Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Goodbye Dear Friend...

Yesterday I received the very sad news that my friend from my Walt Disney World days, Ralph Kent had passed away. It wasn't unexpected, as poor Ralph had been in declining health for awhile now and a mutual friend had recently informed me that Ralph's doctor had estimated he only had a few weeks left. In the dozen years since I'd left my Disney job in Florida, Ralph had gradually been getting health problems due to his diabetes, but what finally did him in was a year long bout with cancer. I'm not sure how old he would have been, but I'm guessing he must have been approaching 70 when he died.

I first met Ralph Kent back in 1976. I was just a teen kid at the time, but I was able to arrange a visit to the Walt Disney World art department during one of my family's annual vacations down to the Florida theme park. It was at that time I met character artist, Russell Schroeder, who is still a dear friend after all these years, as well as fellow artist, Harry Gladstone, both of whom would be instrumental years later in helping me start my own career with Disney. Ralph Kent was the head of the art department back then, and he was quite keen on some little Disney figurines I had sculpted and was showing to the guys down there. He said I should keep in touch after I finished my schooling and maybe they could get me down there working in the art department.

Sadly, a few years later there was a series of layoffs which saw the letting go of many in Disney's art area, as well as many in middle management, including Ralph. I believe Ralph was freelancing for about the next ten years or so, working on creative projects for Goebel and others. In the meantime, I had started my Disney career in the character merchandise division that was here in Canada, leaving my Ottawa home to come work for Disney in Toronto in 1984. Six years later, due to the help of Russell Schroeder, I was able to relocate down to Florida to take a position in that art department I'd always wanted to work for.

Coincidentally, not long after I started working at WDW in 1990 I was reacquainted with Ralph, who was in the process of being rehired by Disney as a character artist in their newly established Character Merchandise art department. It was great to see Ralph again after all those years, and we quickly became good friends and frequent lunch buddies. Ralph was also a regular fixture at a ramshackle little bar in Kissimmee called "The Big Bamboo", where he held court regaling Disney fans and tourists with stories of his life at Disney and sketching pictures of Disney characters for them on napkins and such. One time I remember he had been given some flak about that from one of the Disney execs who told him he couldn't draw Disney characters for people. Ralph said to him, "Somebody else told me I could". When the exec furiously asked him who had given him that permission, Ralph looked him in the eye and replied,"Walt did".

Ralph meant it too, as he had started his career back at the Disneyland art department in Anaheim sometime in the early 60's I believe, maybe before that. He said Walt would often drop by the studio and was quite friendly towards them all. According to Ralph, Walt actually encouraged the Disney artists to do little sketches for people when asked, as he felt that it was a nice little goodwill gesture. When Ralph was first approached in 1970 to relocate to Florida to head up the new art services department that would be set up at the brand new Walt Disney World opening in 1971, he was rather reluctant about doing so. You see, Ralph was passionate about being a Disney artist, as that had always been his dream ever since he was a kid himself. To now be thrust into the role of an administrator didn't sit well with Ralph. They assured him that the move would only be temporary, and that he would be brought back to his old job once things were up and running well in Florida. Unfortunately for Ralph, that never did happen, and so he was in a managerial position that, by his own admission, he didn't feel comfortable at. When he was let go in the round of layoffs some years later, I know it hurt Ralph like hell, as all he ever had wanted to be was a Disney artist.

I am glad to report, however, that once Ralph was hired back in 1990, he started to get the respect that had long been due him. Disney, to their credit, now treated him as a veteran artistic talent and, just several years ago when he had retired due to his ongoing health setbacks, the Company officially designated him as one of the "Disney Legends" that year. In addition, he was also presented with his own "Window on Main Street", in the Magic Kingdom in WDW, which I know was something that he took great pride in. Here is a photo of that window right above "Coke Corner" that I took on my trip there last year. That was also the last time I saw Ralph, when I'd gone back for a vacation in Florida after an absence of nearly ten years having stayed away. It was just wonderful to see him again after all those years.

Here's a photo I took of Ralph and his wonderful wife, Linda, while visiting their home. Despite his health problems and looking older, he was still the same ol' Ralph in his friendly, easygoing manner and everpresent big grin. He seemed to have taken things in stride, not dwelling on his problems, and was still talking enthusiastically about his creative projects that he still intended to pursue. We had a really nice visit, but when he told me about the recent diagnosis of cancer I was afraid that this might be the last time I'd get to see this dear man. Sadly, this turned out to be the case and today all the memories of our friendship are just flooding back into my mind. Ralph was a lovable guy who brought so many people a lot of happiness through his art and genuine warmth over his long and successful career at Disney. He will be missed greatly by all who loved him.

(By the way, the cartoon character that accompanies my caricature of Ralph is "Arlo Armadillo", a mascot I created for the Florida based Disney fan club, "The World Chapter", who were kind enough to honour Ralph upon his retirement from Disney with their own celebration. I had done this artwork for that particular event.)

