Oct. 11, 2015, dawned cool and crisp along the New Jersey shore, a far cry from the 100-plus degree days Marty and Leah Sklar left behind in Los Angeles before heading east. They made the long coast-to-coast flight for two reasons: To visit with family members on the East Coast and for Marty to promote his latest book, One Little Spark!, in Toms River, N.J.
After he retired from the Walt Disney Company in 2009, no one would have blamed Marty if he decided to kick back a little, take it easy and play the role of the stereotypical senior citizen, especially when you consider he spent more than five decades on the job. But if you ever had the pleasure of meeting the retired leader of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s creative wing, you know that slowing down was simply not an option. There was just too much pixie dust left to spread around.
“I’ve often wondered what my life would be like if I did that … slowed down and took it easy,” he mused on that perfect autumn day as he held court in the large, grassy space outside the Ocean County Library, where he would give a presentation and sign copies of One Little Spark! a little more than an hour later.
Marty and his bride of 60 years, Leah, as well as Marty’s cousin, Sue Torrisi, her husband Victor and their daughter, were making their way across the courtyard toward the library’s entrance when he was recognized by some early arrivals. Marty was wearing a dark blazer with an open-collared shirt and no necktie — a style that’s been all the rage among Disney’s top executives. Attached to the lapel of his jacket was a silver dollar-sized pin sporting the words Walt Disney Imagineering.
Ever gracious, Marty stopped to greet the handful of fans, posed for photos and exchanged pleasantries. During the impromptu meet-and-greet, he was given a colorful drawing of the Disney character Figment [of Journey Into Imagination attraction fame, where the song One Little Spark! was the featured soundtrack] by a young girl; he would absolutely thrill her at the beginning of his presentation when he showed the drawing to the 250 or so people in attendance. He then asked her to join him on stage, where her wide grin and blushing cheeks spoke volumes.
It was obvious by the smile on Marty’s face that he had no problem stepping out of the spotlight for that moment and letting it shine brightly on his new friend. It was yet another example of Marty’s compassion and humility.
Marty Sklar, who touched so many lives in so many different ways during his 83 years on this planet, passed away on July 27. He left behind a legacy at the Walt Disney Company that few will ever match, as well as a grieving family and a legion of fans and colleagues who loved and respected him. Among his myriad interests was his passionate support of Ryman Arts, the arts scholarship program and he his beloved wife Leah co-founded.
In the second half of One Little Spark!. Marty reached out to dozens of his former charges and asked them for their input. He asked them to talk about themselves, their careers and how they navigated “the road to Imagineering.” Through Marty, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to interview and cultivate relationships with many of those same people. He was never shy about telling me: “Get in touch with so-and-so. He/she should be able to help you” if I had a question. And then he’d supply me with an email address, a phone number, or both. With his personal “letter of recommendation,” I have spoken to an amazing group of Marty-certified individuals.
The day after he died — much like Marty had done for One Little Spark! — I contacted many of Marty’s friends and former colleagues and asked them to share their thoughts and memories of a man they all held in the highest regard … a man they truly loved.
Here are the responses I received:
Zofia Kostyrko, former Disney Imagineer
“Behind every legend, there is a man. The Marty Sklar I knew was one of the best kind: Generous, approachable, funny and smart, fair and honest. He was my mentor, my teacher and a personal friend. Not the kind that I hung out or partied with, but nevertheless one that always had my back, looked out for me and pushed me beyond my self-imposed limits during my Imagineering tenure. He recognized and rewarded my efforts, and made me feel valued and heard.
“Once I was ready to leave WDI, he opened many doors and gave me tools and knowledge to succeed on my own. We stayed in touch. He saw my potential long before I could, and when I doubted it. He believed in me, as he did in so many of my colleagues and friends. With many thousands of people that he crossed paths with during his long life, he made so many of us feel personally special to him, so blessed with his interest, concern and support. He truly saw us and listened. We knew it because he remembered small details about our lives, families, work, dreams and ideas.
“When you were in his presence and conversation, he was there with you. I felt like he always listened well, was never too hurried or busy to make time for me, and was genuinely interested in what I had to say. I remember that he listened more than he talked. He asked questions more than he gave directions or orders; he gave the creatives room and support to solve seemingly impossible puzzles on our own, by simply nudging us in the right direction and let us work out the impossible. Marty was a great editor and writer, with a wonderful sense of humor. He was a gifted story-teller.
“His mentorship in my work changed my professional and creative life. His personal friendship and kindness saved a life dearest to my heart. When my daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, I called him first in panic, late in the evening, seeking his advice. His immediate help led us directly to the doctor that saved her life. I shall never be able to repay this debt of gratitude.
