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Claode Coats hands
Disney Legend

For over 50 years, Claude Coats was a major creative force at the Walt Disney Company.  As an artist, he was a master of color, light and mood for classic Disney films.  As an Imagineer, he created evocative three-dimensional experiences for Disney theme park attractions.  Claude leaves a lasting legacy of design and entertainment enjoyed by millions of movie viewers and park visitors around the world.

 

Claude was a native Californian, born in San Francisco in 1913.  He was raised in Los Angeles and attended Polytechnic High School, where he earned a scholarship in track and field to the University of Southern California. He began as an architecture student, but it was his interest in drawing and painting that would earn him a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts in 1934.

      

Claude also attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles where he studied watercolor painting under Paul Sample and Dan Lutz. He became an accomplished watercolorist and active member of the California Water Color Society and had several exhibitions of his work.

            It was Claude’s membership in the Water Color Society that opened the door to his 54 year long career at Disney. Phil Dike, a fellow member of the Society and Disney artist, recognized Claude’s talent and suggested that he interview with the studio. Under Dike’s guidance, Claude compiled a portfolio of background paintings that complemented the style of Disney cartoons that he had seen. Claude interviewed at Disney’s Hyperion Avenue studio in East Hollywood and was hired as an apprentice background painter in June of 1935.

 

            Claude’s first assignments included the cartoons Mickey’s Fire Brigade and Pluto’s Judgment Day. Over the next 20 years, Claude would contribute backgrounds and color styling to such Disney classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Lady and the Tramp, Fantasia, Dumbo, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and Cinderella.

 

           Claude also painted backgrounds for many of the Silly Symphony musical shorts.  He was a member of the Short Subjects Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  His eye for color and mood added a unique look to the Oscar winning films The Old Mill (1937) and Ferdinand the Bull (1938).  (Click HERE for a list of Claude’s film credits).

 

           While working at the studio, Claude met Evelyn Henry, an inker in the Ink and Paint Department. It was her job to meticulously trace the animator’s drawings onto clear sheets of celluloid. The cels were then painted and placed on top of the backgrounds to be photographed. Evelyn was promoted to department head during the production of Snow White. The couple married in July 1937 during a busy work schedule that included late nights and Saturdays to complete the film for its December premier. They had a brief three day honeymoon in Ensenada, Mexico. Then…it was back to work.

 

            In 1940, Claude and Evelyn built a house near the new Disney studio in Burbank. Here they would raise two sons, Alan and Lee. Evelyn had retired from Ink and Paint but returned to work during the bitter animators’ strike in 1941. “I was glad to go back. I didn’t support the strikers,” she said.

 

            In 1955, Claude joined the staff of WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) to lend his creative talents to the opening of Disneyland. “I had a break in my background work where I wasn’t busy, so I got to do the model for the Mr. Toad attraction.” Ken Anderson had done development work on the ride, but with opening day fast approaching the scenic studio hired to paint the full size settings informed Walt that they wouldn’t be finished on time. So Walt said to Ken and Claude, “You guys do it.”

 

            Thus began what Claude would describe as his “second career” at Disney, doing “big backgrounds” as art director and show designer for memorable Disneyland attractions including the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Grand Canyon Diorama, Alice in Wonderland, and the Submarine Voyage. (Click HERE for a list of show designs).

 

            In describing the correlation between his work as a background artist and his work as a show designer, Claude said that in backgrounds he “always thought in terms of mood and color.” He said that various colors and shapes created “emphasis on where you wanted people to watch, and what you wanted them to see, and that’s really the same thing with rides.” In terms of Disneyland attractions, Claude said that “light is always the thing that focuses attention.”

 

           Claude was often the focus of attention himself: all 6 foot, 6 inches.  Walt would kid him about his height.  As Claude recalled, “When the Disneyland stagecoach was completed at the studio, Walt and a driver were giving rides around the lot, but he wouldn’t let me get in. He said I spoiled the scale.”  Sculptor Blaine Gibson remembers, “He was a heck of a tall guy and whenever we went for a walk in the Park, I had to take two steps to his one!”

 

          But the “gentle giant,” as he was often called, never let his stature dominate the work of others.  As Gibson recalled, “He was an easy guy to work with and had a wonderful disposition.  He could make room for others’ ideas, but he never lost sight of the overall plan on the project.”

 

           For over 35 years, Claude would leave the stamp of his designs on attractions at Disneyland, the 1964 World’s Fair, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.  
(Click
HERE for a list of show designs).

 

            Claude and Evelyn were avid world travelers.  They visited remote locations at Petra, Jordan and Machu Picchu, Peru long before these became popular tourist destinations. They joined the first American tour groups to visit China when that country was opened to Western visitors.  Claude would return with a sketchbook and film to create vivid paintings of his travels.  When he decided it was time to discover Antarctica, Claude realized his long-time dream to visit all seven continents.  Penguins would become a favorite subject to paint and sculpt.

 

            After 54 years in animation and Imagineering, Claude retired in November 1989.  In recognition of his remarkable career, Claude was honored with the Disney Legend Award in 1991.  At the Award ceremony, he placed his hand prints and signature in concrete outside the Studio theater as a symbol of the permanence of his contributions.

 

         Claude Coats passed way on January 9, 1992 in Burbank, California.

 

         Evelyn received a touching tribute to Claude’s legacy from a Disney artist in New York:


“Mr. Coats’ work was one of the reasons I set my sights on the Walt Disney Company.  I thought to myself:  “I want to be able to put that kind of life and heart in my work!”  His paintings helped give me the determination to push the limits of my own creative ability and I just wanted you to know that his work will continue to inspire me and serve as a reminder of the remarkable talent he possessed.”

 

This biography was written by Claude’s son, Alan Coats.  Please check Flashbacks for periodic additions of stories, interviews, photos, and personal remembrances of the life and work of a Disney Legend.

 

 

REFERENCES

 

•  Anderson, Paul F., “New York World’s Fair,” PERSISTENCE OF VISION, Issue #6/#7,

    1995.

 

•  Ghez, Didier, ed., WALT’S PEOPLE, Vol. 6, 2008.

 

•  Horan, Jay. WDI Key Employee Interviews. 1982.

 

•  Janzen, Jack and Leon, “Disney Show Designer Claude Coats,” The “E” Ticket, No. 31,

    Spring 1999.

 

•  Kurtti, Jeff. Walt Disney’s Legends of Imagineering and the Genesis of the Disney

   Theme Park. Disney Editions, 2008.

 

•  Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. Crown Pub., 1973.

 

•  McClelland, Gordon. The California Style: California Watercolor Artists 1925-1955.

    Hillcrest Press, 1985.

 

 

 

 
 
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