Artist Harper Goff first met Walt Disney in 1951 at the Bassett-Lowke Ltd. Shop in London; they were both interested in purchasing the same model train set. Harper later recalled that meeting:
“He turned to me and said, ‘I’m Walt Disney. Are you the man that wanted to buy this engine?’ Well, I almost fell over. He asked me what I do for a living, and I told him that I was an artist. He said, ‘When you get back to America, come and talk to me.’”
Ultimately, Walt bought the locomotive, while Harper embarked on an exciting journey developing motion picture and Imagineering projects for The Walt Disney Company.
Among Harper’s designs was the menacing Nautilus submarine, complete with plush Victorian interiors, for the film 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. He also developed conceptual ideas for Disneyland, including Main Street, U.S.A. and the Jungle Cruise and worked closely with Walt throughout the design and construction phases of the Park.
Born on March 16, 1911, in Fort Collins, Colorado, Harper later moved with his family to Santa Ana, California. He attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and lived in New York for a time, working as a magazine illustrator for publications including Collier’s, Esquire, and National Geographic.
He returned to the west coast to work as a set designer for Warner Bros. on such films as Sergeant York, Casablanca, Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Errol Flynn classic Captain Blood. Later, he served as associate producer and art director for The Vikings, starring Kirk Douglas, and as art director for Pete Kelly’s Blues and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Initially, Walt hired Harper to sketch storyboards for a True-Life Adventures short called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Instead, Harper designed sketches for a potential feature film he envisioned, based on the Jules Verne novel by the same title. After Walt studied the eight 4’ x 8’ storyboards that Harper had filled with imaginative designs, The Walt Disney Studios produced its first all live-action film made in the United States. In 1955, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea won Oscars® for art direction and special effects.
In his spare time, when not tinkering with his model trains, Harper played banjo with the “Firehouse Five Plus Two” Dixieland jazz band, made up of Disney artists including fellow Disney Legends Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas. In 1975 Harper also contributed to Epcot Center, designing the layout of the World Showcase, and designing concepts for the Japan, Italy, and United Kingdom Pavilions.
Harper Goff passed away on March 3, 1993, in Los Angeles.