Blaine Gibson, Legendary Disney Sculptor, Dies at 97

Blaine Gibson, Walt Disney - H 2015
Courtesy Walt Disney Co.

Blaine Gibson, Walt Disney - H 2015

A former animator, his work was used to create figures for such theme park attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion.

Blaine Gibson, who launched his career at the Walt Disney Studios in 1939 in the animation department and went on to become an Imagineering superstar with his extraordinarily lifelike sculptures for Audio-Animatronics figures at the company's theme parks, has died. He was 97.

Gibson died on July 5 from age-related illness at his home in Montecito, Calif., according to Walt Disney Animation Studios vp communications Howard Green.

Gibson’s sculptures were used for such Disney theme park attractions as Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World and Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.

He also directed the sculpture of every U.S. president, up to George W. Bush in 2001, for The Hall of Presidents at Disney World in Orlando.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of such an incredibly talented artist and Disney Legend, yet we are very fortunate that his amazing work will continue to live on in our animated films and theme parks," Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Robert Iger said in a statement.

Born Feb. 11, 1918, in Rocky Ford, Colo., Gibson left college to join Disney in 1939. After working as an assistant animator on such films as Fantasia (1940) and Alice in Wonderland (1951), he took evening classes in sculpture at Pasadena City College. In 1954, Walt Disney himself saw one of Gibson’s exhibits and invited him to start working on his big new project: the Disneyland part in Anaheim.

Gibson divided his time between animation and sculpture until 1961, when he moved full-time to WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) to supervise the newly created sculpture department. He created hundreds of sculptures from which Audio-Animatronics figures were produced, first using a life mask of Abraham Lincoln to create a sculpture of the 16th president for the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York.

“My goal in sculpting is to render the uniqueness of an individual,” he once explained.

Though he retired in 1983, Gibson continued working on Disney-related projects for some time, including The Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and the Sharing the Magic statue of Roy O. Disney and Minnie Mouse seen at several Disney parks.

In 1993 — the year he became a Disney Legend — he sculpted the Partners statue of Walt and Mickey Mouse.

“I chose to depict Walt as he was in 1954 because I think that was when Walt was in his prime,” he once said. “It was tough trying to match the media image of Walt Disney, the one the public knows, to the real Walt, the one we knew.”

The original Partners statue, featuring Walt and Mickey standing hand-in-hand, can be seen at the Central Plaza inside Disneyland as well as at The Walt Disney Studios and at Disney parks around the world.

In a statement, Marty Sklar, former Walt Disney Imagineering creative executive, called Gibson “one of the most important storytellers among all the great talents on Walt Disney's team of Imagineers.”

“Blaine was a wonderful colleague, friend and teacher,” he added. “He showed all of us how to make show characters so realistic you never had to guess the role of any three-dimensional figure in our attractions.”

Gibson’s son, Wes, said that his father had watched a DVD of the Disney animated classic 101 Dalmatians (1961) with his grandson, Blaine, on the Fourth of July and offered anecdotes about working on the film (his last as a character animator before joining the Imagineers on a full-time basis).

They also watched a portion of Lady and the Tramp (1955), for which Gibson animated the scene in which Tramp says, “Ever chase chickens?”

Survivors also include his daughter-in-law, Mary Jo.

Plans for a life celebration in late summer will be announced. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in his honor to either the Ryman Arts Foundation or the Casa Dorinda Staff Scholarship Fund.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4