Disney Animator and Story Man Mel Shaw Dies at 97

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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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