The Peter Pan Three-Disc Diamond Edition Blu-ray/DVD comes out on February 5th, 2013! We were greatly anticipating our advance copy to see the bonus feature, Growing Up With Nine Old Men. For those who don’t know, Disney’s Nine Old Men were the original group of core animators who worked for Walt Disney. The animators included Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas – and we had the wonderful opportunity to interview Frank’s son, Theodore (Ted) Thomas. If you’ve seen the films Frank and Ollie and/or Walt and El Grupo, then you’ve seen Ted’s work.
The bonus feature short (about 45 minutes long) features Ted speaking with the other “kids” – the grown-up sons and daughters of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men. We found this bonus feature very charming, and it was interesting to glimpse into the world of the Nine Old Men from a different point of view. Ted Thomas is an amiable and folksy interviewer, and clearly has a kinship with those who went through a similar childhood as he did.
Ted and Frank Thomas, 1992
Ted Thomas also was the inspiration for a scene in the film Robin Hood, which is mentioned in the interview. Both father and son honored each other through their work in films, and it's very moving to see – and hear about – the bond that they had with each other.
Here is my interview with Theodore Thomas.
MS: How did you come up with the idea for Growing Up with Nine Old Men?
TT: We've done the Disney history story a couple of times before – I made this picture about my dad and Ollie Johnston called Frank and Ollie. The folks at Disney Home Entertainment came to me and said, "We're putting out Peter Pan, and is there anything that you'd like to do for it?" In talking, we realized that the story of Peter Pan is really about family, and how we make our own families eventually. That led to the conversation about what it was like to grow up in the family of a Disney animator. It was a fairly organic evolution, you might say.
MS: How well did you know the other kids growing up?
TT: Some of them I knew quite well, some of them I'd never met before. Ken and Rick Johnston, we grew up next door to each other…and it was almost like an extended family. The Kimball kids…we knew each other very well, because our dads both played in the Firehouse Five. Although I'd known of them, I'd never met John Lounsbery's kids, and I'd never met Les Clark's daughter – and so it was a real joy getting in touch with them because, interestingly enough, even though we'd never met each other, it was like finding long-lost cousins. There was an immediate rapport we had with each other.
MS: Now that the film is over, do you still keep in contact with them?
TT: Yes. I'd say that's been a great benefit of doing the film, it gave an opportunity for us to extend our circle of friendships…and in a way, our relatives. Our family tree is bigger (laughing).
MS: When I talked with the Shermans' sons, they said they enjoyed spending time on the Disney lot. Was that something you had the opportunity to do as well, and did you meet Walt Disney?
TT: Yeah, we all did – both for visits, and for events that were scheduled or given at that time. There was also an interesting summer job program that was set up for children of some of the veteran employees. Many of us worked on that – either in traffic (delivering the mail around the lot), or some of us worked in the music department, or art props – assisting with a lot of the background art for the animated films. I think Les Clark's daughter Miriam was one of the very first, because he was one of the first people hired back in 1927. My older brother, my sister and I were all part of that, and I know the Kimball kids were.
MS: It really sounds like it was an extended family.
TT: You have to remember that all through the 50's and into the 1960's, the studio lot was a relatively small place. When I worked there in the 1970's, there were only about 1200 people on the lot total. You knew everybody.
MS: Do you have any stories about meeting Walt Disney?
TT: We met several times, generally in passing. One memorable time…there used to be a yearly Christmas party, a Christmas performance – it would be on a Saturday morning near Christmas at the studio theater where all these old vaudeville acts would get booked to put on a show. Walt loved vaudeville. The Casting Agent at that time would call – Jack Lavin was his name, he was a real kind of Broadway character – he'd bring in these people that did dog acts, and juggling acts, musical acts, and put on a show. Afterwards, we bumped into Walt and he asked me what I thought of it, and we had a great little conversation about how wonderful this one musical act was where this guy came in with special stunt shoes that must have been like four feet long. He was able to do a pirouette on them…while he was playing the trombone!
MS: Were there any stories from the other kids that surprised you?
