The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 3

When I was born, Walt Disney had already passed away. So when I have an opportunity to talk with someone who knew him, I want to hear the truth directly from their memories of what Walt was really like. In this third and final installment of The Bob Gurr Interview, Bob shares some of his first-hand memories of his time designing many of Disneyland’s most iconic attraction vehicles. 

If you missed Part 1 of The Bob Gurr Interview, CLICK HERE.

If Part 2 of The Bob Gurr Interview is where you want to be, CLICK HERE

 

Freddy Martin: What do you wish that people knew about Walt that few other people know?

 

Bob Gurr: You know the funny thing, you know I worked with him for 12 years, and I would say he was about as open and ordinary as anybody you’d ever run across. Everything about him, in a way, it was kind of a paradox, because when, one moment you’re with him and/or you’re doing something and he just seems like such an ordinary guy in a way. You know, the use of language the choice of food, the little expressions that, y’know, a typical Midwestern kid would use.

And then at other times, where he’d be in a place where there was other people present at the company’s and corporations and stuff, and they’re all awestruck by him because they see him as a god. And Walt was, it was kind of funny in a way, and I’d seen this personally at other times, where he was very aware that people perceived him kind of like a real great guy. After all, he invented Snow White, didnt he? Y’know, he invented Mickey Mouse. And he’s done a Disneyland and now he’s trying to do an EPCOT.  

 

But in order for Walt to have a conversation with somebody, he’s got to be able to have everybody at the same level. And I would see him deliberately loosen his tie and leave it slightly askew. Or sometimes we’d be someplace where he was wearing a little hat, he had a pork pie hat, he’d just wad up in his pocket. Or when he’d take it out, he’d flop it on his head and not even re-adjust it. Just wherever it hit, it hit. Because it would send like little subtle signals that he’s okay. He’s okay to talk to. It’s okay to get close.

 

One day in Pittsburgh, we were at a party after a business meeting with Westinghouse up on a Hilltop Bar. And the bar was not very big. It was a little bit too small for the size team we had from Disney. We had 13 of us and the guys from Westinghouse, so you have to stand a little bit too close with your scotch mist in the afternoon.  

 

Now think about safe space between people. Like when you, sometimes somebody will come a little too close to you and you can’t define that space. But you know when your space has been invaded and somebody’s talking right at you, it makes you nervous. Alright, well, that’s a human thing a lot of people don’t even think of. But that little distance of space is a little different for everybody.

 

Well, I saw Don Burnham, the chairman of the board at Westinghouse, with his drink talking directly to Walt, and I’m in the conversation, and I notice the guy’s lower lip starts to quiver. He starts to sputter. (laughs) And Walt backs up a little bit, y’know kind of casually. And I notice, yeah, boy this place is tight. So many of the other places we’re not like that. That was the first time I noticed that. Then thereafter, I could see that, Oh yeah, people do get uncomfortable around some people.

 

And boy! Around Walt Disney, people that are very lofty can suffer the same thing as a Disney fan.

 

So a lot of people ask these kind of questions about Walt Disney and I think it’s probably because, Lord knows how many books have been written about him how many magazine articles. So I would say the majority of the world, when you say the word “Walt Disney,” it’s mostly misinformation.

 

And obviously the only people that could tell you something that was different are only the people that are still alive today, and which there’s not a lot of us left.

But I can assure you that’s the way it was, from the day I met him. I was never introduced to him. I was just suddenly, I was there working on the car, the little autopia car. It was just very simple.

 

And then I watched the way he worked with people. And I’d say around him I would say the only time I was close to nervous was, I had to drive one of the company station wagons with him in the back seat behind me down Highland Avenue, which was a wiggly Street. And I think it used to have railroad tracks in it. And I thought, “Oh my God! I don’t want to crash this car. I’ll kill Walt Disney. He’s sitting right behind me!”

 

So there’s some nervousness there. But you know, to Walt, it’s just Walt.

 

Freddy Martin: What you just said about Walt Disney was profound. “He was ordinary.” That’s not what people think. They think he’s a legend. No, he’s ordinary.

 

Bob Gurr: I know, but see maybe once or twice a week he’d come in my office. Y’know, I had a big office. I had a leather chair. He’d just come in. He liked to walk around, see what other people are doing. Some days he’d walk in, never said a word, just look around and walk out. Other days, he’d stand and look what I’m doing or sometimes he’d just sit down, and then I’d go grab the little stool and go ahead and sit down, see what he wanted. So just as ordinary as could be.

I can only tell you what I know about him from personal experience.

 

Freddy Martin: What was the last conversation you had with him?

 

Bob Gurr: Well, there was the Omnimover project, we were designing what later became the “Atommobile” for the Monsanto attraction. And the president of Monsanto, he and Walt kinda had words once in awhile because they were still trying to refine what the guy from Monsanto wanted and what Walt thought he ought to have.

 

And I’d built a cardboard model, a full size one of the shape of the car body with the speakers up in like the corners of it. And I made it one way and Walt says, “Gee, I like it! I think that’s good.”

 

And this guy comes over and, y’know, who am I to tell the guy that Walt liked that and the guy says, “Oh no. I would like to have it this way. I want these ears to stand up a little bit more here. Can you cut that up and put it back together with some tape or something?”

 

And I did it! And I think within a couple of days Walt comes in and says, “Well what did you do that for?”

 

And he was not happy. you know? And I had to say that “Mr. President,” he said to do it. And Walt had some words that I can’t really remember, but the look on his face was like God damn it this is my park. This is the way we do it!” (Laughs)

 

I don’t want to get between two guys that are disagreeing, you know? And I’m the one with the tape and scissors!

