Disney Animator and Story Man Mel Shaw Dies at 97

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Mel Shaw

Mel Shaw

Visual devel­op­ment artist, ani­ma­tor and story man Melvin “Mel” Shaw, named a Dis­ney Leg­end in 2004, has died at 97, lay­out artist Mike Per­aza announced.

Shaw has been called one of Disney’s “elder states­men” of ani­ma­tion. Walt Dis­ney, who per­son­ally recruited him to join his team, observed another side.

Dur­ing his early polo play­ing days, Shaw recalled first meet­ing Dis­ney at the field, who announced, “You ride like a wild Indian!” And thus, the door opened for Shaw to infuse his pas­sion into Dis­ney animation.

Born Melvin Schwartz­man in Brook­lyn on Decem­ber 19, 1914, he dis­cov­ered his artis­tic bent at age 10, when selected as one of only 30 chil­dren from New York state to par­tic­i­pate in the Stu­dent Art League Soci­ety. Two years later, his soap sculp­ture of a Latino with a pack mule won sec­ond prize in a Proc­ter & Gam­ble soap carv­ing con­test, earn­ing the young artist national fame.

In 1928, his fam­ily moved to Los Ange­les, where Shaw attended high school and entered a schol­ar­ship class at Otis Art Insti­tute. But the teen had an itch to become a cow­boy and ran away from home to work on a Utah ranch.

After four months of back-breaking work, he returned home and took a job cre­at­ing title cards for silent movies at Pacific Titles, owned by Leon Schlesinger. With help from Schlesinger, two for­mer Dis­ney ani­ma­tors, Hugh Har­man and Rudy Ising, had made a deal with Warner Bros., and soon, Shaw joined Harman-Ising Stu­dios as ani­ma­tor, char­ac­ter designer, story man and direc­tor. While there, he worked with Orson Welles sto­ry­board­ing a live-action/animated ver­sion of The Lit­tle Prince.

In 1937, Shaw arrived at Dis­ney, con­tribut­ing to Fan­ta­sia (1940), Bambi (1941) and The Wind in the Wil­lows, which later became a seg­ment in The Adven­tures of Ich­a­bod and Mr. Toad (1949).

His Dis­ney career was inter­rupted by the Sec­ond World War, when he served the United States Army Sig­nal Corps as a film­maker under Lord Louis Mount­bat­ten, help­ing pro­duce films, includ­ing a live action/animated doc­u­men­tary of the Burma Cam­paign. He also served as art edi­tor and car­toon­ist for the Stars & Stripes news­pa­per in Shanghai.

After the war, he ven­tured into busi­ness with for­mer MGM Stu­dios ani­ma­tor Bob Allen. As Allen-Shaw Pro­duc­tions, he designed and cre­ated the orig­i­nal Howdy Doody mar­i­onette pup­pet for NBC; illus­trated the first Bambi children’s book for Dis­ney; and designed children’s toys, archi­tec­ture and even mas­ter plans for cities, includ­ing Cen­tury City, California.

In 1974, Walt Dis­ney Stu­dios called Shaw to help in the out­go­ing tran­si­tion between retir­ing ani­ma­tors and the next gen­er­a­tion. He offered skill and knowl­edge to such Dis­ney motion pic­tures as The Res­cuers (1977), The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Great Mouse Detec­tive (1986), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994) and more.

Though uncred­ited, he was an ani­ma­tor in the the­atri­cal car­toon shorts We’re in the Money (1933), Toy­land Broad­cast and Tale of the Vienna Woods (both 1934), To Spring (1936) and Merba­bies (1938).

He offered addi­tional story con­tri­bu­tions to The Black Caul­dron (1985) and pro­vided the car­toon story for the 1957 Dis­ney­land episode “Tricks of Our Trade.” Shaw appeared as him­self in the 2001 TV doc­u­men­tary Walt: The Man Behind the Myth.

Shaw recently com­pleted his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Ani­ma­tor on Horse­back at his home in Acampo, Cal­i­for­nia. It has not yet been released.

In June, he lived with his son and daughter-in-law in Wood­land Hills, California.

Mel Shaw mar­ried Flo­rence, the widow of Dis­ney ani­ma­tor John Lounsbery.

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About Paul Anderson

Paul is an old-timer here at BCDB- his contributions go back to before the site! Paul is widely regarded as a Disney historian, and is also on staff at the Disney Museum in San Francisco. Paul is also a contributing historian for D23, the Disney Club. Paul has published several books and magazine articles on Disney history, too. You are welcome to drop Paul a line here.


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