ANIMATION ANECDOTES
August 23, 2019 posted by Jim Korkis

Who Was Harry Holt?

SUSPENDED ANIMATION #229

Harry Holt, born in April 1911, passed away at the age of 93 on April 14, 2004. At the time of his death, he was living in Casselberry, Florida, with his wife and had a son and daughter living in California.

Holt was a Disney animator and sculptor who officially retired from the company in 1982. However, thanks to his friend Ralph Kent, Holt started a new Disney career in 1987 at the age of 76 in a nook in the lobby of the Disneyana Collectibles Store (later known as the Town Square Theater) in Main Street’s Town Square at the Magic Kingdom in Florida.

Until he turned 83 years old, he sat behind an animator’s desk interacting with guests. Originally, the job was to promote the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios with its new animation studio, but Holt proved so popular and beloved that he remained there for seven years, working limited hours five days a week.

During that time, many a Disney fan would delight in getting an 8″ x 11″ photostatic drawing done by Harry. The pencil drawings were of Peter Pan battling Captain Hook, Lady and the Tramp dining out, Snow White dancing with the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi surrounded by his friends, Cinderella, Pinocchio or even Ariel.

Harry would sketch in some additional details that he had intentionally omitted as he chatted with the guests and then signed and dated the drawing in the bottom right corner. Most guests had no idea that he was not just another friendly, elderly “Disney show artist,” but was an animator who had a rich and varied career at Disney and elsewhere.

Harry told me during an informal interview in 1990 (his quotes in this article are from that interview) that in 1936 he was visiting his mother in California when a friend showed him an ad for artists at the Disney Studios.

“I had no formal training in art. It was just a childhood thing that I loved doing. But at that point, it was the Depression and I felt I had nothing to lose, so I applied for the job and got it,” he said. “It was a young company, struggling to survive, but there was excitement and camaraderie and most of the artists were working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It was a quality piece. We were all proud to work on it and we still use it today as a standard for others.”

Holt first worked as an in-betweener on the Silly Symphony Woodland Cafe (1937) and was then put on Snow White where one of the sequences he in-betweened featured the Old Hag Witch as she was rowing on the river. By the time of Pinocchio (1940), Harry had become an assistant animator to Disney Legend Eric Larson and worked on the opening sequence between the puppet and Geppetto.

Holt told me: “The picture didn’t do as well as it should have because it was released during wartime and all that tension. Also, I always felt that what hurt it was that it was not a love story and people are by nature attracted to the idea of love and romance as they obviously were in Snow White.

“When the war started, I worked on training films for the Navy the studio was doing like torpedo guidance and other related fields so I kept getting deferments. Finally, they couldn’t defer me any longer and I got the ‘Greetings’ letter from Uncle Sam, went in for physicals and was accepted. However, I had just turned 31 years old and Congress had just enacted the restriction of not drafting anyone over 30, so I went back to the studio and back to training films. In 1943, I became a full animator.”

In the 1940s, Harry picked up extra money by moonlighting, working on comic books. Active as a comic book artist through the Sangor Shop, he did funny animal art for ACG comic books – stuff like ‘Dum and Dummer’ in Merry Go-Round Comics (1944), and ‘Blackeye and Blubber’ for Barnyard Comics by Better Publications (1948).

From 1943 to 1956, Holt worked primarily as a full-fledged Disney animator on the shorts including many credits on the Pluto cartoons (The Purloined Pup and Pluto’s Housewarming) and the Donald Duck cartoons (Chips Ahoy, Donald’s Diary and In the Bag) among many others.

Holt left Disney in 1956 because he could see that the studio was winding down on the production of animation and he had been offered a job at Fred Niles Communication Center (then the largest producers of television commercials in the East) located in Chicago to produce and art-direct live-action and animated commercials.

“I had been at it (animation) at Disney for 20 years,” he explained. “I just wanted to explore new avenues, and it was more money.”

He worked there for four years and loved the work but not the city, especially in the winter. When he decided to return to California, Disney had eliminated seventy-five percent of its animation staff after the release of Sleeping Beauty (1959) and the discontinuation of theatrical shorts.

Holt found work at Hanna-Barbera from 1960 to 1964 on such television series as The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Top Cat. From 1964 to 1966, Harry worked as an animator on the feature film The Man from Button Willow (1965) and some Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM. He then returned briefly to Hanna-Barbera to work on the feature film Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear (1964) and series like The Impossibles and The Herculoids.

In 1966, he returned to Disney to work on sculpting maquettes for the audio-animatronics characters. Holt spent a lot of time working on figures for the attractions at Walt Disney World, but after it opened in 1971, he went back to Hanna-Barbera who, he claimed, “were always happy to have me.”

“Then in 1976, I was asked to return to Disney as an art director in charge of quality control and product design, which basically meant that I was responsible for merchandise sold at the shops at Disney,” Holt said.

It was during this time he connected with Germany’s Goebel that produced Hummel figures and had a shop at Epcot. He did a sketch that was approved and then interpreted that into a three-dimensional form out of clay, that was about five or six inches tall. The clay figure was then shipped off to Germany, where it was made into a figurine for sale. Holt made 32 of these “Amerikids” in total and even though they were not as successful as hoped, they still did well.

“I spent a year in Los Angeles in 1979 doing this,” Holt noted, “and had to take a leave of absence from Disney again to do so. Then I returned to Disney in 1980 to work on the Epcot Center project.”

Holt was also moved to work on the Tokyo Disneyland project for several months in 1981 in art direction.

Like so many others in the animation industry, he was well known and respected by his peers but basically unknown to the general public. Also like others, he moved around to a variety of different studios during his decades long career. That’s who Harry Holt was.

2 Comments

  • Don’t forget my favorite Yakky Doodle cartoon, “Judo Ex-expert”, animated by Harry Holt! I like the way he handled Yakky’s feathers, and his confident attitude was well drawn. Funniest of all was when the little duck tried to throw Fibber Fox, and didn’t have the strength or the balance to do it. Rene Holt was Harry’s daughter and a great assistant animator, she worked on some of the Droopy scenes I animated in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

  • A heart-warming post. Thank you for preserving and sharing these stories of the people who worked in the animation industry, who might otherwise be forgotten. I find it touching that, after a long career spent at the drawing board, Harry Holt was finally able to meet his public and give them a bit of magic to take home.

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