He imag­ined won­der­ful stuff

Get­ting to know Marty Sk­lar, a man who shaped Dis­ney theme parks for years.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Todd Martens

One doesn’t join Imag­i­neer­ing to be­come fa­mous. Such was a phrase oft re­peated by Marty Sk­lar, a long­time leader of the Walt Dis­ney Co.’s highly se­cre­tive di­vi­sion ded­i­cated to cre­at­ing new theme park ex­pe­ri­ences.

Sk­lar, also once a speech­writer for Walt Dis­ney him­self, reg­u­larly had to tell young, am­bi­tious de­sign­ers that only one name would ever ap­pear in lights: Walt’s.

So it wasn’t al­ways easy to get Sk­lar to take credit for his ac­com­plish­ments in his five-plus decades with Dis­ney. I cer­tainly tried. Over the last three years, I had got­ten to know Sk­lar, who died Thurs­day in his Hol­ly­wood Hills home at age 83. Just seven days prior, Sk­lar and I spent sev­eral hours at Echo Park’s Taix French Res­tau­rant — his pick — to chat over a meal.

I al­ways had a lot I wanted to dis­cuss when we spoke. Sk­lar, af­ter a short stint at Dis­ney­land, joined Imag­i­neer­ing in 1961, stay­ing through 2009. If you vis­ited a Dis­ney park dur­ing this pe­riod, chances are Sk­lar had some hand in some­thing you en­joyed.

Th­ese decades saw tremen­dous ad­vance­ments in themed en­ter­tain­ment, from the all-en­velop­ing tome to ad­ven­ture that is Pi­rates of the Caribbean to Walt Dis­ney World’s op­ti­mistic look to the fu­ture and wide em­brace of in­ter­na­tional cul­ture that is Ep­cot. Sk­lar did a lit­tle writ­ing on the for­mer and helped shape the lat­ter, en­sur­ing that Walt’s vi­sion for a utopian city would live on in theme

park form.

As a Dis­ney parks devo­tee, I cher­ished th­ese con­ver­sa­tions, long be­liev­ing that the re­sorts, though beloved as tourist des­ti­na­tions, don’t get their due as the­atri­cal, cul­tural and tech­no­log­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions.

Sk­lar was al­ways happy to oblige. He’d share tales of aborted at­trac­tions — the thrill ride that would take guests through the in­nards of a com­puter, once pitched to sit where Walt Dis­ney World’s Space Moun­tain rises to­day (spon­sor RCA didn’t go for it) — and even di­vulge the oc­ca­sional frus­tra­tion (he too was a bit dis­ap­pointed in the first pass at Ana­heim’s Dis­ney Cal­i­for­nia Ad­ven­ture).

But over time, our emails, phone calls and in-per­son chats be­came less about me pes­ter­ing him for lit­tle­known tid­bits. On July 20, for in­stance, Sk­lar prob­a­bly asked me more ques­tions than I asked him.

Some were Dis­ney re­lated. What first in­spired my love of the Dis­ney parks? That was easy: the Walt Dis­ney World mono­rail, an an­swer that led to a spir­ited round of tales about un­built mono­rail lines and the dif­fi­culty in trekking the tracks from Seat­tle, where he said they were con­structed, to Or­lando, Fla.

But many ques­tions were about jour­nal­ism and my own ca­reer. He of­fered man­age­ment ad­vice and took a keen in­ter­est in the process of putting to­gether a re­ported ar­ti­cle. Be­fore join­ing Dis­ney to cre­ate a news­pa­per for Main Street, U.S.A., Sk­lar had dreamed of be­ing a sports jour­nal­ist.

In­deed, at one point, I asked Sk­lar to sim­ply tell me one of his great­est ca­reer ac­com­plish­ments. It’s a silly ques­tion, I know, es­pe­cially for some­one I’ve spo­ken with nu­mer­ous times over the years. But by this point, I had grown ac­cus­tomed to Sk­lar list­ing the names of a dozen other Imag­i­neers he thought were more im­por­tant than him when­ever I men­tioned a project.

Once, when con­vers­ing about the Haunted Man­sion, I brought up the text he wrote for a sign that was placed out­side the at­trac­tion in 1965, four years be­fore it would open.

