John Hench was Walt Disney’s Renaissance artist. He was an Imagineer, philosopher, animator, designer, storyteller, voracious reader of 52 magazines a month, and an excellent teacher. John was an employee of Walt’s for more than sixty-five years, an exceptionally long tenure which saw the rise of nearly every Disney animated feature and theme park. Continue after the page break for a look at one of the most storied Disney careers ever…
Starting in 1939 as a story artist, John weaved his way through the animation department working in areas including backgrounds, layout and art direction, effects animation and special effects. Always eager to learn, John accepted a variety of tasks over the years, including painting backgrounds on Dumbo and layouts for The Three Caballeros. Hench was respected by Walt Disney as one of the studio’s most gifted artists and teamed him with Salvador Dalí on the animated short Destino, a project begun in 1945 that was not completed and released until 2003. Hench was also Disney’s “official portrait artist” of Mickey Mouse, painting the company’s portraits for Mickey’s 25th, 50th, 60th, 70th, and 75th birthdays.
By 1954, Hench was in the studio’s live action department, as lead developer of the hydraulic giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, helping to win an Academy Award for Best Special Effects for the film. After working on that live action project, he moved to WED Enterprises, to design attractions for Disneyland. Hench went on to design many iconic elements for Disney’s theme parks, including Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland, Space Mountain, and contributed to attractions such as the Mickey Mouse Revue. Because of his resemblance to Walt Disney and his frequent visits to the Disney theme parks, he was often asked to sign autographs and pose for pictures with park visitors who mistook Hench for Disney himself. John explains, “I was at Disneyland on one occasion when a young girl mistook me for Walt Disney and asked for an autograph. I signed it without correcting her even though Walt was standing right there. Later that same day, someone called out to Walt “Are you Walt Disney?’ I was working a few yards away and Walt pointed to me and said, ‘No, he’s over there!'”
One of Hench’s most recognizable works is his design for the Olympic Torch for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, California, modeled after the torches of the 1948 and 1956 Olympiads. After realizing that the 52 cm tall torch wasn’t stable when filled with fuel, he made it slightly smaller in height and added black tape to the top part of the shaft, as it was easier for the runners to pass the torch when held near the top. In an interview, one runner mentioned that carrying the torch under the bowl made more sense than at the distal length. “It swung too much and was in your face. A short grasp was expedient!” Next up was attractions for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and master plans for Walt Disney World.
Throughout his career John never seemed to slow down. He continued to help with designing Tokyo Disneyland and develop ideas for theme parks, including Disney’s California Adventure, Animal Kingdom, and Tokyo DisneySea. In 1990 Hench was awarded the prestigious Disney Legend award, the company’s highest honor, presented to him by Michael Eisner. Hench continued to maintain an office at Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, California and worked there daily up until a few weeks before his death. His name tag and 65-year service award are prominently displayed in the building’s lobby, and permanent tributes by fellow “Imagineers” line its hallways. Sadly in early 2004, Hench died of heart failure after a brief hospitalization in Burbank, California.