It’s a sad day for Disney fans. Earlier this week, The Los Angeles Times reported that John Culhane, veteran reporter and respected Disney Animation expert, passed away at his home in Rockford, Illinois. He was 81 years old.
Now, at this point, you might be asking, “Who’s John Culhane?” I wouldn’t blame you. After all, he never gained the kind of name recognition that other Disney historians like Jim Korkis or J.B. Kaufman have. He did publish a few books on Disney Animation, but they’re not as well-known as other books on the same subject. So, you might ask, why does this guy deserve a Rotoscopers article?
Well, you may not know the name, and you may not have read anything he’s written, but he definitely deserves an article. Not only was he as good a Disney historian as Korkis, Kaufman, etc., but he also served as the influence for two animated Disney characters. More on that in a moment.
Culhane had been a friend of Walt Disney since 1951, when he and four friends piled into a car and drove from Rockford, IL, to sunny Los Angeles, CA. Culhane had met Diane Disney, Walt’s daughter, not long before, and Diane had told Culhane that she could definitely arrange for Culhane to meet her famous father. As a result, Culhane and company made their pilgrimage to L.A., where they were granted a meeting with Walt at the family home.
During the visit, Culhane mentioned that his dream was to become a writer. Walt offered Culhane a bit of advice: “Work for your hometown newspaper, write for your neighbors — and just keep widening your circle.” Culhane took those words to heart; over his long career in journalism, he wrote for such prestigious publications as the Chicago Daily News, The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, and Newsweek.
In the 1970s, though, Culhane left his journalism career to go work at Walt Disney Pictures. As Cartoon Brew states, Culhane spent his Disney career working in the publicity department. As part of that work, he used his journalism skills to pen several books on different Disney films, including Fantasia, Fantasia 2000, and Aladdin.
In 1973, Culhane invited Milt Kahl, one of Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” to give a guest lecture in a class. Kahl accepted, even drawing a poster of caricatures to announce the event. Culhane was one of the people caricatured in the poster. Eventually, Kahl went back to the studio and got to work on Disney Animation’s latest project, The Rescuers. Kahl was struggling with a problem, though; he had been assigned to design Medusa’s partner, and he didn’t know where to start. It was then that the poster of caricatures, and Culhane’s in particular, caught Kahl’s eye. Something clicked, and that was how John Culhane came to be the model for Mr. Snoops!
In 2000, Culhane again served as an animation model. When Eric Goldberg was searching for a model for the “Rhapsody In Blue” segment of Fantasia 2000, he cast his sight around for a model that depicted good cheer, sincerity, and enthusiasm, and John Culhane embodied all those things. Goldberg set Culhane’s face in his mind, and used that image to create the character of Flying John!
Ultimately, Culhane retired from Disney, returning home to Rockford, IL. He was never forgotten by his Disney co-workers, though; after his death, Disney animators Don Hahn, Andreas Deja, and Eric Goldberg all paid beautiful tributes to Culhane.
John Culhane was one of the quiet soldiers at Disney Animation; he may not have been a big name, and he may not have been revered by animation fans, but, without him, Disney Animation would be quite different today. And, for that, he will be fondly remembered and sorely missed!
Edited by: Kelly Conley