TT: Well, I was a little surprised at how much Les Clark continued to hone his skills throughout his career…that he became a fine arts painter in addition to being a very fine animator. This was a skill that he didn't have any formal training for when he began. Les was one of the quieter guys, he was very near retirement when I started at the studio in the late 60's. It was a revelation to find out more about him.
(Some of Clark's beautiful artwork can be seen in Growing Up With Nine Old Men)
MS: Your dad was in the Firehouse Five Plus Two, which has received tributes in The Princess and the Frog as well as at Storybook Circus at Walt Disney World. Do you have any memories of the band?
TT: Yeah, lots! (laughing)
MS: Anything that sticks out in your head? We really enjoy their music.
TT: I play trumpet, and the first trumpet player I ever heard was Danny Alguire, who played trumpet with the Firehouse Five Plus Two. My dad always joked…when I was quite small, he asked me if I might be interested in playing an instrument. My eyes got big, and I sad "Yeah, the trumpet!" Particularly during the 1960's, the early 60's when I was growing up, the Firehouse Five played every Friday and Saturday night down at Disneyland – first at the Golden Horseshoe, and then later in New Orleans Square. I would go down several times during the summer…maybe every other weekend, and listen to the band. It had such an impact on me that I still play New Orleans jazz to this day.
MS: How many of the Nine Old Men had train sets in their back yard? I know Walt had one, and the documentary makes it look like almost everyone had one a set in their backyard.
TT: (Laughing) It seems like that, but it was only Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston. And you know, Ward had the full size (train). It was narrow gauge, but still big enough to be full size in my mind. He had that very early on…I think 1939 was when he bought the Emma Nevada and some people helped him restore it. He had like 500 feet of track there in his place in the San Gabriel Valley. Walt went out to those steam-ups several times, and ran the engine a couple of times. Then it was Ollie who had the backyard 1" scale live steam set-up, and Walt came over to Ollie's several times. That is sort of where he (Walt) got the bug, and decided to do his own backyard pike. And really, that was the impetus for him and Lillian to move from Los Feliz out to Holmby Hills.
MS: Trains don't seem as popular now as they did then, but it's fun watching the old footage of Walt and the animators riding in their backyards.
TT: I don't know if you've ever been to a train party, but they really are a combination of backyard barbecue and carnival, and all the excitement of going to see the circus. It's very festive. (Ted Thomas later tells me not to pass it up if I ever get the chance to go)
MS: Did most of the kids inherit some artistic abilities from their dads? There were a few instances shown of great talent among the sons and daughters.
TT: Many did. Several of them did in the arts, though not always in terms of drawing. Like Ollie Johnston's son Rick is a musician and composer. I make films, but they are live action films. And Bruce Reithermam – Woolie's son Bruce, was a very fine natural history film producer – a great natural history cameraman. And, we didn't use it in our finished film, but I put that question to the other Reitherman brothers, and they said "We don't draw, we don't photograph, but we do use our sense of visual appreciation in the jobs we do". The older brother Dick is a radiologist, he uses that visual expertise to diagnose these x-rays that he sees. And Bob is an architect, and an expert in analyzing designs for earthquake safety. It was a very good lesson that even though the kids might not apply their artistic genes directly, it's still there in the mix.
MS: Did you have a lot of time with your dad? It seems he was very often at the studio or with the Firehouse Five.
TT: Yeah, I did. One of his big weekend pastimes was gardening around his place in Flintridge. My folks had a pretty large place. It required a lot of weekend pruning and weeding, raking up leaves and things like that. I generally would help him. My brother Greg and I got to spend time with him that way. Later on when I was a little bit older, he and I took a great trip when I was in college – my brother was in the service, in the Air Force stationed up in Montana. My dad and I drove a car from Los Angeles up to Montana, stopping at all the National Parks along the way. It took about 2 weeks. We had a rule that we would never go further than 150 miles in a day. We'd stop and see every historical roadside marker and every little history museum in every little town that we went through – and we visited every National Park. It was great, we went through Zion and Bryce, and Yellowstone and Glacier. It was incredible.
