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John Culhane, Disney Animation Historian, Dies at 81

John Culhane, a journalist, author, Disney animation historian and inspiration for the characters of Mr. Snoops in the 1977 Disney animated feature “The Rescuers” and Flying John in the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment of “Fantasia/2000,” died at his home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., on July 30 from complications due to cardiac failure and Alzheimer’s disease. He was 81.

Culhane was a writer for the Chicago Daily News and media editor at Newsweek, and later was a freelance writer for publications including the New York Times Magazine and American Film.

His books on Disney animation include “Walt Disney’s Fantasia” (1983), “Aladdin: The Making of an Animated Film” (1992) “and Fantasia/2000: Visions of Hope” (1999). Culhane also wrote books about the circus (“The American Circus: An Illustrated History”), and special effects (“Special Effects in the Movies: How They Do It: Dazzling Movie Magic and the Artists Who Create It”).

For more than four decades, Culhane inspired many up-and-coming animation students as a teacher through his spirited classes on the history of animation at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Mercy College in Westchester County, and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

He also worked as an uncredited writer on the 1983 Disney live-action feature “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and with Oscar-winning animation director Richard Williams on the feature “The Thief and the Cobbler.”

Commenting on Culhane’s passing, Oscar-winning filmmaker and animation historian John Canemaker said, “John Culhane was an extraordinarily communicative teacher. In 1997, I hired him to teach History of Animation at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. For nearly a dozen years thereafter, John’s enthusiasm for,and knowledge of, the subject captured not only his students’ attention, but also their imaginations. He dazzled an always-packed classroom with tales of his first-hand journalistic experiences meeting giants of animation (including Walt Disney). He was magical, unorthodox in his teaching methods in bringing animation history to vital life. More than one student each fall semester sent me evaluations saying that John’s warmth, ebullience and supremely positive approach to life changed their lives.”

Disney animator and director Eric Goldberg (“Fantasia/2000,” “Pocahontas”) said: “John Culhane was an ardent, enthusiastic and informed supporter of animation in general, and Disney animation in particular – no surprise, given his pedigree. He was also a good friend and great cheerleader to my wife and collaborator, Susan, and to me, and our various projects at Disney – so much so, that we paid him the compliment of caricaturing him as the character Flying John in our ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ sequence for ‘Fantasia/2000.’ He previously had the honor of being given the Disney treatment as the character ‘Snoops’ in ‘The Rescuers Down Under.’ It gave us great pleasure to continue meeting with him over the years, and to receive hand-written letters from him signed, ‘Flying John.'”

Culhane was born in Rockford, Illinois. At age 17, during a trip to California, he was introduced to his idol, Walt Disney, by Walt’s daughter, Diane, and over the course of a conversation that lasted several hours, he got the best advice of his lifetime. Walt told the aspiring writer, “Work for your hometown newspaper, write for your neighbors — and just keep widening your circle.” After a Jesuit education at St. Louis University, he went back to his hometown and became a reporter and daily columnist for the Rockford Register-Republic. This was followed by a stint as an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily News. He went on to become media editor at Newsweek, and a roving editor at Readers Digest. For the latter, he wrote a series of intimate profiles (part of the “Unforgettable” series) that included such personalities as Jim Henson, Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier and Emmett Kelly.

He also penned more than 20 articles for the New York Times Magazine, including pieces about Disney animation that gave unprecedented recognition to Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” as well as to the Studio’s next generation of artists and animators in the 1990s.

Culhane was enlisted by Disney’s publicity department on several occasions to help mark milestone events. In 1973, he moderated a celebration of the Disney Studios’ 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center in New York. Five years later, he was tapped to lead the 50th birthday celebration for Mickey Mouse by embarking on a multi-city, whistle-stop train trip from California to New York with Mickey and legendary animator Ward Kimball. In 1981 Culhane was the host for a series of college campus forums across the country promoting Disney films including “Tron,” “The Black Hole” and “The Black Cauldron.” In 1983 he wrote and starred in “Backstage at Disney,” an episode of the Disney Channel’s “Studio Showcase,” which included a behind the scenes glimpse of a young Tim Burton working on his first film, the stop-motion animated short, “Vincent.”

In a 1976 article for an inhouse studio publication, Culhane explained how he came to be the model for the character of “Mr. Snoops” in “The Rescuers.” “While snooping around the Disney Studio on previous assignments, I had gotten to know Milt Kahl, a master animator who also designed many of the characters in the Disney cartoons. In May 1973, Milt gave a guest lecture to a class I was teaching and agreed to draw a poster to announce the event. In the poster, he caricatured both himself and me. When Milt got back to the Studio, the artists working on ‘The Rescuers’ were searching for a look for one of the villains. In the script he was described as nervous, indecisive and domineered by Medusa. The short-legged fellow with Milt in the poster looked to director Woolie Reitherman like that kind of guy, and they named him, after my profession, ‘Mr. Snoops.’ Even before I saw him on the screen, I realized that Snoops did indeed look like me because, wherever I went in the Disney Studio that year, artists passing me in the halls would do a double take, then say to each other, ‘It’s him, all right — it’s Mr. Snoops.'”

Among his other credits, Culhane collaborated with his late cousin, veteran animator Shamus Culhane, on three animated primetime television specials for NBC: “Noah’s Animals,” “King of the Beasts,” “and “Last of the Red Hot Dragons” (for which he also supplied the dragon’s voice).

Culhane is survived by his wife of nearly 55 years, Dr. Hind Rassam Culhane of Baghdad, Iraq (a former dean of the school of sociology and behavioral sciences at Mercy College, N.Y.), and two sons — Michael Culhane, a Los Angeles-based songwriter, music producer and performer (and his wife Amy Weingartner, a writer and former Disney publishing editor), and Dr. T. H. Culhane, professor of sustainable development at Mercy College (and his wife, Sybille and their children, Kilian and Ava.) Other survivors include brothers Dick and Mark as well as sisters Mary Ella Stone and Libby Keating.

Plans for a life celebration will be announced at a later date.


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