Historical Figures Get Together in Corona del Mar Studio

Paula Voorhees is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Great figures are gathered in a studio in Corona del Mar.

Richard M. Nixon is here. So is George Burns. The affable Teddy Kollek, mayor of Jerusalem, leans against a wall, smile lines etched deeply at the corners of his eyes. Daniel G. Aldrich, former chancellor of UC Irvine, perches on a desktop. A determined-looking Golda Meir sits on a chair, the pearls around her neck softening her features.

John F. Kennedy has been there. So were Hubert H. Humphrey and Otis Chandler. Bob Hope left for Las Vegas.

Over in the corner, Mickey Mouse smiles, crimson shorts adding a blush of color to an otherwise stark room.

What are they doing in Corona del Mar? All are plaster molds and are intimates of 69-year-old sculptor Don Winton--especially Mickey Mouse. He's been associating with the Disney creation for 40 years.

"Actually, sculpting Disney characters was how I got into this business--and almost out (of it) in a hurry," Winton said with a grin.

"My father was an alcoholic pharmacist who had a hard time keeping a job," said the sculptor matter-of-factly. "My mother died when I was 12, so my two brothers and I began supporting ourselves by the time I was 14.

"My twin brother, Ross, and my older brother, Bruce, also liked working with clay models. We started making and selling ceramic figures similar to Disney characters when I was a junior at Pasadena High School. By my senior year, we had a very profitable business going."

So profitable, in fact, that Disney management felt threatened, Winton said. "We received a letter from some very angry Disney people telling us to cease and desist. But, somehow, Walt Disney heard about us and sent a letter telling us to disregard the first letter and continue our operation. Although I never met him, Walt was very supportive of us. I'll always be grateful for that."

Grateful because the business begun in high school blossomed to support all three young men and their families until older brother Bruce bought out the twins in the early 1950s. Don and Ross went on to design and sculpt for other manufacturers.

"I knew since I was 5 that I wanted to be a sculptor. I just always loved working with clay and molding things. . . . I've never really had any formal training."

In addition to artistic talent, Winton has athletic ability that brought him a football scholarship to Stanford; he won the scholarship while playing for Pasadena Junior College.

"I guess it does seem a little strange that I was playing football and then coming home from workouts and sculpting angels or minute figurines. But shoot, doesn't former pro footballer Rosey Grier do needlepoint?"

(Athletics are an important part of Winton's life even today. He is a member of the Masters Track Movement and competes in shot put, discus and long jump in his age group. His love of sports led to sculpting trophies for the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament and the John Wooden National Basketball Trophy.)

The brown-haired Winton never used his scholarship. War had broken out, and in 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. After completing officer training, he played football for a service team and was charged with physically conditioning bomber crews.

When he was discharged in 1946, Winton returned to Pasadena and the family business, which led to meeting his future bride.

"After seeing a picture of 100 lovely contestants, I offered to sculpt the winner of the 1947 Rose Bowl Queen title. I picked the one I thought should win--actually hoped would win! As the weeks went by, the candidates were narrowed to seven and my pick was among the finalists. My choice, Norma--a beautiful, petite blonde--did indeed become the Rose Queen of 1947 and Mrs. Don Winton in 1948."

Grand marshal of the parade that year was Bob Hope. "Norma and I became good friends with him," Winton reminisced. "When we married, Bob gave us a lovely silver punch bowl and matching candelabra. We lost touch over the years, so I was pleased when I was commissioned recently by the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas to do a statue of him dressed in Army fatigues and carrying a golf club."

Don and Norma moved to their current residence in Corona del Mar in 1971. "By then, Ross had ventured into other things, but I stayed with sculpting. I've continued to do special commissions for industries and manufacturers such as Disney Productions, Hanna-Barbera Productions, Dell Publishing, Max Factor, Mattel Toys, Kenner Products and (the) Franklin Mint."

Winton says his most popular and well-known piece is the Mickey Mouse telephone he created for General Telephone Co. "Mickey was one of my fun projects. It never fails to amaze me how many people have that phone--mostly businessmen high up on the corporate ladder. I believe its popularity is because Mickey reminds you not to take life so seriously. In other words, lighten up."

Although Winton still does work for cartoon-character licensees, in the past 10 years his work has turned somewhat political, a change due largely to his 17-year involvement with the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. "Although our church is Christian, we are very much involved with the Jewish faith and the struggle of Israel. We feel that the Jewish people were God's chosen people," he says.

In 1978, the church commissioned Winton to sculpt a bronze of Golda Meir to be presented on her 80th birthday. Although he prefers to work from sittings, in this instance he used photographs.

"I really hoped I would meet her at the presentation, but she was gravely ill in a hospital so the presentation was made to her personal secretary."

Soon after, other commissions arrived from Israel. Leonard Shane, an Orange County resident and a trustee of David Ben-Gurion University, contacted Winton to sculpt a statue for the university. Winton agreed but was surprised to learn his subject was to be the late Hubert H. Humphrey.

"I had to bite my lip the whole time I worked on that piece," Winton says with a chuckle. "I'm a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican!"

A year later, he was commissioned to do a bust of David Ben-Gurion for the entrance to the university. The bust was sponsored by Shane and Calvary Chapel and presented by the chapel in 1985.

"Since Don has been involved with Israel and its many heroes, his heart has been more into his work," Norma Winton said. "It's one thing to be working on Mickey Mouse and another to be working on Golda Meir. It's an ennobling experience and it shows in Don's work."

Winton's future sculpting projects include 12 busts of Orange County pioneers for permanent display in the new section of the John Wayne Airport.

The idea was presented to Winton by Toren Segerstrom, great-grandson of C.J. Segerstrom. Segerstrom and Winton decided that the busts should represent pioneers in three categories of Orange County life: ranchers and farmers, builders and developers, and civic and cultural leaders. The concept is supported by the Orange County Historical Society as well as the Airport Commission and needs final approval from the Orange County Board of Supervisors, even though the cost of each piece will be borne by the family of the subject.

When asked what his favorite piece of work is, Winton looked around his studio at the plaster casts of Meir, Humphrey, Chandler, Nixon, Aldrich, Hope, Ben-Gurion, Ze'ev Jabotinsky (an early Zionist leader), Kennedy and others. His gaze returns lovingly to Mickey Mouse. His answer is not really surprising.

"I have no favorite piece. There are so many stories behind all these people and characters. Stories of courage and sacrifice, love and humor. Each time I sculpt I become emotionally involved in their life stories and as a result each piece is special to me. I guess they're all my favorite pieces."

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