 

Note: I asked Bob about his experience with Walt’s passing at this point, but he politely declined to answer. His response was very direct and guarded. It seemed that he has decided that questions of this nature are too intimate and personal. I respectfully moved on with the next question.

 

Freddy Martin: You’ve been honored with a window on Main Street. Tell us about it.

 

It’s on Center Street. You go up [Main] Street at Disneyland, you come to the first block and make a right turn. Look to the left, it’s a little narrow building, has one window. But it has an actual, dimensional model of a bicycle bolted to the wall next to the window. Normally everybody gets a window if you’re going to have a window, they just have a window.

And then the guys in the machine shop in the back knew that I was a mountain biker, and so they volunteered on their own time, they scrambled up some parts and built this cute little funky bicycle that’s not recognizable as anything authentic, but it’s cute. And they bolted it on the wall.

 

And right after the ceremony they walked in and they said, “Hey, do you like the bike? I found the parts. I built that for ya, and they let me bolt it on the building.”

Oh, that set off a ruckus! Now everybody after that wants a dimensional sign, of course. I guess two years later Rolly Crump and Don Edgren, they got [windows], Rolly got a nice sign in front of his, so that kind of set the stage.

 

Freddy Martin: Is there a place in Disneyland that still feels to you like it did way back in 1955?

 

Bob Gurr: Up until a couple years ago The Rivers of America was exactly that. But the rivers of America, they tell me, got chopped up, modified put in a railroad bridge, and behind the bushes is some alien city. That’s all I know. But The Rivers of America is the prime one.

 

That is so, so Walt. It’s leisurely. It’s got a lot of nature. We still have immovable concrete deer. We sort of had a strange Indian village, that was very much how you’d tell stories in the fifties of that nature. And we had a great attraction that’s on water. And there was no rush. That’s the main one.

But the other things that are missing that is also “so Walt” that wasn’t necessarily there to begin with, but it’s so Walt was Granny’s cabin and the goat farm. They were later, of course, but they were very representative of the same feeling that a guest would have wandering around back there. It’s much the way with Knotts has never, almost never change their ghost town area because it’s “Walter Knott.”

 

But up to about 2015 Walt’s park was pretty much Walt’s park. But it is changing. Y’know, the world changes, companies get big. Disney is the premier entertainment empire on the entire planet. That’s its job.

 

Freddy Martin: Is there anything at Disneyland the you would improve if you could?

 

Bob Gurr: You know me better than to ask me a hypothetical question. (laughs)

 

I picked that up from Harry Truman. Harry Truman was the master of that because Washington politics is murder and nobody liked Harry Truman. And he dispensed everybody with just what I told you. Because the way he couched it which I vividly remember. “You boys know me better than that. You know I don’t answer hypothetical questions.”

 

Freddy Martin: You can’t fix it so why answer it.

 

Bob Gurr: That’s right. And the other half of it is, what did Bob Dylan say? Don’t look back. He wrote a book, “Don’t Look Back.”

 

Freddy Martin: Speaking of looking back, tell me how the WaltLand tours came about.

Note: Once per month, Bob leads a guided bus tour through Glendale and Burbank to various sites where Walt lived, worked, and played while he was alive. It’s called WaltLand Disney Bus Tours. Learn more at WaltLand.com.

 

Bob Gurr: Oh, sometime in the spring of 2016, Ernie phones up and said, “Hey Bob, I have an idea.”

 

I knew he did those ghost tours in the City of Orange. He said I have an idea for a tour of Walt’s early life, the original homes, and where the Hyperion Studios, and the Merry-Go-Round and the barn, and all that. And I says, “Ernie, I’ve been doing that for 17 years for family and friends. I have a standard route that I have done.”

I never envisioned you could make a bus tour out of it. So, within a couple of days, we got in his car and I had drafted up a route and figured out a timing chart preliminarily, because I’ve been doing it for so long. And it was near identical to what he’d been doing, or wanted to do, and we tested it. And the timing was perfect. We only made one adjustment a couple months later and that’s all we ever did to it.

 

And so there it was, a thing that’s been going on and he had an idea and the idea was so parallel. And I thought we might do one or two of them and it turned out this thing never ends! I think we just did the 14th or 15th one I think.

 

Freddy Martin: What’s next for Bob Gurr?

 

Bob Gurr: Part of it you never know because there’s all kinds of things pop up all the time. I know I’ve got a [manager]. Y’know Ernie’s my manager now. I kidded last year and I says, “Every time I get these questions from people I need to have an agent! Because Marty Sklar, many years ago, would snarl at us and say, “We gotta stop doing this free stuff for the Disney Company. They never pay us. We gotta get ourselves an agent.”

Bob Gurr signs posters at the start of his WaltLand Guided Bus Tour in April 2018. Photo courtesy of the great Dann Gillen. Follow Dann on Instagram @danngillen ©2018 Dann Gillen, all rights reserved.

 

But he never got around to really doin it. And so then I thought, well then, okay… Ernie’s the agent so we’ll see what he finds.

 

Freddy Martin: You started with a passion for cars. Are you still passionate about them?

 

It never changed. I had a Model A Ford I did extensive engine work on it. I did extensive engine work on my ‘35 Ford. And then by the late seventies I had an older Rolls-Royce and I thought, Well, that’s a 6 cylinder engine. It needs some more work, had a hundred forty-three [thousand] miles on it… It’s only a Rolls-Royce. It’s only parts. So I take it all apart, rebuild the engine, put it all back in the car and start her up. Runs normal. Doesn’t smoke anymore and that was a 70 day job.

