Tuesday, March 8, 2011

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.)