Ralph Kent, 68; veteran Disney artist preserved image of Mickey Mouse
In the world of Disney, artist Ralph Kent was known by some as “The Keeper of the Mouse.”
The artist was one of Mickey Mouse’s handlers, concerned with maintaining the wholesome image of Walt Disney’s most famous creation. Kent trained other artists to draw the mouse uniformly and helped determine which merchandise would carry its image.
During a nearly 40-year career, Kent became an expert on the finer points of Disney’s world, the look of the characters, their personalities and their interactions. And he was protective of their images.
“He wouldn’t let out certain merchandise, things Mickey shouldn’t be on,” said his wife, Linda Kent. ". . . Mickey was the standard bearer of Disney; Mickey was the one that made Disney. He had to be kind of kept that way.”
Kent died Monday at his home in Kissimmee, Fla., from complications of esophageal cancer. He was 68.
In addition to his work with Walt Disney Co., Kent designed “Billy Buffalo,” the mascot for the Buffalo Bills professional football team and “Billy the Marlin,” the mascot for the Florida Marlins major league baseball team, Linda Kent said.
In 2004, the year he retired from Disney, Kent was named a “Disney Legend” and was honored with a window on Main Street at Walt Disney World. By then he was a corporate trainer at Disney Design Group.
“He said he ‘fell under the spell’ of Disney when he saw Pinocchio. . . ,” Marty Sklar, Disney executive vice president, said in a statement. “It was fitting that Ralph capped his Disney years as a trainer, mentoring new artists and creating a reference collection of character model sheets.”
As a boy, Kent was not only fascinated with Walt Disney, he also asked him for a job. When Kent received a letter from Disney, with the answer that there were no jobs for 8-year-olds and the advice to keep studying and drawing, Kent did just that.
Born Ralph Kwiatkowski in Buffalo, N.Y., on Jan. 28, 1939, the artist changed his surname to Kent because, he said, nobody could pronounce his birth name.
He graduated from the Albright Art School in Buffalo in 1960, then spent two years in the Army, where he illustrated military training aids and films.
After his discharge, Kent headed west, found work as a marketing production artist at Disneyland in 1963 and found a mentor in the man to whom he’d written as a child.
Kent designed training material for four Disney exhibits at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York.
Over the years he created marketing materials for Disneyland attractions, such as the Jungle Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room.
He designed a souvenir book for Pirates of the Caribbean and merchandise, such as a Christmas ornament depicting Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Kent also designed what remains a memorable Disney collectible: a limited-edition adult Mickey Mouse watch. Walt Disney gave the watch to his top executives in 1965.
In 1971, Kent moved to Florida, where he designed souvenirs and merchandise, such as license plates and bumper stickers for Walt Disney World, and later became director of Walt Disney Imagineering East.
Kent was also the man behind Mickey’s signature. For a while he was one of a scant few authorized to sign the mouse’s signature. Kent left Disney in 1985, but returned in 1990 and became a trainer of artists. His work ensured characters would be drawn uniformly, particularly the group known by some as the “Fab Five”: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto.
Mickey’s personality -- like his physical depiction -- evolved over the years. In his earlier life Mickey was hardly a Boy Scout. He was a mischief maker, brash and alarming to some parents.
Over the years he became the “always good” Mickey that millions loved. He could do no wrong. (Donald Duck on the other hand could get away with a lot.) Kent’s understanding of Mickey played a role in his decisions regarding merchandising.
“He especially didn’t want him on bras and panties and things like that,” Linda Kent said.
In addition to his wife, Kent is survived by two daughters, Julie Lowery of Winter Garden, Fla., and Laura Hilgenfeldt, of Ocala, Fla.; three stepsons, Scott Dobek of Haines City, Fla., Michael Dobek of Orlando, Fla., and David Gonos of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; a sister, Joan Grabowski of Clarence, N.Y.; and a brother, Larry Kwiatkowski of West Seneca, N.Y.
The underlying theme of the world Walt Disney created was one Kent accepted as a child -- and managed to hold on to as an adult, Linda Kent said.
“Ralph was very idealistic,” she said. “He believed in that ‘good conquers evil.’ That’s what Walt believed in. That’s why he loved the company.”
Memorial donations may be made to Mill Slough Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1525 Mill Slough Road, Kissimmee, FL 34741.