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.
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.