13 comments:

David Nethery said...

A wonderful tribute to Ralph Kent (R.I.P.)

Thanks for posting that .

"Ralph was also a regular fixture at a ramshackle little bar in Kissimmee called "The Big Bamboo" .

The Boo , gone but not forgotten by it's many fans.

(Pete, how is it we never met ? When did you leave Florida ? I transferred there in 1995 to work on Mulan and I ended up staying instead of going back to Disney in California ... I know people who know you , but as far as I recall we never met . )

Pete Emslie said...

Hi David,

I actually left WDW in spring of 1994, as I was tired of the direction Disney was heading in under Eisner's command. Though I still had 2 more years remaining on my work permit, when that was up the Company would have had to secure me my green card in order to keep me on. Frankly, I wasn't convinced they were going to do that for me and I was homesick for Canada too, so I sold my house, gave Disney my notice and left. It was certainly no longer the Disney of my youth and I had no regrets about moving on.

I've continued as a freelancer for Disney in the dozen years since having left them, mostly illustrating kids' books for various licenced publishers. Living in Florida was fun while it lasted but I'm a Northern boy at heart and I prefer it up here north of the 49th.

I hope I do get to meet you one day, David. Your very appealing artwork just makes me smile. :)

anim8ed said...

Very sad to loose a talent and touch to Walt as Ralph, but what a lovely tribute Pete. I especially loved the dialogue beetween Ralph and the exec about drawing images off clock and Walt's desire artists do that as a goodwill gesture. Something the company certainly frowns on to this very day, sad to say.

Tink56 said...

Very nice story about my gentle giant.Ralph delt with these last 3 years with class and calm.He never let on how much he was suffering.Let us all not forget his dear love of his life(wife) Linda as we will... all of us will shed alot of tears this weekend.Last word he said to her I dreamed we were dancing and she said yes soon we will be dancing again.So she found comfort in knowing he was having good dreams.I lost my best friend and look forward to his beleif of the promised made in the bible at Revelation 21:3-4.
Respectfully
Denise

Pete Emslie said...

Ralph was indeed lucky to have such a loving and devoted wife as Linda. She's such a wonderful woman and I remember the first time I met her I just liked her right away, she's such an open and genuine person.

Thanks, Denise, for adding that last memory of Ralph in his last words to Linda. I remember when I visited with them last summer, Ralph saying how determined he was to get fitted with the new prosthetics and learning to walk again so he could take Linda dancing. I almost welled up with tears when he said that and hoped dearly that he'd be able to realize that dream. Ralph Kent was a classy guy.

David Nethery said...

"I especially loved the dialogue beetween Ralph and the exec about drawing images off clock and Walt's desire artists do that as a goodwill gesture."


Oh, yeah , I loved that bit , too.

We're losing more and more of that generation of Disney artists who were around during Walt's time and can look the corporate suits in the eye and say " Walt told me so " .

How many are left ? Burny Mattinson , Floyd Norman , and a few others ...

Will Finn said...

I never met mr. kent, but you'll be interested to know his passing (and legacy) was noted on a long crawlstrip last night on CNN. They mentioned his work on many disney watches and how he was an authority on how the characters interact, as well as how to draw them.

John Loter said...

I hardly knew Ralph, but met him on two occasions:

In 1984, he was part of a traveling Disney promotion, one of two artists drawing the characters for audiences. I was still a student at the time and I nervously showed my drawings to the other artist and got a somewhat disinterested "keep at it" response. I was quite dejected and only wanted to leave, but my brother forced me to approach the other artist, Ralph. He was very encouraging, and to my shock, he went so far as to recommend me to Harry Gladstone, who was the east coast Creative Director for Disney Consumer Products. That began my career drawing Disney characters, which still continues today- but might never have happened without Ralph.

Several years later, I had the opportunity to thank Ralph, in person. I'm pretty sure he didn't remember me, clearly this was a man whose good will was extended to all he came in contact with. So many good things in my life can probably be traced back to meeting him that day. Once again, thank you Ralph. Your kindness will forever be appreciated.

Pete Emslie said...

It sounds like you and I share common roots in the origin of our respective Disney careers, John. Meeting Ralph Kent also led me to meeting Harry Gladstone when Harry was still a character artist at WDW. After he'd transfered to Disney's New York office to take the art director position, it was through a referral from Harry that I also came to work for Disney up here in Toronto.

I'm not surprised that Ralph took an interest in your work, John. He really was a completely approachable guy who probably recognized his own beginnings in those young artists who came to him for advice. I used to see that aspect of the man when we were out at lunch together. Since there were a lot of Disney fans in the WDW area who would recognize Ralph, sometimes somebody would come up to him to say hi. Ralph was always happy to chat with people and sometimes he might even do a quick sketch on a napkin for them. We had a young fellow who was about 11 at the time named Zane in the local branch of the Disney fan club, who would ask Ralph for advice and feedback on his art. Clearly Ralph's encouragement helped him out too, as I hear that after graduating from university, this young man is now working in theme park design out in California. I'm certain that there must be many who can count Ralph's kindness and encouragement as a factor in the pursuit of their dreams. Undoubtedly Ralph Kent would be proud to know that was part of his legacy.