I’m not afraid to tackle anything. One time in 1950 I think in ‘53 I had a something ‘51 MG. I thought, I’ll make this go faster. I’ll take the four-cylinder engine out and get a Willy’s F-head 6 and put it in there and do an engine swap. And I did an engine swap in about a month and I had a much faster car. People that fuss with cars and motorcycles, they usually figure things out.

 

Freddy Martin: Where’s the theme park world going next?

 

Well, in the broader sense, I don’t see anything drastically different because we’re still filling the world with theme parks. You see Walt was the first to do a real modern theme park, even though Tivoli Gardens and other places had existed for a very, very long time. But the idea of this generic theme park thing which would fit any size, any country, anywhere, y’know, what’s Disney got? 10, 11 of them now?

 

And it’s almost certain that the next big country that gets filled up is going to be India because there are so many people in India. Y’know, they’re going to grow in parallel to China. There’s so many theme parks in China. There’s so many companies in the Themed Entertainment Association. Vendors, they’re so busy all over China. And now Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they’re all starting to compete with one another.

 

And if you follow MBS, that’s Mohammed bin Salman, the guys only, what? 30? And he’s the Prince of Arabia. And he was just here for a couple weeks, here in the country going around talking to everybody. Yeah, he wants to make sure that his population, the Arabs are 29 million people or so, that they’re going to grow in parallel with the rest of the world, with all the things that are enjoyable in life. And well, they’ve got oil money and they they still need to generate other money here eventually in the decades ahead.

 

I think, looking way ahead, when we’ve got the countries that can support it, we will sort of have done the infill of conventional theme parks. And I would love to come back in a hundred years and see what that next wave of innovation [is going to be].

 

It’s almost like when you have something and you infill all the stuff and now somebody says, “Ok, we’ve done that. Now what?” The “now what” usually leads to some people coming up with some brilliant stuff.

 

I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I see it’s way down the road. But it’s not there yet.

So there might be some kind of stuff, obviously some of its going to be virtual reality. But virtual reality, I think, is coming to a point where it’s going to be very generic in another couple of decades in a way. And it’s almost like there’s going to be a semi-throwback to more naturalistic environments that are entertaining.

 

I can’t tell you very much, but I was paid recently for an entire morning with probably one of the most important, far-out theme park designers in the world, and I can’t say anything more than that. But that was the thrust I could see that they’re headed at. And this person has always been in the forefront.

 

So, all I can share with you, is that, yeah, I might be the 86 year-old guy on the bus, but I did get invited to poke my nose into that next wave of the future.

 

Because it’s out there. ~

 

Many thanks to Bob Gurr for his time and generosity. Connect with him at BobGurr.com

Thanks to Bob’s manager, Ernie Alonzo for arranging the time and for giving Bob a platform to share his fascinating stories with us. Click the image below to get on board the next WaltLand Tour.  – FM

 

If you missed Part 1 of The Bob Gurr Interview, CLICK HERE.

If Part 2 of The Bob Gurr Interview is where you want to be, CLICK HERE

The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 2

When you have a legendary Disney designer on the line, you never know what amazing stories you might hear. In this second installment (2 of 3) of The Bob Gurr Interview, Bob tells how he thinks through a project at the beginning, and how it never abides by a prescribed process.

He reveals some of his most incredible show pieces made for clients other than Disney. Can you say King Kong, the King of Pop, and Queen? And he tells how he keeps a careful eye out for that most deadly of Imagineering traps, no, not hippos. Hubris.

Click HERE if you missed The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 1

Click HERE to skip ahead to The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 3.

 

Freddy Martin: In building the nuts and bolts of somebody else’s dreams, how did you work through some of the big ideas?

 

Bob Gurr: Well, first off you’re okay. You didn’t say the word “process.” When I’m doing my lectures and somebody says, “Bob tell us about your process,” I start laughing, and look at them. And then they catch on that they’d asked a boo-boo question.*

 

So many people are highly educated, they’re trained in college, they got a 4-year course. Everything is by rote. In other words, if you start with A and you end with Z, and you do all the steps in between, ergo, you will have a successful outcome of whatever it is you’re doing.

 

Well, that’s the theory, but I can assure you that’s not the way the world works.

 

And specific[ally] at Disney, and for the 27 years that I was there, I jumped on whatever it took to get started on anything, and modified it as I went – [without] a total idea of “process.” And that methodology, if you want to call it that, went 45 years of doing things exactly the same way, in which you do not have an organized way of doing anything.

 

Because every job is different. Every client is different. Every question is different. Some are big and take years. Some are quickie and might take a day or two.

 

You do whatever it takes, making it up as you go, based upon the goal that you see the thing is ultimately going to have to go through and everything that’s involved in it.

 

The only thing that might be [considered] “process” would be, as you’re looking very quickly at everything that’s going to be involved, you sort of form a general idea as to what our, what we would call, “long lead” items or expensive items or things that are items that would be a make-or-break as differentiated from a lot of conventional stuff that will come along in its own time.

 

And that way you can automatically prioritize what are the big sticky ones you’re going to jump on immediately, to get those solutions underway, so that you can then share it with anybody else working on it, generally where you’re headed and what has to be done first and why.

 

For example, later in life I had this 26 year-old kid who can do a moon dance, a guy by the name of Michael Jackson. He comes over. I show him around our place for two hours, and then he asked me if I can do a custom lighting device.

