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March 6, 2017

Disney Legend Marty Sklar learns that inspiration can be a two-way street

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Marty Sklar, center, poses for a photo after his presentation at the Festival of the Arts in Epcot in February. From the left are Julian Robinson, Chuck Schmidt, Marty, Janet Schmidt and Gail Robinson. [Courtesy of Gail and Julian Robinson]


"One little spark, of inspiration, is at the heart, of all creation." - Richard and Robert Sherman

Inspiration comes in many forms. Sometimes, all you need to be inspired is just one little spark.

Take, for example, the young woman who told an inspirational story during a question-and-answer session at a recent Festival of the Arts workshop conducted by Disney Legend Marty Sklar in the Odyssey Festival Center in Epcot.

"This is more of a comment than a question," she began. "I was trying to decide what type of career path I wanted to take when my college professor suggested that I read your book, One Little Spark! I did, and it inspired me to pursue a career as an Imagineer. I'm currently working as an intern with Walt Disney Imagineering."

Add that woman to the very long list of people Marty Sklar has inspired over the years. And, in a roundabout way, add Marty Sklar to the list of people the woman has inspired during her still-young career. More on that later.

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The artwork of both Herb Ryman, above, and Mary Blair were on display at the Odyssey Festival Center at Epcot during the inaugural Festival of the Arts. [AllEars.Net]

Marty's workshop at the Festival of the Arts was part of a troika of appearances by the former creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering at his beloved Epcot: There was the sold-out presentation at the Odyssey on Feb. 11, then a book signing on Feb. 12 in the Art of Disney at Epcot, and finally a return to the Odyssey on Feb. 13 for a talk about the artwork of Disney Legends Herb Ryman and Mary Blair.

During his Feb. 11 workshop, Marty talked about his two books, Dream It! Do It! and the aforementioned One Little Spark!

"My first book was sort of takeoff on one of my favorite songs, '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,' by Paul Simon, although that in no way reflects my real life. My wife Leah and I will be celebrating our 60th anniversary on May 12th.

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Bob Gurr and Marty Sklar have done a number of Disney events over the years, the most recent being a presentation at the Texas Transportation Forum. [AllEars.Net]

"It was more about 50 ways to get started. Nothing I had done prepared me to write Dream It! Do It! I first had to come to grips with the question: 'Do I really have something worthwhile to say?' In the end, I found out that writing a book takes a lot of patience, research and flexibility.

"And every writer needs a good editor and I was fortunate to have been able to work with Wendy Lefkon from Disney Editions. Her support and help, particularly with accessing material from the Disney Archives, was very important."

His follow-up book, One Little Spark!, took a deep dive into the world of Imagineering. It also provided a guide map for people aspiring to join the Walt Disney Company's much-heralded and respected creative wing.

Both of Marty's books have been unqualified successes and have resulted in book-signing tours over the last few years that have literally spanned the globe ... from Shanghai, China, to Toms River, N.J. "I just signed a contract with a Brazilian publisher for Portuguese editions of both books," Marty said. "Dream It! Do It! already has Japanese and Mandarin Chinese versions."

I asked Marty if there is another book in the works. That's when I learned that inspiration can be a two-way street.

"Yes, I've started working on another book, but it's hard to get motivated," he admitted. "But the Festival of the Arts audiences – including my separate book signing on Sunday – have inspired me to get moving."

During his workshop on Saturday, Marty said he was "really excited about the first-ever Festival of the Arts. It's wonderful to see the works of the Disney artists on display her at Epcot. Forgive me if I get a bit emotional. I worked on Epcot from 1973 until it opened in October of 1982 ... almost 35 years ago. Today, Epcot is the sixth-most visited park in the world. It's great to see the arts have joined in the fun here."

Inside the Odyssey, some of the works of Legendary Disney artists Herb Ryman and Mary Blair were on display, serving as a fitting backdrop to Marty's presentation, as well as the Festival in general.

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A poster advertising the Texas Transportation Forum had a very Disney feel to it.

