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Rowland B. Wilson Remembered by John Culhane

In a letter, John Culhane remembers his long-time friend and Disney animator Rowland B. Wilson, who passed away on June 28, 2005.

Rowland B. Wilson working at his desk at Don Bluth Studios in Dublin, Ireland. Courtesy of Suzanne Wilson.

John Culhane, author of many definitive books on Walt Disney animation, including Walt Disneys Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 and Aladdin, The Making of an Animated Film, was a long-time friend of Rowland B. Wilson ( The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan, Atlantis and Treasure Planet) and sent this memoir to Wilsons wife of 25 years, Suzanne. Wilson passed away on June 28, 2005.

Dear Skeezix: I opened the New York Times this Sunday morning and immediately recognized the laughter-provoking distinction of a Rowland B. Wilson cartoon! A Rowlie B. tiger is wrestling a Great White Hunter for his gun, and another Great White Hunter is saying, Youll not get a proper trophy that way, Bassington! My first thought was that the Times was trying to lighten the loss told about in the obit above the cartoon: Claude Simon, Champion of New Novel and Nobel Laureate, Dies at 91 then suddenly I feared to see what I would find beneath the papers fold. Oh, there it was: Rowland B. Wilson, 74, Creator of Wry Cartoons.

I felt loss like that when Tex Avery died. Remember when Rowland and I were working for Richard Williams Animation in London, and you and he and I went to the British Film Institute to see an evening of that other Texans cartoons? Rowlie B. had one of the most distinctive laughs in the animation industry, right up there with John Hubleys. When Tex died at 73 in 1980, a years laughter less than Rowland, I thought of all those Averys we saw together, and how I knew when Tex had hit the bulls-eye, because Rowlands laugh enveloped us both. He laughed at the horny wolf in The Shooting of Dan Magoo, or Drag-Along Droopy saying, That makes me mad, or King Size Canary growing to the size of planet earth, or Bad Luck Blackie getting hit by the kitchen sink.

In fact, Rowlands famous cartoon of Santas reindeer playing poker and saying to him, Care to join in a reindeer game? is funnier to me than all the literal stuff in Texs Symphony in Slang except maybe raining cats and dogs. Moreover, Rowlands rescued damsel in Playboy who says to her exhausted knight in shining armor, You think Im obligated to come across now, dont you, you male chauvinist pig! is Red Hot Riding Hoods sister under the skin.

Detail of Mount Olympus concept art by Rowland B. Wilson for Hercules. All artwork © Walt Disney Enterprises. All rights reserved.

What Rowland gave to John Musker and Ron Clements for their Disney Renaissance masterpieces, The Little Mermaid and Hercules is unforgettable. I spent a week touring America with John when I was Mousetro of Ceremonies for Disney on Film: A Forum on Animation and Fantasy Filmmaking in 1981, and I knew that he was a collector of drawings by Scarfe and Wilson. Later, I found that he loved the statues head that Rowlie B. designed for Eric Goldbergs Philoctetes to live in.

Musker said, Rowland Wilsons conception of Phils Place provided a sense of fantasy and scale. It gave a sense of history to Phil that he wouldnt have had otherwise Phil, trainer of heroes, has fallen on hard times and literally lives in a run-down head of a statue that used to be grand and has sort of fallen on hard times and gone to seed. Yet, inside it, he has his shrine this treasure trove of artifacts.

I wrote about the making of Hercules for the New York Times arts and leisure section, and I was most interested in the personality of Phil because of all the comic thinking that went into him. The first time I heard Danny DeVitos voice issuing from the head of that old, broken down statue where Phil lived, I laughed harder than Hubley and Wilson combined.

I started out as a lover of Rowlands non-moving cartoons for the Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy: then I got to know you two in the 70s when we were working at Richard Williams Animation where Rowland was making Dicks prize-winning vodka commercial that shows a train running into Russia through the snow and I was working on story development for The Thief and the Cobbler. Remember us going to hear Dick Williams play like Bix on his cornet at a jazz club, and Rowlie B. making caricatures of me listening raptly while Dick was playing, his eyes bulging out like hardboiled eggs with irises? Then we corresponded when you two were in Ireland making those features for Don Bluth Thumbelina and the others; then I would talk to him on the phone when you guys came to California and Disneys.

