Very little has been written about Ham Luske who had a lengthy career as an animator and director at Disney.
Hamilton Luske started at Disney Studios in 1931 and despite lack of formal art school training quickly became a significant animator on animated shorts like The Tortoise and the Hare (1935) and Who Killed Cock Robin (1935).
Luske was the supervising director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and later moved from animation into directing and writing for both animated features, shorts and television. He received the Oscar for Special Effects in 1965 for Mary Poppins. He was made a Disney Legend in 1999.
However, despite all his many achievements, less is known about him than some of his contemporaries because Luske was not a self promoter and was never formally interviewed. He passed away Februrary 18, 1968.
In March 2012, I interviewed his children about him.
Peggy Finefrock was the youngest daughter and for a time worked as a secretary at the Disney Studio. Jim Luske was born May 8, 1940 and informally started working for Disney shortly afterwards. Jim told me, “When I was one year old, Dad used me as the live action actor for Baby Weems in the film Reluctant Dragon (1941).”
After graduating UCLA, he started delivering mail at the Disney Studio and five years later worked his way into operating the animation camera.
Jim Korkis: What do you remember about you dad at work when you were a secretary?
Peggy Finefrock: Everyone knew him and he knew everyone. It was “Hi, Ham! Hi, Ham”. I then realized he was a pretty big deal there and very loved. Before the unions Walt gave the animators bonuses at the end of the year for the footage they produced. Dad always got the largest bonus, sometimes more than his regular salary.
When I worked there, I was amazed how much power Dad had. He was liked by everyone, but nobody crossed him. My brother Jim always told me, “Crossing him would be seen like crossing Walt, as anything Dad was doing already had Walt’s approval.”
JK: Do you have any favorite projects your Dad worked on?
Peggy: Probably Lady and The Tramp (1955), for me anyway, because my dog, Blondie, was the model for Lady. She got to go to the Disney Studio and “pose”. I wonder if she knew that she was going to be so famous?
We also loved Peter Pan (1953), because my brother Tom was the voice of Michael and that made that movie extra special for all of us. Of course, Mary Poppins (1964) was the most amazing of the Disney movies. I was there when he was directing the penguin dance over and over with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and then remembering how incredible it was when I finally saw it on the screen with everything all put together.
Jim Korkis: How would you describe your Dad?
Jim Luske: My father was a very busy man working at Disney.
The idea that Walt kept Dad around because he always agreed with Walt is ridiculous. Walt didn’t need or want a “yes” man. He wanted someone who understood what a certain movie was about and someone who could help him achieve the end results.
An example was on a story board meeting for the animated feature Pinocchio (1940), my father suggested that Pinocchio needed someone to talk to, a friend or sidekick. Walt thought about this and agreed. I think Walt suggested Jiminy Cricket and that was added to the picture.
JK: What was your Dad like at work?
Jim: I worked at Disney for years while my father was directing there. As far as I know he wasn’t known to yell or scream at other employees, but there was no doubt that he was respected and what ever he said was done.
People were always coming up to me and telling me what a great person my father was. I think other people in his position were very difficult to get along with. My father just got up and went to the studio.
Later, when I went there with him sometimes, I found out his routine. He would drive to Bob’s Big Boy hamburger joint, sit down and have a breakfast then drive to the studio. He worked there all day and then went home.
My father was very loyal to the men in his unit. There was a period when eliminating animation was being discussed by the executives at the studio. My father worried about this more than anyone realized. Not because he would lose his job because he wouldn’t, but because some of his crew would. He was proud of the Oscar he won for his work on Mary Poppins (1964) and it was on the family fireplace mantle.
JK: Do you remember any stories your Dad told about pranks that were played at the Disney Studio?
Jim: Just a few. One animator purchased a Volkswagen car and was going to see how many miles per gallon the car could go. So he filled the tank and recorded the mileage. He put a chart up on the wall. He was going to do this every week and see the results. After the first week one of the animators secretly added a jar full of gas to the tank. So the chart showed improvement. The next week they added two jars and so on for the weeks to follow. After a while the animator was getting record setting mileage. Finally he figured it out.
Another animator purchased a gold fish. Same story, they purchased a larger one each week and put it into the bowl. He was showing everyone how fast his fish was growing. Then they reversed the process and the fish kept getting smaller. He also finally figured it out.
There was a contest to see how many jelly beans were in a glass jar. One animator purchased a jar the same size and filled it with beans. Then he counted the number of beans. He was so proud that he showed everyone what he was doing and posted the number so that immediately when the winning number was displayed the unit could see how close he was. My father entered a number one bean larger than his number and another animator entered a number one smaller.
JK: What did you do when you started at the studio?
Jim: I started in the mail room. It was sort of a position where the studio could look at you and you could look at the studio. I then got into animation camera, a holding place where I was able to get seniority in the union to be able to work in live action photography.