“We spoke the day before he left. He was so enthused and full of ideas, and generous remarks about people we both knew. I am so deeply grateful that he was a key part of my life, and so sorry that he left us. My thoughts and prayers are with Leah and his children and grandchildren. I am so sorry to see him go.”
Ryan March, Disney Files Magazine editor
“As a Disney fan born after the passing of Walt Disney, people like Roy E. Disney, Richard Sherman and Marty Sklar have always been more than just legends to me. They’ve been my generation’s connection to a man whose work continues to have such a profound impact on my life. It was their limited degrees of separation from Walt that, for much of my youth, placed these uniquely talented individuals among my vaunted heroes (pedestals shared in my childhood by everyone from Michael Jackson to the Dukes of Hazzard to anyone in a Dodger uniform).
“As a (relative) grown-up, my Disney career has afforded me extraordinary opportunities to get to know many of my heroes (at least my Disney heroes — the Dukes of Hazzard never answered my letters). Whether interviewing these Disney Legends in private for a Disney Files Magazine feature or on a stage before of an audience of Disney Vacation Club Members at a live event, my questions through the years became less about Walt and more about them. And along the way, they stopped being my heroes and started becoming my friends.
“But my relationship with Marty was different. He wasn’t just the casual friend with whom I’d connect at an event or interview for a feature. He was the guy with whom I’d correspond multiple times a week; the guy who became a Disney Files columnist and copied me on his hundreds of thoughtful replies to reader emails. He was the guy who would send a handwritten thank you note after every event…and fire off a snarky text whenever his UCLA Bruins outperformed my Oregon Ducks. He was the guy to whom I’d vent my frustrations and share my joys. He was the first person outside of my family to learn that my wife and I were expecting a baby.
“Hearing the news of Marty’s unexpected passing hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. Truth be told, it’s still difficult to comprehend. But here’s what I do understand: Marty was the very definition of a Disney Legend. I’d go so far as to say he’s the standard by which other all legends are measured.
“For decades, he was our company’s conscience, our Jiminy Cricket, if you will. And because he spent so much of his life mentoring countless Disney cast members like me, this place is now crawling with crickets. Marty may be gone, but his influence isn’t going anywhere.
“While I feel tremendous sadness in a world without my dear friend, what I feel most is gratitude. My world is better, not just because Marty was in it, but because he helped create it. And for that, I will be forever grateful.”
Frank Reifsnyder, Walt Disney Imagineering
“Marty was always revered much in the same way as a favorite grandfather is respected. His memory of even the smallest details was always so sharp and he had a talent for storytelling, as all the great Imagineers have had. He was kind and generous of his time, both to non-profit organizations and to his former colleagues.
“It was an honor to be with Marty in Shanghai during the grand opening of Shanghai Disneyland, with Marty being the only individual who attended the opening of all 12 of Disney’s theme parks. When we discussed the opening several months prior, he seemed doubtful that he would come out for it, so it was a delight to see him there enjoying the work of so many of his mentees.
“His stories will continue to live on through his books and the countless Imagineers he mentored, and in the thousands of fans he spoke to over the years. He was truly one of a kind.”
Don Morin, President/Founder Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet
“Marty has touched so many in this world with his work, caring, guidance, written word and encouragement. I am so honored and fortunate to have known him.
“He was always so encouraging and supportive of me, Michelle, the Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet and all our guests over the years. I cherish each and every email, conversation and our time spent together. I may never have been an Imagineer or even a Disney employee, but he treated me as if I was just as important.
“He gave so much of himself and his time to people from all corners the world to educate, to share and to chat Disney … to have had the opportunity to bring him to the Pacific Northwest several times over the years so that so many others could have the chance to hear his stories, to meet him and to experience what a kind, generous and amazing man he was … that means the world. My heart goes out to his wife Leah and their family. This is a tremendous loss for everyone. Thank you, Marty! Thank you for everything. We will miss you dearly.”
Leslie Sklar, Marty’s daughter
“The thing about my dad’s books is that you can hear him in them. … He was always happy to represent Disney and recently spent many hours signing books in that famous red felt tip pen and meeting fans at the recent D23 Expo.”
Bill [Sully] Sullivan, Disney Legend
“We are all sorry to hear about Marty. He was true Disney, through and through. He was dedicated to preserving the excellence of Disney! He will be sorely missed.”
Paul Comstock, Principal Landscape Architect for Animal Kingdom
“I have one really fun memory which stands out among the hundreds of encouraging, uplifting and inspiring moments I shared with Marty.
