CalArts: Where Imagineers Are Born

By Keith Mahne

Picture a place with maze-like hallways. You walk through those hallways, passing cubicles filled with art supplies and artwork. Photographs and doodles fill in the blanks to reveal the style and personality of the occupant. Sometimes the cubicles are the size of a broom closet, and sometimes as large as a walk-in. If you continue, you might come across a wood shop, or a sculpture studio, or a room filled with computers. Pass the library, and at certain times of the day you might hear a string trio playing bluegrass music. Perhaps you thought you were observing Imagineers in action while on a tour of 1401 Flower Street, Imagineering Headquarters in Glendale, California. Wrong. It happens all day, every day in Valencia, at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Continue after the page break as we have a look at the place Imagineers are born…

Walt Disney with founding trustee Lulu May von Hagen observing “The
CalArts Story” featurette which was to be screened before “Mary Poppins.”

CalArts and WDI go back a long way and there are many similarities between the two organizations. Before his death, Walt Disney provided much of the funding which made the school possible. Disney artists from WED helped out with the DAFCA (Disney Artists For CalArts) program, which focused attention on CalArts through a yearly art show that raised thousands of dollars for the school’s scholarship fund.

DAFCA Committee (left to right): Marty and Leah Sklar, Harrison and Anne Price, Sharon Disney Brown, Richard and Ann Irvine, Marvin and Marjorie (Walt’s niece) Davis, Thomas and Tommie (Walt’s personal secretary) Wilck

Both CalArts and WED had to struggle through a mire of skepticism to get where they are today. WED’s initial hurdle was building Disneyland, an entirely new concept, which many people predicted would fail before it even opened. CalArts was known for controversial approaches to teaching the arts, instead of its revolutionary approach to interdisciplinary study in the arts.

Rarely-seen 1964 photo from the Los Angeles Times of Walt visiting an early version of the California Institute of Arts (CalArts).

Walt envisioned a place where artists would be free to create, and from that point of view, CalArts was an immediate success. Walt believed that a willingness to risk failure is essential to pushing the limits of creativity. That is the credo of CalArts.

The CalArts graduating class of 1975. Back row: Joe Lanzisero, Darrell Van Citters, Brett Thompson, John Lasseter, Leslie Margolin, Mike Cedeno, Paul Nowak, and Nancy Beiman. Center row: Jerry Rees, Bruce Morris, instructor Elmer Plummer, Brad Bird, and Doug Lefler. Front row: Harry Sabin & John Musker.

Teamwork is paramount at CalArts just as it is at Imagineering. Former Imagineer Tim Delaney told me while being interviewed for the Disney Avenue Podcast that there were occasions where someone didn’t last as an Imagineer because he or she couldn’t work well with others. Walt wanted CalArts to be about teamwork and he firmly believed artists should interact with other artists as they do in making a film or creating a park attraction. At CalArts, dancers work with musicians and production designers work with actors. WDI does the same.

Ron Miller (far left in a black suit), Lillian Disney (in red) and Roy E. Disney
(in grey) join Lulu May von Hagen at the official CalArts groundbreaking
ceremony in 1969.

Both WDI and CalArts face similar challenges in the future. WDI must continue to implement ground breaking and unique experiences and attractions for guests, while retaining its small, campus-like culture. CalArts must expand, while preserving the low student/faculty ratio which has attracted so many talented artists. One of the strategies for meeting these challenges is a commitment to change.  All Imagineers are familiar with Walt’s Disneyland philosophy: “It’s something that will never be finished.” CalArts also seems dedicated to maintain an environment which will continue to challenge its students.

Walt in his, “Workshop away from work.”

Walt’s idea of CalArts wasn’t to define art as this or that, but instead to create a giant laboratory where things might happen. That’s an idea similar to his feelings toward Imagineering: “WED is my backyard laboratory. My workshop away from work.”

And now enjoy The CalArts Story, the short film that was originally presented at the 1964 gala premiere of Mary Poppins and doubled as a fundraiser for the then-recently incorporated CalArts:


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