Marty's appearance at Epcot capped off another whirlwind stretch for the now 83-year-old. Prior to his Epcot stint, he and fellow Disney Legend Bob Gurr, who is 85, gave presentations at the Texas Transportation Forum, which ran from Feb 5-7 in Austin.

The title of their keynote talk was "Imagineering a Legacy: How Disney's Designs Influence Today's Transportation." Who better to talk about transportation issues than two of Imagineering's guiding lights, two Disney giants who were always pushing the envelope and developing creative and forward-thinking solutions to a myriad of problems?

Both Marty and Bob gave perspective and context on how Imagineering's "great sense of innovation can be applied to the transportation problems of today," according to the event program. "The Imagineers had to think outside the box to overcome many issues, including developing new and innovative transportation systems."

"I guess we were a big hit." Marty said. After their presentation in front of 1,500 people, "another 500-600 were at our Breakout Session. They said some of the government people [doing other Breakout sessions] were not thrilled – we had by far the biggest audience!"

"Yes, we both had a blast," Gurr added. "1,500 Texas government folks, all friendly Republicans. Well organized and ready for tall tales from Disney's past more than issues of transportation. The panel presenters did all of that, while we made up stories."

Stories that no doubt inspired those in attendance to dream up new and creative ways to tackle many of today's pressing transportation issues.

February 6, 2017

Monorail guru Bob Gurr talks about Monty ... and his concept drawing of the famed transit vehicle

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Bob Gurr's original drawing of the monorail, sketched in late 1958. The color was added by Disney Legend John Hench.

Hey, Bob Gurr ... now that you've completed a documentary showing the world just how you designed some of the world's most innovative theme park attractions, what are you going to do next?

"My next project is gonna be a movie about Monty the Monorail."

Makes sense. Gurr, the father of Disney theme park monorails, has intimate knowledge of the sleek, futuristic modes of transportation that glide along on a single beam of concrete. When Walt Disney wanted to place a monorail system within the confines of Disneyland in the late 1950s, he turned to Gurr, his go-to transportation guru, to make that dream happen.

All these years later, the affable 85-year-old wants to turn a monorail into a living, breathing entity. Enter Monty the Monorail.

Here's the backstory: Turns out there's a guy who bought the front carriage of a Walt Disney World Mark IV monorail and turned it into something of a tourist attraction. "The guy treats it as if it's a character," Gurr said recently. "He fills it up with rock music and flashing lights and smoke and rides it around on an old flatbed trailer."

"I've met the guy and I want to do a movie about the monorail where I do a long voice-over. I look at the situation of a monorail who is a living character. And he has relatives and the relatives go way back to his great-grandfather in 1959. The movie will be really funny, full of graphics and this voice talking like it's his mommy.

"It'll be very tongue in cheek, taking an inert machine and making it into a human. When Monty was traveling across the country, every city was waiting for him and they'd throw a big party. Hundreds of people met Monty all across the United States.

"That's the next project."

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Bob Gurr takes a walk around viewing area atop Disney's Bay Lake Tower in Walt Disney World.

Bob Gurr is uniquely qualified to talk about the monorail, be it the nuts, bolts and Fiberglass version or the living character reincarnation.

It was Gurr who was tasked with getting the monorails designed and up and running for Disneyland in 1959. Mind you, he also was challenged with designing the track system for the Matterhorn Mountain bobsleds, as well as designs for a new Autopia car and the submarine voyage ... all at the same time!

Like most of the things he designed over his illustrious career, the monorail started with a simple sketch.

"I did the first sketch of the monorail in October of 1958," Gurr said. "I did about a 10-minute sketch in my house one morning and I brought it back to the office the next day and it took about two hours to complete it because I knew exactly what I wanted.

"Then [Disney Legend] John Hench put the coloring on it. Disney publications are always full of errors; they said John Hench designed it. Then one day years ago, the Disney Archive Department suddenly showed up with my original drawing. And they said, 'See, John didn't draw it, you did.'

An almost life-size mural depicting Gurr's iconic drawing currently adorns the Top of the World Lounge atop Disney Vacation Club's Bay Lake Tower in Walt Disney World. In the lower left-hand corner is the signature R.H. Gurr.

