Russell Schroeder has a long history with the Disney company as both an animator and a musician. Now retired, he’s taken on several projects that are sure to delight Disney Music fans (including myself!).
DMB: Russell, tell us a little bit about your family background, education and musical training.
Russell: I was born in Queens, New York in 1943 and lived there until 1957 when my family moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. I studied art in high school, but didn’t pursue that into college, where I majored in literature and minored in teaching.
Disney had been a part of my life since I was quite young. These were the days before television had invaded people’s homes, so the Disney films were only available in movie theaters. It impressed me how pleased my mother was to take me to them, particularly with the re-releases of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, which had so delighted her when they had first come out.
Most of the storybooks and comic books that I received were Disney publications and I often drew my own versions of the characters. By the time Peter Pan premiered in 1953, I had gotten it into my head that I would be a Disney artist one day.
By this time I had become a determined Disney collector: books, puzzles, records, and coinciding with the release of Lady and the Tramp in 1955, sheet music. Several years before, I had received a couple of piano lessons, but only learned to read the notes in the treble clef. Still, with that rudimentary knowledge I was able to peck out a song’s melody with one finger. But the Lady and the Tramp music folio threw me a curve. The melody for “Peace on Earth” began with a single note in the bass clef. I asked my mother to show me that note and from that point on developed my ability to where I could play full song arrangements.
DMB: How did you first come to work for the Walt Disney Company?
Russell: Following graduation from college, I began teaching English in junior high school in St. Petersburg. It was exciting when Walt and Roy Disney came to Florida in the mid-60s and announced their plans to develop property in the Orlando area. In the late 1960s Dave Smith was beginning his research at the Disney Studio that would lead to his founding the Walt Disney Archives. He had noticed my name mentioned as a collector of Disney books and got in touch with me. A regular correspondence began at that point, re-awakening in me my hope to work for the Disney Company.
So in the months prior to Walt Disney World opening, I applied for a job, willing to accept anything that might be offered. That turned out to be working in the marinas of the Contemporary and Polynesian Resort Hotels.
DMB: How long were you with Disney and what were some of the jobs and projects you worked on?
Russell: My hire date was September 5, 1971, a month before the Walt Disney World property opened. Since I would be working on a cash register at the hotel marinas, I had to take a cash handling class that was conducted by the Merchandise Division, located over the Emporium on Main Street. Much to my surprise I saw a small art department tucked in a corner of the floor which was a large open area containing buyers and secretaries. I wandered over and met with the manager, Ralph Kent, and asked if I could bring in samples of some of the Disney art I had been doing at home for blue-sky projects of my own, some comic book pages and book illustrations. I wanted him to tell me if he saw enough ability in my work to see if I should go to art school for formal training. I was fortunate that in Ralph I had just happened to find a kindred spirit. He, too, had wanted to be a Disney artist since he was a youngster. As I later observed, he also cared very much about the company and was dedicated to making sure the characters were drawn properly, that they were presented appropriately, and, when applied to merchandise, they really functioned as something that could be enjoyed. At that first meeting he told me he would take me into the art department and train me there, in spite of my having no formal training or on-the-job experience.
I remained working in the hotels for nine months, until Ralph could secure an open position for me. Ironically that turned out to be as a window display trimmer, since that group also fell under Ralph’s control. But I never went near a window! I was given a desk in the art department where theme park merchandise was being designed and began training. One of the primary challenges was learning to outline character pencil drawings with a brush and ink, since many items of merchandise required that type art. After a year or so my job description was classified as artist, even though I had been fulfilling that role all along.
One of the many pluses about working in Merchandising Art was the variety of assignments that came our way because we were actually an art service for all the areas of the Walt Disney World property. We handled marketing materials, restaurant menus, special projects designed solely for employees, and requests from the costuming area, as well as merchandise. Many artistic skills were needed in the department. I was a part of the small group that handled the Disney characters in the style relating to the animated films. Depending on a particular job’s needs, we could draw from the entire cast of Disney characters from the earliest days on.
