Mel Shaw, a visual development artist, designer and writer who contributed to Disney animated features from “Bambi” through “The Lion King” and also helped design the Howdy Doody puppet for TV, died from congestive heart failure in Reseda, Calif, on Thursday, Nov. 22. He was 97.
Shaw did several stints at Disney starting in 1937 with early story and character design work on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” He went on to work on story and visual development for “Bambi” and “The Wind in the Willows” segment of “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.” He left the studio in 1941, but returned 33 years later to help influence the look and story for Disney’s “The Rescuers,” “The Fox and the Hound,” “The Great Mouse Detective,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”
Animation historian Charles Solomon observed, “Mel Shaw’s influence as an animation design artist extended over many decades and many studios. He worked with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising in the early days of both the Warner Bros. and MGM cartoon studios. At the beginning of World War II, he contributed designs to Orson Welles’ never-realized film of Saint-Exupery’s ‘The Little Prince.’ His best known artwork is the series of dramatic pastels in the title sequence of ‘The Rescuers’ (1977), showing the bottle containing Penny’s call for help riding stormy seas.”
Disney producer Don Hahn said, “Mel was on a short list of vanguard artists who would jump into a new film when it was still a blank piece of paper and with his stunning work he’d show us all the visual possibilities of the idea. I knew him as an artist first, but one day at lunch he started telling stories about playing polo with Walt and Spencer Tracy, followed by some amazing tales of shooting on Lord Mountbatten’s film crew during the war. He lived large and his contribution to film and animation is immeasurable.”
Melvin Schwartzman was born in Brooklyn but moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he entered a scholarship class at Otis Art Institute.
His first showbiz work was a job creating title cards for silent movies at Pacific Titles, owned by cartoon producer Leon Schlesinger. With help from Schlesinger, two former Disney animators — Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising — made a deal with Warner Bros., and Shaw joined Harman-Ising Studios as animator, character designer, storyman and director. While there, he worked with Orson Welles storyboarding a proposed live-action/animated version of “The Little Prince.”
Shaw’s work at the Walt Disney Studios was interrupted by WWII, when he served the U.S. Army Signal Corps as a filmmaker, helping produce films including a live-action/animated documentary about the Burma campaign. He also served as art director and cartoonist for the Stars & Stripes newspaper in Shanghai.
After the war, he went into business with Bob Allen, a former MGM Studios animator. At Allen-Shaw Prods., Shaw helped design and create the original Howdy Doody marionette for NBC, as well as children’s toys, dishes and figurines for Metlox.
In 1974, Walt Disney Animation Studios called Shaw in to help with the transition from the retiring animation team from Disney’s golden age to the next generation. Among his feature projects was the never-realized “Musicana,” a sequel to “Fantasia” comprised of stories and music from around the world.
Shaw’s family plans to publish his autobiography “Animators on Horseback” posthumously.
Shaw was married to Louise Harriet Shaw from 1938 until her death in 1984. He married Florence Lounsbery-Shaw (widow of Disney animation pioneer John Lounsbery) in 1985, and they were together until her passing in 2004.
Shaw is survived by two children from his first marriage, two stepsons and a stepdaughter, his brother and numerous grandchildren. Plans for a public life celebration will be announced shortly.