and said, “Hi, Herbie. We’re in the Zorro building.” That was the name of the building where they were doing the Zorro pictures.
So we went in and I said, “What’s this all about?”
He said, “I’m going to do an amusement park.”
I said, “That’s good, that’s exciting. Where are you going to do it? Across the street there at St. Joseph’s Hospital?”
He said, “No, no, this is considerably bigger than that. This has grown a lot. The idea has developed quite a lot since then.”
I said, “Yes, that’s good. What are you going to name it?”
He said, “‘I’m going to call it Disneyland.”
I said, “Yes, that’s a good name. So, what do you want to see me about?”
He said, “My brother Roy has to go to New York on Monday morning. He’s got to get 17 million dollars. He’s got to talk to the bankers in New York. You know bankers don’t have any imagination, none at all. You have to show them what you’re going to do. Roy has to show them what we’re going to do; he’s got to show what this place is going to look like.”
And I said, “I’d like to see what it’s going to look like. Where have you got this stuff?” I thought maybe it was all in the other room.
Walt said, “You’re going to do it.”
I said, “No, I’m not. I’m not going to get called in here on Saturday morning at ten o’clock and, by Monday, have something worth seeing by a bunch of bankers in New York. It’ll embarrass me, and it’ll embarrass you. It’s impossible for me to do any kind of a job at all, and you know it. And you know that you’ve had this idea in your mind for a long, long time. Why did you wait until the Saturday morning before the Monday to come here and ask me to make a fool of myself? I don’t really want to do it.” There was a brief pause, and I was a little bit irritated to think that Walt knew about this and here he calls me like, “All right, Herbie. Do a great big wonderful thing.” Which I couldn’t do, and I didn’t do.
Anyway, Walt paced back and forth. We were alone now in the room. Then he went over into the corner, and he turned his head around with his back to me and said coaxingly, “Will you do it if I stay here with you?” And I thought, “How’s that going to help things, if he stays here with me? I’ve still got to draw the thing.” But he was persuasive and pitiful, like a little boy that wants something. I didn’t have anything to lose. I knew I couldn’t do a good job. But I thought, “Yes, if you stay here and stay up all Saturday night and all night Sunday night. I’ll stay here.”
So then I said, “Yes, I’ll do it if you stay here.”
He said, “All right, what kind of sandwiches do you want?”
I said, “What have you got?” So he called up to get tuna salad sandwiches and milkshakes. We had all kinds of good stuff. He explained to me he didn’t know where this amusement park was going to be, but their people were working on it. It might be in Calabasas, or Santa Barbara, or Florida. He had research people deciding where it should be put, and it was going to be pretty big, about 160 acres.
He [Walt] helped me and he said, “Now, there’s going to be a hub. I want this thing to radiate like the spokes from a wheel. I’ve been studying the way people go to museums and to other entertainment places. Everybody’s got broken, flat arches, they’ve got tired feet. I don’t want that to happen in this place. I want a place for people, to sit down, and old folks can go in and say, ‘You kids run on. I’ll meet you back here in half an hour.’ And so this is the reason for the hub.”
I said. “Yes, that’s a good idea.”
Then he said, “There’s going to be different lands. When you go into this place I want you to not know about the outside world. This is a magic place, and the important thing here is the castle. The castle is symbolic of fantasy, and it’s going to be a big castle. It can be seen from miles around. It’s going to be tall, it’s going to be like the church steeples are in Europe. You know Mont St. Michel. These places, you can see them for miles around. Everybody will be oriented, they’ll say, ‘There’s the castle. There! There it is over there, mommy!’ It’s got to be a tall castle, very conspicuous. Then there’s going to be a railroad. The railroad’s going to go around it. There’ll be a railroad station at the entrance and you’ll go underneath the railroad station, that’s the way you’ll get into this place. Then once you’re inside, you’re in this magic land. Then you walk down Main Street, which is like any little town in the Midwest at the turn of the century. It’s nostalgic.”
So anyway, Walt told me what to do. I got a great big piece of paper and I worked on it.