“As the humble and virtuous ‘Paladin of Imagineering,’ Marty protected and supported our creative dreams. Along with scores of RED-INK notes of guidance and encouragement, a delightful memory often fills my head. After many ‘sit-downs’ on the couch in Marty’s gold coast office, I became fascinated with a very rare and unusual tree outside of his window which shaded his desk from the scorching afternoon sun. I determined it was a rare Bishofia javanica, or commonly called Bishop’s Wood tree from Indonesia. It was a very unusual tree to be growing in an industrial park landscape.
“How it got there no one knows. After mentioning its beauty and botanical interest to Marty, I expressed my desire to plant the tree for guest enjoyment in a Disney landscape. With a half-smile and a shrug, Marty casually gave me permission to relocate the tree. Well … six to eight months later, over a weekend, we removed the tree from outside Marty’s window. We dug and boxed the Bishofia for transplantation. Barbara, Marty’s long-time executive assistant, told me he came in the following morning and said, ‘What the heck!!!’ Less than an hour later, security delivered to me a RED INK note with an Imagineering Sorcerer’s Apprentice name pin, but instead of my name, the pin spelled out my new Imagineer’s name in big, blue letters: TREE THIEF. That pin is my treasure.
“Note: For those fellow tree huggers who are interested in where the Bishofia was planted, it’s labelled as Marty’s Tree and is now thriving outside the west entry doors of the World of Disney store in Downtown Disney in Anaheim. Oh, yeah … one more time, Thx Marty.”
Michael Eisner, former Walt Disney Co. CEO
“Marty Sklar was my partner and friend, building seven parks in my 21 years as Disney CEO. We lost a true gentleman!”
Bob Iger, Disney Chairman and CEO
“Everything about Marty was legendary — his achievements, his spirit, his career. He embodied the very best of Disney, from his bold originality to his joyful optimism and relentless drive for excellence.”
Wayne Hunt, Board President, Ryman Arts
“I never took a paycheck from the Walt Disney Company but worked with Marty and his Imagineers nearly continuously as a graphics consultant since 1974 [last year we saw two nice assignments fulfilled in Shanghai]. Until a few years ago, I knew him only as one tough and demanding client. He had a finger on the pulse of everything around him and no detail was too small for his often acerbic red pen. You went into Marty meetings prepared or else.
“But then around 2006, I joined him on the board of his beloved Ryman Arts foundation and got to know the real, or whole, Marty. The patient, inspiring, almost fatherly guy who worked tirelessly to shape Ryman Arts into the nationally respected arts teaching organization. Watching him lead a board meeting was also inspiring and a great learning experience in itself. He was a master fund-raiser, he said because he believed so much in the cause. Marty was a prolific personal note writer, inscribing each of hundreds of invitations to Ryman Arts events each year, yes, in red marker.
“In 2014, I took over for Marty as board president of Ryman Arts — talk about gigantic shoes to fill! — and that’s when I really found out what he had done so beautifully for 25 years. Let me tell you, it ain’t easy being Marty.
“For any of you diehard Marty fans, your most meaningful tribute to him would be a donation to Ryman Arts, in any amount [www.rymanarts.org]. You won’t get a red-pen note back now, but you’d help fulfill one of his biggest dreams.”
Tom Nabbe, Disney Legend
“Marty loved sharing his Disney heritage and Disney history with anyone who would listen, through his books and interviews. He was one of the few of us that had direct contact with Walt. He wrote Walt’s scripts! Who would know Walt better than his script writer? In his retirement, he kept the Disney image alive with his involvement in the different Disney fan conventions and his help in developing the D23 program to what it is today. In addition to promoting Disney, he helped to develop young, up-and-coming Imagineers and artists.
“I worked for Marty during the Epcot project. Even though he was on the top of the organizational chart, he would always recognize us and offer encouragement in getting the job done. I’ve done a lot of interviews and every once awhile, I would get a note from Marty praising my comments during the interview, such as, ‘You hit the nail right on the head’ or ‘That’s what Walt would have said.’
“I’ve been lucky to have had contact with Marty on so many occasions at various Disney events throughout my retirement. Every discussion or panel with him was a learning experience.”
Kevin Rafferty, Walt Disney Imagineering
“Marty was a huge fan of the Disney fans and of his Imagineers. He loved and lived all things Disney. Right to the end, he kept on going with boundless energy and creativity.
“For decades he was the THE creative funnel through which all of our ideas and projects poured. Marty came from a family of educators and he was actually one himself because there was no better teacher in the themed entertainment industry. He taught his Imagineers well and cared for each and every one of us deeply. He sent out thousands of personal notes of congratulations or encouragement to his Imagineers through the years and these notes can be found tucked away amongst our greatest treasures.
