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Ollie's Life Celebration
August 20th, 2008

Last night the luminaries of Animation gathered at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood to celebrate the life of Ollie Johnston, the last of Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men. For three and a half hours Leonard Maltin hosted clips, still images of artwork and panels and speakers to remember this softspoken master of our artform. Roy Disney, John Lasseter, Andreas Deja, Glen Keane, Brad Bird, John Musker, Ron Clements, Mark Kirkland, Charles Solomon, Howard Green, and family members including Jeanette and Ted Thomas, and the Johnston family. In the audience were June Foray, Eric Goldberg, Bob Kurtz, Joe Adamson, Jerry Beck, Alice Davis, Bill and Sue Kroyer, as well as Virginia Davis ( Alice in Cartoonland), Margaret Kerry-Wilcox ( the model for Tinkerbell), and Dick Jones ( the voice of Pinocchio, plus many current and former Disney crew.

There were great stories- how his animation seemed effortless, how his pencil seemed to kiss the paper. What great natural actors Ollie and Frank were. One particularly poignant moment. John Lasseter showed a film of when an elderly Ollie was brought to Disneyland and surprised by being reunited with his beloved steam train the Marie-E. Ollie had had to sell it with his house, and was in a bad way after Frank died and his beloved wife Marie was in her last illness. John had purchased the train and had it brought to Disneyland and mounted on the train tracks just to raise Ollies’ spirits. It was hard not to reach for your handkerchief when you saw the look on Ollie's face.

The event was wonderful, but it all made me particularly sad when it was over. Ollie was the last holdout of that wonderful phalanx of Golden Age Disney Animators, now regrouped in Heaven. The ending of the night means they really are now all gone- Frank & Ollie, Milt, Wooly, Marc Davis, Ward, Eric Larson, Joe Grant, Vance Gerry, Art Stevens, Ken O’Connor, Shamus Culhane, Grim Natwick, Al Eugster. As well as their compatriots in the other studios- Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Maurice Noble, Ken Harris, Hanna & Barbera, Virgil Ross, Irv Spence, Ben Washam.

Regular readers to this blog might notice that I get particularly emotional when I write about these old predecessors. I apologize if I rhapsodize to the point of being maudlin. I realize that Ollie dying at the age of 95 is a wonderful age. And I might seem to some like just another middle age Boomer lamenting another milestone on the road to lost youth. It’s not that I object to being called an old animator myself now. I don’t.

But you must understand that for the animators of my generation, these people were more than just our teachers, they were our role-models, our guides, our gurus, our idols. We worshipped these people.

Back in a time when there was precious little animation instruction in schools, and there were only one or two how-to books like Preston Blair’s workbook, These people were our graduate school. These old veterans took us under their wing and slowly, painstakingly taught us everything they knew. The encouraged us, guided us, and urged us to one day do better than they did.

They were a close-knit brotherhood, together for over 50 years. We were not their family. They did not have to let us in. But they did.

I am not the son of any powerful Hollywood insider, I was not from privileged stock. My family came from the working class immigrant waterfront of Brooklyn, and my father held down two jobs to feed his family. Why would such famous artists born and bred in California even bother to give me the time of day?

To master artists like Ollie & Frank, Maurice and Chuck, if you were in animation, and you were good and dedicated, then you were all right. You could be one of them. That was the most important single act of charity they did. They took us in, they taught us all the theory and tricks you still can’t find in books. We became more than just trainees or proteges. We became part of their extended family.

Because they did not want this special artform that they dedicated their lives to perfecting, to die out with them. Their last orders for us, their heirs, is to keep developing our artform and hand it off to the next generation as they took the time to teach us.

So it is with bittersweet emotion, we bid farewell to our Last Mentor, Ollie Johnston. One of the finest artists I have ever known. I hope we have justified your faith in us, that we have taken your lessons to heart.

As the French writer Montaigne said: What thou has been given as Tradition, take now as Task and make it your own.

Thank you Ollie!