Longtime Disney artist and Imagineering designer John Hench passed away from heart failure Thursday morning at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, Calif. He served as the official Mickey Mouse portrait artist and his designs were employed in both animated features and Disney theme park attractions. The Toluca Lake, Calif. resident was 95.
A 64-year Mouse House veteran, Hench began his Disney career as a sketch artist on Fantasia in 1939. He went on to work in story editing, layout, background, effects animation and special effects on such legendary films as Dumbo, The Three Caballeros, Peter Pan and Cinderella. According to Disney, he continued to come to work at Walt Disney Imagineering every day until his brief illness and passing. He was actively involved in the design of Disney’s latest theme park in Hong Kong.
Hench’s long list of credits includes coloring and styling for The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). He developed the cartoon art treatment for the animated/live action hybrid feature So Dear to My Heart (1949) and the animation effects for the "True-Life Adventure" The Living Desert (1953).
Heading up the special effects department on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Hench helped the film win the 1954 Academy Award in that category. His legacy continues on to this year’s Oscars, where the Animated Short race includes Destino, for which he teamed up with Salvador Dali to create storyboard sketches in the early 1940s.
In 1990 Hench was named a Disney Legend, an honor awarded to individuals who have made major contributions to the company. Eight years later, he was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Themed Entertainment Association, an industry trade group. This month saw Hench honored with The Winsor McCay award from the International Animated Film Society in recognition of lifetime career contributions to the art of animation. The award will be posthumously presented Saturday, Feb. 7 at the Annie Awards in Burbank, Calif.
“John Hench taught me and so many others about the essence of the Disney legacy. He was at Walt’s side during the creation of so much classic entertainment and continued to be a vital creative force for our company right up until the end,” says Michael Eisner, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co. “John’s creative legacy will live on in the current generation of Disney designers he nurtured and inspired. He will be greatly missed by all of us who were privileged to work with him and by everyone who cherishes Disney family entertainment.”
Hench’s recently published book, Designing Disney: Imagineering and The Art of the Show, is already in its second printing. The book chronicles the years he spent working side-by-side with Walt Disney and the lessons he learned. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Lowry.