Rolly Crump, Disney Imagineer who helped define the look of Disneyland, dies at 93

March 13, 2023

We have sad news to report this afternoon. Animator, Imagineer, Rolly Crump, who was instrumental in the design of early Disneyland, died Sunday in his Carlsbad home, where he had been in hospice care, said his son Christopher. Crump was 93.

Crump received his big break at the Walt Disney Co. in 1952, when he was 22. Those at the animation studio liked to remind him that he was an oddball. “A diamond in the rough,” as Crump once proudly said he was labeled by a superior. Crump would later laugh, recalling — with swagger — that he was once told, “What you showed us was the worst portfolio of anyone ever hired in animation.”

Crump would go on to become one of the most important artists to work for the Walt Disney Co.

It’s a Small World, the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Haunted Mansion are just a few of the projects Crump would contribute to once he joined Walt Disney Imagineering, known as WED Enterprises (for Walter Elias Disney) in 1959. With Imagineering, the division of the company that oversees Disney theme parks, Crump‘s designs would help define the look of Disneyland. The Anaheim park has been replicated in Florida and around the world and remains the backbone of Disney’s empire. .

Like all of the core early stylists of what would become the great American theme park, Crump had never built a theme park before Disneyland. “Everything was so goddamn naive,” Crump once said, alluding to the fact that he carved the tikis of the Enchanted Tiki Room with plastic forks from the Disney commissary. The tikis still stand in the park today, and Crump’s designs — tiki gods and goddesses such as Pele, a fire goddess, and Hina Kaluua, a mistress of rain — continue to shape and influence tropical art.

The Disneyland Hotel’s wildly popular bar Trader Sam’s is steeped in the Crump influence. It was designed in his vision of tiki culture, which was based on weeks of research aided by anthropologist Katharine Luomala’s book “Voices on the Wind.” And to this day, Crump is heralded as co-leading what would become Disneyland’s greatest version of Tomorrowland, a sort of mod vision of future-past that opened in 1967.

Crump lacked a college degree, and his high school portfolio was untamed when he joined Disney’s animation department. His freewheeling, cartoonish drawings were more fit for a tattoo parlor than the mature works the esteemed animation house was seeking to create.

Although his animation credits — “Peter Pan,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “101 Dalmatians” — include some of the medium’s foundational texts, Crump wasn’t a star in the department. He worked primarily as an assistant to animation master Eric Larson and could spend the better part of a year on laborious but difficult tasks such as drawing the flexible dots on Dalmatians.

Yet his striking personal style, a brash use of color and a zest for the counterculture, not to mention a gutsy, determined drive, served Crump well. While in animation, the Alhambra-born artist surrounded himself with small but personal art projects — outlandishly painted rocks with beatnik-era slang and mini propellers and mobiles. Crump hung the latter in the animation department’s library, where he sneaked in what he called his “dopers,” that is, art that humorously celebrated drugs in the style of Beat generation barroom posters (“Be a man who dreams for himself,” read a painting cheerleading opium).

Crump continued to work on eccentric Pop art throughout his career at Disney. A comic strip-inspired 1967 poster for the psychedelic rock group the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band belongs to the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His love affair with music was deeply present in his art, be it his bouyant portraits of jazz artist Josephine Baker, which were heavy on curves and ovals, like musical notes in flux, or the packaging he designed for Ernie Ball’s guitar strings. On such designs Crump’s exuberant line work and use of color feels free and loose, the illustrative equivalent of jazz improvisation.

“He had a way of doing outrageous art,” says retired Disney theme park designer Bob Gurr, known for conceptualizing many of Disneyland’s ride vehicles, including the original monorail. Gurr, 91, said he met Crump when the two were working on minor refurbishments in the 1950s for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, with Crump touching up some of the small red devils in the final scenes. Gurr immediately became a fan of Crump’s art and today owns some of Crump’s original “dopers.”

According to his son, Crump was a beatnik with a reputation as a rebel among the Disney fold. He was known to brag, for instance, about driving his Porsche around Disneyland’s Fantasyland when he served as Disneyland’s art director, one of many roles during his numerous stints with the company. He was also a fierce believer in theme parks as places of living art.

To the vocally blunt Crump — who was known, especially later in life, to send his peers bristling with his critiques — theme parks belonged to the artists who designed them rather than the companies that stewarded them. “Disneyland freaking hugs you and kisses you,” Crump declared in a 2018 interview with The Times in reference to the fact that the park was designed heavily by artists steeped in the art of animation, resulting in a hand-crafted charm that he feared was gradually being lost to time.

Crump was born on Feb. 27, 1930, in Alhambra, but, as documented in his autobiography, “It’s Kind of a Cute Story,” written with author Jeff Heimbuch, Crump spent much of his childhood moving around, living at various points in Redlands, Eagle Rock and Santa Monica. Depression-era financial realities, as well as alcohol, took a toll on his parent’s marriage, and Crump was raised largely by his mother, Candice Elizabeth Ivie, who at one point worked as a secretary for 20th Century Fox. His daydreams were fueled by Disney’s “Silly Symphony” cartoons, in addition to other shorts of the time, as well as the art of his grandmother, who was trained at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Crump’s love affair with Disney began at an early age. “I was 3 year’s old,” he told The Times. “My dad took me to see ‘The Three Little Pigs.’ He knew the projectionist so we got to go up into the projection booth. All that stuff stuck in my head. I don’t know if I was familiar with Disney at that time, but I immediately fell in love with Disney. I wanted to work for Disney. I wanted to draw and just be at Disney. I didn’t even know what animation was. I didn’t have a clue, and when they hired me, I don’t know why they hired me. I didn’t know where they were going to put me. All I knew is I wanted to work for Disney.”

He would get his wish, joining Disney’s animation house in 1952. Crump married his first of three wives, Leona Deiman, three years prior in 1949 and had a young daughter to support. Thus, he fought tirelessly to maintain his job as his animator’s salary didn’t pay the family bills. Crump, on evenings and weekends, would take on an assortment of work, from dipping at a ceramics factory to making manhole covers, but all the while he would continue to draw, sometimes even satirizing his own exhaustion in comic form.

“He’s very, very, very whimsical, and had a great sense of humor,” said retired Imagineer Steve Kirk, who worked with Crump on The Land, and was instrumental in the creation of Epcot mascot Figment as well as the development of Tokyo’s DisneySea. “He had a tongue-in-cheek attitude about things. If you look at what he did for the Haunted Mansion, it’s just brilliant. I had a portfolio of his sketches that I looked at for inspiration.”

“In the course of discussing Walt Disney, he called him ‘brush mouth,’ because Walt had a mustache. It’s all in good heart. There’s no maliciousness,” Gurr said. “Rolly had an openness and an honesty that I seldom saw in anybody I ever worked with in any organization. That’s a Rolly characteristic. … He and, I think, Mary Blair were two of Walt’s favorite artists.”

Crump is survived by his wife, Marie Tocci, and his children Christopher, Roxana, Theresa with his first wife, Leona Deiman. Crump has three grandchildren.

Excerpts from the LA Times

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