 

I know nothing about lighting, but I’d be willing to learn. And within two days we were having a business meeting to seal the deal. And then he says, “What do you need?”

 

I said, “Well I need fifty thousand bucks in the bank from you tomorrow, because this is a 9 week job and the hardest parts to get that are very expensive, that are long lead, are a thing called servo valves for some of the pneumatic controls. And to get this in time, it takes several weeks to get em, but I’ve got to order em tomorrow morning and we gotta have a deposit paid.”

 

It’s things like that. In other words if you had a process, and you were a trained engineer, and you had a license, well first off, you would lay out your parameters of the job. You’d begin to identify the elements and then you would do estimates of labor and materials. And then you would assign people to it, and then you would gather a budget, and then you would submit the budget, D’you follow me?

 

No! Don’t do it that way. Goodness sakes!

 

Sometimes you have to, on complicated jobs that are going to take a couple of years. Yes, you better do it that way. But you can see the futility of applying a standardized way of working across the board as if you were a licensed trained engineer. The less training you’ve got means generally, I think people have their minds really wide open as to, “Okay, what do we do next? What do we jump on?”

 

Freddy Martin: What did you build for Michael Jackson?

Bob Gurr: Do you remember The Victory Tour back in 1984? It went to, I believe, 27 different venues for the entire summer. A massive amount of trucks. It’s still the biggest rock and roll tour show ever done in America because it had so many sets. It was such a massive, massive collection of stuff, normally in the lighting business you write out your lighting plan, and you select the instruments, and most times you rent the instruments at a lot of venues. And then you rent the lighting trusses and all that stuff, because this is store-bought, catalog stuff that’s available all over the world.

 

He [Michael Jackson] wanted something that is not rentable. He wanted something that is different than anybody else is going to have. And he’d been looking at people outside the rock and roll industry and he happened to wind up looking at our shop (which at that time I think we were called, let’s see, it was before The Sequoia Company, Applied Entertainment Systems. That’s what it was) because we’d done a little of the rock and roll stuff. We reworked some of lighting equipment for Queen, a band called Queen.

 

So he was looking sort of outside of the industry. And then I guess he was kind of surprised to see, “Oh my gosh! They’re doing some Queen stuff.” So then that’s when he, at the end of the tour, he just went off the top of his head, and said, “Could you do lighting? It was the same thing as the business of going to Disney. “Well I don’t.” I didn’t, but I said, “Yes.” Because you always say, “Yes.”

 

So it was a 9-week, very fast job. Learned a ton. Got to meet a whole bunch of people in this industry. A lot of them from England to do with lighting, audio, set direction, y’know, putting stuff together, taking it apart. I learned how roadies work, all that kind of stuff. Great people to learn from.

 

And out of that job came another job which was only 5 weeks long. The guy that designed the custom stages for Michael, a guy name of John McGraw, he was working on a deal for a flying saucer for the closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Los Angeles in August of 84.

 

And then he ran out of time and money, but he had a lot of vendors pulled together on the “if come,” nobody paid. And then he said, “Oop, can’t do it, so why don’t you take the job?”

 

And I said, “Why sure, I’ll do it.” (laughs)

 

So I wound up with a 50-foot diameter flying saucer held by a helicopter and more lighting stuff. But this time I knew more about lighting so it went quick.

 

Freddy Martin: I’m going to have to look that up on YouTube.

 

Oh yeah! There’s pretty good videos of it that last a couple minutes and it gives you an idea, “What in the world was that?”

 

Freddy Martin: What was your biggest challenge?

 

Bob Gurr: Y’know, that’s the other word I don’t respond to is the word “challenge.” Challenge implies that you’re stuck and you’ve been brought to a halt.

 

I’ve always seen that in the other way around. It’s like when you get in a discussion with some people about a new project up potential thing to do, I can see several ways to do it very quickly in your mind, if you’re talking and looking at something.

 

So by the time somebody says, “Well hey! Yeah let’s go do this thing. Yeah, hey, let’s do it. Okay, make a deal. We’ll do it,” you actually might have two, three, or four general ideas. And the challenge, if there was a challenge at that moment, you would say, “Well, which one has the most likelihood of being successful and can get going the easiest?” Knowing that, if the one you just picked starts to bomb out in a day or two, or in a week or something, don’t worry about it. You have these other ideas, We can shift over to the other ideas.

 

So it’s kind of a long-winded way of saying I don’t ever recall seeing a challenge. And the only thing that would have come close is when you’re designing something that’s super simple and it’s only a two-week job or something and then suddenly a part of it doesn’t work.

 

That’s usually because you trap yourself in your own hubris.

 

And those are the ones you that I absolutely hated. I don’t think there was more than just two or three. Cause I really did not like the idea of I’m standing there and the shop guys are there and their money is burning and the time is burning and my thing doesn’t work. And then the look on everybody’s face, if you can visualize this in a way, they generally know my stuff works. And then, all of a sudden, they’re standing there and my stuff doesn’t work. The look on their face kills. You know, you’ve seen people, just like, “Okay smarty-pants. Oh look, you bombed out. We’re standing here and we’re watching.”

 

In one case it took 2 hours to come up with a brand new design and they stood and waited and watched me draw. (laughs)

 

The only worst one was we were putting King Kong together at Universal. We had the legs installed. We had the whole upper middle body installed and we were getting ready to install the torso, which was a big assembly and it had never made it up to the pelvis frame because we couldn’t do it in the shop. It was physically impossible. Everything else had been pre-fitted.

