John Hench was Disney’s Renaissance artist. Imagineer, philosopher, animator, designer, storyteller, voracious reader (52 magazines a month!), and teacher, John was always quick to share the lessons he learned from his own mentor—Walt Disney.
He recalled one of those lessons: “Walt always said, ‘You get down to Disneyland at least twice a month and you walk in the front entrance, don’t walk in through the back. Eat with the people. Watch how they react to the work you’ve done down there.’ This made an enormous difference in how we approached our work.”
As senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, John carried on Walt’s ideals and standards. Sandy Huskins, his assistant and confidante for more than 25 years, once said:
“Sometimes John says, ‘Tomorrow, we’re going to the Park,’ and we’ll go down, stand in line, and pretend we’re guests. I always come back with a full load of notes.”
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1908, John attended the Art Students League in New York City and received a scholarship to Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. He also attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.
In 1939, he joined Disney as a sketch artist in the story department, working first on Fantasia. Always eager to learn, John accepted a variety of tasks over the years, including painting backgrounds on Dumbo and creating layouts for The Three Caballeros. His other film credits include art supervision on Make Mine Music, cartoon art treatments for So Dear To My Heart, color and styling for Peter Pan, and animation effects for The Living Desert.
In 1954, his special effects work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea earned John an Oscar®. That same year, he left the Studio to work at what is today known as Walt Disney Imagineering. His first assignment was to design attractions for the original Tomorrowland in Disneyland.
Later, in 1960, John worked closely with Walt in developing the pageantry for the opening and closing ceremonies and daily presentations for the VIII Winter Olympic Games at Squaw Valley, as well as designing the iconic Olympic Torch. John worked on attractions for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, before going on to help master plan Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland. He was a key figure in the conceptualization and creation of Epcot Center, and developed ideas for theme parks including Disney’s California Adventure, Animal Kingdom, and Tokyo DisneySea.
John was also Mickey Mouse’s official corporate portrait artist, having painted Mickey’s portrait for his 25th (1953), 50th (1978), 60th (1988), 70th (1998), and 75th (2003) birthdays.
In 2004, John celebrated his 65th year with the company. He passed away on February 5, 2004, in Burbank, still working full-time for Disney at age 95.