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John Culhane 1934-2015

John Culhane 1934-2015

John Culhane, a
veteran journalist, author, Disney animation historian, and inspiration for the
characters of Mr. Snoops in the 1977 Disney animated feature, The
Rescuers
and Flying John in the Rhapsody in Blue segment of Fantasia/2000, passed away at his home in Dobbs Ferry, New York on
July 30th from complications due to cardiac failure and Alzheimer’s disease. He
was 81 years old. 

The following is excerpted from a biography of Culhane prepared by the Walt Disney Studios.

Culhane distinguished
himself as a writer for the Chicago Daily News and as Media Editor at Newsweek,
and went on to have a successful career as a freelance writer for such
prestigious publications as The New York Times Magazine, Readers
Digest
, Saturday Review, Signature, and American Film.   His acclaimed books on the subject of Disney
animation include: Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1983), Aladdin: The Making
of an Animated Film
(1992), and Fantasia/2000: Visions of Hope
(1999). For over four decades, Culhane inspired many up-and-coming animation
students as a teacher through his spirited classes on the history of animation
at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of
Technology, Mercy College in Westchester County, and New York University’s
Tisch School of the Arts.

In addition to his literary contributions to the art of animation,
Culhane also wrote acclaimed books about the circus (The American Circus: An
Illustrated History
), and special effects (Special Effects in the
Movies: How They Do It: Dazzling Movie Magic and the Artists Who Create It
).

Commenting on
Culhane’s passing, Oscar-winning filmmaker and animation historian/author/professor
John Canemaker said, “John Culhane was an extraordinarily communicative
teacher. In 1997, I hired him to teach History
of Animation
at NYU Tisch School of the Arts.  For nearly a dozen years thereafter,
John’senthusiasm for,and knowledge of, the subject captured not only his
students’ attention, but also their imaginations.  He dazzled an always-packed classroom with
tales ofhis first-hand journalistic experiences meeting giants of animation
(including Walt Disney). He was magical, unorthodox in his teaching methods in
bringing animation history to vital life. 
More than one student each fall semester sent me evaluations saying that
John’s warmth, ebullience and supremely positive approach to life, changed their lives.”

Veteran Disney
animator and director Eric Goldberg (“Fantasia/2000,”
“Pocahontas”), added, “John Culhane was an ardent, enthusiastic and informed supporter of
animation in general, and Disney animation in particular – no surprise, given
his pedigree. He was also a good friend and great cheerleader to my wife and
collaborator, Susan, and to me, and our various projects at Disney – so much
so, that we paid him the compliment of caricaturing him as the character
‘Flying John’ in our ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ sequence for ‘Fantasia/2000.’ He
previously had the honor of being given the Disney treatment as the character
‘Snoops’ in ‘The Rescuers.’ It
gave us great pleasure to continue meeting with him over the years, and to
receive hand-written letters from him signed, ‘Flying John.'”

Don Hahn, producer of such popular films as “The Lion
King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Maleficent,”
noted, “John’s ceaseless enthusiasm for animation was a natural match for
his personality; one of the most animated men ever to stand at the corner of
Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive.   How lucky we are to have known him,
and been affected by his insights into the art of Disney, and by his witty, charming,
loving spirit.”

John Culhane was born in Rockford, Illinois on February 7,
1934.  At the age of 17, during a trip to
California, he was introduced to his idol, Walt Disney, by Walt’s daughter,
Diane, and over the course of a conversation that lasted several hours, he got
the best advice of his lifetime.  Walt
told the aspiring writer, “Work for your hometown newspaper, write for
your neighbors — and just keep widening your circle.”  After a Jesuit education at St. Louis
University, he went back to his hometown and became a reporter and daily columnist
for the Rockford Register-Republic
This was followed by a stint as an investigative reporter for the Chicago
Daily News
.  He went on to become Media
Editor at Newsweek, and a Roving Editor at Readers Digest.  For the latter, he wrote a series of intimate
profiles (part of the “Unforgettable” series) that included such
major personalities as Jim Henson, Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, and Emmett
Kelly, among others.  He also penned over
20 articles for the New York Times Magazine, including landmark pieces about
Disney animation that gave unprecedented recognition to Walt Disney’s
“Nine Old Men,” as well as to the Studio’s next generation of artists
and animators in the 1990s.

Culhane was enlisted by Disney’s publicity department on
several occasions to help mark milestone events.  In 1973, he moderated a celebration of the
Disney Studios’ 50th anniversary at Lincoln Center in New York.  Five years later, he was tapped to lead the
50th birthday celebration for Mickey Mouse, by embarking on a multi-city, whistle-stop
train trip from California to New York with Mickey and legendary animator Ward
Kimball.  In 1981, Culhane was the host
for a series of college campus forums across the country promoting a new slate
of Disney films including “Tron,” “The Black Hole” and
“The Black Cauldron.”  In 1983,
he wrote and starred in “Backstage at Disney,” an episode of The
Disney Channel’s “Studio Showcase,” which included a behind the
scenes glimpse of a young Tim Burton working on his first film, the stop-motion
animated short, “Vincent.”

He also worked as an uncredited writer on the 1983 Disney
live-action feature, “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” and with
Oscar-winning animation director Richard Williams on the feature, “The
Thief and the Cobbler.”

In a 1976 article for an in-house Studio publication, Culhane
explained how he came to be the model for the character of “Mr.
Snoops” in “The Rescuers.” “While snooping around the
Disney Studio on previous assignments, I had gotten to know Milt Kahl, a master
animator who also designed many of the characters in the Disney cartoons.  In May, 1973, Milt gave a guest lecture to a
class I was teaching and agreed to draw a poster to announce the event.  In the poster, he caricatured both himself
and me.  When Milt got back to the
Studio, the artists working on ‘The Rescuers’ 
were searching for a look for one of the villains.  In the script he was described as nervous,
indecisive, and domineered by Medusa. 
The short-legged fellow with Milt in the poster looked to director
Woolie Reitherman like that kind of guy, and they named him, after my
profession, ‘Mr. Snoops.’  Even before I
saw him on the screen, I realized that Snoops did indeed look like me because,
wherever I went in the Disney Studio that year, artists passing me in the halls
would do a double take, then say to each other, ‘It’s him, all right — it’s
Mr. Snoops.'”

Among his other credits, Culhane collaborated with his late
cousin, veteran animator Shamus Culhane, on three animated primetime television
specials for NBC: “Noah’s Animals,” “King of the Beasts,”
“and “Last of the Red Hot Dragons” (for which he also supplied
the dragon’s voice.”

Culhane is survived by his wife of nearly 55 years, Dr. Hind
Rassam Culhane of Baghdad, Iraq,  (a former
dean of the school of sociology and behavoiral sciences at Mercy College,NY), and
two sons — Michael Culhane, a Los Angeles-based songwriter, music producer,
and performer (and his wife Amy Weingartner, a writer and formerDisney
publishing editor), and Dr. T. H. Culhane, professor of sustainable development
at Mercy College (and his wife, Sybille and their children, Kilian and Ava.)  Other survivors include brother Dick and his
wife Lee, sister Mary Ella Stone and husband David, sister Libby Keating and
husband Joe, brother Mark and his wife Cheryl. 
Funeral services were held on Monday, August 3, at Our Lady of Pompeii
in Dobbs Ferry, NY.  Plans for a life
celebration will be announced at a later date.

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