 

And this great big thing is hanging from a big crane and we were starting to set it in place and there’s a bind! There’s about a half inch of metal in the wrong place and I’m mortified. And so I look at the crane operator and I say, “Oh, just a minute. Hang on. Hang on. Go get a grinder. We’ll get this thing cleared here. Just give me a little bit of time.”

 

And the guy looks at me and says. “Mr. Gurr, the crane is $600 an hour. Take all the time you want.” (laughs)

 

If there was a challenge, it was like, “Oh God! How can I make this thing less than $600?”

 

It was only about 15 minutes, and I would just grinding off a little piece. But it was something that had not been pre-fitted. Cause I like to prefit everything. Because if you’re doing a field installation and and it’s big and expensive and there’s a big crew, your burning money. So you try to not get in that fix.

 

Freddy Martin: As a Jungle Cruise Skipper, I’m always curious about Jungle Cruise stories. Did you have anything to do with the Jungle Cruise?

 

Bob Gurr: Jungle Cruise? Yes.

One of my more spectacular, unsuccessful pieces of show action equipment was a couple of charging hippos. And this was long before good animation systems were available, and I was trying to do something – this was in like 1957 or 8, I think.

We were trying to do stuff where the hippos would come out on two different tracks to attack the boats. And then, when the boats go by, the hippos would turn and go back to where they were, and then turn around and reset themselves. And I was trying to do it with a spring set up, so that it went out one way and came back another way.

Due to the unpredictability of, y’know, falling leaves in the machinery, and water, y’know, and you never know what the hippos were gonna do anyway, every once in awhile the Jungle Cruise guys would come back with a report to the management and say, “You got to do something with the hippos!”

“What’s wrong with the hippos?”

“Well, some days they come out backwards and they moon everybody in the boat!”

And so the mooning hippos had to go. (Laughs)

Freddy: (Laughs) There’s a “backside of water” joke in there.

Bob Gurr: You probably caught my joke on the bus tour, where we stood out there (behind Imagineering headquarters in Glendale) and we talked about 1401 Flower –  everyone knows 1401 Flower, and this bland colored building here, “That’s the backside of 1401!”

 

Which is about as important.

 

Freddy Martin: You were there with the original team that mapped out Epcot. How did Future World and World Showcase actually come together?

 

Bob Gurr: Epcot was a very lengthy development. It was, I would probably say, the classical, long-winded committee project with people coming and going. Obviously then opinions would change from week to week. You know it was just a long, long arm wrassle [sic].

 

The company figured out about where they were going to put Epcot, so that pretty much stayed the same. And then we had a place called TCC or Transportation Control Center where the Monorails, and the parking lot trams, and the ferry boats that go over to the Magic Kingdom. That’s kind of a central place.

 

And there was an area Southwest of that juncture where the land was very good. Everything [else] down there was pretty much sinkholes.

 

And somebody started an idea where, and I think they did refer to it as, like a “world showcase.” This was like an extra activity. It had nothing to do with Epcot.

 

And the idea was that it was going to be a round installation where if you were in the center of the thing, if you look all around at these different countries, they all had the same width frontage. But if you look at it in the plan view, some countries might be tiny and some might be massive. And of course the property would be like expanding pieces of pie going way out pretty much unrestricted behind the opening. And they made they made models. They made drawings of this stuff, nice paintings. And somebody from marketing, I guess, comes in and says, “What makes you think all these competing civilizations are going to share the same front window?”

 

 

I mean it was such an obvious, obvious fact of history. But everybody was so close to the idea of this thing, nobody bothered to draw back and look at the historic reasons why civilizations fight to kill one another. And they’re still doing it!

 

You know, we’ve got the Ayatollahs, y’know, are bound and determined that, y’know, the Shiites are going to beat up the Sunnis, even though the Sunnis got them outnumbered by 5 to 1. But they’re not going to give up. That still goes on and on and on. You know, that’s just the way civilizations behave.

 

The United States says, “Well, we’re on top. We’ll be on the top forever and nobody can challenge us… Hello! China? Who? Who’s China?? What? How many? What? You got a billion people? You got a big Market! Let’s sell you something!” (laughs)

 

Well, what happened was, one day John DeCuir Jr was working on the job – he had a famous father. That model (World Showcase) just sort of slid over into the Epcot area and they said, “Well, it’s different. Well, we’ll put a lake between them. And they built quite a few models and then one day somebody said, “How big is this? It looks good on the floor, here in the model [shop] on the table. How big is this?”

 

And then they went out and they measured how big it really is and they had to cut the whole thing in two! They were making it twice as big as you could do it, (laughs) and they’d built models and drawings and everything before somebody said, “Well, how big is it?”

 

I remember that was, sort of, everybody looked at everybody and everybody went, “Oops!”

 

Freddy Martin: Wow! They were dreaming way too big.

 

Bob Gurr: Yeah, so designers, you know, there’s a hubris in every endeavor throughout history. I imagine, y’know, there’s a reason why the Greeks invented the word hubris, cause you know, you can be good at what you’re doing and one day you will fall on your Plutarch.  

 

And it’s something you really, really have to pay attention to. Don’t let that happen to you.

 

You know we’ve got a famous guy that’s got a rocket company. It’s very successful and he’s going to build a half million cars a year and he can’t even get the first cars to work… Mr. Musk, up there. He made some assumptions that, ergo, if robots are good for some things well, ergo, there good for everything.