“Post-re­tire­ment leases are now avail­able in this Haunted Man­sion,” it read, and the marker went on to pitch the at­trac­tion as a sort of re­tire­ment home for ghosts — “a coun­try club at­mos­phere” for “ghosts afraid to live by them­selves.” I liked that tinge of lone­li­ness Sk­lar brought to what was oth­er­wise a play­ful place­holder.

Sk­lar dis­missed any sense of cre­ativ­ity on his part, not­ing that the pas­sage was in­spired by a quote from Walt af­ter he a told a re­porter in Bri­tain that he was over­seas to gather “ghosts who don’t want to re­tire.” Sk­lar fur­ther down­played his work, claim­ing the only rea­son any one both­ered to read the sign was be­cause his fel­low Imag­i­neers gave it a lovely de­sign with a fly­ing skull bat.

But over the years, I kept press­ing. I sim­ply wanted to know one cre­ation that made him proud.

His an­swer? It was as a stu­dent at UCLA in the mid-1950s. Then, he said, he got to travel with the Bru­ins bas­ket­ball team for the col­lege pa­per. He was pleased, he said, to get to doc­u­ment the work of leg­endary coach John Wooden.

While I may have been hop­ing for a yarn about, say, the cre­ation of Ep­cot’s glis­ten­ing sci-fi orb Space­ship Earth, I don’t be­lieve Sk­lar picked a non-Dis­ney achieve­ment be­cause he was coy about shar­ing de­tails about his time with the com­pany.

Far from it, as we rou­tinely dis­cussed the chal­lenges he faced in main­tain­ing Imag­i­neer morale, es­pe­cially, as he reg­u­larly noted, one could work five years or more on a project, only to see it be set aside.

He once told me of a tense pitch meet­ing with thenDis­ney Chair­man Michael Eis­ner for a pro­posed wa­ter park in Walt Dis­ney World.

“We had three re­ally good ideas,” Sk­lar said. “I set up a con­fer­ence room for Michael Eis­ner to come in and look at the three ideas. I was go­ing to have each of the teams take him through one at a time. He walked in and said, ‘That one,’ and then left. It was ob­vi­ous that was the best one, but I had two teams that didn’t even get to present.”

Although I can’t speak of Sk­lar with the in­sight of his for­mer co­work­ers or those he men­tored, I did wit­ness how he saw his role as less of a de­signer or a busi­ness leader and more of a cus­to­dian of that which be­longed to oth­ers. He of­ten spoke of Imag­i­neer­ing as some­thing akin to an ap­pren­tice­ship rather than a ca­reer, not­ing his own un­con­ven­tional rise and ex­plain­ing the job as a set of ideals as much as a set of skills.

He also pos­sessed an un­wa­ver­ing be­lief that theme park de­sign is an art form worth in­vest­ing in. He noted the rea­son au­di­ences didn’t take to the orig­i­nal ver­sion of Cal­i­for­nia Ad­ven­ture was be­cause it moved away from large-scale world cre­ation and in­stead fo­cused on less im­mer­sive rides, the lat­ter word one he al­ways used with a hint of de­ri­sion.

And yet Sk­lar didn’t live in a fan­tasy uni­verse. He once gave me a rather en­light­en­ing piece of wis­dom, one that, yes, could ap­ply to Dis­ney theme parks but also to a ca­reer or a love life. “One of the most im­por­tant things,” he said, “is you can’t have pre­cious ideas, be­cause so many times it’s not the right time.”

To not dwell on what’s out of our con­trol is eas­ier said than done, but it’s a les­son in op­ti­mism, and Sk­lar cer­tainly pos­sessed it.

Any­one who ever com­mu­ni­cated with him is likely aware of the three words that ended many a cor­re­spon­dence, and a phrase I’ll re­mem­ber when think­ing back on the joy of get­ting to know some­one re­spon­si­ble for so much that’s close to my heart: “All good things.”

Jae C. Hong As­so­ci­ated Press

MARTY SK­LAR pauses be­fore an im­age of Mickey Mouse and Walt Dis­ney at Dis­ney­land in Ana­heim.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.