Among the stable of “enormous” talents at the Walt Disney Studio, Claude Coats stood above the rest—literally. Claude, a background painter, color stylist, and concept designer, stood 6-feet, 6-inches tall. The gentle giant with a warm wit once recalled how Walt used to kid him about his height. Claude said:
“When the Disneyland Stagecoach was completed at the Studio, Walt and a driver were giving rides around the lot, but he wouldn’t let me get in. He said I spoiled the scale.”
Born January 17, 1913, in San Francisco, California, Claude graduated from the University of Southern California in 1934 with an architecture and fine arts degree. He went on to study at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles before joining the Walt Disney Studio as a background painter in June 1935.
The stunning watercolor background paintings Claude created for Pinocchio continue to be heralded by Disney scholars, fans, and art collectors for the rich and textured beauty they lend to the classic film. He also developed backgrounds and color stylings for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Dumbo, Saludos Amigos, Victory Through Air Power, The Three Caballeros, Make Mine Music, Melody Time, Song of the South, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Fun and Fancy Free, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Lady and the Tramp.
In 1955, Claude was one of the elite artists and designers Walt selected to help bring Disneyland to life. As a show designer, he was part of the development team for the Grand Canyon and Primeval World dioramas, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and Submarine Voyage, among others. Claude also contributed to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair attractions, including Magic Skyway, Carousel of Progress, and it’s a small world.
He later helped conceptualize the Magic Kingdom’s Mickey Mouse Revue at Walt Disney World and numerous attractions for Epcot Center, including Universe of Energy, World of Motion, Horizons, and several World Showcase pavilions. For Tokyo Disneyland, he helped design Meet the World and the Cinderella Castle Mystery Tour.
After a long and happy 54 years with Disney, Claude retired in November 1989. As Walt Disney Imagineering President and Disney Legend Marty Sklar later recalled, “Claude paved the way in turning sketches and paintings into three-dimensional adventures. His energy, curiosity, and drive to create new experiences for our Disney park guests made him a leader and a teacher for all of us. He was a genuine one-of-a-kind.”
Claude Coats passed away on January 9, 1992, in Los Angeles.