 

So he said, “Oh, well then we’ll have the cars final assembly. We don’t need people to put the parts together. We’ll have the robots put the parts together, you know, the self assemblies of course will build the car. And he says, “It will be so perfect. We don’t need to build a prototype, pre-production pilot line to prove it out. We’ll just save all that time and money. Hmmm, read the continuing story of Mr. Musk’s Tesla Model 3.

 

Well, I’ve been up to the factory. I met Musk years ago. And I’ve got a lot of friends with Teslas, but I follow two things; the technical decision-making side and the financial side.

 

So that hubris is there, and I’ve got burned a couple of times, but not too bad.

 

As long as you’re on that subject, one of the things about while you’re designing stuff, you’re in a constant reiteration, literally hourly as you’re doing stuff. You keep going around and around and around, looking at the stuff, trying to say, “What is wrong with this? What is the Achilles heel of everything I’m sketching, or thinking about doing?”

 

And you go round and round. And you got to do that all the time, cause you want to be the first person to find the Achilles heel in your designs and then fix them before anybody knows about it. You don’t want to know that you’re a proud and famous designer and have someone else point that out after you spent the time and money.

 

So this anti-hubris thing is, I think the people are pretty good if they pick that up early in life.

 

Click HERE to jump to The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 3.

Click HERE if you missed The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 1

*Full disclosure: I did actually ask Bob what his “process” was, but he somehow missed it. I edited it out above because it was confusing.

The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 1

Some days you’re just going through the motions. No big deal. But some days, you get to interview Bob Gurr.

Bob Gurr is the wildly energetic and witty industrial designer who created the vehicles for most of your favorite Disney attractions. From the Autopia cars and the Monorail to the Main Street Omnibus and the Haunted Mansion’s Doom Buggies, Bob’s drawings and mechanical intuition brought them to life.

He’s an official Disney Legend (the Disney Kingdom’s equivalent of Knighthood) and one of the last living designers of Walt’s original theme park dream-come-true, Disneyland.

I got to know Bob via his guided bus tour through Walt Disney’s Los Angeles stomping grounds. When I asked him if he would interview with me, I expected a polite “no.” Instead, and to my great surprise, Bob said, “Yes!”

It turns out that saying “yes” is Bob’s M.O. 

In this first installment of The Bob Gurr Interview, we meet a World War II kid with an endless curiosity for machines that go, and and a penchant to follow after anything that interests him. That’s what led him to his first job at Disney, designing the vehicles for Disneyland’s Autopia. 

 

Freddy Martin: What motivated your curiosity in planes, trains and automobiles as a kid?

 

Bob Gurr: You remember we started the tour over on Los Feliz Boulevard before we went over to the Lyric Avenue housing sites, I pointed out that we lived on the hill, up on the right, just to two blocks down from Walt.

 

I do remember two things when I was like, my father said I was 18 months old, I knew the sound of the metal bells on the front of a Good Humor ice cream truck (laughs). It was something in tune, that I’d hear that jingle and then I’d make a big ruckus. And then, of course, they’d take me out there and buy me an ice cream. And that was kind of a regular thing, so I was like, (beginning to understand) “Okay, okay!”

 

It was an horizontal bar with bells, and had like a string on it. It was not electronic, I mean it was really bells on a truck!

 

And at the same time, I’d be out in the yard sometimes and an airplane would fly over and I was just entranced when I saw something! Because, obviously later on, from where the Grand Central Air Terminal is, the aircraft would take off and fly to the South, which meant they went right over Grandma’s house.

 

So those are two of the most vivid, vivid memories, very very early on. And then sometime not long after that, but before we moved to Glendale in 1934, it was cars! I was just fascinated with cars.

 

And then there was actually a fourth thing that I do recall. My grandmother was getting some painting done inside the house. And there was a truck that showed up that was configured like an old fashioned banana wagon cart. Y’know, it’s got a bed on the back and it’s got a canvas roof on it. In there was a compressor for compressing air for the paint. And this thing had open connecting rods and a crankshaft and somehow I was fascinated and completely terrified by it. Couldn’t get near it.

 

So those are the seeds that were strictly visual. There was the first clue. And as children’s synapses develop and are filling up by the millions a day, those got locked into my brain real quick.

 

Freddy Martin: Tony Baxter recently talked about the importance of being 12 and how, when he was 12, he started modeling things. That’s when he started to get ideas of who he might be as he grew up. Who were you at 12 and where were you headed at the time?

 

Bob Gurr: Well, at 12, I would have been, lemme see, I’ll do some math here. I would have been building model airplanes for about 5 years by the time I became Tony’s age where he started modeling things.

 

Let’s see. 12 years old? That would have been 1943. Okay, well World War II has been going for 2 years. I’m utterly fascinated by it. And in the third grade, just before the war, before Pearl Harbor, I was making model airplanes and I was a troublemaker. And I got thrown out of the third grade and I was immediately put into this Military Academy as incorrigible.

 

But the good part was, they had a little shack on the marching field where there was model airplane kits available that the students could build. So thereafter, I thought, “Boy, the more you misbehave you have more opportunities to do stuff.”  

 

At the same time, the classes were very small. The teachers were men and they had ties, and we had to wear wear ties. And instead of just doing a stupid test like you did in the third grade, they gave us little projects we had to research and figure things out. And that, really, I vividly remember that, because my assignment that the teacher gave me was, “Go to the library and read about oil wells and see if you can make a model of an oil well derrick.

 

In hindsight, what that said [to me] was, what if students were given stuff that they could think about, go learn about, and then go DO something with it rather than sitting there with a standard, y’know, arithmetic & spelling (sheet) over and over and over. I do remember the third grade. That got me out of there.

