Animator and story man Mel Shaw has been called one of Disney’s “elder statesmen” of animation. Walt Disney, who personally recruited Mel to join his team, observed another side. During his early polo playing days, Mel first met Walt at the field, where Walt announced, “You ride like a wild Indian!” And thus, the door opened for Mel to infuse his passion into Disney animation.
Born Melvin Schwartzman in Brooklyn on December 19, 1914, Mel discovered his artistic bent at age 10, when selected as one of only 30 children from the state of New York to participate in the Student Art League Society. Two years later, his soap sculpture of a Latino with a pack mule won second prize in a Procter & Gamble soap carving contest, earning the young artist national notoriety.
In 1928, his family moved to Los Angeles, where Mel attended high school and entered a scholarship class at Otis Art Institute. But the teen had an itch to become a cowboy and ran away from home to work on a Utah ranch.
After four months of backbreaking work, he returned home and took a job creating title cards for silent movies at Pacific Titles, owned by Leon Schlesinger. With help from Schlesinger, two former Disney animators, Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, had made a deal with Warner Bros. and soon Mel joined Harman-Ising Studios as animator, character designer, story man, and director. While there, he worked with Orson Welles storyboarding a live-action/animated version of The Little Prince.
In 1937, Mel arrived at Disney, contributing to Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), and The Wind in the Willows, which later became a segment in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
His Disney career was interrupted by World War II, when Mel served the U.S. Army Signal Corps as a filmmaker under Lord Lewis Mountbatten, helping produce films including a live action/animated documentary of the Burma campaign. He also served as art editor and cartoonist for the Stars and Stripes newspaper in Shanghai.
After the War, he ventured into business with Bob Allen, former MGM Studios animator. As Allen-Shaw Productions, Mel designed and created the original Howdy Doody marionette puppet for NBC; illustrated the first Bambi children’s book for Disney; and designed children’s toys, architecture, and even master plans for cities, including Century City, California.
In 1974, The Walt Disney Studios called upon Mel to help in the transition between retiring animators and the next generation of Disney artists. Mel offered skill and knowledge to such Disney motion pictures as The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and more.
Mel completed his autobiography Animator on Horseback at his home in Acampo, California. He passed away on November 22, 2012, in Reseda, California.