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Creator of the Magic

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Posted: Friday, June 27, 2008 10:00 pm

Between the sandy banks of the Mokelumne River and a quiet paved way lined with blossoming oleander bushes, there is a French country home that is more of a fairytale chateau than Acampo norm. The narrow, deceptive driveway leads to a wide-open lawn, bright green and meticulously manicured. A gallery resembling a small cottage sits at the edge of Lodi winegrapes, surrounded by clipped hedges and purple and green trees.

Inside the main house, a three-tier fountain echoes gently through the window-lined room. The walls are dark wood, and in some places, carved or enhanced with wrought iron or orange brick. Shelves and decorative columns display handcarved statues made of bronze and terra cotta.

Chandeliers, books, figures in paintings and paintbrushes seem as if they may mischievously come to life the second strangers turn their backs. It seems entirely possible, considering this is where so much of the magic has happened.

For at least 20 years, this enchanted Acampo estate has been the home to Melvin "Mel" Shaw, 93, a former Disney animator who, in 2004, was named a Disney Legend for the three decades he spent giving faces, quirks and personalities to the world's favorite Disney characters, including those from "Beauty and the Beast," "The Fox and the Hound," "The Rescuers," "The Great Mouse Detective," "The Lion King" and "Dumbo."

On the walls of his gallery - where much of his 1,000-piece collection is on display - there are sketches and models of other Disney classics he never received credit for. Though he won't really say, he has made an mark, not only in movie-lovers' living rooms, but in the way Disney made movies.

"I was important to the business, I guess," Shaw said in his modest, it's-not-that-big-of-a-deal tone of voice. "I made a few extra bucks."

While Shaw's mark on American animation is what he's known for, his creativity crosses media. He helped create the comedian puppet Howdy Doody. He even designed popular dishware. He was a documentary filmmaker and he is a nationally ranked polo player. He just completed his autobiography, "Animator on Horseback," and in coming weeks his latest business venture, Mel Shaw Studios, will be up and running.


Shaw's sketches from the Disney film, "Dumbo." (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Doctor? Cowboy? Artist?

Shaw was a Brooklyn baby, born Dec. 19, 1914. His father was an attorney and his mother was a concert pianist.

Shaw was artistic from the beginning, earning one of only 30 spots in New York's Student Art League Society at the age of 10. By 12, he won his first art scholarship from Proctor and Gamble for a small gorilla he carved from a block of onyx-colored soap. More than 80 years later, it sits atop a gallery bookshelf in a small glass box, bubbling and slightly crusty with age.

As a young teenager, Shaw didn't see himself sitting in an art studio for his entire life. Nor did he want to be a doctor, as his father hoped. Instead, he dreamt of a life on horseback.

Shortly after moving with his family from New York to Los Angeles, Shaw, then 14, decided it was time to take charge of his destiny. With the money he earned delivering the local newspaper, he bought a one-way ticket to Utah, the land of horse ranches and wide-open mountain ranges.

"I wanted to be a cowboy," said Shaw, who ran away from home to work on a Utah horse ranch he'd heard was hiring teenage boys.

Shaw didn't stay in Utah for long. Partly because of his parents - and partly because the art league in New York was still keeping track of him (because, Shaw says, they knew he had talent) - the police were waiting for him when he arrived.

After being held for a few days in a Utah jail, Shaw returned to the California sun. He got a job creating title cards for silent films. That would lead to opportunities for animating at a small film studio.

The days of cowboys were over.


A pastel painting from the animated movie, "The Fox and the Hound." (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

If you can't be a cowboy, be a wild Indian

In the late 1930s, while playing polo at a Southern California club, Shaw first met Walt Disney, a private man who was doing good things in the cartoon world.

"He called me a wild Indian because I was stealing the ball from him all the time," Shaw recalls.

Disney might not have been good on the polo field, but he had the kind of creative thinking that Shaw liked.

One day, Disney handed Shaw a stack of papers and said: "You like to draw animals - read this and see what you think of it."

It was the script for "Bambi."

It didn't take long before Shaw sketched the long-legged, clumsy deer with his soft features and oversized hazel eyes that would become the main character in a film to leave audiences in tears.

After "Bambi," Shaw worked on "Fantasia" and "The Wind in the Willows," which later became "The Adventures of Icahabod and Mr. Toad."

Though he would be a contracted Disney animator for what he estimates was three decades, World War II interrupted his newfound career. During the war, Shaw served as a U.S. Army Signal Corpsman. He worked in Southeast Asia in the combat photography unit, where he directed a documentary film about the Burma Campaign.

Following his love for travel and culture, he also took a job as a cartoonist and art editor at the Stars and Stripes newspaper in Shanghai.


Hanging in Shaw's gallery is the original patent for Howdy Doody, created by Shaw and his business partner, Bob Allen. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Resolve to never be tied down

The war allowed Shaw a way to see the world. He's been everywhere - and the pastel drawings framed in his gallery prove it. Like photographs, his drawings show women walking with baskets on their heads in Kolkata, India. He drew the collection of huts built high like towers in middle of an African lake so the residents couldn't be captured and sold as slaves.

