January 2, 1898 – Birth of Disney Legend Dick Huemer
“Meet Dick Huemer. He goes to operas.”
Dick Huemer, animator in the Golden Age of Animation, was a “jack-of-all-trades” within the Disney Company, but is best known for his work with Disney Legend Joe Grant on Fantasia and Dumbo. In 1916, as a student at the Art Students League and living in the Bronx, Huemer saw a help wanted sign on a door for the Barre Studio, one of the first film studios dedicated to animation. Huemer’s response:
“I had done a lot of illustrating, in yearbooks and things like that. One day, out of curiosity, I just walked upstairs and there was this plump little guy sitting there – a very genial character with a French accent. I told him I’d seen his sign and would like to be a cartoonist. He said, ‘All right – go into the next room, they’ll put you to work.’ And that’s how I got into the business. Because in those days, who knew about animated cartoons? I don’t believe the name had even been coined yet.”
Huemer then moved on to become the animation director at the Max Fleischer Studio and the Charles Mintz Studio, before joining the Walt Disney Studio in 1933 as an animator. He contributed to twenty-five cartoons as an animator before directing two classic shorts – The Whalers and Goofy and Wilbur – and then progressed to working on feature films.
Disney assigned Huemer and Joe Grant to be the story directors on Fantasia because Huemer was an opera fan, and Grant had a lot of experience in character design. Ward Kimball recalled, “We owe it mostly to Dick Huemer for the fact that Walt Disney was weaned away from John Philip Sousa and introduced to the classics. Walt learned all about Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky through Dick Huemer’s tutelage.” Huemer and Grant also adapted the screenplay for Dumbo, and Huemer continued his work on the story for the feature films Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, and Alice in Wonderland.
Huemer left the Disney Studios in 1948 to freelance on his own comic strip called Buck O’Rue, but returned to the studio in 1951 to work in early television shows and the story department until 1955. From 1955 to his retirement in 1973, Huemer wrote the True-Life Adventures comic strip. In 1978, in recognition of his contributions to the art of animation and his continued excellence, he received an Annie Award from the International Animated Film Society. Huemer passed away on November 30, 1979, and was inducted as a Disney Legend on October 10, 2007.
Writing about Dick Huemer is a pleasure, as he is one of the idols of the Golden Age of Animation. I grew up with and still enjoy watching Fantasia — it’s a treat to see how someone who appreciated opera and classical music used his love to create a wonderful film. It was interesting to read his thoughts on the film, especially when it wasn’t a huge hit with audiences upon its release. “Actually, we blamed the public,” Huemer said in an interview, explaining the shock the Studio felt when Fantasia didn’t do well. “What the hell’s the matter with them! This is a fine thing that will never be done again. It never was. It never will. It can’t be. You can’t afford to do that…I think somehow if we were to do it today that it would be an entirely different thing pictorially.” Through his words, you can tell that it was a labor of love for Huemer, and it’s a shame he isn’t around to see the following the film has today.
The most admirable trait I find in Huemer is how much he loved what he did, and how he transferred that love so smoothly into his work. He compared those involved in the Golden Age of Animation to the artist Rubens: “Rubens had a staff of about fifteen guys who were working on his paintings and they were dedicated people. They were artists, they loved doing it, and that’s why they were there. And they knew that they were doing the right thing.” Huemer, too, is a prime example of an artist who loved what he did and knew he was doing the right thing.