John Hench, a longtime Disney artist and designer whose vast creativity was found in animation and theme parks, died Thursday at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. He was 95.
Hench, a senior vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering, died of heart failure after a brief illness and hospitalization.
In a 64-year career with Disney, Hench worked on animated and live action films, played a key role in the creation of Disney theme parks and painted the official portraits of Mickey Mouse for the character’s 25th, 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays.
Hench was also involved in one of Walt Disney’s most unlikely projects: “Destino,” a collaboration between Disney and the surrealist artist Salvador Dali.
Until he fell ill two weeks ago, Hench worked at the Imagineering offices in Glendale every day.
He was actively involved in the design of Hong Kong Disneyland, which is under construction.
“John Hench taught me and so many others about the essence of the Disney legacy,” said Michael Eisner, chairman and chief executive office of Walt Disney Co.
“He continued to be a vital force for our company right up until the end,” Eisner said.
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in June 1908 and raised in Southern California, Hench attended the Art Students League in New York City, the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.
After completing his art training, he researched motion picture color processes at Vitacolor Studios, designed sets for Republic Pictures, and created interior displays and advertising for Broadway department stores.
Hench began his career at the Disney studio in May 1939 as a sketch artist on “Fantasia.”
He worked in story editing, layout, background, effects animation and special effects on many of the most celebrated Disney features, including “Dumbo,” “The Three Caballeros,” “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella,” as well as the television special “Donald in Mathmagic Land” and the live action film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
For “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” which won an Academy Award in 1954 for special effects, Hench staged giant squid attacks and received credit as the lead special effects artist.
The same year, Walt Disney invited Hench to join a small team of artists in designing the amusement park that would become Disneyland.
After his initial work on Tomorrowland, Hench designed the Adventureland buildings and walkways, New Orleans Square, the Snow White grotto and the costumed characters of Disney figures such as Mickey Mouse.
Hench also helped develop a number of attractions for Disneyland and the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, among them “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln,” “Carousel of Progress” and “It’s a Small World.”
After Disney’s death in 1966, Hench became one of Imagineering’s chief designers and played a key role in the creation of the Disney theme parks.
In the 1995 book “The Art of Walt Disney,” Christopher Finch wrote that, next to Disney, Hench “has probably had the greatest input into design decisions relating to the theme parks.”
At the beginning of construction on Walt Disney World in Florida, Hench conceived the idea of having the site’s 55 miles of canals and levees follow the contours of the landscape, rather than establishing the usual grid.
Hench explained the links between his work in movies and theme parks: “Walt had a high sensitivity, I think, for timing and the way things relate to each other -- and this, of course, came from the film work. This is what film is all about -- connecting ideas so they relate to one another.... So you want to keep the structure clean and simple.... In a cartoon we could gradually eliminate the things that contradicted what we were trying to say. With the background we had, this was a very easy thing to apply” to the parks.
In a 1988 interview, Hench explained that certain artistic considerations ran through all his work: “When you design environments, you have to be careful to support whatever the action is, not to contradict it or deal in ambiguities,” he said. “That philosophy is common to the stage, park attractions, live action and animation.”
“Color is an important part of every environment,” he said. “For example, part of Mickey’s identity is his coloration: the red pants and yellow shoes. But those two colors require some contrast to make them count as colors -- colors are highly relative. I worked in several departments at the studio, but color was always my main enthusiasm -- next to Mickey.”
Hench enjoyed his role as Mickey Mouse’s official portrait artist, recalling: “On his 25th birthday, I wanted to change his short pants. I said, ‘Look, he’s the richest mouse in the world, the best known and so forth. Why is he still in those little short pants?’ Walt said, ‘I’ll tell you why: because I like those little short pants.’ So that’s what I painted.”
But for Mickey’s 50th-birthday portrait, he said, “I put longer pants on him and very, very discreetly sneaked a little gray onto his temples.”
For “Destino,” which has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Animated Short category, Hench spent eight months working with Dali in 1946.
Hench created storyboards for the adaptation of a Mexican ballad Disney planned as a segment for one of the postwar musical “package features.”
“Walt came in and looked at the work from time to time; he saw the storyboard in progress and decided to let Dali go ahead and see what would happen,” Hench said in an interview with The Times some years ago.
“Walt was kind of entranced by the whole thing.... They got along remarkably, without much conversation -- there was a sympathy there.”
The unfinished film was shelved for financial reasons. It was completed in 2003 after two years of reconstruction by Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy E. Disney.
“I visited John just last week to congratulate him on the Academy Award nomination for ‘Destino,’ which he was instrumental in helping us complete last year,” Roy Disney said Thursday in a statement. “He was a remarkable man, a brilliant artist and a lifelong friend.”
Hench recounted many of his experiences in “Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show,” published in 2003.
He will be honored with the Winsor McCay Award from the International Animated Film Society in recognition of lifetime contributions to the art of animation Saturday at a ceremony at the Alex Theater in Glendale.
Hench is survived by his wife of 65 years, Lowry. Memorial services are pending.