It was the most tedious and boring job I have ever had. It did teach me patience. If you want something that is difficult to achieve you may have to suffer to achieve the goal. I did that for five years!
My father died when I was in animation camera. I do remember him saying, “I guess I can’t get mad anymore when I see an animation camera mistake. It might be my son’s mistake!”
I also got a chance to talk to his daughter, Carol Jean Luske (who was born in 1937) in March 2012. Here is an excerpt from a much longer interview.
Jim Korkis: Did your dad ever talk about his work at the Disney Studio?
Carol Jean Luske: Dad had many stories he shared at dinner about the studio. We always all ate together at 6:00 pm at the dining room table. Our major punishment if we were bad was that we to had to eat in the kitchen with the maid and miss Dad’s stories.
There were lots of pranks at the studio that Dad would tell us about to make us laugh, like changing a fish in a fish bowl so it would get continually bigger and then smaller over a period of time. They played that prank on some person who pulled his own tooth out with pliers. I can’t remember the person’s name now. I wish I could remember more of Dad’s stories about those pranks.
JK: Did your Mom ever pose for your dad?
CJL: She modeled for the character Persephone in the Silly Symphony, Goddess of the Spring (1934). I heard that she did some other modeling for him but I never personally saw it.
JK: I understand your dad also used his own children occasionally in his films
CJL: In Peter Pan (1953), for the character of the youngest Darling boy, Michael, Dad needed someone’s voice and he used my brother Tom for the voice and as a model for Michael. Michael did end up looking a lot like Tom as the artist used him to draw the character.
Our dog, Blondie was Lady from Lady and the Tramp (1955) and our brother James Luske when he was one year old was the live action Baby Weems. Dad used our voices for the flowers in Alice in Wonderland (1951). Alice in Wonderland was one of my favorite projects that Dad worked on because I just thought is was so pretty and fun. It was fun for us to be involved, but remember we were a “movie” family…this type of thing was not unusual.
JK: Your Dad seems to have been very quiet at work, not flamboyant like a Ward Kimball.
CJL: NO, he was very unlike Ward Kimball. Ward Kimball was fun and funny though. Dad was not a temperamental artist type. Dad did not have a “way”. He did things “Walt’s” way.
Dad did not have a personal artistic ego he was fighting to promote. Dad moved up from being just an animator to being a supervising director, and producer. He was “Disney” and not doing the work for personal promotion. He was very committed to doing it the way Walt wanted it.
Walt was always teasing Dad about being a “college boy”…which almost no one there at the Studio was. That worked out for Dad when Disney started in doing a weekly TV show. Walt said to Dad, “Since you’re the college boy, you figure this thing out.”
JK: Your Dad did a lot of live action directing.
CJL: I think he preferred doing animation but Dad did do a lot of live action directing. He was the one who directed Walt for the TV shows. I told Dad he must be pretty important for Walt to have him as his director. Dad said Walt had him because Dad would let Walt do what Walt wanted to do….which Walt would do anyway.
JK: One of the stories your Dad told you was about teaching Bobby Driscoll to skip on the set of the movie Song of the South (1946).
CJL: Yes….Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten were supposed to skip through the woods, but Driscoll couldn’t so almost everyone on the set including my Dad was skipping around to help.
JK: Your dad directed Dick Van Dyke for the penguin dancing sequence in Mary Poppins (1964).
CJL: Yes, he had fun doing that. We got to watch some of the early scenes on the Moviola. Dad told us that one day Dick Van Dyke showed up on the set and dad didn’t recognize him at all. He was in makeup and costume as the old banker.
JK: What would your Dad think about Disney animation today?
Carol: I think he would have missed the crispness of the old method.
JK: Did your Dad ever watch animation from other Studios?
CJL: Sometimes. I remember him liking Bugs Bunny and Pepe Le Pew.
JK: Did you like Warners’ animation?
CJL: The father of my best friend from Junior High was Chuck Jones, the Warner Brothers animator and director. Chuck Jones was an artistic genius, but I thought at the time that he was very full of himself. I stayed with them (Chuck, Dottie, and Linda) at their home on several occasions. Chuck worked very briefly at the Disney Studio but he felt it very confining. His house was full of his art work and I think kinda Danish modern.
JK: How would you like your dad to be remembered?
Carol: Dad was a wonderful, funny man who was very talented, not just as an artist, but a planner and motivator. He was very responsible for his animators, and made sure each had enough work so they didn’t get laid off.
He was also serious about the movie budget and was the only supervising director who consistently came in at budget. He was very talented. He was kind and generous. Everyone loved him. He was a DISNEY man. All things were Disney. He did not promote himself personally in any way for the work he did at the Studio.