I had the privilege of talking with author and Disney veteran David Bossert about some of his work including his upcoming book on Disney Legend Claude Coats. In addition to a 30+ year career in Walt Disney Animation, Bossert is an accomplished author writing numerous books about the company including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: The Search for the Lost Cartoons, 3D Disneyland, and the soon-to-be released Claude Coats: Walt Disney’s Imagineer- The Making of Disneyland: From Toad Hall to the Haunted Mansion and Beyond.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. For our full, uncut discussion, check out the video at the bottom of the page!
Would you talk a bit about your background at Disney?
Sure. I actually worked for Walt Disney Animation Studios for just over 32 years. I started right before the Renaissance of Disney Animation began and exited at the tail end of that. I had a wild ride in between, and I actually got to meet Claude Coats early on in my career. I mentioned in my acknowledgments in the book and like so many of my books, it’s a serendipitous kind of situation as to how these books came about. With the Claude Coats book, I happened see Alan Coats. I didn’t know him but I wanted to talk with him and just let him know I had met his father and what a really nice guy his father was. And that was it. But at the end of that conversation, Alan asked if I’d be interested in writing the book on his father. It was kind of surprising that there was no book on Claude at that point. But I think you can gather from reading this book that he was more about being a team member. He wasn’t as outspoken or outgoing as some of the other early Imagineers. He was a little more of an introvert. When you read this book, you find out the amazing accomplishments by this guy. I was in awe of him when I first met him because of the background work he did in the early Disney animated films. When you look at the wishing well sequence in Snow White, or Geppetto’s workshop in Pinocchio. Even before those films you look at what he did on The Old Mill. The guy was just an incredible talent and that’s why it was an honor to be able to tell his story.
One of the things I love about it the book is all of the beautifully replicated drawings and illustrations that he did.
Yeah. I think one of the reasons why we wanted to put a gallery of his personal artwork at the back of the book was that we wanted people to be able to see the arc of his painting style from the 1930s to the 1980s. You got this half a century and while flipping the pages, you can literally see his painting style evolve and change. It’s a treat to be able to see all of that in one place.
Do you think that his humble personality contributed to the fact that there hasn’t been a lot written about him and there he isn’t quite as well known as some other Disney artists?
I definitely think that that’s the case. I mean, that happens throughout history with people who are more introverted or just want to be more in the background: you know less about them. That was the case with Claude. I mean, he had an incredible relationship with Walt Disney. He was one of the original Imagineers that Walt plucked from the Animation Department to help with Disneyland. He had the background in architecture and fine art to be able to do this kind of themed entertainment work. Walt Disney wasn’t a great artist. He was a great storyteller, but he was also, I think, an even better casting director. He was able to see something in people and know that even though they hadn’t done it before, they would be able to do it. There’s a great story about Rainbow Caverns Mine Train in the book, which was part of Nature’s Wonderland. We’ve all heard these great quotes from Walt over the years that are taken out of context. And to find out how one of his most famous quotes, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible” came out of a conversation with Claude Coats! Claude was trying to figure out how to keep this blacklight dyed water in the rainbow falls separated so that the colors didn’t mix. The problem was, in the splashing at the bottom of the waterfall, you would just get mud in a matter of minutes and the colors would all mix together, resulting in this muddy, grayish, black color. Heinz Haber (the rocket scientist that had been consulting with Disney on some of the “Man in Space” programming in the ’50s) told Claude: “It’s statistically impossible. You can’t do that. The colors will mix and it’ll be mud.” And so Claude conveys to Walt that Heinz Haber has said that this is impossible to do. And Walt looks at him and says, “Isn’t it kind of fun to do the impossible?” and walks away knowing that Claude’s going to figure it out.
One of the things that I love about the book is that it shows that they were literally making up technologies and new ways of doing things as they were going.
Yeah. One of the things that I’ve personally gained from my career and have ingrained in me is that you don’t say “no”, or “I can’t do that.” It’s ingrained in me to say “How can we do it? What could we do to figure that out”. I find that, especially today, I notice people are quick to say, “No, I can’t do that” or “No, we can’t do it that way.” I always want to say “Well, why can’t we? What can we do to make it work that way?” I think there are huge lessons in there about not walking away and saying that something is impossible. “Oh, there’s rocket scientist with a PhD that said I can’t do it up so I guess I can’t do it”. Instead, he did figure out how to do it. And it was it was a simple solution, but it took time to figure it out and lots of trial and error. So, it is fun to do the impossible and you have to have that mindset and say “Well, it hasn’t been done before, but let’s figure out how we could do it.”