 

Do you know doing multiplication tables? When you multiply three numbers by three numbers? If you’ve been shown that in 5 minutes, ok! You know how to do that on the day you need it. Why do you sit there and do it over and over and over for a test paper? I mean that is really dumb!

 

So [I left] the really dumb public school system, where you do multiplication tables, three by threes… and [then] I’m building a model airplane in a military academy!

 

So going back to being 12 years old, you can see that by the time I reached, 12 I was already busy doing all kinds of things.

 

So when 12 comes along, World War II, I’m utterly fascinated by it. I’ve got a paper route I’m delivering the Hollywood Citizen News. When I got home, I loved to lay the newspaper on the floor and read about the war, and follow the maps of the Pacific War and the European War. I was just fascinated by progress on stuff you could hear about on the radio, of course. But then when you look at the pictures of the charts, and you could really see what’s going on.

 

So there was a whole bunch of interests right off the bat. And of course you know pre-pooberty and pooberty [sic] was raising its wild head in the middle of all that. And I lived sort of on a half-acre Farm in the middle of in North Hollywood, which was all pretty much Farm area so I pretty much grew up in the wild-farm-kid-on-bicycles era, and building bigger model airplanes.

 

Freddy Martin: There are stories from San Fernando Valley residents having extremely vivid, imprinted memories of Pearl Harbor because there was a terrible train fire in Chatsworth that same week. The smoke in the air made a deep impression for some people. Do you remember that?

 

Bob Gurr: No, not the smoke, but I can certainly understand why people were concerned, because I remember Pearl Harbor was such an instantaneous shock. Anybody who lived through it, you can remember exactly what you were doing, where you were, what the weather was like, what everything sounded like, what everybody did.

 

And within a day or two I think we were all sensitized to… “Oh my God they’re going to attack us next!” So anything that was startling made you very scared. Even little stuff like sounds in the night. Like we had a railroad track that ran 1/4 Mile from us. You knew it was a train but all of a sudden you were waking up by clanking or clunking or hissing or something and you thought, “Oh my God, they’re here!” So I think you can lay in bed at night and you can imagine terrible things are now coming your way. So, yes. I could see any local thing that didn’t mean anything became an emblazoned memory.

 

Freddy Martin: What was your path to becoming an Imagineer?

 

Bob Gurr: Well, [to your] curiosity thing, here’s what’s curious. A lot of people, sort of in hindsight, they will make up a good story as to their chosen path and how they planned their curriculum, and how they have their goals, and all that. I didn’t have a lick of that.

 

I was just having such a good time choogling through everything in life that by the time I’m up in high school. I wanted to be an aircraft engineer over at Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute (Which I failed to mention about the Grand Central Air Terminal building – That was also after the war was the Curtis Wright Technical Institute) But I got an A in algebra and I got an F and a Pass in Geometry one in the 10th grade and so there went my engineering dream. My math was no good so I can’t design airplanes. Okay, well, I’ll just draw cars instead. And I’d been drawing ‘em both Anyways so I thought, okay, you don’t need math to do cars.

 

So that was the prime feature all the way through High School. And then at about halfway through, y’know, I was taking drafting which is an obvious course. Then I had architecture class.

 

And then the architecture teacher noticed I was drawing cars all the time and suggested, “Say, when you graduate from 12th grade, why don’t you go down to Art Center? They teach cars.”

 

And so that set that in place that I would, “Oh, I could go down there and I could learn…”

 

Note:At this point in the interview, we briefly lost connection with Bob. Here he explained his timeline that he was given a scholarship from General Motors to study industrial design at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, and then was recruited to Ford Motor Company in Detroit.

 

Bob Gurr continued: …that’s not too expensive. I’ll take Detroit.

 

Before I even graduated, John Wards picked me out and said, “Come on back now,” about a month before graduation. Then I got rated out of that job into the Ford Motor Company.

 

And then a year and a day later I didn’t want anymore of Detroit, so I came back to California. I popped in on a friend of mine who had a typewriter company, which was also a publishing house, where I’d published my books earlier, and was there. Then I went to help an industrial design company whose employees all quit. They needed staffing immediately.

 

And then while there, I get a phone call to go to the Disney Studio.

 

So you can see how random this path to being, ultimately being what’s later called an ‘Imagineer.’ And it was not on the horizon, not thought of, didn’t know anything about it.

 

I knew where the Disney Studios were, because my father would drive me to his shop in Glendale and pointed out this new building, “Ooh, that’s where Donald Duck lives there.” Because I knew the comics. I know I didn’t like the mouse. I liked the duck a lot better. And my father would always say, “Well that’s where the duck lives over there.” That’s all I knew about Walt Disney.  

 

So you see what I mean by people have their grand plans, which, usually they answer the question after you’ve asked it, which is after they did what they did?

 

I don’t have a story! Because I was always open to any idea anything that looked interesting. And all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, that looks interesting!” Y’know? And it turned out to be!

 

But it was strictly off the wall. In other words, from the time I got the call to go out to the Disney Studios and then actually going in the front door was only about 20 minutes. So in other words the getting ready to being an Imagineer was only about 20 minutes long.

 

Freddy Martin: So who introduced you to the folks at the Disney Studios?

 

Bob Gurr: That’s another kinda complicated story. The Art Center School, like all colleges, they had, let’s call it a job placement officer. And the job placement officer makes deals with the car companies before graduation because the car companies like to raid the good students before the other companies get there. So they’re always trying to get there before graduation.