Ken Mitchroney said...

Hello Pete
Wonderful post on Ralph Kent. When I was a struggling young cartoonist back in Florida in the seventies, Ralph would come to the florida cartoonist covention on Orlando. Here you could talk with him about Style and technique and just plain visit with the man.
One year Ralph invited me to the art depatment at Disney World ( I was working at the park at the time on the Jungle Cruse) and showed me around. It was great fun and i learned a ton.
Ralph was a wonderful guy and i could never thank him enough for helping me during the early days. I'm as you are saddened to hear of his passing.

Philip Gladstone said...

I’m sorry to hear about Ralph Kent’s passing, I have a few rather vague but pleasant childhood memories of him from the 1970’s when my father, Harry Gladstone, worked for him as an artist at Walt Disney Design and Development in Florida. He towered over me (I seem to remember his chin best :-), always seemed to be smiling and once “wowed” me by drawing a Mickey Mouse for me upside-down, perfectly…

Pete, I remember hearing your name from my father, but I doubt we ever met…I was pleased to see my dad’s name mentioned several times in the comments. For those who may be interested, he, too, passed away in 2005 at the age of 67 (I believe he and Ralph were about the same age). He moved to Lubec, Maine in about 1990 after Disney let him go and continued to maintain his contacts and freelance for Disney for several years…unfortunately he was increasingly unable to pursue his work because of what was later diagnosed as early-onset Alzheimer’s, and after he suffered a stroke in 1999 he never, to my knowledge, drew again.

Like Ralph, my dad’s childhood dream was to be a Disney artist, and I think the happiest I ever saw him were those six or so years we lived in Florida, when he was working for Ralph and allowed to realize his dream…I think the work he was the proudest of were the series of theme-park postcards he painted in about 1980 under Ralph’s direction (a Disney fan has some of them posted online here: http://www.bigbrian-nc.com/wdw-pc53.htm)

Thanks for the post – I’d thought of getting in touch with Ralph after my father died, and sadly never did…

Philip Gladstone

C said...

Someone sent me this email about Ralph Kent, thought I'd share,

Ralph Kent, who designed the first adult Mickey Mouse watch in the 1960s
and went on to be a design leader and instructor for Walt Disney
Imagineering at Walt Disney World, has died in Kissimmee at age 68.

Kent spent 41 years as a designer and teacher at the Walt Disney Co., and
was named to the company's 'Disney Legends' hall of fame in 2004, the year
he retired.

Born Ralph Kwiatkowski on Jan. 28, 1939, he joined Disney in 1963 and in
1965 designed the first limited-edition Mickey Mouse watch for adults, which
Walt Disney presented to 25 of his top executives.

He arrived at Walt Disney World in 1971 as a designer and by the end of the
1970s he oversaw the Walt Disney Imagineering staff support for Epcot and
Tokyo Disneyland. In 1990 he joined the Disney Design Group as a corporate
trainer, mentoring new artists and creating an extensive reference
collection of character model sheets.

Marty Sklar, executive vice president and Imagineering Ambassador, called
Kent 'A real 'pixie' -- a big guy with a soft manner and always warm smile.'

Independent Disney author Lou Mongello, host of the WDW radio show
podcast,
(wdwradio.com,) called Kent 'an incredible individual' whose legacy is
assured, not just from his own designs, but from the next generation of
designers he trained.

He is survived by his wife Linda; daughters Julie Lowery and Laura
Hilgenfeldt; stepson Scott Dobek, Michael Dobek and David Gonos; sister Joan
Grabowski; and brother Larry Kwiatkowski.

Funeral arrangements are being made by the Grissom Funeral Home, 803 Emmett
St., in Kissimmee.

A gathering of friends will celebrate his life Friday from 5-8 p.m. at the
funeral home.

On Saturday a memorial service will be held at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's
Witnesses, 1525 Mill Slough in Kissimmee. In lieu of flowers, donations to
the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses will be welcomed.

William said...

I was shocked to just read about Ralph Kent's passing. He hired me(1967)2 years before the Disneyland art Department was to be sent to Florida for the opening of Disney world. Ralph was such a Great man. Those years working for him at Disneyland was some the best years of my art career. Yes Ralph was Mr Disney thru and thru. The suits where starting to move into Disneyland. We all knew it. of all the Art Director I've ever worked for he was the best!! The mickey watches where just getting off the ground during my time working for Ralph..I didn't stay in Florida after the opening
and returned to Hollywood and
worked in animation. But working
with Ralph and that team artists
make realize what a lucky man I was
to be part of Ralph's Disneyland
art department.

The mouse factory lost their best
artist.

Goodbye Ralph RIP

Bill Barry