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Dr. Toon: Elegy (A Tribute to Ollie Johnston on His 95th Birthday)

With a note of rhyme, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman pays tribute to the last surviving member of Disney's Nine Old Men.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. Photo by Karen Quincy Loberg, courtesy of and © 1995 the Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

I.

He watched the yellow leaves drift from the trees; 'twas HalloweenCartoonish costumes skipping down the street Brought a smile this birthday, sad yet sweet, The ninety-fifth such day the man had seen.

There, a child dressed as Mickey, black ears globed against the sky --In his mind, the wheels turned, the old train huffed; He held aloft an ancient hand, worn and scuffed, And gave a laugh that melted to a sigh.

Lifting a pencil sitting by his cuff, With that leathered hand began to lightly draw. Until that famous mouse he shortly saw. "Good enough," he whispered, "Still good enough."

Sitting back, his deep-lined eyes closed in repose. Drifting back through time, as dark as inkThat drew his perfect lines on countless cels; he tried to thinkOf how it all began, this life he chose.

His first drawing? It was a charming trainHis name printed neatly on the sideEncouraged in his eager child's pride, He sketched and drew again and yet again

When a man, in Stanford's ivied hallsThe brush and paint a magic shadow castUpon him as he learned of masters pastArt became his life, his love, his call.

The days of college passed, his painter's eyeWas shared with one Frank Thomas, a campus friendLittle could they know that fate would sendThat friendship to a fame that could not die.

When the days of art school were no more, He sought to find a living in his artWhen none did fit the passions of his heart, He followed Frank on through Walt Disney's door

At Fred Moore's side he toiled day and nightStriving to make his drawings feel and act, To move, reveal an inner life, react, Learning his craft, he helped to craft Snow White.

And there, between dwarfs seeking to be born, Classes, training, practice that consumed the hours, Enthralled by animation's skill and powers, He pledged himself to master it, and thus forsworn,

His talent shone, and Walt could not denyThe forms and faces that young Ollie drew Were poems of structure rare and emotions true. The time had come to set the standard high.

Pinocchio was Walt's first challenge, then centaurettesThat pranced through Fantasia. Better stillWas Disney's gracious bow to Ollie's skill: A leader's role in Bambi, proof of challenge met.

Disney celebrated the work of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in this 1995 documentary.

When that film, lovely and beloved, was seen, There was no doubt an artist was in bloom; A brilliant weaver on animation's loom, Entrancing viewers across the silver screen.

There came a war, a strike, unsettled daysThrough it all, his pencil, sturdy as a shieldDrew steadily; more genius was revealedEven in those times of disarray.

Brer Rabbit, Peter, Alice, many moreWere born from him, and so his legend grew. Beside him, eight great Disney artists whoMade animation greater than before.

His friend Frank Thomas, most beloved of all, Eric Larson, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, John Lounsberry; the others, minds and fingers nimble: Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, and Milt Kahl

Upon these men Walt Disney staked his trustHis "Nine Old Men" this cadre soon becameTheir names now ring with everlasting fameWhile works of lesser men have turned to dust.

He opened his eyes, rose slowly from the chairAnd to the window he was drawn again. Memories of the Nine Old MenCame vividly, as if the men were there.

Had it been so long ago they worked as one? Even though they sometimes had disputes, They had a common goal, so resoluteTo make their films creative, colorful, and fun.

For his part, there was Lady, Perdita, Mr. Smee, Three good fairies, and of course, Baloo --He and Frank both had much work to do; They wrote a book to seal their legacy

The years went by, mostly for the best, Walt passed on and left the Nine in chargeThough the challenges and tasks loomed largeThe animators conquered every test

Still, age and time lurked closely 'round the bendRufus the cat, his final crowning featWas self-caricature and sparkling treatAs the master animator neared the end

The Disney shop had strayed into bad ways, One day, while drawing Fox and Hound, He took one last and loving look around, And ended there his animating days.

III.

Here a tightness came unto his throat. A tear appeared, to limn his ancient eye. So many friends to leave his side, to dieTurning into memories remote.

Lounsberry was the first, who gave life to Pluto Pup; Les Clark was the next of Disney's men. Death rested six years before it struck again, Reitherman's years on Earth were then used up.

Within two years the Nine Old Men were fourAlthough Frank Thomas yet survived, It seemed that only he and Ollie thrived; Kahl and Larson passed on through Death's door

As if to reach for immortality, Frank and he wrote yet another book, And gave history a long, fond look, Appearing in a jolly documentary.

The new millennium was less than kind, Taking those who shared his long and happy life. Kimball, Davis, and Marie, his loving wife, Then Frank left his days on Earth behind.

So many others, lost along the way --Geniuses from other studiosAnimation lost a host of those, Leaving him a relic of his day.

Natwick and Culhane, who worked with him, Clampett, Jones, and Freleng, Tex and LantzOne by one departed Life's long danceThe leading lights were growing ever dim.

Ollie (left) and Frank try on some new shoes in Denmark. Courtesy of Hans Perk.

He felt despair, but it was only brief; Although retired, he never left his joys --Animation's future brought new toysAnd in this wonder he had found relief.

Computers had replaced the humble celDigital images shining sharp and brightIt seemed a whole new world had come to lightThe pencil was replaced by the pixel.

Those who practice now this wizardryAll bowed to him, this wisest sageThat still advised them in this modern age, A master of unequalled artistry.

And as he looked again into the street --Here an Ariel, an Aladdin, there a Belle --He thought back on the art he served so well, Accomplishments that time cannot defeat.

What is age? 'Tis only years gone pastWhat is time? Very much the same -- But lasting genius, true enduring fameTranscends both forever, and so he knew at last

Whenever children found true joy, it seems And one remained a child in one's heartHis life had played a most important part --The illusion of life to countless, happy dreams.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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