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'Whimsical Imagineer' follows the wild and wacky ride of Disney Legend Rolly Crump

'Whimsical Imagineer' follows the wild and wacky ride of Disney Legend Rolly Crump
Tower of the Four Winds model during a 1964 television broadcast. (Disney)

A new documentary film calls Rolly Crump playful, energetic, inspirational, risque, fearless and kooky but finally settles on one word to best describe the legendary Disney Imagineer: whimsical.

"The Whimsical Imagineer" by producer and director Ken Kebow will make its world premiere on Tuesday at the Newport Beach Film Festival.

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The 30-minute documentary pays tribute to the self-described "worst" artist ever hired by Walt Disney Animation Studios who went on to help create three of Disneyland's most beloved attractions: It's a Small World, the Haunted Mansion and the Enchanted Tiki Room.

Rolly Crump in front of It's a Small World during the filming of "The Whimsical Imagineer."
Rolly Crump in front of It's a Small World during the filming of "The Whimsical Imagineer." (Matt Alioto)

"I wasn't that much of an illustrator," Crump says in the film. "I think Walt liked my imagination."

The film focuses on Crump's Disney career in the 1960s, with retrospection from his fellow Imagineers.

"Rolly is quite humble about his work and his career," Kebow said. "What I kept hearing from people we interviewed for the program was how inspirational Rolly was as a leader and how much he encouraged individual creativity. He created an environment where people were encouraged and inspired to be creative."

Influenced by comic strips and comic books, Crump began drawing as a child in the 1930s while trying to imagine the mental pictures painted in his head by radio serials such as "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy."

Crump got his start at Disney's animation studio in 1952 working for Eric Larson, one of Disney's Nine Old Men.

"They told me I probably had the worst portfolio of anyone that was ever hired in animation at the studio," Crump says in the film. "I still hold that record I think."

Making $35 per week, Crump took a significant pay cut to work as an in-betweener animator on "Peter Pan," "Lady and the Tramp," "Sleeping Beauty" and "101 Dalmatians." On weekends, to supplement his income, he lowered bricks and mixed mud with a work crew building sewer manholes.

His big break came when a playful propeller exhibit Crump set up in the studio library caught Walt Disney's eye. In 1959, Crump moved to WED Enterprises — the precursor to Walt Disney Imagineering — to help bring to life the new Disneyland attractions the boss was dreaming up.

"The one thing Walt taught me more than anything else was the big picture," Crump says in the film. "He had a vision and knew exactly what it was going to be and how to get there."

Crump immediately set to work on a field of flowers with propeller petals for Ozland, a "Wizard of Oz" land envisioned for Disneyland that never materialized.

Crump made his first significant imprint on Disneyland with the Enchanted Tiki Room. Originally envisioned as a restaurant, the Tiki Room featured a new innovation for the park: audio-animatronic birds. Crump's hand-carved tiki mask sculptures made him a hero to fans of kitschy South Pacific design.

"Rolly is sort of revered in the tiki culture community," says his son Chris Crump, who is also an Imagineer. "He is a god in their world."

For the 1964 New York World's Fair, Crump and his team built more than 350 toys for It's a Small World. The marquee Tower of the Four Winds entry sculpture once again featured Crump's signature propellers. The attraction moved to Disneyland after the World's Fair, and to this day a parade of wooden dolls march around the facade's clock tower every 15 minutes.

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"The toys, the facade and all of that was just pure, complete Rolly," Imagineer Steve Kirk says in the movie.

The Haunted Mansion was Crump's crowning achievement. He worked with Yale Gracey and a number of Imagineers on the dark and weird ride, which was originally envisioned as a walk-through attraction. Some of Crump's bizarre concepts for a never-realized Museum of the Weird restaurant made their way into the Haunted Mansion.

"A lot of people say, 'What was your favorite project?'" Crump says in the film. "They were all my favorite projects. The thing I love the most is a challenge. To be asked to do something you've never done before. And that's about as exciting as you can get. Believe it or not, that's where the imagination kicks in."

Crump was named a Disney Legend in 2004 and got an honorary palm reader window on Disneyland's Main Street USA promising whimsical and weird predictions that will haunt you. His 2012 autobiography, "It's Kind of a Cute Story," has spawned three sequels.

The documentary includes some rarely seen footage of test runs through Small World, scale models of the Haunted Mansion and early concept drawings for the Tiki Room. Kebow licensed film footage and photo stills for the documentary from the Disney Archives.

Kebow, who owns a San Diego video production company, previously made an award-winning PBS documentary in 2008 on youth violence. Driven by Crump's enduring creative spark, Kebow and his filmmaking team have worked on the "Whimsical Imagineer" documentary since 2009.

"One thing I love about Rolly is how, in his 80s, he has been able to hold on to his childlike imagination," Kebow said. "It is so easy to lose track of one's own sense of creativity as we move into adulthood, and Rolly has never lost touch with that."

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