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
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: