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Mary Blair was the artist for this hand-pulled silkscreen print, used in a guest room at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World, 1973 to early 1990s. THF181161

When Disney’s Contemporary Resort opened at Walt Disney World in 1971—coinciding with the opening of Magic Kingdom—guests almost immediately complained about their rooms. The rooms seemed cold and hard. They lacked personality. Guests couldn’t even figure out how to operate the new-fangled recessed lighting. So, within two years, the rooms were refurbished with new textiles, fabrics, traditional lamps, and high-quality prints of Mary Blair’s original design. These prints were adapted from the individual scenes of a massive tile mural that she had created for the Contemporary Resort’s central atrium. The hand-pulled silk-screened prints, framed and hung on the walls over the beds, brought much-needed warmth, color, and a sense of playful exuberance to the rooms. More importantly—but probably unbeknownst to most guests—they reinforced Mary Blair’s deep, longstanding connection to Disney parks, attractions, and films that ultimately dated back to a personal friendship with Walt Disney himself.

Mary Blair was born Mary Browne Robinson in 1911 in rural Oklahoma. She developed a love of art early in her childhood and went on to major in fine arts at San Jose State College. She won a prestigious scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (which later became the California Institute of the Arts) and studied under the tutelage of Chouinard’s director of illustration, Pruett Carter. Carter was one of the era’s most accomplished magazine illustrators and stressed the importance of human drama, empathy, and theatre in illustration. Mary later recalled that he was her greatest influence.

By the late 1930s, Mary and her husband, fellow artist Lee Blair, were unable to survive off the sales of their fine art and began to work in Los Angeles’s animation industry. In 1941, both were working at Disney and had the opportunity to travel with Walt Disney and a group of Disney Studio artists to South America to paint as part of a government-sponsored goodwill trip. While on this trip, Mary grew into her own as an artist and found the bold and colorful style for which she would be known.

Mary Blair became one of Walt Disney’s favored artists, appreciated for her vibrant and imaginative style. She recalled, “Walt said that I knew about colors he had never heard of.” In her career at Disney, she created concept art and color styling for many films, including Dumbo (1941), Saludos Amigos (1942), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953). She left Disney after her work on Peter Pan to pursue freelance commercial illustration, but returned when Walt Disney specifically requested her help to create the “it’s a small world” attraction for the 1964-5 New York World’s Fair (later brought back to Disneyland and also recreated in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World).

Before Walt Disney passed away in 1966, he commissioned Mary to produce multiple large-scale murals, including the one for the interior of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida. The mural, completed in 1971, was her last work with Disney. Entitled “The Pueblo Village,” it featured 18,000 hand-painted, fire-glazed, one-foot-square ceramic tiles celebrating Southwest American Indian culture, prehistoric rock pictographs, and the Grand Canyon. (Because Mary’s depictions of Native Americans admittedly lack attention to the serious study of indigenous people in that region, they might be criticized as racial stereotyping).

When the guest rooms at the Contemporary Resort were renovated again in the early 1990s, the high-quality prints were removed. But the massive tile mural stoically remains at the center of the Resort’s ten-story atrium—a reminder of Mary Blair’s exuberant artistry and her many contributions to Disney parks and films.

For more on Mary Blair’s contributions, along with the previously unrecognized contributions of numerous other female artists who worked on Disney films, see the book The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History, by Nathalia Holt (2019).

This blog post was a collaborative effort by Donna Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, and Katherine White, Associate Curator at The Henry Ford.

Disney, Mary Blair

Walt Disney World in Florida is certainly a fun place to visit. It opened in 1971, after Walt Disney realized the huge potential of an East Coast market at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. But if you want to experience the place where it all began, then go to Disneyland. Considered America’s first theme park, Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, in Anaheim, California.

To really “get” Disneyland, you must take a trip back in time to Walt Disney’s boyhood. Walt grew up during the rapidly changing years of the early 1900s. His boyhood experiences in Marceline and Kansas City, Miss., especially, inspired his later work in filmmaking and television, as well as his creation of the Disneyland park. Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. is, in fact, a microcosm (albeit a cleaned-up one) of Walt’s boyhood memories of Marceline.

(Object ID: 86.13.27.3)

As Walt Disney relates it, his first interest in creating Disneyland dates back to the days he spent watching his daughters ride the carousel at Griffith Park, in Los Angeles, Calif. His wife credits the idea for Disneyland to Walt’s long-time fascination with the steam-powered trains that passed through Missouri when he was a boy.

train-disneyland

Whichever legendary “origin story” you want to believe, both of these strongly influenced the several-year evolution of his plan for the park. One of his early inspirations even included a visit to Greenfield Village.

Walt Disney and Ward Kimball Posing in the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1948 (Object ID: 91.0.44.52, http://bit.ly/18paGvM

While most Hollywood moviemakers thought television was a passing fad, Walt Disney used it to his advantage. Disneyland the television show, which premiered in October 1954, helped fund Disneyland the park. The show featured live and animated features from each of four lands, with periodic peaks at the park construction. While tuning in to weekly episodes of Disneyland, American families were assured that Disneyland the park was going to be safe, wholesome, and predictable.

Lunchbox & Thermos, Disneyland, 1957 (Object ID: 99.12.19, http://bit.ly/1aYHiAT)

Special guests and the media were invited to Disneyland’s Opening Day on July 17, 1955. But things didn’t go quite as Walt Disney had planned. There were so many problems, in fact, that Walt later called it “Black Sunday.” Freeways were gridlocked, tickets were counterfeited, rides broke down, restaurants ran out of food, drinking fountains broke down. It was so hot that women’s high heels sank in the melting asphalt. Finally, a gas link almost shut down Fantasyland, the land in which most of the 22 attractions had been completed. On the next day, when the park opened to the public, things didn’t go much better.

Disneyland Cup & Saucer Set, 1955-1960 (Object ID: 2005.46.1, http://bit.ly/17qMU19)

Needless to say, the first reviews were quite negative. But Walt was determined to fix the glitches and by the end of the seventh week, more than a million guests had passed through Disneyland’s entrance. Visitation continued to exceed estimates from that time on.

Postcard, "Disneyland," 1975 (Object ID: 86.9.1.1500, http://bit.ly/1dKiecR)

With the consummate skill of a filmmaker, Walt’s vision for Disneyland was to have guests actually walk through popular American themes and stories. To accomplish this, he inspired his staff—Imagineers, he called them—to reduce these themes and stories to their essence.

Walt Disney's Adventureland Game, 1956 (Object ID: 2005.48.1, http://bit.ly/154K9T2)

For each land and attraction, the stories were unified through architecture, landscaping, signs, characters, food, merchandise, costuming, and even trash cans. This later came to be called “theming.”

Walt Disney's Tomorrowland Rocket to the Moon Game, 1956 (Object ID: 2005.47.1, http://bit.ly/154PkCr

Today, every themed environment—from theme parks to restaurants to retail stores—owes a debt to Walt Disney. And although The Henry Ford engages visitors through authentic artifacts and historically accurate stories, we can’t help but appreciate Walt Disney’s far-reaching vision, persistence in the face of obstacles, and genius for storytelling.

Good job, Walt! And happy 58th anniversary, Disneyland!

Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, is looking forward to her family’s trip to Disneyland later this summer.

Disney, theme parks, tourism