Published: June 1, 2010 By

Willis Pyle portrait

Willis Pyle (A&S’37) reflects on his decades working for Walt Disney creating some of America’s beloved childhood characters.

While walking to art class at Boulder in 1937, Willis Pyle (A&S’37) saw a poster from the Walt Disney studio seeking animators for his fledgling operation in Hollywood. Pyle, a senior who was art editor of the university’s satirical Colorado Dodo, and an advertising illustrator for Gano-Downs clothing store in Denver, decided to mail his best work to Southern California.

“A few weeks later, Walt offered me the job,” Pyle recalls. “So I headed to Hollywood, found a room within walking distance of the studio and got to work.”

The Disney job, which included drawing animation for such classics as Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia, launched a storied career in the creative arts that continues to this day with Pyle, 96, showing oil paintings last winter in Manhattan. 

His recent show came 84 years after his first drawings were showcased in Cora’s Restaurant in Bethune, Colo.

Although Pyle has slowed a step — he stopped driving last year and gets around with the aid of a walker — he continues to draw and paint. He’s still experimenting, too. At his exhibit opening at Manhattan’s Montserrat Contemporary Art Gallery, Pyle created several drawings with black tape forming the outlines of horses or female nudes. Other works included post-Impressionist paintings of horses in motion — either on the racetrack or in the wild galloping across the Plains.

Banjo poster

Early sketches by Willis Pyle (A&S’37) for the first Mr. Magoo film, Ragtime Bear (1949), aka Strike Up the Banjo

“Willis has an amazing sense of shape and form,” says Montse Coll, who owns the Montserrat Contemporary Art Gallery that has exhibited Pyle’s paintings for 20 years. “He’s always exploring, always moving forward to something new.”

He also caught the eye of New York art critic Maurice Taplinger who, in the magazine Gallery & Studio, likened him to French masters Toulouse Lautrec and Honoré Daumier in the way he chronicles “the human spectacle with timeless verve and wit.”

Pyle maintains his delight for New York culture, classic cars and the cool spring breezes in the Hamptons on Long Island’s south shore. He’s a member of the Dutch Treat Club, an invitation-only social group that meets weekly at the National Art Club in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park to discuss the latest sensation on Broadway and enjoy performances by emerging artists.

He keeps a brown 1972 Mercedes sedan in the Hamptons where he stays in the spring and fall. When at his home in Seal Beach in Southern California, he tools around on special occasions in a 1969 Rolls Royce Silver Shadow.

“I love the shape of it, and it still looks like new,” says Pyle, whose brother, Denver Pyle (A&S’42), played Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazzard,which originally aired on the CBS television network from 1979 to 1985. His sister, Farrel “Skippy” Lorayne Pyle (Edu’35), also studied in Boulder. “I’ll go on trips with the Rolls Royce Club, as 50 or 60 of us will go for breakfast at Tiffany’s or a picnic at Santa Anita Park. They’ll let us park in the middle of the track, and we watch the horses race around us.”

While at the Disney studio, Pyle was best known for drawing Pinocchio, the wooden puppet brought to life by a fairy. Over and over again he’d draw the character — with movement, a different facial expression or in relation to other characters. It took 12 drawings to make Pinocchio walk. Pyle would do the pencil drawing, then send it to the women in the inking and painting department to be enhanced.

“The character had to act — raise its eyebrows, turn and jump and react to other characters,” Pyle says. “And the way you could do it was by looking at yourself in a mirror to see what that expression looked like.”

Pinocchio sketch

Pinocchio sketch by Willis Pyle (A&S’37)

When World War II erupted, Pyle joined the U.S. Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, Calif. There, movie mogul Jack Warner oversaw industry actors and animators who cranked out films and animated shorts to support the war effort.

After the war Pyle found a toehold in the world of fashion illustration drawing the latest haute couture for Vogue. In 1949 he created the squat, nearsighted character, Mr. Magoo, for United Productions of America. When a children’s writer named Ted Geisel — known as Dr. Seuss — needed an animator for a film about his story, Gerald McBoing Boing, he turned to Pyle. The eight-minute cartoon won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Animated Short.

In the same year Pyle and his wife, Virginia Morrison Pyle, headed east after reading E.B. White’s essay, “This is New York,” in the New Yorker. He has lived in New York for six decades.

“We couldn’t wait to get there,” he says. “So we sold our house, canceled my contract, put the top down on my Studebaker Commander and took two weeks driving cross-country.”

New York agreed with the Pyles. After a few years in Greenwich Village they settled on 77th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He rented a studio at the Abbey Victoria Hotel near Rockefeller Center where he drew for Disney and branched out into television advertisements for IBM, Ford and American Airlines.

After the hotel was torn down in 1982, he found a studio in Greenwich Village and seriously delved into painting at age 68.

Portrait of Willis Pyle

Portrait of Henri Matisse by Willis Pyle (A&S’37)

“I had been a Sunday painter, but after renting the studio I began painting every day,” he says. “I was done working for producers. I wanted to be able to get up from my desk to walk to the Museum of Modern Art in the middle of the afternoon without somebody looking at me.”

Since then he has painted with oil-based paints and watercolors as well as drawn in ink. On a trip to Majorca, Spain, in 1996, he discovered he could create interesting lines by using chopsticks dipped in ink — a variation on the process used by the 17th century Dutch master, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

It was a new way of portraying the world as seen through the eyes of a man always yearning to provide a glimpse of the world from a new vantage point.

“Rembrandt picked up weeds and used the stems to draw with,” Pyle says. “I used chopsticks. You get a different texture to your line, and it has more character to it.”

This spring, Pyle was back at the easel, still yearning to communicate his artistic vision to the world.

“I’m upright and I don’t have a single pain,” he says. “I’m still painting and drawing. I’m living a pretty good life.”

Photos and illustrations courtesy of The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana