Fred Joerger, 91; Model Maker, ‘Imagineer’ for Disneyland Attractions

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Times Staff Writer

Fred Joerger, a master model maker who helped create Disneyland’s look by molding Sleeping Beauty Castle and other attractions in miniature, has died. He was 91.

Joerger died of causes associated with old age Aug. 26 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, said Gloria Penrose, his niece.

Walt Disney handpicked Joerger in 1953 to become one of his first three model makers. The trio invented a profession that would be known in future years as Imagineering, Disney-speak for the imagination and engineering that go into developing theme park rides.


“He provided the foundations of the park. All of the things that help give it that weird sense of reality are Fred’s doing,” said Jim Hill, who has tracked Disney history for 25 years. “And this was before computers -- the only tool he had at that point was a slide rule.”

The first model that Joerger made for Disneyland was of the steamboat Mark Twain. Three-dimensional renderings of Main Street, the Jungle Cruise, the Matterhorn and much of the rest of the original Disneyland followed, his niece said.

“Guys like Fred were kind of the heroes of the next generation of Imagineers,” said Kevin Rafferty, a senior show writer and director at Walt Disney Imagineering.

“The value and importance of his job was immense because he was the guy who took two-dimensional designs and realized them in three-dimensional models, which allowed designers to learn what was working.”

Joerger also became a field art director, making sure that such rides as Pirates of the Caribbean and Submarine Voyage achieved the look that Disney’s Imagineers envisioned.

Walt Disney found his oversight on Pirates so crucial that he had Joerger flown from Burbank to Orange County every day for nine months. It took longer than driving, but Disney didn’t want Joerger stressed by freeway traffic, said Harriet Burns, another original Imagineer who worked with Joerger for 31 years.


Joerger became known for his skill with forced perspective, a technique that can make objects appear smaller or-- as usually was the case at Disneyland -- larger.

“He could put together a pile of cement and steel beams, knowing you would look at it at a certain angle and you would think it was twice as big as it really was,” Hill said.

Examples of his faux-stone work can be seen at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Tom Sawyer Island, the Jungle Cruise and Pirates.

Home was one more place where Joerger practiced his magician-like craft. He started building a house in Lakeview Terrace in 1952 and worked on it for 45 years.

Built in the Frank Lloyd Wright style, it has flagstone floors, fireplaces in five rooms and painted ceilings. Waterfalls and ponds abound inside and out, and the entry features fireflies like those in the Pirates ride.

To maximize the drama of his pool during dinner parties, Joerger would punch a button to part the drapes and reveal a pool framed by 40 cypress trees with a Neptune statue he created standing over it.


“Everyone ached to go to his dinner parties,” Burns said. “His style was spectacular.”

Joerger recruited friends from Disney to work on the house, said Gregg Nestor, who bought the home in 1997.

“The minute I walked in, my mouth dropped open,” Nestor said.

“I said, ‘You’ve done all of this in forced perspective.’ And Fred replied, ‘I think you are meant to have my property.’ ”

Joerger was born Dec. 21, 1913, in Pekin, Ill. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1937 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, he moved to Los Angeles and worked at Warner Bros., building models of movie sets.

At Disney, he also worked on miniature versions of the sets for movies, including “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954) and “Mary Poppins” (1964).

After retiring in 1979, Joerger returned a few years later to oversee the look of Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida and also supervised the rock work for Tokyo Disneyland.

“He just had the aesthetic ability to do it himself,” Burns said of Joerger’s work in Florida. “What would take a whole team before, he would do overnight.”


In the fake graveyard outside the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland and Disney World is a headstone with an inscription meant as a tribute to his plasterwork on those attractions: “Here lies Good Old Fred, a great big rock fell on his head.”

When asked, “How do you do such good rock work?” the soft-spoken, modest Joerger would reply, “You just have to learn to think like a rock.”

In addition to his niece, Joerger is survived by a grandniece and grandnephew.

A celebration of his life is being planned. Contributions in his memory may be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, 22212 Ventura Blvd., Suite 300, Woodland Hills, CA 91364.