While researching this book, was there anything that you learned about Claude or even about Disney that surprised you?
There were certain stories that popped out that were a little bit of surprise. I had no idea that he was shoveling coal on a steam freighter across the Pacific to Tokyo, and then Shanghai in the 1930s. He did that for a couple of months in between school years. Then, as part of the California Water Color Society, the United States Air Force wanted to get some artists to paint some of their operations in different parts of the world. So Claude went to Japan in 1961 and painted some of the USA Air Force Base operations there. That was something that I thought was interesting because it was it was sort of outside of what he was doing at the studio. But as an artist, all of those kinds of experiences contribute to how you act as an artist and the things that you do as an artist. You may do a trip in 1961 to Japan, but that might not come back to you and flow through your work until maybe the 1980s, when working on the Japan Pavilion at Epcot. We wanted to include those experiences and a lot of people don’t realize that he even did that. I had the manuscript vetted by a number of people that knew him and they didn’t even know he had done this trip to Japan in 1961! And, of course, the 1964/65 World’s Fair. We wanted to talk about that because most of those attractions or portions of those attractions eventually made it back to Disneyland. There was also the trip in 1965 to NASA to tour the space program where they went to Rocket City in Huntsville, Alabama, and then to Houston and from Houston, went to Cape Canaveral. And again, all of those kinds of trips and experiences impact you as an artist and add to your experience and are things that you can draw off of in the future.
One of the things that really came through in this book was it felt very collaborative. You were collaborating with, his son, Alan, and doing interviews with a lot of people like Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter. Would you talk a little bit about that process?
Anytime I take on a project, you want to do as much research as you possibly can. Writing a book is a solitary type of endeavor, but at some point you have to take your manuscript and hand it to a bunch of people and have them read it and tell you “Hey, this is good!” or “Hey, this is a load of crap!” You do need to have people vet what you’ve written and give you notes and things like that. So it was invaluable to be able to have somebody like Tony Baxter read the book. And of course, Alan Coats was there all along the way. The book couldn’t have been done without Alan and the family and the family archives. There were also other Imagineers who read the manuscripts and gave it their blessing. I’d get a few notes here and there from people, but that’s what you want to do. You want to be able to work in that kind of environment. As far as the interviews go, before the writing even started, we went out and interviewed a whole bunch of people. We spent time interviewing Tony Baxter and Marty Sklar. I believe we did probably the last interview that Marty did in his life. I had known Marty for many, many years and he was such an incredibly nice man. I vividly remember reaching out to him and saying, “Can we interview you about Claude?” He said, “Absolutely.” He invited Alan and I up to his home and we recorded the interview in his home office. What a tremendous individual he was and such a nice man. It’s just so fortunate that we were able to record an interview with him, which in hindsight turned out to be the last interview we did.
How was this different from some of the other books you have written?
Each of these book projects is its own animal, and it has its own challenges. I love the challenge of doing projects or topics that haven’t been done before. Claude Coats had a 54 and a half year career at the Disney Company. And he himself said he had two distinct careers. He had 20 years in the animation department, and then he had 34 and a half years as an Imagineer. He worked on all the features from Snow White to Lady and the Tramp. And then at Imagineering, he worked on everything from Disneyland to Epcot, Walt Disney World, Paris and Tokyo. We had to look at this career and decide what story we wanted to tell because you could have three volumes on this guy. You can’t tell the whole story in one book because you wouldn’t be able to do justice to all aspects of his career. We decided to focus pretty much on the first 15 years of Disneyland, which is kind of considered to be the golden age of Disneyland with all those iconic attractions like Pirates and Haunted Mansion and Submarine Voyage.
After moving over to the theme parks, did Claude ever miss the animation portion of his career?
I don’t think he did. I think by the time he was doing Lady and the Tramp, he was kind of done with doing background and color styling on the animated pictures. He wanted to stretch his wings. So I think he was really pleased with the fact that Walt asked him to work on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. There was a little bit of a transition period that was happening during that time period. He still painted a few backgrounds for a couple of shorts but it was a bit of a looser kind of set up. When Walt was starting to build Disneyland, there was no Imagineering really. There was WED Enterprises but these guys were just in offices in the animation building and eventually kind of coalesced into one set of offices on the ground floor. There were also some things being done on sound stages on the studio backlot before they moved to the Imagineering facility in Glendale. I think it was an easy transition for him.
This isn’t the only project that you’ve been working on lately. You also are a co-host on the Skull Rock Podcast, which you started last year, correct?