As a Disney fan and collector, I approached each job with the idea of what type things I would like to see. It always pleased me when many years after one of my designs had been produced I might see it displayed in someone’s house. A couple of things that stand out for me are the Snow White candy tin that was sold for many years and the Alice in Wonderland tea set and its box design, both of which were given to me to develop however I wished, the buyers not specifying any particular subject. I also designed the set of Fantasia figurines that were produced by Hagen-Renaker. That hadn’t even been a real assignment, just something I had wanted to see, so I worked with Perry Russ, the sculptor at the desk next to me, and we showed the plaster models we had come up with to the buyer to see if she was interested. It took a while to convince her to have them manufactured, but she eventually did, and their immediate popularity was quite satisfying.
Another highlight of our work at Walt Disney World was when I, and another of the character artists, Don Williams, were involved in the design of Mickey’s Birthdayland, a Marketing project that was supposed to be a temporary (1988-1990) addition to Fantasyland. Previously I had designed a fast food container designed to represent Mickey’s house. That became the starting point for the Mickey house that was built for guests to walk through. Don and I designed the interior and exterior of Mickey’s house, Mickey’s car, character elements that would be visible to guests as they rode the train around Frontierland on the way to Mickey’s Birthdayland, as well as photo locations where guests could step into a comic book cover scene. This project was on a very tight schedule, so much so, that there were times in project meetings when someone might ask what would such and such a thing look like and if Don or I made a quick sketch simply to give them an idea, that was snatched away and turned over to the staff shops for manufacturing. Mickey’s Birthdayland opened on time, thanks to the many people around the company in the fiberglass shops, the painting shops, decorating department, engineers, entertainment division, and others who worked to make it all happen.
In the early 1990s I transferred to the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank as director of the Publishing Art Department, where the art and editorial staff reviewed all the material for domestic publications, as well as the occasional international book.
Beginning in 1995 I was moved over to Feature Animation to assist the producer of Pocahontas with the review of the books being prepared to come out with the film’s release. When I first joined the Publishing Division about 25 books were being prepared to come out with each new animated feature. Because of the successes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, that number had increased to over 50 for Pocahontas. Because the movie’s producer was expected to review and approve the writing and art for each film, along with creative concerns and making sure all the elements of the movie were coming together on schedule, I was asked to help oversee the books and streamline the approval process for the producer. One of the challenges of book production was that they had to be planned and printed during the last year of the film’s production schedule in order to be in bookstores at the time of the movie’s release. And during that last year, the movie kept going through changes, adding or deleting sequences, so I was on the spot to be aware of those changes so that books could best reflect the finished film. Another thing that had changed during those years was that the international releases of Disney animated films, which used to follow the domestic release by a year, were now coinciding with the domestic release.
Previously the foreign publishing units could see a completed film on which to base their publishing programs. Now they had to be kept up to date with the evolving film on the same schedule as the United States publishers. So I also had to give assistance with some of the foreign books.
I remained in that role in Feature Animation until my retirement 1n 1999.
My work for the Disney Company had actually begun before I had been officially hired as an employee. Before leaving teaching I had started freelancing comic book stories for the Studio’s overseas comics program. I wrote the scripts and created rough layouts of the comic pages. I had also written a story for Little Golden Books to come out during Walt Disney World’s first year of operation, Pluto and the Adventure of the Golden Scepter.
While in the Studio’s Publications Division, I had also written a few books. One of these was an idea that Ken Shue and I discussed about producing a book about Walt Disney that would be more about him as a person, rather than just looking at his accomplishments as a movie producer and creator of Disneyland. We realized that by that time, for many, the name Walt Disney designated a company, rather than a person. I contacted Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller, explaining our approach and asking if she would write the introduction. She readily agreed. Unfortunately, the Publishing Division scaled back Ken’s and my original vision of an elaborate coffee table-type book to a more modest-sized volume, which we titled Walt Disney: His Life in Pictures. Diane was pleased and when she was planning the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, she asked for a new printing of the book to serve as an introduction to Walt Disney for young people. A few years after our book had been released, others received the go-ahead to come out with handsome volumes about Walt, books that have been welcomed by Disney fans, myself included. Still, it’s nice to think that we may have helped set the pattern for that type book.
While I was in Feature Animation I had the opportunity to assist the Walt Disney Music Company with their sheet music folios that were coming out with the new films. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that connection would lead me to one of my major occupations during retirement.
DMB: When did your interest in Disney Music (and its preservation) begin?