 

And of course I was one of two guys that got picked out of the school immediately. And the arrangement was made by a guy by the name of Johnny Thompson who was a professional drunk, who was sort of like a lobbyist in Detroit with Art Center. And so he had made the deal and he also made the deal to get me out from General Motors and to go to the Ford Motor Company on a weekend before I would go to work on a Monday. Y’see he was a deal maker.

 

Well anyway, the same guy was at Art Center in 1954. I went down to see a friend. In fact, the friend was Alex Tremulis, the guy that designed the Tucker automobile, which was a good friend of mine. He was visiting there.

 

And in the course of walking through the corridor of Art Center School, there was Johnny Thompson again, the drunk. And just in passing, just going by, he stops and says, “Oh, by the way Bob. I know you’re working at Channing Wallace Gilson company. Do you ever do outside work?”

 

Well, I didn’t, so I said, “Yes.”

 

Simple as that. And the next day he calls because he had been making a deal between Disney and Art Center. (laughs) I just happened to walked by! Ten seconds one way or the other and I never would have been an Imagineer.

 

And so he calls and he’d been talking to Dick Irvine out there, who was running all of the designers at that time, which was October of ‘54. So, I go out there. And I know, maybe a couple weeks before, that there was a new project called Disneyland. It was in the LA Times, a great big drawing on the front of the paper.

 

And at about that same time I knew there was a little car, a little chassis, running around the backlot of the studio, because Ub Iwerks, who was a good friend, he was on my paper route. And I was friends with his two sons, one of which was my age, and we were in the same car club together. He (Ub) always showed movies at their after church Sunday meals about what’s going on on the lot. And one of his pictures was this ugly little car, green and yellow car, with the name Disneyland painted on it. And they also had another car nearby that was just a chassis, no body. And the Ugly car had Kirk Douglas giving his two boys a ride.

 

So in the 20 minute drive to go out to the studio, I thought, “Do you suppose that picture of the amusement park in the LA Times and that little car that doesn’t have a body on the back lot at Disney, where the guy told me to go, if they’re connected?”

 

And so, I can recall being at the front gate and meeting Mr. Irvine, who came out to the gate to meet me, rather than a guard sending me into the building. I had figured out, “Aha! Those two things are connected! Sure enough, Mr. Irvine walks me out to the back lot and there’s that little chassis. So I knew what they needed. So, y’know, I go,“Yeah, I can make some drawings. I’ll bring them in Saturday.”

 

And that’s how it careers get launched with a 20 minute warning. So, I have no grand story for ya.

 

Freddy Martin: That is a grand story! Often times, people will say, “No, I can’t.” But it sounds like part of your story is saying, “Yes, I can.”

 

Bob Gurr: Yep.

 

Read Part 2 of The Bob Gurr Interview HERE.

 

If you want your own unique experience with the one-and-only Bob Gurr, get on board the WaltLand Disney Bus Tour departing monthly. This is a limited opportunity, so don’t hesitate to get your tickets. You won’t be sorry you did. 

Bob Gurr Moons Disney Guests – A Jungle Cruise Story

bob gurr's story of building a machine to move hippos back and forth on jungle cruise doesn't turn out as he planned.

Later this month, I’ll post my interview with Imagineer and Disney Legend, Bob Gurr. You’ll get his true story of growing up the curious and inventive child who ended up helping Walt Disney build many of the incredible attraction vehicles for his one-of-a-kind theme park. 

Bob told me so many amazing stories that I can’t wait to share them with you. So here’s one he told about an attraction that is obviously close to my heart – The World Famous Jungle Cruise. While many of his accomplishments were spectacular, here’s one that didn’t go quite as planned. Enjoy.

Freddy: Did you have anything to do with the Jungle Cruise?

Bob: Jungle Cruise? Yes.

One of my more spectacular, unsuccessful pieces of show action equipment was a couple of charging hippos. And this was long before good animation systems were available, and I was trying to do something – this was in like 1957 or 8, I think.

We were trying to do stuff where the hippos would come out on two different tracks to attack the boats. And then, when the boats go by, the hippos would turn and go back to where they were, and then turn around and reset themselves. And I was trying to do it with a spring set up, so that it went out one way and came back another way.

Due to the unpredictability of, y’know, falling leaves in the machinery, and water, y’know, and you never know what the hippos were gonna do anyway, every once in awhile the Jungle Cruise guys would come back with a report to the management and say, “You got to do something with the hippos!”

“What’s wrong with the hippos?”

“Well, some days they come out backwards and they moon everybody in the boat!”

And so the mooning hippos had to go. (Laughs)

Freddy: (Laughs) There’s a “backside of water” joke in there.

Bob Gurr: You probably caught my joke on the bus tour, where we stood out there (behind Imagineering headquarters in Glendale) and we talked about 1401 Flower –  everyone knows 1401 Flower, and this bland colored building here, “That’s the backside of 1401!” 

Want to read the whole magical interview? Check out The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 1 HERE.

 

If you’d like to hear Bob Gurr’s funny and amazing stories first hand, you still have a chance to tour Walt’s old stomping grounds with him with the Waltland Disney History Bus Tour. There are tours scheduled on the third Sunday of every month from now until September 2018. Bob takes you to Walt’s homes, former and current Disney studio sites, Walt’s Barn in Griffith Park, and the merry-go-round where Walt first thought of his idea for Disneyland. Buy your tickets now. This tour won’t be available forever. Visit Waltland.com for details.