Rolly Crump, Disney designer who helped define the look of Disneyland, 93
Animator-turned-theme park designer Rolly Crump, who was instrumental in the design of early Disneyland, died Sunday in his Carlsbad home, where he had been in hospice care, said his son Christopher. Crump was 93.
Crump received his big break at the Walt Disney Co. in 1952, when he was 22.
Those at the animation studio liked to remind him that he was an oddball. “A diamond in the rough,” as Crump once proudly said he was labeled by a superior. Crump would later laugh, recalling — with swagger — that he was once told, “What you showed us was the worst portfolio of anyone ever hired in animation.”
Crump would go on to become one of the most important artists to work for the Walt Disney Co.
It’s a Small World, the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Haunted Mansion are just a few of the projects Crump would contribute to once he joined Walt Disney Imagineering, known as WED Enterprises (for Walter Elias Disney) in 1959. With Imagineering, the division of the company that oversees Disney theme parks, Crump’s designs would help define the look of Disneyland. The Anaheim park has been replicated in Florida and around the world and remains the backbone of Disney’s empire.
Like all the core early stylists of what would become the great American theme park, Crump had never built a theme park before Disneyland. “Everything was so goddamn naive,” Crump once said, alluding to the fact that he carved the tikis of the Enchanted Tiki Room with plastic forks from the Disney commissary. The tikis still stand in the park today, and Crump’s designs — tiki gods and goddesses such as Pele, a fire goddess, and Hina Kaluua, a mistress of rain — continue to shape and influence tropical art.
The Disneyland Hotel’s wildly popular bar Trader Sam’s is steeped in the Crump influence. It was designed in his vision of tiki culture, which was based on weeks of research aided by anthropologist Katharine Luomala’s book “Voices on the Wind.” And to this day, Crump is heralded as co-leading what would become Disneyland’s greatest version of Tomorrowland, a sort of mod vision of future-past that opened in 1967.
Crump lacked a college degree, and his high school portfolio was untamed when he joined Disney’s animation department. His freewheeling, cartoonish drawings were more fit for a tattoo parlor than the mature works the esteemed animation house was seeking to create.
Although his animation credits — “Peter Pan,” “Lady and the Tramp,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “101 Dalmatians” — include some of the medium’s foundational texts, Crump wasn’t a star in the department. He worked primarily as an assistant to animation master Eric Larson and could spend the better part of a year on laborious but difficult tasks such as drawing the flexible dots on Dalmatians.
Yet his striking personal style, a brash use of color and a zest for the counterculture, not to mention a gutsy, determined drive, served Crump well.
While in animation, the Alhambra-born artist surrounded himself with small but personal art projects — outlandishly painted rocks with beatnik-era slang and mini propellers and mobiles. Crump hung the latter in the animation department’s library, where he sneaked in what he called his “dopers,” that is, art that humorously celebrated drugs in the style of Beat generation barroom posters (“Be a man who dreams for himself,” read a painting cheerleading opium).
Crump continued to work on eccentric Pop Art throughout his career at Disney. A comic strip-inspired 1967 poster for the psychedelic rock group the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band belongs to the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His love affair with music was deeply present in his art, be it his bouyant portraits of jazz artist Josephine Baker, which were heavy on curves and ovals, like musical notes in flux, or the packaging he designed for Ernie Ball’s guitar strings. On such designs Crump’s exuberant line work and use of color feels free and loose, the illustrative equivalent of jazz improvisation.
“He had a way of doing outrageous art,” says retired Disney theme park designer Bob Gurr, known for conceptualizing many of Disneyland’s ride vehicles, including the original monorail. Gurr, 91, said he met Crump when the two were working on minor refurbishments in the 1950s for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland, with Crump touching up some of the small red devils in the final scenes. Gurr immediately became a fan of Crump’s art and today owns some of Crump’s original “dopers.”
“He did these really sexy girls in very exotic sketching — pen and ink type stuff. You just looked at something and knew Rolly drew it. That’s just the way it was.”
Crump’s art possessed a larger-than-life whimsy and circus-like loudness, and it caught the eye of Walt Disney, who plucked Crump from animation and one day assigned him what would become arguably the most recognizable clock in Southern California. The timepiece is the anchor of the facade of Disneyland’s It’s a Small World. Crump dreamed up a design, inspired by the art of Mary Blair, that was full of movement — numbers that looked caught mid-twist, and a face made of sun-like circles that was frozen with a delirious grin.
When Crump showed the design to his boss, Dick Irvine, it was marked for reassignment. Crump, however, went straight to the top. “I showed the clock to Walt, and Walt said, ‘That’s good.’ Dick said, ‘It doesn’t have that European flavor.’ ... Walt looked Dick straight in the eye and said, ‘I like it the way it is.’ The old man backed me on so many damn things.”
His art was undoubtedly weird, yet only Sleeping Beauty Castle more instantly says Disneyland than the It’s a Small World facade. Whereas the park’s centerpiece is regal and pretty, the It’s a Small World sculpture is childlike and in possession of a wild fragility.
“He’s all risk,” said Doris Hardoon, who was recruited by Crump in the late ’70s for development of Walt Disney World’s Epcot, where the two worked on the creation of the Land Pavilion. “That’s his style. The way he thinks, the way dresses, the way he talks and the way worked with all of us.”
Former Imagineer Tom Morris, who retired in 2016 after more than 35 years with Imagineering, called Crump “one of the greats.” “I would mimic his artwork as a kid, not even knowing there was a Rolly Crump,” Morris once told The Times. “There was just something I liked about the line work and the design of the tikis and the stage in Tomorrowland or parts of the Small World facade. I would just doodle those, and then later I found out Rolly was the guy who did all that, and I was like, ‘He was a god.’”
According to his son, Crump was a beatnik with a reputation as a rebel among the Disney fold. He was known to brag, for instance, about driving his Porsche around Disneyland’s Fantasyland when he served as Disneyland’s art director, one of many roles during his numerous stints with the company. He was also a fierce believer in theme parks as places of living art.