Russell: As mentioned earlier, I had started collecting Disney sheet music when I was twelve. In fact when each new animated film was announced, one of the things I looked forward to was the new songs that would appear. Sheet music stores were quite prevalent at the time and in addition to the Disney music that was already on their shelves, I would give them lists of titles to back-order for me. Many older pieces came to me that way. I then supplemented that source by writing directly to the music publishers and ordering older pieces directly from them. I was fortunate that this was occurring before the collecting craze and ensuing premium pricing, and I only had to pay the current sheet music value of fifty or sixty cents. By those methods I was beginning to amass an almost complete collection of Disney sheet music, beginning with “Minnie’s Yoo-Hoo” from 1930.
One of the Disney art departments I was in had a booklet of all the songs owned by Disney’s own publishing companies, Walt Disney Music Company and Wonderland Music, Inc. In addition to all the familiar titles from movies, television, and Disneyland, were listed songs that had been written for the movies but never used. That was intriguing. What did these deleted songs by Frank Churchill, Larry Morey, Leigh Harline, and others sound like, and why hadn’t they been used? Knowing my interest in Disney music, the folks in the Music Library gave me permission to search their files and storage areas for these pieces that had become all but forgotten. I made copies and began playing them at home realizing how much a part of the early planning of an animated movie the music scores were, since many of the songs dated years before the film was ever released. Who would have expected that a film like Alice in Wonderland, released in 1951, already had songs being planned and composed in 1939!
Further research in the Walt Disney Archives produced story meeting transcripts, memos, and other material that shed further light on the creation of the music scores. And trips to the Animation Research Library, that treasure house of storyboard sketches, inspirational art, and rough and clean-up animation drawings, helped fill in information about the songs from a visual standpoint.
DMB: Tell us about your folio projects and the beginnings of the “Lost Chord” books.
Russell: I had amassed a tremendous amount of material that was personally found very enjoyable. But I knew as much as I enjoyed these deleted songs, other Disney music fans would also welcome them. I created a few mock-up pages of how I thought a collection of these songs might appear. I immediately dismissed usual sheet music book formats of just one song followed by another. I knew these songs, some of them for characters or storylines that hadn’t survived Disney’s exacting process of film production, would require some explanation to be fully enjoyed. And I wanted to incorporate as much art as possible that would further enhance their presentation. I approached Publishing about producing the book, but they didn’t see enough general appeal to it. And Disney’s music distributor, Hal Leonard, looked at the amount of writing and art and felt it really didn’t fit their usual format.
I still believed in the project’s viability and wanted the songs shared with others. So I approached the Walt Disney Music Company and asked if they would license me to publish the book. I said I would put the book together, which meant arranging some of the music, engraving them, writing the text, and designing the book. I also agreed to pay all music and Disney art licensing fees and to pay for printing. I established my own printing imprint Voigt Publications based on my mother’s maiden name.
A second volume of Disney’s Lost Chords followed. And recently I have been producing folios of music that was used in the Disney films, but for the most part have never been available as sheet music. Most of these have been vocal/piano arrangements of the entire music score from 1930s Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons. While the Lost Chords series used mostly archival art, for the folios, I have had the added fun in creating special cover art for the folios that I hope captures the style of sheet music produced in the 1930s.
DMB: Are there any plans for future projects?
Russell: As I am writing this, I am also putting together a third collection of Lost Chords songs.
DMB: What is it about Disney music that speaks to you, personally?
Russell: I really can’t remember a time when Disney music was not part of my life. In that I am not unique. As a youngster, the songs were so much a part of the storyline, characters, and spirit of the movies, it was impossible not to get caught up in them. Children’s records were a way to keep the movie imagery alive. When Disneyland records began releasing soundtrack recordings of the films’ songs and background scores, it provided an additional way of listening to the nuances of Disney music and what it has accomplished.
DMB: Any parting words of encouragement?
Russell: Working for Disney was a goal I had first entertained when I was ten. I feel I’ve been fortunate that most of my working life has been spent doing something I enjoy. At Disney I met many people who also had shared that same childhood hope. They worked hard at developing their talents so that they could make those dreams a reality.
DMB: Russell, thank you so much for your time. What a fascinating and amazing history you have with the Walt Disney Company! Please keep on pursuing these musical projects!
Check out the graphic below for information on you can order Russell’s various projects. They’re wonderful! Tell them you read about him on the Disney Music Blog!