Aug 20, 2008

Ollie Johnston: a Life Celebration

Mark Kirkland on the El Capitan stage, in front of one of his photographs of Ollie Johnston. Ollie's holding a portrait of Walt Disney. This is the best I could do from the balcony with an iPhone.

When a man passes from the scene who's been as historically and artistically significant and as personally loved as Ollie Johnston, he deserves a great tribute from the animation community.
That's exactly what the last of the nine old men got last night, in a nesting doll of an evening at the El Capitan in Hollywood. From the stroke of 7 till well after 10 Leonard Maltin(doing a splendid job) introduced and moderated for these colleagues, friends and family:

Roy Disney
Andy Gaskill
Andreas Deja
Charles Solomon
Glen Keane
John Musker
Ron Clements
Brad Bird
Howard Green
Bob Kredel (train enthusiast and friend)
Michael Broggie (Disney/train historian)
Mark Kirkland
John Lasseter
Ollie's sons Rick and Ken Johnston
Carolyn Johnston (Ollie's daughter-in-law)
Jeanette(Mrs. Frank)Thomas
Ted Thomas
Andy & Marshall Ayers
(Frank’s son-in-law and grandson)

Leonard noted that in the audience were Kathryn Beaumont, Margaret Kerry, Dick Jones, June Foray and Virginia Davis. The names of those notable animation folk filling the rest of the theater are too numerous to list. The age range of the attendees was probably 5 to 95.

Ollie was discussed by those onstage as "the family man", "the railroader" and "the mentor"-a backdrop of portraits representing Ollie in those guises was projected on the screen. Clips of his animation were shown(including the seldom seen "Reason and Emotion" and a never seen pencil test of a very Fred Moore-like girl removing a brassiere-wow), but it was particularly lovely to see rare glimpses of Ollie's personal work: gesture drawings of his sons, paintings and drawings of his wife, the Johnston family Christmas cards--even early student work from Stanford(these last courtesy of Calarts alumnus and Simpsons director Mark Kirkland, whose presentation of his photographs of Ollie taken in later years was beautiful). I could have looked at the watercolors, pastels and paintings of Marie Johnston for's stunning to see such different material from an artist whose drawings you think you know well. I wish there was a book that could encompass that art.

All of the speakers were eloquent, funny, emotional and thoughtful by turns. Glen Keane, John Musker, Brad Bird, Ron Clements, Andreas Deja, Andy Gaskill...all of them became the young, neophyte animators of 30 years ago once again when remembering Ollie's work and mentorship. Ollie's sons Rick and Ken, Carolyn Johnston, Frank Thomas' son Ted and his mother Jeanette Thomas remembered their dad and friend as he was in his private life, full of enthusiasm and fun; outtakes from Ted Thomas of Frank and Ollie blowing take after take of discussing "Jungle Book" made obvious how much of a spur each was to the other as pals.

The penultimate speaker was John Lasseter, whose learning from Ollie began before they'd ever met(he spoke of memorizing the particular 16mm prints of the then-difficult to see Disney features in the Calarts library so completely that when he later saw copies without the same splices and pops, he'd be jarred by their absence) and eventually extended beyond animation into the heart of Ollie's great hobby, railroading.
John's story of rescuing and restoring the Marie E.--the little mine train that Ollie had owned and run for years at his property in Julian, California before having to sell it due to advancing age--was achingly bittersweet. Watching via video shot on the day a fragile Ollie, surrounded by family and friends being surprised with the sight of his beloved steam locomotive pulling up to the New Orleans Square depot in Disneyland fully restored...terribly poignant, and unforgettable.

Ollie Johnston lived an exceptionally long life-long enough, sadly, to see his best friend and his wife go before him into that good night--but also long enough that he was able to bask in the warmth and gratitude of his artistic heirs, many of whom became his friends. He saw the influence of his work in the achievements of dozens he personally guided and others who've acknowledged their debt to him and his colleagues. Everyone last night had stories and memories that overflowed with goodwill and thankfulness for the life of this quiet, unassuming and profoundly talented artist. It was a wonderful thing to be able to share in those memories and reflections, put together beautifully as was done last night. To those responsible-most especially the Johnston family-a heartfelt thanks.


Michael J. Ruocco said...

Sounded like a wonderful evening. I really wish I could've gone too.

Even though I met Ollie only briefly, it feels like I've known him all my life & he & his legacy have inspired & influenced me so much.

Thanks for sharing your experience at the show, Jenny. It's great to hear how it all went.

Mark Mayerson said...

A lovely write-up, Jenny. Thanks.

Jenny Lerew said...

You're both very welcome-it was my pleasure. I can't really do the emotion of the evening justice-but I tried.

Oswald Iten said...

It must have been really great... Thanks for letting us take part in it through your writing!

Anonymous said...

As someone who met with Frank & Ollie weekly for about the last two years of Frank's Life, the evening was a joyous reunion. It was great to see the Thomas Clan again and see the pictures of Ollie and Marie. Hard to describe all the feelings, especially the Marie E Steam Up, which the footage was shot by my good friend, the late Bruce Gordon.

Aloha, Frank, Ollie & Bruce!

Michael Sporn said...

Thanks so much for the report. You allowed me some small pleasure in hearing about an event I couldn't attend. Tom Sito also gave some fine coverage of the memorial.

Anonymous said...

Too much to ask that it was filmed to be offered up for purchase I'm sure, maybe?, well I don't know what I will regret more never having met Ollie to tell him how much what they all did meant to me, or missing all those wonderful people who did know him share those memories. Ah who am I kidding. We love you Ollie, rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

There's a write up of the event on Jim Hill's site, including a podcast of some of the audio.

Dancing Man said...

Wow, Jenny. You are a moving and powerful writer! Will you write my obituary? You think I'm kidding, but you really did the event and the man justice. I'm sure he would be proud.

Unknown said...

found your blog today - how did I miss it all these years? It's great!

I thank my stars everyday that somehow I was able to attend this incredible evening. It was one of the most unforgettable in my life. Ollie was the greatest, and this evening was so lovingly put together. Every detail was breathtaking and gloriously warm with love and admiration. Not a dry eye in the house many times over.

Thank you for this great post.