“No one has had more influence on Imagineers and Disney parks since Walt Disney himself. Marty, like Walt, was an American original, a powerhouse of creativity, a courageous pioneer, a game-changer, a life-changer, a dreamer and a doer. And like Walt, he was loved by all. We could not have asked for a better boss, mentor, teacher, advocate and dear and cherished friend.
“But to me he was more than that. He was family. He ‘raised’ me in my career and I feel so blessed I was there during Marty’s remarkable, prolific era when he was the heart and soul of Walt Disney Imagineering. I could not be more proud that I was one of his ‘kids.’”
Bob Gurr, Disney Legend and former Imagineer
“Within hours of Marty’s having Gone West [an aviation term of the Quiet Birdmen], so many of his dear friends created loving observations of his Imagineering life … all well told.
“On a personal note, let me tell you about Marty. A fun friend of more than half a century, we relished a special relationship of insults and hugs. A wordsmith of the highest skill, he delighted in skewering me in communications, baiting me for a counter reply.
“I fell for his tease, never coming close to matching his wit. Over many years we both unknowingly collected a file of exchanges … mine named The Marty Barbs. He used these on me publicly once in a Bob Gurr Roast. Touche, dear sir!
“Now, let me really tell you about Marty. As long as I’ve known him, he never failed to send personal, hand-written thank you notes to those who helped him with his many projects. In the form of a thick vertical name imprinted postcard, Marty’s thanks were always penned in red.
“I’ve treasured all the ones Marty blessed me with for decades … another file, this one labeled The Marty Grams. With his personal words which I can return to anytime, Marty and I live on together.”
Wendy Lefkon, Editorial Director, Disney Editions
“Marty was one in a trillion. I was lucky enough to have known him for more than 30 years.
“We first met when I started my career writing the Birnbaum Guides to Walt Disney World and Disneyland. We worked on many projects together over those years as I published lots of Imagineering-related books. But once he retired, my dream job commenced. Working with Marty on his two books, Dream It! Do It! and One Little Spark! was truly a joyous journey. For me, Marty played many roles — teacher, mentor, friend and a little dad thrown in.
“We’ve all lost a special man, a guiding star.”
“Marty was one of Walt’s most trusted advisors and made his own mark on the company, a legacy that will last for all time.
“I met him years ago at a Disney Leadership conference and then I had the pleasure of meeting him again just last November. He shared many of the amazing memories of his legendary Disney career.
“Afterwards, I saw him in the hallway and we had a wonderful conversation. He was just a regular guy, very down-to-earth. It was a thrill chatting with an all-time Disney great.”
Tony Baxter, Disney Legend and former Imagineer
“I was lucky to share the stage with Marty two weeks ago at the D23 Expo. He was in terrific form … the top of his game and very funny! Just two days before his passing, he was making plans to attend Epcot’s 35th anniversary in October.
“We shared stories and memories of the wonderful people at Imagineering who have influenced our lives. It says more about Marty than I can put to paper. That will require a book and I’m not up for that yet!”
Dave Bossert, animator and author of Remembering Roy E. Disney
“Marty Sklar was one of the nicest people that I got to know at Disney. He was a genuinely kind person who continuously had an upbeat and positive view of the world. Anytime I saw him, it was always an uplifting and inspiring conversation. He was someone that had such a wealth of knowledge about the company and was always happy to make time for you, to help you out, and offer up invaluable advice as well as great stories from over the years.”
“This is a tremendous loss not just to his friends and family but also to the corporate memory at Disney. Marty was one of the last links to Walt Disney himself and in a sense, he was the embodiment of all the values and principles that define what Disney is to millions of fans the world over.”
“Marty was active right up to the end. I saw him two weeks ago at the D23 Expo, ever smiling, and we chatted briefly. He was so enthusiastic, and asked how one of my book projects was coming. He never stopped and I am so glad that in the later years he wrote several books, lectured, and just continued to give back — just a wonderful human being and a radiant spirit.”
“What I admired most about Marty was that he never made it all about Marty. He always took the time to thank each and every person who came to see him, especially the young girl who had drawn him a picture at the Toms River book signing. Considering what he had accomplished in his life, he was always humble … warm, kind, polite and gracious: A true gentleman. I’m still saddened by his loss.”
Eddie Sotto, former Imagineer
“We lost Marty Sklar, our leader. He taught us all never to fear the blank sheet of paper. So sad!”
And last but certainly not least …
Jack Lindquist, Marty’s dear friend, who died in 2016
“Marty was always a big troublemaker. He’d bring water guns to work and, right there in our offices above City Hall in Disneyland, we’d have shootouts! Either that, or he was always throwing footballs around the place.”
I couldn’t resist. Thanks to all who shared their thoughts and memories of Marty, a man who impacted so many lives … a man of integrity and honor who will never be forgotten by those whose lives he touched.