The next time you walk into the American Adventure at Epcot, check out the painting on the wall to the left.
The stunningly exquisite work, which captures in poignant detail the immigrant experience, is titled “The Promise of America.”
It was painted by Herbert Ryman of Walt Disney Imagineering in 1982.
Herb Ryman was one of the most important figures to have ever collected a paycheck from the Walt Disney Company.
In fact, it was Ryman who played a key role in charting the course of the company during several critical junctures.
Ryman came to Disney with an already impressive resume.
He worked as an artist at Metro-Goldwin-Mayer Studios in the early 1930s in what many consider to be Hollywood’s Golden Age. As an artist and illustrator, Ryman lent his talents to some of the most successful films of the era: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Mutiny on the Bounty, Anna Karenina and The Good Earth.
He left MGM in the late 1930s, but not before illustrating the memorable Emerald City scene in The Wizard of Oz.
A chance meeting with Walt Disney at his own exhibit at Chouinard Art Institute in 1938 was the start of Ryman’s long and fruitful association with Disney.
He would go on serve as the art director for Fantasia and Dumbo.
In 1941, he was invited to join Walt and several other of the Disney Studio’s top artists on a goodwill tour of South America.
Each of the artists in the entourage [known as El Groupo] was given a specific role. For instance, Mary Blair and her husband Lee were tasked with developing characters; Ryman studied landscapes, buildings, and people.
The hit animated films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros came out of the months-long excursion.
Ryman left the Disney Studios after World War II to join 20th Century Fox to work on the film Anna and the King of Siam, while still retaining his friendship with Walt Disney.
HERB JOINED THE CIRCUS … SORT OF
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Ryman took a leave of absence from 20th Century Fox to travel with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which resulted in a stunning collection of circus-themed artwork.
Then, on a fateful day in September of 1953, Ryman got a call from Disney executive Dick Irvine, who wanted to set up a meeting between Ryman and his old boss, Walt Disney, who was in desperate straits.
It seems Walt’s years-long quest to build a Disney-themed amusement park had come to a head: he was sending his brother Roy to New York City to secure financial backing for his park, which was little more than a concept in Walt’s fertile imagination.
“I’ve got to give Roy plans of what we’re going to do,” Walt began. “Those businessmen don’t listen to talk, you know; you’ve got to show them what you’re going to do.”
“Where’s the drawing?” Ryman asked. “I’d like to see it.”
“You’re going to make it,” Walt countered.
The two embarked on what has become known as The Lost Weekend. Walt would convey his ideas and concepts, while Herb would interpret them in his drawings.
WALT’S IMAGINATION CAME TO LIFE
“They spent the entire weekend at the drawing board,” Disney Legend Marty Sklar said. “Walt conveyed his ideas to Herb and Walt’s imagination came to life through Herb’s hands.
“If you look at some of the images closely today, many of those attractions wouldn’t be built until years later. It’s amazing how Walt could see things in his mind.”
Some of the innovative ideas Disney had Ryman incorporate into his drawing was a berm, which insulted the outside world from park guests, themed “lands” which emanated from a central hub, and a single main gate entrance, unheard-of at the time.
By Monday morning, the sketch was finished. Color was added with pencils by Irvine and Marv Davis and a six-page, written description of the park by Bill Walsh was included in the folder Roy Disney brought to potential investors in New York City.
After lengthy talks with television’s three major networks, Roy managed to secure $500,000 investment and $450,000 loan from the American Broadcasting Company.
And less than two years later, Disneyland would become a reality.
For his part, Ryman – rehired by Walt to work on the park – contributed design concepts for Sleeping Beauty Castle, Main Street U.S.A. and the Jungle Cruise as a member of WED Enterprises, the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering.
Over the years, he also contributed to Pirates of the Caribbean and New Orleans Square.
Former WED designer Tania Norris worked closely with Ryman on several Disneyland projects.
“Herbie was an art director,” Ms. Norris said. “He might be given a project that I might not know about for maybe another year. He would be one of the designers for it. When that was done, it went to one of the architects and then I would get involved, talking about the interiors and what was needed there.
“There were story boards that would be put together for every project. They would have Herbie’s drawings, they would have Dorothea Redmond’s renderings, which we would discuss.
“I’d make story board suggestions for fabrics or even light fixtures, whatever it was that was needed for the project. A lot of that is done on computers nowadays.”
Over the years, Ryman developed a reputation as being somewhat lazy, which was the furthest thing from the truth.
JUST NEEDED THE RIGHT INSPIRATION
“Herbie had the reputation of being an artist who worked very slowly,” Sklar said. “But he was anything but. He just needed the right inspiration.”
“When he was given a project, he would go and visit everybody,” Ms. Norris said. “He’d talk to people. He’d goof off, in other words. And John Hench would say, ‘Walt’s coming in a couple of days’ and Herbie would say ‘Oh, he is …’ And he’d keep going and going and people would be getting really uptight because his sketches were usually critical for a project.
“Lo and behold, the next morning, when it was needed, he was there with the finished product. He knew very well that because of the way he worked, if he finished something early, he’d be given two more projects to complete.
“So he just played the game. Even though he was goofing off, you knew he was thinking about it.”
Ryman would go on to design Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World before he officially retired in 1971.
He would resurface years later when Walt’s concept for Epcot was taken off a back burner by then Disney CEO Card Walker. Ryman was commissioned to help conceptualize Epcot and produced a series of detailed, futuristic paintings.
He also painted inspirational works of art on the American Adventure and China pavilions.
Ryman is well known for his watercolors of the rugged California coasts around Carmel and Point Lobos. Many of his paintings hang in Hollywood’s most famed homes, including Tania Norris’.
“I have about 40 of his paintings and drawings. I started collecting them when I was at WED. He even gave me several as gifts. Then I bought several more at the Ryman expositions. I try to buy one a year to help support them.”
Ryman relished in sharing his talents and experience with other artists.
“Herbie was very generous with his knowledge,” Ms. Norris said. “He really helped a couple of young men at WED that had talent. He guided them quite a bit. He was really a renaissance man. He was deeply and widely read. He had an insight that was pretty uncanny.”
After Ryman’s death in 1989, a group of friends and former colleagues – Marty and Leah Sklar, Harrison [Buzz] and Anne Price, Sharon Disney Lund and Lucille Ryman Carroll – founded Ryman Arts, which has been providing high school artists in Southern California with college-level training in essential skills for art and life.
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