Concept Art of Philss Place by Wilson for Hercules.

As you know, I have been trying to get Disney to publish that deliciously funny graphic novel that Rowland wrote and illustrated and you, Suzanne Lemieux Wilson, painted. Made me laugh my old Averyesque-quality laugh, that graphic novel! I wonder how long he is going to be too far ahead of them?

Making animated movies is not a mechanical process, said Andy Gaskill, the wonderfully creative art director of Hercules. Its not something you can program into a computer which spits out a hard copy. Its a process that involves a whole network of relationships, people working with each other, bumping into each other, scratching each others eyes out I mean, hugging each other. Moviemaking involves a whole gamut of human behavior. I hope, after all weve done, we can all look at the movie and say, Ive never seen anything like this before.

Id never seen anything like Phils Place before. I hope to see it again, when architecture and comics catch up. Rowland worked for the future, though I remember from London how much he loved the past. He and I had both done graduate work at Columbia me in journalism; Rowland in art history. We could talk Viennese paintings with Grim Natwick Schiele and Klimt and Grim had been there when those guys were painting! (Of course, that kiss by Grim prince and Snow White is much better known than The Kiss by Klimt.)

Rowlands concept art for Disneys Hunchback of Notre Dame evoked for me medieval life in the reign of Louis XI such as I found as an American cold warrior in Paris in the 1950s, celebrating the Feast of St. Hubert the Hunter with High Mass at Notre Dame. Rowlands drawings of Esmeralda, Frollo and, particularly, Quasimodo, were people I could have met there in The Age of Faith. Rowlands big painting of soldiers taking away Esmeralda and her goat while gray-hooded scribes take names and red-hooded figures impassively look on has the chilling feeling of the authoritarianism of Frollos Paris.

Esmeralda concept art by Wilson for The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The gypsies of the time, persecuted by Frollo and his men, hideaway in old Roman ruins that, in Rowland Wilsons version, have been gypsy-humanized with a lavender and yellow tapestry that calls it The Court of Miracles. Quasimodos crowning as King of Fools and his first meeting with Esmeralda would fit right in to the Feast of Fools that Rowland painted, particularly with the sausage seller, the big-bosomed fast-food consumer, the playing musicians, the running children.

The life in the art of Rowland B. Wilson lives on after his death! And when Frollo is prevented from burning Esmeralda to death by her rescue, and that evil man is willing to avenge himself on Paris itself by setting loose hellfire on the cathedral and the whole city (is Paris burning?), Rowland gives us a ribbon of wavering fire streaking down the façade of Notre Dame de Paris!

How fitting, darling Skeezix (Rowlands shorthand for your maiden name of Suzanne Lemieux!), that he should have evolved to make that artistic tribute to the French spirit of our ancestors. My mothers Robidoux forebears, like your fathers Lemieux clan, knew that Paris; and Mount Robidoux in Riverside bears testimony to their presence in the California world of missions where the goodly friar commemorated Rowland. And Ill bet you that Rowley B. is up there laughing with Rabelais now and Tex Wilson and Tex Avery are both breaking up at Shakespeare saying, What fools these mortals be!


John Culhane (model for Mr. Snoops in Disneys The Rescuers and Flying John in George Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue in Roy E. Disneys Fantasia 2000; model (with Rowland) for two submachine-gun firing gangsters in a Richard Williams commercial)

P.S. Please send this to animation websites and to anybody else you please. I loved Rowlie B.!

John Culhane is a journalist ( Newsweek, New York Times, Readers Digest) and animation lover since his afternoon alone with Walt in Disneys backyard at 17. He has written many TV specials, as well as such books as Fantasia and Fantasia 2000: Visions of Hope. He now does commentary on animation DVDs and teaches animation history at NYU, FIT and the Roy E. Disney animation school at Mercy College in New York.