We lost a legend recently.
And not just any legend. We lost an Imagineering icon, Rolly Crump. What I loved most about Rolly wasn’t his unique gifts, his exceptional talents, or the multiple stamps he put on the Disney parks that we can still see many decades later.
What I loved most about Rolly was his story. It’s Kind of a Cute Story, as he called it in his 2012 biography, a required book in my History of Disneyland class at California Baptist University. I added his book to my syllabus because I wanted aspiring students to hear from someone hired by Walt, who had worked alongside Walt, and was so moved by Walt that his life and career were never the same.
Mostly, I wanted them to hear the story of the weird and whimsical Imagineer, the so-called “worst artist” Walt Disney ever hired. A story that Wisdom of Walt readers now need to know as well.
Roland Crump was born in Alhambra, California, on February 27, 1930. He started drawing at age two and decided at age three, after being blown away by The Three Little Pigs, that he wanted to be a Disney artist. When he was only sixteen, his single mother wrote to Disney trying to get him a job. In 1952, at age twenty-two and with no formal art training, he started working for Disney as an inbetweener and assistant animator. He worked on Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmatians. Sensing a special and avant-garde spirit, Walt moved him to WED (Imagineering) in 1959, but he had the darnedest time remembering Roland’s name. Sometimes he would call him “Owen” and other times “Orland.” Rolly’s personal favorite was “What’s his name.” Eventually, he just became Rolly, and Roland just rolled with it.
Rolly’s first assignment with WED was to work on an often-forgotten attraction that was never built, Rock Candy Mountain. He made an eight- to ten-foot long model that everyone agreed didn’t look very good, so to make it more appealing, Crump (and others) dumped real candy onto the clay model, all of Walt’s childhood favorites, which only made things worse. Nauseated, the Imagineers rolled the disgusting design out into the parking lot and left it to feed the birds.
Speaking of birds, Rolly was instrumental in turning Walt’s long-time dream to have a tearoom at Disneyland into Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Early designs were for a restaurant with caged birds overhead delighting the diners down below. “You can’t have birds in cages,” Rolly recalled Walt saying when Walt saw the first artistic rendering. “They’ll poop in the food!” From there, the Tiki Room became Disneyland’s first audio-animatronics attraction and the design team relied on Rolly to craft many of the gods that adorn the garden pre-show area and the Trader Sam’s Tiki Bar.
From there, Rolly worked on an endless number of projects, including trash can designs and Disneyland shops. He was famously paired with Yale Gracey to come up with early concepts for what would eventually become The Haunted Mansion. Together, they spent a year doing nothing but reading ghost stories and watching ghost movies. They had fun. Much of their early work never made it to the Mansion, including Crump’s concept for a “Museum of the Weird.” But some of it did survive, including the images on the iconic wallpaper that symbolize The Haunted Mansion today.
In between dreaming up the Museum of the Weird and actually building the Haunted Mansion, Rolly, like so many other Imagineers, was called away to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Most importantly, he was paired with Mary Blair, and the two artists were instrumental in bringing “it’s a small world” to life in a mere nine months. Because Rolly loved the kind of life that kinetic energy brings to art, he built the world’s tallest mobile in The Tower of the Four Winds…a 120-foot marquee that stood just outside of “it’s a small world” and drew guests to the Pepsi-sponsored pavilion. How could it not, with 100 spinning, oscillating elements, propellers, and a carousel? “Meet me under The Tower of the Four Winds” became a landmark phrase for the millions of guests who enjoyed the fair during its two seasons.
Sadly, at an estimated cost of $80,000 (just over three quarters of a million dollars today), taking the Tower of the Four Winds back home to California and Disneyland was deemed too costly. Instead, it was dismantled and today sits as a Rolly relic somewhere on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rolly Crump, along with Bob Gurr, at a Disney event in Anaheim. He was exactly as advertised. Charming, whimsical, engaging, and pointed. Rolly had recently turned ninety-three when he died on March 12. I’m sad that he’s gone but glad that he lived a long and meaningful life. A life that reminds us of the importance of supporting our children’s artistic and creative endeavors. Rolly also reminds us that you don’t need degrees or credentials to make a difference. Nor do you need to be “the best.” You simply need to do your best, regardless of your name, title, or what the boss calls you.
Lyndsey and I went to Trader Sam’s the night after he passed, and I reflected on how his handiwork was on everything around us. Hopefully, his “cute story” will never be forgotten…or lost to the four winds.
“From day one, I’ve always felt that Disneyland was a gorgeous salad because of the ingredients. There is a little bit of something in there for everyone. The attention to detail is one of the most important pieces of it, because there is so much in there. A good example is the little figures in the popcorn wagons. Those little things are the croutons…that are in the salad that make it so delicious. I really feel that is why Disneyland was so successful. I hate to say it, but the other theme parks were nothing more than just lettuce and tomato.” –Rolly Crump
Watch my video blog on Remembering Rolly