Artistry of 'Dumbo' era animators lives on in 1940s Burbank home
When Christine Coyle Johnson first saw the basement of the Burbank, Calif., home where she’s lived since 1997, she was stunned to discover walls covered with vibrant and colorful circus scenes remarkably reminiscent of those in Walt Disney’s beloved film, “Dumbo.”
“Some of it is a little politically incorrect,” says Johnson of the artwork, which dates to the 1940s. “You have a voluptuous girl you probably wouldn’t have today. And the clowns are certainly drinking something other than sodas.”
Overall, the pictures tell the story of a circus come to town, she says. “You have the clown and the clown car; a guy announcing the strong man; dancing elephants; the fire-eater; the snake-charmer; the ferocious felines; the chimpanzees throwing poop at the ring leader; and the little guy following behind the elephant to clean up.”
Johnson and her husband, Johnny, eventually learned, from neighbors and public records that the late Gunnar and Reona Mattson, who had the 1,341-square foot home built in 1947, invited animator friends from Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and other studios over and the artists painted the scenes as a housewarming gift. Gunnar was a film-industry carpenter and scenic arts director.
“It looks like it was painted yesterday,” says Johnson, a partner in Handmade Productions, a Los Angeles advertising agency whose clients include Angie’s List. “It’s still so vibrant and colorful," she says. "It’s so fun and really captures the 1940s' vibe of what animation looked like.”
The walls also document a lifestyle reality of that era’s animators, says Tom Sito, a professor of cinematic practice at the George Lucas School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
Sito, an animator himself since 1975, says animators in the 1940s lived frugally and rather than go out to nightclubs, enjoyed house parties where they would dance to jazz and sometimes paint scenes on friends’ walls. Recently, he says, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acquired a set of walls, from a 1940s-era home, on which Disney animator Dick Huemer, who worked on “Dumbo” and “Fantasia,” painted characters for a friend’s baby room.
Sito says that though they worked during animation's golden age, the artists who likely left their mark on the Johnsons' Burbank basement labored unglamorously. “Animation artists punched their clocks, sat down and did their quotas of drawings and artwork,” he says.
But the lively artwork continues to work overtime to inspire delight, says Johnson. “It’s such a phenomenal talking point for us,” she says.