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Bob Gurr, center, offers some suggestions to Imagineers working on a refurbishment of the Autopia attraction in Disneyland several years ago. [The Walt Disney Company]

"If you go up there slightly after the sun rises, in the morning when the bar is closed, go over to the windows on the west side. The mural is back-lit so gorgeously in that room. It's just a stunning sight to see," he said. "Unfortunately, that's not when the bar is open."

His signature on the mural proved to be a bit problematic.

"The first time I signed it, the cleaning people came in and wiped it off. The next time after I signed it, they broke the corner off one of the panes. The third time I signed it, they sprayed plastic on it" to preserve it.

"That picture is actually what I've been saying all along: The inspiration comes from the top, not the bottom. Somebody asks you to figure something out and somehow, your brain has life experiences and suddenly, you can't sketch fast enough. It's so vivid in your mind. You've got to get it down on paper really quickly.

"The fact that that thing [the monorail] has turned out to be an icon at Disneyland and all over Florida ... The fact that that picture of the Mark I is in a bar at Walt Disney World, well, that's kinda cool."

January 23, 2017

Documentary shows how Bob Gurr created so many classic Disney attractions

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Bob Gurr holds a copy of his book, "Design: Just For Fun," after its release. [Ape Pen Publishing]

If there's such a thing as a blueprint for an exciting, fun-filled, never-a-dull-moment retirement, Bob Gurr seems to have created it.

Which, in a way, makes perfect sense, since Gurr is the man responsible for creating so many of the exciting, fun-filled, never-a-dull-moment ride vehicles and attractions we've come to know and love in Disney parks around the globe for decades.

Gurr, who is 85, has packed so much into his retirement years that it's almost impossible to pinpoint a time when he's actually stopped working and commenced sitting back in a rocking chair and relaxing. For the record, Gurr officially retired from the Walt Disney Company in 1981 ... but that didn't stop him from working on a number of "side" jobs, among them: The grand finale production at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles ... the monstrous King Kong Audio-Animatonics figure at Universal Studios ... and the complicated stage apparatus used during Michael Jackson's Victory Tour in 1984.

Also during his "retirement," the affable Gurr has "gone on something like 45 cruises," to places like Hawaii, Tahiti and the Caribbean, done dozens of panel discussions and presentations, written and promoted his own book [Design: Just For Fun, APP-Gurr Design], and, most recently, spent more than a year putting together a documentary, Bob Gurr: Turning Dreams into Reality, available through Ape Pen Publishing.

The documentary, which debuted last year at the popular Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet, is not so much a story of Gurr's life as it is an outline of just how Gurr created some of the industry's most innovative and ground-breaking theme park attractions. In short, it's not about what he did, but how he did it.

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Bob Gurr takes a spin on a scale model of a monorail during a Disney fan event several years ago. [Ape Pen Publishing]


Carlene Thie, who owns Ape Pen Publishing and who had a big hand in helping Gurr get his book published and was the driving force behind The Bob Gurr Roast in 2015, "Had this long-term idea," Gurr said in a recent telephone interview. "She said, 'I want to do a documentary on your life.' And I said, 'No, no, Carlene. There are so many videos available on my life on YouTube and so forth.' But she was very insistent."

Finally, Gurr told Carlene that "if anyone was going to do a documentary, we should look at HOW I was about to do stuff. We finally agreed to sit down and start talking about it. It was the spring of 2014. By that time, she had assembled a few people, a screenwriter and a videographer. Then she had three friends who were in the videographer business and she was trusting them. She said she wanted to get me on camera and record me so I could tell my story. I said that I didn't want anything to do with that kind of project, but I told her to go get some witnesses who actually watched how I worked.

"So I gave her a list of eight people, and in about two months, she got everybody on the list ... Marty Sklar, Garner Holt and a bunch of other people. Even the head of Walt Disney Imagineering. She got them to agree to come out on a Saturday and a Sunday, four people each day."

The only problem was, she didn't have any place to record them. In lieu of a studio, Bob suggested using his own house in Tujunga, Calif. "So we put tarps over the windows. I told her to bring her photographers in the house and I'd sit in the backyard and run the hospitality food tent. People came and went and I'd greet them.

