Earlier this week, we lost a genuine Disney Legend: Blaine Gibson, who started off at the animation studio before rising in the ranks at Imagineering to become one of the most trusted and beloved sculptors in the division’s history, passed away at the age of 97.
Gibson’s career is staggering: he began work as an animator, first as an assistant on movies like Lady and the Tramp and Cinderella and later as a full-fledged character animator on Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians and Walt’s Wonderful World of Color television series. But after Walt saw one of Blaine’s sculpture exhibits, he moved Blaine from animation to Walt Disney Imagineering. It was there that Gibson really made his mark: he created the sculpt for the Abraham Lincoln figure that appeared, memorably, at the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York. He also created the cavemen for the Ford’s Magic Skywalk attraction at the same World’s Fair; the dinosaurs later appearing as part of the Disneyland Railroad.
Even if you don’t know Gibson (and, truth be told, he kept a lower profile than some of the other legendary Imagineers), you’ve probably seen (and been moved by) his work: he created characters for Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, it’s a small world, and the Enchanted Tiki Room. He created every president at the Hall of Presents at Walt Disney World, up until George W. Bush in 2001. And even though he officially retired in 1983, Gibson continued to contribute to the company he was so closely associated with: he did figures for The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and, maybe most importantly, created the Partners statue (of Walt and Mickey Mouse holding hands) and the Sharing the Magic statue (with Roy O. Disney and Minnie Mouse). This video features Walt chatting with a young Gibson, years before the attraction would open. Just thinking about some of the creatures and characters Gibson created are enough to make you teary eyed.
We were on the phone with the equally legendary Bob Gurr (known for his amazing ride vehicles, trains and monorails at the various parks) earlier today, and the Imagineer shared his thoughts on Gibson’s passing.
“It’s a shame he’s gone. I think of all the people I ever met by the time his life closed this week, and he had the absolute most perfect life: he grew up in Colorado and was a farm boy who had the gift of illustration. He was born that way. He was totally kind, totally considerate,” Gurr explained. “He was a guy who was always interested in whatever anyone else was doing and never bragged about his work. He wasn’t the kind who would say, ‘Hey, want to see what I invented?’ He would say, ‘Why don’t you show me how you did that?’ He was always expressing his interest in the creativeness of other people. It is quite an interesting thing.”
Gurr seemed particularly enchanted by Gibson’s meticulous process. “He was the kind of creative artist who didn’t just settle on something and do it and say, ‘I’m done.’ He wouldn’t do anything until he completely understood it,” Gurr remembered. “He was born with a diligence of doing things right but not making a big deal out of it.”
When we asked Gurr about his working relationship with Gibson (they worked on Lincoln and Pirates of the Caribbean together, amongst others), he reflected with equal parts joy and admiration. You could tell, on the other end of the phone, Bob was beaming. “He was the neatest guy to work for. He was always so pleasant and I loved going over to his studio and find out what he’s got in the green clay now,” Gurr said. “I’m not a sculptor or an artist but Blaine made it look so simple and so easy. He just did it.”
In his final days, Gibson reportedly re-watched 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp with his grandson (named Blaine). If he could have, we’d like to think that he would have thrown in a trip on Pirates of the Caribbean or sat down at the Hall of Presidents, just to see all the faces he brought to life staring back at him one last time.