John Hench was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on 29 June, 1908 but grew up in California, just as the movie industry was really taking off. He received a scholarship to Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, before studying at the California School of Fine Art in San Francisco. On completing his education, he studied motion picture colour processes, then in its infancy, at Vitacolor Studios1. He moved on to design sets for Republic Pictures and interior displays and advertising for Broadway department stores.
In 1938 he married Lowry and they would enjoy 65 years of marriage until his death on 5 February, 2004.
Hench had a clipped moustache and usually wore a tie tied in an Ascot knot, which gave him the appearance of a 1930s film star. He also bore an uncanny resemblance to his main employer Walt Disney.
A Life in Motion Pictures
Hench joined Disney Studios in 1939 as a sketch artist on Fantasia before moving on to story editing, layout and special effect on films such as Dumbo, Peter Pan and Cinderella. He was awarded an Academy Award for his work in special effects in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954.
He was also the official artist for the Disney icon Mickey Mouse, painting his official 25th, 50th, 60th and 70th birthday 'portraits'. For the 25 year old Mickey he tried to get him out of shorts but Walt Disney said no giving as the reason 'I'll tell you why: because I like those little short pants'. For the 50th birthday though Hench 'put longer pants on him and very, very discreetly sneaked a little grey onto his temples'.
He loved colour greatly, so to be an animator was ideal for him. He had said:
Colour is an important part of every environment. For example, part of Mickey's identity is his colouration: the red pants and yellow shoes. But those two colours require some contrast to make them count as colours - colours are highly relative. I worked in several departments at the studio, but colour was always my main enthusiasm - next to Mickey.'
Once, a head of a major corporation insisted that the wall of an exhibition at EPCOT2 should be white. Hench replied ‘Well I have 34 shades of white. Which one do you want?'
Walt recognised this attention for detail and had also teamed Hench up in 1945 with Salvador Dali for the film Destino. It must have been interesting in the studio, as Hench's Spanish and Dali's English were equally non-existent - no doubt they let the drawings do the talking. The project however was shelved after eight months, when Disney started to make war propaganda films. A young employee had stolen the six-minute unfinished version, but it was retrieved in the 1990s. Hench was called back to complete the project which premiered at the 2003 New York Film Festival. The film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short in 2003.
In 2003 he released a book about his life’s work - Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show with Peggy Van Pelt - which contained many of his paintings and drawings. He rose to become Senior Vice President of the company.
Two days after his death he was honoured with the Winsor McCay Award from the International Animated Film Society, in recognition of lifetime contributions to the art of animation.
A Life with Roller-Coasters
He worked very closely with Walt on the creation of the Disney theme parks, being one of the first artists Disney hired for the task of his new venture at Anaheim, California: Disneyland. He designed the Adventureland buildings and walkways, New Orleans Square, the Snow White grotto and the costumed characters of Disney figures such as Mickey Mouse. When Walt died in 1966, it was Hench who oversaw the creation of Walt Disney World Florida in 1971 and the addition of EPCOT in 1982.
With Disney World in Florida, he decided to follow the contours with the canals and levees rather than try and impose the more familiar American grid on the Floridian marshland. The resultant parks are still spectacular.
He was also the designer of the popular Space Mountain ride in later years. Hench was also responsible for the expansion of the Disney Theme Parks outside of the American continent, when he supervised the design of Disney Land Tokyo which opened in 1983. In 2001, while previewing a new attraction at Disneyland, he was asked his opinion, still showing his inherent wit he responded, 'I liked it better when it was a parking lot.'
At the time of his death he was still active on designing Hong Kong Disneyland. He had only vacated his desk at the Disney offices in Glendale, California two weeks before his death of heart failure.
Hench designed the Olympic torch for the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley, California and most of the designs since have been modelled on his design. He also designed four attractions for the 1964 World Fair in New York. He had remained loyal to Disney for the majority of his long working life, only giving up to with the onset of the heart failure which led to his demise. He had been presented with a Disney Legend Award in 1990 by Michael Eisner, the Head of Disney.