MS: Can you give us one of your favorite memories of your dad?
TT: When I was in college, I was home on a visit and I went to visit him at the studio. I went and had lunch with him. He was in the middle of animating Robin Hood at the time. Dad had this great scene where Robin Hood was stealing sacks of gold out of Prince John's bedroom. He had this great little business where Prince John was rubbing his feet together in sort of an agitated way. I said "Hey, that is a great little bit of business" and he said "yeah, you know what? I got that from you, when you were a toddler you'd sort of rub your feet together". I was proud that I'd been the inspiration for this bit of action, but it also really impressed me that he had seen this and filed it away for 18 or 20 years and was applying it to his craft.
MS: What is your favorite of all of the Disney films that your dad worked on?
TT: It's a hard one, there are all of these wonderful moments that jump out at you…but I have to say that in many ways, Bambi feels the most different to me and the most (pauses)….there's this wonderful relationship between Thumper and Bambi, which I think is just terrific, and the sequences of Thumper teaching Bambi how to ice skate is one of my favorites. We featured that in our film Frank and Ollie too. He (Frank Thomas) always seemed to have this knack of finding these sequences with great entertainment potential that, for one reason or another, hadn't really made it through the story process. He (Thomas) raised his hand and said "Can I try and do something like that?" – the ice skating scene in Bambi is an example of that. Also, the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp is another example…the scene was going to be much, much less than he made it (I recommend the film Frank and Ollie to see how these scenes came about).
MS: You visited each home of the "kids" you interviewed. I noticed there wasn't much apparent Disney influence in some of the homes, who had the most "Disney" of the houses?
TT: That is an interesting point, because since all of us grew up with it, the things we tend to have in the house are the things that our fathers worked on or created. Since we were a part of it, and they were a part of it…there isn't as much need for us to have it around us. Either the Kimball's house or our house…and our house is the only one that is still intact. In the case of the Johnston home, it isn't even there anymore. When Ollie and his wife Marie were still living, they had quite a bit of Disney things around.
MS: If there is one thing you'd want everyone to know or remember about your dad, what would it be?
TT: He always lived his life looking forward, he valued the past but he never dwelled on it in a nostalgic kind of way. I think that was why he got along so well with Walt, they shared this quality of always wanting to do something new, and something of quality. I would guess that those are traits that all of the key animators shared, they always wanted to try something new and they wanted to make sure it was the best.
MS: I had one last question (and anyone who has seen the documentary will understand it): What is in your pockets?
TT: (Laughing) It's pretty simple. I've got car keys, a nail clipper, a Kleenex…my house key and some coins.
Frank and Ted Thomas, 1992
MS: In Growing Up With Nine Old Men, you said your dad had "the world" in his pockets. What did you mean by that?
TT: It was like he was ready for a camping trip! He didn't wear bifocals, but he switched glasses from general vision glasses to close-up glasses, so he always had a pair of glasses in his pockets. He had a key case, not that many people use them anymore – but it's a little leather wallet with clips in it for all your keys. He always had a piece of paper and a mechanical pencil, sometimes it was in his shirt pocket. Then he'd have change, his wallet, nail clipper…I could go on, but that is about half. He always liked to wear pleated pants, there was more room to put stuff in his pockets. He never liked flat front pants. He had a hard time in the 1970's when pleats were out, and flat front was in. He had a difficult time finding pants that he could stick all his stuff in.
TT: Let me just leave you with one more thing. When you are fortunate enough to know people who are extremely talented, whether it be in sports or business or the arts…they always leave at least two things to us. One is that we're thrilled by seeing excellence. And the other thing is that you hope that they leave us with some inspiration. I think my dad – and all of these guys – were examples of both of those qualities.
MS: Not everyone is as close to their parents as you were to your dad, so he obviously did something right – not only very talented, but a great dad as well.
TT: He was a great dad to be with, that's for sure.
Peter Pan Three-Disc Diamond Edition comes out on February 5th, and I highly recommend viewing Growing Up with Nine Old Men – as well as picking up Frank and Ollie, which is a very touching film about the two animators.