"Six months later, I called her up and asked her, 'Where's your documentary?' "and she said," 'Uh, Bob ...'"

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Gurr poses for a photo with fellow Disney Legend Marty Sklar at a D23 event. [Deb Wills]

Turns out what was filmed wasn't very good. "A train wreck," is how Gurr described it. To make matters worse, it was estimated that it would cost upwards of $50,000 to repair the damage.

Carlene gave Gurr a copy of what was filmed and he poured through the 10 hours of video. When he was finished, he came to a conclusion: "Despite all the wreckage, there was precious content about the theme park industry in general. I said it would sure be a shame to lose all that stuff just because she had a bad crew."

That crew "made more mistakes than you can imagine," Gurr said. "They screwed up the lighting, the sound quality was quite poor, they even walked in front of the cameras. If you wrote down all the major mistakes a film crew could make, they made them.

"Finally, I said to Carlene, 'Buy me a new Macintosh with a quad core processor and all the software and I will teach myself to be an editor of PBS quality. That's the cheapest way you'll ever get out of this thing."

So Carlene bought him the equipment he needed and he began a months-long editing process. "After a while, I began to figure out the story. It was fascinating listening to people from different companies and different eras describing how Bob Gurr works. It slowly dawned on me how I work and I work totally differently than other people work. You know in any line of work, you always think that everybody works the same and then it dawns on you later that when you've got witnesses, no, maybe you don't work like that."

During his Disney days, Bob Gurr had a reputation of being somewhat of a genius. After all, he played significant roles in such classic Disney attractions as the Autopia cars, Matterhorn Mountain, the submarine voyage, the Disney monorail system, the Abraham Lincoln figure at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, and the development of Audio-Animatronics.

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Bob Gurr offers his advice during a remodeling of the Autopia track at Disneyland. [Walt Disney Imagineering]

"People would say, 'Didn't you know Gurr's a genius?' and I'd say, 'No, no, I just work here. Whatever Walt wanted, I did. Whatever Michael Jackson wants ... you just did it.. On top of that, I never went to engineering school and I had no qualifications to do any of this stuff and Walt never gave it a thought, he didn't care.

"And looking at my life backwards, these guys [the eight 'witnesses' who came to his house on that fateful weekend] are explaining it, and I thought, now I could write a story that would make sense."

Then he invited some friends to drop by and help with the project.

Following Gurr's lead, those friends dove right in. "They'd show up here and the minute they looked at the computer, they'd start taking notes and writing things furiously on paper" and a script began to take shape.

Gurr then began the arduous task of editing. "Sound editing is really fascinating," he said. "Luckily, my nephew, Eric Johnston, has five Emmys. He's a recording engineer for X Factor and Dancing with the Stars. He said, 'When you get the sound tracks to where you want them, I'll go through them and clean up all the technical problems in the audio.'"

Meanwhile, Carlene Thie was beginning her own long journey. "It took about a year for her to get Disney's approval to use the images of the things I designed," Gurr said. "They wanted thousands of dollars for the licensing fees. I told her to keep writing them every few weeks and wear them down. Every time she did, the price went down a little bit. I think they got down to where they got just enough money that it would be a contract."

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Bob Gurr, third from the right, poses for a photo after he was roasted in 2015.

Gurr then threw himself head-long into video editing. "From a technical standpoint, I became totally fascinated with video editing," which was a painstakingly long and tedious process. "I had to swap out all the poor quality and I had to construct the soundtracks by hand."

During the final stages of putting the documentary together, Gurr had to compile credits for the film. "I left on all the names of the people who did such a bad job. The people who actually did all the work were my nephew, Carlene Thie and myself. But I knew it's completely wrong for a person to edit their own life documentary. It's just not right.

"So, when you look at the credits in the back of the film you'll see Eric Johnston, Carlene Thie and 'editing done by a new company called RescueEdit Services.'

"That's the final joke," he laughed.

Bob Gurr: Turning Dreams into Reality can be purchased through Ape Pen Publishing at www.apepenpublishing.com. To view Bob Gurr's website, go to www.bobgurr.com.

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