Legendary Disney Designer and Concept Artist Mel Shaw Passes at 97
Born in Brooklyn, New York on December 19, 1914, Melvin Schwartzman (later changed to Mel Shaw) discovered his artistic bent at age 10, when he was selected as one of only 30 children from the state of New York to participate in the Student Art League Society. Two years later, his soap sculpture of a Latino with a pack mule won second prize in a Procter & Gamble soap carving contest, earning the young artist national attention.
In 1928, his family moved to Los Angeles, where Shaw attended high school and entered a scholarship class at Otis Art Institute. But, the restless teen had an itch to become a cowboy and ran away from home to work on a Utah ranch.
After four months of back-breaking work, Shaw returned home and took a job creating title cards for silent movies at Pacific Titles, owned by cartoon producer Leon Schlesinger. With help from Schlesinger, two former Disney animators – Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising – made a deal with Warner Bros., and Shaw joined Harman-Ising Studios as animator, character designer, storyman, and director. While there, he worked with Orson Welles storyboarding a proposed live-action/animated version of “The Little Prince.”
In 1937, Shaw arrived at The Walt Disney Studios, where he contributed to such Disney classics as “Fantasia,” “Bambi,” and “The Wind in the Willows” (part of “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad”).
Shaw’s Disney career was interrupted by World War II, when he served the U.S. Army Signal Corp. as a filmmaker under Lord Louis Montbatten, helping produce films including a live-action/animated documentary about the Burma Campaign. He also served as art director and cartoonist for the Stars & Stripes newspaper in Shanghai.
After the war, he ventured into business with Bob Allen, a former MGM Studios animator. As Allen-Shaw productions, Shaw helped design and create the original Howdy Doody marionette puppet for NBC, as well as children’s toys, dishes and figurines for Metlox, architecture, and even master plans for cities including Century City, California.
In 1974, Walt Disney Animation Studios called Shaw in to help with the transition from the retiring animation team from Disney’s first Golden Age, to the next generation. He lent his skill and knowledge to such Disney animated favorites as “The Rescuers” (1977), “The Fox and the Hound” (1981), “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986), “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), “The Lion King” (1994), among others. Among his other feature projects was the never-realized “Musicana,” a sequel to “Fantasia” comprised of stories and music from around the world.
Shaw completed an autobiography, Animators on Horseback, detailing his years as a polo-playing animator for Disney and his numerous adventures as a pioneering artist in the industry. The family is proceeding with plans to publish it posthumously.
Shaw was married to Louise Harriet Shaw from 1938 until her death in 1984. He later married Florence Lounsbery-Shaw (widow of Disney animation pioneer, John Lounsbery) in 1985, and they were together until her passing in 2004. Shaw is survived by his brother, Bob Shaw, from Ojai, California, and two children from his first marriage – Rick Shaw (along with his wife, Janet, and their two children), and Melissa Couch-Deranleau (along with husband Chuck, and her son). Survivors also include two stepsons and their spouses – Ken and Dorcas Lounsbery, John and Sheree Lounsbery, and stepdaughter Andrea Gessel-Severe (along with husband Gary Severe), along with numerous grand and step-grandchildren. Cremation services will be private, with plans for a public life celebration to be announced shortly.