Of everything he's done, travel is what Shaw says is his biggest accomplishment.

Traveling was also one way he kept from getting wrapped up in the politics that were already surrounding Hollywood and the Disney Corporation.

Shaw's grandson, Paul Gessell, who is helping Shaw with Mel Shaw Studios, says his grandfather was always careful to never let himself be tied down.

"He never really stuck with one company. He was there (at Disney) in the beginning," Gessell said. "He understood the politics and never wanted to be put in a position where he would lose control."


Shaw was given credit for his illustrations in the children's book, "Bambi." It was rare for artists to be given credit on Disney projects. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

Strings attached - the right way

After the war, Shaw entertained his other interests, and tried his hand at business management, with an added creative twist, of course. He went into business with MGM Studios' former animator Bob Allen. Shaw and Allen were designers for Metlox, the company known for its brightly colored dinnerware, cookie jars and tea pots.

In 1948, Allen-Shaw Associates were asked to sketch ideas for the popular Howdy Doody, the smiling, freckle-faced marionette that was the face of a popular NBC children's show.

In Shaw's Acampo gallery, the official patent and figure of the puppet in a plaid shirt, rolled-up pant legs and clunky boots hangs with push pins on the wall. The patent is dated Jan. 3, 1950.


Shaw's early sketches of Mr. Toad, a character from "Wind in the Willows." (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

The art of storytelling

While he had worked on projects with Disney, it was in the '70s that he did most of his animation for the company. Even if he wasn't in a main group of animators, he would still offer his ideas and story boards. For "Fox and the Hound," he sculpted models of each of the characters, with droopy eyes and human characteristics, so each of the animators could have an idea of what to sketch.

It didn't matter how involved he became, the story has always been his favorite part of the job.

"I like the very beginning - putting a story and characters into motion," Shaw said.

Times have changed since Shaw was the 14-year-old aspiring cowboy. Cartoons are now made on computer, and don't need detailed hand-drawn illustrations.

It's been a while since Shaw has done animation. He still sketches and paints regularly, but the last film he helped animate from his second story Acampo studio was "Beauty and the Beast," released in 1991.

Now, he's taking time to get back to his roots. He's spending time with his family, enjoys almost-daily breakfast at Country Cafe in Lockeford, is moving to a smaller home, starting a new business of selling prints and mentoring aspiring artists.

Colby Holden, 18, a former Lodi High student, has been mentored by Shaw for a year. He's taught him skills to improve his sketching and painting. But the most important thing Holden has learned is about creative vision.

"The biggest thing (Shaw) has taught me is that when you're sketching, it's what you see - not what someone else sees," Holden said.

MEL SHAW AT A GLANCE
Age: 93
Home: Acampo
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Childhood dream: To be a cowboy.
Disney movies he worked on: "Beauty and the Beast," "The Fox and the Hound," "The Rescuers," "Bambi," "The Great Mouse Detective," "The Black Cauldron" and "The Lion King."
Wife: Florence Lounsbery, who died in the 1970s.
Awards: Named Disney Legend in 2004, nominated for Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1987 for "The Great Mouse Detective," nationally ranked polo player.

Mel Shaw Studios
Mel Shaw is working on his latest business venture, Mel Shaw Studios. The company will allow admirers of his work to purchase hundreds of prints of his original works. Look for gallery showings and events in and around Lodi at http://www.MelShawStudios.net">http://www.MelShawStudios.net, which is scheduled to be up and running this summer.

A life fulfilled

In his gallery (it and the chateau were designed by his late wife and architect Florence Lounsbery), walls are made of dark wood recycled from the barn that inhabited the Acampo property when he and Lounsbery first moved to Northern California. Whether they are singing, fluttering, fat birds in "Bambi" or paintings that sprouted from his love of history - like the painting of the journey Juan Cabrillo made up the California Coast to claim Cabrillo Beach or his hand-painted faux tapestries of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede - his massive collection is an open diary into more than 80 years of Shaw's legacy, travels and lessons.

Near the gallery entrance is a black and white photo in which Shaw works on a mural of muscular centaurs playing polo. The painting now hangs in his gallery, as does the matching, hand-sculpted bronze statue.

In the photo, the 19-year-old Shaw looks tall and lean even while he sits at table covered entirely by his color palette. He holds three long paintbrushes in one hand. His tie is loosened and his sleeves are rolled up to his forearm.

Seventy-four years later, Shaw looks at the photo, half-smiling at the memory of adventures he's had since he won that first soap-carving scholarship. The days of cowboys are long gone. Mentors and friends like Walt Disney and Bob Allen have passed away. He never became that doctor.

But does he have any regrets?

"It's not possible. I've done too many varied things," Shaw said, fingering the silver paintbrush on his Disney Legend trophy. "I seemed to have gotten involved with a swirling world of changes."

And he wouldn't have illustrated it any other way.

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