Yeah. Again, it was really kind of serendipitous how these things come about. Last summer I was making the rounds with the Disney podcasters promoting my 3D Disneyland book that I did with Ted Kierscey. I did a podcast with Aljon Go, who hosts The Disney List Podcast, and we just kind of clicked. We had a really good conversation. When the interview was over, Aljon sent me a note and said, “Hey, that was just so great! You ought to do a podcast yourself.” Over the years I’ve had a number of people say to me, “Hey, why don’t you do a podcast where you’re interviewing people?” but there’s only so much time in the day. I wrote back to Aljon and I said “It was fantastic. You were terrific. I really felt like we clicked. If I ever did a podcast, I’d do it with you!” And I just said it as an off the cuff comment but he wrote back and said “Are you serious? If you’re serious, I would do a podcast.” And I thought, “Well, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I’m locked down in my office. I’m not going out to lunches and traveling like I usually do”. And so I said “Sure, yeah, I’ll do a podcast. What do I need to do?” And so he told me what kind of a mic to get and what set up I needed and so I did that. We started meeting via Zoom on Sunday mornings last August and September and for a couple of months, we just got to chat and get to know each other and spitball what we think the show would be. Then, we put a pin in in the calendar and decided to do our first show in October. I can’t believe we’re almost a month away from our one-year anniversary with Skull Rock Podcast! It seems to have taken off because we’re getting all kinds of great notes from people and the reviews are stellar on Apple Podcasts. We got picked up by our iHeartRadio and we’re on Amazon Music, Audible, Spotify. Every week we do a little bit about news that week and what’s going on. Then we have an interview and we’re not locked into any specific amount of time. We just let the interview flow. Some of them are 50 minutes and some of them are an hour and 40 minutes. We just let the conversation flow. And if we’re really getting some good material and people are chatty and telling great stories, why end it?
I know at one point you were writing a book about the making of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Is there any update on that project?
I finished that book a couple of years ago. I think they were originally going to try and put it out in 2019 and it got pushed to 2020 because of scheduling with Tim Burton. He was coming off of Dumbo and his designer was working on some Dumbo books that were made a priority. The Nightmare book was then pushed to June of 2020, but then the pandemic hit and they furloughed a lot of people from Walt Disney Publishing. But last August, Tim’s designer was finishing up the design on the book and I was able to review it and write captions for many of the pictures. Then I was told that it might come out in 2021, which it didn’t. So my guess is that they may be holding it back now for the 30th anniversary of the movie in 2023. I had a great time working on that book. That was another one that was a a lot of fun because, I got to go up to the Bay Area and I spent the day with Henry Selick, the director. I have known Henry for a number of years but to be able to spend almost a full day with the guy and just talk about Nightmare! And then I was fortunate to talk to Rick Heinrichs when I was in London a couple of years ago. He is an incredible production designer for live-action and has worked with Tim on a lot of his movies. I also got to spend time interviewing Danny Elfman. They had booked an hour and a half for me to talk with Danny Elfman about the music and we wound up talking for like three and a half hours! I really hope the book comes out in the next couple of years because it’s a great behind the scenes of how that movie got made, seen through the eyes of all the artists. I was one of the artists that worked on it. I had a very small part, and when publishing first asked me to write this book, I said, “You do know I did work on the film? I have a screen credit on the film.” They were like, “No, we didn’t know that.”
You also have your cartoon work with helping to find and restore Oswald cartoons and the Alice Comedies. How can people support you with that?
People can go to Patreon actually. If you go to Patreon and sign up for a couple bucks a month, you’ll be able to see some content that’s not available anywhere else. There is some animation up there, and a documentary I did. There’s also written articles and things like that. And also if people want to, they can go to davidbossert.com. There’s links to everything through that website: the Skull Rock Podcast, the Patreon page and there’s also a tab that has articles and essays and a lot of free content. People can also go there if they want a signed bookplate for one of my books.
I hope that everyone picks up your book on Claude Coats when it is released. The street date is November 16th, correct?
Right. But if people want to get a signed copy of the book, they can go to theoldmillpress.com. It’s signed by Alan Coats and myself. They can pre-order that and it’s likely they’ll have it a month before the actual official release date. Or if they have a favorite independent bookstore nearby, the independent bookstores can order it through the normal book distributor channels.
To check out the Skull Rock Podcast, click here.
For Dave’s website, click here.
To help support Dave in his finding and restoring of lost cartoons, head over to his Patreon here.
Many thanks to David Bossert for taking the time to do this interview with us. You can follow David on social media platforms @dave_bossert and be sure to check out Claude Coats: Walt Disney’s Imagineer- The Making of Disneyland: From Toad Hall to the Haunted Mansion and Beyond, available for pre-order now!