various Disney assignments
and the Disney animation renaissance
by Scott Wolf
The first time I met Howard I was most impressed by his passion for
the people he's worked with. He is known amongst many of Disney's
legends as extremely generous with a heart of gold, and in getting to
know Howard and even working with him on a couple projects, I couldn't
Working with Howard on a tribute to Fulton Burley of Disneyland's
"Golden Horseshoe Revue" remains a highlight of my life and I will be
eternally grateful that Howard trusted me and was humble enough to sit
back and let me take the project and run with it.
I'm so thrilled to bring you my interview with Howard, whom I have the
utmost respect for and who has literally changed my life.
My first job as a unit publicist was for a (Disney) Sunday hour (television episode) starring Jonathan Winters. I loved Jonathan Winters. It was a Halloween special where he was a night watchman at the studio, a guard, and he’s rambling thru the studio and he’s picking up things and doing his shtick. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven… I got to meet Jonathan Winters who was a hero of mine and it was great fun so I wrote the press stories that went out on that. Jonathan ends up with a big pumpkin on his head. He ends up turning into a pumpkin. It was wacky and fun.
I did a couple of TV movies as unit publicist. I was a staff unit publicist. I was one of the last people in Hollywood to do that where I remained on staff and I would be assigned to a particular film and go off and follow that film from start to finish and be on the set and take press thru there and then I’d come back and write all the materials about the film. In between I’d work on something else and then they’d send me off on another film.
The first one I did was “Herbie Goes Bananas” which came out in 1980, it was filming in 1979 and I got to go to Mexico with I think we had fifteen different Herbie cars, each one did something different. We were in Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta and Tijuana, and I was there with Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman and Charles Martin Smith and Fritz Feld.
I did “Tex,” and they sent me to Tulsa, Oklahoma for two months with Matt Dillon and Ben Johnson. Remember Ben Johnson, the great cowboy star?
SW: Yeah, I just saw him on an episode of “Ozzie & Harriet” playing a TV cowboy.
HG: Yes, he was in a lot of John Ford movies, too, he was the father in “Tex.”
I gravitated toward animation as something I loved and I became an expert on it and I became the publicist who wrote every press kit for every animated film from “Fox and the Hound” up thru “Cars” (so far at the time of this interview).
As part of my job I would interview all the filmmakers and the animators and often voice talent. I would take all that material and process it and write it into a forty or fifty page booklet that would have bios and what makes the film unique or interesting. It was my job to sort of position the film and let the press know how we saw it because it’s not always obvious.
SW: So you got to work with some of the greats.
Milt Kahl retired the year that I came to the studio. John Lounsberry died that same year and Les Clark I met one time. I met Les, Milt Kahl I never met in person but I talked to on the phone, the others I knew really well and considered them best friends.
Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston) were my best friends. Marc Davis and Ward Kimball, I spent a lot of time interviewing them and being involved with them in events and trying to help them get their due, which wasn’t hard, you just had to make sure that they were thought of and considered.
With “Fox and the Hound” I worked with Joe Hale and Woolie Reitherman, I traveled with Woolie and Eric Larsen. I knew six of the “nine old men” really well.
Peter Ellenshaw (considered by many as the greatest matte painter), who I also traveled to film festivals with and things like that, had just published his book on the gardens, “The Garden Within,” a beautiful book of his garden paintings. He had come to me and said, “Can we try to get this into the parks or Disney Stores?” So I helped him connect with the right people in merchandising and things like that and in the process people started thinking about Peter Ellenshaw again and that’s when he was picked to do some of those Pooh paintings, he’d do those beautiful garden paintings and then he’d put Winnie the Pooh in there and they became really popular. He credited me with really reviving his connection at Disney and all that and he painted me the most beautiful garden painting. He said, “Look in my book and pick out one you like and I’ll do something like that for you,” and that’s over my fireplace.
One of the really interesting things about my job and being here during this period of time, and it’s now almost 31 years, I started in ’76, has been to see animation. When I first came, “Rescuers” was sort of a bright spot for the studio, and “Fox and the Hound” did very well at the box office. But then, working on “Black Cauldron” for almost ten years and seeing it come out… it came out in ’85. (Jeffrey) Katzenberg had come in and they didn’t know what to do with it exactly. They looked at it and they said, “This isn’t very good” and they brought in an editor from the outside, a real film editor and tried it different ways and all that, but it had its inherent flaws so that was a disappointment when it came out in ’85 box office-wise. It’s kind of neither here nor there. It’s not adult enough, it’s not kid enough. It’s neither fish nor fowl.
You know, Katzenberg’s first day on the job basically, he had to green light “Great Mouse Detective” with Roy’s support and encouragement. It had been sitting on storyboards in the hallways for a year or so. They were afraid to green light it because the old regime didn’t know what to do with it.
It was a really interesting time, and of course “Great Mouse Detective” brought a new fresh air to animation and a new breeziness and wit to it that was great fun. It was the first one from the new generation of filmmakers.
In rapid succession after that, in 1988 you had “Oliver and Company,” ‘89 was “Little Mermaid,” then “Rescuers Down Under,” “Beauty and the Beast,” right up through “Lion King” in ’94.
It was a thrill to be a part of these films and be part of the renaissance of Feature Animation and to be part of the marketing team that helped get these films maximum exposure and all that.
But, the joy of my job has been to work with the old guys and being that link to the past. I was the guy who would listen to them and help them and if they had a need or request I would make sure that it got done, and
I always treated them with the greatest respect as they deserve. I’m not the only one, there’s certainly other people, but I sort of became that guy and I love that about my job. To me, to be able to give back and do something for those people who gave us so much entertainment was really the thrill.
SW: Do you have a favorite assignment you've worked on?
In 1993, I was working in San Francisco, they sent me up there for six months to work on “Nightmare Before Christmas.” I was living in Sausalito, driving into the city each day to this wonderful warehouse that had been converted into Skellington Studios where they had twenty four different little stages where the puppets were and the great sets.
Magic happened every day there and you’d see the animators move the armature one frame at a time.
SW: You got to watch it being done?
HG: I got to watch it and I would bring press thru there almost every day of that six months I was there. The greatest assignment I ever had to be in San Francisco in a place where magic happened, and Tim Burton would come around occasionally.
I knew Tim from the early days. I knew (John) Lasseter and I knew Tim and Henry Selig, all these folks who came thru Disney and started there in the ‘70s. They’re all my friends.
More from Howard:
His start with Disney
Re-discovering missing Disney people
See other interviews